From La Plaza to the Opera House: A History of Change

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La Plaza Theatre in 1946, from The Opera House’s website

Theodore Xenophontos

Introduction – An Overview and History of the Theatre
Located at 735 Queen Street East and licensed under various names during its time as a movie theatre, the history of this exhibition site can be traced back to the early twentieth century. Like many movie theatres of its time, La Plaza began as a vaudeville theatre. The earliest empirical evidence of its existence can be found in a canopy agreement dating back to December 20th, 1916 (City of Toronto Archives, File 108 and Appendix IX). In the 1930s, as vaudeville died out and movies became a more popular form of entertainment, the theatre transitioned into exhibiting cinema (Archives of Ontario). Up until 1958 it was owned by B & F Theatres, a subsidiary of Famous Players that operated twenty luxurious movie houses across suburban Toronto (Boussin 1957/1958, 59; Boussin 1951, 14). Not unlike other theatres in the B&F chain, La Plaza served the citizens of Leslieville as a “nabe,” which was slang for a neighbourhood movie theatre (Sebert, xi). In 1958 Thomas Vlachos became the owner of La Plaza (Boussin 1958/1959, 58). During the late 1950s, the theatre was informally known as the Acropolis, although it was never licensed under this name (Archives of Ontario), which is interesting since Thomas Vlachos would later go on to own a movie theatre called the Acropolis in the mid-1960s (Boussin 1963/1964, 49). In 1962, contradictory evidence about the name of the theatre emerges. According to the Archives of Ontario website, in 1962 La Plaza became the Dundas, while according to the 1962/1963 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry it was still called La Plaza. In either case, the theatre was now owned by W. Dundas (Boussin, 49). By 1965 the name had changed again, but this time to Cinema Ellas (Archives of Ontario). The last time the venue appears as Cinema Ellas or under any of its names in the Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry, or any similar publication for that matter, is in the yearbook’s 1969/1970 edition (Boussin, 54).The current owners of the venue purchased it in July 1989 and it re-opened as the Opera House in late December 1989 (Towers). To the present day, it still operates as the Opera House, a lively music venue.

Design

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A sketch of the inside of La Plaza, from Historic Toronto

The venue was a single screen theatre, with 787 seats (Boussin 1951, 96) for most of its history as a movie theatre but in 1963 the number of seats was reduced to 752 (Boussin 1963/1964, 49). One can speculate as to why the number of seats was reduced. The natural inclination would be to suggest this was due to changes in screen size and technological changes brought about by such formats as Cinerama and CinemaScope, but the venue was never converted to Cinerama and had been showing films in CinemaScope by 1955 (Toronto Star, 4 Feb. 1955). More likely, this change in seating could have resulted from a change in management. Yet this is all merely speculation. The theatre had seating both in the auditorium and in the balcony (Appendix III). There was a foyer just outside of the auditorium where fellow patrons could chat with one another before or after a screening (City of Toronto Archives, File 97). Also located within the foyer were candy and popcorn machines to satisfy the needs of hungry patrons (Appendix VII). To the right of the foyer was the staircase up to the balcony (City of Toronto Archives, File 97). Two stores flanked the venue’s entrances, though an exit in the store on the right of the entrance provided access to both the foyer and the staircase that lead up to the theatre’s balcony (City of Toronto Archives, File 97). If one is to visit the venue today, they will see remnants of the movie theatre. A couple of the old projectors remain on its back balcony, though all of the venue’s seats have been removed (The Opera House/Toronto).

Exhibition Practices and Film Culture (s)

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The Interior of La Plaza when it was still a movie theatre, photo most likely taken in the 1950s, from the Opera House website

During its heyday as part of the B & F chain, La Plaza usually screened two films a week and showed a mix of B fare and A pictures several months after their initial release. This is evident in the following list, which gives just a taste of some of the pairings of films screened there in 1951: I Was a Shoplifter (1950) and Rio Grande (1950), Mister 880 (1950) and The Black Rose (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Admiral was a Lady (1950), and Appointment with Danger (1951) and Quebec (1951) (Toronto Star, 7 Feb. 1951; 7 Mar. 1951; 3 Apr. 1951; 8 Nov. 1951; Appendix XI). Like all movie theatres throughout Canada during the time, excluding Quebec, La Plaza was open six days a week and closed on Sundays (Boussin 1951, 55). This remained the case until 1961 when the theatre started to open everyday of the week (Boussin 1961/1962, 52). La Plaza not only showed films, but sometimes gave away free items to entice female spectators to attend screenings. This is evident in a 1954 ad for a screening of the Howard Hawks’ classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) in which La Plaza gave away free dinnerware, glassware, or silverware to women who attended the screening (Toronto Star, 15 Sept. 1951 and Appendix IV). This is not the only time La Plaza did this, repeating the promotion later that year for a screening of Young Wives’ Tales (1951) (Toronto Star, 14 Oct. 1951). From a modern perspective, these two instances are fascinating since they show how blatantly sexist film promotion was in the 1950s and, accordingly, constitute part of the larger discourse on sexism in the cinema.

A year after ownership of La Plaza changed hands from B & F theatres to Thomas Vlachos, the theatre became a “foreign theatre” (Boussin 1959/1960, 54), presumably for offering a program of foreign and ethnically-targeted content until the end of Vlachos’ tenure (Boussin 1961/1962, 52). There is no evidence that the theatre remained a “foreign theatre” under the ownership of W. Dundas, although the name Cinema Ellas would suggest otherwise. Due to the lack of historical evidence of the theatre’s programming, of what was shown and when, in the years following the theatre’s separation from the B & F chain, the following case study centred around a hypothetical spectator will focus on the year 1951. This case study will also primarily build upon data available in the 1951 census tract and fire insurance map of the area.

1951 – A Hypothetical Case Study
The year is 1951, the area is Leslieville or more specifically, Queen Street East and Lewis, and it is a beautiful Saturday morning in the month of April. As our imagined spectator awakens from his slumber, he gazes upon himself in the mirror. This spectator embodies the average male citizen of the area, developed as a composite of the most pertinent statistics gained from the 1951 census tract of the area: he is between the ages of 25 – 34, he is of British origin (we can assume for our purposes he is white), naturally the only language he speaks is English, and he belongs to the United Church of Canada (Census of Canada 1951, 11). From a familial perspective, he is married (Census of Canada 1951, 11), has two children, and both are under the age of fourteen (Census of Canada 1951, 26). Financially, like most of his neighbours, he is a working class citizen and the median earnings for his family (his wife does not work) total about $2,246 a year (Census of Canada 1951, 26). The average four-member Canadian family in 1951 had an income of about $3,500 a year (Boussin 1951, 45), so our spectator’s family earns over a third less than the average four-member Canadian family. Due to his working class status, our spectator and his family live in a tenement building that happens to be just south of La Plaza theatre (Fire Insurance Map of Toronto 1951 and Appendix V). As he is eating breakfast, he sees an ad in The Toronto Star promoting a screening of Sunset Boulevard (1950) at La Plaza (Toronto Star, 3 Apr. 1951 and Appendix XI), He has heard great buzz about the film, due in no small part to the fact that it was nominated for eleven Oscars and won three, at the twenty-third annual Academy Awards presentation that took place on Thursday, March 29, 1951 (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). He discusses it with his wife and they decide that they will see the film that night. Since they feel it is not appropriate for children, they will leave them with their grandparents who happen to live in the same tenement building. After breakfast, he heads from his home to the bank to get money for tonight’s screening. He leaves his tenement building, goes north, walks by La Plaza, then turns West on Queen Street East and makes his way to the end of the block where there are two banks: Dominion Bank and the Bank of Montreal (Fire Insurance Map of Toronto 1951 and Appendix V). As a customer of the Dominion Bank, he enters to withdraw his money. After the transaction is finished, the spectator heads home. En route, he passes his neighbourhood funeral parlour, dry cleaners, and barber shop (Fire Insurance Map of Toronto 1951 and Appendix V). Since he just went to the bank and wants to look his best for the evening’s screening with his wife, he decides to get a haircut. After getting his haircut he goes back home and spends the afternoon with his wife and children, before dropping his children off at their grandparents before heading to the screening of Sunset Boulevard. He and his wife enter the foyer of La Plaza and it is full with life. Most of the patrons are working class citizens who are happy to be out, since the cinema is one of their few entertainment outlets. Hundreds of patrons move quickly to fill the seats of both the auditorium and the balcony. The couple see some of their neighbours and our spectator’s friends ask him if he would like to join them to play pool after the screening at one of the two billiard halls in the area (Fire Insurance Map of Toronto 1951 and Appendix V) to which he declines. His friends make their way to their seats, as our spectator asks his wife if she would like any candy or popcorn. She declines as they make their way to the balcony seats, since the spectator’s wife prefers to sit in the balcony. Minutes after taking their seats the lights go down and the magic begins. Although Sunset Boulevard is more downbeat than typical Hollywood fare, the couple still greatly enjoy the film. As they leave the theatre to pick up their children they feel relaxed and ready for a good nights sleep. While this case study may be a hypothetical one, it attempts to provide a historical snapshot of the area and what it was like for the average working class citizen to see in a film at La Plaza in 1951.

Conclusion – An Elegy for Neighbourhood Movie Theatres

The rise of multiplexes brought about the demise of many luxurious, single screen, neighbourhood movie theatres such as La Plaza. What disappeared alongside these theatres was a sense of movie going as a community activity. Although one can still go to midnight premieres with friends and niche audiences, the sense of community one would have felt from seeing films on a regular basis in ones own neighbourhood, and surrounded by ones own neighbours, is gone. Luckily, La Plaza has been preserved in the sense that it is now the Opera House and still a home for the performing arts.

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La Plaza in 1963, from the Toronto Archives (Series 1278, File 97)

 


Works Cited

“Archives of Ontario Stories from Ontario’s Movie Theatres: La Plaza Theatre, Toronto.” Archives of Ontario. Web. 21 September 2012. .

Bossin, Hye, ed. 1951 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

— , 1957/1958 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

—, 1958/1959 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

—, 1959/1960 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

—, 1961/1962 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

—, 1962/1963 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

—, 1963/1964 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

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

Canada. Public Archives of Canada. Fire Insurance Map of Toronto 1951. Print.

City of Toronto Archives. 735 – 737 Queen Street East: Cancelled 1916 -1941. Subseries 3: Canopy Agreements, File 108. Print.

City of Toronto Archives. La Plaza. Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 97. Print.

Helleur, Stan, ed. 1966/1967 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

“History.” The Opera House/Toronto. Web. 21 September 2012. .

Hocura, Ed, ed. 1969/1970 Year Book of the Canadian Motion Picture Industry. Toronto: Film Publications of Canada, Ltd. Print.

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

“The 23rd Academy Awards (1951) Nominees and Winners.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Web. 21 October 2012. .

Toronto Star 7 Feb. 1951: 12. Print.

—, 7 Mar. 1951: 15. Print.

—, 3 April 1951: 15. Print.

—. 8 Nov. 1951: 40. Print.

—, 15 Sept. 1954: 18. Print.

—, 14 Oct. 1954: 20. Print.

—, 4 Feb. 1955: 16. Print.

Towers, Athena. “Re: The Opera House.” Message to Theodore Xenophontos. 17 October 2012. E-mail.