Princess Theatre, originally the Academy of Music, was once located at 167 King St W in the Financial District of Toronto. It stood at the busy downtown intersection of King St W and University Ave, on the south side. The theatre was demolished in 1931 to make way for the University Ave extension south from Queen St W to Front St W.
The Academy of Music
In November 1889, the concert hall opened as the Academy of Music. A local newspaper called it “A sight for which Toronto has become famous the world over.” The opening night gala featured the music of Canadian violinist Nora Clench.
The Academy of Music had seating for over 1,500 patrons. There was opera chair seating with plush green upholstery; however, the best seats were in the rear gallery with no pillars to obstruct views and in the 18 loges (box seats) for private viewing. The decoration of the hall was considered plain and subdued. A drop curtain depicted a summer scene of sailboats in Toronto’s harbour. The stage had a proscenium arch, and the floor was on an incline so that there was a great view from every seat in the house. Other features of the “acoustically perfect house” included steam heating, three wide double doors on each side for quick exits, ten dressing rooms for performers, a fly tower, a cafe and on the upper floor, a ballroom that could accommodate 600 people.
The Academy of Music also presented selections from full-scale operas, operettas and recitals.
The Princess Theatre
In 1895, after undergoing significant renovations, the hall reopened as the Princess Theatre. It was called a triumph of theatre architecture and said to be one of the prettiest play-houses in North America. Along with having even better acoustics, the proscenium arch was made to look like the frame of a picture, there was a new drop curtain, and the height of the building was increased by 7.6 m or 25 ft (nearly two storeys) to add a second gallery. The opening week play was a production of the romantic drama “Runnymede.”
In the 1890s, before the age of 5, Toronto-born Gladys Mary Smith made her stage debut in a production of The Silver King at the Princess Theatre. She would become Mary Pickford, the world-famous silent film superstar known as “America’s sweetheart.” Mary owned her own movie palace, the Mary Pickford Theatre, once located at the northwest corner of Queen St W and Spadina Ave.
The New Theatre After A Fire
In May 1915, an early morning fire swept through the Princess Theatre. Four firefighters from the Berkeley Street Fire Hall narrowly escaped when the beams that held the curtain came crashing to the ground. In its final act, the entire roof collapsed. It took just 90 minutes to turn the elegant theatre into a pile of twisted metal, chunks of plaster and ashes.
Detroit-based architect Charles Howard Crane and his Toronto associate Charles James Read were hired to redesign the theatre. After two years, the “new” Princess Theatre reopened in October 1917. It featured a striking auditorium with unobstructed views from every seat, which included 950 seats on the ground floor, 700 in the galleries and ten boxes. The Princess Theatre’s stage was 24 m or 80 ft wide, 11.5 m or 38 ft deep, 24 m or 90 ft high and had an exceptional system for moving scenery quickly. The interior was decorated in colours of gold, ivory and rose. It had broad aisles and a pale blue ceiling with “mechanical venting appliances.” Said to be entirely fire-proof, it had gently graduated inclines to the street from every part of the theatre, 32 exits and an outside ladder system.
The grand reopening featured a production of Miss Springtime, a musical comedy.
Another event in relation to Mary Pickford and the theatre was in 1924 when the Princess premiered the silent film “The Thief of Bagdad.” It starred Mary’s husband, Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks. To create an Arabian night atmosphere, the theatre hired an orchestra to provide specially composed background music, hung Persian carpets about the theatre, burned incense, and served coffee in tiny cups during intermission.
The University Avenue Extension
Toronto was a growing city, and to make way for the University Ave extension south from Queen St W to Front St W, several buildings in its path had to be demolished. The Princess Theatre was amongst the first to be torn down in June 1931 and, as a columnist in The Globe newspaper put it, “will soon be but a memory-but what a treasured one to many of us.”
Princess Theatre Photos
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 7, 1889, pg 8
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 2, 1895, pg 10
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: May 7, 1915, pg 11
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 26, 1917, pg 9
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jul 5, 1923, pg 5
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 4, 1924, pg 13
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 3, 1930, pg 13
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jun 9, 1931, pg 4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 22, 1943, pg 4
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives
- Vintage Map: Atlas of the City of Toronto 1899 by Chas E Goad courtesy of Toronto Public Library
- Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1890 & 1899 courtesy of Toronto Public Library