285 spadina ave

The hidden history of this downtown Toronto building goes back 100 years

At first glance, the building that houses the Rexall Drugstore at the corner of Dundas St. and Spadina Ave. in Toronto's Chinatown neighbourhood looks relatively ordinary, blending in with the other brown buildings that surround it. 

In reality, though, the structure at 285 Spadina Ave. has a rich history, and it dates back an entire century. 

According to a detailed feature from Heritage Toronto, the building originally housed the first purpose-built Yiddish-language theatre in Canada, and it opened 100 years ago. 

Called the Standard Theatre, it contained 1,500 seats and featured performances from many well-known Yiddish actors from both here and abroad. Theatre-goers could visit the venue to see Russian plays, Shakespearean acts and works from Jewish playwrights, and they could also attend leftist political rallies which were sometimes held there.

The building was designed by architect John MacNee Jeffrey in the Art Deco style, and it's believed that Jeffrey also had help from Jewish architect Benjamin Brown.

"The edifice is unqualifiedly one of the finest of its class in North America and is a monument to Jewish enterprise in the city," wrote the Canadian Jewish Review of the building on Sept. 8, 1922, according to Heritage Toronto.

The venue later became a cinema in the 1930s before eventually transforming into a burlesque venue in the 1960s, attracting shows from well-known bands including Rush and The Stooges, and the area's Chinese community also used it to hold performances.

Its interior changed again in 1975, when it was renovated to become a theatre showing Mandarin and Cantonese action and kung fu movies, and the cinema part of the building remained open until 1994.

The upstairs auditorium, where countless performances in many different languages delighted audiences for decades, has yet to be restored, but a new Heritage Toronto plaque adorns the outside of the building to ensure passersby are aware of the colourful, unexpected history of this long-standing edifice.

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