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The Delight of the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto

Posted by HPOC Staff on

Article by Renae Jarrett

Audio Version

Renae is a communicator and journalist with over twenty years of experience as a reporter, editor, and columnist. She is the founder of Expressing YOU Communications - a communications service that Authentically States & Significantly Elevates your Unique Message through content creation She’s also the creator of Not Sorry 4 the Story – news commentary with an unapologetic take on current affairs Ms. Jarrett is a proud first-generation Canadian who loves her nation and lives in the Durham Region with her family where she’s been a life-long resident.

Video about the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre history and restoration by Ontario Heritage Trust (Copyright King's Printer of Ontario 2023)

I had an appointment with the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre in January – my first – and I wasn’t about to miss it. You see, January is my birthday month, and I just have an expectation that phenomenal things happen for me then. I can tell you from now that my appointment did not disappoint. Here’s what happened at this national historic site. 

It was January 19th, and An Evening with Lisa LaFlamme would be held at the Winter Garden Theatre. As soon as I heard, I snapped up one of the last tickets and leapt at the opportunity. This was significant. As a journalist myself, I was glad to get to hear from this veteran and former CTV National News Anchor. 

Photo by Author

The night of, forecasters had warned of a snowstorm. But it turned out to just be a rain and wind event. I took the GO Train to Union Station and after walking through a maze of renovations, I hopped onto the subway. It had been years since I’d taken either of these, so it was an adventure of sorts. Upon exiting the subway, I made my way up to the street, asking a transit worker which way to the theatre. For a moment, delight seemed to sweep over his face, as though he was leading me to one of Toronto’s crown jewels. It was just a few steps from the station. I was almost there! 

As I emerged from the underground, there were her lights and marquee, installed in 1995 and “reminiscent of the 1913 original” with 1,240 light bulbs.[1] But the side view was insufficient, so I crossed the street to behold this beauty and take some photos. Situated at 189 Yonge St. in downtown Toronto near Queen, she stood there, remarkable and yet simple. Perhaps harkening back to an era when these two words used to go together with a greater ease and normalcy. 

Photo of Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres by Adam Smith,

According to the Canadian Register of Historic Places, “the Edwardian double-decker or stacked theatre was designed by architect Thomas Lamb and was constructed between 1912 and 1914.”[2] This design is the only one of its kind ever built in Canada with the Elgin Theatre (originally known as Loew's Yonge Street Theatre) below and the Winter Garden Theatre above it. The property is one of the Ontario Heritage Trust’s buildings, and the history of the theatre on their website indicates “the complex was the Canadian flagship of Marcus Loew's legendary theatre chain… The two theatres were of distinctly different personalities: the Elgin was all gold leaf and rich fabrics, a formal theatre of plaster cherubs and ornate opera boxes. The Winter Garden was a botanical fantasy, its walls hand-painted to resemble a garden, its ceiling a mass of real beech boughs and twinkling lanterns”.[3]

Archival photo from Ontario Heritage Trust (Copyright King's Printer of Ontario 2023)

Although I was born and raised in Canada, my world regarding my home and native land in some respects has remained relatively small. But this is changing. I took in this moment, knowing that I was now standing on treasured ground. There was nothing that screamed, “You are now entering a national historic site!” But as with many things Canadian, that aspect went understated. In 1982, The Winter Garden Theatre and the Elgin were both named a National Historic Site.[4]

I looked around and took some more photos, knowing that I had arrived considerably early, so there was no need to rush for once. I turned to take another photo and there just two steps away from me was Lisa LaFlamme. She just arrived. I wasted no time. I asked her for a photo of us, knowing that she’d be whisked away upon her official arrival. She came with her sister who offered to take the photo of us, and then asked if I’d take a photo of them. I took it right beside the billboard of Ms. LaFlamme. We all chuckled and away they went. I told you that phenomenal things happen to me in January. I took a moment to acknowledge what just happened and made my way to the entrance.

The doorman greeted me and opened the door. The staff were lined up at the second set of doors, eager to scan my ticket. But I was in no hurry. Once inside I looked up and around and found myself catapulted into another era through architecture. 

If the building could speak, I felt as though, she had whispered, “Yes, look at me. I used to be somebody. I still am. But my glory days have passed. You’ll see glimpses of my former self if you look. Yes, don’t let them rush you. Savor me and behold. I come from a time when manners were valued and the pace was slower. Look around, see the contrast, and give thanks for what used to be.”

Photo by Author

Vaudeville and movies were the name of the game in the theatre’s beginnings. Vaudeville was a variety show of sorts that became popular in the mid-1890s. But with the advent of “talkies” in 1927, vaudeville began to decline and with that the Winter Garden theatre closed in 1928.[5] The Elgin was changed into a movie house in 1930.[6] On March 17, 1978, the Yonge Street Theatre was renamed the Elgin.[7] In 1981, the Ontario Heritage Trust purchased both theatres to turn them into a performing arts complex. Since then and prior to the restoration, the world-renowned production of Cats ran here for nearly two years. Architect Mandel Sprachman designed the new ancillary space.

On December 15, 1989, the grand reopening of the historic Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres took place.  This followed nearly three years of restoration and it was exactly 76 years after the original opening of the Loew's Yonge Street Theatre.[8]

Archival photo from Ontario Heritage Trust (Copyright King's Printer of Ontario 2023)

After having my ticket scanned, I made my way to the nearest bench in the lobby. Journeying on public transit, bundled up in winter gear, made me glad to take these items off and just behold my surroundings. Our world is so rushed and rushing is one of my pet peeves. I was thankful to be there 45 minutes before the event was to begin. I watched as notable people made their entrance, being photographed by a professional photographer, while others took off their winter coats to reveal dazzling outfits.

For some reason, though, it was the hand-operated passenger elevators that held the most intrigue for me in my panoramic view. The operator would come out each time to see who needed to go upstairs to the Winter Garden part of the complex. A few would enter and he or she would manually close the doors. I smiled, thinking I’m in an era that has left us far too soon. Like full serve gas stations, there’s just something genuinely touching about being served and having the opportunity to talk to those doing the serving. I looked forward to meeting those stationed there.

But first there was the pivotal question: to coat check or not to coat check? I usually keep my coat with me, even when I can lay aside the cumbersome weight. My thinking is that it makes for a quick exit and acts as insulation if it’s cool. That said, I found myself walking towards the coat check just to get a closer peak. A staff member greeted me. I asked her if she thought I should check my coat. She recommended it, saying upstairs can be quite warm. Say no more. No need for me to turn into a puddle of sweat because I couldn’t part with my routine. 

I made my way to the elevator, excited to see inside. Really, Renae, excited? What can I say: the old-world feel elicited such a response. Once inside, I first noticed that it was deeper than the typical modern-day elevator with probably ten people that could be stacked vertically. I read the plaques. Before leaving, I told the operator, she’d probably see me a few times. There were several floors to explore, but you certainly couldn’t tell by looking around. 

Photo by Author

Panels with the history of the theatre adorned the lobby area of the 2nd floor, along with hand-painted flats and drops from the original vaudeville scenery. People were mingling, taking photos at the Dress for Success photobooth – the hosts for the night – and listening to the live band on the floor below. The theatre was a buzz.

I drew myself away from the crowd and made my way back to the elevator. I was eager now to find my seat and take in another view. The operator took me up to the balcony in the elevator and just as I made my way towards the theatre doors, the staff officially opened it to attendees. 

Photo by Author

Entering into the Winter Garden Theatre, the lighting was dim, but I could see that I was surrounded by walls of garden scenes as I took a few steps up to the landing. And then came the view. My seat was the last in the row next to a wall. Perfect. I was dazzled. Above me, the rooftop ceiling was adorned with beech leaves as far as the eye could see with cotton blossoms and garden lanterns too. For its restoration in 1984, over 5,000 real beech branches were harvested, preserved, painted and painstakingly woven into wire grids suspended from the theatre’s ceiling.[9] The columns were hidden by decorative tree trunks. It was beautiful and breath-taking all at once. 

Photos of Winter Garden Theatre by Adam Smith,

Soon after, more and more attendees were ushered to their seats. It was a packed house. I got a tap on my shoulder only to discover that a friend and her friend were seated in the row behind me. The night unfolded with anticipation, applause and laughter. One of my questions submitted through their online portal, was asked of Ms. LaFlamme, so that was rewarding on top of everything this evening had to offer.  Thank you, Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, then and now. Hats off to you!

Photo by Author 


[1] Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – Timeline. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[2] The Canadian Register of Historic Places. (n.d.). Canada’s Historic Places – Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre

Centre. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from 3 Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – History. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[3] Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – History. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[4] Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – Timeline. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[5] The Canadian Register of Historic Places. (n.d.). Canada’s Historic Places – Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – Timeline. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. Retrieved February 6, 2023 from

Further Reading:

Canadian Register of Historic Places. (n.d.). Canada’s Historic Places – Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre.]

Daubs, K. (2020, January 26). The Winter Garden theatre was abandoned for decades. A behind the scenes look at how Toronto’s secret garden came to bloom again. Toronto Star.

Marie, D. (2022, December 9). Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – A National Historic Site. Toronto Journey 416.

Ontario Heritage Trust. (n.d.). The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – History.

Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. (n.d.). Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres National Historic Site of Canada.

Wassenberg, D. (2019, November 2). Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres are an Enduring Testament to Toronto’s Entertainment History. Ludwig Van Toronto.


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