Built by Cawthra Mulock, the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto was saved from demolition in 1962 by Ed Mirvish. His vision returned golden grandeur to the historic venue
A sophisticated young man, Cawthra Mulock wanted to put Toronto, Ontario on the world’s cultural map. The son of an MP, Mulock was a stockbroker, a foundry-owner and a very rich man – he inherited nearly $3 million from a wealthy great-aunt when he was a teenager. In 1905 at age 23, he formed a union with several other prominent men to build “a modern centre for the performing arts”. The mission given assigned to the architect was to “build the finest theatre on the continent.”
A French-influenced theatre in the heart of Toronto
And John Macintosh Lyle did. He took up the task, designing a modern theatre in the beaux-arts style. The French-influenced building boasted grand balconies and carved columns outside, with an elegant copper-trimmed roof. Built at 260 King Street West, in the heart of Toronto, the theatre opened on August 26, 1907. It was complete – with cost-overruns of almost double the original price.
Extravagantly appointed, the interior of the Royal Alexandra was sheer opulence. Polished Italian marble, Venetian mosaic tile, glittering crystal chandeliers, and luxurious velvets and silks for the drapes and walls filled the rooms. Planetmall.com noted the seats were of silk and wool gabardine, and were crafted with ornate metal sides and hooks underneath to hold the gentlemen’s hats. Visitors were entranced by a large mural painted by Frederick Challener, and by elaborate gilded plasterwork.
A leader in comfort, construction and safety advancements
The Royal Alexandra Theatre was constructed as a leader in patron comforts, too. There were bathrooms and lounges, a rarity for almost anywhere at the time. The building was framed in steel, allowing for cantilevered balconies with no pillars to block views. “Built over a huge ice pit”, such innovative construction for the era “made it the first ‘air-conditioned’ theatre in North America,” said Richard Ouzounian of The Star. Small grates under each seat allowed the flow of the cool air to circulate. Also ahead of its time, the building featured the latest advancements in fire-prevention and safety.
Named for Queen Alexandra (the great-grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth), King Edward VII gave his permission for the word “Royal” in the name of the theatre. Cawthra Mulock did not have many years to enjoy his impressive achievement of the Royal Alexandra Theatre; he died in 1918 at age 36 of Spanish Influenza in New York City, leaving behind a wife and four children.
Demolition was considered, but the theatre survived
By the 1960s the theatre was falling into disrepair. Demolition was proposed. The Mulock Estate sold the Royal Alexandra to Ed Mirvish in 1962 for the bargain-basement price of $215,000. Mirvish, a prominent and colourful Toronto entrepreneur known best for his “Honest Ed’s” department store empire, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into modernization and refurbishing the building back to its majestic state. Once completed, the theatre sparkled again under Mirvish’s direction, with popular productions that have run for years at a time to great acclaim.
Hair, Godspell, Les Misérables, and others gave theatre-goers around the country a reason to visit Toronto and the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Under Mirvish Productions, Ed Mirvish’s son, David, has been at the helm of the theatre since the 1980s. (Ed Mirvish died at age 92 in Toronto on July 11, 2007.) The Lion King, Mamma Mia and the upcoming Dirty Dancing are keeping the grand old theatre in the spotlight.
As part of the centennial celebrations, a time capsule was placed in the building, not to be opened for another 100 years.
Visit the Mirvish Productions site for more about the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Read more about Cawthra Mulock on Biographi.ca
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod