Katrina Clarke | March 8, 2015 | Toronto Star
An infamous Korea town porn theatre may not have seen the last of sweaty, pulsating flesh inside its shuttered doors.
The Metro Theatre, Toronto’s last porn palace, finally sold in August 2013 after the former owner spent more than a decade trying to shake off the property. Now, the building is getting its interior ripped out and neighbours say it will become a rock climbing gym — but the future remains shrouded in mystery.
“Many members, they’re waiting for the opening of the building — the recreation centre,” said Minho Lee, a coordinator with the Korea town BIA. “But unfortunately, so far not many people know (when it will) open… because they don’t advertise anything at all.”
Lee, who has an office across the street from the former theatre, said the new owners told him in 2013 that it would become a recreation centre. The building remained open with few changes until last December, when he noticed construction crews starting to remove chairs.
The buyers — a numbered company that shelled out $2.9 million for the prime Bloor St. and Christie St. location — remain mum about specific plans. People connected to the company would not speak openly with the Star but one man confirmed crews are gutting the building. He said there are “no real plans” yet.
Ward 19 councillor, Mike Layton, said the owners came to his office over a year ago, showing him preliminary drawings to create a climbing gym.
“It was really, really rough drawings,” he said. “They wanted to do a gym in the back and have some retail in front.”
Layton said he’s unsure of where the plans stand now.
He said he’d welcome a new gym in the community, adding that many Korea town residents didn’t actually visit the 76-year-old cinema — which started showing skin flicks in the 1970s — and that there might be a “healthy stigma” if the site remained a theatre, he said.
“There’s already a fear that one can contract bedbugs from things like chairs in theatres. I just think that there would be a barrier for folks’ first trip into the theatre because of what it was,” Layton said, adding he’s never been inside.
Back in 2012, there was a glimmer of hope that the Metro might tone down its seedy past and become something more palatable.
“I went in to essentially reprogram it and rebrand it to see if we could take it out of porn and into an art house cinema with live theatre,” said Jonathan Hlibka, who calls himself an “entertainment entrepreneur” and owns film production and distribution company Hlibka Entertainment Inc.
Hlibka signed on in 2012 to become a creative director and manager with the theatre. He started showing burlesque shows, independent films, hosting feminist porn talks and cleaning up the theatre — redoing the seats and flooring.
The owner, Karim Hirji, was still showing porn during the day.
“It wasn’t really working for (Hirji) personally,” Hlibka said. “Kar wasn’t really happy with the smaller films. He was more comfortable with doing porn.”
Hlibka said his projects did well but in the early summer of 2013, he left the theatre. He wouldn’t get into specifics of what prompted his departure, making reference to “managerial problems” but said he’s still on good terms with Hirji.
When contacted by the Star, Hirji declined to comment.
Hirji, whose family bought the 5,450-square-foot theatre in 1979, had been trying to sell it as far back as 2002.
Back then he told the Star in an interview, “Nobody comes to see the movies.” Instead, patrons came to “relax,” using the theatre as a “cheap motel” where they can fall asleep in air-conditioned comfort, he said.
In August 2013, it sold for $2.9 million – a steep drop from the $3.59 million listing in 2011. Hirji was reportedly millions of dollars in debt.
While some people in the Korea town community thought the XXX theatre was slimy and avoided the area because of it, said Lee, other Torontonians say it had a special charm.
“No more Sam the Record Man, no more Metro Theatre… I feel like they kind of exist in the same nostalgia pile in my brain,” said Pam Goldsworthy, a manager at the Queen St. W. Condom Shack. “It’s one more piece of Toronto history gone.”
The theatre also played a role in Toronto’s cultural history, with shots of the 1989 Al Pacino film, Sea of Love, reportedly filmed there.
Goldsworthy said she’s not surprised people weren’t watching porn in theatres, since the internet opens up voyeurism to the masses for free, but she’s still sad to see the theatre go.
Standing outside the Metro Theatre today, it looks a far cry from the bright-lighted, shiny place it once was. Spray painted graffiti covers the front windows and a red “Danger” sign hangs from the front door. There is no indication of what the dilapidated building might become.
But one overt nod to the theatre’s porny past remains.
Perched above the shoppers flocking to the Korean grocery store next door, a painted woman on a theatre sign leans suggestively forward, guarding the entrance to the former porno palace.
With files from Toronto Star staff