Grand Opera House is shown in an 1874 issue of Canadian Illustrated News. Until the advent of Vaudeville, Toronto was crazy for operas. They would have also included comics singing pop songs of the day, poetry readings and novelty acts.
When Toronto’s brand new opera house the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opens next year on the southeast corner of University and Queen it will join a long list of former opera houses that at one time spread across our city.
Torontonians (and early Yorkers) have loved their opera ever since 1825 when The Mountaineers by George Colman was first staged in Franks Hotel (now the site of the shampoo aisle of the Front Street Dominion Store).
The first generation of York’s citizens was very class conscience and held steadfast to the old ways and theatre, with its wicked women and fancy men, was viewed on the same scale as prostitution and treason.
The second generation however went gaga for live entertainment and opera had everything a town craving for excitement could want: drama, sex, comedy, sex, music, sex, colourful costumes, sex, larger than life characters and of course, sex.
In 1826 William Lyon Mackenzie wrote in his newspaper the Colonial Advocate of opera’s appeal: “The chief beauty of an opera is its close resemblance to scenes in real life.”
Generally theatres in early 19th-century Toronto were either located in taverns, stables or abandoned churches and weren’t much to write home about with hard wooden benches for seats, candles for light and for the most part what acting was seen on early Toronto stages was seen as amateurish and in desperate need of someone to take charge and modernize it.
In 1848 wealthy landowner John Ritchey opened his Royal Lyceum (now on the site of the TD Centre), the largest and the first fully equipped theatre in Toronto complete with a balcony, dressing rooms, footlights, an orchestra pit and the Holman Troupe-Toronto’s first opera company.
In 1852 actor/manager John Nickinson, along with his theatrical company, arrived from Buffalo for a 2-week engagement at the Royal Lyceum.
Realizing Toronto needed a theatrical gap to be filled for the next quarter century, most of it under Nickinson’s expert direction, the Royal Lyceum paved the way for such great international stars as Sarah Bernhardt to look upon Toronto as a prosperous high point of any tour.
The Royal Lyceum that stood approximately where the cow pasture sculpture sits today is now part of the TD Centre was in operation for 25 years before it was destroyed by fire in 1874. In 1875 the site became home to the Royal Opera House but it too succumbed to fire in 1883.
In January 1873 Toronto entered its golden age of opera when the opulent Grand Opera House opened on the south side of Adelaide just west of Yonge Street.
Quite possibly the greatest theatre Toronto ever knew, this 1,750-seat palace to the arts saw in its day the world’s greatest performers strut and sing across its stage, from actors Maurice Barrymore and Sir Henry Irving (the first actor to be knighted) to the magnificent Italian baritones Giuseppe Del Puente and Antonio Galassi.
The Grand was under the direction of one the most powerful and influential women ever to have lived in Toronto: Charlotte Morrison, a former actress and the daughter of John Nickerson, the actor/manager of the Royal Lyceum.
Mrs. Morrison (as she came to be known) was the Ed Mirvish of her time, the guiding force behind not only the Toronto opera scene but also theatre throughout the mid 19th century.
As an actress she toured extensively with her father’s company before coming to Toronto where she married theatre critic and editor of the Leader newspaper, Daniel Morrison in 1858, whereupon she retired from acting for the time being.
Daniel Morrison is regarded as the father of modern theatrical criticism in Toronto. Before he arrived on the scene newspapers merely printed what producers told them to say. After all, the producers were paying for ad space.
Daniel broke that unwritten rule and began to publish what was good or bad about a particular production. At the time this approach was seen as revolutionary with some producers withdrawing their ads from his newspaper in protest after bad reviews would see a drop in box office receipts.
However one actress Daniel found to be quite extraordinary was Charlotte Nickerson and soon this power couple began to rule the roost theatrically speaking in the bohemian avant-garde circles of 19th century Toronto society.
Daniel died in 1870 leaving Charlotte with four children to bring up on her own. She returned to acting and producing at the Royal Lyceum in 1871 and in 1873 was appointed the first manager of the new Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street. She remained so until 1878, all in a time when women not only couldn’t vote but weren’t even officially persons.
This was the era of the Actor-Manager where leading actors and actresses doubling as producers, managers and directors would embark on grueling extensive worldwide tours. It was also a time when these performers spoke their lines directly to the audience in what we might consider a bombastic approach to acting.
However dated the acting might have been the Grand Opera House was as modern as any theatre on the continent. It was the first theatre in Toronto to use an electric battery-operated spark to ignite the auditorium gas lamps all at once, thus being able to control the lighting from ON to OUT instantly which was impossible before.
Unlike today when going to the opera is going to the Opera with a capital-O, 150 years ago a night at the opera might also have included comics singing the popular songs of the day, musical interludes, poetry readings and novelty acts.
It mixed together (including the opera you came to see in the first place) for an enjoyable night out that ended with a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia. The age of the Music Hall had arrived.
There were as many Music Halls then as there are movie houses today.
There was the 1,700-seat Shaftesbury Hall (1871-1902 where the Eaton Centre Queen Street entrance is today), the Toronto Opera House (1886-1903 on Adelaide west of Yonge), Temperance Hall (1848- 1899 Temperance Street west of Yonge), Albert Hall (1875-1890 Yonge and Shuter Streets), St Andrew’s Hall (1880-1932 Richmond west of Spadina) and the spectacular Holman Opera House (1883 now the site of the Paramount cinema at John and Richmond streets) which also doubled as a skating rink.
It was All-Opera, All-Music-Hall, All-The-Time until Oct. 24, 1881 when all this would change.
Theatre historians regard this date, the opening of the 14th Street Theatre in New York, as the birth of Vaudeville.
Well move over Mrs. Morrison and make room for the seltzer bottle. Toronto may have loved their opera but they were ecstatic for baggy pants, oversized shoes and cheap laughs.
The arrival of Vaudeville with its somewhat cruder but sometimes brilliant performances brought with it the construction of the great Vaudeville palaces like the still standing Elgin/WinterGarden and the Pantages (now the Canon).
Soon even Vaudeville had to make room for silent pictures and Burlesque which had to make room the Talkies which made room for TV which had to make room for the VCR which made room for the DVD.
The Grand Opera House on Adelaide, once the jewel of Toronto, after suffering neglect and numerous fires was torn down in 1927.
Today the only hint of its existence is the laneway that bears its name running off Adelaide Street and once that sign goes, so does its memory.
I’ve asked ScotiaBank repeatedly if I could mount a historical plaque to this great theatre on their building now occupying the site but they have refused adamantly each time. So I’ll just have to keep telling myself that the greatest legacy to the former Grand Opera House (and Mrs. Morrison) will be the opening of our newest one.
Reserve now for my special Christmas show Wednesday Dec. 7, 2005 at 7pm in the superb surroundings of Mackenzie House 82 Bond Street (2 blocks east of Yonge St, south of Dundas St. E). Not only will I tell the story of the Rebellion of 1837 on the actual 168th anniversary to the day when the Rebellion ended but I also tell how the Victorians celebrated Christmas during the time William Lyon Mackenzie (our first mayor and Rebel leader) lived in his home from 1849 until his death in 1861. Come listen to live period music and enjoy cake, cookies and cider and a tour of this historic treasure.
Tickets are $10 and space is limited so please call 416-392-6915 to reserve. As of yet Mackenzie House is not wheelchair accessible but I will accommodate the best I can.
Also I can now be heard live on CFRB Talk 1010 the first Monday of every month beginning at 11pm on the Mark Elliott Show for a lively phone in hour of Toronto history. And don’t forget my St. Lawrence Market Food and History Tour Weds thru Sat year round. brucebelltours.com