Ghost of Ed McMahon Haunts Music Hall

If you’ve been checking in on this blog for any time now (and thanks, both of you), you know that Mr. TV Feeds My Family is a bit of a film nut. Those annual winter trips to Syracuse, N.Y. for Cinefest are for hard core, gotta be on 16mm, devotees of early sound and silent film. If your film tastes do not extend back before the first Beverly Hills Cop, do not even think about driving to Syracuse in March.
So jumped at an invitation last night to attend a screening in Toronto of the 1920 feature “Dollars and Sense” starring Madge Kennedy.
Kennedy was a popular silent screen star who never really made the transition to sound pictures–although she found a whole new career decades later in television, appearing in everything from Leave It to Beaver to The Twilight Zone. She died in 1987.
The event marked the 90th anniversary of the Danforth Music Hall, originally billed as “Canada’s First Super-Suburban Photo-Play Palace” when it opened as part of the Allen Theatre chain on Aug. 18, 1919. The Great War had ended, the Bloor viaduct had just opened, and the Allen clan was there with their theatre as the city spread east. They built ten of these movies houses around T.O. just as the war ended (and over 50 across Canada). Unfortunately, they ran smack into a brutal content war; Paramount yanked all their films away from the Allens and into their own Famous Players venues (some things never change). The Allen chain folded and the theatres were re-named. The Allens got back into the business and many of their buildings survive to this day, albeit often as bookstores or antique shops.
The Music Hall has somehow survived into a new century as a theatre despite years of mixed use abuse, especially as a rock and roll venue. The current owners have taken pains to restore the old barn to its former glory, with a new interior paint job, complete with gold leaf gilding, an expanded ticketing area and other upgrades. The new “Toxic Avenger” play is coming there in a month and producers Dancap (“Jersey Boys”) have already started to slop green slime outside near the marquee.
Admission last night was one skinny dollar and the place was packed. It was quite heartening to see so many people in 2009 come out for a silent movie. A pianist and three violinists were on stage to provide musical accompaniment, just as audiences would have expected in 1919. Their Gershwin pre-show medley was the night’s high point.
Unfortunately, the ghost of Ed McMahon must have been in the building. The late, great Tonight Show sidekick played the Music Hall on a wintry November night three years ago, and it was a less than auspicious occasion. The place was only about a third full and there were technical snafus galore. McMahon–clearly steamed that he’d hauled his mortgaged ass all the way out of cosy LA to come to something less than the charming English Music Hall he had envisioned–at one point snapped at the poor kid running the wonky power point presentation (which offered tired Alpo Ads and Carson clips). After one too many mix ups, former Marine McMahon broke from his “Memories of the Tonight Show” patter to snap that his AV guy must have been the same dope who was the look out at Pearl Harbor.
Well, the AV gremlins were at it again last night. A full house had to sit through an hour of speeches from local politicians and other folks who couldn’t wait to meet themselves before the cue finally came to start the movie. The next disappointment was that it was not a film but a digital copy of the movie, projected from the balcony on some half-assed Best Buy projector. The DVD was apparently licensed from the Library of Congress in Washington but it might as well have been bought behind the counter at a local conveinience store. The damn machine glitched and froze and the DVD skipped and stalled. The audience hung in there, buoyed by the game piano tinkling, but the poor musicians were stuck following a stop and start image. It was like being at somebody’s house and they’re trying to show you their burned disc of last year’s office party, except somebody spilled beer in the machine, it is kacking and there are 750 people in the room–and no popcorn.
Although the stage was crammed with representatives from Heritage Toronto, the Riverdale Historical Society and Dancap as well as surviving members of the Allen family (who still run the Five Drive-in in Mississauga) and the “CEO” of the Music Hall, nobody thought to hook up ahead of time with the one group who could have saved everybody’s ass–the Toronto Film Society. They could have been counted on to come up with (likely through friends at Rochester, N.Y.’s Eastman House) an actual film print of a Madge Kennedy feature, as well as a newsreel, cartoon and other shorts from that era. All on non-freezing, old reliable 16mm or 35mm.
Reg Hartt, who has exhibited film in Toronto for nearly 40 years, could also have told these folks a thing or two about putting on a silent cinema treat for modern audiences. You don`t cut corners with the one part of the show your audience came out to see–the movie.
So Dollars and Sense was the big lesson at the old Allen Danforth Theatre last night. You need both to run a movie show. What the false start proved is that there still is an audience for silent cinema in Toronto, especially on a summer night when the price is right.

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