The Cinematic Center of Davisville Village: An examination of the Regent theatre

Lindsay Goeldner

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Exterior of the Belsize theatre in 1920s, from City of Toronto Archives (Series 1278, File 27)

Today the walk south on Mount Pleasant road from Eglinton is surprisingly lively. The store fronts become more packed together the further you go, housing a number of independent shops which beckon to pedestrians with cupcakes, antiques, doll house furnishings and even toy trains. Herein lies Davisville village, a neighbourhood immersed in local history and the charms of its past. Along this stretch it is hard not to notice two vintage cinemas: the Mt. Pleasant and the Regent. Of the two theatres, the Regent holds a richer history, one that reflects the neighbourhood’s growth over eighty-five years and indicates the area’s significance within broader the North Toronto region. Studying the theatre, and its many historic incarnations, provides a compelling means through which to examine the changing, or unchanging, culture of Davisville village throughout the years. Throughout its history, the Regent has endured countless renovations while maintaining its integral function as a neighbourhood theatre and a relatively consistent appearance. It has both defined and been defined by the quiet, surrounding neighbourhood of Davisville village, where a lack of change within the community supports the theatre’s role as a nostalgic cultural centre.

Humble Beginnings as The Belsize

Located in between Eglinton and Davisville at 551 Mount Pleasant Road, the Regent is situated in the heart of Davisville village, an area formerly dubbed “Muddy York” (Illidge 7). The area we now know as North Toronto was once just a long, muddy strip of land, with little to offer besides a leather tanning business and a pottery shop. In 1922, the area began to draw residents and commercial interests alike. An advertising campaign touted the area’s convenient location – “only twenty-two minutes from downtown” (“The Charm of Mount Pleasant”). In subsequent years, the area shifted away from its rural foundation as an influx of working-class British Isle immigrants were drawn to recently developed, single-family homes (“Census of Canada 1951”). When the area began to expand and commercialize around WWI, the shops that popped up became staples of the district. Once known as “the street where all of the antique shops are” Mount Pleasant began to resemble the “poor man’s Yorkville” (“The Charm of Mount Pleasant”), though this sentiment dissolved as Davisville village became increasingly affluent, quickly developing into the middle-class neighbourhood that it is today. Near the end of the 1920s, the construction of the Regent and Mount Pleasant theatre houses defined the main strip of Davisville Village as a cultural centre, giving birth to a local scene.

Vertical integration of the motion picture industry shaped Canada’s theatrical exhibition practices and lead to the expansion of the Canadian theatre market. On January 23rd 1920 Nathan L. Nathanson incorporated his theatre circuit under Famous Players Canadian Corporation Limited. It controlled “eleven motion pictures theatres in Ontario…with a total seating capacity of 15 000” (Pendakur 57). Nathanson’s chain would quickly expand to include“a small number of prominent first-run theatres in key locations,” aiming to draw business away from competing theatre chains (Moore 27). The Regent was one such theatre, established as part of the Famous Players chain with its construction in 1927 as the Belsize. The expansion in Canadian exhibition houses prompted the president of Paramount Pictures Corporation, Adolph Zukor, to sign an agreement with Nathanson’s group allowing Famous Players “exclusive rights to exhibit Famous-Lasky pictures in Canada for a period of twenty years” (Pendakur 58). By the time the Belsize opened in 1927, ninety-five percent of Canadian theatres exhibited films “supplied by major U.S. film companies” (Pendakur 59), and the Belsize was no exception.

The Belsize acquired one of the most notable cinema architects in Toronto at the time, Murray Brown, to develop the theatre’s aesthetic design — paying him a fee of approximately $160,000 (Sinaiticus). The theatre’s first manifestation was as a one-screen movie-house with an ornate atmosphere, able to accommodate both live performances and film screenings (Sebert 29). Upon opening the theatre boasted 726 leather seats on the main floor and 205 plush chairs in the balcony, making a totally of 931 seats.[1] The Belsize’s first manager was Jack Laver, who oversaw the theatre’s operations during its first years as a silent movie house. Its opening night screening was of Clarence G. Badger’s It (1927, USA) — a romantic comedy starring the “it” girl herself, Clara Bow. The screening itself was a resounding success, highlighted in The Toronto Star’s March 18th 1927 report which notes that Toronto’s Mayor, Thomas Foster, was in attendance. Columnists acclaimed the theatre for its beauty, celebrating in particular its “arcade entrance,” “Venetian mirrors,” and how “two exquisite friezes of ‘Carmen’ the Spanish dancer, adorn the walls on either side.”[2] In addition to hosting first-run screenings, the Belsize was the recurring site of a small, seasonal vaudeville act.

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Crest Theatre in the 1950s, from the City of Toronto Archives (Series 1278, File 27)

The Belsize’s inclusion of dramatic arts paved the way for its second incarnation as the first permanent live-performance venue in Canada (Illidge 31). In November of 1953, the Belsize screened what would be its last film for over a decade. A sibling trio consisting of Murray and Donald Davis, along with their sister Barbara Chilcott, obtained the lease for the Belsize with the intention to turn it into a theatre house (Illidge 8). At the time Toronto had not yet seen a permanent playhouse except for, of course, the Royal Alexandra theatre downtown. The Royal Alexandra was commonly criticized for having ties to American theatre circuits, “which eschewed any kind of ‘legitimate’ or ‘art’ theatre in favor of…Broadway touring shows” (Illidge 25). The new incarnation of the Belsize — the Crest theatre — intended to challenge this. The Davies promoted the experience of seeing a live show as an experience unlike anything else (Illidge 8). The interior of the building was refurbished to resemble a more prestigious venue — it was adorned with chandeliers and lavish decor, while the popcorn bar was, unfortunately, removed (8).

 

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Advertisement for Crest Theatre Film Festival in 1972 in Toronto Star, from Cinema Treasures

The shows began to attract people outside of the residents of Davisville village. Downtowners looking for quality entertainment, without the flashy urban ethos of the Royal Alexandria, would seek out the Crest. Additionally, many suburbanites from surrounding areas such as Leaside and Lawrence Park found in the Crest an evening venue that was in close proximity to their homes (Illidge 29). It was easy for non-residents to get to as well; Toronto in 1954 saw “Muddy York” become Metropolitan Toronto with the amalgamation of the 12 area municipalities and an extension of the subway line along Yonge street (Illidge 30). An increase in local restaurants provided the full package for a night out in Davisville village, and outsiders easily found parking on the area’s many residential streets. For a mere $0.75 a show, the Davies aimed to make live theatre accessible to anyone, but their success soon ended as funds dried up in time for a new lease in 1967. In its astounding thirteen years as a live-performance venue, the Crest “would mount 152 productions, presenting work by nearly 100 playwrights and writers from Canada and around the world” (Illidge 8). A few famous shows performed at the theatre included Graham Greene’s The Living Room (1953), Robertson Davies’ A Jig for the Gypsy (1955) and Gordon Daviot’s Richard of Bordeaux (1933) (Illidge 41). The fascinating history of the Crest as a live theatre venue cannot be elaborated here, but a quick glimpse of this era reflects the theatre’s continuing resilience and flexibility as a venue.
Exterior of the Regent, from City of Toronto Archives
Final Incarnation as The Regent

 After the Davies lost the lease on the Crest, the theatre remained closed until it was placed under new ownership. In March of 1971, the Crest was reopened as a movie revival house with Peter Seroc as the owner. The first screening under new management was the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty (USA) starring Clark Gable.[3] Due to the theatre’s association with the Famous Players chain, the film probably would have played at the Belsize upon its release in the 1930s. The shift to a revival movie house is consistent with the ethos of the neighbourhood, offering a taste of nostalgia to the residents of Davisville village. Though it served as a functional “nabe” once again, the space still resembled a live-theatre venue. It would be another decade before the Crest embodied its original movie theatre form, restored with the assistance of Famous Players.

In April of 1988, renovations began on the Crest to refresh and improve it. On May 25th the theatre reopened as the Regent with new furnishings. Notable improvements included high-back seating, new carpets and, most excitingly, a new concessions stand.[4] In 2002, the theatre became associated with Theatre D Digital, a Toronto-based film and post-production company. The collaboration helped save the theatre from the fate suffered by many other early movie houses in Toronto. The aim of the project was to retain the integrity of the original theatre while equipping it with updated digital technology to make way for a picture-editing facility (Mainprize 34). The Regent now is “an all-in-one audio and video mix/edit facility by day, a public cinema at night” including screenings of second-run films “and a large screening room and gala event hall by reservation” (Mainprize 34).[5]

The Candy Bar Kerfuffle

The improbably long history of the Regent involves only a few events that have marked the building in profound ways. The theatre is known as a quiet one and one that rarely experiences disturbance. In the history of the Regent, not much has occurred outside of movie screenings or advances in projection technology; even the area’s demographic has stayed the same. This reflects the neighbourhood that is known for its quiet and uneventful character. Trivial incidents in the Regent’s history signify the theatre’s stable function within the community over the many years of its operation.

One such incident is what Webster notes as “what happens in the movie theatre world when the theatre branch of the Ontario Government is invalid,”[6] and is exemplary of a neighbourhood where few noteworthy events occur: In 1947 a small debacle unfolded in the Belsize involving its management, the general manager of Hollywood Confections LTD., and Ontario’s Chief Inspector of Theatres.[7] In December 18th 1946, the Belsize had a refreshment bar installed as part of the wider theatrical candy bar wave of the mid-1940s (Pellettieri). Before installation, however, Fitzgibbons had to procure permissions from the Chief Inspector so that plans could be put into action. This did not happen in proper form, and accordingly, when theatre inspector F. W. Schols visited and saw an “illegal” candy bar built, the Chief sent a fairly harsh letter to the theatre immediately: [8]

“Our Inspector Schols visited the Belsize theatre on December 18 and reports that a candy and popcorn bar has been located in the lobby. Plans have never been approved for this installation and it would not be considered for a lobby location. We ask that the bar be removed immediately. Please acknowledge this communication within ten days.” (Webster)

 

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Inside the Regent Theatre, undated, from the Regent Theatre Toronto website

The issue taken with the placement of the bar is related to a supposed “blockage” of passageways, most likely a danger in case of fire. The correspondence between the Chief Inspector and the theatre management takes on a lop-sided tone after several of the chief’s letters were left unanswered. The Chief, whose tone in the letters becomes increasingly irate, promised to sustain his disapproval “unless the guard rail is removed or placed on the opposite side of the lobby” and “the bar moved a measurement of three feet” (Webster). The first response to the Chief occurred four months later in April, when the manager of the confections company states that the candy bar plans which the Chief had are inaccurate and the bar had already been relocated. To make matters worse, the correspondents at the theatre and the confections company continued to replace staff, requesting that the old letters be forwarded to them so they could stay informed on the issue.

 The correspondence ends with frustration. After a year of letters, the Chief finally obtained blueprints he could approve. He receives one follow-up letter from the confections manager confirming the completion of the approved plans followed by “please consider plans for installation of the soft drink dispenser” (Webster). This event is one that epitomizes the extent to which the Regent, in all its incarnations, has not seen much excitement. This, however, is not a quality that distinguishes the theatre as second-rate; rather, it reflects the neighbourhood it resides in as unchanging.
A depiction of what it was like to attend a screening at the Belsize is necessary for understanding the experience of the neighbourhood. Imagine you are a seventeen-year-old girl [9] living in Davisville village in 1950 – school has just ended for the summer. You decide to take a walk around the neighbourhood because it is a beautiful sunny afternoon and you have some time on your hands. During this time, Mount Pleasant is blossoming as a community, becoming more prosperous as an abundance of boutique shops move into the neighbourhood. You could stop by LeFeuvre’s Chocolatier for a bag of peanut brittle, or indulge in a chocolate treat. Perhaps you want to hold out for a delicious fish and chip lunch at Penrose, which would have just opened that year. When you decide you wish to see a film, you have the option of attending the Mt. Pleasant theatre or the Belsize. You decide to walk over to the Belsize, because they have matinee screenings on Mondays. Before you buy your movie ticket, you stop to window shop at Katheryne’s Dress Shop, located directly to the right of the theatre. You decide against going into the store for fear of spending your money; especially since the Belsize is showing a screening of I Was a Male War Bride (1949) starring Carry Grant. The movie carries an adult rating, which is fine for you to see as long as classification signs are noticeably displayed at the theatre.[10] A ticket costs you $0.48 (Konen) and you walk right in.

As you walk into the theatre, the Venetian mirrors are still striking to see, but the paintings that were delightfully remarked upon in 1927 do little to grab your attention — you are drawn immediately to the candy bar. You take notice of giant popcorn machine popping away in the centre of the foyer and the newly installed soft drink dispenser. You decide to watch the movie from the balcony, so you follow the bronze-painted staircase all the way up and grab a seat near the edge, overlooking the entire theatre as curtains open on the screen.

My hypothetical moviegoer was chosen to represent the growing population of teenagers in the Davisville village area during the 1950s (“Census of Canada 1951”). She is exemplary of the average moviegoer; she is a female under the age of thirty (Dean 61). Most importantly, if you attend a screening at the Regent today, the experience is similar to that of the early 1950s. All of the places outlined in this hypothetical moviegoer’s experience, with the exception of the dress store, are businesses that continue to operate today.

The Heart of Davisville Village

The Regent was, and still is, one of the theatres that defined North York and the smaller community of Davisville village. The impressive evolution of the theatre throughout its eighty-five year lifespan has enabled the theatre to remain relevant, continuing to provide what the middle-class residents of Davisville village are looking for in their local “nabe.” Residents and downtowners alike continue to attend screenings of classic Hollywood films and second-run blockbusters, partly for the movies themselves but also because of the experience associated with going to an old movie house. Although it was designated a Heritage Property by the city of Toronto, the Regent is currently being considered for a possible site re-construction (Skinner). Local residents are currently fighting against these developments, and hopefully they will succeed in halting development progress.

The Regent, unlike other old movie houses, has survived because of its ability to provide the neighbourhood with what it needs, including first-run Hollywood films, live-theatre, second-run movies, and even digital editing workshops. In response, the neighbourhood has protected and preserved the theatre as one of its mainstays — the Regent remains the artistic centre of Davisville village.

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Regent Theatre today, photo from Cinema Treasures

 [1] Refer to Appendix 1 for a more detailed look at the Webster notes regarding the theatre’s opening.

[2] Refer to Appendix 2 for full article.

[3] Refer to Appendix 3 for news clipping.

[4] Refer to Appendix 4 for full article.

[5] The Theatre D Digital project is quickly expanding to accommodate additional movie houses. For more information on their upcoming projects, please refer to their website: http://theatred.webfactional.com/content/

[6] Refer to Appendix 5 for detailed Webster notes.

[7] Strangely enough, the Chief Inspector of Theatres remains nameless throughout this correspondence.

[8] Refer to Appendix 6 for an example of one such letter.

[9] Statistic from Malcolm Dean’s “Censored! Only in Canada”: “A Gallop poll in 1950 found that the average Canadian movie-goer was a woman living in a small community, not more than twenty-nine years old, either a white collar or factory worker. The average Canadian attended the cinema seventeen times a year, versus thirty-two for the U.S. and twenty-nine per year for Britain.” (61)

[10] Ontario’s censorship rules outlined in Garth S. Jowett’s “Film Censorship in Ontario”: “…Finally in 1946-47, a more stringent ‘Adult Entertainment’ classification was introduced, requiring also that classification signs be prominently displayed at the theatre and in all related advertising. In 1953, the ‘Restricted’ classification was added, barring all those under 18 years of age” (44)

Works Cited

—.”Belsize.” Toronto Star Apr. 1950, Entertainment. Pg. 8. Print. Movie Listing.

—.”City of Toronto: Ward 22 Profile.” Toronto. Urban Development Services, Sept. 2003. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

—.”Must State If Movies Not Fit For Children.” Toronto Star. 20 May 1946: p. 3. Print.

Canada. Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Census of Canada 1951. Ottawa: RT. Hon. C. D. Howe, 1953. Print.

Dean, Malcolm. Censored! Only in Canada: The History of Film Censorship. Toronto: Virgo, 1981. Print.

Illidge, Paul. Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story. Toronto: Creber Monde, 2005. Print.

Jowett, Garth S. “Film Censorship in Ontario.” Cinema Canada 31 (1976): 42-45.Cinema Canada. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. .

Konen, Leah. “How Well Can You Live On Minimum Wage?” Business Insider. N.p., 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. .

Kulig, Paula. “Blending Vintage and Modern Toronto in Davisville Village.” Toronto Star n.d. Your Home. 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. .

Mainprize, Julian. “Theatre D: Movie Mixing Meets the Past.” Professional Sound(2002): 34-37. Print.

Moore, Paul. “Nathan L. Nathanson Introduces Canadian Odeon: Producing National Competition in Film Exhibition.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 12.2 (2003): 23-45. Print.

Pellettieri, Jill. “Make It a Large for a Quarter More? A Short History of Movie Theater Concession Stands.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 26 June 2007. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. .

Pendakur, Manjunath. Canadian Dreams & American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry. Toronto: Garamond, 1990. Print.

Sebert, John. The “Nabes”: Toronto’s Wonderful Neighbourhood Movie Houses. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic, 2001. Print.

Sinaiticus. “An Appreciation.” Construction (May 1927): 141-46. Print. A celebration of the career and works of notable architect Murray Brown.

Skinner, Justin. “Saving Mount Pleasant’s ‘Iconic’ Movie Theatres.” Inside Toronto. City Center Mirror, 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.

Embedded Image Sources

I. Exterior of the Belsize theatre. Webster, Ken “Research Materials on Toronto Movie Houses: Belsize-Crest-Regent” Fonds 0251, box 377898, series 1278, file 00027, City of Toronto Archives. Toronto, Canada.

II. Crest advertising poster. Webster, Ken “Alive people go to any lengths to see live theater: Crest Theater” Fonds 16, box 117943, series 244, item 243, City of Toronto Archives. Toronto, Canada. Contains a vintage poster of an advertisement used for performances at the Crest.

III. Exterior of the Regent. Webster, Ken “Research Materials on Toronto Movie Houses: Belsize-Crest-Regent” Fonds 0251, box 377898, series 1278, file 00027, City of Toronto Archives. Toronto, Canada.

IV. Interior of Belsize lobby. Webster, Ken “Research Materials on Toronto Movie Houses: Belsize-Crest-Regent” Fonds 0251, box 377898, series 1278, file 00027, City of Toronto Archives. Toronto, Canada.

V. Interior of the Belsize theatre’s seating and screen. Webster, Ken “Research Materials on Toronto Movie Houses: Belsize-Crest-Regent” Fonds 0251, box 377898, series 1278, file 00027, City of Toronto Archives. Toronto, Canada

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