Scenes of Toronto: Winter 2008

Part One: After the Nativity Has Gone

Originally published on Torontoist on January 17, 2008.

Nativity in Ruin

The post-holiday cleanup slowly continues across the city. Tree collection winds down this week, decorated lightposts grow patchier, and leftover sugar cookies are available for deep discounts alongside remaining Halloween candy.

Religious displays are not immune from the slow pace of cleaning, though we suspect that this nativity scene at St. Francis of Assisi Church at Grace and Mansfield also depicts an event that the Bible overlooked. Religious scholars debate if burlap, hemp, or Glad bags were the preferred choice of turn-of-the-era stable boys.

Part Two: Long Live Mediocrity!

Originally published on Torontist on January 31, 2008.

Long Live Mediocrity!

Drivers passing through the south end of Leaside on Millwood Road may have noticed commentary added to a Baxter’s Soup billboard. An anonymous critic with a penchant for exclamation marks has unleashed their critique of the petit bourgeoisie of the neighbourhood, chastising them for falling for the flattery of an instant meal that appeals to their yuppie pretensions and expensive jeans.

It might also be the work of a disgruntled diner who thought that the can of butternut squash and red pepper soup they bought on sale last week only rated two-and-a-half stars out of five.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Hockey Night in the 1930s

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2008.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1937 (left), December 6, 1937 (right).

The rumour mill is swirling around the Maple Leafs this week, as a less-than-stellar season and mixed signals from club ownership lead to daily reports about the fate of the team’s management and captain. With all signs pointing to a third straight early vacation at season’s end, the team’s followers are steamed.

Fans 70 years ago may also have been frustrated with the club, though in their case the problem was a team that usually reached the Stanley Cup finals but couldn’t quite win Lord Stanley’s silverware. At least if the team lost, the TTC was there to offer a cheerful bow before a warm trip home.

Under the stewardship of coach Dick Irvin, the 1937/38 edition of the Leafs finished first in the Canadian Division, eight points ahead of the New York Americans. The NHL would drop its divisional structure after the season, when its active membership fell to seven teams after the Montreal Maroons suspended operations (the franchise initially asked for a year off, tried to relocate to St. Louis and officially folded after the 1938/39 season). The existence of the Maroons explains why the Montreal Canadiens are billed by their nickname in today’s ad, as other period game notices indicated the city the Leafs were up against.

The game in question resulted in a 3-3 tie, highlighted by a stick-swinging fight initiated by future Habs coach Toe Blake. The Toronto Daily Star’s headline two days later read “Leafs Draw With Canucks But Lose to Tough Mick.”

The major hiccup during the season was the loss of captain Charlie Conacher in November, due to a dislocated shoulder. Doctors urged Conacher to retire—he sat out the rest of the season, but would return to action with the Red Wings the following year. Leading scorers for the Leafs, and the league, were right winger Gordie Drillon (26 goals, 52 points) and center Syl Apps (21 goals, 50 points).

TTC conductors would have had a busy playoff season, as the Leafs fought their way past the league-leading Boston Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals. Transit authorities didn’t have to worry about a mass victory celebration as the Leafs lost the Cup on the road to the Chicago Black Hawks, a team that still holds the record for the lowest regular season winning percentage by a Cup holder (14 wins, 25 losses, 9 ties). The Leafs may have tempted the fates by rejecting calls for goaltending assistance by Chicago after Mike Karakas suffered a broken toe—legend has it that the Black Hawks approached veteran minor leaguer Alfie Moore while he was drinking in a Toronto bar. It was the fourth time the Leafs had gone down in the Cup finals since their last championship in 1932 and they would lose twice more before hoisting the Cup in 1942.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Disco, Yorkville Style

Originally published on Torontoist on January 8, 2008.

Vintage Ad #463: Disco Checkers

Toronto Life, January 1978.

After reading today’s ad, Torontoist is certain of one thing—modesty was not a key element of the “Yorkville style,” especially when it came to attracting dancing queens and boogie kings looking for a place to strut their stuff. The neighbourhood had a cluster of disco floors waiting for John Travolta wannabes to demonstrate their dance skills and soak in the attitude. One might have been lucky enough to see celebrities like Sonny Bono indulge in the Yorkville way of life!

Nearly all elements of 1960s hippie Yorkville had been extinguished by the time Checkers opened on the second floor of Cumberland Court in early 1977. The last of the old coffeehouses, the Riverboat, remained in business for another year while upscale boutiques and dining spots set up shop around it. In an interview with the Toronto Star, a tourist from Winnipeg summed up the change in atmosphere. “Last time I was here in ’69, everyone was into pot. Now they’re into money.”

In a review for the Toronto Star, Bruce Kirkland noted that “the game Checkers plays is to create the illusion of sophistication—through luxury sofas and chairs set around classy wooden tables, better and more varied music than you find in routine discos, and the cultivation of a self-appointed chic crowd of straight couples and singles looking for excitement. Yet the service was slow and unreliable, albeit friendly, and the supposed main focus of a disco, the dance floor, was smaller than a subway washroom and about as atmosphere-laden.” He also felt that while drink prices were reasonable, a “nondescript” cup of coffee was a ripoff at $1.

In a survey of Toronto disco floors, the Globe and Mail was equally unimpressed with the size of the dance area. “The dance floor is located in front of a plate-glass window at the entrance, an arrangement that gives the unpleasant sensation of dancing in a fishbowl.” The neighbourhood competition included Mingles (“the place has all the warmth and charm of a sound stage”), Arviv’s (“much more pleasant to be seen sipping wine than working up a sweat”), Dinkels (“inhabitants of the dance floor range from 20-year-olds in Fairweather disco dresses to refugees from the Four Seasons in polyester leisure suits”), and Fingers (“it’s a place for intimate conversation and there’s a Latin twist to the music, an unusual and refreshing change”).

Patrons eventually got together someplace else as references to Checkers disappeared from local newspaper entertainment guides after the 1981 holiday season. Cumberland Court still exists and is home to the venerable Coffee Mill restaurant, which moved there in the mid-1980s.

Additional material from the June 17, 1977 and July 25, 1977 editions of the Toronto Star, and the December 16, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail.

UPDATE

After a long run, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

Saluting Saturday Night at the Movies (and Magic Shadows) with Elwy Yost

Part One: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Originally published on Torontoist on January 2, 2008.

Vintage Ad #439: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Toronto Life, December 1985.

Nobody likes to be stranded during the holiday season due to car trouble. Whether it’s a dead battery, unexpected snowfall, or executing a 180-degree spin into the ditch alongside the 401 on the way back to the city, inclement weather and Murphy’s Law often combine to make this a busy time of the year for auto clubs like CAA. Even beloved weekend movie hosts occasionally require their assistance.

Before gaining fame as a movie host, Weston native Elwy Yost’s occupations included stage actor, high school English teacher, employee in the personnel department of A.V. Roe during the Avro Arrow controversy, and television quiz show panelist. Yost’s first film show was Passport to Adventure, a mid-1960s CBC series in which features were presented in a serialized format alongside interviews with performers. When Yost began his film-hosting duties for TVOntario in the 1970s, he utilized the serial format for Magic Shadows on weeknights, while a rich archive of interviews with filmmakers and critics provided the context for the feature presentations on Saturday Night at the Movies. The bubbling enthusiasm he displayed for films during his 25-year run on TVOntario helped inspire a generation of film geeks. For his final broadcast in 1999, Yost screened Speed, written by one of those he inspired, his son Graham.

While waiting for his vehicle to be pulled out of the snow, one wonders if Elwy and the driver discussed movies with well-framed towing sequences.

Part Two: Curtains Fall on Saturday Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2012.

When the phrase “plan that looks to future” sits atop a press release, it’s often code for cutbacks or reallocation of resources. So it is with a missive released today by TVO, which buries the axe amid plans to direct reduced provincial funding into digital children’s and current affairs programming. Not until paragraph six does the bombshell hit: Saturday Night at the Movies (SNAM), currently the longest running movie program on television, will soon load its final reel.

According to TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde, “When Saturday Night at the Movies began almost 40 years ago, it broke new ground but now entire TV networks and web services are dedicated to movies.” While this may be true, those other services lack the extensive archive of interviews TVO has built up since SNAM debuted in March 1974. Those other services offer studio-produced puff pieces and PR junket quality featurettes on movies, but they don’t reach into the mechanics of filmmaking as SNAM’s conversations do. Since the late 1990s, the series has been included in York University’s film curriculum.

Beyond fulfilling TVO’s mandate as an educational broadcaster SNAM, especially during Elwy Yost’s quarter-century run as host, turned a generation of viewers into film connoisseurs. As Torontoist’s Christopher Bird noted in his obituary for Yost last year, “He was the friendliest man on television who wasn’t Mister Rogers, because he had the best job ever: he got paid to talk about movies, and movies deserved better than cynicism and snark to someone like Elwy Yost.” His manner and the show’s excellent programming choices helped the series become the network’s highest-rated series.

To a child growing up in a pre-cable household during the 1980s, SNAM was a gateway to classic movies that weren’t regularly shown on television. Under Yost’s warm guidance, it was a place to discover films that they only knew through stills in picture books, to understand who Groucho Marx was beyond the inspiration for gag glasses, spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos, and crack the mystery of “Rosebud.”

Besides SNAM, TVO also announced that it is ending Allan Gregg in Conversationafter 18 years. While Big Ideas is being cancelled as an ongoing series, the network indicates the lectures will reappear as an occasional segment of The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The total cuts announced today will save TVO $2 million and axe up to 40 jobs. But amid the carefully vetted talk about fiscal realities and leveraging efficiencies, a little magic has been lost.

Part Three: More Than Turning On a Projector

Originally published on Torontoist on November 20, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, November 5, 1975.

Last week, we reported that TVOntario is cancelling Saturday Night at the Movies after almost 40 years on the air. Today’s ad from the show’s early days sums up the things that made it a hit: an enthusiastic host, smart programming choices, and the use of the medium as “a springboard for discussion, ideas, feelings and—education.”

Saturday Night at the Movies was prominently featured in the network’s “TVOntario opens eyes” print advertising campaign during the mid-1970s. Today’s ad gives a feel for the range of films the series was showing at that time: Hitchcock thrillers, swashbuckling adventures, and Cold War–paranoia sci-fi.

Sharing space in this ad is host Elwy Yost’s weeknight gig, Magic Shadows. To fit the half-hour slot, movies were split up, serial style, and curated by Yost in a less formal manner than the Saturday-night feature bills. The show featured an imaginative—if slightly frightening to children—animated opening sequence.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here’s a sense of what Magic Shadows was like, via a series of intros from its presentation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

TVO’s online archive includes several episodes of Talking Film, which thematically compiled Yost’s interviews (and was another series I ate up as a kid).

Combined, all of Yost’s TVO film shows, combined with the guidance of my father and devouring many library books, helped me develop an appreciation for cinema that remains today. The few times I watched the series after Yost’s retirement, it always felt like something was missing. I think it was his sense of infectious enthusiasm, mixed with a deep appreciation for film history, that made the package work.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Danforth Rising

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2007.

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Toronto World, March 11, 1921.

As the 20th Century dawned, Danforth Avenue was a muddy road that served as the northern boundary for the eastern portions of the city of Toronto. Between 1909, when the city made its first major annexation on the north side of Danforth, and the appearance of today’s ads in 1921, the area we now know as “The Danforth” rapidly changed from a semi-isolated mix of farmland, villages and church reserves to a series of residential neighbourhoods well connected to the rest of Toronto.

Two key factors that spurred growth were the implementation of streetcar service along a newly paved Danforth in 1913 and the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct five years later. Market gardens that had filled the area were quickly replaced with homes, while businessmen such as Joe Barnes set up shop along Danforth (though we have no record of how many young men and their fathers were happy to shop for suits together). Names of landowners, such as the Playter family, lived on in streets and neighbourhoods.

Today’s advertisers were among the businesses and real estate companies featured in a special advertising section spotlighting the neighbourhood in the long-defunct Toronto World. With slight modifications, the following introduction could easily apply to condo or subdivision projects 85 years on:

Toronto’s growth in the last twelve years could not be more strikingly illustrated than by the phenomenal development of the Danforth district. Twelve years ago one or two stores only stood isolated along the Danforth highway; today the same highway is a bustling business street fully two miles in length, with the reputation of being one of the best shopping districts in the city, a claim well substantiated by a large and continuous patronage from outside points. Danforth is a residential district and promises to maintain that distinction. Sub-divisions offering the most attractive home-sites in the city are now being put on the market and these will prove highly remunerative investments, either for homes or for speculative purposes, for Danforth is the vanguard of Toronto’s progress. Last week $40,000 in home-sites was the turnover of one land agency on Danforth Avenue. People are seeking to establish homes where land values are now reasonable and where they have the advantages of such a convenient shopping district as Danforth Avenue.

Vintage Toronto Ads: British Days at Yonge and Eglinton

Originally published on Torontoist on November 20, 2007.

Vintage Ad #409: Happy British Days at the Yonge-Eglinton CentreNorth Toronto Herald, March 29, 1974.

How does a newly-opened shopping complex bring in shoppers? Hold a British-themed sale, featuring specials on fine UK products like Orange Julius and Gordon Lightfoot records!

The Yonge-Eglinton Centre opened in October 1973 with Dominion and Horizon as its anchors. The short-lived Horizon chain was an attempt by Eaton’s to enter the crowded discount department store field. This location was converted to an Eaton’s store when the company pulled the plug on Horizon in 1978. Among the current occupants of its space are Silver City and Pickle Barrel.

The store we’re fascinated by is Bean Hut, a name that nowadays would be used for a coffee shop or vegetarian grocery. It has one of the few coupons offering a UK-related special, unless the beans are green and the sausages are anything other than bangers. We imagine the family voted “most awful family in Britain” that year made the trek across the Atlantic to catch this special, if the BBC documentary on them is any indication.

The main event in the neighbourhood that week was the opening of the Yonge subway extension to Sheppard and Finch stations, which may have been a more relevant theme to new commuters passing through. Such a sale might have inspired the following ad copy:

Need a drink or bite to eat to or from the office or a gift for your family? Take advantage of these money-saving coupons! See displays of new neighbourhood developments and future technologies that will guide you around the Toronto of Tomorrow! The SUBWAY SALE at the YONGE-EGLINTON CENTRE is a tribute to the innovative fashions, quality workmanship and hearty foods of our city. Your next stop is YONGE-EGLINTON CENTRE’S SUBWAY WEEK! 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

From the final episode of Monty Python, aired on December 5, 1974, the “Most Awful Family in Britain” sketch.

As time wore on, and the cultural makeup of Toronto changed, once surefire promotions like “British Week” faded away among retailers and shopping centres. This ad serves as a reminder that into the 1970s there was still a strong base this was easily marketed to.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Friends in the City

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2007.

Vintage Ad #405: Meet My Friends in Toronto

Saturday Night, April 1978. Click on image for larger version.

Wouldn’t your friends appreciate it more if you were present for dinner? Unless you are rewarding them, do you trust your friends and clients enough not to blow your credit limit in a swanky establishment such as this restaurant?

Toronto was one of several Canadian cities featured in this late 1970s American Express campaign. All of the ads feature models who look too eager to serve cardmembers. It’s hard to tell whether the wide-eyed chef is as hammy as the pork products he uses, delighted the waitress is leaning on him and not the wine steward, or if the pressures of the kitchen have reached the point where he is plotting the demise of his fellow staffers.

Several classic 1970s restaurant decor elements are on display. The Tiffany lamp by the bar. Amber glassware. Furniture and panelling in hues of brown and orange. There are still a few venues around town where these elements remain in a non-ironic manner, which can be quite comforting.
We are curious if this actually was shot in Toronto or is merely a set in a New York photo studio.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Vintage Ad #298: Meet My Friends in Vancouver, But Only if You Use American Express Vancouver version of the campaign, Saturday Night, May 1978.