1677 Wilson Avenue (Beverly Hills Motor Hotel)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column by The Grid on March 25, 2013. The original sub-headline was “Once upon a time, Toronto’s biggest and most swingin’ lounge could be found on Wilson near Highway 400. No, really.”

Beverly Hills Motor Hotel, 1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 8, Item 1.

Everyone told Jack Fisher he was crazy. Observers thought the veteran entertainment promoter lost his marbles when he opened a downtown-quality night club in North York. Especially in a location whose nearest landmark was the interchange of highways 400 and 401. Fisher proved the naysayers wrong when he packed the house nightly at the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel.

Boxer Rocky Marciano was on hand when the hotel officially opened on June 1, 1965. The problem was that, after he talked to the press, the former heavyweight champ vanished. Fellow pugilist George Chuvalo tried to locate the room Marciano was rumoured to be holed up in, but nobody acknowledged his door-knocking. But the evening wasn’t a total waste for Chuvalo—his wife won a free two-night stay in a raffle.

Though the hotel offered amenities like pools and a sports bar, its centerpiece was the Hook and Ladder Club. At 850 seats, it was the largest lounge room in Metro Toronto. Outside of it was a steam fire engine whose history was as colourful as the acts inside. First used by Whitby’s fire department in 1872, it served as a CNE hot dog stand, was watched over by the York Pioneers, and wheeled out for Labour Day parades before Fisher got his hands on it.

Billy Daniels performing at a North York night spot (probably the Hook and Ladder Club), circa 1965-1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 260, Item 1.

After trying a number of acts, Fisher found a successful formula for the club in January 1967. A week-long booking of Cab Calloway drew some of the largest crowds the venue had seen. Fisher noticed that the older-skewing suburban audience was happy to open their wallets to see recognizable talent close to home. “It’s the older customers who spend the big money,” he told the Star, “and it’s the older entertainers, the old pros from their own generation, who can get them out to spend it.” For Canada’s centennial year, Fisher booked “old timers who can still do a good job” like the Andrews Sisters, Xavier Cugat, Billy Daniels, and Vaughn Monroe. This move prompted bidding wars with downtown showcases like the King Edward Hotel and the Royal York’s Imperial Room.

Frankie Laine greets some fans. “Live entertainment is sweeping the suburbs – from band concerts in the park to the big-name entertainers making up the shower of stars as the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel’s Hook and Ladder Club.” Photo by Boris Spremo, dated February 22, 1974. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, TSPA_0060969F.

When the Seaway hotel chain purchased the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel, it retained Fisher to oversee entertainment throughout their 11 properties. The headliners settled into a mix of reliable lounge talent and local performers. Seasonal lineups in the early 1970s included Charo, Duke Ellington, the Everly Brothers, Frank Gorshin, Stan Kenton, Frankie Laine, Rich Little, Louis Prima, and Mel Torme. (Some of the acts might cause modern audiences to wince, such as the Oriental Mod Squad, whose 1970 appearance was described by the Globe and Mail as “slant-eyed rock with a touch of humour.”)

“The voice is deeper now but Eddie Fisher, the bobbysox idol of the ’50s, is still managing to let out some emotion at the Hook and Ladder Club of Beverly Hills Motor Hotel where he opened last night. He sang hits of the old days..” Photo by Dick Darrell, dated February 21, 1972. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, TSPA_0047185F.

The only act Fisher claimed he wouldn’t book again was Princess Leia’s father, Eddie Fisher. “He skimped on second shows of the night and finally walked out on me,” the booker told the Star in 1974. “You couldn’t pay me to have him back, though his name is the same as mine.”

Toronto Star, March 1, 1978.

By the mid-1970s, cracks appeared in the Hook and Ladder’s formula. Younger audiences were sought via acts like Don McLean and the Supremes. By 1978, the room held a weekly comedy showcase hosted by local TV personality Gene Taylor. A “Miss Short Toronto” beauty pageant inspired by Randy Newman’s song “Short People” garnered media attention. Though it appears organizers failed to convince Toronto’s “Tiny Perfect Mayor” David Crombie to attend, it did attract contestants like 4’10″ secretary/truck driver Leslie Noble. “It’s about time they had something for short people,” she told the Star after winner the preliminary round in front of a sell-out audience.

Toronto Star, July 29, 1978.

During the summer of 1978, the Hook and Ladder was converted into His Majesty’s Feast, one of the city’s first medieval-themed, eat-with-your-fingers dinner theatres. Globe and Mail critic Jay Scott discovered that, while the chicken and ribs were decent, the meal ended with “an indecent apple dessert with an inedible oil product.” He praised “Wench Brandy” for her rendition of “Let Me Entertain You,” the type of Broadway show tune that producers found worked better with audiences than sleep-inducing authentic 16th-century songs.

The show ran for the next four years, during which there were many changes to the property. The hotel rebranded itself as a Rodeway Inn in 1980. The following year, ads promoted a Sunday outdoor flea market on the premises. By 1982, new ownership decided a total makeover was due: His Majesty’s Feast moved out to Humber Bay, while strip shows in the Hall of Fame Lounge drew to a close. Incoming management planned to reshape the property as, according to the Star, “a very high-class establishment which will cater to both the business crowd and the family” and would capitalize on being the largest hotel near the recently opened Canada’s Wonderland.

Toronto Star, August 17, 1985.

Rebranded as a Ramada Inn, the hotel saw a steady stream of sessions dedicated to quitting smoking, expanding the mind, grabbing autographs from former hockey stars, and financial advice seminars. After a stint as a Days Hotel, the property became the Toronto Plaza Airport Hotel (aka Toronto Plaza Hotel), which has received mixed online reviews regarding its state of repair.

As for the steam engine that once graced the grounds, it was given to local fire authorities when the hotel was sold in 1982. It shifted locations several times until it was repainted and placed in the lobby of Toronto Fire Services headquarters following amalgamation. It was returned to Whitby in 2006, where it was placed in its present home at the town’s central library.

Sources: the June 3, 1965, November 9, 1968, September 18, 1970, July 13, 1978, and December 16, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the January 19, 1967, April 19, 1974, September 3, 1975, March 1, 1978, April 4, 1982, and April 20, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star.


Toronto Plaza Hotel as seen on Google Maps, January 2021.

By 2017, the hotel was being used by the city to shelter asylum seekers (including many from Syria) and the homeless. It was sold to developers in 2019.


Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, May 6, 1965.

Toronto Star, January 19, 1967.

Globe and Mail, November 9, 1968.

Globe and Mail, July 13, 1978.

Past Pieces of Toronto: The Mynah Bird

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on May 20, 2012.

Entrance of the Mynah Bird, 1971. Photo by Leo Harrison. Toronto Telegram Fonds, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University.

In an August 1967 article, the Globe and Mail’s Blaik Kirby set the scene for anyone curious about entering one of Yorkville’s oddest coffee houses.

The Mynah Bird is a fetid room in a former Victorian home, with a tiny triangular stage behind bars in one corner. There are two other rooms in reserve if needed. You enter through a hallway, passing the piranha and the caged mynah bird after which the place is named. Hanging rushes conceal the high ceiling. The walls are red flecked wallpaper. The lights are low, with candles on each table. One of the two friendly go-go girls ushers you to a seat, and soon reappears on the stage. She is slightly plump, with long dark hair and a pseudo-leopard-skin minidress looking like something out of Tarzan. She is succeeded by a slimmer and slightly more talented girl, dressed in a modest mod outfit, who dances under black light.

Ads for the Mynah Bird from the Toronto Star (April 22, 1966) and the Globe and Mail (July 26, 1967).

The hint of titillation helped the Mynah Bird during its decade-long run at 114 Yorkville Ave., along with the crazy publicity schemes hatched by owner Colin Kerr. Never at a loss for colourful stories, Kerr claimed that he acquired his beloved mynah bird Rajah on a trip to India in 1956, where he was participating in a golf tournament. He was told Rajah had magical good luck powers that could only be used on others for the next 40 years, which sometimes manifested themselves through droppings left on celebrities. When Kerr returned to Toronto, he opened a shop on Bloor Street devoted to selling mynah birds. It wasn’t a surprise when he launched a coffee house in 1964 that it was named after his favourite creature.

While the Mynah Bird initially offered folksingers and go-go dancers as entertainment, Kerr devised an endless series of gimmicks, such as pie-throwing to ring in the year of 1966. He managed the Mynah Birds, a group fronted by singer Ricky Matthews (later known as Rick James). Their first single, “The Mynah Bird Hop,” was written by Kerr’s brother Ben, who later achieved fame as a street busker and perennial mayoral candidate. The group rebelled against Kerr, rejecting ideas like shaving their heads to resemble Rajah, and struck out on their own. Among the members following the group’s involvement with Kerr was a young folkie named Neil Young.

In August 1966 Kerr offered the press and the police morality squad a sneak preview of the topless dancing he planned to introduce. The cops declined the invitation, but the press showed up to see what the hype was about. The show was a disaster; according to the Globe and Mail, reporters “cramped 60-strong in a dark, stuffy 12-by-15 room for half an hour, threatened to walk out before the act went on.” The star attraction, described as a 21-year old girl of Swedish extraction, went on 40 minutes later than scheduled. Housed in a wrought-iron cage in the Jungle Room (a second floor lounge carpeted in grass), the masked dancer was to be presented under a black light, slightly shrouded by a dry ice machine. The equipment spewed out too much smoke, choking the audience and making it impossible to tell if she actually was topless. A minute into her dance, the reporters walked out amid cries of “fake,” “fraud,” and at least one politically incorrect term for “ripoff.” The Globe and Mail advised Kerr to “restrict his exotica to the chocolate-covered ants and bees on his menu at $17.95 a plate.”

Wyche, billed as “the world’s first topless folksinger,” demonstrates her musical talents in front of news photographers, December 1967. Photo by Richard Cole, taken for the Telegram. York University Archives, 1974-002 / 132.

For the next few years, the Mynah Bird tried topless anything. In December 1967 Kerr introduced Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger,” whose guitar covered her from armpits down. The following spring silent nudie movies from the UK were screened in the Jungle Room, which consisted mainly of busty women slipping off their tops and into sudsy tubs. In May 1971, Kerr placed a classified in the Globe and Mail for a “nude chef.” Applicants were interviewed by Kerr’s mother-in-law, who he claimed was a chef and dietician. Apart from wearing a legally-mandated chef’s hat, the cooks served up sandwiches and drinks in the buff. Kerr’s increasing obsession with nudity led Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer to later call him “the Larry Flynt of Yorkville.”

Business was perfectly fine when Kerr sold the building and closed the Mynah Bird in February 1973 to pursue more ambitious plans. A couple of months later, Kerr relaunched his business as a nudist club in a King Street East warehouse. Despite the possibility of titillation, the club offered quaint activities like checkers, darts, and rope skipping—the nude chef wasn’t retained. The business didn’t last long.

But the demise of the Mynah Bird didn’t keep Kerr and his beloved bird out of the headlines. There was a failed attempt to run Rajah as a mayoral candidate in 1978, and a short-lived attempt to win the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1983 (we suspect brother Ben had better odds for landing either position). The pair appeared at pet expos and shopping mall events. Even in the 21st century, Kerr and Rajah toured the world to pass along their good luck.

Sources: Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997), and the August 11, 1966, August 12, 1966, August 3, 1967, December 19, 1967, July 22, 1968, May 26, 1971, and February 5, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail.


In his book Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, Stuart Henderson describes Colin Kerr as “an untamable schemer.” That scheming revolved around grabbing as much publicity as possible, no matter how ridiculous or tawdry it might be. As I rolled through one cheap, cruddy, exploitative incident after another, preparing this reprint became a depressing experience, and I put it aside several times.

Low-grade titillation aimed solely to earn attention gets old fast.

Globe and Mail, August 12, 1966.

In his autobiography Glow, Rick James describes an incident that was among the breaking points the Mynah Birds had with Kerr.

Colin sent us to do a teeny-bopper TV show in Hamilton, Ontario. I was excited. The studio was filled with screaming girls – all hired by Colin – and, as a gimmick, I was supposed to sing to a blind mynah bird. I went along with the program. I let them put the bird my hand as I sang this dumb-ass song. The girls loved it, but I didn’t, especially when the bird started shitting in my hand. When I tried to push him off, he dug his claws into my skin. With shit and blood all over me, I nearly bolted. Somehow I got through the song.

The Telegram, March 26, 1971.

While searching for fresh images, I found several in York University’s Telegram photo collection of a protest held outside the Mynah Bird. Sure enough, there was an accompanying story.

Cynical question: given everything else Kerr did to drum up attention, was this a legitimate protest or, given there was a performance that night, yet another publicity stunt?

The Body Politic #10, 1973.

An ad from the King Street era, pitched to the city’s gay community. Note attempt to make Rajah queer.

Richmond Hill Liberal, May 3, 1978.

Over the rest of the 1970s, plenty of ink was wasted in newspapers across North America over Kerr’s efforts to promote Rajah. The bird was supposed to be married in Las Vegas…then on the Tonight Show…then in Toronto. The bird was a psychic. The bird sold lucky medallions that he personally bit for good luck. The bird recorded records. I gave up tracking these stories, as promised events failed to happen and the tales grew increasingly name-droppy.

Maybe, as some newspaper columnists suggested at the time, Kerr did this to bring a light touch to a dark era. It didn’t have that effect on me.

Ottawa Journal, October 8, 1976.

Colin Kerr and Rajah. Photo by Doug Griffin. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0059584f. This photo accompanied the story below, published in the February 8, 1985 Toronto Star.

Three months later, the Star reported that Rajah found a new mate, also named Rani. According to Kerr, who gave the birds bee pollen he used to boost his own virility, “within an hour they started making love like crazy.”

Waitin’ for the Spadina Streetcar

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on June 19, 2012, while streetcar service on Spadina Avenue was temporarily replaced by buses.

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Globe and Mail, July 26, 1997. Click on image for larger version.

Lovers of wild pants and saxophones rejoice! As of this week, the Spadina bus of 1980s musical fame has returned while platform reconstruction takes the streetcar right-of-way out of service for several months. And the return of bus service might reawaken arguments that stalled the construction of the Spadina streetcar line for years.

It’s possible opponents of the line forgot that Spadina had a long history of streetcar service, complete with a right-of-way down its spine, that operated from 1892 to 1948. Its demise came when streetcar service was “temporarily” suspended to conserve power amid postwar electrical shortages, though some city councillors were inclined to scrap it during proposals to widen Spadina Avenue. Apart from a stretch of track utilized by the Harbord streetcar until 1966, regular and trolley buses became the means of transit for the next half-century.

When the TTC scrapped its plan to eliminate all streetcar service in the early 1970s, it was amenable to a proposal from transit activists Streetcars for Toronto to restore cars to Spadina. Noise concerns from residents and the provincial government’s preference for investing in new forms of transit equipment (think Scarborough RT) resulted in the idea being shelved. A decade later, a revised TTC proposal, in partnership with a Harbourfront line, was backed by the Star. A May 1983 editorial declared that a streetcar separated from traffic would be speedier than the “buses which now have to pick their way through Spadina’s horrendous congestion.”

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Toronto Star, March 29, 1992.

A decade-long war over what became known as the Spadina LRT ensued. On the pro-side were the TTC and various levels of government seeking downtown transit improvements. Metro Toronto chairman Dennis Flynn saw potential for easing the strain on the Yonge-University line by providing an alternative for west-end commuters heading into the core. The separated right-of-way would lessen traffic jams that occasionally made walking a speedier form of transit. The anti-side echoed many complaints heard about major streetcar and LRT projects that followed: destruction of businesses, construction nightmares, narrowed sidewalks, and loss of parking (angled at the time on Spadina). A major fear was that heavy trucks unable to cross a 15 cm–high concrete barrier would disrupt residential neighbourhoods to make their deliveries. As for the route’s vibrant street life, Star columnist David Lewis Stein felt that the right-of-way would “put an end to the boisterous anarchy that exists on Spadina.” He also noted that “this looks like one of those classic fights between planners obsessed with speed and efficiency and people … who cherish the history and human values of Spadina.”

An endless series of public consultations and holdups followed that produced a series of compromises before the line was finally green-lit in 1992. Major concessions included reducing sidewalk loss, installing trees, lowering the barrier/raising the tracks so that vehicles could turn left anywhere along the street, and only enforcing the right-of-way during rush hours.

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Toronto Star, July 21, 1997. Click on image for larger version.

Among the dignitaries who rode a vintage Peter Witt streetcar for the line’s official launch on July 27, 1997 was 77-year-old railway enthusiast Allen Maitland, who the TTC figured was among the last riders of the original Spadina car. “I’ve been on many last runs of streetcars in Toronto,” Maitland told the Star, “too many in fact. It will be great to be on a first run.” Accompanying first-day activities included 32,000 free afternoon rides and a series of festivals and sidewalk sales that featured dancing dragons and puppet shows. Ronald Vanstone rode the line four times that day to film the route—“It’s a great sightseeing trip. You can taste different cultural flavours all at once.” Some who feared its effects changed their tune, including David Lewis Stein, who declared that he had “fallen in love” with the line. As for the vacant storefronts on the strip, the blame was placed more on the recession of the early 1990s and the local Chinese community’s move northward than the streetcar.

One compromise opponents insisted on proved disastrous. During the line’s first year there were 160 collisions between streetcars and other vehicles. Most of the accidents happened when cars tried to turn left at non-signalled intersections. Globe and Mail columnist John Barber awarded the “biggest bonehead award” to a driver who turned into the side of a streetcar that had just stopped beside him. The driver told the streetcar operator, “I didn’t see you.”

The long-contested barriers were installed.

Sources: the October 4, 1985 and September 4, 1997 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the May 13, 1983, June 4, 1986, July 21, 1997, July 28, 1997, August 10, 1997, and July 14, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.


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Editorial, Toronto Star, May 13, 1983.

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Globe and Mail, October 4, 1985.

ts 85-10-05 arguments over spadina

Toronto Star, October 5, 1985.

Toronto Star, June 4, 1986.

Toronto Star, November 27, 1986.

Toronto Star, August 10, 1997.

Globe and Mail, September 4, 1997.

1195 Danforth Avenue (Allenby/Roxy Theatre)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on October 23, 2012.


Allenby Theatre lobby, 1936. Image courtesy Silent Toronto.

A suggestion for anyone hitting the town in their best Rocky Horror Picture Show finery this Halloween: Make a pit stop at the Esso/Tim Horton’s at Danforth and Greenwood. Walk through the restored front doors underneath the marquee of the old Allenby theatre. Buy some snacks to fuel an evening of time-warping. Take a look at the old ads in the showcase by the front doors and take a moment to pay tribute to the place where the movie became a Toronto cult favourite.

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Toronto Star, May 9, 1983.

Debuting at what was then known as the Roxy in May 1976, Rocky Horror showings reached their peak in 1980, when audiences performed their routines twice a night on Fridays and Saturdays. The screenings drew a devoted following, with participants driving in from as far as Rochester and central Michigan. Friendships developed, romances blossomed, and some attendees even named their children after the ushers. Parties celebrating the anniversary of the first screening turned into grand occasions for fans—during a fifth-anniversary party, Debra Yeo and her friends rented a limo to take them from Castle Frank station (intentionally chosen as a play on Frank-N-Furter’s castle) to the Roxy where, she later recalled in the Star, “we confounded Jeanne Beker and a NewMusic film crew when they realized we weren’t VIPs.”

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Toronto Star, June 17, 1936.

Toilet paper wasn’t thrown down the aisles when the Allenby opened at what was then 1215 Danforth Avenue on June 18, 1936. Built by theatre architects Kaplan and Sprachman, opening ads claimed the Art Deco-inspired cinema offered “the newest in luxurious equipment” and was “scientifically air conditioned.” It remained a first-run theatre until 1970 when, renamed the Apollo, it switched to Greek films. Within months, it changed name and format again to become the Roxy rep house.

When a plan to run five months of top-quality Japanese films flopped, programming was handed over to three young film buffs, Robert Buchanan, Neil McCarthy, and Gary Topp. Billed as “The Original 99 Cent Roxy,” the theatre offered art films and classic double-bills that brought in older customers during the week, and rock-music films greeted with cheers by younger audiences on weekends. Live novelty acts were mixed in, such as a pianist who attempted to play for 110 hours straight.

ts 73-10-20 99 cent roxy

 Toronto Star, October 20. 1973. Click on image for larger version.

That vibe continued when Jon Lidolt took over programming in 1976. Under his watch, the theatre became one of the first in Canada to be equipped with a Dolby sound system. Besides Rocky Horror, the theatre frequently showed Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Midnight screenings of any film were accompanied by a haze of pot smoke. “The sweet smell gives the place a distinctive atmosphere,” the Star observed in 1977, “and the high sharpens the audience’s willingness to burst out in laughter or scream as some arch villain does his dirty work.”

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Toronto Star, April 6, 1993. Click on image for larger version.

After a brief spell as part of the Festival rep chain, the building was sold in 1987. The new owners turned the theatre into an after-hours club, which raised the ire of neighbours and police. While operating as the Hollywood Dinner Theatre, the site was host to 70 major incidents that required police attention between 1990 and 1993. Beyond infractions for drug dealing, teenage prostitution, and selling liquor without a licence, there were stabbings and shootings. One of the most gruesome incidents occurred in March 1992, when a pair of 15-year olds was arrested for partly scalping one teen and slicing the ear of another in half. Residents overcame their fears of recrimination and convinced City Council to unanimously pass a motion recommending to the Ontario Liquor Control Board that any future attempts to secure a liquor licence were not in the public interest.

Apart from brief periods as an Indian theatre and banquet hall decorated with air-brushed homages to Indiana Jones and Star Wars, the building remained vacant until it was purchased by Imperial Oil in 2006. As the site was on the City’s heritage inventory, the gas giant contacted historical property conversion specialists E.R.A. Architects. Rather than just preserve the façade, elements like the marquee and ticket booth from the Allenby days were recreated. Restorations were authentic, employing bricks from the original supplier in Pittsburgh and recreating the style of window that would have been used during the 1930s. The neighbourhood welcomed the project as an opportunity to spark a community revival, hoping that a touch of time-warp would redeem its reputation as a rough stretch of the Danforth.

Sources: the October 14, 2010 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the June 17, 1936, October 20, 1973, January 22, 1977, May 9, 1983, April 5, 1993, April 27, 1994, and October 1, 2005 editions of the Toronto Star.


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Toronto Star, August 27, 1971.

The headline on this story? “Japanese movies often demand patience.”

Some recent photos of the Allenby, taken November 2, 2020.

Balmy Beach Club

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on April 23, 2013.


Photo taken April 2013.

When prominent jurist and one-time Mayor of Toronto Sir Adam Wilson partitioned his property along Lake Ontario in January 1876, he set aside a portion for use as a public “promenade and recreation grounds.” Within a few years, the community of Balmy Beach grew around Wilson’s lands, which sat amid the growing amusement parks and cottages that spurred the development of The Beach.

In 1903, the commissioners overseeing the parkland Wilson set aside were approached by the Beach Success Club, an all-male debating society that was branching out into athletic activities. The club applied to build a members-only clubhouse and lawn-bowling green at the foot of Beech Avenue. When the plan appeared bound for approval in August 1903, the Star reported that “this new move has made more people look towards Balmy Beach” as a place to purchase property.

Ladies' paddling team, Balmy Beach Club. - [ca. 1920]

Ladies’ paddling team, Balmy Beach Club, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 215.

Opened in August 1905, the Balmy Beach Canoe Club’s first clubhouse included a grand second floor porch from which members gazed out into the lake. It became a gathering spot for the area’s finest athletes, who competed in sports ranging from rugby to squash. A fierce canoeing rivalry developed with Kew Beach. The skills of its members were exhibited by the six medals canoeist Roy Nurse won during the 1924 Summer Olympics and its football squad’s Grey Cup victories in 1925 and 1930.

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The Telegram, February 8, 1936. 

Around 7:30 p.m. on February 7, 1936 members playing their weekly bridge game noticed smoke seeping from the ground floor. Their first thought was to save the numerous trophies the club had collected—the John W. Black Trophy for junior fours in canoeing was given the highest priority. Its survival seems to have been placed higher than that of caretaker James Coombe. According to the Globe, “nobody thought to warn the Coombe family upstairs of their peril, and it was only when smoke came belching up the staircase that the Coombes, with the exception of Bert, aged 25, became aware of the fire and rushed downstairs.” Bert was cut off by the blaze and had to escape via the roof and a balcony. The Coombes family lost all of their belongings, while the club lost most of its trophies and over 100 boats.


Balmy Beach Club, June 1953. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-5451.

A replacement clubhouse opened the following year. Among its attractions was a dance floor that played host to big bands led by locals like future media and sports mogul Jack Kent Cooke. A unique two-step dance popularized at the club, “the Balmy,” became popular across the city. An addition built in the late 1940s offered fireproofed protection for the club’s canoes.

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The Telegram, March 4, 1963. Click on image for larger version.

This proved a wise move, as fire struck again on March 3, 1963. As the last stragglers from a fundraising dance departed during the early morning hours, they smelled smoke. The fire began in the storage room, swept through the first floor, destroyed many trophies, and gutted the second floor dance hall, meeting rooms, and snack bar. Unlike the earlier blaze, the building wasn’t entirely destroyed thanks to cement wall reinforcements added the previous year. “It does hurt a bit today,” long-time club member Ted Reeve reflected in his Telegram sports column the following day, “but it’ll be up again.”

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1967.

And it was. The club rejected a private promoter’s plan to turn the space into a country club featuring a curling rink, tennis courts, and bowling alleys. “We don’t want a restrictive atmosphere,” club president John Sillers told the Globe and Mail. “Our primary aim is to get young people who will participate in wholesome recreation—not just people who just want to sit and look at the lake.” City Council agreed to underwrite two mortgages to rebuild the club, which reopened in 1965. A wall of plaques commemorating achievements recognized by the lost trophies was unveiled by Reeve during a 1967 ceremony attended by at least one original club member.

Today, the clubhouse provides spaces for members to stay fit and relax over a beer. A mural facing the boardwalk gives strollers a glimpse into its many athletic accomplishments.

Sources: The Beach by Glen Cochrane and Jean Cochrane (Toronto: ECW, 2009), the February 8, 1936 edition of the Globe, the March 4, 1963, June 10, 1963, and November 25, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail, the August 15, 1903, February 8, 1936, and March 4, 1963 editions of the Toronto Star, the February 8, 1936 and March 4, 1963 editions of the Telegram, and the July 2003 edition of Toronto Life.


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Toronto Star, August 15, 1903.

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The Telegram, February 8, 1936. Click on image for larger version.

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The Telegram, March 4, 1963.


Wall along the beach, August 1, 2020.


Club entrance, August 1, 2020.


Lawn bowling area, August 1, 2020.


Lawn bowling area, August 1, 2020. 

696 Yonge Street (Diamond Building, Brothers Restaurant, Some Organization I’d Prefer Not to Mention in the Title)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column for The Grid on January 29, 2013.


Toronto Star, September 12, 1957.

The Church of Scientology’s Toronto headquarters are in the midst of an “Ideal Org” makeover—signalled, last month, by boards nailed to the Yonge Street high-rise. While it remains to be seen whether the move will fracture the controversial faith’s local followers as similar, costly refurbishings have in other cities, the plans are less than modest, indicating a colourful new façade will be placed on the almost-60-year-old office building, along with a new bookstore, café, theatre, and “testing centre” inside.

Built around 1955 in the International style of architecture, 696 Yonge’s initial tenant roster included recognizable brands like Avon cosmetics and Robin Hood flour. They were joined by an array of accounting firms, coal and mining companies, and the Belgian consulate, along with a number of construction and property management companies run by Samuel Diamond, whose name later graced the building.

By the 1970s, The Diamond companies were among the few original tenants remaining. Movie studio MGM settled in for a long stay, while the Ontario Humane Society teetered on the verge of financial ruin during its tenancy. There was a temporary office for a federal committee on sealing, which released a 1972 report recommending a temporary moratorium on seal hunting while solutions were sought to halt a population decline. The building even enjoyed a brief taste of religious controversies to come when the Unification Church—a.k.a. the “Moonies”—briefly opened an office, prompting questions about indoctrinated converts, growing wealth, and cult-like practices mirroring those later asked about the Church of Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s religion, meanwhile, had shuffled around various sites in the city since the late 1950s, from meetings on Jarvis Street to a townhouse on Prince Arthur Avenue. The church’s reputation for defending itself grew as quickly as its membership—by the 1970s, official church statements were guaranteed to appear in the letters section within days of any faintly critical newspaper article. The Church of Scientology bought 696 Yonge in 1979.


Toronto Star, March 3, 1983.

Around 2:30 p.m. on March 2, 1983, three chartered buses pulled up to the office tower. More than one hundred OPP officers, equipped with recording equipment, axes, sledgehammers, and a battering ram, rushed into Scientology’s offices. Acting on the findings of a secret two-year tax-fraud investigation of the church, they removed 900 boxes of material, among them illegally obtained confidential documents from government, medical, and police agencies. The church initially claimed the raid was spurred by attacks from the psychiatric community and believed it was entitled to Charter of Rights protection.

Hiring Clayton Ruby as its lawyer, Scientology pursued a decade-long fight against the raid and the charges that resulted from it. Some of its efforts were comical: in July 1988, the church offered to donate considerable sums to agencies working with drug addicts, the elderly, and the poor so long as theft charges were dropped. Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott rejected the offer, saying that “there’s no immunity that permits a church or anyone else to commit crimes in the country.” Ruby argued that the legal prosecution of a small religion like Scientology threatened the freedom of all faiths, and that while individual members may be guilty of offences, the whole church should not be held at fault.

The legal battle appeared over by 1992. When the seized boxes were returned that January, church members celebrated on Yonge Street. While a banner declaring “Scientology Wins after 9-year Battle” was draped across the building, a human chain passed the boxes back inside from a rented truck. Jubilation was short-lived: though acquitted of theft charges, the church and three of its members were found guilty of breach of trust. Related cases lingered for a few more years, including a libel case that earned crown attorney Casey Hill a then-record $1.6 million award from the church and one of its lawyers.


Now, September 2, 1999. The main article on cheap eats featured on this page was for New York Subway on Queen Street.

Even in the midst of its legal battles, the church gradually expanded its presence in 696 Yonge, filling space as other tenants departed. One of the last to go was the Brothers Restaurant and Tavern, which filled a streetfront space with vinyl booths and formica from 1979 to 2000. Operated by two brothers whose last names differed because of the phonetic spelling a government official wrote for one when they moved to Canada, Angelo Sfyndilis and Peter Sfendeles catered to a diverse clientele who appreciated their generous portions of comfort food. As Toronto Life noted in its obituary, “wherever you come from, wherever you’re going, Brothers has been a second home, a sheltering piece of smalltown Canadiana on a big, harsh anonymous street, in the middle of a big, harsh, anonymous city.” The Star praised Brothers’ “honest chicken sandwich,” while Now included it in its student survival guides for meals like the Little Brother Platter, which contained “eight thick slices of pastrami, eight of roast beef, four slabs of Canadian cheddar, a mound of potato salad, a mess of oil-and vinegar-drowned iceberg lettuce, a quartered dill pickle, and rings of pickled peppers.” When the lease was not renewed in 2000, deli items were replaced with copies of Dianetics.

Sources: the January 25, 1972 edition of the Globe and Mail, the September 2, 1999 edition of Now, the May 2000 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 10, 1982, March 3, 1983, December 20, 1984, July 27, 1988, August 29, 1988, September 20, 1990, January 28, 1992, June 26, 1992, July 13, 2008, and January 24, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.



696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

As of July 2020 the building is rotting away, as various makeover plans by the Scientologists have not materialized. Over the years, the organization has battled the city over tax bills.


696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

You can trace the saga of 696 Yonge over recent years by checking out this thread on Urban Toronto.


I moved to Toronto around the time of the Now excerpt posted above. Always a fan of decent cheap eats, I checked out The Brothers. The paper wasn’t kidding when it said the portions were huge, providing plenty of fuel for long downtown strolls.

(Memory tells me it was frequently mentioned in Now, and may have run a few ads, but the current search function for their online archives is next-to-useless).

np 2000-01-15 brothers closing

National Post, January 15, 2000.

The Star published the Brothers’ rice pudding recipe twice: in 2000 after it closed, then in 2006 thanks to reader demand. “The food was bettered only by their dear personalities and quintessential charm,” one reader recalled. Food writer Amy Pataki noted that staff called the dish rizogalo, and that cook Tony Polyzotis called its preparation “easy.”

If this inspires you to make this recipe from the July 26, 2006 Star, send it pictures and I’ll add them to this post.

Brothers Rice Pudding
Tempering the beaten egg with hot liquid prevents it from coagulating.

4 cups or more whole or 2 per cent milk
1 cup converted white rice, rinsed, drained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp raisins (optional)
Ground cinnamon

In medium, heavy-bottomed pot, bring 4 cups milk to simmer over medium heat. Add rice and sugar. Cook, uncovered, at gentle boil, stirring frequently, until rice is almost cooked through but still a little chewy, about 30 minutes. (Rice will continue to soften as it cools.)

In heatproof cup, whisk egg with vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons hot cooking liquid. Whisk until smooth and pale yellow. Stir into rice mixture.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add raisins (if desired).

Cool pudding uncovered, stirring occasionally to break up skin as it forms on surface. (Pudding will thicken on standing; thin with more milk as desired.) Sprinkle generously with cinnamon before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

10 Scrivener Square (North Toronto Station, Summerhill LCBO)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column for The Grid on May 14, 2013.


The Globe, September 10, 1915.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was tired of arguing. Negotiations with government bodies over the development of a replacement for the existing Union Station were heading nowhere fast. Fatigued by squabbling, in 1912, the CPR moved several passenger routes from downtown to a line it controlled in the north end of the city. While a train station already existed on the west side of Yonge Street near Summerhill Avenue, it hardly matched CPR executives’ visions of grandeur.

Fresh off designing the railway’s office tower at King and Yonge, architects Frank Darling and John Pearson were assigned to create a new North Toronto station. The centrepiece of their plan was a 140-foot clock tower inspired by the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The clock would be synchronized via telegraph signals from the CPR’s Windsor Station in Montreal. Also included was a grand waiting room with a three-storey high ceiling and marble facing.


The Globe, June 15, 1916.

When Mayor Tommy Church laid the cornerstone on September 9, 1915, he praised the CPR for being “the first railway company to give Toronto proper recognition.” He hoped the station would be the first of a series of railway gateways to the city, improving inter-city commuting. When passenger service began on June 4, 1916, destinations included Lindsay, Owen Sound, and Ottawa. The most popular route was Montreal, which attracted wealthy businessmen who lived nearby.

Old and new CPR North Toronto Stations. - [ca. 1920]

Old and new CPR North Toronto stations, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1748.

The station’s demise began when the new Union Station finally opened in 1927. Passengers found transfers easier downtown, while the streetcar ride between the two stations grew longer as vehicular traffic increased along Yonge Street. The final four passenger routes were scrapped in September 1930, though freight trains continued to use the facility. The station was pressed into service for the arrival of King George VI’s train during the May 1939 royal visit, and for unloading returning troops at the end of the World War II.

In the interim, the building’s long association with alcohol began. Brewers’ Retail opened a store on the north side of the station in 1931, while the LCBO settled into the south side in 1940. Not until late 1978 could liquor-store customers pick their own bottles instead of filling out forms fussed over by judgmental staff. “Often, a clerk would smugly inform you that the cheap sherry you wanted was O/S (out of stock),” Toronto Life recalled in 2003. “Another clerk might confide that the guy who just waited on you had been a teacher but had suffered ‘a nervous breakdown.’ You knew that every one of the staff had been voting Tory since before that Benedictine monk invented champagne.” Adding to the institutional feel was the lowering of the ceilings and covering up of many of the station’s grandiose touches.

North Toronto CPR station. - [1915?]

Ticket area, circa 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 930.

Talk of site redevelopment went on for years. Proposals alternated between providing improved retail space and returning to its railway origins as a GO station. Developers who talked of building homes and apartment towers on land adjacent to the building ran into neighbourhood opposition. No plan stuck until the liquor store closed in December 2001 for extensive renovation work undertaken by Woodcliffe. False ceilings were removed and wood paneling was torn off to reveal the marble underneath. New blocks of limestone were produced by the Manitoba quarry that provided the originals. The tower clock resumed service after half-a-century. What was already the busiest LCBO store in the province expanded by a factor of eight to provide 21,000 square feet of shopping space for booze connoisseurs. During the grand reopening ceremony in February 2003, Ontario Consumer and Business Service Minister Tim Hudak tipped his hat to the building’s transportation origins, promising shoppers “a journey of discovery of the world of beverage alcohol.”

While stocking up on your drinking needs, take a moment to observe the station’s railway heritage. Look up to the ornate ceiling covering the domestic and Italian wine selections. See the ticket booths nestled among the Chilean wines. While walking through the western portion of the Vintages section, imagine strolling along a walkway to your train platform. Ponder if the bottles on the shelves of the “Vins de Table” section are fine beverages or deserve to be dumped down the toilets like those which graced this portion of the station.

Sources: Toronto’s Railway Heritage by Derek Boles (Charleston: Arcadia, 2009), Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), the February 4, 2003 edition of the Canada News Wire, the September 10, 1915 edition of the Globe, the June 2003 edition of Toronto Life, and the June 3, 1916, November 26, 1978, and January 19, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.


globe 15-09-10 cornerstone laid

The Globe, September 10, 1915.

Besides Mayor Tommy Church, at least two other people spoke during the September 9, 1915 cornerstone ceremony for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s new North Toronto station. CPR general manager A.D. MacTier thanked everyone for their assistance in initializing the project: “I hope that through this gathering I may be able to get to know your city officials, businessmen and the public generally, believing as I do that only by much personal friendship and knowledge of each other’s aims and needs can that mutual understanding and respect be created, without which the proper amicable relations between a large public utility and the people of a great city can neither be created nor maintained.”

Also speaking was jurist William Mulock, who referred to the ongoing conflict in Europe. According to the Globe, Mulock “observed that the Empire was engaged in a gigantic struggle, but ultimate victory for Britain and her allies was certain. The action of the CPR showed that they had confidence in the future, which had in store greater things for Canada and for the whole British Empire.”

world 1915-09-10 editorial

Toronto World, September 10, 1915.

A time capsule was placed inside the cornerstone. Its contents?

  • A city map
  • Plans showing location of station and tracks
  • CPR annual report
  • CPR shareholders report
  • A complete set of Canadian coins and stamps
  • City of Toronto annual report
  • Copies of that day’s newspapers
  • Plans and elevation of station
  • Guest list of those attending the ceremony

The time capsule was opened on schedule in September 2015.


Summerhill LCBO, 1983. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0114596f.

An amusing side story I stumbled upon while researching this story involved an LCBO sale on unpopular items. The Globe and Mail reported on September 14, 1977 that “most customers at three downtown outlets weren’t even giving a second glance to discontinued brands of wines and spirits—both domestic and imported—selling at up to 50 per cent off until they’re sold out.” A grinning LCBO cashier at Summerhill told the paper that “you wouldn’t buy it either if you saw what was on sale.”A television director shopping for red wine agreed, scoffing that he “wouldn’t touch that stuff.”

Among the items which didn’t entice customers: Red Cap sparkling wine from France, and South African Paarl Cinsaut. The Queen’s Quay outlet noted scotch was still sitting on the shelf 24 hours after its price was reduced.

ts 92-01-18 redevelopment scheme Toronto Star, January 18, 1992. Click on image for larger version.

One of the visions for the site over the years.

Loring-Wyle Parkette

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on October 30, 2012.


“Young Girl,” Florence Wyle, 1938, located in the Loring-Wyle Parkette. Toronto Star, March 18, 2005.

They were known simply as “The Girls.” For half a century, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle enjoyed a personal and professional relationship devoted to promoting sculpture as a vital art form. Their work graced venues ranging from backyard gardens to busy expressways. Loring and Wyle were regarded in their neighbourhood as eccentrics for their manly clothing, and were also known as the “Clay Ladies,” as they encouraged aspiring sculptors and introduced local children to fine art. One such child was Timothy Findley, whose father pointed to the women during a walk one day and told him, “One day you will remember these women, and you will understand how wonderful they are.”


Moore Park Loop, looking north, June 7, 1926. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4339.

The Moore Park Residents’ Association appreciated their legacy. In the early 1980s, it was proposed that an inactive streetcar loop at the northeast corner of St. Clair Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road be turned into a small park honouring the sculptors. The Moore Park loop was built to serve the St. Clair line when it was extended east to Mount Pleasant in December 1924, then Eglinton Avenue a year later. The tracks were abandoned after a short-lived Mount Pleasant streetcar route switched to trolley buses in 1976, but the path of the rails is still visible in the middle of the St. Clair-Mount Pleasant intersection.

Opened in 1984, the Loring-Wyle Parkette sits a block north of the combined home and studio Loring and Wyle shared for nearly half a century. The house at 110 Glenrose Avenue was known as “The Church” because it was originally the Sunday schoolhouse for Christ Church Deer Park. The structure was moved east from Yonge Street several years before the pair purchased it in 1920. It became a centre of Toronto’s artistic community, where peers like the Group of Seven relaxed, discussed projects, and organized groups like the Sculptors Society of Canada. The Girls held regular Saturday night parties where guests enjoyed treats like scotch mixed with fresh snow and Wyle’s hog-calling demonstrations. The parties drew “a crowd of congenial people enjoying themselves in distinctive surroundings,” according to biographer Rebecca Sisler. “They were made particularly convivial and lively by the warmth and undemanding friendliness of The Girls. Those who attended the parties still claim they were the best in the country.”


Frances Loring and sculptor Florence Wyle standing among statues, January 21, 1950. Photo by Gilbert A. Milne. Archives of Ontario, C 3-1-0-0-666.

Loring and Wyle met as students learning neoclassical sculpting techniques at the Art Institute of Chicago around 1906. Five years later they established a studio in the Bohemian heart of America, Greenwich Village. While Wyle’s family objected to her career choice, Loring’s father, a mining engineer, provided financial backing and felt Wyle would be a steadying influence on his daughter. He was responsible for their move to Toronto around 1913, after shutting down The Girls’ studio while they were on vacation—he felt they were making little money and was never comfortable with the unconventional atmosphere of their new home. Loring moved to Toronto, theoretically to take care of her mother, and Wyle followed soon after. Perhaps making amends for his actions, Loring’s father funded their first local studio, above a carpentry shop at Church and Lombard Streets.

Among the projects the pair collaborated on was the Lion Monument, which served as the gateway for the Queen Elizabeth Way at the Humber River. Loring chose a “snarling, defiant, British lion, eight feet high!” as the focal point to symbolize Great Britain’s readiness to fight at the start of World War II, while Wyle worked on a portrait of King George VI and the future Queen Mother. The monument remains one of their most visible works, even if freeway expansion forced its move to nearby Sir Casimir Gzowski Park in 1975. Loring also created public works like the statue of Sir Robert Borden on Parliament Hill and a relief on the south wall of Exhibition Place’s Queen Elizabeth Building. Hundreds of their works are currently held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, on whose collection committee Loring sat during the 1950s.

The pair remained partners until their deaths within a month of each other in 1968, though their biographers question whether, despite sharing a bedroom for years, their relationship was physical. “Whether or not The Girls were lovers,” Elspeth Cameron wrote in her Loring-Wyle bio And Beauty Answers, “theirs was the closest emotional relationship either of them ever had. In Platonic terms, they were soulmates, as complementary to each other as Yin and Yang.” Their deep bond is reflected by the busts they crafted of each other early in their partnership, which stand today in their park.

Sources: And Beauty Answers by Elspeth Cameron (Toronto: Cormorant, 2007), The Girls by Rebecca Sisler (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1972), and the May 9, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star.


From the CBC archives, a look at Loring and Wyle in their studio.

ts 20-11-27 move to deer park

Toronto Star, November 27, 1920.

sw 1926-11-06 realism or symbolism loring wyle 1

sw 1926-11-06 realism or symbolism 2

Star Weekly, November 6, 1926. Click on images for larger versions.

Late Nights at People’s Foods

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on June 5, 2012. 

ts 87-10-18 late night peoples

Toronto Star, October 18, 1987. Click on image for larger version.

Patrons intending to dine at People’s Foods on Dupont Street were greeted last week with a notice on the door stating that the half-century old diner was closing due to its lease expiring. Though one report suggests that the owners hope to find a new location, for now, regulars will have to look elsewhere for greasy-spoon staples and jukebox selectors at their booths.

A quarter of a century ago, People’s was among the “denziens of the dark hours” that the Toronto Star spotlighted in an article on life in the city between midnight and dawn. A 24-hour eatery at the time, People’s saw an early-morning procession of shift workers, police, and frat boys grazing on homemade burgers and onion rings. “The dazzling fluorescent lights are always on,” the Star noted, “and at 2:45 a.m. Thomas Rygopoulos is hefting a huge piece of solid white fat—easily measuring a cubic foot—from a blue plastic bag into the deep fryer. The customers want more French fries.” Rygopoulos had worked at People’s for five years when the Star visited. “People eat the same as in the daytime,” he noted. “You know how 1 o’clock is lunch time? It’s the same at night: 1 to 3 o’clock is lunch time at night.”

Among the diners were two University of Toronto students discussing a major crisis: An acquaintance about to be married had his bride-to-be back out 36 hours before the ceremony. Amid silent pauses over numerous refills of coffee, they contemplated how to rebound from such a situation. At least one of the students seemed to have problems of his own, as he told his friend, “the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that at least one person in this world feels worse than I do.” Both men noted they were regulars at People’s—one described it as “a landmark for romantic, bohemian fantasies … It’s the restaurant of the people.”

People’s wasn’t the only food-related stop on the Star’s late-night tour. On Danforth Avenue near Pape, Phil Cho sold produce at the Greenview Fruit Market. When asked who bought oranges at three in the morning, he replied, “taxi drivers. There are a few health nuts, so every night they need their oranges.” He also found that drunks would eat just about anything that caught their eye, even if it meant a smashed watermelon or two. Restaurant and shift workers tended to cause less chaos, as their purchases tended to head home.

There might have been items bought at Greenview among the debris that “Tokyo Rose” took care of nightly. The TTC’s subway-cleaning car derived its name not from the World War II axis propaganda agent but from the city it was manufactured in and a mocking reference to the sweet smell of garbage. Cleaner Elio Romano referred to the subway tracks as a “hobo’s paradise” due to the longer-than-average cigarette butts he tossed into his garbage bag.

The article ended with a glimpse of dawn at People’s, where Rygopoulos prepared breakfast for early birds. The creatures of the night had moved on to give way to those facing a new day, much as the restaurant’s home since 1963 may now face a new morning.

Sources: the October 18, 1987 edition of the Toronto StarThe site was soon occupied by Rose and Sons restaurant.

Tip-Toeing Around Tipping

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on August 14, 2012.

ts 79-07-11 tipping

Toronto Star, July 11, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

“Tipping is a questionable practice,” began a July 1979 Star editorial, “but as long as it remains a factor in determining the wages of restaurant employees in Ontario, everything should be done to ensure they receive the tips they’re entitled to.” Issues surrounding tipping—including surveys regarding the public’s bill-topping habits and concerns among servers about proper tip distribution—were highlighted by the paper that month, though many of the issues discussed remain contentious. The spring of 1979 saw several labour grievances launched by angry servers at downtown bars and restaurants. Arbitration ended the El Mocambo’s policy of requiring bartenders to pay back one per cent of total booze sales during their shift to their managers; less successful were waiters at Noodles restaurant at Bloor and Bay and the Courtyard Café in the Windsor Arms Hotel. The sister eateries employed a percentage-of-sales tip distribution system where waiters paid two-and-a-half per cent of the night’s sales to the maître d’, up to two per cent to busboys, and five dollars a week to the bartender. Servers filed a grievance through the Canadian Food and Associated Services Union, objecting to the maître d’s cut, which often wound up being 20 per cent of the tips they would have received. Management countered that the front-of-house staff were essential to good service by setting the tone, greeting guests, and providing general assistance. According to Windsor Arms food and beverage manager Frank Falgaux, “when you tip you feel you are paying the waiter. But if everything was good then all those people contributed. A tip is really for the team that makes the whole dining room.” The arbitrator agreed with management.

gm 79-05-15 tipping 2

Globe and Mail, May 15, 1979.

Servers at some establishments also found themselves saddled with the responsibility for paying credit-card transaction fees that their bosses wouldn’t absorb on their own. Management at Sherlock’s on Sheppard Street explained that the practice allowed the server to pay their part of “the expenses involved in collecting for the charge account” rather than passing the fee directly onto customers. Combined with other cuts, Sherlock’s waitress Sybil Walker estimated that, out of a weekly gross of up to $300 she earned in tips, up to $120 was passed on to others—a significant loss given that minimum wage for servers back then was $2.50 per hour.

While many diners automatically paid the standard 15 to 20 per cent tip during the summer of 1979, Bardi’s Steak House owner and Canadian Restaurant Association president Alex Manikas suggested they should be more discerning. “A waiter who greets you cheerfully and is genuinely attentive warrants a bigger gratuity than the cold, proper automaton in white gloves,” he told the Star. But that philosophy didn’t occur to difficult customers. In an incident at the Peter Pan on Queen Street West, a customer who occupied a prime table during peak dining hours with his girlfriend to enjoy a bottle of wine and carrot cake left the change he received from server Hillary Kelly for his $9.98 bill—two pennies. When she asked why he was “so tight,” he responded, “because I’m a socialist. I don’t believe in tipping.” Kelly told him that she was a worker and he had insulted her efforts. She threw the tip back at him and the rest of the restaurant cheered as he departed in a huff.

ts 79-08-23 slicing tips

Toronto Star, August 23, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

As for the secret of receiving generous tips, Fran’s waitress supervisor Jessie Logan suggested “catering to the whims of a regular customer, no matter how eccentric they may seem.” She recalled a diner at the chain’s St. Clair location, “a quiet, well-dressed man in his 30s,” who dropped by nightly to order a meal current health authorities would pounce on in a second: a raw hamburger accompanied by a glass of milk with a whole egg (including the shell) placed in it. “The bill would come to less than two bucks. You know what he would tip me? No less than $5 and up to $35 per night. They don’t make great, loony tippers like that anymore.”

There had been an effort to form a waiters association to replace tipping with a flat 15 per cent service charge a la several European countries, but it fizzled when employers balked. Not that all restaurant owners were opposed—La Cantinetta owner Luigi Orgera, who had servers at his King Street restaurant place their tips in a pool, felt a service charge would allow waiters to receive higher pay and equalize generous and miserly tippers. He believed that “the pay would be better so we could attract a better staff.”

But tipping—and the controversies surrounding it—remain with us, as demonstrated by a recent private member’s bill from Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue to forbid management from taking a share of tips.

Sources: the May 15, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 11, 1979 and July 16, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.


The practice of management taking a share of tips given to servers was banned in Ontario in 2015.


ts 79-07-16 tipping editorial

Editorial, Toronto Star, July 16, 1979.

ts 79-07-17 anti-tipping letter

Toronto Star, July 17, 1979.

ts 79-07-26 tipping letter

Toronto Star, July 26, 1979.