THEATRE

Pleasure palaces

Two vaudeville houses rekindle their magic

John Bemrose January 8 1990
THEATRE

Pleasure palaces

Two vaudeville houses rekindle their magic

John Bemrose January 8 1990

Pleasure palaces

THEATRE

Two vaudeville houses rekindle their magic

In its headlong pursuit of growth, Toronto has often dealt brutally with its past. Many historic buildings have fallen to the wrecker’s ball, to be replaced by something bigger, starker and, the developers hope, more profitable. But now, the three levels of government, with help from the private sector, have made partial amends with the reopening of the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres, lavishly restored at a cost of $29 million.

It began eight years ago when the Ontario government, realizing the value of the derelict, 75-year-old former vaudeville houses, purchased them from Famous Players Corp. Since then, in order to bring the Elgin and Winter Garden to their original state of Edwardian glitter, the federal and provincial governments contributed $15 million and the city of Toronto $7 million towards renovations, with corporations, historical organizations and individuals kicking in $7 million ($4 million of which is still being raised). Work was finished on the elegant, ground-level Elgin Theatre in time for the 1985 opening of Cats. And now, with the

completion of the even more ornate Winter Garden upstairs from the Elgin, Torontonians and visitors again have access to two impressive and lushly appointed theatres that evoke the pretensions of another era. Indeed, crowds filing in last month to watch the openings of The Wizard of Oz in the Elgin and the musicals Side by Side by Sondheim and The Vaudeville Show in the Winter Garden could almost catch the echo of audiences past, who thrilled to performances by George Bums and Gracie Allen and other vaudevillians.

The restoration was a gargantuan effort. Gilding throughout the theatres required more than 300,000 wafer-thin sheets of aluminum leaf—an amount of foil that would normally be imported into Canada over a 16-year period. And more than 10,000 square feet of surfaces throughout the theatres were hand-painted to resemble marble. But the Elgin-Winter Garden complex is not the only Toronto theatrical establishment to have made a grand comeback in 1989. Last autumn, movie and theatre mogul Garth Drabinsky reopened the nearby Pan-

tages theatre with the musical The Phantom of the Opera. The Pantages, an ornately gilded vaudeville theatre that first opened in 1920, had become a movie house, called the Imperial Theatre, until Drabinsky acquired the building.

Along with retailer Ed Mirvish’s 83-year-old Royal Alexandra Theatre, where Les Misérables is now in its 10th month, the reopenings give Toronto four historic theatres capable of handling large shows. They are now in fierce competition for audiences and, to some extent, shows, among themselves and with the city’s huge, 3,167-seat O’Keefe Centre and with roughly two dozen smaller theatres. In fact, ticket sales for the three current shows have been sluggish. Vaudeville, which played only in matinees, is to close on Jan. 6, while Side by Side by Sondheim runs until March 3 and The Wizard of Oz until March 31. Theatrical producers Marlene Smith and Ernest Rubenstein, partners in WCG Facility Management Corp., which runs the complex, say that their strategy for subsequent bookings is to remain as close to the middle of the mainstream as possible. “Some of the smaller theatres try to create the public taste, but we try to react to it,” said Rubenstein. He added, laughing, “In today’s market that means doing family-motherhood type shows where you can’t get in trouble.”

In gearing their program to mass appeal, the partners have tradition on their side. After the U.S.-based Loew’s theatre chain completed construction of the Elgin and Winter Garden on the eve of the First World War—at a cost of $500,000—the theatres featured mostly vaudeville, then the most popular form of entertainment in North America. In a typical show, famous headliners, including Irving Ber-

lin and Sophie Tucker, alternated with an endless stream of novelty acts, including “Wanda, the seal with the human brain” and “Dezzo Ritter, the man who wrestles with himself.” But tastes changed with the arrival of the “talkies.” And in the late 1920s, the lower theatre became a movie house. Then, in 1927, the Winter Garden, with its intricate interior of painted flowers and real leaves dangling from the ceiling, closed its doors.

By the late 1970s, the Elgin had fallen on hard times, playing B-movies. Physically deteriorating, it finally closed in 1981. But the Ontario Heritage Foundation, an agency of the provincial government’s ministry of culture and communications, came to the rescue. Architectural technologist Janis Barlow was hired by the foundation to oversee the restoration. Said Barlow: “The place could very easily have been torn down or subdivided into small cinemas. Fortunately, the Ontario Heritage Foundation saw its value. It was a real act of vision.”

In 1984, the foundation gave theatre producer Smith, Rubenstein and their then-partner, Tina Vanderheyden, the right to mount Cats in the Elgin. Restoration work on the Elgin began that year, and by the time the show opened in 1985, the theatre had been upgraded and the lobby of the complex had been restored. Restoration of the Elgin continued after Cats closed in 1987. In some places, workers had to strip away as many as 27 layers of paint to get to the original finishes of bright pastel colors. But they carried out the restoration so meticulously that they even preserved the mistakes of the original. In a series of plaques

commemorating great playwrights and composers, the name Liszt is still misspelled as “Lizt,” as it was by the original workmen.

While Cats ran downstairs, restoration began seven flights above at the Winter Garden. According to Barlow, one of the biggest problems was to find a way to clean the elaborate wall murals without dissolving their waterbased paint. “Our chief restorer, David Hannivan, hit on the solution of using bread dough,” Barlow said. “When you roll lumps of dough over the walls, it picks up the grime and leaves the paint behind. One of the biggest bills we had to pay was for 2,000 lb. of flour.” The restoration crew also replaced the crumbling, dirtblackened, preserved beech leaves that formed a decorative canopy hanging from the ceiling of the theatre with 12,000 new leaves, soaked in glycerine and fire-proofed.

Smith and Rubenstein, whom the Ontario Heritage Foundation chose in 1988 to run the complex, settled on Side by Side by Sondheim to open the 980-seat Winter Garden. The lighthearted show features a medley of songs from such Stephen Sondheim shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Company. Three singers—American Davis Gaines and Canadians Kathy Michael McGlynn and Karen K. Edissi—handle all the parts. The performers seem entirely too theatrical at first. But, as they settle into their roles, they produce some winning scenes. Sondheim often derives great humor from the tension in male-female relations, and such numbers as Getting Married Today, from Company, are laced with acidic candor. Other songs, such as

Edissi’s and McGlynn’s teasing duet, Can that Boy Foxtrot, from Follies, are sizzling examples of Sondheim’s patented raunchiness.

Meanwhile, downstairs, The Wizard of Oz has taken over the 1,531-seat Elgin, and the predominantly Canadian production puts audiences over the rainbow. Karen Egan is intense and convincing as Dorothy, the Kansas farm girl who is abducted by a tornado and set down in a fantasy land. She may not sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow as well as Judy Garland did, but she brings just the right mix of anxiety and charm to her role.

Some of the shows scheduled to follow represent programming triumphs for Smith and Rubenstein. In April, Jerry Stemer’s recent off-Broadway hit, Other People’s Money, will have its Canadian première at the Elgin. Then, in June, London’s acclaimed Renaissance Theatre Company will present King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the theatre. The head of the company is Kenneth Branagh, director and star of the current, acclaimed film version of Henry v. As part of Smith’s and Rubenstein’s commitment to 60-per-cent Canadian productions, the 1977 Canadian musical The Legend of the Dumbells will open at the Winter Garden in April. For now, the two theatres are offering productions in keeping with their populist, song-and-dance tradition. Like The Wizard of Oz, the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres are likely to go on enchanting for a long time to come.

JOHN BEMROSE

PAMELA YOUNG