|John J. Griffin of The Griffin Opera House|
**Article originally published in the October 2017 edition of Outlook newsletter.
During the years 1910 to 1927, the Opera House at Bridge and Church Streets in Belleville took its name from moving picture pioneer John J. Griffin of Toronto. He was no stranger to Belleville during those years, however, visiting the city on numerous occasions to attend to the business of the Griffin Amusement Company, which he ran with the help of his son, Peter. John Griffin leased the Carman Opera House in May of 1910 and also owned the Palace Theatre on Front Street. His closest friends in town were Crown Attorney Carnew and Jack Mackie, the three men often attending performances at the Opera House together.
John Griffin was born in Toronto on November 25, 1855, of Irish-Catholic parentage. He began his circus career as a candy butcher during the days when “grafters, pickpockets and crooks generally” were part of circus life, and rose to become owner of half a dozen circuses. In the off-season, he always returned to Toronto. In late 1905, as he was coming back from the United States, he observed the success of storefront cinemas, in particular the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon, where motion pictures were shown at a cost of five cents. Griffin decided to try the venture in Toronto for having reached the age of fifty, he wanted to spend more time at home. By the end of 1906, he owned four theatoriums in that city. The following year, the Griffin Amusement Company was registered in Ontario, and the business grew.
Source: Toronto Star, Aug. 14, 1931
In the fall of 1907, the Toronto newspapers reported that John Griffin had been sent to jail for fifteen days at hard labour for an aggravated assault charge on his wife. Despite hearing a denial from the defendant of every claim his family members made in court, the magistrate refused to consider a fine, suggesting that jail time would give Griffin “plenty of time to think it over.” This decision appears to have had some influence for while in jail, Griffin allowed his largest theatre to be used by a prominent religious features editor for the Sunday World as a kind of penance. During the following month the man lectured to The Passion Play.
John Griffin’s experience and ready money allowed him to prosper as he bought and ran ever more theatres throughout Ontario. A total of thirty-four are known. The Griffin Amusement Company was connected to chains of theatres in Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, New England and Michigan. In May of 1910, Griffin leased four older theatres in Stratford, Guelph, Kingston and Belleville. Thus, the Carman Opera House became the Griffin Family Theatre, for the company’s business plan was to focus on motion pictures and vaudeville. Actress Beatrice Lillie, who attended St. Agnes Manor school in Belleville, sang at The Palace in the evening. She also performed at one of Griffin’s Theatoriums in Toronto early in her career.
The transformation to the Griffin Family Theatre, later commonly referred to as the Griffin Opera House, reads as follows in the Daily Intelligencer: “A large electric sign with the name ‘Griffin’ has been placed on the roof and the front is brilliantly illuminated with incandescent lights, which was a long-felt want, and will lend a feeling of enchantment to the exterior, while upon the interior one’s attention is attracted to the brilliantly lighted stage. A new row of foot lights have been put in and about a hundred side lights. There will be new draperies throughout. The color scheme, as designed by Scantlebury, is one of quaint ivory. As is the custom of the Griffin people, all the decorations, both electric and otherwise, have been in the hands of local contractors.”The paper adds that “Mr. Griffin personally will be here for the opening performances,” and informs that “the shows will be continuous, so that you may go at any time from two- thirty until five in the afternoon, and from seven until ten-thirty at night.”
During the First World War, John Griffin was generous in allowing free use of the Opera House for recruiting meetings. In 1917, his company supported the campaign for Victory Loans, donating $50 bonds to be raffled in each of his theatres. In 1918, Griffin provided a free open air showing of Victory Loan films in front of the Palace Theatre using the screen from the Opera House.
The Palace Theatre burned down on November 16, 1920, the fire starting in the furnace room. The building had been leased by Mayor W.B. Riggs to the Griffin Amusement Company as a moving picture theatre. In the later years of the Opera House, that building was Griffin’s in name only. It was demolished in 1933 as modern motion-picture theatres took over.
John Griffin had died two years earlier on August 13, 1931. He was remembered in obituaries as one of the best-known showmen in Canada. George Forhan of Belleville, who worked with Griffin for many years, stated in The Intelligencer that Griffin was “the most generous of men and the finest possible executive to work with.”John J. Griffin’s obituary in that newspaper includes these words: “it is fitting that his good deeds of which little was said in his lifetime should live after him, and other deeds of possible doubtful value should be buried with him.”