History of Toronto’s Yiddish theatre on display at Ontario Jewish Archives

Victory Theatre poster for a three-act comedy entitled Married Slaves, circa 1947 (left) and Harry Goldstein, circa 1916 (right) ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES PHOTOS

Melissa Caza was leafing through a rare back issue of Jewish Life, a magazine that enjoyed a brief existence in Toronto in the late 1940s, when she came upon an article on the Victory Theatre, the legendary former movie house at the corner of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street.

An archivist at the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre (OJA), Caza knew the Victory had formerly been the Standard Theatre, Toronto’s main Yiddish theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. She also knew that photographs of the Standard were quite rare.

Yet here were some nice shots of the theatre marquee, patrons lining up outside the box office and at the candy counter, even a view of the vast interior showing rows of seats, the balcony and the ornamental ceiling. “It was a nice discovery,” she said.

Seating upwards of 1,100 patrons in elegant surroundings, the Standard Theatre was built in 1922 as Canada’s first purpose-built Yiddish theatre. But it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. A previous Yiddish theatre, known as the Lyric or the National, opened at Agnes and Teraulay streets (now Bay and Dundas) about 1907.

Before that, there were many sporadic Yiddish productions, including one as early as 1897 that was mentioned by journalist and future prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in an article in the Mail and Empire.

The history of the local Yiddish theatre may be traced through an assortment of artifacts and articles at the Ontario Jewish Archives. The collection includes a number of handbills, advertising cards and posters – including one for the play Shaindele from Slabodke, which was featured at the Standard in 1928. The poster was discovered during a building renovation along Spadina Avenue in 1982 – it had been rolled into a ball and stuffed into an unused chimney to reduce the draught.

Canadian Jewish Congress historian David Rome neatly summed up the history of the Yiddish theatre in Canada in an article in the Canadian Jewish Archives Journal in 1967. Hye Bossin’s booklet Stars of David is another important source, as is Stephen Speisman’s The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937.

Rome noted that the Lyric Theatre, the precursor of the Standard, could hold about 1,000 people and was often packed to the doors. “When the Jew attends his own theatre, it is a noteworthy fact that he brings the whole family,” noted a reporter for the Canadian Jewish Times. “Mother, father, sister and even mother-in-law must all come along and share in the enjoyment. Such has been the custom at the Lyric Theatre, for during the opening week, two-thirds of the audience has been made up of family groups.”

Despite complaints from rabbis, Toronto Jews were never more keen to see performances than on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, the Times reporter observed. “Too much blame must not be attached to the management of the Lyric in this case,” Rome wrote, “for, sorry to say, Friday night and the Saturday matinee seem to draw the biggest crowd.

The management of the theatre can hardly be blamed altogether, for, according to them – and the box office receipts bear out their statement – without the Sabbath performances, they could not make it pay, and so long as the Jewish public demands such performances, they do not see any reason to withhold these plays from them.”

Also in the files of the Ontario Jewish Archives are a series of articles that celebrated community figure J.B. Salsberg wrote four decades ago about the bygone days of the Lyric and the Standard. Salsberg reminisced about Isadore Axler, the longtime manager of the Standard, and how he sold shares as well as bricks to build his theatre. “Hundreds of Jewish working men and women became participants in the cultural project,” he recorded.

Its opening was a historic occasion, he noted. “The structure named the Standard Theatre was beautiful for its day, both inside and out. Scores of police were needed to keep the thousands who jammed the wide avenue from blocking the entrance to those who were fortunate enough to hold tickets. Axler, in formal attire, made a brief welcoming address before the curtain rose for the first production.” The mayor also made an appearance on opening night.

Salsberg also recalled that mothers would sometimes give their children packed lunches for the matinee, and that chicken bones and orange peels were known to rain down surreptitiously upon patron’s heads from the balcony.

OJA cabinets also contain several pertinent taped reminiscences, including that of Jennie Goldstein. A costume-maker and wife of actor and theatrical dresser Harry Goldstein, Jennie recalled that her then-fiancée and many others in the theatrical demimonde would spend hours gambling backstage after the show.

Even in 1948 when Jewish Life ran the article mentioned above, the Yiddish theatre had already begun its irreversible decline, a victim of the talkies and the gradual demise of local Yiddish speakers. Then, the magazine already seemed to sense the presence of ghosts in the empty theatre: “But as we stood there in the gloomy silence, the memories of bygone days, the greasepaint and footlights, the thrill of ‘curtain time’ on a first night at the Yiddish Theatre, seemed to live again.”

Bill Gladstone is a Toronto-based writer and frequent contributor to these pages. This is the third in a series of seven articles about the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre to be published periodically, funded by the J.B. & Dora Salsberg Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto.

This series is in partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, and draws on their collections: www.ontariojewisharchives.org.