Saturday, October 4, 2008

Heritage: Revue Cinema

The Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Thousands of people pass it every day--on streetcars, walking, biking, and driving. Yet, as familiar a sight as the Revue Cinema at 400 Roncesvalles Avenue near Howard Park Avenue is to many people, its early history had been lost--until Jason Crowtz started his research.

Crowtz, a volunteer at the Revue, told the story of its origins at the monthly meeting of the Swansea Historical Society at the Swansea Town Hall on Wednesday. Relying primarily on contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews with the descendants of its original owners, he was able to piece together much of the history, but there's still an opportunity to learn more.

The first known showing of a motion picture in Toronto took place in 1896. By 1897, the first controversy had already erupted, as it was debated whether prize fights in boxing, banned as a live event in Toronto, could be shown on film (they were eventually allowed). By early 1911, there were 44 theaters operating in Toronto and the industry was flourishing and expanding rapidly.

In this environment, a company named the Suburban Amusement Company was formed in November 1911 to build a "theatorium" on Roncesvalles Avenue. (The term "theatorium" was the common term in Toronto for cinemas at the time.) While Crowtz was able to determine the five people behind the Suburban Amusement Company, how the men met is not readily evident, nor is it clear why they chose Roncesvalles as a location.

That location would prove quite consequential, however, as it was near Howard Park School. The High Park Ratepayers' Association found out about the permit and organized a protest. At the time, there was considerable concern about the impact of motion pictures on society, especially on youths. In fact, members of the Board of Education chose to oppose the proposed "theatorium" by calling for a mandatory distance of such establishments from schools--one proposal even called for a two thousand foot buffer that would have effectively banned movies within most of the city.

What was the concern? They were seen as creating an "unnatural desire for excitement" and creating habits of "spending money unwisely." There were health concerns, as people claimed to acquire "moving picture eye." Even cross-border cultural concerns entered into the debate, with one protester stating "We don't want any Yankee jingoism over here." Some things never change!

The formal protest was filed on 3-January-1912, and the controversy was covered in all the local papers. By the end of the month, though, it was ruled that the adjacent residents were not concerned about the business, and soon thereafter, the "theatorium" opened. While the original owners sold the Revue Cinema in 1936, it continued operating continuously until the end of June 2006. A community-wide effort to save the building bore fruit, and the theater re-opened in October 2007, operated by the not-for-profit Revue Film Society with volunteers like Jason Crowtz. The schedule of events at the Revue can be found on-line.

Jason Crowtz and Swansea Historical Society President Norm McLeod contemplating an audience question

Crowtz intends to make the original source material that he has used to piece together the Revnue's history available on the Internet. "You really only understand what happened when you put it all in the full context of what was happening at the time," he stated.

I couldn't agree more.

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