Fox celebrates a century of film
The Fox Theatre is celebrating a century of entertaining the Beach community.
Our favourite local movie house came to life on April 14, 1914, built by Arthur Brooks Webster.
Some neighbours had opposed the new development at Queen and Beech Avenue. Pious citizens looked down on moving picture palaces as vulgar dens of iniquity ever since Thomas Edison recorded The Kiss (with Whitby-born May Irwin) in 1896.
Did the Beach really need another movie house? The Coliseum (circa 1910), Peter Pan (circa 1911) and Family (circa 1913) theatres were just a few blocks west on Queen Street, but only the sly Fox has survived.
In spring 1914 optimism was in the air. It was the era of progress and Toronto was the city of industry.
The Royal Ontario Museum opened. Our hockey team, the Toronto Blueshirts, had just won the Stanley Cup.
Later that summer Babe Ruth would hit his very first professional home run over at Hanlan’s Point. The Argonauts would be Grey Cup champions.
No one could expect the world would soon be plunged into a terrible war.
That April a Toronto resident, James Duffy, won the Boston Marathon. By April of the next year the young runner would be buried in the fields of Flanders, Belgium, a simple white cross marking his grave. His last run was a desperate charge against German machine guns.
The Toronto Sunday World of April 12, 1914 reported that “The Theatre Without A Name” would be opening that Tuesday with a contest to find a name, and offering $25 in gold as a prize. “It is one of the finest equipped houses in the city and will be devoted exclusively to the presentation of the best in photo plays.”
Opening night would be a gala affair with “a splendid orchestra.”
The Pastime, a name chosen through a naming contest, soon became the Prince Edward, then was renamed The Fox in 1937.
In “Toronto the Good,” Sunday was a day of rest and church. That Sunday paper had to be printed and sold on Saturday night.
There were no films shown on Sunday. Ice skating was allowed under the Sunday “blue” laws, but don’t even think about going tobogganing or renting a horse. Even the playgrounds were padlocked.
Women couldn’t vote in federal or provincial elections. If you weren’t Protestant, forget about running for mayor of Toronto.
By 1914 the Beach was a growing ‘streetcar suburb,’ already annexed into the city in 1909. There was a new school on Williamson Road and a library opened on Queen Street. The Danforth was still a country road, but there were plans for a massive bridge over the Don Valley that would open up the East End to the rest of the city.
The movie business was changing. During 1913 and 1914 more than 50 theatres opened in Toronto. Grand ‘photo play’ houses were replacing storefront ‘nickelodeons.’
Vaudeville was dying out and motion pictures were no longer just a novelty – the first full-length films were being produced.
Screen actors were just beginning to be known by name. Charlie Chaplin made his first screen appearance as ‘the Tramp.’
Little Gladys Smith of Toronto (Mary Pickford) became the biggest star in the world, soon earning more than $100,000 a year.
The ‘talkies’ arrived at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1929. We think of the films of the early era as silent, but there was almost always musical accompaniment, sometimes a small ‘orchestra,’ but usually a lone piano player (or a player piano).
A young musician named Percy Faith landed his first job at age 12 playing along with the films at the Iola Flicker Theatre on the Danforth near Pape Avenue.
He was able to take the new streetcar line ‘out the Danforth’ over the Prince Edward Viaduct (also known as the Bloor viaduct), which was completed in 1918.
Faith went on to become an orchestra leader, and recorded some of the biggest instrumental hits of the pop era, including Theme from a Summer Place (1960). Only three performers have had the bestselling record of the year twice. You may not be familiar with Faith, but Elvis Presley or The Beatles might ring a bell.
By 1939 Faith had his own CBC Toronto radio show, and heard a young Ruth Lowe play a song she wrote after the death of her husband. That sad song would capture the mood of a sentimental era.
Sung by Frank Sinatra, I’ll Never Smile Again was on the minds of soldiers in Normandy and their loved ones back home in Canada.
I’ll never smile again
Until I smile at you
I’ll never laugh again
What good would it do?
In the 1940s going to ‘the pictures’ was more popular than ever, as people flocked to theatres like the Fox to escape the troubles of another world war.
The Fox name has stayed the same while ownership has changed a number of times, with the current owners being Andy Willick and Daniel Demois.
The theatre regularly hosts small-scale festivals, alongside its regular programming of second-run, independent and foreign films.
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