Today when I met with my writer friend Robert Hoshowsky for our usual coffee and chat, I started to think.
It is seldom that most of us stop to reflect upon the history of the buildings that we frequent each day. When they were built? How the spaces have been used in years gone by, and who frequented them? These are questions to which, in general, we tend not to pay much attention. In my case, the venue that is my regular haunt is a coffee shop located at the corner of Redwood and Gerrard, an integral part of the Leslieville community. The location of the eastern most boundary and thus whether or not this area is actually part a of Leslieville, is definitely up for debate. Some say it stops at Greenwood, others say Coxwell. I would say that historically the boundary was Greenwood but that over the years that commonly-agreed-upon boundary has slowly shifted to included the area right up to Coxwell.
Regardless, the Sideshow Cafe is not only a comfortable hangout for a host of coffee consuming regulars, myself included, but is also a well known pit stop for those who drop of their children at the Centre of Gravity Circus, a circus school located in the large hall next door. The venue is a place for circus and theatrical performances as well as playing host to other community events, such as NDP film screenings and community meetings. It is a large part of the vivacity and charm of the Sideshow that derives from the synchronicity that lies between the two venues.
Now back to my original musings. After thinking about what my local coffee shop and the space attached to it might have been like in years gone by, I decided to do some detective work to find out for myself. The first thing that I discovered is that the current incarnation of the space at 1298 and 1300 Gerrard St E began in 1998, at which time the owners undertook an extensive renovation project so that it could be used for its current purposes.
But what was it before they took over? I soon found that the building for a good portion of its existence has been used, as it is now, as a performance/theatre space. Built in 1914, the building was initially operated as a vaudeville theatre called The Classic. Vaudeville in Canada began in the 1880’s and existed until the early 1930’s. It was a genre that consisted of a series of separate acts such as music, dance, live animals, male and female impersonators, and acrobats, to name a few. The “Classic” theatre was just one of the many venues which sprung up in Toronto to house such performances. It was built by a man by the name Joseph Garnet, who lived at 730 Logan Ave and also had what was likely an office at 1301 Gerrard St E. His profession was, according to the city directory of 1917, “amusements”. Garnet quickly disappeared from the Toronto scene after its opening but the theatre continued to operate.
There is very clearly a tie between the building and the development of this particular part of Toronto. Prior to 1914, when The Classic opened the portion of land between Greenwood and Coxwell and north/south between Queen Street E and Danforth Ave was owned almost exclusively by the Ashbridge family.
They were a well established farming family that moved to Toronto from the United States towards the end of the 18th century. However, by 1910, due to pressure placed upon the area by the rapidly expanding City of Toronto, the family started to sell off their land to developers and various individuals, mostly new European immigrants. What was known as Ramblers Road, which started at Greenwood and ran through to Coxwell, was then taken over by the city after the annexation of 1909, and became an extension of the already existing Gerrard St E.
So it was that with the creation of this portion of Gerrard as a truly public street and development of this expanse of land, that services needed and desired by the growing population in the area began to emerge. These included other theatres such as the Oxford Theatre at 1326 Gerrard, which opened at about the same time as the Classic but lasted a few short years, it would seem also owned by Garnet, and another theatre called The Guild which opened at 1275/1279 Gerrard St E. Confectionaries, hardware stores, pool halls, barbershops (there was one in 1298 at the beginning of the twenties) all started to line the street. When The Classic was first built, as now, it was with a smaller space attached which was 1302 Gerrard. The first occupant of this space was Thomas Taylor, a confectioner. Now back to the particular story of the Classic. Soon after the opening of the theatre and following WWI, the era of the silent film in Canada took hold and the theatre expanded its repertoire to include film showings.
The hall was for a time used by the Rhodes Presbyterian Church to conduct meetings and services.
The theatre was also turned into a pool room for a short time in the years around 1928. By this time the space located at 1302, although still utilized as a corner store was now run by William Kingsmill until sometime after WWII. The space continued to house a corner store/cigar store for many years after that.
The Classic theatre has always been, as it today, a venue for active community political discussion. In 1933 the CCF, the precursor to today’s NDP got into a disagreement with the owner of the theatre of their use of the venue. Today the NDP are welcomed and regular film screenings in the theatre.
By the end of the Second World War a further reconfiguration of the Classic Theatre became necessary with the arrival of the “talkies” and in August 1939, plans were drawn up.
During the nine forties and early nineteen fifties The Classic remained active as a movie theatre and central neighbourhood hub.
In 1956 it closed its doors and 1300 Gerrard was taken over by a large retail store called Pennyworth’s Department Store. It continued as a retail space for a number of years until its transformation back to a performance/theatre space in the late 1990’s at which time, most importantly, my hangout The Sideshow Cafe also came into existence.