Raising the curtain: How the Winter Garden Theatre was rediscovered

The Winter Garden Theatre, George Pelekis

"One of the Winter Garden’s greatest treasures, discovered backstage during the restoration, is the world’s largest collection of vaudeville scenery – handpainted flats and drops dating from 1913. Three restored pieces, including the magnificent Butterfly and Scarab scenery flats, are on display at the Theatre Centre."


Gordon Pim

Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity, Adaptive reuse

Published Date:14 Feb 2008

Photo: The Winter Garden Theatre, George Pelekis

In December 1913, Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre – the Canadian flagship of the mighty Loew’s empire – opened in Toronto. Two months later, the opulent Winter Garden Theatre opened upstairs. Between them, Toronto played host to dozens of vaudeville acts, including George Burns, Sophie Tucker and Edgar Bergen.

By 1930, talking pictures had eclipsed vaudeville and the lower theatre was wired for sound. The Winter Garden closed in 1928 and was abandoned completely for nearly 60 years. The lower theatre (renamed the Elgin Theatre in 1978) remained in continuous operation until 1981, when the Ontario Heritage Trust saved the building from demolition. Over the years, the Elgin Theatre had undergone several renovations before falling into disrepair. Many of its original elements were lost – including the opera boxes and proscenium arch. But extensive restoration work replaced and recovered these lost features.

When the Trust reopened the doors to the Winter Garden Theatre, it was like opening the lid of a time capsule. Unlike its counterpart downstairs, the Winter Garden retained many of its original design features, including the canopy of leaves and flower blossoms and its hand-painted walls. Unfortunately, layers of soot covered everything, creating challenges for conservation experts.

One of the Winter Garden’s unique original features is its hand-painted water-soluble floral wall designs. How to remove the layers of soot and dust that obscured these delicate designs – without removing the paint itself – was a challenge. A unique conservation technique, often used to clean paper, was applied to the walls. Small balls of raw bread dough – 1,500 pounds in total – were rolled over the soot-covered walls to lift the dirt and clean the surfaces without removing the delicate painted murals beneath. The original walls were restored to their original brilliance and then sprayed with a protective sealant.

Preserving the garden canopy was another matter entirely. As most of the branches were too brittle to restore, an entirely new canopy had to be manufactured. Five thousand branches of beech leaves were carefully harvested, preserved, painted, fire-proofed and suspended from the Winter Garden ceiling.

In addition, the original Winter Garden seats – removed and sold during the 1950s – were replaced by the original seats from Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, famous as the scene of gangster John Dillinger’s dramatic death in 1934 at the hands of the FBI.

Since the Winter Garden Theatre reopened in 1989, the theatre has played host to world-renowned performers and theatrical productions. In 2007, the Toronto International Film Festival also began screening several acclaimed films here.

A dedicated group of volunteers has remained active since the restoration of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – a National Historic Site and the world’s last operating double-decker theatre. Today, volunteers assist the Trust with guided tours and fundraising. With their invaluable support, the Trust is able to showcase this magnificent theatre complex to the world.

For more information about the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre – including public tours – visit our website.