The Biltimore Theatre

biltmore-1948-sc-303-a-4

The Biltmore Theatre in 1948

Nyasha S.

The Biltmore Theatre stood at 319 Yonge Street between 1948 and 1982. To characterise it at the most basic level, it could be described as a typical Downtown Toronto movie theatre;  built during the construction heyday following the Second World War, it enjoyed several years of respectable success before attendance figures started to slump. In the 1970s the Biltmore was forced to cater to more subcultural and pornographic tastes before it was ultimately shut down in the 1980s. Similar stories could be told about The Savoy (later the Coronet) at 399 Yonge, The Rio at 373 Yonge, or the Downtown at 285 Yonge. Amongst such dubious company, the Biltmore didn’t particularly stand out. For this reason the theatre has left a very faint imprint on the history of the city. The site which once held the theatre now plays host to a colossal shopping centre of which the Yonge and Dundas AMC multiplex, with its twenty-four screens, is a principal part.

The Biltmore was one of a series of theatres constructed by the affluent Okun brothers, who had made their fortune selling hats for ladies under the Biltmore brand. Upon the conclusion of World War II in 1945, various building restrictions and funding disparities, which had been in place to secure funding for the struggle overseas, were finally lifted. This period saw an explosion of building activity, as more money was available for construction, more prospective consumers were available to cater towards, and more time was available for distraction and entertainment. This trend carried on into the fifties, with theatres appearing all over the city. The Biltmore theatre was planned in 1947 with a completion date in May 1948, as ordered by Ben S. Okun and approval by O. J. Silverthorne, and the architect was an S. Devore. The theatre had 916 seats– not as many as the more imposing movie palaces in the city, but enough to distinguish it from the smaller neighbourhood theatres; 306 of those seats were on a balcony level. It was the flagship of the Biltmore theatres, larger than the Biltmore Weston, the Savoy or the Biltmore New Toronto. Positioned at the junction of Yonge and Dundas Streets, two of Toronto’s busiest thoroughfares, the theatre was directly aiming at the urban crowd, with no residential areas nearby to provide a regular neighbourhood patronage. It was competing on the same level as all the shops and attractions that downtown had to offer.

The Biltmore, upon its first opening, was a theatre that catered to a general audience. It was an independently owned theatre, unlike the larger theatre chains i.e. Famous Players, and so it rarely received first-run films. The quality of the programming was key to the day-to-day operation of the theatre, as one week would be a hit and another would be a misstep. In 1948, a film entitled The Mating of Millie opened at the Biltmore, not long after its first opening; through a shrewd advertising campaign by then manager Al Perly, as well as consistently encouraging attendance figures, Millie became a sleeper hit for the Biltmore. This early success, however, was not exactly emblematic of the future fortunes of the theatre. There was no dramatic increase in audience numbers throughout the forties and fifties, and the theatre had no greater fortune in attracting more prestigious films. By the sixties, the cinema house was reduced to running films from years gone by in double and triple bills, and was rarely featured in the standard Movie Time Table of the Toronto Star. It had become an established second-run theatre like many others on Yonge Street.

Still, the theatre maintained a reputation as a reputable establishment and managed to stay afloat throughout the relatively lean 1960s.­­ A patron of the Biltmore in 1961 was able to view five hours’ worth of films for 30¢ in the morning, 60¢ in the afternoon, 80¢ on weekday evenings and 90¢ on Saturday evenings. Unlike several of its other downtown theatre brethren, the Biltmore stayed out of the news for most of the decade, with only the occasional mention in small local interest reports. The Toronto Star, for instance, ran a piece involving a Barry Miszuk from Cooksville; whilst at the theatre, a man sat in front of him wearing a coat which had been stolen from Mr. Miszuk the day before. Another story notes how the theatre narrowly avoided a fiery engulfment in 1969, when neighbouring businesses on the Yonge-Dundas block north of Dundas Square caught fire. The Star reports 500 people evacuated from the Biltmore, who joined a crowd outside and watched fire-fighters tackling the blaze. On March 23rd, 1960, columnist Nathan Cohen even ran a review of The Rebellion of the Hanged, a Mexican-produced film based on a novel by the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Cohen laments the poorly constructed cut of the film that played there, as well as the many flaws of the film itself. Other than these fleeting, occasional mentions, however, the Biltmore stayed out of the limelight for much of its existence after the forties and fifties.

O. J. Silverthorne was the chief censor in Ontario when the Biltmore first opened, and had been since 1934. Thanks to the rapid proliferation of new theatres across the city there was a “call for more protective measures came in January of 1946 when members of the Toronto board of Education accused Silverthorne and his merry band of scissor-wielding censors of not doing enough to keep children from seeing “adult” content.”[1] This resulted in the new “Adult Entertainment” designation for films deemed inappropriate for children under the age of 16, barring youth from entry to the screening. This blanket form of regulation ultimately gave way to a more flexible classification system in the Theatres Act of 1953.

Film classification has two main effects: the first and most readily apparent one is the ability for parents to tailor their film-going practices in order to accommodate for the sensibilities of themselves and their children; it is also easier for exhibitors to program films that correspond to the expected content for their clientele.

The second effect is the ability for theatres to screen lascivious, morally improper content for a diversity of patrons. By the seventies, there was a large emergence of grindhouse theatres all along Yonge Street, converted from the once respectable theatres they had been. An atmosphere closely related to the cinema of attractions had taken over the downtown theatres -instead of the technology and wonder of moving pictures, however, the attraction was now pornography and violence. In many ways this was a survival tactic. The theatres that had been reduced to showing second-run features in increasingly large billings in order to attract a new audience.

biltmore theatre

The Biltmore at Night

In Paul Moore’s words: “As attendance declined in the late 1950s and 1960s, downtown cinemas eventually specialised into a space more or less geared towards rambunctious young men, exactly the demographic ‘threat’ that early showmen worked hard to control with efforts toward respectability. Thus, the imagined enjoyable discipline of downtown providing something for everyone gradually changed into the location of cheapness and sleaze.”[2] The Biltmore regularly had all-night billings of action movies, horror films and miscellaneous pornographic features. Aligning itself with what was quickly becoming its most reliable crowd, it stayed open until four in the morning on weekends. The Biltmore, and other theatres like it, had to sacrifice much of its integrity in order to stay afloat in the tumultuous seventies where theatres were closing all over the city.

It is important to recognise the Biltmore’s location as a key factor in its ultimate decline. It was constructed right in the centre of town, surrounded by commercial enterprise and businesses; on one side of the building was Tops Uptown Restaurant, and on the other side was Winco Steak and Burger. Unlike the numerous neighbourhood theatres that appeared in the various regions of greater Toronto, which had regular patronage and, especially in minority neighbourhoods, specialty tastes to cater for, the Biltmore and the other downtown theatres were all in competition. With the onset of suburbanisation, a trend that echoed throughout the western world, there was a gradual but definite shift from downtown being the locus of all activity; Famous Players began to focus more on suburban and drive-in theatres, resulting in a diminished audience for downtown cinemas.[3]

Ultimately, the Biltmore was a victim of wider changes in the film exhibition business. In this way the Biltmore is an excellent example of the fates of many independent business owners in a market long dominated by chains and conglomerates.


[1] Veillette, Eric. “Curves, cussing and beer: Ontario film censorship in the 1940s.” 26 September 2011. Silent Toronto. Web. 20 October 2011 < http://silenttoronto.com/?p=1921&gt;.

[2] Moore, Paul S. “Movie Places on Canadian Downtown Main Streets: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.” Urban History Review 32.2 (2004): 14. Print.

[3] Moore, p. 14.