A Look Back at The Opera House

From Vaudeville to movies, to the venue we've come to know today - this is a brief history of The Opera House

On April 15, 2000, a rave slowly shuffles off Toronto’s streets and into The Opera House. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose.

Just a few months beforehand, a Ryerson student named Allen Ho dies at a Hullabaloo warehouse rave, and in the aftermath the city refuses to be the same. Raves used to be ignored, but now they are pilloried in Toronto’s media. Consequently, in May 2000, Toronto City Council temporarily bans rave events from city property, electronic music is forbidden from being played after 3am, and Bill 73 (The Raves Act) heavily restricts parties. There are protests, and soon the ban is lifted, but things have definitely changed and new liabilities mean that promoters face charges if party goers are found with illegal drugs.

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(Exterior of La Plaza, circa 1948. City of Toronto Archives. La Plaza. Fonds 251, Series 1278, File 97.)

And so, the Hullabaloo parties go to The Opera House. Because the venue has said “yes”, and because Riverdale, with its seedy character and Jilly’s strip club, doesn’t really seem like much of a sell-out location. Hullabaloo plays its HappyHardcore 150bpm music in the century-old building until the last party closes, on July 14, 2007.

The Opera House, in spite of the name, is by no means a fancy pants. Charity fundraisers, local Battle of the Bands, Eminem and Rage Against the Machine—they take in all kinds, a hi-lo of venues. “The Opera House can be booked for feature film shoots, videos, commercials and television productions, comedy acts, DJs and MCs local and international, corporate, special and fund raising events.” Is it a rental or is it a club?

Maybe both? But the place certainly has history.

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(Interior of La Plaza, circa 1947. Archives of Ontario. RG 56-11-0-279-6.)

Located in a working class community that swelled in the late 1800s, the building was constructed as a Vaudeville theatre (Vaudeville being a profitably mass marketed entertainment when it’s built in 1909.) It pumped out five shows a day. But, markets change, and movies began to be a “thing”, being cheaper and easier to host. So the building becomes a movie theatre. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, it’s called La Plaza Theatre, then the Acropolis, and then The Dundas, and Cinema Ellas. The old projectors are still up in the back balcony.

But the way the average person spends money on entertainment (and the way entertainment is sold to the average person) just keeps changing. By the time the 60s hit, it’s all about movie multiplexes, and there just isn’t room to be one of those, so live music it is. The building is christened The Opera House.

The grunge scene loves the old building in the 90s (Nirvana played it), the rave scene, in the guise of Hulla, flocks also to it. The venue makes its money by booking a wide spread of genres. Yes, the poor ventilation leaves skin sticky, but the sight lines are great and the open concept is easy to move around in.

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(Mac DeMarco, NXNE 2014)

But the Opera House serves a neighborhood that is, once again, definitely changing. The average house price in Riverdale has jumped upwards of $500,000 in the past 10 years. An off-leash dog park exists just down the road. Suburban-style chains and condo buildings are rising out of the sidewalk. Neighboring strip club Jilly’s can’t do its part to keep the rent down anymore, it was just bought by StreetCar Developments, along with four and a half acres of nearby land for condos, and in December 2011, the popular and loved eatery, The Real Jerk, was given one month to vacate their building when landlords sold the building to Buckingham Properties.

Yet, somehow, the Opera House continues on, inconspicuously hosting Battle of the Bands and Bombay Bicycle Club, pulling in money in its own little way.