The Gladstone Hotel

Originally published as a gallery post by Torontoist on September 25, 2014 to mark the Gladstone Hotel’s 125th anniversary.

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Gladstone Hotel, fall 1952. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library.

As Toronto’s oldest continuously operating hotel, the Gladstone Hotel has seen much over its 125 years. When the doors first opened in 1889, it was a place for travelling businessmen to rest and for local athletic and social clubs to gather. Its proximity to Exhibition Place made it ideal for visitors and exhibitors. Through the late 20th century its reputation diminished, reflecting the economic and social decline of Parkdale to the west. But although it came to be perceived as a flophouse, it offered a sense of community to patrons and residents, giving them a place to relax with a drink and a bit of country music.

Over the last two decades the Gladstone has reawakened, becoming one of the city’s major cultural hubs as the neighbourhood around it has transformed. “Gladstone Hotel now stands as an epicentre of cultural incubation in Toronto’s west end, fostering creativity and community in everything it does,” its website notes. “Renowned for twisting perceptions and giving canvas to underrepresented and marginalized groups, Gladstone Hotel aims to raise the profile of subcultures and subvert the mainstream, creating a unique and open-armed narrative around its historic stature.” Art installations, burlesque, dancing, dining events, music, theatre, trivia nights, and many other forms of entertainment have found a place within its walls.

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The Globe, December 31, 1880.

The current Gladstone Hotel is the second building at the northeast corner of Queen and Gladstone bearing that name. The first, constructed in 1879, aroused the wrath of councillors in neighbouring Parkdale (then an independent municipality), who tried to block its liquor license. Originally known as Brady’s Hotel, it became the Gladstone in 1880 after the Robinson family purchased it. Proprietor Susanna Robinson was a widow with 13 children whose late husband had run hotels in Kleinburg and Yorkville. An 1887 advertisement offered guests the “finest brands of wines, liquors, and cigars,” plus Guinness Stout. James Britton might have required several pints after he lost to William McMurrich in the 1881 municipal election.

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The Empire, June 23, 1894.

Designed by architect George M. Miller, whose other works included the chapel at Wycliffe College, the second Gladstone Hotel opened in 1889. As Toronto Life observed over a century later, “the hotel aped the style of the time, a graceful, if unremarkable, Richardsonian Romanesque of red brick, arched passageways and gargoyles in stone relief.” A cupola located on its southwest corner was removed in the 1940s.

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Queen Street subway looking east, November 17, 1897. The Gladstone Hotel is in the background on the left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 2, Item 8.

The hotel’s location across Queen Street from the Parkdale railway station helped business in the early days, as did its proximity to the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner of the CNE). It provided a comfortable base for fair exhibitors and military performers. “The most striking feature about the hotel,” the Globe observed in 1904, “is the absolute cleanliness and neatness which is to be observed in each and all of its departments, whether in the collars, parlors, or dining rooms.” During the 1905 fair a full floor was occupied by 40 members of the Irish Guards, whose presence was honoured with a commemorative light display on the front of the hotel.

During extensive renovations made by owner Turnbull Smith an electric Otis elevator was installed in August 1905. Covered up for years, it was rediscovered during 21st century renovations when a hole was knocked in the wall. Refurbishing took nine months. Longtime regular Hank Young (1941-2009) was hired to operate the elevator upon its return to service. Known as the “Gladstone Cowboy,” Young first sang in the hotel as part of a country band in 1961, and eventually became a karaoke fixture known for his rendition of “Hey Good Lookin’.” Christina Zeidler felt his hiring was “a match made in heaven…He was a great storyteller.” Young was contractually obligated to wear outfits drawn from his collection of cowboy boots, hats, and bolo ties.

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Toronto Star, April 28, 1911.

Hans Waldheim (as spelled in accounts other than the one above) had very itchy fingers. Reputedly related to Prussian nobility, he was sent to Kingston Penitentiary in 1904 for a string of break-and-enters in Toronto. Incarceration failed to curb his criminal tendencies, as outbreaks of minor burglaries accompanied his travels. Around 1910 he was employed by the Gladstone as a porter and night clerk. After leaving the hotel, he used his knowledge of nightly routines to plan the perfect time to empty the till—the moment the clerk went to attend the main floor fireplace. He almost got away with it in April 1911, but was noticed and fled. Waldheim was on the run for a week, until police caught him trying to break into a home on Indian Road during the early morning of April 28. During his hearing on May 29 he claimed he broke into the Gladstone to pay a fine, fully intending to refund the stolen cash. Magistrate Rupert Kingsford didn’t buy the sob story or his lawyer’s request deport Waldheim to his native Germany. Kingsford sent Waldheim back to Kingston Pen.

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Queen Street subway east from Dufferin Street, April 22, 1915. The Gladstone Hotel is on the left, the Parkdale train station on the right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1409.

Disaster nearly struck when a fire forced 75 guests and boarders to evacuate the hotel on January 17, 1918. The blaze began in a rubbish heap in the basement underneath the kitchen. A night watchman called the fire in just before 5 a.m. When firefighters under the guidance of fire chief Duncan McLean arrived, the hotel was filled with smoke. That fatalities were avoid was thanks to swift thinking 20-year-old Union Station employee Stanley Condy. He was preparing to go to sleep when he heard someone yell “fire!” He ran to each floor, opening fire windows and guiding groggy guests to escape routes. “With a handkerchief over his mouth to prevent him from swallowing the smoke,” the Star reported, “he worked like a little hero running the elevator up and down till he was overcome by smoke and had to give up his task and seek fresh air.” McLean praised the calm evacuation. “There was absolutely no panic and everyone did the right thing at the right time,” he told the Telegram.

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Gladstone Avenue, looking north from south side Queen Street, March 23, 1949. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1881.

The Gladstone’s decline was long and slow. By the mid-1980s, most of its permanent residents were cabbies, pensioners, or truckers. “They are not necessarily down-and-out,” a Globe and Mail feature on the city’s hotel residents observed in 1985, “but they clearly march to a different drummer.” Regular patrons drank in the Melody Bar or caught country acts at Bronco’s (the current ballroom space). By the 1990s, the Art Bar offered space for performers and weekly drawing classes. Observers wondered how long it would be before the creep of gentrification westward along Queen Street would hit the Gladstone.

Room description, 2000, courtesy of Now:

The nightly rooms are on the lowest floor. I put my shoulder to the door that’s stuck on a lump of filthy shag carpet. Big ridges under the rug make walking on it precarious. This $49.25 room has a double bed, bath, TV and a phone to the front desk. It overlooks a roof covered in glass shards and the Price Chopper parking lot. It’s not a bad room, but the dispute between the hotel owners has prevented investment in upgrading. I have to pull the door hard to close it. This brings an all-swearing condemnation of door-slamming from an unseen neighbour.

In late 2000, after a bitter sibling rivalry resulting in death threats, longtime owners Allan and Herb Appleby sold the Gladstone. The new owners were Michael Tippin (who specialized in heritage renovation projects) and the Zeidler family. Plans called for the number of rooms to be downsized during renovations, and new programming catering to an artsier crowd a la New York’s Hotel Chelsea. Relations between the partners quickly soured. The low point may have been Tippin’s decision in February 2002 to send in security to lay off staff and evict the remaining long-term residents. Police mediation resulted after Margie Zeidler arrived to support those getting the boot. After legal battles and a bout with receivership, the Zeidlers were awarded full ownership in late 2002. The residents stayed on for two more years, then were offered assistance (including several days of free rent) in finding new homes elsewhere when the pace of renovations increased. The documentary Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel captured the changes during this period, as management juggled the needs of longtime regulars with a newer, younger, artier clientele.

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Photo by Sandy Nicholson, Toronto Life, June 2005. 

Management of the hotel passed on to filmmaker Christina Zeidler. The slow pace of renovations picked up as the hotel’s infrastructure succumbed to years of neglect. “We wanted to keep as much of the original building as possible,” Zeidler told the Star in 2005. “But the place was on its last legs. We had to redo everything—mechanical, electrical, floors and walls. Every time we started one job, we’d find more work that needed to be done.” Thirty-seven artists were hired to make over the guest rooms into individual works of creativity. A December 2005 gala served as the official relaunch.

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Gladstone Hotel, February 2009. Photo by Wil Macaulay. Creative Commons.

A longtime Gladstone tradition which wound down in 2014 was weekend karaoke in the Melody Bar. Hosted for nearly 15 years by Peter Styles, the chance to sing your heart out provide a venue for different generations of patrons to mingle. “Character types (Parkdale elders, skinny Queen West aesthetes and tables of birthday partiers) who normally wouldn’t be within the same three-block radius all manage to cohabit an irony-free zone where everyone fights for the mike and four minutes of fame,” Toronto Life observed in 2003. Among the props Styles used was an applause sign, which he felt helped those onstage. “The best thing to do is encourage energy in the audience for the singer,” he told the Star in 2012, “and of course they give it back.” A pipe burst during the intense cold of January 2014 wrecked the room’s audio equipment and soundproofing, which management saw as a sign it might be time to bid karaoke adieu.

Sources: Parkdale in Pictures by Margaret Laycock and Barbara Myrvold (Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1991); the August 22, 1904, August 21, 1905, and May 30, 1911 editions of the Globe; the April 11, 1985 and February 20, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 28, 1911 edition of the News; the August 24-31, 2000 edition of Now; the April 28, 1911, January 17, 1918, September 30, 2000, February 21, 2002, October 14, 2002, June 23, 2004, November 15, 2005, October 31, 2009, August 31, 2012, and March 20, 2014 editions of the Toronto Star; the January 17, 1918 edition of the Telegram; and the October 2001 and September 2003 editions of Toronto Life.

UPDATE

In early 2020 the Gladstone was sold to Streetcar Developments, whose other historical projects have include the Broadview Hotel and the Distillery District.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, August 21, 1905.

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The News, April 28, 1911.

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The Globe, April 10, 1914.

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The Globe, July 21, 1914.

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The Telegram, January 17, 1918.

471 Bloor West (Hungarian Castle/BMV)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published online on September 18, 2012.

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The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Click on image for larger version.

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.

Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

True Patriotism

Toronto Star, January 14, 1915. W.J. Parks’ grocery at 473 Bloor West eventually became part of the Hungarian Castle/BMV building.

When Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan profiled Racz in 2003, he found that, after six weeks of trying to track her down, he didn’t feel any wiser than at the beginning of his investigation. He heard rumours that had her living anywhere from above By the Way Cafe to Richmond Hill, that she resembled a bag lady, and that her legs had been amputated. Annex Residents Association chair Eric Domville was so frustrated by Racz’s refusal to do anything with 471 Bloor that he began to wonder if she was “a figment of somebody’s imagination. Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?”

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1973.

Racz hadn’t always been so shadowy or seemingly neglectful. Before she and her husband Leslie purchased the building, the site housed a variety of tenants. During the first half of the 20th century, it was occupied by several grocers, a drug company, and residents who enjoyed five-bedroom flats. After a succession of furniture stores operated there during the 1950s and 1960s, the Raczs spent two years transforming it into the medieval-styled Hungarian Castle. When the restaurant opened in 1972, it joined the large number of Hungarian eateries along the Bloor strip owned and patronized by fellow refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet Union crushed the revolution in 1956. To make their eatery stand out, the Raczs hired Oscar Berceller, former proprietor of legendary King Street celebrity hangout Winston’s, as an advisor.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1973.

During the years it operated, the Hungarian Castle was known for its kitschy decor and windows covered in wrought-iron crests and gates. A basement bakery drew praise from customers for its goodies and scorn from health officials for its filth. The upper floors housed a series of bars ranging from the Spanish-themed El Flamenco to student watering hole Annie’s Place.

Following her husband’s death during the 1980s, Racz closed the Hungarian Castle. Those interested in the space received calls from Racz in the middle of the night to meet her at doughnut shops. Book City owner Hans Donker’s enthusiasm to move his store a few blocks east dimmed after such encounters, along with Racz’s insistence that he retain the restaurant’s furnishings. When he toured the space with Racz circa 1990, he noticed that display cases were filled with rotting pastry.

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Toronto Star, June 11, 1978.

BMV owner Patrick Hempelmann was equally frustrated by his dealings with Racz. “We’d set up a meeting, come to a verbal agreement, and then she’d find some reason to pull out,” he told the Globe and Mail. When he purchased the building from her estate in September 2005, he found its interior resembled a horror-movie set. Liquor bottles still lined the bar and tables were set for dining. Pots were left on the stove and dishwashers were filled with plates. Grand pianos and raccoon corpses had rotted. The bakery was buried in four feet of water. It took three months, a crew of workers wearing ventilation masks, and 40 large dumpsters to clean the place out. Despite the decay, Hempelmann was relieved when the building was found to be structurally sound. A year after he bought it, book browsers filed in to spend hours looking for finds.

In some respects, the long decay of the Hungarian Castle mirrored the demise of the Hungarian community along Bloor West. Where it was once, as writer John Lorinc once termed it, “a veritable Budapest of eateries,” only the Country Style in the heart of the strip and the Coffee Mill in Yorkville survive. Perhaps the medieval warriors who graced the building’s exterior were fighting as best they could until they had to give in to the changing landscape.

Additional material from the February 27, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the August 28, 2004 and December 10, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 30, 1972 and June 11, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star. Since this article was originally published, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, November 25, 1972.

 

 

 

The Dying Days of the Eaton Centre Sears

When The Grid’s website entered its terminal phase following the publication’s shutdown, there were several stories I was unable to capture screen grabs of because they had already vanished. This was one of them. I suspect it went MIA first because it was a photo essay.

Lesson: always take screen captures of your online work as soon as it is published!

Based on my social media feeds, this story was originally published online on February 4, 2014, and was referenced in the February 13, 2014 print edition. This version is based on the draft I submitted, with additional thoughts and photos.

All of the photos used in this post were taken on January 25 and January 31, 2014.

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With less than a week to go before Sears closes its doors for good at the Eaton Centre, the final days of the department store’s blowout sale have offered shoppers more than hunting for deals amongst the dwindling merchandise. Walking through the store provides an education in how department store design has evolved since the space opened as Eaton’s in 1977, including elements that were around when the ribbon was the cut.

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The final days have contrasted Sears’s higher-end pretensions for the store and the flea market atmosphere of a closing sale, reflecting the widening divide in the department store sector between luxury retailers and discounters.

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While upper levels are filled with abandoned aspirational signage for kitchenwares and phantom cosmetics counters, the bottom floor lures shoppers to demonstrations of a Shamwow-esque cloth via a P.A. announcement promising a free gift.

After Sears closes its doors for good on February 9, the remaining armies of mannequins will march off as the site undergoes two years of renovations before Nordstrom opens in fall 2016.

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The store witnessed its first closing sale when Eaton’s declared bankruptcy in 1999. Sears Canada briefly kept the old brand alive as “eatons” but switched the nameplate to the Sears in 2002. The retail space has shrunk from 10 floors in 1977 to the current four-and-a-half—Sears Canada’s head office occupies the top three-and-a-half floors, while the bottom two were turned over to the Eaton Centre.

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The brown-hued escalators are the most prominent remnants of the store’s Eaton’s era. The 1970s diamond logo lingers next to the escalators on the second floor.

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The lower-case “e” logo used during the eatons phase marks each floor in the elevator bank.

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On the fourth floor, I discovered a box of tiles marked “T. Eatons (sic) Company,” which hasn’t existed since 1999.

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The women’s fashion area on the second floor was divided into fixture sale space and a cordoned-off wasteland of walls bearing the brand names which held court here. The backdrop of columns set against emptiness appealed to some visitors—one evening I observed a romantic photo shoot taking place.

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Rows of well-worn office fixtures made parts of the second floor resemble IKEA’s “As Is” section. Among the heavily used items was a lonesome $50 microwave. Inside were remnants of past meals baked onto the rotating centrepiece. Discoloured grains of rice threatened to spill onto the floor. As I closed the door, an associate informed me that it had already sold. It served as a sad reminder of all the jobs lost with the store’s closure.

Note from 2019: It’s too bad I didn’t photograph the microwave, which was possibly the best representation of the depressing atmosphere. For a fixture in such poor shape, couldn’t management have raffled it off to employees or allowed them to express their frustrations by whacking it with baseball bats rather than hand it over to the liquidator?

On second thought, it’s the sort of the strip mining and ultra-capitalism Eddie Lampert, the Ayn Rand-obsessed hedge fund operator who oversaw the terminal decline of Sears across North America, might approve of.

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Plenty of marketing materials were up for grabs. For $75, you could take home this promotional image for Eva Mendes’s home décor line. Never mind that someone went wild with a black magic marker in a vain attempt to cover up the branding details.

Would a proud new owner have painted over the marker-covered areas? Sliced the panel neatly to remove the left side? Left it as an artistic/political statement?

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Apart from the Tim Horton’s tucked into the cafeteria, the fourth floor was a ghost town of appliance and kitchenware displays.

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Colorful signs for Keurig, Hamilton Beach, and other kitchen brands hung above empty displays.

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There were vacancies galore in the refrigerator section.

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An electronic display which was still functioning last week offered an energy-savings calculator based on products no longer nearby.

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The “NOTHING HELD BACK” signs weren’t kidding. Apart from some fixtures destined for other stores, everything else was available for a price, including these faux fragrance holders filled with mysterious liquid.

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Nearby were a homemade-looking Halloween mix CD ($1) and a box of coffee stir sticks. I didn’t check if they had been used.

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On the main floor, mini Christmas trees could be yours for 43 cents!

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Apart from security passes needed to board at 3 Below (now the Urban Eatery food court) and the removal of the 2 Below stop, you can ride the elevators to all of the former Eaton’s floors.

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Checking out the seventh floor, which once served as Eaton’s bargain annex, I found this friendly piece of advice to Sears Canada head office employees. A cynic might wonder if this was an effort to boost floor traffic.

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Armies of mannequins were among the fixtures for sale.

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Prices varied depending on much body you wanted—a painted head/torso combination would set you back $100.

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Standing alone next to large faceless collections of mannequins made me fear when they would awaken and launch their invasion of downtown Toronto.

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Sometimes all you need is a mannequin arm. These dismembered limbs are ideal for fixing old mannequins, as a canvas for horrific props, as a joke item, or as a back scratcher.

The original article draft ended here.

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There were so many mannequin parts laying around. How many of these pieces wound up in stores, studios, or homes around the GTA?

The leather “Judys” on the right may have dated from the eatons relaunch in 2000. “Mannequins, like runway models, should bear no resemblance to most mortals,” Phillip Preville observed in Saturday Night magazine. “Eatons will have some of retail’s funkiest dummies, including leather-upholstered headless torsos, and, in the junior women’s section, urban punk girlie-quins.”

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Some mannequins still found time to strike a pose in front of displays, even if those displays were cluttered with shopping bags.

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NOT FOR SALE.

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The kitchen demonstration area, dubbed the “Great Kitchen” during the eatons era.

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1970s phone casings with later payphones. Never mind the retro stylings, by 2014 an attached phone book was a rare citing (I didn’t check how outdated it was). Did the light above the phone signal that it was available for use?

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Salon equipment was mixed in with leftover furnishings.

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$389 for a ripped couch. $389…

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Artwork from the optical department?

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The other three store closings listed on this sign were leases Sears sold back to the individual malls in 2013. As of December 2019, these are the primary replacements for those stores:

Eaton Centre: Nordstrom, Samsung, Uniqlo, and a corridor on the mall’s second floor

Sherway Gardens: Saks Fifth Avenue, SportChek

Square One: Simons, SportChek

Yorkdale: Restoration Hardware, Sporting Life

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By my second photoshoot, access to upper floors was more difficult.

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A sampling of the fixtures available on the second floor.

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Were any of these people asked if they wanted the remains of this cupboard bearing their names? Or was this a relic from the Eaton’s era?

Otherwise, it could have been yours for $30.

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Matthew McConaughey and his clothing line were exiled to Barrie, a location closed when the remaining Sears Canada stores shuttered in January 2018.

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Nothing to watch here.

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These display cases, placed in the corridor leading out to the passageway between Trinity Square and Dundas Street, were reserved for Sears Canada’s archives. They definitely appeared to be from at least the 1970s, but I wondered if they were first used at an earlier point in Eaton’s history.

Does anyone know the current location of items like this or the rest of the Sears Canada archives?

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A final exit into the alleyway.

From a Facebook post I wrote on February 13, 2014:

Wandering through Eaton Centre before heading home to find store still open, when several sources had indicated its end was going to be last weekend. Appears management is trying to milk as much out of the place as possible – the well-worn fixtures on the second floor were going for 50% off today, while the flea market/trade show styled demonstrations of products continue on the lower floor. PA announcement reminded shoppers they have less that two weeks to walk home with whatever remains.

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Reader reaction to the original “rather depressing” story.

Reconstruction soon began, as the bottom floor (the old Eaton’s 1 Below) became mall space, while the remaining three retail floors reopened as Nordstrom in September 2016. The upper floors remained Sears Canada’s head office until the chain wound down in early 2018.

With the store’s closure, part of my childhood passed on. Up until the end there were still plenty of reminders of the Eaton’s store I loved roaming through as a kid, from forgotten vintage signage to old logos to the escalators that retained their 1970s shades of brown. Windsor didn’t have department stores as large as downtown Toronto’s, and I never experienced Hudson’s Detroit flagship during its dying days, so visiting Eaton’s (and Simpsons) felt special to a kid overwhelmed by so much space. Eating in the marine-themed cafeteria. My dad indulging my need to ride every escalator as high or low as we could go. Wondering what mysteries lay in the closed off 3 Below floor.

Not that I’ll complain about what has happened to the site. Nordstrom performed a much-needed overhaul of the remaining space. Most of the merchandise is beyond my budget, but I like the modern-yet-traditional department store feel while walking through.

the short, aubergine-coloured, lower-cased life of eatons

Viewers tuning into CTV’s airing of Tomorrow Never Dies on October 22, 2000 might have scratched their heads during the commercial breaks. Of the 29 minutes of ad time during that evening’s Bond thriller, 24 were dedicated to promoting a shade of purple which shared the French name for eggplant. The longest spot, running four-and-a-half minutes, was a stylish ode to classic Hollywood musicals.

Aubergine: the colour and driving spirit of the new incarnation of Eaton’s. Or, as it would now be known, eatons.

The ad campaign, created by the Ammirati Puris agency and anchor by director Floria Sigismondi’s TV spot, created a lot of buzz. But the expectations it created among consumers, and the disappointment they experienced when faced with reality, led to the quick demise of the eatons experiment.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

In Fall 1999, Sears Canada picked up the remains of the T. Eaton Company for, depending on the source, either $50 million or $80 million. Of the 19 locations acquired, 12 were converted to Sears stores. The remaining seven—two in Toronto (Eaton Centre and Yorkdale), along with locations in Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg—would form a new, upscale chain. It would be a change of pace for Sears, whose base was mid-market suburbia.

Retaining the “circle e” logo Eaton’s had introduced during a last-ditch “Times Have Changed” revamp in 1997, the new branding was introduced in April 2000. Sears Canada executive VP of marketing Rick Sorby explained the decision to use a lower-case name:

The design of the name, which features a small “e” and no apostrophe before the “s,” reflects the evolution from a family name to a true brand name. The execution of the identification utilizes easy-to-read lower-case typography and a powerful icon—the circled e—to give us a branding device that works on all applications from TV commercials to store signing…The lower-case letters are more contemporary, cleaner and more reflective of the style of the new Internet age.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

During focus group sessions with upper middle-class female shoppers, Sorby envisioned a store they would shop in if they had only three hours to live. “It’s not going to be, it’s going to be sophisticated. But not to the point of scary.”

Initial plans called for reviving lines dumped by Eaton’s during its final years, including furniture and appliances. Also resurrected was the catalogue, whose discontinuation in 1976 had caused a national uproar. If all went well, the seven eatons stores would see $1 billion in annual sales by 2003.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

All promotional material dripped with aubergine, a colour executives hoped the public would associate with eatons as they did orange with Home Depot or green with TD. “Aubergine,” Ammirati Puris creative director Doug Robinson explained to Marketing Magazine, “has been associated with royalty. We simply struck on the ideas of taking that forward, of taking it into some sort of musical, very high-fashion, very entertaining positioning-without getting too sophisticated with it.”

The aubergine jokes began as soon as the first ads aired in October. “Don’t think purple, which only comes close to aubergine,” Peter Goddard observed in the Toronto Star. “Purple is for the suburbs. Aubergine is so very downtown, so very sophisto, so very the new eatons.” Eaton chronicler Rod McQueen wondered if the brand had found a new path to bankruptcy (“Aubergine? Doesn’t that rhyme with might have been?”).

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

Checking out the renovations to the Eaton Centre flagship for Saturday Night, writer Jennifer Wells smelled “the scent of fabulousness.”

Perforated metal drop-panel ceilings. Steel floor inlays under archways. Chrome yellow tile with flecks of faux Inca gold. Three sets of escalators have been opened so that shoppers on these floors will no longer feel they are being fed up and down cattle chutes. Shoppers on floor five (fine china, drapery, flooring) will be able to peer down to four, where visiting chefs in the Great Kitchen will be preparing something sensational. There will be restaurants in all the stores featuring a variety of food stations. Alas, they are self-serve and bear the un-hip name Cuisine Scene. And you won’t be able to take home a box of petits fours or those twee pinwheel tea sandwiches. (Does anyone else remember the divine Charlotte Russe?) Those days are forever dead. Still, Sorby likens the hoped-for consumer experience on these top floors to a sensory journey. All sights, sounds, smells.

The “Historical Rooms of Distinction,” wood-panelled rooms partly preserved from the College Street store closed in 1976, were installed. The wall along Yonge Street was replaced with fashion boutiques for Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Kenneth Cole, and BCBG Max Azria with doors open to outside foot traffic. Aisles were two feet wider than a standard Sears store. Greeters would be dressed in aubergine jackets. Granite and marble was used to create a sense that the new eatons was here for the long run.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

“From the outset,” Sears CEO Paul Walters told the Globe and Mail, “our objective has been to offer exceptional stores that meet all of the needs and wants of our primary customer—the time-pressed urban customer who enjoys shopping, wants the latest styles and trends, demands service expertise and wants an exciting entertaining environment to shop in.”

There were troubling signs. Grand openings originally projected for October 2000 were delayed a month partly due to construction strikes, missing up to $40 million in sales during the early part of the holiday shopping season. Renovations went over budget. Overall consumer confidence was sinking, with fears of a recession around the corner. Some of those who attended sneak previews felt too much space was given to brands available everywhere else.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 2000.

As for the target market, did the brand itself retain any resonance? “Can it draw crowds who are prepared to spend?” McQueen observed in the National Post. “Maybe among the 60-year-old women who grew up going to the Georgian Room in Toronto or the Grill Room in Winnipeg. But the target market of tomorrow is not women of a certain age. Eatons badly needs the 18-to-49-year old who may find switching difficult because her buying habits are already well established elsewhere.”

“These days, mimicry is mediocrity.”

The competition barely flinched. “People talk about eatons reopening as if it was Eaton’s reopening,” HBC CEO George Heller told Maclean’s. “It’s not. We’re talking about a totally different animal here.”

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Toronto Star, November 25, 2000.

When the stores opened on November 25, reviews were positive about the look and customer service, mixed about the merchandise. “I love it,” shopper Theresa Macas told the Star. “They have very luxurious clothes and good lighting. I thought it was going to be like Sears, but it’s not.”

The wheels fell off quickly. After 13 straight quarters of record earnings, Sears Canada’s stock price fell and earnings dipped into the red. Customers expecting merchandise lining up with the adventurous advertising were disappointing. The 100-page catalogue delivered to 4.2 million homes was uninspiring. It didn’t help that it was sent via Sears’ traditional mailing list, which skewed older, lower-income, and in smaller communities than the audience eatons wanted to attract. It looked and felt nothing like the legendary Eaton’s catalogue of yore. Some industry observers also noted how much Canadians hated paying for shipping. The eatons website looked impressive, but was slow-loading and difficult to click on. Though aubergine was retained as a theme, a second television ad campaign featuring the mini-musical’s characters with a funky 1970s soundtrack failed to capture the public’s imagination. Retail consultants experienced déjà vu, seeing similar mistakes the old Eaton’s made in creating a new marketing image that wasn’t delivered in store.

Shorter version of the Floria Sigismondi aubergine ad.

“I think that we thought that these stores would open and be perfect,” Sears executive VP of marketing Bill Turner told the National Post. “In truth, it’s been a lot of work.”

By the end of January 2001 Walters, the architect of the eatons revival plan, was gone. Sears stock fell 16% over the following weeks. The catalogue and online sales were killed in early April. New CEO Mark Cohen spoke to the media in mid-June. He admitted that because of $175 million in tax write-offs acquired with Eaton’s, the new stores had to open within a year. He also admitted that “there aren’t enough truly upscale customers in Canada for half-a-million square feet of upscale goods.” Advertising would be reduced, as “it’s never going to make sense speaking to large levels of customers who geographically are never going to visit these seven stores.” Cohen expected that, as consumer spending dropped, it would be several years before Sears would pour significantly more money into eatons, and that it would take several seasons to settle on the contemporary style the chain stood for. Private labels shared by the two chains, such as Nevada men’s clothing, would be phased out of eatons.

Cohen dismissed speculation that the chain would be sold or converted into Sears stores. “I’m not going to give you a categoric no, but it’s highly unlikely that’s going to happen.”

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Globe and Mail, December 15, 2001.

Christmas 2001 stood in stark contrast to the previous year. No TV ads ran, while newspaper ads simply showcasing products with the trademarked tagline “eatons magic.” No pizazz, no excitement.

On February 18, 2002, the axe fell. “We did not do well last year,” Cohen told the press. While partly blaming the recession and effects of 9/11, “at the end of the day, we lost a lot more money than we had originally planned when this investment was first made.” Except for the Winnipeg and Yorkdale locations, the stores would be converted to Sears. A few high-performing brands would be sold at a select number of Sears locations. Cadillac Fairview indicated that the Eaton Centre name would remain on its malls in Toronto and Victoria (though the latter has since been renamed).

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Globe and Mail, February 19, 2002.

Retail consultants were harsh in their final assessments of eatons, blaming its end on everything from too few stores spread too far apart to over-emphasis on the aubergine ad campaign to overall poor execution. Among the comments:

“Those eatons stores were like stores without a soul.” – Wendy Evans.

“I don’t think the strategy was wrong, I think just the execution was wrong…Instead of calling it aubergine, if they’d called it eggplant it would have been closer to the truth. You can’t call an eggplant aubergine.” – Richard Talbot.

“They just went back to the easiest, simplest tool to drive business, which is price. Everybody else is doing the same thing. In the end, what really made eatons different? – Sam Geist.

“Disappointment is too kind a work for when you got there.” – Gary Prouk.

“Those really are winner locations. It’s just amazing they managed to screw them up.” – John Williams.

Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick summed up the chain’s demise:

What put an end to eatons’ brief resurrection was the smell of shopping death….We’ve all noticed it: it’s actually an odour of embarrassment rather than expiry. It fills the main floor when you, the shopper, find yourself empathically alone with 400 red-white-and-blue thingies by Tommy Hilfiger, 12,000 bottles of unguents and six salespeople who try too hard because they have been trained to try too hard. You know it’s not working, they know it’s not working, but you both do the time. They greet, aid, chat and wrap in such a false un-Canadian manner that you are wrenched with sympathy and impatience.

Even members of the Eaton family were critical. “When Sears started up the ‘new Eatons’ with the ‘aubergine’ campaign, I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the wrong way to open a store,’” observed Fredrik Eaton, who ran Eaton’s during the late 1970s and early 1980s, told Canadian Business in 2005. “I had always been advised by buyers to be careful when someone offered anything in aubergine.”

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Toronto Star, August 21, 2002.

The conversions were finished by summer. The Toronto Eaton Centre Sears operated until February 2014, and would be replaced by one of the chains eatons aspired to provide the same wow factor as, Nordstrom. A recent walk through the store revealed little aubergine.

Sources: the December 11, 2000 and June 20, 2005 editions of Canadian Business; the October 27, 2000, November 25, 2000, December 14, 2001, February 19, 2002, and February 23, 2002 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 20, 2000 edition of Maclean’s; the November 6, 2000 edition of Marketing Magazine; the April 17, 2000, November 15, 2000, November 22, 2000, April 4, 2001, April 9, 2001, June 14, 2001, and February 19, 2002 editions of the National Post; the November 11, 2000 edition of Saturday Night; and the October 29, 2000, November 26, 2000, and June 14, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Coming Christmas Day—The Odeon York!

Originally published on Torontoist on December 20, 2011.

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Toronto Star, December 24, 1969.

Things opened on Christmas Day: presents under a tree, cards from dear friends, bottles of wine at the dinner table, old family wounds, and movie theatres.

Yes, movie theatres.

Catching a film on December 25 is a tradition for lonely souls eager to escape painful reminders of the holidays, for families and friends to flee chaotic Christmas celebrations for a few hours, and a shared cultural experience for those who don’t celebrate Christmas in the first place. With a large pool of customers to draw upon, especially on a day when few other businesses are open, why not use Christmas to debut a splashy new cinema?

Parents may have welcomed the York Theatre’s opening bill on December 25, 1969, since neither of the main attractions was suitable for younger audiences. We suspect kids were content to stay home and play with Santa’s deliveries. Viewers could take the theatre’s spiral staircase to see a farce (Cactus Flower) or a foursome (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice).

Blockbusters graced the screens of the York until 2001. After operating as an event venue and fitness club, the site became the Madison condo project.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 19, 1984.

The York occupies a sentimental spot in my heart, as it was the first place I saw a drama intended for grown-ups, as opposed to family-friendly blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. We ate dinner at Harvey’s on the northeast side of Yonge and Eglinton, then walked over to see Amadeus. Nine-year-old Jamie was impressed, following along without being bored.

Best of all, I was a big boy now! Bring on the non-kiddie films!

(I went to kid-friendly flicks for a few more years)

I wonder if my father thought it might spur me to share his love of classical music. If so, it didn’t, though I briefly explored his Mozart records when we returned home.

Given the timing of Amadeus‘s release, this may have occurred either on my last trip to Toronto before my grandmother moved down to Amherstburg or the first visit there after she left the city.

By the time I moved to Toronto in 1999, the York was nearing its end. At the time, the few remaining non-rep house single or double screen cinemas in the old City of Toronto were heading toward their demise. A survey of the scene by the Star in January 2001 indicated that Cineplex Odeon was operating the York on a month-to-month basis and a “For Lease” sign was already out front. Elsewhere, Famous Players did not renew the lease at the Plaza in the Hudson’s Bay Centre, while the fates of the Eglinton and Uptown waited for a ruling in a human rights complaint regarding accessibility (the result of which was used as an excuse for their closure).

Sometimes when an old movie house closes, we can’t help feeling that there’s something more being demolished than the broken seats and torn carpets in the lobby. For some of us, our vivid memories of movies that mattered to us long ago are all wrapped up with memories of the way we were, who was with us at the time, and, of course, the odd little details about those places where we gathered long ago waiting in the dark for something wonderful to happen. – Martin Knelman, Toronto Star, January 21, 2001.

Censoring TIFF

Originally published on Torontoist on September 9, 2013.

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Once upon a time, there was a film festival that strove for international recognition. Its organizers hustled to bring a wide range of films and a touch of glamour to their fair city. As with any ongoing event, it experienced growing pains, and while the festival did ultimately succeed in cultivating a cosmopolitan image, there were occasional embarrassing moments along the way.

For the first decade of the Festival of Festivals (as the Toronto International Film Festival was known until 1994), programmers fought the guardians of public morality. Provincial censors—known at different times as the Ontario Board of Censors and the Ontario Film Review Board—wielded their power whenever they felt the festival was getting too naughty. Battles over the content of films at times threatened to derail gala openings. While the negative publicity fuelled public curiosity, it occasionally raised questions about Toronto’s suitability as a film-fest desination. Even after the festival earned an exemption from the censors in 1987, some of the films shown were still banned from general release.

Below are several examples of TIFF films that earned the wrath of the censors. Some of the clips included are NSFW.

Je, tu, il, elle (1977)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Starring: Chantal Akerman, Claire Wauthion

This film, selected as part of a programme assembled by French director Agnès Varda, ran afoul of Ontario’s morality enforcers because of its final 13 minutes. Provincial censors ordered 1,000 feet of celluloid cut in order to expunge footage of two women making out on a bed. Watching the film two decades later, critic Brian Johnson observed that “you can’t ‘see’ much, just two look-alike bodies all mixed up, a tangle of limbs and hair.” He suspected that the censors were “confounded by the idea of two women making love for an eternity.”

The festival pulled the film.

Five years later, when censors refused to permit the screening of Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau, programmers didn’t substitute another film. A sign was placed outside the theatre during the scheduled time explaining why the screen was dark.

In Praise of Older Women (1978)
Director: George Kaczender
Starring: Tom Berenger, Karen Black, Marilyn Lightstone, Helen Shaver, Susan Strasberg

Can a film be censored “artistically”? That’s what censor Donald Sims promised would happen when, a week before In Praise of Older Women opened the 1978 festival, the board wanted to excise two minutes. Co-producer Robert Lantos vowed the film would be run uncut, despite the fact that doing so would put the licenses of the theatre and its projectionist at risk. Both sides compromised on cutting a 38-second scene involving Berenger and Lightstone making out behind a couch.

It was a publicity goldmine. Papers across the country commented on the furor, increasing demand for tickets from people eager to see a dirty movie. The festival sold 2000 tickets for a screening at the 1600-seat Elgin Theatre, assuming there would be no-shows. Problems arose when somebody noticed that each printed pass admitted two. The result was a mob scene, where those denied entry hissed “fraud!” as they stood in the rain outside the theatre. Those without seats were urged to go to a slightly later screening at the New Yorker Theatre.

Those inside the Elgin applauded federal secretary of state John Roberts’s opening speech. He told the audience that “because of the actions of the Ontario censor it is time for an active affirmation that censors shouldn’t tell people what they should or should not see.” Though an on-hand censor was shown proof that the edited version would be screened, careful camouflaging during the cycling of reels between the Elgin and the New Yorker ensured the audience saw the film in all its uncut glory.

Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981)
Director: Bonnie Sherr Klein
Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Kate Millett

The censor board approved one uncut screening of this National Film Board documentary about the porn industry. An overflow crowd inspired festival officials to request permission for another screening. The board refused, prompting the Star to wonder, “Was the censor board perhaps fearful that one showing of a film will not corrupt an audience, but a second might?” After the festival, screenings of the film were restricted to private venues, and for adults only.

The attention paid to Not a Love Story typified the festival’s relations with censor-board chair Mary Brown, whose tenure from 1980 to 1986 was characterized by controversy. Her objections often raised the profiles of the films she insisted on cutting. According to former festival director Helga Stephenson, “Silly old Mary Brown filled some theatres with some pretty tame stuff. The ranting and raving was a very good way to get the festival into the minds of the public, but internationally it was hugely embarrassing. And it filled the theatre with the wrong people, because they came looking for nothing but blow jobs, and they found themselves in the middle of a long, hard, boring film waiting for a few seconds of a grainy image showing something that looked vaguely like a male sex organ.”

The Brood (1983)
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

One of the highlights of the 1983 festival was a retrospective of David Cronenberg’s work, the first time a Toronto-reared director was honoured. The censors spoiled the fun by insisting that the commercial cut of The Brood, which it approved in 1979, be used. That version hacked out a 50-second sequence depicting Samantha Eggar birthing a broodling and snacking on the placenta. “While ideally we believe the festival should only run full-length versions and without cuts of any kind,” observed festival director Wayne Clarkson, “saying we wouldn’t run a print that has played in Ontario many times over the years seemed unreasonable. It’s very difficult to say anything else when the director and the distributor have agreed to cuts.”

We suspect an uncut print will be part of TIFF’s upcoming salute to Cronenberg.

Fat Girl (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Arsinée Khanjian

Though the festival earned a blanket exemption from the censors, the films it screened weren’t guaranteed to escape problems after the festivities. The board refused to approve a general release for Fat Girl following the 2001 edition of TIFF, because of scenes of sexual content involving underage girls. The film was approved in other provinces and in other jurisdictions known for stringent classification systems, like Great Britain. Newspaper ads in British Columbia screamed “Banned in Ontario.”

Additional material from Brave Films, Wild Nights by Brian D. Johnson (Toronto: Random House, 2000), the September 8, 1978, September 15, 1978, and November 22, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 20, 1981 and September 14, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 9, 1978.

gm 78-09-15 IPOOW mob

Globe and Mail, September 15, 1978.

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Toronto Sun, September 15, 1978.

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Cover to the 1981 festival program.

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Editorial, Toronto Star, September 20, 1981.

The Choosing of an Interim Toronto Mayor, 1978

This story was originally published by The Grid toward the end of 2012. I don’t have the exact date, as it was one of those pieces which fell off the website before the publication folded for good. I don’t remember what the original title of this article was, though the sub-head probably mentioned Rob Ford during the period it appeared he might be tossed from office.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When Toronto city councillors voted for an interim mayor on September 1, 1978, the deadlock the media predicted came to pass. Candidates Fred Beavis and Anne Johnston had 11 votes each. Under the law, there was one solution to determine who would fill the last three months of David Crombie’s term: placing the contenders’ names in a cardboard box.

While it’s unknown if choosing Rob Ford’s successor will require the luck of the draw, the last time council filled a mayor’s term wasn’t due to a politician departing in disgrace. After six years at the helm, Crombie used an upcoming by-election in Rosedale to leap into federal politics. When he announced his bid for the Progressive Conservative nomination in March 1978, Crombie praised the public’s civic engagement during his tenure. “You can fight City Hall in Toronto,” he observed, “and if your point of view is sensible you can usually win.”

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Toronto Sun, September 1, 1978.

When Crombie officially submitted his resignation in August, the list of interim successors narrowed to two councillors. First elected in 1956, Fred Beavis was the longest-serving councilor and had sat on nearly all critical committees. The genial former roofer was backed by the Executive Committee and council’s right wing, and criticized for his support of developers, reviving the Spadina Expressway, and eviction Toronto Island residents. If chosen, he would be the city’s first Roman Catholic mayor. Beavis was favoured over Anne Johnston, who was first elected in 1972, served as the chair of the Board of Health for four years, and claimed to be the same height as Crombie. Her support came from the left and her fellow female aldermen, while criticisms included loose lips, lack of experience with critical issues, and a suspicion she was a puppet for mayoral contender John Sewell. If chosen, she would be Toronto’s first female mayor.

The decision was made during a tense 45-minute meeting. A proposal to adjourn and move into an informal caucus was quickly voted down. Official nominations were made for Beavis and Johnston. George Ben stunned his fellow councillors by declaring the process “asinine and an affront to the dignity of Toronto.” He criticized both candidates, declaring that Beavis was in it for “lousy reasons,” while Johnston was “a joke on the people of Toronto.” Ben nominated deputy mayor David Smith, who declined due to an informal agreement among councillors like himself who were running for mayor in the November municipal election not to seek the temporary position. Ben continued to fume, pointing to 40 civic employees watching the meeting who were indulging in “a rather disgraceful waste of taxpayer’s money.”

ts 78-09-02 beavis becomes mayorToronto Star, September 2, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When the open vote split evenly, out came the cardboard box. The winner was drawn by Pat Murphy of the Association of Women Electors, who had covered council meetings for two decades. When Beavis’s name was pulled, it continued his recent good luck streak of winning church draws and community raffles. Johnston took her loss gracefully—she successfully motioned council to unanimously approve the result, then draped the chain of office around Beavis’s neck. She later lost to Art Eggleton in a 1985 mayoral run and was defeated as a councillor by newcomer Karen Stintz in 2003.

While other councillors toasted him with champagne, Beavis leaned back in the mayor’s chair and, true to his blue collar image, cracked open a bottle of Labatt’s Blue. “I figured something you always wanted all your life,” he told the Star, “was something you just weren’t going to get.” The only major hiccup during the transfer of power was forgetting to grab a key to his new office before his first full morning on the job. Beavis fulfilled his duties without major incidents, and was re-elected to the council seat he would retain for another decade. Crombie easily won the Rosedale by-election, while Sewell succeeded Beavis in the mayor’s seat.

sun 78-09-05 editorial Toronto Sun, September 5, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

In a municipal election day editorial, the Star reflected there was nothing wrong with Beavis having been the sentimental choice for the job. “In his years on City Council, Beavis always displayed a compassionate consideration for people of all political persuasions and a warm sense of humour. He carried these qualities into the mayor’s office too…We enjoyed having you as mayor.” We shall see if these will be critical qualities for whoever replaces Rob Ford.

Additional material from the September 2, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 3, 1978, August 27, 1978, September 2, 1978, and November 13, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Rob Ford remained mayor until his term ended in 2014. David Crombie served as Rosedale’s MP until 1988, filling several cabinet positions for Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Fred Beavis died in 1997, Anne Johnston in 2019.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Fred Beavis, 1978. Photo by David Cooper. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Reference Library, tspa_0031446f.

When Crombie first announced his intention to run for Parliament in March 1978, the Star spotlighted three councillors expected to seek the interim mayoralty: Beavis, Johnston, and Tony O’Donohue. “I ran for mayor in 1972 and drew 58,000 votes,” O’Donohue told the Star. “I’m not going to disappoint those people now and turn around and not run for interim mayor.” He also told the Globe and Mail that he was the “logical choice.”

Beavis, who had declared he would only go for the interim position and not run for mayor in that fall’s municipal election, was stunned by O’Donohue’s decision. “Tony once stated he would support me for interim mayor,” Beavis told the Star. “First I’ve heard of him changing his mind and I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or what. We’ve had no falling out and nothing changes my mind.”

Somewhere along the line O’Donohue focused on the municipal election, where he finished second in a three-way race with Sewell and David Smith.

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Globe and Mail, September 2, 1978.

“Beavis was not sophisticated, but was trustworthy in that he did what he said, and he was genuinely liked by almost everyone on Council.” – John Sewell, on favouring Beavis for his Executive Committee following the 1978 election.

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Toronto Sun, September 3, 1978.

Additional material from How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015), the March 4, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 4, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.