Using the Archives

Collecting Toronto: Playing Toronto


Poster of Carnival of Musical Romances showing a man on a horse and a lady in red, 1902

Toronto has long been a centre for the performing arts - amateur and professional; high and low; live and broadcast; music, theatre, and dance. As early as 1809, a New York touring company played Sheridan's farcical School for Scandal in a ballroom at Little York; and by 1834, the year York became Toronto, the city's first Theatre Royal had opened on King Street in Toronto's nascent theatre district. Larry Becker's arts and entertainment collection documents a full spectrum of cultural life in Toronto from the 1890s through the 1990s.

The musical life of Toronto changed dramatically when Massey Hall opened on Shuter Street in 1894. Toronto's first permanent concert hall attracted diverse events, from distinctly amateur - such as fundraisers for hospitals, churches, and war efforts - to superbly professional - such as concerts by international performers like violinist Fritz Kreisler, composer Surgi Rachmaninoff, pianists Paderewski and Horowitz, and opera stars Edward Johnson and Lawrence Tibbett. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, under Dr. Luigi Von Kunits and then Sir Ernest Macmillan, became a regular performer from the 1920s onward, although its earliest radio broadcasts issued from Simpson's Arcadian Court.

Take Me Out to Sunnyside poster with a man and a woman in a canoe

 Live theatre was, and is, both an art and a business. Becker's 1892 programme for the Grand Opera House production of "Friends" was filled with advertisements for corsets and kid gloves. The elegant Art Nouveau style programme issued by the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1907, and the more prosaic programme distributed by theatrical entrepreneur, Ambrose Small's Majestic Theatre, both urged patrons to buy products as well as tickets. Other programmes promoted distinctly different images of female beauty: compare prima ballerina Anna Pavlowa with burlesque queen Maudie Heath, who both visited the city in the 1920s. Becker's collection of programmes and ephemera also documents the self consciously Canadian theatrical scene that was stimulated by such mid-century efforts as Dora Mavor Moore's New Play Society production of Spring Thaw '55, which featured such still active performers as Dave Broadfoot and Robert Goulet. A pair of tickets recalls the late-twentieth century trend toward mega-musicals, such as The Phantom of the Opera that played at a renovated Pantages Theatre on Yonge Street.

Changing technology is illustrated by the 1923 sheet music for Take Me Out To Sunnyside; the 1929 advertisement for "victrola" records featuring Canadian opera star Edward Johnson; the 1929-30 programme for radio broadcasting of Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts; and the 1935 bookmark promoting the movie David Copperfield.