A Brief History of the Revue Cinema

The Revue Cinema, Toronto ONT

The Suburban Amusement Company Ltd. built the Revue Cinema in 1911. Its original address was 320 Roncesvalles Avenue. At this time, much of the Parkdale/High Park was in its early stages of development. John Wright built (the very oldest house in this neighbourhood, on Wright Avenue, in the 1870s.) The Revue has never closed in its eighty-some years, making it one of the oldest continuously running cinemas in the country.

The earliest movie theatres were both film houses and playhouses, which featured vaudeville and theatre. (Many of the earliest movie theatres were only slightly modified playhouses.) By the time the Revue was built, things had begun to change: vaudeville was gradually dying out. The original building plans for the Revue featured a projection booth (no sound, of course!) and a stage with a movable screen, indicating that it could be used as both a playhouse and a cinema. (Note, also, the piano in the original building plans.) The small proscenium at the front of theatre (which is still there today) is all that remains of the stage.

Between the time that the Revue was built and the time of the earliest photos we have of the place (1935), many things changed. The original building did not have washrooms. The current outer lobby area was the main entrance, and the washroom areas were the exits. The original box office was a tiny room near the men's washroom. We believe that washrooms were added in the 1920s. Also note that there was virtually no lobby - the seating capacity was 550, compared to today's 385. People were packed in more tightly back then, and the theatre extended back to more than halfway through today's lobby.

These photos from 1935 show us that little have changed at the Revue. The box office was directly on the street in these photos; it was likely moved to its current location in the 1950s. Also note the rows of flashing lights underneath the marquee, which have long since vanished.

One of the things that makes working here so great is the fact that you're surrounded by history. During a badly needed spring cleaning of our office some time back, we discovered two posters from circa 1930. (The only film on the poster we could find reference to, It, starring Clara Bow, was a silent film released in 1929.)

The photographs of the interior of the house, from about 1941, also show how little has changed in the theatre. The sound panels are still there, as are the original light fixtures. (Although they may sometimes feel fifty years old, the seats in the theatre today are rather more modern!)

But again, note the changes. The screen in 1941 was not as wide as it is today. Very nearly every film made up until the early fifties had the classic aspect ratio of 1:1.33 (that is, the screen was 1.33 times as wide as high). This is the rather square picture you will notice when you see a film from this era (such as Casablanca). The shape of the television tube is also based on this ratio. Later wide screen formats, like the now-standard 1:1.66 (the full screen at the Revue today), 1:1.85, and Cinemascope, began to gain popularity in the fifties, and theatres all over the world rushed to accommodate these new formats, which provided a new thrill to moviegoers, as sound and colour had done in previous decades.

Among the more regrettable changes you will note are the loss of the screen curtain, and the loss of the detailed paint work around the screen and along the theatre walls. The movie theatre was once a universal fantasy house, an instant vacation, but the advent of television computers and VCRs, movie theatres in general have been relegated to a lower place in our communities, and so have become rather less glamorous than they were in the Golden Age.

During World War II, factories were run 24 hours a day to supply the war machine. Since the primary form of entertainment of the day was film, movie theatres were also open 24 hours a day to accommodate shift workers. The movie theatre was therefore an obvious place to collect an entertainment tax to fund the war effort, and you will see in our lobby today, in front of the popcorn machine, a "War Tax Ticket" box that once collected this tax.

An older gentleman dropped by the Revue a few months back, and told me a story from the war. At that time, as a boy, he frequented the Revue, and when children came to the theatre during the war they were given, as a part of a government program, a glass of milk, to help alleviate the effect of rations.

So far as we know, the Revue operated as a first-run theatre for the first decades of its life. Take a look at the schedule from May of 1950, featuring Sunset Boulevard in first run. (Back then, according to one of our customers, a full Saturday afternoon at the Revue cost seven cents!).

At some point in the sixties, the Revue became a German language theatre, catering to the large German-speaking population in the neighbourhood at the time.

In 1972, the Revue became an independently run repertory theatre. It is as an "Art house" and a "Neighbourhood theatre" that most people think of the Revue. When it became one of the Festival Cinemas in the early 1980s, the Revue maintained its repertory spirit. John Harkness, film critic for NOW magazine, recently called the Revue Cinema as one of only two real rep cinemas left in the city, and we were both pleased for the compliment and a little saddened, for it wasn't all that long ago that repertory cinemas and neighbourhood theatres were so commonplace that they didn't bear mentioning at all, not even when they began, one by one, to close their doors to the film going public.

Keith Denning


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