3 min

RIP, Yonge Cinemas (Part 1)

For gay men in Toronto, Yonge Street’s glory days are gone. So now what?

“To me, Yonge Cinemas felt like some strange art installation from the mind of David Lynch. All those men from all walks of life, staring silently at each other, hungry, with the blue and white glow of the porn onscreen shining back onto their faces.” Credit: Mike Miksche/Daily Xtra

When walking by Yonge Cinemas in Toronto, I noticed white coverings over the entrance and marquee. It seemed to be closed, so I went around to the alley and pulled at the back door but it was locked too. 

After the closing of Metro Theatre on Bloor Street in 2013, Yonge Cinemas was the only porn cinema left in the city. Although it was probably inevitable that it too would close, it was still sad because of all the strange memories I had in there.

Gentrification has been discussed to death in talks about developing cities like New York and San Francisco. It’s unfortunate, but is a way of life in more prosperous places. Toronto is no different, and the gay scene has been ravaged as a result over the years, with venues closing one by one and nothing opening in their place. 

Within my gay life in Toronto, I watched “It” nightclub and 5ive close, to be replaced with condos. The Barn also shut down, along with The Toolbox, Sneakers, Zipperz, Alibi, and the Bijou. So did The Barracks, which I’d wandered to many times after dancing all night at System Soundbar (not gay, per se, but more gay positive. Nonetheless, it’s also gone).

Some people say that hook-up apps are to blame for this decline of gay spaces but I don’t buy it. After all, a city like Berlin has Grindr and Scruff and still has a vibrant and eclectic gay and queer scene. 

Maybe the problem in Toronto isn’t that gay men are so busy hooking up at home that they no longer go out. My theory is that many of those who are moving into the flashy new condos downtown aren’t nearly as fun as the older gays with bohemian sensibilities (and smaller paychecks) who used to inhabit the core. 

The front of Yonge Cinemas, all boarded up.
Mike Miksche/Daily Xtra

In a city of 2.8 million people (6.8 million if you consider the Greater Toronto Area), we really should have a lot more of gay venues than we currently do, Grindr or not. There are only a few baths left like Steamworks and Spa Excess, and a handful of sex clubs such as Urge and The Cellar. Sure, we still have the staples: Woody’s, Crews & Tango, The Black Eagle and Fly 2.0 but any of the bohemian-like folks who are left from the good old days have done this circuit to death. A trip to Cannabis Culture and/or LCBO on the way home can seem far more spontaneous than a night out in Toronto. 

I’d always been drawn to that strip of Yonge Street between Gerrard and Gould Streets — the massive spinning record sign outside Sam the Record Man that towered over the cheap souvenir shops, the discounted electronic storefronts and payday loan signs — but it hasn’t been the same since they tore down Sam’s. 

When you walk down that strip now, there’s still Zanzibar Tavern and Remington’s, although a new application has been put in to construct two new condo towers at 363 Yonge St. What’s more, the owners don’t want Remington’s to be there when the new developments are done.  

Then there’s my beloved Yonge Cinemas. What I always loved about the place was that it maintained that old school Yonge Street aesthetic from the Sam the Record Man days. Whether you entered off Yonge or in the back on O’Keefe Lane, you’d ascend a large staircase lined with mirrors and LED lights that hypnotically zigzaged all the way up. Then there was that smell of disinfectant, cheap cologne and Wanda’s waffles, and the sound of the turnstiles churning.

The back of Yonge Cinemas, where you could enter on O’Keefe Lane.
Mike Miksche/Daily Xtra

The place was spread out over two floors with “straight” cinemas on the first level, catering more to closeted guys and bisexuals, and explicitly gay cinemas upstairs. There was a video arcade too. It was sleazy, though “seedy” may be a more appropriate adjective for it. 

To me, Yonge Cinemas felt like some strange art installation from the mind of David Lynch. All those men from all walks of life, staring silently at each other, hungry, with the blue and white glow of the porn onscreen shining back onto their faces. The porn itself was nearly muted, with faint moans and cheap dialogue. It was accompanied by shuffling sounds from the audience and belt buckles rattling. Time stood still, past those turnstiles. It was pure magic! 

Whenever I was in there I always found it hard to believe that something like this still existed, so really it was no surprise to see that it finally closed. I just wish there had been some warning, so that I could’ve visited one last time to mourn the loss . . .