As part of the Riverside BIA: 40 Years, 40 Stories series, we’re putting a spotlight on The Opera House, a long-standing establishment for the performing arts and a cultural landmark of Toronto. We dive into the history and origins of the historic building at 735 Queen Street East, and how this family-owned and run establishment has reinvented itself over the years and persevered as a thriving spot to converge today.
Thanks to Athena Ellinas-Towers and her family for sharing their memories and updates for this article, and to local writer Aarti Sharma for her research and writing for this article.
Ask Toronto’s music lovers to list their (pre-COVID) top hang out places for live concerts in downtown and The Opera House in Riverside is one name that would be at the top for younger and older generations alike.
For more than 30 years, popular and as well as upcoming artists, have been creating vivid memories for their fans on the historic stage of The Opera House: Metallica, Nirvana, Robbie Williams, The Killers, Eminem, The Foo Fighters and Metric are just a few of the hundreds of acts who have elated fans.
While concerts have been king at The Opera House since its opening in 1989, the venue’s 950-person capacity has also hosted a diversity of celebrations and occasions including marriages, charity fundraisers, and film shoots.
And the well-kept and fairly unassuming red-brick exterior does not give much away about the happenings that have transpired within its walls over the past century so we’re taking you on a trip through time of re-discovery. What we know as The Opera House today has seen many identities under the fostering of its different owners over the past 112 years since its inception….
The birth of La Plaza Theatre: Take a leap into the Toronto of the early 1900s, when the sound of trotting horses and carriages were still common on Toronto’s streets; and hats and flat caps were typical accessories for many. This was also the time when theatrical settings were budding places for amusement.
At this time, what was gaining traction was Vaudeville – a live entertainment form that featured singing, dancing, magic shows, comedy and much more. On the heels of this trend, in 1909, the La Plaza Theatre designed by architect Charles Wagner, opened at 735 Queen E as an Edwardian vaudeville stage. For many years, La Plaza reverberated with the cheers of its audience, who were primarily the workers of the industries in the vicinity.
Theatre to Cinema: With galloping technological advancements, when automobile sounds were replacing the trotting sound of horses, the applause of the La Plaza started gravitating toward proliferating cinema theatres, as was so from the 1930s to the 1960s. Acculturating with the drift, the venue converted into a single screen cinema hall. Over the years, owing to the soaring multiplex market, this single-screen setting went back to being the stage for performing arts. With the course of time, the building was passed in the hands of different proprietors and had various names on its façade including Acropolis, the Dundas, Cinema Ellas, and the Off-Broadway Theatre in the 1980s.
The Dawn of The Opera House and a Leap of Faith:
Athena Ellinas-Towers – a member of this family-run business and a Riverside BIA Board member for over 20 years – shared that her brother Gus found the 735 Queen Street East building in 1989 when they were already running the family’s restaurant on The Danforth.
Recollecting the day when her brother took her to see the old theatre at 735 Queen E for the first time, Athena spoke about how she looked at the exterior of the building and exclaimed how gorgeous it was. However, her brother promptly said that she was looking at the Ralph Thornton Community Centre (765 Queen East about a block east) and not the place that they were buying. Soon her excitement was tempered when she saw that her brother had set his eyes on a very old, run-down theatre that had not been renovated in decades. Additionally, back then, this part of the town did not seem as lively and inviting….
However, her belief in her visionary brother’s business acumen and the fact that she did not feel challenged anymore in their existing restaurant business, led them to forge ahead.
All in the Family
Athena, one of the three children of the family, became the new businesses general manager of facilities, along with her eldest brother Gus and younger brother Chris Ellinas, with equal responsibilities and all hands-on with the business.
Mom, Helen, contributed throughout the years in any capacity she was able to, as well as Dad, Adam Ellinas, who passed three years ago, was always contributing in his own way. Collectively, the whole family contributes equally to the success of The Opera House.
What inspired the name ‘The Opera House’?
Athena gave ‘The Opera House’ its name. The 1900s vaudeville theatre architecture of the building and the fact that it was formerly a Vaudeville theater inspired that name. The venue has a lot of character which needed to be recognized. The 12,000 square feet grand premise embodies a multi-level auditorium with tiered balcony hanging over a tiered stall (and a licensed bar in the balcony was later added!)
Fun Fact: Riverside Toronto’s The Opera House hosts everything but the opera; except for just one weekend in the past 30+ years, when an incredible opera event was hosted: it was a Live Opera event called “AtG’s Messiah” staged by Against the Grain Theatre on December 14 & 15, 2013. What is amusing here? Well, the spectators watched the opera while having poutine and beer. Without a doubt, the appealingly bizarre combination resulted in a sold-out event.
Fun Fact again: When the Canadian Opera Company opened, the Opera House received calls from all over the world asking for a line-up.
Pursuits of entertainment in The Opera House:
The kickoff as a Dance Club and Adaption to a Concert Venue: The Opera House embarked on its original journey as a dance club in 1989. However, it hit a roadblock within a period of six months. The frequent patrons, chiefly younger demographics, waltzed their way to the other trending and newer venues. This left Athena and her brothers weighing out options that could best use this spacious setting.
Glam rock was very popular in those days and many bands were interested in performing on the huge stage at The Opera house. There were not many concert venues back then, so it made sense to re-launch as a concert hall. This fitting transition in these favorable conditions, kept The Opera House busy all the time.
Lots of grunge bands, and touring bands from Europe, Asia, Africa, US and many other places chose the venue to delight their fans.
The Ellinas family, who originally immigrated from Cyprus to Canada during the Turkish invasion in 1974, have always been very welcoming or diversity. This holds true for the versatile genres of music they’ve hosted including Metal, punk, Indie pop, Folk and hip-hop – to name just a few.
Realizing the augmenting demand for large spaces with staffing, alcohol and security, the Ellinas family, with their astute business acuity, broadened the horizons for The Opera House by offering its stage for varying needs. So while the spring and fall seasons, kept The Opera House pulsating with live concerts, the winters brought in fundraisers and charity events. Live theatre, product launches and traditional marriages also felt a warm welcome here. Over years, The Opera House also became the location for the film industry and flaunted its 1900s personality in several music videos and film scenes.
Over years, the Opera House also became a go-to location for the film industry both for scenes and space – it’s been featured in music videos (e.g. in this well known music video of Brian Wilson by Barenaked Ladies), TV and film scenes (e..g. guest appearance in film Loser).
A Scrumptious Addition to the Family – Opera House Grill & Patio at 737 Queen E:
Dwelling in a small but mighty space on the eastern façade of the Opera House, adjoining the building’s main entrance, is The Opera House Grill, opened in 2015 to serve concertgoers as well as pedestrians.
This pet-friendly Greek food joint operated by the Ellinas family is the residence of the massive ‘Shaggy Burger’ –ranked among Toronto’s top 25 burgers by Toronto Life, and features their famous Greek fries.
The secret behind the Unfailing Footfall in The Opera House:
Be it artists or concertgoers, all are enchanted by the look and the architecture of this establishment. The venue has bewitched many artists, especially European ones. Several bands call The Opera House their home and choose it as their destination when they are in Toronto.
Alongside these strong emotional strings that pull artists to The Opera House, several commercial aspects also make this place compelling. When it comes to producing events, The Opera House is a trusted establishment, having collaborated with global leading promoters, coupled with their long-time experience in the hospitality industry has hard-wired the owners to know how to make their customers happy.
What Happened during the COVID-19 Pandemic:
While the pandemic had hushed The Opera House through a long moratorium on live concerts and large-scale events, the sight of this formerly spirited and bustling entertainment abode sitting in the dark, made the owners look beyond what they had come to know as their norm. The Opera House collaborated with PRG, a world leading entertainment and event producing company, and Lemmon Entertainment, an entertainment consulting and brand development firm, to launch The HUB in Toronto – a content broadcast studio. Armed with Lemmon Entertainment’s experience in consulting and producing large-scale events, and PRG’s state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment, the venue of The Opera House was re-imagined as a broadcast studio.
Working for both not-for-profit and sponsorship, THE HUB is geared to strategize, create, record and broadcast innovative content for diverse ideas and needs. Any event or occasion can be broadcasted live or can be recorded for broadcasting in future.
“The client just has to bring the idea to us and we would execute their vision,” says Athena. Product launches, weddings, branding, concerts, comedy shows and supporting important social causes (such as through The Lost Tapes of the 27 Club) are just a few to name. The HUB will remain until August 2021 with full resumption of live music events beginning September 2021, depending on government guidelines and restrictions.
In the meantime, while The Grill had been closed for much of the pandemic, the family reopened it to much fanfare for the 2021 patio season – now boasting an outdoor side patio as well as a CafeTO curb lane patio – The Grill is once again a popular spot to watch sports games and check out their popular Trivia Tuesdays ‘Live from Outside of The Opera House’ with plans on adding Comedy Wednesdays, Drag Show Thursdays and Live Paint Nights on weekends – for all types of live entertainment outside until we can back inside.
Involvement with the BIA
Athena joined the Riverside BIA Board (then called Queen-Broadview Village BIA) around 2000 because she loved then long-time Board member and local business owner Albert Edelstein and his wife Ruth. Also she knew James from the former infamous Dangerous Dan’s Diner who was on the Board at the time, and Steve who was on the Board and who’s family owned 725 Queen E which housed The Blue Moon Bar (that became Boots & Bourbon, and subsequently other venues over the years).
“We just wanted to make the neighbourhood better and activate the Board”, says Athena. She volunteered to the Treasurer at the time. “One of the family members of the former Pari Discount (now Riverside Market) was on the Board, and gave me a shoe box with paperwork to sort and handle” says Athena, “There was no BIA staff at the time, so Board members did it themselves”.
The Future of The Opera House…
Well, certainly this now 112 year-old building has many fresh ideas yet to offer. Without a doubt, this structure stands strong not only from the vigor that it has derived from the electric performances of thousands of performers over the years, but also largely from the zeal and resourcefulness of its owners who are leaving no stone unturned to keep its legend alive.