A ghostly tour of the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012. Filed under: Architecture Canada Myths & Legends

Step up to the birdcage, buy a ticket for a tour of the last operating double-decker Edwardian theatre in the world.  It’s cool and dark inside.  The Elgin below, all red velvet with leering gilt satyrs, the Winter Garden a fairylit birch forest above.  But if you think something beckoned from behind an old backdrop, if you think something tugged at your coat, it did.  The theatre has phantoms, not bad just bored, and they want you to linger, here where it’s cool and dark.

The ‘birdcage’ ticket booth at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, Toronto, Ontario

It was a dark and stormy night, Hurricane Sandy kicking Toronto’s door, when I scurried through the rain to the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre on Yonge Street for a special Halloween ghost tour.  Would anyone else show up?  I needn’t have worried; dozens were there, shaking off their umbrellas in the gilded lobby.

Boxes in the Elgin Theatre.

Some were there for the architecture, many this night for the theatres’ rumored paranormal activity. I’ve long been fascinated by the building’s unusual architecture and history, the strange feel of the place. Built in 1913, the complex was the Canadian flagship of Loew’s legendary theatre chain. Designed by Thomas Lamb as a doubledecker theatre, the Winter Garden seven storeys above the Elgin, hosted acts such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sophie Tucker, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy.  This was an era when actors and other public speakers used to suck (legal) cocaine lozenges before performances. One can imagine the performances.

With the decline of vaudeville, the Winter Garden closed in 1928, sealed like a tomb for more than half a century. The glorious Elgin ended its days as a grindhouse movie theatre, its glorious gilding hidden by 28 layers of oil paint.

In 1981, the Ontario Heritage Trust bought the building and undertook a massive restoration. Today, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is  one of Canada’s finest stage complexes, presenting top musicals, award shows and gala screenings for the Toronto International Film Festival. The complex operates with the help of dedicated volunteers who conduct guided tours twice a week, as well as the special Halloween ghost tour.

I knew this was no ordinary tour when, unlike most ghost tours where legends are merely related, the guides took turns telling of their own paranormal experiences on site. More than one volunteer started as an architecture or history buff eager to help out at an enchanting venue. A  ghostly encounter or two or three later, a few have actually become paranormal investigators.

The Winter Garden Theatre was decorated like an outdoor garden complete with faux trees and naturalistic floral murals.

It’s said that over 80 different spirits have been witnessed or experienced at the complex. Some are ghosts of those who died on site, like Sam the trombonist who returned after a liquid lunch to fall off the stage. Others are former staff, like a mischievous elevator operator or the Man in Black, a top-hatted manager who continues to patrol the Elgin’s dim aisles.

The Edwardian Lady in White, most often seen on the staircase, or the Lavender Lady (so-called because of the scent she leaves behind in a centre box of the Winter Garden) are simply long-ago patrons who enjoy returning to a former favorite ‘haunt’.

Ceiling of real beech branches and fairy lanterns at the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto.

In celebration of the theatre’s 100th anniversary in 2013, a series of special events and activities is being planned. Donate to the Chandelier Project and help recreate the Elgin’s grand  Tiffany-style chandelier that went missing in 1935.

For more on scheduled performances,  tour information, volunteer opportunities and the building’s restoration, see the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre website. The theatre is located at 189 Yonge Street, just north of Queen.

A dark and deserted night on Yonge Street, Toronto, thanks to Hurricane Sandy.



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