Ed Mirvish Theatre Timeline
In the early 1900s, Toronto was known as the “Greatest Showtown in Canada”. Several major theatres, two opera houses and numerous silent movie houses were in operation, offering a variety of entertainments to its half million citizens. The one thing it lacked was a stop on the famous Pantages vaudeville tour circuit.
The Pantages vaudeville circuit, owned and operated by Alexander Pantages, was a chain of theatres (many bearing his name) that stretched across the west coast of Canada and the U.S. and formed a network of venues for his touring shows. Pantages was eager to expand eastward, but the eastern half of the continent was the domain of the Orpheum and Loew’s circuits, and it was difficult to find a way in.
Fortunately for him, a Torontonian named Nathan L. Nathanson had ambitions of his own. Nathanson, a successful motion picture distributor, and the founder of Famous Players Canadian Corporation (along with Hollywood mogul Adolf Zucker), had visions of creating his own powerful vaudeville circuit someday. The first step in his plan was to build the biggest, grandest vaudeville theatre in Canada - in his hometown, Toronto.
To build such a theatre required, as it does now, a staggering amount of money. Nevertheless, Nathanson gathered key investors, and in 1919 formed Eastern Theatres Limited, selling public shares with the goal of raising the $1 million needed to finance the building.
It also demanded a prime location. Yonge Street was the heart of the city, and thus very costly. To save money, Nathanson simply decided to build one street over on (residential, thus much less costly) Victoria Street, but to secure a key Yonge Street entrance with the purchase of a very narrow strip of land on Yonge connecting to the main site.
To be the grandest, it required the world’s pre-eminent theatre architect to design it: Thomas W. Lamb. Lamb was already well known in Toronto for creating the Loew’s Yonge St & Winter Garden Theatre (now the Elgin Winter Garden), just down the street. He was also the creator of the famous 5000-seat Capital Theatre in New York, the world’s largest theatre.
And, of course, the best vaudeville theatre in the country needed the best talent to fill its stage. A deal was struck: Nathanson would provide the theatre, Pantages would manage and supply acts from his circuit, and the famous Pantages name would appear on the marquee.
When the theatre opened in 1920, it exceeded the scope of Nathanson’s dream. Not only was it the grandest theatre in Canada, it was the second biggest in the world. And for the next hundred years, it would be reimagined, renamed and repurposed over and over again by new generations of visionaries who dreamed of bringing the day’s most popular form of entertainment to the people of Toronto.
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The Toronto Pantages opened its doors for the first time on August 28, 1920. For an admission fee of 45 cents, a sold-out audience of 3626 patrons enjoyed a glorious night of entertainment, including a special welcoming address by silent film stars Fred Montagu and Mary Harris Chaplin (wife of Charlie Chaplin). On the following Monday, a review in The Evening Telegram raved, “Never before has a Toronto theatre had such a gala opening as the Pantages on Saturday night.”
Throughout the 1920s the theatre operated as a combination vaudeville and motion picture house, with a programming policy that stated “The bills will include six unequalled vaudeville acts, features, photoplays, and an admirable selection of film comedies, news reels and scenics.” Its grandeur and beauty attracted not only audiences, but also many of the biggest and best performers of the day.
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The Pantages faced stiff competition on its opening night: the Canadian comedy team The Dumbells was appearing at the Grand Opera House; vaudeville shows were on the bill at Shea’s Hippodrome and the Strand; one of the biggest stage spectacles of the 1920s, Chu Chin Chow, was on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and silent films were screening at no less than fourteen movie houses. To compete with this array of entertainments, numerous ads were placed to help build excitement, including a full-page personal invitation from Alexander Pantages in the Toronto Star Weekly. Over 4000 people lined up that evening in hopes of being among the first to attend Toronto’s newest and grandest theatre: The Pantages.
Throughout the 1920s, the Pantages Theatre presented vaudeville shows that were part of the Pantages circuit, which dealt in “Small-Time” vaudeville. Typically, this entailed one big name act (as opposed to 2-3, reserved for “Big-Time”), along with several other acts and movies. The general format included orchestral selections, News of the Week on film, a movie feature, and six vaudeville acts. Audience participation was also encouraged, sometimes with guests being invited up on stage, or more commonly with ‘follow the bouncing ball’ lyrics projected on stage and everyone joining in the Sing-along with the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Shows ran continuously from 12 noon to 11pm, with 3-5 showings per day; admission was 25 cents for matinees, and 45 cents after 5pm. Audiences could enter at any time, and once inside, were allowed to stay as long as they wanted. However, to help deter stragglers, most shows ended with a “chaser” – a short film so awful it was intended to force people to leave and make room for a new paying audience.
By 1923, new developments in film technology influenced a shift in programming. Motion picture features now became the headliners, and vaudeville acts followed on the playbill.
In 1927, Eastern Theatres, Limited amalgamated with Famous Players Canadian Corporation, who became the new owners of the building.
The first feature-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released on October 6, 1927, ushering in a new era in motion pictures.
The Great Depression arrived on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, and lasted through the 1930s, meaning less money to spend, for both audience members and show producers. The introduction of “talkies” to the film industry, thanks to new sound technology capabilities, and access to radio and network broadcasting, shifted public interest to new forms of entertainment. The reign of vaudeville was coming to its end.
Alexander Pantages, unlike some of his competitors, hadn’t invested in or aligned with a major movie production company, and thus could not easily make the transition from live acts to film. However it was scandal that brought the Pantages Empire to an abrupt end. In 1929, Pantages was accused of attempted rape and sentenced to fifty years in prison. While the charges were overturned in a retrial two years later, his reputation was ruined, forcing the sale of all his theatres – at pennies on the dollar – to his arch rival, RKO Pictures.
By the end of the 1920s, the Pantages name was no longer a draw and was removed from almost every theatre marquee in North America. While the name would disappear in Toronto, at least for some time, Nathanson’s theatre survived. Now owned by Famous Players Canadian Corporation, all it needed was a rebrand.
The Imperial Theatre (formerly The Pantages) opened on March 15, 1930. Ads were placed heralding "A New Era of Greater Stage and Screen Features", and assuring audiences that "NO INCREASE IN PRICES" would accompany the change in name.
For the first number of years, programming continued to offer a mix of live entertainment and films, including vaudeville acts, now supplied by RKO’s Orpheum Circuit. As vaudeville faded and the motion picture industry grew, the Imperial gained new importance as the North American flagship movie theatre for Famous Players. The 3626-seat movie palace was the site of many film premieres, and also the platform for the introduction of many new inventions in film technology over the next 40 years.
In 1935, programming for the Imperial Theatre officially changed to an all-movie policy, as had all other Toronto vaudeville theatres, with the exception of Shea’s Hippodrome, which held out until the 1940s. As the Famous Players flagship, many innovations, such as Cinemascope and Stereosound, were introduced at the Imperial. The box seats were no longer used as sightlines were not optimal to view the screen. In place of them, the Orchestra pit was cemented over and additional seats were installed. The seating capacity of the Imperial Theatre became 3206.
The stage of the Imperial was used for the last time in 1969, for a special event screening of Mary Pickford’s silent film classic, “Pollyanna”. Her husband, Buddy Rogers, delivered an emotional introduction from the stage, and musical accompaniment was provided by Horace Lapp, using a specially installed electric organ.
The last commercial motion picture to play at the Imperial Theatre was “The Godfather”. It ran for an extraordinary 16 weeks, grossing over $800,000 and breaking the theatre’s own box office records. On September 4, 1972, the doors of the theatre closed. Once again, it was time to adapt and rebrand.
While the Imperial had enjoyed many successful years, it was no longer possible for theatres, especially one of this size, to make a profit showing only one movie. Famous Players hired the Toronto architect Mandel Sprachman to remodel Thomas Lamb’s single-screen movie palace into one building that housed six separate cinemas. To accomplish this, a great deal of the original interior design was destroyed. The $2 million remodeling project took nine months. With a combined capacity of 3127, the Imperial Six remained the country’s largest movie theatre. It also gained the distinction of being one of the world’s first multiplex theatres.
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The Imperial Six sat over three separate lots (thanks to Nathanson’s cost-saving scheme). Famous Players owned two parts of the building: the Yonge Street “link”, and half of the main building located on Victoria Street. The other portion, which included the largest of the six cinemas on the Balcony level, most of the public lobby space and the Victoria Street entrance, was leased from the Rakas family, property owners from the time of the original 1920 Pantages Theatre construction. When that lease came up on May 24, 1986, a dispute over the renewal terms arose and Cineplex Odeon stepped in, taking ownership of a key part of the building. Cineplex promptly erected a wall to block off the Yonge Street entrance, changed the locks on the Victoria Street doors, and effectively shut Famous Players (and their audiences) out.
In October 1986, Cineplex Odeon began to convert, and partially restore, their portion of the building into a single-screen movie cinema.
In December of 1987, Cineplex Odeon opened a single-screen, 900-seat movie theatre, and named it the Pantages in honor of the building’s early history. The refurbished theatre was equipped with a 70 mm screen, Dolby Stereo Sound and a LUCASFILM THX Sound System. Ads also promised guests “luxurious plush seating throughout”, and “REAL BUTTER served on fresh hot popcorn”.
Although there were significant limitations to what was possible, attempts were made during this phase of reconstruction towards historical restoration of the building.
A much publicized Grand Opening was planned for December 12, 1987, with “Wall Street” as the inaugural feature. However, Famous Players called in a complaint to the Ontario Fire Marshal mere hours before showtime, delaying the grand opening by a day.
In April of 1988, the bitter battle between Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players finally came to an end. Famous Players agreed to sell their portion of the building, but won a court injunction that prohibited it from being used as a movie theatre ever again. However, by this time Cineplex Odeon had already established a new live entertainment division, known as “Livent”, to produce and present stage productions in Toronto. With the whole building now under their control, they set a new plan to reconstruct and restore the theatre back to its original 1920 design. The project would cost $18 million, making it the largest private historical restoration of its kind in North America.
In June 1988, Livent secured the Canadian producing rights to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
The 900-seat Pantages movie theatre closed in August, after only nine months of operation.
By the fall of 1988, reconstruction work was underway. The project design team used Lamb's original drawings and existing photos to piece together a restoration plan. While great efforts were made to maintain as much of the original design as possible, it was also necessary to make some changes to meet the demands of modern-day productions and audiences. With a September 1989 date already set for the premiere of The Phantom of the Opera, the entire project, by necessity, would be completed in 15 months.
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The Pantages Theatre opened on September 20, 1989. It was the celebration of two much-anticipated events: the Canadian premiere of The Phantom of the Opera, and the restoration of a beloved Toronto theatre. Both received glowing reviews, including significant praise from the show’s famous director, Harold Prince: “I have directed The Phantom of the Opera in London’s historic Her Majesty’s Theatre, in New York’s Majestic Theatre, and in Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre. I believe that the Toronto Pantages will be the best of all of these theatres”.
The $18 million restoration was completed in fifteen months. The Phantom of the Opera would run for more than ten years. The improvements to the theatre meant “mega-musicals” like Phantom could be staged there. Once again, the building had been reinvented as a venue for the new big thing in popular entertainment.
The Canadian Premiere of The Phantom of the Opera was the first legitimate theatre production ever presented in the building’s history.
A few months after the opening of Phantom, Cineplex Odeon’s two principal executives, Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb, left the company. At the same time, they purchased Cineplex’s live entertainment division, naming it the Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, or Livent, thus establishing an independent company with no ties to Cineplex.
In 1998, “accounting irregularities” were discovered in Livent’s books and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Drabinsky and Gottlieb were ousted from the company (and criminally charged soon thereafter).
Livent continued to own and operate the Pantages until 1999 when the theatre was purchased, along with other Livent assets, by Clear Channel Communications.
In July, 2001, Clear Channel announced a pledge of support for the theatre from Canon Canada, Inc.
In recognition of this pledge, which guaranteed the continued life and health of an important, historic and beautiful showplace, the theatre was renamed The Canon Theatre.
At the same time, Clear Channel leased the building to David and Ed Mirvish, with a first option to purchase. The Mirvishes owned and operated two other theatres in Toronto - The Royal Alexandra and The Princess of Wales - and had also operated the venerable Old Vic in London, England, but this was their first major relationship with a corporation.
Management of the theatre was taken over by Mirvish Productions, providing a third Toronto venue for Canada’s largest theatrical production company. Over the next ten years, they would bring more than forty shows to the Canon Theatre stage, including numerous premieres and Canadian-cast productions of the latest, hottest musicals of the day.
Saturday Night Fever was the first production to play the newly named Canon Theatre.
© Mirvish Productions
The all-Canadian cast of The Producers included Seán Cullen as Bialystock and Michael Therriault as Bloom. Featuring Juan Chioran as Roger deBris, Paul O'Sullivan as Franz Liebkind, Sarah Cornell as Ulla and Brandon McGibbon as Carmen Ghia.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
- The Rat PackYear: 2004
- We Will Rock YouYear: 2007
The all-Canadian production of We Will Rock You played for 61 weeks as the Canon Theatre (2300 seats) and was seen by more than 700,000 people before transferring to the more intimate Panasonic Theatre (700 seats) in August of 2008. Panasonic Theatre is now the CAA Theatre.
The cast included: Yvan Pedneault (Galileo), Erica Peck, Breanne Arrigo (Scaramouche), Jack Langedijk (Pop), Alana Bridgewater (Killer Queen), Evan Buliung, Camilla Scott (Kashoggi), Sterling Jarvis (Britney), Suzie McNeil, Valerie Stanois (Oz), Danny Balkwill (Burton, Galileo).
© Mirvish Productions
In January, 2008, the Canon Theatre was purchased - along with other Clear Channel (now known as Live Nation) properties in the U.S. and Canada - by Key Brand Entertainment Ltd., a company established by British film and theatre producer John Gore.
Key Brand promptly put the building up for sale.
In August 2008, after seven years of successful management (and despite a court case contesting the sale) David Mirvish completed the purchase of the Canon Theatre, as well as that of another Key Brand property, the Panasonic Theatre. Summer of 2008 thus brought the portfolio of major Toronto venues under the Mirvish Productions banner to four.
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumYear: 2010
- Banana ShpeelYear: 2010
- Burn the FloorYear: 2010
- CatsYear: 2010
- Fiddler on the RoofYear: 2010
- GreaseYear: 2010
- How Now (Mrs.) Brown CowYear: 2010
- Little House on the PrairieYear: 2010
- Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles (2010)Year: 2010
- RentYear: 2010
- WickedYear: 2010
In December 2011 the successful ten year partnership between Mirvish Productions and Canon Canada came to an end. It was time, once again, for the building to receive a new name.
After looking for a suitable way to honour his late father, on December 6, 2011 David Mirvish officially renamed the iconic building The Ed Mirvish Theatre.
The event was celebrated by prominent members of the theatre world, as well as members from all levels of government, in recognition of the important contribution that Ed Mirvish had made to the arts. Notable guests included theatre stars Shirley Douglas, Louise Pitre, Michael Burgess, and Camilla Scott. Mayor Rob Ford proclaimed December 6 to be Ed Mirvish Theatre Day.
As it did when it was named The Pantages, the building now known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre carries the name of an impresario who brought the best and newest of live theatrical performance to the city.
"Honest" Ed Mirvish created a theatre renaissance in Toronto, starting in 1962 when he bought and renovated the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Ed was instrumental in making Toronto's theatre culture comparable in stature to Broadway and The West End. This video tribute was shown at the event renaming the theatre in his honour.
© Mirvish Productions
Danielle Wade, winner of CBC-TV's "Over The Rainbow", starred in the new Canadian production of London's popular The Wizard of Oz, featuring the classic movie score punctuated with new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
The cast featured Cedric Smith as The Wizard, Lisa Horner as The Wicked Witch, Jamie McKnight as The Scarecrow, Mike Jackson as The Tin Man, Lee MacDougall as The Cowardly Lion, Robin Evan Willis as Glinda the Good Witch and Charlotte Moore as Auntie Em.
© Mirvish Productions
- AladdinYear: 2013
Featuring an impressive ensemble of actor/musicians who play their own instruments onstage, ONCE tells the enchanting tale of a Dublin street musician who's about to give up on his dream when a beautiful young woman takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs
The Toronto engagement featured and all-Canadian cast featuring Ian Lake (Guy) and Trish Lindstrom (Girl) and included the best pre-show and intermission in the business - an onstage bar to grab a drink with the cast.
© Mirvish Productions
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s world premiere production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical. This all Canadian cast played the Ed Mirvish Theatre for a 26-week engagement in 2016.
“Revolting Children” - The company of MATILDA THE MUSICAL ©2016, Joan Marcus
© Mirvish Productions
One of the features of the theatre is the ability to convert capacities, from a full house (2,300 seats) to slightly less (1,800 seats) and finally the intimate Playhouse setting (1,400 seats). The Playhouse setting was introduced in 2016 with Gaslight and The Judas Kiss.
Cal MacAninch, Rupert Everett and Charlie Rowe in The Judas Kiss ©2016, Cylla von Tiedemann
Prior to its Toronto engagement, BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL played a limited run in London’s West End at the London Coliseum.
BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL features Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s Greatest Hits: Dead Ring for Love, Two out of Three Ain’t Bad, Paradise by the Dashboard Light, I’d do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), and Bat Out Of Hell.
© Mirvish Productions
- AnastasiaYear: 2019
- Jersey BoysYear: 2019
- Jukebox HeroYear: 2019
- Mandy Patinkin In Concert: DIARIESYear: 2019
- Opera Atelier IdomeneoYear: 2019
- The Band's VisitYear: 2019
- The Book Of Mormon (2019)Year: 2019
- The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson MusicalYear: 2019
- The Play That Goes WrongYear: 2019
- WaitressYear: 2019
The hottest ticket in Toronto, Hamilton, was scheduled to play the Ed Mirvish Theatre for a sold-out eight week run in spring 2020. It was stopped in its tracks on March 13th due to COVID-19, the global pandemic that forced the closure of live theatres in Toronto and around the world.
With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
The Company – HAMILTON National Tour(c) Joan Marcus 2018
As we await the reopening of our city, the Ed Mirvish Theatre will hold curtain for an extended intermission. However, we can be confident in knowing that she will be here, ready as ever, to welcome audiences again as soon as it is safe to do so. We can also look forward to a new and magical transformation of the building when the Canadian premiere of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child comes to the Ed Mirvish Theatre in 2021.