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.

20121120snam

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: 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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Burlesque, Yonge Style

Originally published on Torontoist on November 6, 2007.

Vintage Ad #387: Starvin' Marvin's

Source: Toronto Life, August 1971.

There used to be a sign above a video arcade that proclaimed “Yonge Street is Fun Street.” Back in the 1960s and 1970s, much of that fun was to be had at the many bars and clubs that lined the street south of Gerrard––Le Coq D’Or, Steele’s Tavern, Friar’s Tavern, Zanzibar Tavern and so on. Depending on the venue, you could listen to music, dance the night away or catch a striptease. Today’s advertiser combined all three.

By the early 1970s, the morality rules regulating the exotic dance industry weakened as old-style burlesque houses gave way to modern strip joints. Among the rules that had been in effect as recently as the mid-1960s:

  • No touching of curtains, walls or proscenium.
  • No lying down on the stage or runway.
  • No bumping of props.
  • No body movements that could suggest a simulated sex act to the audience.
  • No running of any article of clothing between the legs.

Starvin’ Marvin’s appears to have combined the old and the new by the time of this ad––comedians continued to perform between dancers who bared more. By mid-decade the last of the old-style houses, the Victory on Spadina, had called it a day.

The stylized portrayal of the dancers fits the artwork of the era, even if one figure is quite politically incorrect. Based on figures published in the Toronto Star years later, the average dancer earned around $450 a week.

331 Yonge was also home to the Hawk’s Nest, a teen-oriented spinoff of its next-door neighbour, Le Coq D’Or. The club was named after Ronnie Hawkins, who had a hand in its operation. Hawkins used Le Coq D’Or as his base for most of the 1960s, with his backing bands a school for many Canadian musicians, notably The Band.

Painting a portrait of Yonge Street during the Christmas holidays in 1977, Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes lamented the recent closing of Starvin’ Marvin’s:

Raunchy old Starvin Marvin’s, where ladies used to undress on cue and Ronnie Hawkins used to romp, is gone, replaced, f’r hevvin’s sake, by a wholesale house that offers radios, skis, hockey sticks, chain saws and can-openers. All that is left of Starvin’ Marvin’s, in fact, is a sign advising, KEEP COOL – WE’RE AIR CONDITIONED. As the year declines toward a melancholy end, many hunger for imagery, the warm glow if fire, a reassuring star of hope. Starvin’ Marvin is dead on crass old bawdy Yonge, but God is fairly alive.

Additional material from Crisis at the Victory Burlesk by Robert Fulford (1968) and The Globe and Mail, December 19, 1977.

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

tely 40-05-14 goldman obit

Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

cjn 71-12-24 lyceum to become chinese restaurant

Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

ts 86-01-24 hsin kunag review

Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Town that Sold Itself

Originally published on Torontoist on October 16, 2007.

Vintage Ad #380: Not Selling You On Meadowvale

Source: Toronto Life, June 1975.

Developers had to do very little to attract new homeowners into the rapidly expanding, brand-spankin’ new city of Mississauga in the 1970s. Open spaces, parkland, recreational venues, shopping plazas, and day care spaces were among the tidbits thrown to those looking at suburban creature comforts.

Most of all, new homeowners wanted easy access to rustic jug milk stores.

This development may have touted itself as “excitingly different,” but parting from the norm could only be taken so far. Item #12 makes it clear that eccentricity would not be tolerated in Meadowvale, thanks to tough rules. Discrimination against certain colours nearly led to a lawsuit from the GTA Regional Association of Purple Edifiers.