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.