As Toronto’s entertainment tastes rapidly changed over the 20th century, one venue managed to prevail by staying on top of the trends. Originally built for raucous vaudeville performances in the late 1920s, the 86-year-old Runnymede Theatre has alternately been reinvented as a cinema, bingo hall, a Chapters bookstore, and, soon, a Shoppers Drug Mart.
Decades before Toronto was dubbed “Hollywood North,” the city acted as another major show business hub. Vaudeville, that orgiastic mix of music, comedy, theatre, magic, and burlesque, was easily the city’s most popular form of entertainment, and many famous performers called Hogtown home. Etobicoke’s own O’Connor Sisters were one of the most in-demand groups in the business, singing and dancing alongside Buster Keaton and Red Skelton to music personally arranged for them by an early-career George Gershwin.
But by the late 1920s, vaudeville’s appeal was already showing signs of waning. Audiences were beginning to dwindle, and the explosive arrival of “talkie” cinema sounded the art form’s death knell. Cut to the entrance of the Runnymede Theatre, a 1,400 seat venue that wisely straddled the lines between traditional performance hall and cinema. When it opened its doors on June 2, 1927, the Runnymede presented a double-bill of silent movies alongside a live vaudeville stage act.
Designed by Alfred Chapman (the acclaimed architect responsible for both the ROM and the Palais Royale), the Runnymede was dubbed “Canada’s Theatre Beautiful” for its elegant take on the Atmospheric style. Rejecting the ornate ceilings and chandeliers of traditional auditoriums, the new Atmospheric theatres featured large-scale murals of the night sky to give audience members the illusion they were outside. Shadows of airplanes were even painted on the ceiling, until the onset of World War II made them too frightening for audiences. Charmingly, crewmembers were reminded to “turn out the stars and shut off the clouds before leaving,” a reference to the low-wattage lights that were used to simulate the twinkling stars.
The Runnymede’s unique design brought it instant popularity, and lineups were common as crowds raced to catch first-run movies before they left the theatres. Depression-era audiences were especially thrilled with the temporary escape the Runnymede provided. To accommodate them all, the theatre was renovated near the end of the 1930s to increase its capacity to 1,500 seats.
The Runnymede’s renown continued to swell as it entered the 1940s. This was the age of the “nabes”—the local movie theatres that acted as the entertainment hubs of their communities. Going to the movies was a weekly (or more) pursuit, and a night at the Runnymede was the activity of choice for residents of Bloor West Village.
But cinema’s domination was short-lived; television arrived with a bang in the late 1940s, and movie theatre attendance quickly plummeted. From 1948 to 1952, weekly moviegoers in the United States dropped from 90 million to 51 million. The decline was felt in Toronto, as many of the city’s old cinemas didn’t survive the post-television landscape, and played their last picture shows to sparse audiences before being quickly converted to apartment buildings and mini-malls.
Thankfully, the Runnymede escaped this euphemistically named period of “urban renewal” by adapting to its clientele’s changing interests. In order to capitalize on a spike in the popularity of bingo, in the early 1970s the Runnymede stopped its reels and switched over to a full-time bingo venue. But the trend didn’t survive the decade, and the theatre rose again, reopening in 1980 as a two-screen, “twinned” venue. Bloor West Village had a nabe once more.
Over the next 20 years, the Runnymede survived the introduction of VHS, DVDs, and the multiplex, only to be felled by its own neighbourhood. Once largely residential, Bloor West Village’s transformation into a ritzy commercial promenade caused the theatre’s rent to skyrocket, hitting $35,000 a month before its lessees decided to throw in the towel in 1999.
Following a 19-month search to locate a replacement tenant, Chapters stepped forward as the only company willing to preserve the Runnymede’s impressive facade. Over 1,600 area residents signed a petition to protest the bookseller’s arrival, but development quickly moved forward. In the end, even the most vocal protestor was appeased by Chapters’ efforts: spending over $3.5 million to restore and renovate the old theatre back to its former glory.
The bookstore has often been lauded as one of the most beautiful in the world, but after a 15-year run, it was recently announced that Chapters would be moving out to make way for a Shoppers Drug Mart sometime in 2014.
When the Runnymede screened its final film, the fluffy Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan rom-com You’ve Got Mail, on February 28, 1999, the choice wasn’t accidental: Tom Hanks’ character plays the owner of a big-box bookstore chain that forces Meg Ryan’s mom-and-pop bookshop out of business.