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The latest premiere: Bloor Cinema opens new era with documentary theme

September 19th, 2011 · No Comments

By Katie O’Connor

Chris Alexander had just settled in for one of his last screenings at the Bloor Cinema when he spotted something, or rather someone, who didn’t belong.

Alexander, editor-in-chief of Fangoria magazine, hosts a monthly film series titled ‘Film School Confidential’ where he showcases cult, horror and sci-fi films.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers had just begun when Alexander noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye. “I was sitting there in my seat and at the stage there was a spilled container of popcorn from the previous screening. What was either a very small rat or a very large mouse kept coming out from under the stage, eating popcorn and disappearing back into its hole.”

For Alexander, incidents like this, that make up what he calls the theatre’s “not ready for the ball” aesthetic, are what initially drew him to the Bloor. “It had that art deco feel to it, it was a little rough around the edges,” he said. “It still had a kind of 42nd street vibe about it but it was still evolved enough that you could bring your mom there.”

Alexander and others who enjoy the Bloor’s “rough around the edges” vibe may have to look elsewhere when the legendary Annex theatre re-opens under the helm of documentary festival powerhouse, Hot Docs.

Hot Docs announced in July that they would be partnering with Blue Ice Films, a Toronto-based sales and acquisitions company, to own and operate the theatre.
Blue Ice Films purchased the building for $3.25 million, and under a joint-venture agreement, Hot Docs will manage the theatre and provide programming for the Bloor year-round.

“We want to make sure the Bloor keeps the same role in the community,” said Hot Docs executive director Chris McDonald, speaking to the local business community at a BIA meeting in July. “It has been one of our beloved homes for ten years.”

However, the theatre will be revamped significantly both in appearance and philosophy. Programming will be split 80/20 between documentaries—including the festival’s Doc Soup series—and a combination of second-run films and festivals that previously screened at the Bloor.

Renovations will include new seating, lighting, carpets, snack bar, sound system, screen and digital projection, as well as improvements to the exterior. Accessible washrooms will be added on the ground floor, and the rake of the balcony will be adjusted to ensure better views. McDonald said they have also applied for a liquor licence. Renovations began in mid-September and Hot Docs say they expect to complete them in December at the very latest.

Hot Docs is only the latest step in what has been a long and storied history for the 106-year-old theatre which has seen its days as a 1920s vaudeville theatre, a 1940s movie palace, a 1960s grindhouse, and a 1970s porn theatre. A family-run business for many years, it has seen its share of love, laughs, and drama.

Originally known as the Madison, the Bloor Cinema was built in 1905 as a vaudeville theatre for the Annex, according to the archives of Ontario.

By the early 1940s, it was in major need of repairs. The theatre was closed down and rebuilt from the ground up, and re-opened in 1941 as the Midtown, complete with a new art deco façade. The Midtown had a lot of competition, said Robin Sharp, who co-directed a short film titled The Bloor, which was released back in 2005 to celebrate the theatre’s 100-year anniversary. Three other theatres clamoured for movie-goers attention at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst, including the original Bloor Theatre, where Lee’s Palace is now located.

The Midtown lasted almost three decades and according to the archives of Ontario, in 1967 it became the Capri, showing popular grindhouse-style films.

The Capri didn’t last long as hard times hit Toronto, and the theatre took on a new persona. In 1973, it opened as the Famous Players-operated Eden, showing soft-core pornography.

“It was definitely an interesting time in the Bloor’s history,” said Sharp.

Robin Sharp, inside the Bloor Cinema. File Photo, Matt James/Gleaner News.

Robin Sharp, inside the Bloor Cinema. File Photo, Matt James/Gleaner News.

The Eden was eventually put out of business by neighbouring theatre the Metro (677 Bloor St. W.), who showed the same fare for lower prices.

During the late 1970s, Tom Litvinkas and Jerry Szczur of Festival Cinemas took over the theatre.

They had the idea to buy out old theatres in Toronto and turn them into second-run cinemas. They partnered with Carm Bordonaro, and renamed the theatre. The Bloor Cinema opened its doors in December of 1979. Bordonaro proposed the idea of selling tickets for 99 cents and charging a membership fee.

Initially, the Bloor was a great success, with screenings selling out weekend after weekend.

“That first night I sold 160 memberships just sitting up here in an office by myself with a little note on the box office window and the door open,” said Bordonaro. “The community was so welcoming, it was phenomenal. It felt like It’s A Wonderful Life.”

The theatre prospered, with 1,500 people streaming through its doors a night, according to Bordonaro. “We were able to play two different films every night for eight weeks without repeating one.”

However, the theatre suffered ongoing financial conflict and in 1999 Festival Cinemas’ lease was terminated.

Despite the fall of Festival Cinemas, the Bloor remained firmly in the hands of the Bordonaro family, with Carm Bordonaro taking over management.

Speculation that the Bloor was financially struggling surfaced in 2004 after a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling during a screening of The Corporation.

The Bloor continued to draw in crowds through a variety of events. One of these events was ‘The Wright Stuff’ with Edgar Wright, director of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Wright showcased his movies Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Director Kevin Smith also attended the theatre in a special organized event. A popular Fringe event called ‘The Silver Stage’ was created, where actors performed shadow casts of the film Blue Velvet by David Lynch and a double bill of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode “Once More With Feeling” and Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog by Joss Whedon. Shadow casts involve actors reenacting scenes on stage while the film or TV program plays behind them.

Alex Woodside and Nigel Agnew, who now run the Toronto Underground Cinema, were two of the minds behind these events. They departed from the Bloor in 2009 after reportedly butting heads with the Bordonaros.

“The Bloor was like a really tight knit family,” said Peter Kuplowsky, who worked at the theatre and was involved with the Kevin Smith event. “With families, there is always lots of drama.”

Kuplowsky said staff often clashed with the Bordonaros over programming, with the drama coming to a head over funds from the Silver Stage Fringe event. With Fringe events, performers normally receive 100 per cent of the proceeds, which didn’t happen in this case.

“At that point the staff had become a really tight family, and the owners, they sort of weren’t really paying attention for a year, so we kind of took over,” he said.

“The Fringe show made a lot of money and there were verbal agreements that were made that certain parties didn’t think were being honoured. That’s what started the fighting. Because there was the weird case that the Bloor had distribution fees to pay for, they expected to get money. The owners were out of the loop so much that they didn’t realize that the performers would be getting money. They ended up doing a split. Because there was bad communication between both parties, nobody was trusting each other and it led to arguments that shouldn’t have happened and very bad feelings from both sides.”

Carm Bordonaro declined to comment on the event, saying it was a legal matter.

The last two years saw the Bloor hit hard times, and the family began to look for ways to reinvent the theatre. “We had to work really hard just to pay the bills and keep everything going,” said Bordonaro.

In June 2010, with their lease ending, the family purchased the theatre for $1.6 million in an effort to ensure its survival as a cinema.

Bordonaro said they had many offers from developers but they wanted to find the right person or company who would allow the space to stay as a theatre.

Bordonaro was approached by Hot Docs and Blue Ice in May of this year. Initially, both parties remained tight lipped as they worked out the deal. Many people speculated on the fate of the Bloor after it was announced that the theatre would be closing for renovations at the end of June.

Misty Pusztai was working at the theatre when the renovations were announced, and said that staff were given very little notice. “It was really slow, and we were all kind of wondering what was going on, and then two or three days before the renovation posters went up in the windows, we were told that the cinema was going to be renovated and that we’d all be out of a job at the end of the month. They gave us a really nice termination letter and supplied us with all of our paperwork but nobody was informed really, with proper notice. It was all kind of shocking to a lot of people.”

Bordonaro said their hands were tied. “We weren’t allowed to say anything. The closing date was June 30, and we hadn’t really even officially closed, so we weren’t in the greatest position to reveal anything earlier than we did.”

Adam Lopez, festival director of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, said they were also given very little notice. “We weren’t really told what was going on,” said Lopez. “I understand why, because it was a confidential situation.”

Toronto After Dark announced last month that they would be moving this year’s festival to the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Ave.), but that they would be back at the Bloor in 2012.

“There was no way of being 100 per cent sure that the renovations would be done in time,” said Lopez. “They are hoping to have the renovations done in October, two weeks before the festival. As a festival director, that was terrifying.”

Amy Taylor, of Excited Mental State, the group that performs monthly Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow casts at the Bloor said that the whole process has been really positive, and that Hot Docs has been welcoming. “They want us to be there, they want the neighbourhood to have a sense of continuity.”

However, many people, including Chris Alexander, are unsure what a revamped Bloor Cinema will be like. Alexander is permanently moving his ‘Film School Confidential’ night to the Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Ave.). “It’s a double edged sword,” said Alexander. “You bring an A-list filmmaker in town or a big movie, you won’t have to worry about creatures running around.”

Hot Docs held a community meeting in August where members of the public were invited to voice their questions and suggestions.

One of the main concerns brought up at the meeting was that the building would be “over-glammed.”

Concern was also voiced over a possible name change for the theatre. McDonald said they would be changing the name, but that the word ‘Bloor’ would be prominently featured.

Kuplowsky, who attended the meeting, said he was not worried at all about the fate of the theatre. “The fact that you have a very specific type of festival taking over means its going to have its own kind of identity that is going to be iconic and people are going to latch on to that,” he said. “I don’t think the stuff that everybody loves about that place is going to disappear. The community doesn’t want it to disappear and [Hot Docs] are smart businessmen.”

Kuplowsky likened the Bloor to a TV series. “There was always lots of drama, and it was kind of like a revolving door with people coming in and out. I hope with Hot Docs it will be like a new season.”

If you have any questions or feedback regarding the Bloor Cinema, please email feedback@hotdocs.ca.

Where are they now? 

Although the Bloor is currently closed, you can still catch your favourite flicks at these other Toronto locations:

  • The Toronto After Dark Film Festival: this year’s festival will take place at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Ave.) on October 20 to 27.
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast: They will be performing at the Revue Cinema in September, and are expected to be back at the Bloor once renovations are completed. For more information, please visit www.excitedmentalstate.ca.
  • Chris Alexander’s Film School Confidential: making the Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Ave.), its permanent home, Film School Confidential will continue to screen horror, sci-fi, and cult film. Prom Night will be screened on September 22, time TBD. For more information, visit chris-alexander.ca

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