When the Regent Theatre was put up for sale in Toronto’s midtown, the community feared it would be turned into another generic pharmacy -- or lost altogether.
It was an idea that City Councillor Josh Matlow wasn’t willing to accept. In 2017, he began advocating for the preservation of the Mount Pleasant landmark. His efforts would eventually culminate in a new future for the old theatre.
“It represents what Mount Pleasant Road has been for nearly a century,” Matlow tells STOREYS. “And while we embrace change, we also believe that -- along with parks, social services, and infrastructure -- arts and community space are also important to our quality of life in a growing community like Midtown.”
He adds that the venue is significant not only to the Midtown community but to Canadian theatre on the whole.
“So much Canadian talent has gone through those doors and performed on that stage,” he says. “Gordon Pinsent, who is inarguably one of Canada's greatest actors, has shared stories about how so much young Canadian talent would participate in the Spring Thaw and performances were hosted at the Regent.”
At the time of the Spring Thaw -- an annual event held from 1948 to 1971 -- the Regent was known as The Crest, but preceding that still, it was known as the Belsize.
Belsize Theatre, 1942, Archives of Ontario
Belsize Theatre, c.1930, Archives of Ontario
The Belsize was built by Toronto architect Murray Brown, and first opened in 1927 as a venue for movie screenings and live theatre. It was outfitted with decorative arches, Venetian-style balconies, and ornate ceilings throughout.
In 1953, the Belsize reopened as the Crest and was solely dedicated to live theatre. At that time, it was one of two venues for live theatre in Toronto and the only stage in the city predominately showing Canadian productions.
Crest Theatre, 1964, Toronto Star Collection via Toronto Public Library
In 1971, moving screenings returned to the Belsize once again, and in 1988, the theatre was once again rebranded as the Regent Theatre.
Heritage Planning, 2022
The Regent Theatre Toronto
Despite the Regent’s long and rich history -- “it’s been known as one of the most important centres of theatre in our city,” says Matlow -- the theatre was put up for sale in 2017.
It was then that Matlow got the community involved, which led to the propetty being listed on the Heritage Registry. Matlow also successfully moved a motion to have Heritage Preservation staff evaluate the Regent's full heritage designation, which would provide the landmark with even greater protection.
The Regent was bought out by Terra Bruce Productions in 2020, a production company based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Since that time, the theatre has been in a limbo of extensive renovations. The goal has been to breathe new life into the venue, without forsaking its historic past.
“When Terra Bruce purchased it, they answered our prayers,” says Matlow. “I mean, their vision is our vision -- to both host live theatre and events, but also create opportunities for the community to use the space as well.”
For creation company Terra Bruce, purchasing the Regent was an opportunity to expand its presence in Toronto.
“While we have always wanted a ‘home’ theatre in Toronto, we did not think it was a realistic possibility, given building one from the ground up would be so difficult and time-consuming,” says Bob Hallett, Chief Operating Officer for Terra Bruce. “When we discovered that buying and re-developing the Regent was possible, the company’s owners jumped at the possibility.”
There are big plans ahead for Midtown's Regent Theatre, but between the age of the building and its heritage significance, the renovation has been a challenging undertaking for Terra Bruce.
“The old theatre suffered badly from a lack of upkeep, plus some rather awkward renovations -- both of which have either heavily degraded or removed entirely the original interior features. The current auditorium is neither accessible nor corresponding to any sort of public assembly codes," says Hallett.
"Our hope is to preserve as much as we can of what is original and in good shape –- namely the original street front and entrance, and some portions of the lobby and stairs. At the same time, we want to create a safe, accessible, and technically satisfying venue in which to enjoy live performance.”
Because of the significant work needed to bring the Regent up to date, an application was filed with the City in June to “partially but substantially demolish the property.” Because the property has heritage significance, any alterations will need to first be approved by the City. Still, the venue is set to see major changes in the years ahead.
“If they were turning this into a Shoppers Drug Mart, I'd have a real concern, but they're actually trying to improve the theatre, which I think will benefit the community,” says Matlow. “And what you will see from Mount Pleasant Road will continue to look very familiar. It'll look like the Regent Theatre, but there are parts of the marquee, for example, they're going to be either removing or replacing just to improve it from both the safety and aesthetic perspective.”
Once completed, the space is expected to include a cafe, lounge, and public meeting space, in addition to spaces dedicated to theatre, music, and cinema. In the theatre, retractable seats will allow for the area to be used for a wide variety of events. Additionally, the rear of the property will be extended so that the dressing rooms -- they’re currently located below the stage -- can be accommodated behind the stage for better accessibility.
With the renovation in full swing, Terra Bruce expects to reopen the theatre by the fall of 2024. The company has high hopes for the new-and-improved Regent Theatre.
“The theatre was once considered one of the best places in the city to see drama, and it was the launching ground for hundreds of actors and playwrights. In later years, it was a beloved place to see unusual and off-beat movies,” says Hallett. “Our goal for the theatre is for it to be a multi-use facility -- one that will be an enormous asset to the neighbourhood and the Toronto arts community.”
For Matlow, saving the Regent Theatre is a full-circle victory. Once upon a time, he performed on the very same stage that he fought to preserve.
“The Regent Theatre is an iconic and historic part of our community,” he says. “I couldn't be happier with the partner that we found in Terra Bruce and the leadership that they're providing to create exactly what we dreamt.”