by Douglas Rodger
as written in 1998

No form of art or entertainment is so ephemeral as a live performance. This is as true today with all the technology at our command as it was in the distant past. When the curtain comes down on a performance, the moment has passed forever. For the artists involved there is at least the passing mention in a review or the billing on a poster to remind us of their place in history. For those who labour backstage however, there is scarcely a word left behind to mark their contribution. Is it any wonder that trying to reconstruct the history of IATSE Local 58 over the last century is like chasing shadows? Older than living memory and with only a few volumes of the recorded minutes of union meetings to tell us their story, the formative years of this proud union are difficult to trace. It has been documented that the first theatre in Toronto opened in 1839. The Theatre Royal was a converted carpentry shop 30 feet by 60, located on the Northeast corner of York and King Street behind the Shakespeare Hotel. As the years passed, it was followed by the Town Hall, The Royal Lyceum, The Temperance Hall and the Masonic Hall to name but a few. These were rudimentary venues with few of the attributes that we have come to expect in a theatre but they were important to the citizens of Toronto. The only building of this early period that survives today is the St. Lawrence Hall, which was home to the National Ballet for many years. The St. Lawrence Hall was fully restored in Canada’s centennial year. Fire and the wrecking ball claimed all the rest. A few men certainly worked in these theatres, building and setting up shows that were performed by local amateurs, troupes of itinerant artists or officers from the British Army garrison at Fort York. No doubt theatre work was casual employment at best and quite possibly unpaid. For many, it was perhaps enough just to see the performance for free.

The Royal Lyceum Theatre was the most successful of these early stages. It was a Stock Company, run by an Actor-Manager named John Nickinson, presenting plays ranging from the works of Shakespeare to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Candles and lanterns illuminated the simple raised platform that was the Royal’s stage. The expense and difficulty of transportation kept Toronto isolated from the professional touring companies based in New York and London. Nonetheless, there was an audience in old Muddy York that was hungry for the cultural events of the outside world that they could only read about in the illustrated magazines.

By the latter part of the 19th century, Toronto was a city of over two hundred thousand people, expanding rapidly, absorbing nearby communities like Yorkville and North Toronto. The population grew steadily as industry flourished and people left the farms and came to the city looking for work. In the new industrial Toronto, the demand for entertainment was increasing. 

The biggest factor in the growth of professional theatre in Toronto was the boom in railway construction that began in the 1850s. By the 1870s, theatre circuits were created which made it profitable for entrepreneurs or theatre managers to book extended tours based on the railway routes linking various cities. Now, a touring company could play the hinterlands of Ontario as well as the bigger urban centres. Just as importantly, the capacity of rail cars made it possible to transport large quantities of scenery, costumes and properties instead of forcing companies to rely on ‘stock’ items in each theatre. The increased production values meant that shows could be presented “as seen” in New York, or Philadelphia or London. These factors combined to create an unprecedented boom in theatre construction across the province. Soon, almost every city or town of any size could boast an Opera House of its own.

In 1874 both The Grand Opera House and the Royal Opera house opened their doors in Toronto. These were the first modern proscenium arch theatres on the local scene, lavishly decorated with gilt and ornate fabrics. There were dress circles, boxes and balconies that provided better sightlines. Each theatre featured a proscenium arch over 50′ wide, gas foot and border lights, a full orchestra pit and in the case of the Grand, a 45′ flying loft. The House Lights of the Grand were gas jets that could be sparked electrically from the Prompter’s box rather than being lighted by hand with a long wax taper on a pole. Grooves in the floor served as tracks for scenery moving on and off stage.

Although by now, Canada had become a nation, there were strong ties to the British Empire and Queen Victoria. Public life was dominated by religion and the very concept of ‘entertainment’ suggested at best, frivolity and at worst sinful decadence. Despite their popularity, theatrical performances and recitals were often denounced from the pulpit. On one occasion, the Manager of the Royal Opera was charged under the Lord’s Day Act for having a concert of Sacred Music on a Sunday evening. But the concert halls and theatres continued to spring up and the internationally known stars of the stage like Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt, soon made their way to Toronto. Show business in Canada had begun. One company, the Marks Brothers, had seven companies touring full-time and naturally many Toronto stagehands found employment by going on the road. However, without the strength of a union to represent them, unscrupulous promoters often victimized these men.

Both theatres seated around 1500 persons and presented a mix of travelling companies performing light, comic musicals or farces, dramas, melodrama, amateur theatricals and minstrel shows. The term “Opera House” was a somewhat misleading attempt to suggest respectability. Very little opera was ever performed in these houses. However, from the stagehand’s point of view, these were the first truly professional theatres in Toronto because they operated on a full-time basis.




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