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Toronto Basecamp Climbing: Former porn palace transforms into Bloor West gym

Signage on the historic marquee of Basecamp Climbing, left, harkens back to its previous incarnation as a porn theatre. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Some of Toronto’s seedier history is finally being cleaned up – though you wouldn’t know it by the signs.

Keeping in line with its salacious heritage, the historic marquee extending out over the sidewalk in Bloor Street’s Koreatown now boasts features such as Love Handles and Glory Hold. But unlike their predecessors, the titles refer to climbing walls.

Having closed down for business as Toronto’s last adult entertainment theatre in 2013, the landmark Metro Theatre has found a new lease on life as a climbing gym.

Basecamp Climbing owner Matthew Languay, a former mechanical engineer, has dreamed of starting his own climbing gym for most of his adult life. He travelled all over the world climbing and building climbing walls, only to realize he needed to bring his love home. Or at least somewhere like Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga, or even Guelph.

Basecamp Climbing owner Matthew Languay, a former mechanical engineer, has dreamed of starting his own climbing gym for most of his adult life. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

“Toronto wasn’t even on my radar,” Mr. Languay says, “because where would you find a building with really high ceilings that would be a lot of people’s central focus? Most climbing gyms are pushed to the outskirts because that’s where you find big industrial buildings with big open spaces.”

He walked through the doors of the abandoned theatre about two years ago and had a eureka moment, knowing this would be home.

Built in 1938, the theatre went through several incarnations before catering to adult cinephiles in the 1970s. A former owner, Karim Green, whose family bought the space in 1979, was millions of dollars in debt and had been trying to sell it for more than a decade.

It was finally sold in August, 2013, to a numbered company for $2.9-million. Months later, the theatre officially went dark.

Gym member Nico Peden, who lives nearby and welcomed a change to the restaurant-heavy neighbourhood, remembers going into the old theatre out of curiosity.

“It was really old, really low ceilings, with these random chandeliers,” she says. “You wouldn’t know there was this much space if you went into the theatre.”

Gone is any trace of that murky interior. The new gym is wide open and brightly lit, with the second floor and projector room completely demolished to make room for a smaller mezzanine, soon to feature a bouldering wall for more freestyle climbing.

Mr. Languay says thousands have walked through the door, curious to see what the boarded-up theatre with a caricature of a half-naked woman on the wall has turned into, and have expressed their pleasure at the changes. Many of them, though, are bemused by the marquee.

The new gym is wide open and brightly lit. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Under new zoning rules, the triangular marquee, jutting out over the sidewalk, wouldn’t be allowed. But the art deco property has been grandfathered, and the new owners decided to restore the theatre’s heritage rather than risk losing it. Basecamp Climbing officially opened its doors to the public in February. The front windows, still marked off and bare, are slated to house a coffee shop this spring.

“I think that this is a very creative adaptive reuse that keeps the bones of the building the same,” says Trinity-Spadina Councillor Mike Layton. “This was a building that not many people who live in the neighbourhood would’ve seen the interior of.”

But despite the hip new look it brings to the area, some people are having a harder time letting go of the building’s past, no thanks to the marquee.

“We had a few of the former clientele come in, thinking we were reopening as an adult theatre,” Mr. Languay says. “They’re typically a little older and not the most social, and they come in hoping we’re playing the movies. They leave a little bit bewildered and confused.”

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