toronto runnymede theatre

How the Runnymede Theatre became the nicest drug store in Toronto

The crowd outside the Runnymede Theatre on opening night was a sight to behold. Thousands of people in the warmth of an early summer evening packed the sidewalk for a chance to claim one of the 1,550 seats inside the brand new, state-of-the-art movie house.

Strings of coloured lights and bunting were delicately arranged around the main entrance, lending the scene an air of festivity. Most went away disappointed, unable to secure a ticket.

Inside, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario William Donald Ross, his wife, and part owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jack Bickell, were among the dignitaries.

More than a thousand lucky locals watched a specially-produced three-minute film about the theatre, "The Fire Brigade," a 1926 movie about an Irish firefighter in love with a woman whose father, a wealthy contractor, cuts corners on fire safety, and "Rookies," a comedy about two servicemen in world war one with eyes for the same woman.

Soprano soloist Miss Thelma Bateman serenaded the crowd, and Harvey Doney, baritone, sang "The Road to Mandalay."

toronto runnymede theatre

In 1927, the Runnymede was considered one of the finest movie houses of its day. The building was designed by Alfred Chapman, the architect responsible for the original Royal Ontario Museum and the Palais Royale at the CNE, in the "Atmospheric" style.

The ceiling of the auditorium was covered in painted clouds and dotted with tiny lightbulbs that mimicked the night sky and lent the room an air of spaciousness.

As Kate Fane wrote for The Grid, "crew members were reminded to 'turn out the stars and shut off the clouds before leaving.'"

While primarily a movie house, the Runnymede doubled as a live performance venue and gathering space for the Bloor West neighbourhood. Runnymede United Church celebrated Canada's Diamond Jubilee there later in 1927 with a special service.

Four years later, evangelist W. J. Hurdon told to a startled crowd that the second coming of Christ would occur with the turn of the millennium, ending the world.

Chapters runnymede

It wasn't all fire and brimstone, however. In 1949, about 1,000 children viewed a "sex-free, crime-free, and horror-free" movie, "Little Old New York," as part of a program organized by the Children's Film Library Committee, a national body tasked with selecting movies suitable for kids in the days before ratings kept youngsters away from gore, vice, and sex.

The committee watched to see how the kids "wiggled" during the show. Too much fidgeting would mean the movie was boring, the Globe and Mail explained. Luckily, the film passed the test and was added to the list of films the CFLC deemed suitable for young, impressionable minds.

With the arrival of television in the 1950s, neighbourhood theatres like the Runnymede began to struggle as audience numbers plummeted; by the 1970s the owners had converted the venerable old movie house into a bingo hall, eschewing pictures altogether.

The flirtation with casual gambling didn't last, however, and by the 1980s the Runnymede was back, this time as a twin theatre.

toronto runnymede theatre

As it turned out, the bombastic evangelist who predicted the end of the world in 1931 was in one tiny way right. In 1999, 10 months before the turn of the century, the Runnymede closed for the last time at the end of a final screening of You've Got Mail.

After several years as a Chapters book store, the Runnymede re-opened this month as a Shoppers Drug Mart. Considering Shoppers' cookie cutter store designs are often tantamount to crimes against urbanism, this one doesn't look half bad.

Sadly, the twinkling night sky ceiling is long gone.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Toronto Archives, Silent Toronto, Eddie F/blogTO Flickr pool, Shoppers Drug Mart.

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