The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, originally Loew’s Yonge Street and Winter Garden Theatre, is located at 189 Yonge St (north of Queen St on the east side) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The theatre has a rear entrance address of 158 Victoria St.
A Theatre on Top of a Theatre
Built between 1912/14, American theatre magnate Marcus Loew hired architects Thomas W Lamb and Stanley Makepeace to design the magnificent Edwardian-style double-decker theatres. It was the flagship site for the Canadian theatre chain and originally featured vaudeville acts and silent films. The lower theatre, known today as the Elgin, was called Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre, while the upper is the Winter Garden Theatre.
Just outside the main Yonge St entrance, patrons would purchase their tickets from the wooden birdcage-style booth and enter the decorative long and narrow lobby. This led to a larger lobby and the theatres. From here, guests could stay on that floor to enter Loew’s Yonge Street theatre or take one of three hand-operated elevators or the Grand Stairway to the Winter Garden Theatre.
At the time, one of the most architecturally striking features of both theatres was the absence of columns obstructing views. The main columns supporting the balcony carry the heavy truss across the width of the auditorium, which in turn supports the cantilever trusses of the balcony.
Marcus Loew wanted to give patrons something they’d never seen before, plus he competed with other burlesque and vaudeville houses and theatres in the city.
Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre
On December 15, 1913, Lowe’s Yonge Street Theatre, today’s Elgin, opened with great fanfare. Tickets cost 10¢ and 25¢. The theatre is richly decorated in crimson and gold colours and originally seated 2,148 guests (today, there are 1,539 seats). The theatre also features a 10 m or 33 ft high proscenium arch over the stage. The opera boxes with bold ornamented plasterwork of lattice, fruit and masks. The elaborate domed ceiling hangs on cables from underneath the Winter Garden. A Toronto-made Warren organ played along to supplement the silent films, plus there was an orchestra pit.
The Winter Garden Theatre
On February 16, 1914, Loew’s opened the Winter Garden, a roof garden theatre decorated to resemble a garden in full bloom. Columns were masqueraded as tree trunks while the ceilings were hung with 5,000 real beech leaves along with branches and twinkling lanterns. The Winter Garden was more prestigious, and people paid 25¢to50¢ for a show. The theatre, where it’s always summer, originally sat 1,410 guests (today, it seats 982).
Through the Years
When the popularity of vaudeville declined in 1928, Loew’s closed the Winter Garden. They kept the lower theatre open and wired it for sound to show talking movies. In 1930, the theatre switched to an all-movie format and completely dropped Vaudeville programming. It became an MGM movie palace showing the grand 1939 premieres of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
In the 1960s, Cinerama was going to be the next big thing, so the lower theatre was remodelled. The opera boxes were removed to accommodate the curved-style screen around the side walls, and the orchestra pit was filled with cement to hold the weight of the screen. However, Cinerama never gets fully installed, and it was a flop. In the upper Winter Garden Theatre, the original seats were sold off for $1 apiece.
In the early 1970s, the lower theatre was renamed the Yonge Street Theatre and showed B-movies and adult films. At the time, the theatre had gone downhill, and the area had changed.
The building received heritage status from the City of Toronto in 1973 and Ontario Heritage Trust in 1978. That same year, the theatre was renamed the Elgin. No one knows why it was named this, and there’s a thought that three of the five letters from the “YONGE” sign could be re-used for” ELGIN.”
By 1981, there were so many outstanding work permits on the building that they were going to close it down and demolish it. Fortunately, the Ontario Heritage Trust realized the historical significance of the double-decker theatre and rescued it. The purchase also included the world’s most extensive collection of vaudeville scenery. In 1982, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, the last of their architectural style in the world, were designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
Cats the Musical
For the production of the musical Cats, a theatre was needed that could be painted black since it took place in a junkyard. What better place than the old, dilapidated Elgin Theatre? The theatre was brought up to safety code. In 1985, what was scheduled to be a 6-week run of the all-Canadian cast and crew of Cats began.
While the musical was going on in the lower theatre, the Ontario Heritage Trust began restoring the theatre above, the Winter Garden, which had been abandoned since 1928. It still had its original opera boxes, hardwood floors, and proscenium arch.
Cats was a huge hit. It ended up running for two years. More than 1 million people saw it and the box office pulled in over $40 million.
The $29-Million Restoration
The 2½-year full restoration process began in 1987. The theatres were brought back to life using old photos, samples and architectural drawings from when the L-shaped building was originally constructed.
In the Elgin Theatre, many pieces were recreated, including the opera boxes, the damask-patterned fabric wallpaper and the carpet was woven at a mill in Belgium.
In the Winter Garden Theatre, hundreds of pounds of raw bread dough were used to clean the hand-painted walls and opera boxes. The dough gently picked up dirt without wetting or removing any paint. Since the original seats had been sold off, the Ontario Heritage Trust purchased the seats the Chicago Biograph was selling (a theatre from the same era).
In the lobby, 25 layers of paint were removed. A basement was also added under the building to create a lounge and washrooms.
The theatre reopened on December 15, 1989, which was 76 years from the day it originally opened. Spanning over a century, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is the world’s last operating double-decker theatre.
In the Winter Garden Theatre, the scenery is flown in from a fly gallery that works on a counterweight system with sandbags. It’s the last theatre in Toronto that is called a “Hemp House.” Hemp refers to the rope. While some lines to move the scenery are automated, people are still needed to manually move pipes. This is one of the reasons why the Winter Garden Theatre is a heritage conservation site because they are a “Hemp House.”
Also on display backstage at the Winter Garden are several original pieces of theatrical production equipment, including a large switchboard which controlled the stage lighting, a hemp rope rigging system, lighting, an old projector and much more.
Vaudeville Scenery Flats
One of the world’s largest collections of “stock” Vaudeville scenery, about 120 pieces, was found sitting in the Winter Garden, undisturbed for nearly 60 years. The sets would have been used as a backdrop for the Vaudeville performances and flown in using rigging in the fly tower. In the 1980s, the Cascading Lobbies were built on top of the theatre to display the restored flats, which include the “Butterfly” scenery and the “Scarab” scenery.
Did You Know?
Mr Lamb was one of the world’s leading “picture palace” designers of the last century and was also the architect of the Uptown Theatre and Madison Square Garden.
In the early 1910s, the building cost $490,000 to construct.
In May 1928, there was a fire in Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre. The pipe organ, orchestra instruments and the soundboard mural over the proscenium arch were destroyed.
On the building’s second level is the Palladian Lounge. It’s named after the style of the three arched heritage windows overlooking Yonge St.
The original birdcage ticket booth from Loew’s Yonge St Theatre is on display at Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre at 227 Front St E.
While the opera boxes are posh seats and considered the place to be seen, they do not have good sight lines. The best views are from the mezzanine.
The historic venue is not only home to two theatres but also a few spirits. Its most famous ghost is The Lavender Lady. While no one knows who she is, there is speculation she could perhaps be a rival actress of a jealous castmate or a jilted wife whose husband fell in love with a Vaudeville showgirl. When she does make an appearance, those who have felt her presence notice a temperature drop and the fragrance of lavender flowers. The Lavender Lady is so famous that she was commemorated in 2016 on a Canada Post stamp.
Other haunted happenings include manually operated cage elevators operating on their own, hearing voices, theatre seats flipping down then back up and hearing a trombone or trumpet being played.
In 1984 during a rehearsal for Cats, some dancers noticed a man sitting in the second row. He wore old-fashioned attire – a brown suit and a brown bowler hat. They thought it could be a friend of the director or producer. After rehearsal, they asked the assistant manager who the man was but were told no one was there. You see, it was a closed rehearsal, and only the assistant and stage managers were allowed to watch. Click for more haunted tales.