Bruce Bell: Music Hall dominated Toronto while Vaudeville ruled U.S.

Shea Victoria now and (inset) then.

Shea Victoria now and (inset) then.

Bruce Bell–

A few years back my good friend and neighbour the late actress Billie Mae Richard and I were strolling around the neighbourhood when we found ourselves walking through a nondescript parking lot on the southeast corner of Victoria and Richmond.

Billie, best known as the voice of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer in the annual Christmas classic, said that in her younger days she would often perform here when the parking lot was once the site of Shea’s Victoria Theatre.

As we meandered through the parked cars she pointed out where the entrance once was, the auditorium, the dressing rooms—where the stage door man sat and where the stage once stood.

Billie not only performed as a young girl in the 1920s but came back again to rehearse shows that were headed for Europe to entertain the troops during WWII.

Opened in 1910 this once-magnificent theatre, built at the height of Vaudeville, was only one of many of Toronto’s lost theatres that dotted the Downtown core giving the Richmond/Queen/Adelaide corridor the nickname as Billie would recall: “Toronto’s Broadway.”

The most popular form of entertainment in Toronto 150 years ago was known as Music Hall; an evening that included comics singing the popular songs of the day, opera interludes, poetry readings and novelty acts.

It all mixed in together for an enjoyable show ending with a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia, because Music Hall was deeply ingrained in our British roots.

There were as many Music Halls then as there are movie houses today.

One of the first great Music Hall theatres built in Toronto was Temperance Hall in 1848 on Temperance Street (a block north of Adelaide, west of Yonge) where internationally renowned opera star Anna Bishop, whose scandalous life would intrigue Torontonians for years to come, made her local debut.

Where the entrance to the Eaton Centre now stands on Queen Street stood the 1,700-seat Shaftesbury Hall (1871-1902) and on Adelaide west of Yonge stood the Toronto Opera House (1886-1903) and next to it the Majestic Theatre, later re-named the Regent (1903-1930), and in 1899 the Empire Theatre replaced Temperance Hall. On Adelaide just west of Yonge where the Winners Store stands today stood the jewel of them all, the once-glorious 2,000-seat Grand Opera House.

However on Oct. 24, 1881 all this would change. Theatre historians regard this date, the opening of the 14th-Street Theater in New York, as the birth of Vaudeville. The main difference between Music Hall and Vaudeville was: One was very British and the other very American.

Toronto, being so physically close to the U.S., became a lucrative stop on the Vaudeville circuit and embraced this form of American entertainment in a huge way.

Vaudeville was what television is today; something for everybody with enormous mass appeal and influence. Even through billed as “fun for the whole family,” Vaudeville was a grind industry and—as Billie Mae would tell me—by the time she was 6-years-old she and her sister were performing five full-length shows a day starting at 11am. A typical show was very similar to Music Hall but with one big difference; the headlining act appeared just before intermission and this much-coveted spot determined who the star of the evening was and therefore received top billing and a huge payday.

The second act was much like the first but closing the show usually spelled the death knell for any performer because by then the audience—restless and ready to leave—had seen whom they came to see. Toronto was considered hitting the big time on the travelling circuit and we had the theatres to prove it.

One of the first vaudeville houses built in Toronto was Shea’s Theatre with 1.700 seats, opened in 1899 on the southeast corner of Adelaide and Yonge.

However in December of 1905 fire destroyed the theatre and the owners, the Shea Amusement Co. of Buffalo (founded by Michael Shea, born in St. atharines) decided against rebuilding and instead constructed the fabulous Shea’s Victoria on the southeast corner of Victoria and Richmond.

The Victoria opened in 1910 had two balconies, approximately 1,800 seats, and was home to some of the biggest acts in Vaudeville but also ran full length plays and musicals.

Shea’s would open an even larger vaudeville theatre a few years later in 1916 the Hippodrome where Toronto City Hall stands today. The “Hipp” was the largest theatre in Canada and was one of the Big Four Vaudeville theatres in North America.

When Vaudeville died with the coming of talking motion pictures in the early 1930s, the Victoria closed and sat empty for years, only occasionally opened for charity fund-raisers.

During the World War II,  big shows starring our own Billie Mae Richards were rehearsed at the Victoria before being shipped overseas to entertain the troops.

As the war was coming to an end Famous Players took over the Victoria and turned it into a fulltime movie house with a 1,896-seat capacity.

In 1947 the upper balcony was closed due to fire codes of the day, bringing the seating capacity down to 1,260. Then in 1949 the theatre closed for a major renovation. When it reopened in 1950 it was still one of Toronto’s largest movie houses. But its size was its downfall and it was hard to fill, making it unprofitable for its owners.

In April 1956 the once-great theatre was demolished and remained a parking lot for the next 60 years, forgotten by all but a few like my friend Billie Mae who remembered its golden years.
Today the once-famous location—like so many of our historic sites—is being prepped for a massive condo project.