All the bums are on screen instead of in seats: Ontario’s last porn palace is on the verge of going dark

Legions of Torontonians are familiar with the façade of the Metro Theatre on Bloor in Koreatown: its slightly discoloured beige and brown deco brickwork, its backlit illustrations of fading beauties, its banner advertising Emanuelle, its barely maintained signboards enticing or intimidating passersby with the promise of “quality entertainment for adults” in 35mm widescreen and stereo sound. Everyone wants to know what it’s like inside.

It’s like this: in the brightly lit lobby in front of the unattended concession stand, there are often a couple of grey-haired men chatting casually and sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups. They’ll have a laugh with the grey-haired ticket attendant after you pay your $8.50 admission ($5.50 for seniors) and wander past the open door of the men’s room (through which a sign advises that the area is patrolled by police), past the glass display cases of ’80s-era XXX video boxes and sex toys, toward the closed door of the cinema.

Inside the door, there is a blinding darkness in a cavernous auditorium that smells overpoweringly of musk and sweat and mildew. If you look up, you can see a hint of light from the projection booth reflecting off two chandeliers. If you look south, you can see slightly-out-of-focus penises, 10-feet tall, penetrating orifices five-feet wide on a screen bookended by decorative columns and framed by a red velvet curtain. If you look anywhere else, you’ll only see the dark.

Moving slowly, carefully down the aisle, you can take a seat in a velour, high-backed chair — comfortable but difficult to clean, you’d imagine — easing in to ensure there’s no one already occupying it. Alongside the gasping and heavy breathing of the porno soundtrack, there’s the sound of zippers and the occasional cough. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you see the craning heads of other patrons — there may be only 10 or 15 in the auditorium, which could hold 200 — as they periodically change seats or wander the aisles, staring down the rows of seats to see who else is watching.

You may or may not be interested in the porn on screen, which is recent-vintage gonzo/amateur stuff rather than the 35mm classics advertised, but the uninitiated will find it difficult to lose themselves in the film, given the manoeuvering of other audience members who appear to be an essential part of the experience, and who clearly consider you part of it, too. Internet porn is nothing like this. And soon, nothing in the city will be like this.

Where once — before the age of DVD, the internet and adult movies on cable — big-screen porn cinemas such as the Rio and the Pagoda dotted Toronto, now the Metro Theatre is the last of its kind in Ontario, and its days are numbered. The building has been for sale for three years and Wayne Green, an agent for the owner, Karim Hirji (who was unavailable to comment for this story), says mounting bills and a nearly non-existent market for public porn mean it’s unlikely to continue operating as an adult cinema for more than another year.

It’s unlikely that anyone paying the asking price (in the neighbourhood of $2 million) would buy it because they wanted to run an adult cinema, but even if they did, Green says it won’t happen. “After it’s sold, it can’t be an adult theatre anymore. It’s going to be part of the deal that it won’t be an adult theatre anymore … that will be stipulated in the deed.” Perhaps few will mourn the closing of this dubious Bloor West landmark, but it will still represent the end of an era in Toronto cinema.

And not just because it is the last place most Torontonians will ever have the chance to see hardcore porn on a big screen. It’s also, alongside the few remaining rep cinemas, a reminder of a time when nearly every major street in Toronto was dotted with neighbourhood movie houses. The Metro, of course, wasn’t always a porn cinema. According to The “Nabes” by John Sebert, the Metro opened in 1938, one of the last art deco theatres built by architects Kaplan & Sprachman before World War II. “The Metro started life with a bang when it had the misfortune to have a massive fire on opening night,” the book says. “The ensuing picture coverage in all the local newspapers gave operator Manny Stein a lot of unexpected publicity.”

There are remnants of its past glory still visible through the darkness at the Metro. In addition to the plush seating and glass chandeliers, one of the auditoriums has murals on the walls bearing pictures of film icons such as Mary Poppins and Laurel and Hardy. There’s also a mostly unused fountain inside the auditorium.

As Colin Geddes, a programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival who held monthly screenings of kung-fu films at the Metro between 1996 and 1998, says, “They didn’t use the fountain at all, but anytime I’d do my screening they’d let me drag a hose from the bathroom and fill it up, so we’d have this sparkling fountain with lights in the cinema. It was kind of like a little half-time show. Details like that are just from another era of movie-going, which is forgotten. The snack bar — considering it was a porn theatre, it had one of the most festive snack bars. It used to have this kind of tropical paradise motif behind it. The theatre is just, for me, full of stories.”

Geddes says he was attracted to the venue as a rental space because of the cheap rent — Green says it’s still available for rent for between $200 and $400 per night — but that the atmosphere became part of the charm. “You’d have a lineup around the block of people waiting to get in, and you’d get people going by in cars, seeing this lineup outside a porn theatre, not realizing that it wasn’t for a porn film and they’d be honking and teasing the audience … To be seen out there and to be seen going in — this was a badge of honour to have been inside.”

Once, when Quentin Tarantino attended a Metro screening of Master Killer, Geddes apologized for the “funky smell.”

“Tarantino said, ‘Don’t apologize. That’s how I remember seeing these [grind-house] films, in old smelly

Other Toronto independent icons have rented the theatre, too, including the Summerworks theatre festival and The Hidden Cameras, who invited friends to screen videos before their Nov. 3, 2001 performance.

Art pornographer and former eye Weekly columnist Bruce LaBruce launched three of his films there, between 1994 and 2001. LaBruce says it’s sad to see the loss of porn cinemas. “It’s the actual experience of watching porn in a public theatre, which nobody has a chance to do any more. Pornography in general has become such a private, onanistic pastime where it’s almost shameful for some people because it’s only something they do secretly in their own house … that that experience is lost is too bad.”

Geddes also thinks it will be a loss to the city, pointing out that the internet and video revolutions don’t mean porn is as widely available as we may assume. “I heard a conversation once on the pay phone in the lobby of a guy phoning home, saying, ‘Yeah, honey, there’s a huge line here at the unemployment office — I won’t be able to get home for a while.’ So these are guys who are coming to retreat into this fantasyland because they can’t do it at home; they can’t pop a tape into the VCR. They probably share a house with a wife and kids, family members, and privacy is not easy to come by and so they come to the theatre. I think it’s really healthy to have that place.”

It’s not, however, an environment where everyone would feel comfortable, especially women. One female Toronto journalist who went for a possible story in 2003, expecting the 35mm softcore classics advertised outside, was appalled. “I still have sense memories of the smell in that place. Kind of like a cross between sweat and rotten fish,” she writes in an email. “I had one of the worst journalistic experiences of my career. I went with my partner to look around,” she writes, and reports that the smell and the aggressive interest of the other patrons made her leave and never want to return. She never wrote her story.

Green is careful to point out that the Metro has never had any trouble with police and they work hard to keep illicit behaviour out. He says members of the dwindling crowd are “not troublemakers,” and many of them are just looking for a comfortable place to hang out.

Varying tastes in sexually charged atmospheres aside, LaBruce says the closing of the Metro is a loss to more than just porn culture. “It’s part of the further gentrification of the entire city, the McBeautification of entertainment, so all movie theatres are becoming pretty uniform. They all look the same, the experience is pretty much the same, they have the same concession stands, they have the same decor — these [independent porn, grind-house and second-run] theatres each had their own character, their own style, the experience was totally different … all the great theatres have closed. All the character is disappearing.”

Geddes agrees. “When I hear that a cinema is closing or being torn down, if you think of all the stories, all the faces that have been projected onto that screen, that screen’s almost magical. It’s just that screen’s soaked up so many memories and has been the focal point of joys and emotions from the audience that I think it’s special … I just think it will be a really sad thing when that cinema closes.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly September 29, 2005.