Toronto Sun Columnists on the Wrong Side of History Through the Ages

Originally published on Torontoist on February 3, 2017.

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Toronto Sun, November 9, 1980.

In a response to a reader question on Twitter earlier this week provoked by Toronto Sun columnist Tarek Fatah’s comments on the Quebec City mosque shooting, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale described the Sun as publishing, beyond a decent sports section and solid tabloid-style news coverage, “the country’s worst opinion writers.” While readers can debate Dale’s use of “worst,” the current crop of Sun columnists continues a long tradition of deliberately provocative writing that has shaped the paper since its inception in 1971.

It’s a tradition that hasn’t always landed on the right side of history. To be fair, flipping through the back pages of any newspaper exhumes opinions which would be questionable today. Skeletons among the Toronto press range from George Brown’s attacks on Irish immigrants during the early days of the Globe to unflattering descriptions of minorities in the Star which matched the prejudices of the day.

But the Sun has always stood out for its unapologetic view of the world, which grew from cockiness as the new kid on the block and its ability to connect with its conservative readership. It played upon fears of outsiders, and earned its stripes as a dedicated Cold Warrior by labeling opponents as evil Communists/Marxists/socialists/bleeding hearts/etc.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Sun’s biases regarding anyone who wasn’t white provoked consternation among minority groups, which nearly caused the City to pull its advertising from the paper. An extensive report by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations published in 1987 pulled few punches in its analysis of the paper’s stances: “The sheer volume of racial stereotypes, racism, scapegoating, and the presence of statements that may elicit fear and hatred against racial minorities can leave little doubt that there is considerable prejudice and racism directed toward non-whites and ethnic minorities within the pages of the paper.”

Reading back issues of the Sun, and certain columnists in particular, can be a depressing experience. Beyond the posturing and vitriol, it’s eye-opening to witness the level of contempt writers express for their fellow human beings.

Here are some historic topics where the Sun’s views didn’t stand the test of time, or remain offensive.

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A more enlightened view of Desmond Tutu than some Sun columnists had. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, June 1, 1986.

South Africa

As the fight against the apartheid regime grew stronger during the 1980s, the Sun was lukewarm on the idea of handing power to the Black majority before they were “ready” to assume control. Given the African National Congress’s ties to Communist organizations, and the track record of post-colonial Africa, Sun editorials conveyed fears that South Africa would become another Marxist hellhole. In the Sun‘s view, all that stood in the way of total chaos were the white Afrikaners. “The hundreds of blacks dying in South Africa are victims of racism, but not by the dominating whites,” a July 1985 editorial observed. “It’s the racism that is the by-product of the class warfare demanded by Marxists and liberals blinded by Marxism.

Barbara Amiel went further, suggesting that progressives couldn’t wait to see a long, bloody war unfold. “The struggle closest to them,” she wrote in August 1985, “actually seems to be their own effort to restrain an unseemly relief that, at last, South Africa might be in for a really good spell of what the rest of the unfortunate people on the African continent have known and are suffering: murder, mayhem and economic disaster.”

Columnist McKenzie Porter all too frequently defended the apartheid regime, seeing it as both the last hope against the Commies and as a benevolent, paternalistic means of looking after the backward Blacks, who “still consult witch doctors and rely on donkey power.” Porter criticized condemnation from the West as springing from “the illusion that all men are equal.”

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Toronto Sun, December 22, 1977.

In his July 24, 1985 column, Porter predicted that “if South Africa gave the vote to every black today it would bring about the destruction of the agriculture, industry, and commerce that are essential to the eventual emancipation of the supposedly oppressed majority.” He also thought that South African Blacks were dumber than their North American counterparts, who’d had the benefit of being in white educational systems for generations. “For reasons palpable to every reader of history,” he observed, “the average South African black, clad though he may be in a collar and tie, still embodies some vestiges of a recent Stone Age past.” Finally, he stated that Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu was “not very bright.”

That particular column was the final straw for Mayor Art Eggleton and his committee on community and race relations, which had noticed the Sun’s less than admirable stands on race in general. The committee threatened to pull city advertising from the paper, which provoked a heated response from Sun publisher Paul Godfrey. He defended the Sun’s writers on the grounds of freedom of the press, and taunted both the mayor and the committee in print. He also noted Porter had visited South Africa, though it was unclear if the trip had been paid for by the regime. Both sides soon cooled the conversation, with Eggleton suddenly declaring the Sun wasn’t so racist after all (a shift Godfrey, a former Metro Chairman, praised as a sign of the mayor’s conciliatory nature).

When Nelson Mandela toured North America in 1990, the Sun was not wowed by the praise showered upon the recently released icon. There was still suspicion of Communist links, along with the behaviour of Winnie Mandela and her bodyguards while he was imprisoned. As David Frum put it, “myth-making has transformed a man who might otherwise be just another African opposition leader into an international celebrity.”

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Comment on John Sewell’s support of Toronto’s gay community during the 1980 municipal election. Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 28, 1980.

Homophobia

Let’s be blunt: the Sun was intolerant toward homosexuals during the 1970s and 1980s. From cartoonist Andy Donato’s frequent limp-wristed depictions of gays to editor Peter Worthington’s threat following the 1981 Bathhouse Raids to expose names of anyone rounded up in subsequent police scoops, there was no sympathy to anyone who wasn’t heterosexual.

Perhaps the most homophobic of the lot was Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy. In piece after piece, Hoy depicted homosexuals as sad, pathetic creatures. He was convinced that there was an agenda by homosexuals to gain access to classrooms to convert innocent children to their perverted lifestyle. “It is not true that homosexuals want simply to be left alone to do whatever it is they do to each other,” he wrote in January 1978. When a “Gaydays” celebration was held later that year, he wondered why “more Torontonians don’t let them know they’re not welcome here” and when people would “wake up and realize the danger of keeping silent in the face of this creeping, crawling sickness in our society?”

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Typical Claire Hoy column headline. Toronto Sun, October 30, 1979.

Hoy used his QP perch to step into the 1980 municipal election, a campaign the Sunhad no shortage of homophobic commentary on in the wake of mayor John Sewell’s support of the community and George Hislop’s council run. Following the Toronto Board of Education’s decision to allow a homosexual liaison committee to talk with students struggling with their own sexual identity, he listed all of the trustees who “voted to give homosexuals a beachhead.” He urged readers to register their indignation at the ballot box lest the radicals (who he referred to as “dingles”) win.

Hoy went on to serve as the paper’s Ottawa columnist and was forced out after writing one too many columns attacking Brian Mulroney for Godfrey’s taste. A subsequent stint at the Ottawa Citizen ended after he continued to attack the queer community.

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McKenzie Porter on the crapper, a reference to one of his most infamous columns. Globe and Mail, November 2, 1986.

Eugenics

One of the darkest corners of the Sun’s back pages is McKenzie Porter’s ongoing support of eugenics as a solution to society’s ills. While peers commented that his snobbish persona may have been a put-on, his repeated references to sterilization make one wonder how serious he was about other outrageously written columns.

The following excerpt from Porter’s October 25, 1982 column is as chilling an opinion piece as you’ll ever find in a Toronto newspaper. It’s absurd and frightening at the same time.

The only way to rid ourselves of poverty and its related diseases of insanity and crime is by embracing the science of eugenics. This science was held back 100 years because Hitler distorted and pursued its principles in a hideously cruel way. We must remember that Hitler was crazy. We must believe that eugenics may be practiced in a sane and civilized way.

It should not be difficult to persuade genetically unsound indigents to submit them to sterilization if it is pointed out to them that their new condition will permit them unlimited sexual pleasure without bringing upon them the burden of handicapped children. A properly mounted government publicity campaign would result in the submission of the vast majority of unfit people to voluntary sterilization. Some element of compulsion will have to be accepted once the practice of eugenics is adopted. Boards of control manned by doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, clergymen and others should be empowered to order certain people be sterilized.

Porter further suggests that anyone sent to prison for the second time be sterilized, and that all patients admitted to hospital “should be examined for severe hereditary handicaps.”

He continued to write for the Sun until 1990, by which time a column suggesting that no Canadian citizen born outside of the country should be allowed to vote because of a tendency to indulge in ethnic partisanship prompted city council to pull its ads from the paper.

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This Andy Donato cartoon, about the situation in southeast Asia, typifies the paper’s view of Communism, and ran next to a pro-Pinochet editorial. Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

Augusto Pinochet

The Sun’s hatred of any government with the faintest left-wing tinge had few bounds. The paper’s mad hate-on for Pierre Trudeau became something of a joke. Columnists like Lubor Zink forever warned about the dangers of Communism. While Zink exposed true atrocities committed by such regimes, his zealous fervour also became a joke.

One fight against the left the Sun really misfired on was its support of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. In a 1978 editorial, Chile’s status as a “whipping boy” nation alongside nations like Rhodesia and South Africa was criticized. “Chile’s great sin is to have violently ousted a Marxist government—a rare occurrence,” the paper noted. The piece went on to note how poor Chile was trying to earn a spot among respectable nations while it undid damage blamed on former president Salvador Allende, and how it was ironic China helped them when Canada didn’t. “It is an obscenity to concentrate on the sins of a minor offender while ignoring sins of a major offender.” To which we say it’s also ultimately a sin to brush aside the thousands who disappeared or were tortured during Pinochet’s regime.

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Toronto Sun, September 4, 1977.

After spending years sifting through these opinions, it’s disturbing how there’s been a steady market for this strain of journalism. What really grates, as a study done of depictions of immigration and racism in the Toronto press of the 1970s showed, was that unlike its competitors, the Sun often presented a single worldview, lacking diversity or nuances. Instead of promoting healthy debate around the above issues, or ongoing problems such as community-police relations and where immigrants fit into Canadian society, the Sun frequently promotes divisiveness at the expense of better understanding between people. It’s the easier, more sensational way to go, but it ignores the human cost of such thinking.

Ultimately, future historians will judge whether today’s Sun columnists and editorial writers reflect the beliefs of their readership, have a sense of where the world is heading, or live up to Dale’s criticism of their worth.

Additional material from Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve by Effie Ginzberg (Toronto: Urban Alliance on Race Relations, 1987); The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993); the October 31, 1985 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the February 4, 1977, January 6, 1978, January 8, 1978, August 25, 1978, September 3, 1980, September 25, 1981, October 25, 1982, July 24, 1985, August 4, 1985, and June 22, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1985.

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Globe and Mail, December 13, 1985.

The report referred to, Power Without Responsibility: The Press We Don’t Deserve, is worth seeking out. Be prepared to be nauseated by some of the excerpted columns (unless your views align with those of the late 1970s/early 1980s Sun).

Godfrey spent the next two months listening to deputations, then wrote a conciliatory letter to the Urban Alliance. In March 1986, the Ontario Press Council dismissed complaints about Porter’s take on South Africa. “Those meetings went on for four, five, sometimes six hours,” Godfrey later recalled. “But I valued them. I always remember that wars are started by a failure to communicate. So I’d take them into the boardroom, give them muffins and coffee and invite them to tell me why they were unhappy with the Sun.”

I suspect present-day Sun management would throw the muffins and coffee at complainants.

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Toronto Sun, February 6, 1989.

While this story didn’t make the final cut, it’s worth bringing it up within the context of the other issues discussed in my piece. This column proved the final straw when it came to McKenzie Porter writing provocatively outrageous things: suggesting that anyone born outside of Canada should be prevented from voting or running for office.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1989. Note that the wrong date was provided for the offending column.

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Toronto Star, March 3, 1989.

The city’s ad ban lasted two months, before reconsidering after being accused of censorship. Porter was criticized in the Ontario Legislature for the column, and retired from the Sun the following year.

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Toronto Sun, November 13, 1977.

For contextual purposes, here is a typical example of a Claire Hoy column dripping with homophobia. The vitriol in his pieces, which ostensibly were supposed to cover goings-on at Queen’s Park but often degenerated into rants against people Hoy hated, is thick. The language is dehumanizing, referring to his opponents not as people but “creatures.” And yet it is not difficult to imagine these words being used in 2018 in discussions over Ontario’s sex education curriculum.

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Toronto Sun, January 8, 1978.

The pro-Pinochet editorial I referred to. Not unusual during the Cold War era but, given what we now know about the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup in 1973, an editorial that has not aged well.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was my last non-Historicist piece published by Torontoist, though it could have easily fit within that column. It was a parting gift to outgoing EIC David Hains, who had suggested for some time that I write a piece on the past transgression of the “Little Paper that Grew.” Two more Historicist columns, and a look back at my time writing that particular column, would mark the end of my decade-long run at Torontoist.

I was first exposed to the Sun when my father picked up copies of the paper during m childhood trips to Toronto. It was the first tabloid-sized paper I was exposed to, and I loved the comic book format of the weekend funnies. Those papers made it into my father’s giant clipping collection–I recall photocopies of Douglas Fisher columns explaining the mechanics of parliament being passed around in the grade 9 history class Dad taught.

In university during the mid-1990s, I occasionally bought the Sunday Sun, partly as a joke, partly as a chance to see what the right side of the spectrum was saying, and partly for the Sunday funnies to hang on my dorm room. Two things brought this to an end: the incessant attacks against teachers and other public professionals, and a landlord who cheered on the paper’s taunts. While I have flipped through copies of the paper lying around, I have not paid for one since the end of the 20th century.

Its current incarnation is little more than a vehicle for populist outrage, reconfirming the biases of its readers instead of trying to broaden them, stoking divisions that aren’t necessary and do more harm than good. I ignore it and its writers as much as possible, since I can probably predict from a headline whatever the copy will read.

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Shaping Toronto: Queen West

Originally published on Torontoist on March 16, 2016.

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“The road to the heart of Toronto runs along Queen Street. It may not be the most imposing thoroughfare in town, nor the longest, but it is the liveliest, the most vibrant, successful, and popular. More than any other, it is the street that defines Toronto, and that has led the way to the re-urbanization of the downtown core, a process that continues today.” — Christopher Hume, Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure, 2012.

For those who came of age from the late 1970s through early 1990s, the heart of Queen West was between University and Spadina. It was the Queen West I was introduced to as a child, tagging along with my father as we browsed one used book store after another. To a kid from deep southwestern Ontario, it was a magical place, with its funky old buildings loaded with funky old things, and a stretch with a wide sidewalk to run around freely.

Flash forward to my teens. My hometown is finally wired up to cable, introducing the CHUM/CITY galaxy of channels, which, to a not-yet-cynical mind, depicted Queen West as the coolest place in the country. Based on an informal survey of friends on Facebook, this was not an unusual feeling. You could speak your mind on Speakers’ Corner, or check out whatever MuchMusic was doing. You could even toss in some shopping while you were at it.

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South side Queen Street West from 217 to 233, August 23, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1234.

“Along Queen Street West, purchasers in that section of the city will find much that it will be to their advantage to inspect.” — the Toronto News, December 23, 1885.

One of Toronto’s oldest roads, Queen Street (known in its early days as Lot Street) was laid out when York was established in 1793. During the early 19th century, the stretch we’re concerned with was the front of D’Arcy Boulton Jr.’s property, where he built The Grange. His lasting legacy along Queen is the short stretch east of Spadina where it widens out.

“Our worst streets are those Victorian and Edwardian thoroughfares where bad design and poor maintenance give an impression of sordidness and decay. King, Queen, Dundas, and much of Yonge are such streets, and their ugliness is not improved by their stretching, seemingly, to infinity.” — Eric Arthur, Toronto No Mean City, 1964.

For much of its existence, Queen West was a modest commercial strip serving local residents and workers at nearby factories and warehouses. Never glamourous, by the 1970s it was described by Toronto Life as being “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country.” What it had was great older commercial architecture and cheap rents, two assets which would spur its revitalization.

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Map of Queen West, Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

“Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge Street on to Queen Street West unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen Street West—notably the few blocks between John Street and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops, and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings, and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge Street or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

“Today that section of Queen—two blocks on the south side, three on the north—shows signs of becoming the new world. The spirit of trend has raised her elegant skirts and skipped down from gorgeous, pricey Bloor to nestle among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries, and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.

“The setting is a broad, tree-lined stretch of Queen Street, Toronto’s answer to the Rue des Capucines in Paris. There, close to 40 vibrant young stores have sprung up among the old—altogether a Saturday browser’s dream.” — Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

Expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario and a greater integration of the Ontario College of Art into the neighbourhood produced an influx of artists who remolded the street, whose works are currently celebrated in an art exhibition as part of the Myseum Intersections festival. Longstanding businesses, such as the Peter Pan diner, were revamped. Tourists were told the strip was, according to Fodor’s, “a strange world of dusty, neglected stores next to popular nightclubs” like Bam Boo and others.

“Think of Queen West as Toronto’s version of Hollywood’s Melrose, minus the palm trees. And Heather Locklear. Whether for shopping or people-gawking, Queen West is Toronto’s hippest strip.” — Stephen Davey, Now City Guide Toronto, 1999.

As Queen West evolved, it fell victim to its own success. As rents shot up, the next generation of artistic entrepreneurs moved further west, pushing out beyond Bathurst. Filling the spaces were chain stores, leaving the impression among those who enjoyed its renaissance that the strip was becoming an extension of the Eaton Centre. Shifting ownership drained the vitality out of the old CHUM/CITY channels. Some pushouts were less successful than others—the space where Pages bookstore operated has been vacant for years, though recent renovations of the front indicate something may finally be happening.

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“Today Queen Street West is an animated mixed-use corridor that functions as a local and regional destination, drawing people from the residential neighbourhoods that surround it, and extensively, from all over the city and beyond. The history of the street, and its place in the collective memory, continues to be enhanced by the presence of a vibrant retail and entertainment scene, and the multiple events and venues that make Queen Street West their home.” — Queen Street West Heritage Conservation District Plan report, 2007.

Sidewalks remain packed on average days. Live entertainment still holds sway at venues like the Horseshoe, Rivoli, and the Rex. Designation as a heritage conservation district in 2007 offers stronger protection to retain its low-rise, century-old architecture (even if it currently boasts at least one example of odd facadism where Silver Snail used to be). Whatever you think of the strip’s evolution, it retains its vitality.

Additional material from Toronto No Mean City by Eric Arthur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964); Now City Guide Toronto by Stephen Davey (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999); Fodor’s Toronto (New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1984); Queen Street: Toronto’s Urban Treasure (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2012); the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life; and the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This was the final installment of Shaping Toronto.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the initial revival of the Queen West strip during the lare 1970s in the following installment of Retro T.O. for The Grid, originally published on April 17, 2012. 

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979.

With Silver Snail’s impending move to Yonge Street, one of the few remnants of the original Queen West strip is departing the scene. The ongoing transformation of the stretch between University and Spadina into a row of chain stores is just the latest evolution of the street. Back in the winter of 1979, the Star and Toronto Life devoted lengthy articles to the birth of what would become, as one headline put it, “gutter glamour on Glitter Street.” The Star depicted pre-hip Queen West as such:

Six years ago, the unwary Saturday afternoon browser who slipped off Yonge St. on to Queen St. W. unwittingly fell off the edge of the known shopping world. At that time, deepest darkest Queen St. W.—notably the few blocks between John St. and Spadina—had little to offer the inquisitive, well-heeled young shopper with money to spend. There were the old, antique shops, the porno shops and the Turner Wine Store at the corner of John and Queen with its down-at-heel clientele of listless, hungry men, the greasy spoons, office buildings and machine shops. Even the more adventurous would go scurrying back to Yonge St. or north to Bloor, with its classy, high-priced Yorkville.

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Toronto Star, February 2, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

Toronto Life characterized the area as a marginal strip on the fringes of the clothing trade, where the streetscape was “inhabited by transient winos and the ethnics who had failed to prosper in the new country, ‘old-country good-for-nothings’ in the eyes of their more successful compatriots.”

Several explanations were given for why the landscape changed. There was the influence of Ontario College of Art graduates who stayed in the neighbourhood. Rent was far lower than in Yorkville, which provided better profit margins for the new business owners whose average age was 30 to 35. There was the allure of nearby cultural attractions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Alex. Frequent streetcar service and plenty of on- and off-street parking didn’t hurt.

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Queen Street looking west from St. Patrick’s Market, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 29. 

The result, according to the Star, was a neighbourhood where “the spirit of trend” had “raised her elegant skirts” and nestled “among scores of bright, funky craft stores, highbrow art book and comic book shops, new antique emporiums, elegant eateries and purveyors of the crazy, imaginative baubles that attract the moneyed restless.” A few reminders of the old days, like the A. Stork and Sons poultry store and a touch of industrial pollution, lingered on.

Both articles viewed the refurbishment of the Peter Pan restaurant as the turning point for the strip. With a history as an eatery stretching back to 1905 (and under its present name since 1935), the diner at 373 Queen St. W. attracted three partners who discovered old booths, counters, and fixtures gathering dust in the basement. After a refurbishment, the new Peter Pan was, according to the Star, “an art deco wonderland, a smash hit with the city’s young affluent.” That is, it was a hit if you could stand the servers, who Toronto Life declared the representative figure of the new Queen West (“the narcissistic waiter who’s in a punk band”).

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Queen Street looking west from Beverley Street, June 7, 1981. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526,  File 76, Item 30. Click on image for larger version.

Of the 27 businesses listed in the Star’s “Where to shop in new village” guide and a few others included on a map, only four will continue on Queen West following Silver Snail’s departure: the Black Bull, Peter Pan, the Queen Mother Café and Steve’s Music Store. Even in 1979, merchants worried about the street’s future. “I don’t want too much change in the original street,” noted Peter Pan co-owner Sandy Stagg. “Change will come, I know. I just hope we can keep it under control.”

Additional material from the February 2, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star and the March 1979 edition of Toronto Life.

Shaping Toronto: Chinatowns

Originally published on Torontoist on February 4, 2016.

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Marking the end of the Second World War in Chinatown, August 12, 1945 (two days before the official declaration was signed). City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98337.

A glance at the listing for Adelaide Street East in the 1878 city directory shows a mix of Anglo-sounding businessmen whose trades range from contracting to insurance. The name at number 9 stands out: Sam Ching & Co, Chinese laundry. Mr. Ching’s presence was a cultural milestone, as he was the first recorded Chinese resident of Toronto.

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Page from the 1878 city directory listing Sam Ching’s business at 9 Adelaide Street East.

Since Ching’s era, Toronto has included several Chinatowns, a term which has evolved from its original negative connotation. As Library and Archives Canada observes, “’Chinatown’ was coined in the 19th century as a European concept to signify an undesirable neighbourhood full of vice, and peopled by an inferior race.” That proper Torontonians of the early 20th century viewed the city’s small Chinese population—just over 1,000 in 1910—as lesser beings puts it mildly.

Both the respectable and gutter press hyped up the “yellow peril,” editorializing on how the eastern mindset was alien to western concepts of democracy and good citizenship, and how the Chinese would corrupt morals via gambling and opium. Efforts to curb their presence in the laundry and restaurant trades ranged from licensing fees to unsuccessful attempts by City Council to deny business licenses. Paranoia led to provincial legislation preventing Chinese-owned businesses from hiring white women, lest they be sold into white slavery. The Rosedale Ratepayers Association wanted to keep Chinese laundries out of their neighbourhood, adding them to the long list of things people don’t want in Rosedale.

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100-110 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 178.

While there had been small clusters of Chinese along Queen Street (one at George, another at York), by the end of the First World War a stable community established itself in The Ward, the neighbourhood west of Old City Hall which, despite its great poverty, had welcomed numerous immigrant communities. Elizabeth Street between Queen and Dundas served as this Chinatown’s spine, lined with businesses, restaurants, and societies. It mostly served single men, thanks to a series of harsh immigration measures preventing families from joining them. These laws escalated from head taxes to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which all but banned entry to Canada for two decades.

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56-48 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 171.

Over that time, the “almond-eyed Celestials,” as the Globe dubbed Chinese residents during the early 1920s, endured frequent police raids on gambling houses, a riot, and periodic rumours of imminent tong wars. If anything, the gambling dens offered lonely people social space, work, and shelter during hard times. Viewed as a threat to the existing social order, the Chinese found Chinatown a refuge they felt accepted in.

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Globe and Mail, October 14, 1948.

Major changes came after the Second World War. The end of the Chinese Immigration Act led to a slow reunion of families. Provincial liquor law reforms allowing cocktail bars provoked a restaurant boom in Chinatown. Locals and tourists dined at Kwong ChowLichee GardenNanking TavernSai Woo, and other eateries which benefitted from both the new booze rules and increasing interest in Chinese-Canadian cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, June 17, 1969.

There were also new threats. The City acquired properties at the southern end of Chinatown to build the current City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. By 1967, the city’s development commissioner recommended that the remaining buildings be replaced by municipal structures. Lead by the likes of Kwong Chow owner and community activist Jean Lumb, the Save Chinatown committee fought to preserve what was left. Lumb presented her arguments to the Star:

One reason why we feel there should always be a Chinatown in a city the size of Toronto is simply that there has been one, and to have it lost would be strongly felt. Its existence has its effects on people, especially as long as there are new Chinese immigrants coming every year. We should have a spot for them to start from, a place where they can be among their own people, hear their own language spoken. The Chinese people are quiet and reserved; it takes them longer than many other immigrants to make friends, to get used to new ways.

Some people say a Chinatown encourages ghettos and this is a reason why it shouldn’t be, but that’s not so. It just gives the people a sense of belonging. It’s a nice environment for them until they’re ready to go on their way more and fit into the Canadian community.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1971.

After a series of deputations in 1969, City Council decided to keep what was now known as Old Chinatown. Efforts to keep the neighbourhood alive during the 1970s included Dragon Mall (a pedestrianized Elizabeth Street, à la the Yonge Street Mall) and earning recognition as a tourist destination. Over time, large scale development projects crept in and the remaining Chinese businesses closed. By the 21st century little remained beyond historical plaques marking where the neighbourhood had been.

Meanwhile, the gradual loosening of immigration rules during the 1960s prompted an influx of arrivals, especially from Hong Kong. As the old Chinatown shrank, a new one grew to the west along Dundas and Spadina, replacing the Jewish community which was moving north. By the late 1970s this area was recognized as downtown’s primary Chinatown, marked with cultural motifs and Chinese-language street signs.

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Corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, sometime between 1975 and 1988. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 383, Item 1.

For those who found Spadina too pricey or touristy, there was Chinatown East, which emerged at Broadview and Gerrard. Starting with the opening of Charlie’s Meat in 1971, the neighbourhood’s affordability attracted businesses which served an increasing number of migrants from mainland China and Vietnam.

By the mid-1980s, new Chinatowns developed in the suburbs. The influx of new businesses and residents revealed that fears of the “yellow peril” were far from dead. Agincourt became a flashpoint in 1984, as a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong (on the move as the end of the British lease on the colony in 1997 loomed) arrived. Some longtime residents were alarmed by the new faces around them. “I don’t want to be biased or prejudiced but I don’t think they should be allowed to come into a neighbourhood and take over with such force,” 30-year resident Mildred Jackson told the Star. A heated community meeting ostensibly about parking issues related to the recently-opened Dragon Centre and two other plazas at Sheppard Avenue and Glen Watford Drive degenerated into jeers and racist remarks. The tone may have been set by the meeting’s chair, who referred to the “rape of our community” and that “we should not actively encourage any group to cling together as an enclave” (he later wrote the Star to protest that his remarks were taken out of context). Flyers distributed to homes asked for tougher immigration policies, alleging links between new arrivals and crimes across the Pacific.

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Dragon Centre, Agincourt, February 2016.

Backlash against emerging Chinese business and commercial areas continued over the next decade as new enclaves emerged in Markham and Richmond Hill. But Agincourt also pointed the way to the nature of later areas, from large restaurants to Asian-themed shopping centres like Pacific Mall.

In a book profiling Canadian Chinatowns, Paul Yee summarized how the role of these neighbourhoods changed from a necessary presence to ensure the community’s safety to being woven into the urban fabric.

Some Chinese saw old Chinatowns as living monuments to a turbulent history and to the fragility of equality. Others saw them as sites where Chinese culture was preserved and shared. Both these views supported the building of cultural facilities there. In a sense, old and new Chinatowns bridged the historical divide between Chinese Canadians, because more and more people appreciated Chinatowns’ different functions and freely visited them.

Additional material from The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle by Arlene Chan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); Chinatown by Paul Yee (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005); the July 6, 1922 edition of the Globe; and the March 8, 1969, May 14 1984, and May 29, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, October 11, 1907.

The fear of the “yellow peril” in action – one of the more jaw-dropping (from a modern perspective) editorials regarding the place of Chinese in Canadian society during the early 20th century.

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The Globe, July 6, 1922.

A profile of Chinatown, which tosses off a “gee, aren’t they cute?” vibe.

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Chinese victory celebrations, parade on Elizabeth Street, August 26, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98604.

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1969. Click on image for larger version.

The article from which Jean Lumb’s defense of maintaining a Chinatown was quoted from.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1970s look at Old Chinatown, which discusses some of the remaining businesses, the Dragon Mall pedestrian zone, and several recipes inspired by local grocers.

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Globe and Mail, June 27, 1975.

One of the first major projects as Spadina became the heart of downtown’s Chinatown was China Court, which opened in August 1976. Within a decade, it was razed for the cold concrete of Chinatown Centre.

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Globe and Mail, August 2, 1976. Click on image for larger version.

The building at 346 Spadina Avenue has gone through numerous incarnations, from the Labor Lyceum, to a series of Asian restaurants beginning with Yen Pin Place.

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Toronto Star, May 29, 1984.

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Toronto Star, June 1, 1984.

The Star’s coverage of a testy meeting in Agincourt, and reaction from readers. The paper also published an editorial criticizing attendees for their remarks, observing that the parking issue was one Scarborough’s city council was attempting to fix.

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Toronto Star, June 16, 1984.

A few weeks later, meeting chairman Dr. Douglas Hood defended his actions, claiming that coverage was a smear job which took several remarks out of context. Having covered community meetings over the years where the yahoos came out in full force, and reading about similar meetings in the 905 belt a decade later, I’m tempted to lean toward the paper’s interpretation of events.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Memory Lane

Originally published on Torontoist on September 2, 2015, based on an article originally published by The Grid on March 12, 2013.

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Toronto Life, November 1969.

During the 1960s, the block of Markham Street south of Bloor transformed from a quiet residential road into a row of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. What started as a plan to build a parking lot for Honest Ed’s became Mirvish Village. While 594 Markham initially housed galleries after its residents departed, the building found its fame when “Captain” George Henderson opened his Memory Lane comic book and movie memorabilia store in 1967.

Born in Montreal, Henderson devoured comic books and movies during a childhood spent bouncing among foster homes. He also wrote poetry, a skill that wasn’t appreciated during his 12-year army stint. After his discharge, he wrote soft-core porn novels for $750 apiece. “I could rewrite the same book three times, one heterosexual, one homosexual, and one lesbian,” he later told the Globe and Mail.

Tiring of the porn trade, Henderson returned to his childhood loves when he opened the Viking Bookshop on Queen Street West near Simcoe Street in spring 1966. Dubbed “the campiest store in town” by the Star’s Robert Fulford, the Viking was the first in Canada to specialize in comic books. He claimed the largest stock of Golden Age comics (those published up to 1949) in Canada, with a weekly turnover of 5,000 comics from that era.

Henderson renamed the store Memory Lane when it moved to Markham Street because “it was the worst cliché you could think of.” The store became a place for comic fans, movie buffs, and nostalgic types to connect. Rising interest in comics spurred by the Adam West Batman TV show attracted plenty of media attention, even if it wasn’t always respectful—during one TV appearance, a laugh track played whenever he opened his mouth. He also dealt with occasional hecklers—once, when a passerby bellowed, “what a weird store!” Henderson replied, “Yes sir, and I think there’s a place in Toronto for a weird store like this.”

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Advertorial by Mary Walpole about Memory Lane, Globe and Mail, April 16, 1970.

The “weird store” was a focal point for one of Toronto’s first major conventions, the Triple Fan Fair. Centred around Markham Street during Canada Day weekend in 1968, the gathering included art displays, a Tarzan exhibit, a panel discussion featuring Stan Lee, a comic-book swap, and silent films presented by a young Reg Hartt. Anticipating future convention costume contests, the fair offered a masked ball filled with comic characters, silent movie stars, and monsters.

The store cultivated many fans via its mini publishing empire, known as the “Vast Whizzbang Organization.” Captain George’s Whizzbang was an attractive fanzine that purveyed, according to Star media critic Nathan Cohen, “affectionate, informed nostalgia.” Its content included capsule reviews of current books, columns on comics and radio, and essays on sci-fi illustrators and movies past and present. Henderson’s reprints of classic comic strips ran into trouble when he was fined $4,000 after King Features received an injunction over copyright violations.

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CBC news story on Memory Lane, May 29, 1970. CBC Archives.

Yet these reprints reflected Henderson’s interest in promoting comics as a valid art form. Following an exhibition of his most valuable comics at Hart House in November 1966, Henderson talked of establishing a permanent comic art museum. His vision was briefly realized in 1971, when the Whizzbang Gallery opened a few doors south of Memory Lane. “We’re not out to appeal to the man on the street,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We’re only interested in people who care about our popular culture.” During its opening, one guest confided to Henderson that “this is the first party I’ve ever been at where the other guests didn’t think I was some kind of nut for liking comic books.”

By the 1980s, Henderson wearied of the comic-book market. He noticed that, as the years passed, kids’ enthusiasm changed from the stories inside the comics to their financial worth. Most of his income came from movie memorabilia, especially posters and lobby cards. The sheer volume Henderson carried led the Globe and Mail to call Memory Lane “a branch of the Smithsonian that the Smithsonian doesn’t know about.” The store occasionally experienced runs on particular items, such as Ronald Reagan material during his 1980 presidential run.

Henderson passed away in 1992. Henderson’s legacy of treating comics seriously lingered on in Mirvish Village via The Beguiling.

Additional material from the June 15, 1966, November 28, 1966, February 17, 1968, October 2, 1971, and April 4, 1982 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 23, 1966, June 29, 1968, and April 28, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

ts 66-07-23 viking books profile Toronto Star, July 23, 1966. Click on image for larger version.

Of the other stores mentioned in this article, Ryerson Press’s home at 299 Queen West would become home to the CHUM/CITY media empire. ts 68-06-29 triple fan fair

Toronto Star, June 29, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

Don’t fret about what’s happening to our heroes on the covers chosen for this profile of the Triple Fan Fair: Ben Grimm turned back into the Thing in the next issue of Fantastic Four, while Spidey found escape less than impossible.

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Toronto Star, April 28, 1969.

A few words about Captain George’s Whizzbang from legendary Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen.

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Globe and Mail, October 2, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An article on the launch of the Whizzbang Gallery, accompanied by Carmine Infantino’s rendition of the Flash.

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Globe and Mail, April 24, 1982. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1980s profile of Henderson.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Columbia House

Originally published on Torontoist on August 12, 2015.

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Maclean’s, February 16, 1957.

The bait was hard to resist: up to a dozen albums for a penny. Sure, there was a “small” shipping and handling fee. And buy x-number of albums at full price over x-number of years. And mail back reply cards if the monthly featured selection didn’t appeal to you. And endure legal notices in case you didn’t pay up. And, if you cared to dig deeper, support the no or reduced royalties on those bargain albums paid to performers and publishers. And, if you wanted to dump the albums, discover used music stores that refused to accept them, citing inferior pressing quality.

But a dozen albums for a penny! Even with the additional costs factored in, Columbia House and its competitors were an affordable way to build a music collection, especially back-catalogue items you might not have rushed down to the local bricks-and-mortar store to buy. You could kill hours browsing microscopic print to make the right picks.

At their peak in the mid-1990s, record clubs across North America raked in $1.5 billion annually. At the end of the 1990s, Columbia House Canada held the second largest market share among Canadian music retailers, behind bricks-and-mortar retailer HMV. Their power over sales was such that many large chains boycotted the 1996 Juno Awards when Columbia House was named an official sponsor.

Then the Internet came along. The only surprise over this week’s announcement that the American remnants of Columbia House has filed for Chapter 11 is that any trace of the former giant still existed.

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Toronto Star, October 17, 1955.

Columbia House’s half-century presence in Toronto began when the Columbia Record Club launched on both sides of the border in 1955. It was promoted via ads through local retailers ranging from Eaton’s to Sniderman’s Music Hall (the College Street forerunner of Sam the Record Man). The original offer was a choice of one free record from a list of 12. After that, you had to buy four LPs at list price over the next year, with a free record tossed in for every two you bought. The offer was adjusted over time: by 1968, the deal was eight free records if you bought nine over the next year.

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Globe and Mail, October 15, 1955.

The company experienced pains after purchasing the rival Capitol Record Club of Canada in 1974. “Quite frankly,” Columbia House Canada VP/GM Richard Gurian told the Star, “we didn’t do such a great job in taking over” after discovering how many bad accounts were inherited. Moving its computer services from its Don Mills office to the headquarters in Terre Haute, Indiana created customer invoice problems.

One result: for the rest of the 1970s, Columbia House provoked the highest number of complaints about a single firm received by the Star’s Star Probe consumer-help column. Most aggravating was the steady stream of increasingly threatening notices to pay up in cases where items didn’t arrive or requests to close properly paid accounts were ignored. As Star Probe columnist Rod Goodman put it, “It is a shame that the law allows firms to throw legal notices at customers without making even a token effort to determine the facts.” Readers frequently vowed never to deal with direct marketers ever again.

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Maclean’s, February 1968.

Goodman published an example of the form letters complainants received. This one was the first stage in prodding a delinquent customer, utilizing an obnoxious “friendly” approach:

Have you ever tried wishing away your troubles? They just don’t go away. The only way troubles will disappear is by doing something about them. In our case, I mean yours and mine, our troubles could disappear if you would only pay your bill. We would both be relieved of a big burden. Especially since the time is rapidly approaching when I must make a decision whether or not to turn your account over to a collection agency. Send your payment today and breathe a sigh of relief.

That letter may have been signed by “Douglas Mitchell,” the fake name Columbia House used for its friendliest reminder. Not as nice was “Frank Pearson,” who asked if you forgot the bill before demanding payment. If nothing was resolved, “Clark Weatherbee” threatened legal action or harassment from a collection agency. These names helped Columbia House staff determine account status whenever a frazzled customer called in. “Suppose everyone wrote to me and I wasn’t here,” Gladys Perry, Columbia House Canada’s manager of fulfillment, told the Globe and Mail in 1982. “Imagine all the frustration that would build up. And what if I were to leave the company?”

Sometimes the form letter went too far. One Weatherbee form used in the early 1980s advised clients that “we are now fully aware of your extremely poor credit risk status.” While Parry dismissed complaints about that wording, noting that those who supposedly owed Columbia House did “not necessarily have a poor credit rating in the whole community,” lawyers took the company to task. The wording was removed.

Perhaps employees were fatigued by legitimate deadbeats, who made up to 35 per cent of their customer base. Some went far to get their cheap albums: a North York couple was charged in February 2000 for defrauding Columbia House out of $20,000 over the previous year. Under different names (yet using the same address), the couple submitted 28 handwritten and over 1,000 online club applications, yielding a bounty of 900 CDs.

Columbia House soldiered on even when rival BMG Music Service launched with a Boxing Day advertising blitz in 1994. BMG’s promise of no further obligations past the promotional offer was an immediate hit, drawing 300,000 members in 10 months. Both services, and their offshoots, fought it out in mailers, ads, and online until BMG pulled the plug on its Mississauga facility in early 2000. As online shopping cut into its base, Columbia House was sold to a succession of new owners. The end for its Canadian operation came in December 2010, when Direct Brands closed its east Scarborough office.

Additional material from the August 16, 2008 edition of Billboard; the October 15, 1955, April 15, 1982, and August 26, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 1968 edition of Maclean’s; and the October 12, 1976, March 24, 1977, April 10, 1979, and December 10, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Oscar Peterson

Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.

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Toronto Star, November 5, 1945.

In July 1945, Globe and Mail record reviewer Dillon O’Leary (in his tongue-twistingly-titled column “Hot Platter Patter”) declared that 20-year-old jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s second single “My Blue Heaven/Louise” was disappointing “but his ideas still show lots of promise.” That promise was fulfilled: over the next 60 years, Peterson earned fame and honours worldwide.

Reviews of his early visits to Toronto, such as this one by the Globe and Mail’s Kay Sanford during a brief appearance at the Royal York Hotel in November 1945, glowed:

This personable young coloured man with the gifted fingers chased the ivories through a varied program and the blues to the lilting Polonaise in a style that left his audience with their mouths agape and pleading “Don’t stop now.” Yes, sir, that man is solid dynamite. But Oscar is a versatile lad who doesn’t just stick to the hot stuff. His long, graceful fingers caressed the piano in a flow of classics as well as chopping a faster tempo to more popular boogie numbers, offering tuneful evidence of the amazing gift which is his.

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Globe and Mail, March 7, 1946.

Peterson made his Massey Hall debut on March 7, 1946. “Peterson has technique, imagination and terrific drive, combined with that relaxed self-possession which allows a musician to give his best at all times,” O’Leary observed in his review. The crowd responded enthusiastically, applauding loudly following Peterson’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and demanding encores at the end of the night.

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Globe and Mail, August 13, 1960.

Though born in Montreal, Peterson was later based in the Toronto area. One of his most ambitious local projects was the establishment of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music (ASCM) in 1960. Founded by Peterson, the rest of his performance trio (bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) and clarinetist/composer Phil Nimmons, the school was established to allow professional jazz musicians to mentor emerging talent from across North America. Originally launched in the basement of Peterson’s suburban home, it soon moved downtown to 21 Park Road. The school initially offered courses lasting up to 17 weeks (later shortened to four), which the teachers soon found cut into their touring time. “When we set up the school,” Peterson told the Star in January 1964 after it suspended operations, “it was supposed to be a bit of a holiday activity on our days off. It never worked that way.” Despite the school’s demise, Peterson continued to teach, leading to a term as chancellor of York University. ASCM’s legacy will be honoured this week with the installation of a Toronto Legacy Program plaque on its site on June 18, the same day the Toronto Jazz Festival marks the 90th anniversary of Peterson’s birth.

While Peterson appeared in print ads and television commercials for products ranging from whisky to Coffee-mate, he also lent his presence to public service announcements regarding human rights issues. One such ad, “Together We Are Ontario,” featured Peterson and fellow jazz performers like Guido Basso and Moe Koffman promoting racial harmony in the province. The importance of such work to Peterson is reflected in his autobiography A Jazz Odyssey: on the dedication page, besides mentions of his parents and musical impresario Norman Granz, he gives a shout-out to former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry, “who decisively assisted my efforts to persuade TV companies to feature more ethnics in their sponsorship programs.”

Additional material from Oscar Peterson: A Musical Biography by Alex Barris (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson by Oscar Peterson (New York: Continuum, 2002); the July 21, 1945, November 27, 1945, March 8, 1946, and September 10, 1960 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the January 6, 1964 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Black’s

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2015.

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Globe and Mail, November 28, 1966.

“Black’s is Photography.” Or at least it was until yesterday, when Telus announced that it will shut the chain’s 59 remaining stores by August 8. A spokesperson blamed the 85-year-old brand’s demise on changing technology and the costs associated with making its recent revamp succeed.

Perhaps Telus, who has owned the chain since 2009, heeded advice Eddie Black gave his sons: “Don’t hang in too long.”

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One of the earliest ads to mention Eddie Black’s. The Globe, October 19, 1931.

Black’s traced its origins to 1930, when Eddie Black used a $500 loan from his parents (who owned a grocery store at Spadina and Lonsdale in Forest Hill) to open a radio and appliance shop at 1440 Yonge Street. Nine years later, sensing public interest in photography on the eve of the royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, he began carrying a small selection of cameras. The first batch sold out quickly.

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Globe and Mail, October 22, 1949.

When Eddie decided to open a larger store several doors north at 1424 Yonge, his eldest sons Bill and Bob proposed selling fishing gear, guns, and photographic equipment out of the old location. Eddie agreed, setting them up with a loan to launch those lines under his name in 1948. Within a year, the store dropped its outdoors goods. Besides retailing, the brothers offered lectures in their basement and ran equipment shows.

Sixty years later, Bob Black described the environment in which he began selling photographic equipment:

When we first started our store, the cameras were almost painful to use because they were so complicated. You had to focus, cock the shutter, set the lens opening and speed, set your flash, and figure out the proper distance. Photography often required a tripod. If you had slides, you needed slide trays, a projector, and a screen. Movies needed splicers, reels, and cans. Picture taking was a lot more than just the push of a button as it is today. Our timing, however, was perfect. In less than a decade, the camera went from being a specialty item to a common family purchase.

From the beginning, Black’s made good use of advertising. It sponsored a show on CFRB, “Black’s Camera Club of the Air,” which dispensed advice and previewed new products. Pitchmen included humourist Henry Morgan and Front Page Challengehost Fred Davis. The “Black’s is Photography” campaign developed by Saffer Advertising in the early 1980s used Martin Short to get that point across. Many of the ads featuring Short were improvised and sometimes mistakes made it into the final product, such as the time a spooked St. Bernard dragged the comedian across the set. It wasn’t the only time Black’s dealt with animal shenanigans; during an ad shoot at Bayview Village in the late 1970s, an elephant was depicted twirling a roll of film with its trunk before dropping it off with a clerk. “The elephant crapped all over the floor,” Bill Black later remembered.

Expansion into a chain began during the 1950s. Its fourth store, opened at Eglinton Square in 1954, launched its association with malls and plazas. There were hiccups along the way—the company was targeted by the federal government in 1962 over the definition of “regular” price under the recently passed Combines Investigation Act.

One of Black’s innovations was enlarging the standard size of photo prints. Up through the mid-1970s, customers usually picked up 3.5×5 prints. Sensing competition from instant cameras, management decided it needed something to set them apart. The answer was a larger 4×6 photo. When Black’s contacted Kodak to build a custom printer, they were told such machines would only be able to produce the new size. Introduced in 1977, the larger prints took off, eventually becoming the industry norm.

By the mid-1980s, a dozen members of the Black family worked for the company. They sensed the time was right to sell due to record profits, no debts, and private fears about how digital technology would affect the business. The 105-store chain was sold for $100 million to Scott’s Hospitality, which owned franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Scott’s Chicken Villa”) and Holiday Inn. The new owners doubled the number of stores to 210, and launched a short-lived foray into the United States. Subsequent owners included Fuji Film (1993-2007) and private equity firm ReichmannHauer (2007-2009).

When Telus picked up Black’s, by then reduced to 113 locations, for $28 million in 2009, it was to boost its shopping-mall presence in the wake of rival Bell’s purchase of The Source. “There’s a convergence going on between wireless and photography and Black’s is particularly well suited to take advantage of that,” Telus executive Robert McFarlane told the Globe and Mail. But adapting to the rapid changes in digital technology and how people display and store images proved too much of a challenge. A recent revamp, which included ditching the apostrophe from the chain’s name, increased profitability, but was deemed too pricey an initiative to succeed.

Black’s will soon be a memory, like those it long boasted of preserving among its customers.

Additional material from Picture Perfect: The Story of Black’s Photography by Robert Black with Marnie Maguire (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009) and the April 24, 2009 and September 9, 2009 editions of the Globe and Mail.