Article © 1999 Darlene Arden. First published in The Boston Herald, February 11, 1999.

Toronto's Famous Theater Center Dazzles Visitors

No theater lovers' trip to Toronto would be complete without a visit to the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre at 189 Yonge St. The two distinctly different theaters comprise the world's only operating double-decker theater complex.

Designed by Thomas Lamb and built in 1913, the two theaters have been fully, and painstakingly, restored to their incredible beauty.

These were originally vaudeville houses and the new space that serves to unite the theaters has walls designed especially to hold two fully restored vaudeville backdrops. The new area can be rented for use as function space, and the building has wonderful rehearsal space for rent.

The two theaters are as different as day and night. The Elgin is a theater as you expect a proscenium house to be--ornate with cherubs, gold leaf, elegant fabrics and formal opera boxes.

Above the Elgin is the remarkable, intimate Winter Garden. And that name is no joke. It is, indeed, like walking into a garden. The ceilings are made of 5,000 real beech boughs with real leaves intertwined (and fireproofed) and glimmering lanterns. A moon shines near the stage. The walls are painted to resemble a garden.

It's hard to believe that anyone had allowed this complex to remain closed for nearly 50 years when its vaudeville days ended in 1928. A host of famous vaudevillians had played here, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

The $30 million restoration, with Christopher Plummer serving as the honorary chairman, began in 1981 when the Ontario Heritage Foundation purchased the buildings.

So careful was the restoration that hundreds of pounds of raw bread dough were used to clean the walls' original hand-painted watercolor artwork. More than 300,000 sheets of wafer-thin aluminum leaf were used to regild the Elgin's plaster details in a seven-step process. One misspelled word carved near the ceiling was not corrected but restored as it had originally appeared.

Even the lobby telephones are the original old-fashioned kind and you have to talk into the mouthpiece attached to the phone.

The theaters reopened in December 1989 and have presented a wide array of productions suited to their individual styles. Major productions such as "Cats," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" have played the Elgin, while the intimate Winter Garden, which is best suited to plays and cabaret performances, has had such shows as "Love Letters" and been host to a special performance by Celine Dion just before her career took off. Stars appearing here since the restoration include E.G. Marshall, Colleen Dewhurst, Donny Osmond, Victor Garber and Madeline Kahn.

The theaters have their ghost stories, including an elevator that seems to mysteriously run itself. And there's that equally mysterious smell of lilacs in one of the restored dressing rooms.

One of the original dressing rooms is on display, exact in every detail, down to the makeup on the table.

This isn't just a theater complex -- it's an experience to be treasured.

Tours are available Thursdays at 5 p.m., Saturdays at 11 a.m. (and Sundays at 11 a.m. in July and August). Admission is $4 for adults; $3 for seniors and students.