Monday, May 7, 2012

Goodbye, Cumberland

Sign over the entrance to the Cumberland Four Cinemas after the final show; nice Bladerunner reference!

The Cumberland Four Cinemas in Yorkville showed their last movie yesterday (fittingly, it was a film entitled Footnote). According to a Cineplex spokesperson, the property owner has plans to "redevelop" the site. I guess they want to fill the "gap" in the multi-million-dollar condo market in Toronto. Who knows? It's quite a discomfiting feeling, though, to have attended the opening of a brand-new movie house as an adult and have that same movie house close in my lifetime. I don't care for it much at all.

(Disclaimer: the particulars of this story proved very hard to research so much of it relies on my increasingly suspect memory. If you find any glaring errors, please let me know.)

The Cumberland Four Cinemas
The Cumberland Theatre opened in July of 1981 for the purpose of being the new "flagship theatre" for the Famous Players theatre chain, the head offices of which were upstairs in the Air Canada tower (all long gone now). There have been a few pieces written about the closing of the Cumberland in the past few days; most of them, sadly, are only a few lines long as another downtown cinema passes into oblivion. The one that prompted me to write this blog post, however, was this first-person account written by the Star's Cathal Kelly, which I absolutely hated.

From the story in the Star:
"My favourite memories are the fist fights [an inauspicious start, to be sure]....I had two, both with patrons....As a rule, I assaulted very few of our customers....Manon of the Spring, which was a terrible film [I really liked that movie]....Movie theatres are, as a rule, staffed largely by thieves...."
It amused me that the author said he "grew up" at the Cumberland; I would suggest he hasn't really grown up at all. "Staffed largely by thieves"? I imagine he would know better than anyone, since he says he "hired all [his] best pals there". I had a rather different experience in my days working for Famous Players.

The Uptown Theatre mid-'70s
I worked as a lad at the Uptown Theatre at Yonge & Bloor. At various times in my career there I was an usher, doorman, ticket-taker, candy person, assistant manager and porter (overnight maintenance guy). I recently came across a pay stub from those days where I had managed to convince the head manager to let me cover for the existing porter while he was on holidays in addition to working regular shifts as an usher and candy person. I had to promise I wouldn't ask for overtime pay (they simply wouldn't pay me more than minimum wage for the job) and as a result that stub lists 127 hours of work for one week. Yes, that's right: out of 168 hours that week I was working for 127 of them. Amazing what the energy and innocence of youth can do.

Like Cathal Kelly, I brought several of my friends on board at the Uptown (having also been brought there by a friend myself). Most shifts truly did not feel like work with so many of my "gang" alongside of me and it was always my preference to take a closing shift there (usually finishing off around 12:30 in those days) and racing down Yonge to a little restaurant for a pint or two before last call, then biking home to my buddy's house (I was boarding with his family) in Riverdale.

The magnificent "Uptown 1"
The Uptown 1 was a magnificent place to watch a movie (it was the balcony and mezzanine of the original Loew's vaudeville house): 922 seats all positioned perfectly to see the screen. Downstairs, the #2 and 3 theatres were more boxy and sterile; coming in and seeing your name assigned to the "downstairs" as sometimes had to happen on busy nights was akin to losing the lottery. And, of course, the Uptown Backstage had two more, smaller theatres that catered to the "artsy" crowd with such movies as La Cage Aux Folles and Best Boy while I was working there. There was a doorway to the Backstage cinemas behind the screen of theatre 2 and, as the changing rooms were located above the Backstage lobby, Uptown 2's right-hand aisle witnessed a fairly steady parade of traffic throughout the evening. Looking back, this may not have been the best set-up for a movie house.

We wore absolutely hideous powder-blue polyester jackets (which were supplied, but that meant that you had to share them with other smelly teen boys), black pants and black bow ties (which we had to supply ourselves). We also needed to bring our own flashlights to guide people to their seats once the lights went down and also to shine into the eyes of patrons who insisted on smoking in the theatres. (This actually was some of the most fun to be had on the job; standing surreptitiously in the theatre, trying to spot a wisp of smoke rising up in front of the projector's beam and nabbing these "heinous criminals" was a pretty cool activity for a nerdy 17-year-old, let me tell you.)

When the Cumberland Theatres were about to be opened, the call went out to the neighbouring theatres (Uptown, University, Towne, New York) for experienced ushers to handle the crush of opening night, with all the dignitaries that sort of evening would attract. Of course I jumped at the chance and found myself at the Opening Gala, in my brand-new (and not smelly) caramel-coloured blazer and brown bow tie (supplied!)...and white gloves. We felt so freakishly important that evening I can't even adequately describe it. I mainly worked line-ups in the lobby and I know I saw a few minor "celebrities" that evening but I can't for the life of me remember a single one of them... except the very imposing and self-important manager of my own theatre who, incredibly, came over to me and shook my hand for the "exceptional job" I was doing. He was a very stern man; I almost fainted at that compliment.

My impressions of that night and my first viewing of the Cumberland Theatre could mainly be summed up in two words: big deal. Yes, the place was flashy and new; there were lots of glittering lights, a newly-organized snack bar (well, actually two of them); comfy new seats in the theatres; a funky arrangement of staircases and mid-way lobbies; lovely was all very lush and luxurious. But the theatres themselves just did not impress me - and really, never did, although I will commend them for their part in helping to keep the "alternative" and indie cinema scene alive in Toronto (along with, mainly, the old Carlton Cinema before its recent rebirth as the first-run hole, the "Magic Lantern Theatres").

The University Theatre late in its life
Perhaps part of my "so what" attitude could be attributed to the announcement by Famous Players shortly before the Cumberland opened of their intentions to raze the University Theatre, located basically back-to-back with the new Cumberland Theatre, facing Bloor Street. A huge cry went up to save the University Theatre and the plans were put off....until 1986. The main facade was left up as a compromise but it was a gateway to nothing until many years later. Now it fronts a Pottery Barn. Good times.

As a kid, the University was my favourite theatre of all. All of the blockbusters were shown there and some of them stayed for years once they arrived. I vividly recall a billboard for 2001: A Space Odyssey on the back wall of the University (facing Cumberland, not far from the site of the Cumberland Four) proclaiming "Now in its Third Smash Year!". There weren't a lot of places in Toronto that could handle the giant 70mm prints; the University seemed to get the best of these films. Other than 2001... I can remember seeing Jesus Christ, Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof and even Jonathan Livingston Seagull there. I think the last movie I ever saw at the University was Ladyhawke, but I'm not absolutely certain of that. As a rabid moviegoer, I was devastated when it closed its doors forever.

The Eglinton Theatre in 1947
I am, however, 100% certain of the last movie I ever saw at the glorious, art deco masterpiece that was the Eglinton Theatre. While the University was my favourite theatre as a youth, as an adult I visited the Eglinton as often as I possibly could to revel in the sheer architectural delight of the venue. To enter the Eglinton Theatre was to be transported back to the golden age of movie houses. Everything about the inside of this magnificent structure was elegant - right down to the hanging washroom signs, softly lit from within. Even if the movie was awful I never felt cheated by an evening at the Eglinton Theatre and I miss it more than all of them.

I do agree with one paragraph from Cathal Kelly's piece that was the impetus for this homage to the lost cinemas:
The movies went by in a blur. We only half-watched most of them. The fascinating thing is watching people watch movies, which is what ushers do. Try it some time. It’s hypnotic and for some strange reason, deeply soothing.
That was also my favourite part of the job and this activity was referenced in my absolute favourite movie of all time, Amélie (or, Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain). Ms. Poulain lists as one of her "likes" "looking back at people's faces in the dark" (from the English subtitle translation). It's even more fun when you can stand close to the front and off to the side, unobtrusively, and see how people are enraptured by what's showing on the screen. A big highlight of most of my evenings at the Uptown.

Oh, by the way: the last movie I ever saw at the Eglinton? The very same Amélie. Sarah and I attended opening night of that terrific film in November of 2001 (just a couple of months after it wowed people at the Film Festival). My favourite movie of all time, my favourite theatre of all time, my favourite gal of all time. An evening made in heaven.


  1. Isn't sad that movie theatres in general seem to be slipping away into the past? It is a strange, interesting time we live in, when home media is eclipsing public spectacles of all kinds. This must have been a little bit like how people felt when records and movies started to take over live music and live theatre. Mind you, those still exist, so perhaps movie houses will too.

    I too, have very fond memories of Amelie in the beautiful Elginton Theatre with my favourite guy! ;)

    1. In my case, there's a little more to it - although it can still be attributed to the home theatre rise. I find it's almost impossible to be able to sit through a movie at the theatre these days without someone in the audience acting like they're in their own living room, talking and texting and just generally being rude. For $10 a pop the experience shouldn't be *worse* than it is at home.

      But I really miss the beautiful single-screen houses. You really felt like you were doing something special when you visited one of those.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Let me get nostalgic here....Nat Rodney, Fern Marleau....time/memory and names fade. Didn't your brother work at the Uptown also?


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