Movies come home for a night

Category: Phantom of the Opera News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 15, 2004 | Publication: The Toronto Star | Author: MEGAN OGILVIE - Entertainment Reporter
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Phantom Of The Opera returns film to old haunt

Winter Garden seen as perfect for Schumacher's flick

The lights dim and the murmuring crowd settles into silence. A black-and-white image flickers on the screen and the organ player strikes up a lively march. The movie has begun.

It's December 19, 1921, the heyday of the silent film era, and the Winter Garden Theatre is packed with people eager to see D.W. Griffith's silent movie Way Down East, starring the swarthy Richard Barthelmess. At 50 cents a head, business is booming.

But less than 10 years later, the Winter Garden closes, its last curtain falling in 1928. Talkies had swept into town, smothering both the silent film industry and the vaudeville act.

With its doors boarded up and its stage and screen abandoned, the Winter Garden was forgotten. It had become Toronto's phantom theatre.

But after decades of neglect, followed by years of restoration, the Winter Garden Theatre reopened its doors Dec. 19, 1989 for live performances. And tonight, it will again host moving pictures with the Canadian premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera, directed by Joel Schumacher.

Although this is the first time a movie has been screened in the theatre for more than 75 years, the Winter Garden hasn't forgotten about film.

The screen is larger, a digital video projector now sits in the projection booth, and surround-sound speakers have replaced the organ player, but the setting is still the same. Its tree-trunk pillars and leafy ceiling strung with coloured lanterns give the theatre a dressed-up air.

"We chose the Winter Garden because it is the Toronto theatre that most replicates the theatre used in Joel Schumacher's film," says Stephanie Brown, manager of promotions and publicity for Warner Bros. Canada. "What better way to celebrate the infamous musical being brought to the big screen than in one of Toronto's oldest and finest live theatres."

The Winter Garden opened its doors on Feb. 16, 1914. Resting on top of the Elgin Theatre, the 1,000-seater was the second half of Marcus Loews' flagship in his Canadian chain of vaudeville houses.

In the early part of the 20th century, halls like the Winter Garden provided entertainment to the everyman.

"Going to see vaudeville shows or films was entertainment for the masses," says Arnie Lappin, marketing and communications coordinator for the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. "On one hand it was a common thing (to do) because it cost a couple of cents. But coming to the Winter Garden was a real special treat because it was the nicer, the classier of the two theatres."

Now owned by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, the Winter Garden Theatre is the only pre-World War I "roof garden" theatre in the world. The foundation spent $29 million to restore the Elgin and Winter Garden in the mid-1980s and the Yonge St. theatres have re-entered the Toronto entertainment scene as top performance venues.

During the restoration of the Winter Garden, Lappin says people came forward with fond memories of attending performances there. To many it was more than a theatre; it was a place to propose marriage or to take a loved one the night before they went off to war.

"This was the night out and the place to go," he says.

Lappin doesn't know what silent movies were blockbuster hits at the Winter Garden. In his collection, there is a day-by-day listing of the vaudeville acts and silent films shown at both the Elgin and Winter Garden, but it tells little more than the titles and start dates of the performances.

"Generally in those days, they (films) didn't stay very long they changed the playbills quite often," says Lappin.

The Phantom also doesn't have a long run at the Winter Garden. It's being screened for one night only as a benefit gala for the Sick Kids Foundation and the Therapeutic Clown Program at Sick Kids.

And with three Golden Globe nominations including best motion picture for musical or comedy under its belt already, many look forward to the film version of the famed musical.

Gerard Butler, who plays the phantom in the film, will be on hand for the gala premiere and tickets are still available for the premiere at $125 per person. Call 416-813-7309.