A Century @ 506 Bloor

Originally published in Fine Cut Magazine, May 2014

If you had walked through the doors at 506 Bloor St. W. in Toronto 100 years ago you could sit down for a unique entertainment experience. Granted, what once cost a few dimes now runs a few dollars, but what is astonishing is that the theatre has survived. The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, as we know it now, has undergone six name changes, screened hit documentaries, cult classics, blaxploitation films, pornography and more for better than 100 years.

Over the past century, dozens of competing theatres have opened and closed their doors across Toronto but the Bloor Cinema has stood strong against all challenges. A number of factors have contributed to this longevity but the one that stands out most is the Bloor Cinema’s identity in the neighbourhood as “our theatre.”

Paul Moore is a professor of communication and culture at Ryerson University and an historian of Canadian movie theatres and film culture. Moore said the Bloor Cinema is “like a community theatre but its community isn’t just the neighbourhood … It’s a community theatre for the entire downtown.”

The theatre, however, didn’t always have such strong ties to downtown Toronto. When its doors first opened as the Madison Theatre in 1913, the area around Bloor and Bathurst Streets was considered suburbia.

The theatre wasn’t always alone in its neighbourhood, either. Silent Toronto lists two other film houses that were founded within a few years of the Bloor opening its doors within a stone’s throw of the Madison.

Three years prior to the Madison, the King George Theatre opened at 568 Bloor St. W. It closed its doors in 1986. Additionally, the Bloor Theatre operated from 1919 to 1957 and is now home to Lee’s Palace, a music venue located at 529 Bloor St. W. Throughout all this, the Madison-cum-Bloor has endured while the world of theatres around it crumbled.

Moore says the experience of seeing a show at the Madison was unlike anything else outside the Yonge Street strip, home to dozens of picture palaces. It was possibly the largest theatre beyond the downtown borders, Moore said.

“It was particularly unique in offering a movie palace experience outside of downtown,” he said.

One feature the Bloor operators are proud of is the unique glass wall behind the floor seats, permitting those in the lobby a view of the auditorium. Photo by Willy Phan.
One feature the Bloor operators are proud of is the unique glass wall behind the floor seats, permitting those in the lobby a view of the auditorium. Photo by Willy Phan.

The Madison was sold to a new operator in 1940, 20th Century Theatres. They promptly closed the place and tore out and rebuilt everything but the side walls. It was the largest renovation the theatre has ever seen and it came at a time when movie theatres were everywhere in Toronto.

“You could run from Parkdale all the way over to the Beaches and not go more than a few blocks without running into a movie theatre,” Moore said, describing theatres as “the entertainment equivalent of corner stores.”

It was at this time the Bloor was restructured and renamed the Midtown.

Local Film Cultures is a research project by University of Toronto film students. It explores Toronto’s unique film cultures in order to account for and understand them. One student, Amanda Clarke, wrote for the research project that “it was the Midtown that managed to obtain the community support that still exists in its current incarnation as the Bloor. The Midtown made the theatre a neighbourhood staple, a place that was familiar and comfortable to visit, while at the same time being ‘the place to be’.”

By 1973, however, second-run programming wasn’t providing enough for the theatre to survive. Eric Veillette, editor of the film blog Silent Toronto, wrote that the theatre (which in 1966 had changed its name to the Capri) “ended a week-long run of The Soul of Nigger Charlieand reinvented itself as the Eden the following day” as a home for soft-core pornography. The concept proved profitable, Moore said, particularly with the young, affluent University of Toronto community mere blocks away.

Pornography helped the theatre survive until 1979 when its brand was once again rebuilt, finally adopting the Bloor moniker it has held to this day. In 1980 it reverted to an art-house theatre again when it was bought by Carm Bordonaro and his partners.

In the years prior to its time in Bordonaro’s hands, location was a major factor in the Bloor’s survival.

Moore said that its location at Bloor and Bathurst was neither uptown nor downtown, making it a crossroads for moviegoers.

“The idea of (the theatre) at the crossroads really resonated with that idea of the movies being something that everyone was invited to,” said Moore.

Moore thinks that the Bloor’s location allowed it to remain viable as a cinema because its real estate wasn’t more valuable than its role as a cinema.

Indeed, as Moore said, profit hasn’t necessarily been a driving factor in the decision whether to keep the Bloor open, as a cinema or something else, or to close it outright.

The Bloor was most valuable to its neighbourhood and community as a cinema and its owners knew it. That is why when the Bloor was struggling to make ends meet in 2011, the Bordonaros held out to find the perfect buyer, Chris McDonald said. He is, in fact, the president of that buyer – Hot Docs.

The entire interior of the Bloor was remade with an eye to the century-long history of the theatre. Photo by Willy Phan.
The entire interior of the Bloor was remade with an eye to the century-long history of the theatre. Photo by Willy Phan.

McDonald and his partners at Blue Ice Group closed the Bloor for months as it underwent another major renovation. When it reopened in March 2012 it did so with its sixth and thus-far final name, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

The Bloor had once again been reinvented in look and concept.

Second-run films weren’t working any longer, McDonald said. The community it had relied upon for decades couldn’t support it any more. So they found a new one: devoting the majority of their programming to the national and international documentaries that have made Hot Docs one of the world’s pre-eminent documentary festivals.

But, the Bloor didn’t forget its old community, the one that kept the theatre running for so many years.

“We still have some fiction programming,” McDonald said. It still puts on monthly showings, as it has for years, of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with live actors.

So Hot Docs has maintained ties to the theatre’s past community, while at the same time forging a new and daring future.

“The very idea of the documentary cinema is such a novelty and experiment,” Moore said. And it’s an experiment that is working. The theatre cannot afford to lose money, McDonald said, “and I’m happy to say that it (hasn’t)…. Our hope is that we’re there for the next 100 years.”

An admirable dream. Given the Bloor’s staying power, it would be a safe bet the theatre will still be standing a century from now. What form it will have taken, however, is entirely another question.

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