It was a cold, wet, and a miserable night in Toronto, yet a good crowd gathered to take part in a special ghost edition tour of the historic Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. On this occasion we were there to learn about the history and restoration of the complex and to hear the tales of the alleged ghosts and spirits that are said to inhabit the building.
The organizers did not necessarily plan a spooky tour, but some of the stories were intended to send a chill up our spines. At exactly 7:30pm, our guide Derek led the crowd into the main floor theatre location. When we sat down, he began his talk. “Why did you come here?” he asked outright, “Has anyone here not seen a show here?” he quizzed, as others raised their hands. “Shame on you!” he scolded them, jokingly. “Shame on you!” he added with a laugh.
This theatre was built by Marcus Lowe, an American financier. At one time, he owned 112 theaters that continued to offer a mix of vaudeville and movies. By 1920 Loew was the dominant movie theater owner in
The Elgin Theatre opened on December 15, 1913. Months later, on February 16, 1914 the upstairs, Winter Garden Theatre opened, making it now the last operating double-decker theatre in the world.
Somewhere along the way, Marcus Loew, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg all teamed up to start MGM, which was at its time a premier studio in Hollywood. Sadly, Marcus Loew died on September 5, 1927 at only age 57, leaving a $30 million estate to his wife Caroline and their sons.
By 1930, all the live shows were gone, leading to talking pictures. In this era, you would see Gone with the Wind. In the 1970’s, the theatre became a porno house. The last show to play was What the Swedish Butler Saw. The wrecking ball came, but the Ontario Heritage house stopped it. The theatre has been painted beige 27 times. The oil paints were filled with lead and wrecked all the original ornaments.
Then came Cats The Musical. They painted the theatre beige. After restoration, they had lounges and washrooms put in. In the main floor, it once housed 2000 seats but now only 1,561 remain. Why? More leg space and comfort for its patrons, all to simulate the comfort you feel in your living room, allowing your comfort to last a three hour show. The whole theatre has been restored to the way it was. The lamps are gone. 250 volunteers helped restore the theatre, but only 100 volunteers remain. They are always looking for volunteers. Volunteers are always welcome. All the walls are covered by fabric, much like what you will find in TV show Coronation Street. They restored everything to match old photographs. Everything is the way it should be. The only thing missing is the original chandelier. They are looking for it. The only thing fake is the ceiling that hangs in the main floor theatre.
There is also a lady in white, and the Lavender Lady, who appear only at rehearsals. When the restorations happened, the crews were amazed at what they saw. There other members in the volunteers in the Garden Theatre, who all saw something. “First time I saw the man in black suit and he was a tall man too,” continued Derek, getting slightly animated, “When it happens once, twice, again, again…repeats itself over and over again, it is something else,” he added.
When Derek ended his talk, we moved up to almost the second floor. Here Linda began a talk. She said the theatre was at one time oil lit before electricity came. “In the past,” she began with a confident stride, “Edwardian women who had money would dress in their Edwardian best—they would wear their money!” Linda pointed to the elevators. “All the elevators were in their original condition. In restoration, they made them computer controlled, some have had Plexiglas installed on them with holes drilled into it, but the elevators are still haunted.” The elevators hold 20 people. If it has more, it won’t move. “Most people won’t ride in the middle elevators—you press 4, it will stop at 2,” she added with a laugh. “That ghost Sam plays practical jokes. Yes it is computer coded and driven with all the bells and whistles, yet when the elevators stops, you have to talk to it’s sometimes, and coax it to continue. When it is stuck sometimes, I tell Sam I have 20 kids waiting down below. No more delays please!”
They are open for corporate events, film, and TV shoots, including commercials. The 2002 Academy Awarding winning movie
It was said that Amelia Earhart’s sister lived in
We now made it to the fourth floor. Outside the elevator, Linda recalled the frigid cold of a ghostly presence. “For some reason, it even spelled like a horse barn when there was no horse in the area.” Such logic would send a ripple of whispers throughout the gathering.
When we made it to the Winter Garden theatre, another volunteer took charge, after everyone had sat. This level used to have a show every night at 8:15pm but in 1930 it was stopped. The second level of theatre was shuttered and its entrance was covered up by a fake ceiling. When Cats began, the restoration of the Winter Garden commenced. They discovered 8,000 breach tree branches in the ceiling. This had to be removed. The restoration members then were sent to Caledon, where they fetched 5,000 branches, not 8,000 as before. It was then prepared with the right preservatives and oils. Once it was all put into its rightful place, new technology was installed, including air conditioners with lighting and a state of the art sound system. In 1950, 1,462 seats were in place, but now under a thousand remain. As a matter of fact, all the seats at the Winter Garden are replicas that are painted in the garden themes. Originally, it had cheap water soluble paints. They used raw bread dough, affixed it, rolled it over each painted surface and cleared every square centimeter was cleaned and repainted. “80% of the paint is original.” They have the original fire curtains, including the orchestra pit. The orchestra pit is never used, or rarely used at all. The actors and musicians are put on the stage. All the lanterns were replaced because of the theft of lanterns. It is said, one of the seats in this theatre came from the Biograph Theater in Chicago. “So one of the seats in here,” he said in a cryptic type way, “could be the seat where John Dillanger sat the night he died in a police shooting.”
If that is not spooky enough, it is said, a saxophone player took a short cut off the stage, fell, breaking his neck. When they were renovating the location, workers would sense a presence. Eventually, they had a séance, a spiritualist got a weegie board, and they came up with a name for the culprit. That ghost came to be called Sam and he is known as a practical joker. He is seen as a once a person who was fond of drinking and merriment, but is friendly. Another ghost is said to be a woman. She is seen to watch set ups, or rehearsals. When she is approached as if she were an intruder, she disappears, and the smell of lavender is in the air. They call her the Lavender Lady. She is like trapped energy in a form.
An usher had a weird story. There was a standup comedian performing a show and the usher felt a cold draft. She put down the flash light and it started to flash on and off repeatedly. “Lots of energy in here,” continued the tour guide. “Jessica Tandy was in a movie that filmed right here in the Winter Garden Theatre too.”
What else was shot at this center? The TV shows Lost Girls, Flash Point, and Copper. Back in the fall of 2003 Lindsay Lohan came to the Winter Garden to film Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. And of course… Richard Geer in Amelia which also stars Hillary Swank. So look out for more tours! For more information, check out their link at http://www.heritagetrust.on.ca/EWG/Home.aspx .
Paul Collins, author of Mack Dunstan’s Inferno / Mystery of Everyman’s Way
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