Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
Another year of the Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and what better time to take a look at some of the city’s earlier film history. Back when the movies were silent and the theatres glamorous, a venue that sat around 1,400 opened in Bloor West Village.
“Another beautiful theatre will be added to the list of Toronto’s splendid playhouses,” the Toronto Daily Star announced on June 2, 1929, “when the Runnymede Theatre…opens its doors to-night at eight o’clock.” The lieutenant-governor, W.D. Ross, would be attending. The paper also noted several fine features, including the upholstered chairs and the air ventilation system.
The theatre, the Star reported, would show movies, or “photoplay features,” and stage shows. “This intimate little cinema palace should become, in a very short time, the show place of Toronto,” it purported.
The opening night was packed with entertainment: two films, a singer, a news reel, a short comedy, and “several other novelties,” according to the Star.
The Runnymede Theatre, “Canada’s Theatre Beautiful,” was designed in the Atmospheric style; the interior featured murals and a ceiling painted like the sky. The venue was designed by architect Alfred Chapman, who also built the famous Palais Royale dance hall and the expansion wing of the ROM.
In the 1930s, as movies (with sound!) became more popular, the theatre was renovated to increase capacity and focused more on screenings than stage performances. But the need for neighbourhood theatres seems to have declined, because the Runnymede was converted to a bingo hall in 1972. It didn’t show another movie until almost a decade later when it reopened as a two-screened theatre in 1980.
The theatre continued to show films until February 1999. One of the last movies playing was You’ve Got Mail, and the Star noted on January 10 that the “venerable Runnymede Theatre” was showing the film, which is about a large book store chain owner, played by Tom Hanks, up against a small book store owner, played by Meg Ryan. “Neighbourhood folk rally to protest the incursion into their cozy enclave of locally owned shops, must as the Bloor West Village fold did against the new occupants of the Runnymede Theatre site. A Chapters superstore.” Famous Players decided to close the theatre because the rent was too high—$35,000 a month.
The building was already protected, since 1990, under the Ontario Heritage Act; but some locals didn’t like the idea that the theatre would change and had signed a petition to stop it from closing. Nonetheless, it shut its doors in 1999. On its last day, the Star spoke to people in line for a ticket, including one young man who said he didn’t even want to see the film (Message in a Bottle) but instead came to say goodbye to the theatre. A local resident said, “It’s a really cozy theatre. It feels like you’re coming home to a friend’s house, really warm and inviting.”
Since then, the Chapters has also closed down, and the site is now a Shoppers Drug Mart, which opened in April 2015. The Star again went out to see what people had to say about the building’s new occupant. “I think Shoppers Drug Mart did a beautiful job,” a local resident told the Star. “The old movie theatre is much more visible and evident. It’s cleaned up, fresh and airier. It’s all very pretty. I think they’ve pumped it up. It’s nice to see a big box store like this make the effort; respect what was here.”
The site now includes a Heritage Toronto plaque recognizing the architecture, which is almost unique in Canada. Twenty-one atmospheric style theatres were built in Canada, but when the Runnymede closed in 1999 it was one of only two left.
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