Vintage Toronto Ads: A&P

Originally published on Torontoist on July 22, 2015.

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The Globe, February 10, 1932.

At its peak, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was the largest retailer on the planet. By the end of the 1920s, the grocer boasted up to 16,000 stores across the United States, Ontario, and Quebec. As late as the early 1960s, A&P could boast about its dominant size. But over half a century of decline may have culminated this week when the 156-year-old grocer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in five years, leaving 296 stores up for grabs.

Contemplate those numbers the next time you ponder the size of today’s retail giants.

A&P arrived in Toronto in April 1928, a year after opening its first Canadian stores in Montreal. Within two years, 100 small locations dotted the city. Profiling the new stores in September 1928, Canadian Grocer was impressed with A&P’s efforts:

These stores are a combination of groceries and meats, and are pretty well standardized although they are not always exactly the same. They are attractively laid out with meats down one side, groceries opposite, and usually a big display refrigerator at the rear. One of the fundamental principles of the company is to display as many goods as possible in each of their stores. They also make a point of price-ticketing everything so that the customer does not have to ask the price of any line on view. Dotted here and there along the floor and in front of counters are several wire display stands each containing one particular line of goods and usually at a special price. The meat display counter is refrigerated by pipes that are cooled by machinery in the basement. The counter is glass-topped. While the meats on display cannot be touched from the outside, the salesman back of the counter has ready access to them and can easily pick out any cut desired.

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Toronto Star, March 13, 1930.

Many locations were placed near existing Dominion stores. Several press accounts noted how Dominion’s owners had previously worked for A&P, a factor which may have heightened the grocers’ rivalry.

The company invested $175,000 to build a combination bakery/head office/warehouse complex at the northeast corner of Laughton Avenue and Connolly Street in the city’s west end. Opened in December 1929, the facility’s perks included banana-ripening rooms and a laundry for store uniforms. “One is at once impressed with the spaciousness, wide and sunny offices, and the ordered cleanliness of the storage rooms,” the Globe observed.

The following decade saw a few hiccups that caused executives to down more than a few cups of Eight O’Clock Coffee. In 1933, city councillor Sam McBride charged A&P with providing inferior goods to customers using relief vouchers issued during the depths of the Great Depression. While denying McBride’s charges, an A&P official admitted they wash imported carrots. Alongside competitors like Loblaws and Simpsons, A&P was charged in 1935 with short-weighing goods.

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Globe and Mail, July 29, 1966.

By the mid-1960s, A&P’s American operations were declining. An aging board of directors failed to adjust to a changing marketplace, especially the emergence of suburbia. Small, crummy stores reeked of fatigue and wilting produce. Instead of re-investing its profits, management heeded calls to increase already generous dividends. Yet the picture in Canada appeared rosier: its program of store modernization was a model for the rest of the chain. In 1966, 20 acres of land on Dundas Street east of Highway 27 (now Highway 427) in Etobicoke were purchased for a new head office/warehouse/store complex, a facility still used by Metro today. To build local customer loyalty, A&P undertook promotions such as distributing flyers in English and Italian to west-end neighbourhoods.

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The Telegram, August 7, 1952. The Dundas/Browns Line location mentioned in this ad was A&P’s largest Canadian store to date. Perks included a 300-space parking lot, and aisles wide enough to accommodate 500 shoppers in the store at a time.

While American operations contracted following A&P’s purchase by Germany’s Tengelmann Group in 1979, the Canadian division benefitted from the demise of two major rivals. When Conrad Black’s Argus Corporation broke up Dominion in 1985, A&P picked up its Ontario stores, retaining the brand for its GTA locations. Five years later, Miracle Food Mart was acquired from the remnants of Steinberg’s, though that banner was phased out following a lengthy strike in the mid-1990s.

As the 1990s ended, A&P Canada was the company’s only profitable division. This provoked rumours of a sell-off to infuse funds into the flailing American operations. Suitor speculations ranged from Sobeys to Walmart. Quebec-based Metro won out in July 2005, and within five years rebranded all remaining banners apart from Food Basics.

Additional material from The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); the September 28, 1928 and July-August 1998 editions of Canadian Grocer; the December 10, 1929, May 24, 1933, and March 27, 1935 editions of the Globe; and the July 17, 1952 and August 17, 1965 edition of the Globe and Mail.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, May 7, 1928.

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Toronto Star, January 16, 1930.

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The Globe, May 7, 1931.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Wexford Restaurant

Originally published on Torontoist on April 22, 2015.

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Don Mills Mirror, May 20, 1964.

When the Kiriakou family took over the Wexford Restaurant in May 1958, they likely had little idea that nearly 60 years later a sign in their parking would proudly boast about the billions of eggs cracked and oranges juiced. Under three generations of family ownership, the restaurant has fed plenty of hungry Scarberians and, in the process, became a local institution.

Kiriakos “Jerry” Kiriakou emigrated to Canada from Vevi, Greece around 1950. Over the course of the next few years he gradually brought over the rest of his family. Saving money earned through dishwashing, Jerry bought a fish-and-chip shop on the south side of Lawrence, but felt that Wexford Heights Plaza on the north side presented a better opportunity. When the 50-seat Wexford Restaurant was put up for sale, the family purchased it, with Jerry’s sons Tom and Anthony in charge. Two decades later, having built up substantial real estate holdings elsewhere in Metro Toronto, the family bought the plaza.

Through three generations of Kiriakou ownership, the restaurant has expanded to 300 seats. Among the additions was a dining lounge opened in 1983 that was named in honour of Jerry (who is also memorialized with a plaque). The family name was also bestowed on a residential street near Lawrence Avenue and Kennedy Road, located just off Mike Myers Drive.

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Toronto Star, July 19, 1983.

While surveying diners across the city in 2000, Star writer Jon Filson gave a sense of the hubbub during a busy weekend at the Wexford.

Breakfast at the Wexford Restaurant in Scarborough is the best time anyone can have anywhere. At noon on Sunday the background buzz is louder and at least as entertaining as a patrol car’s squawk box on a Saturday night. Calm, firm waitress voices take charge: “Ordering over easy, with sausage and brown,” but occasionally a more urgent shriek comes through: “Johnny, I said ham with that, Johnny! Ham, Johnny, ham! Johnn-eeey…” Most of the voices come in bits and pieces, garbled by the sizzle from a massive grill manned by four heroic cooks wearing peaked white caps. Giddy customers are filling stools and packing into booths, and the whole bustling place seems totally out of control, without ever being out of control in the slightest.

Customers and staff have long shot the breeze over the topics of the day, which has made the Wexford a popular spot for campaigning politicians. When mayor Mel Lastman visited in November 2000 to boost the re-election hopes of Lorenzo Berardinetti in Ward 37 (husband of current Ward 35 councillor Michelle Berardinetti), the incumbent councillor observed that “he’s not here to make speeches or unveil a moose, he’s just having some eggs and meeting people doing the same thing.” A picture taken of Rob Ford holding up a paper coffee cup during the 2010 election campaign found a place of honour on a pillar near the cash register. During the 2014 mayoral race, the Ford brothers ran their local headquarters in the plaza a few doors down from the restaurant.

As the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrower put it during anniversary celebrations in 2008, the Wexford is “a centre of Scarborough power and Scarborough pride.”

Additional material from the June 15, 2006, May 6, 2008, and November 23, 2013 editions of the National Post; and the December 26, 1977, November 21, 1996, November 5, 2000, and November 29, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star.

Freedom to Read and Reconsider at the Toronto Public Library

Originally published on Torontoist on February 25, 2014.

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Freedom to Read Week display at the Maria A. Shchuka branch.

Although the Toronto Public Library possesses a number of controversial holdings, few people are outraged enough to demand that items be withdrawn from its collection: it’s reassuring to consider, especially during this Freedom to Read Week, that on the whole, Torontonians support the public’s right to access materials considered offensive, and to do so via a local TPL branch.

The TPL outlines its position on contentious items and the importance of free debate in its Materials Selection Policy:

The Library believes that a vital society encourages members of its community to actively participate in an open exchange of ideas and opinions. Material selectors consequently strive to provide the widest possible range of resources within Toronto Public Library collections.

The content or manner of expressing ideas in material that is purposely selected to fill the needs of some library users, may, on occasion, be considered to be offensive by other library users. The library recognizes the right of any individual or group to reject library material for personal use, but does not accord to any individual or group the right to restrict the freedom of others to make use of that same material.

Yet there are, inevitably, patrons who wish to restrict that freedom, or to prevent items containing inaccurate or outdated information from circulating freely. And for such patrons, the TPL has developed a formal process. So what do these patrons do if they want the library to take a book off the shelf?

First, they ask their local librarian for a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form. Once they’ve filled it out, it goes to the Collection Development department, where the manager reviews the request and contacts them if any clarification is needed. Then, the request is sent on to a librarian committee for review, and a response is issued within 12 weeks.

Since 2000, around 100 requests for reconsideration have been filed—and only nine items have been removed. The most recent title to be pulled, Date Rape: A Violation of Trust, was withdrawn from the video collection in 2012 because it, “while well-intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and lacks diversity and is, therefore, not appropriate as an educational tool in Toronto’s multiracial and multicultural environment.” Other titles have vanished for reasons including libel threats, unreliable accounts of Romanian history, bad advice on passing business accreditation exams, outdated information on dairy farming—and being poorly produced knockoffs of Pixar films made by the highly esteemed Video Brinquedo studio (What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue).

Other reconsidered titles find new homes within the library system. Tintin in the Congo, for example, which features controversial depictions of Africans, was moved from the children’s collection to the adult graphic novel section in 2010. Not all suggestions from complainants can be acted upon: one 2003 complaint about eye weekly urged the library to provide copies sans escort ads. And in 2006, a patron requested that a rabbi review the content of Sarah Silverman’s film Jesus is Magic.

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Front page of the Toronto Public Library’s “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form.

The most popular requests for consideration between 2000 and 2013? It’s a tie between Maxim magazine (2005 and 2006; one request suggested users be IDed lest it fall into the hands of innocent youth) and Robert Kaplow’s The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun, a raunchy parody of The Cat Who… mystery series (2005 and 2007).

Library staff have not noticed trends in the complaints, and are proud of how few requests for reconsideration come in. Vickery Bowles, director of Collections Management and City-Wide Services, feels this reflects Torontonians’ “appreciation for the breadth and depth of our collections and the fact we are living in a large urban setting.” She believes that the public senses that “intellectual freedom in the public library setting is very important” and that the widest variety of available materials should be offered.

Richview librarian Kara Miley notes that discussion with staff can calm angry patrons. “Half the time they just want to rant at somebody—they want to think that you’re listening to them. If you let them just rant, they tend to lose steam.” Miley’s interest in censorship issues led her to put together a presentation as part of the library’s Freedom to Read Week activities. In “How to Ban a Book in 10 Easy Steps,” Miley focuses on the challenges libraries face elsewhere in North America, especially in the United States, where the merest hint of controversy damages an item’s acquisition chances. If you tackle topics like sex, racism, evolution, magic, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, be prepared.

What spares the TPL from many of the battles American librarians face are stronger protections via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the anti-censorship policies of professional bodies like the Canadian Library Association. Plus, as Miley puts it, “I’d like to think we’re open and tolerant in Toronto.”

A Square Grows at Yonge and Dundas

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2013.

When Yonge-Dundas Square officially opened to the public a little over ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, there was plenty of head-scratching. Touted as the latest curative for an ailing Yonge Street, it appeared to be little more than a granite-covered space amidst construction hoarding and video displays. The collection of jean shops, burger joints, and surface parking lots it replaced might have been disreputable and tatty, but they had character.

Perhaps the problem was that the square was a puzzle piece in a jigsaw effort to create Toronto’s version of Times Square. The space wasn’t finished when Snow and Treble Charger graced the stage in front of 10,000 people on opening night on May 30, 2003; there were still light standards to install and a TTC entrance to complete. Circling the square were incomplete projects like Metropolis (which evolved into 10 Dundas East, sans proposed tenants like Virgin Megastore) the Torch building (which went from showcasing Olympians to housing CityTV), and renovations at the Eaton Centre.

Supporters of the square urged patience. Star architecture critic Christopher Hume admitted the unfinished state made it hard to appreciate the site’s possibilities as a gathering spot. His peers on the Star editorial page were harsh: “Does this flat black patch not look for all the world like a parking lot at a Scarborough strip mall?” they wondered. “It doesn’t help that one end is covered by what appears to be a missing off-ramp from the Gardiner Expressway.”

Yonge-Dundas Square owes its existence to a major transportation decision made during the first decade of the 20th century. To create a new crosstown route, side streets were stitched together to extend Dundas Street east of Ossington Avenue. The square emerged when a jog separating the former Agnes and Wilton streets was bypassed at Yonge Street. Until the late 1920s, the road along the south side was known as Wilton Square, a name that survived at least one petition to change it to its present moniker.

From 1948 through 1972, one of the square’s major landmarks was the Downtown theatre. Located on the northeast side of the intersection of Yonge Street and the Dundas Square roadway, the Downtown was noted for its 4,000-light marquee and one of the busiest concession stands in Canada. It complimented nearby cinemas along Yonge like the Biltmore, the Elgin, and the Imperial. Following its demolition, the Downtown’s site was home to businesses ranging from a Classic Bookshops discount outlet to a Lick’s.

The rest of the square housed restaurants and retailers, with a surface parking lot at the back. During Yonge Street’s sleazy era, proposals emerged to improve the streetscape around Dundas Square to increase safety and combat street vendors illegally hawking their wares from doorways. An idea that reached the city’s public works committee in 1977 would have turned the Dundas Square roadway into a cobblestone-lined pedestrian mall housing 30 licensed street vendors. Objections from neighbouring jewelers, who feared the impact of a street closure, killed the plan.

Between 1996 and 1998, City Council and other government bodies granted approvals aimed at transforming the square into an open area. The major proponent was Councillor Kyle Rae, who felt it would cleanse the neighbourhood. He wasn’t unhappy to see the existing streetscape—and its reputation for drug dealing—vanish when demolition began in 1999. “The city expropriated those buildings, which were at the extreme end of their life,” he told the Star in a 2003 interview. “They were basically a criminal landscape. There’s no other way of saying it.”

A design competition attracted over 65 hopefuls. The winner was Brown + Storey Architects. Working with the high volume of pedestrians and vehicles passing by the square, they kept intrusions to a minimum. As architect James Brown told the Star in 2002:

The square is porous. We’re moving water through it, people through it…it’s the new landscape, artificial, man-made, though the granite is real, natural. But we’re making it porous, connecting the underground systems, pedestrian linkages, lighting, electricity, water, subway, everything that serves the upper surface. We’re applying the same principles in any ecological system to the surface. That’s what’s interesting about the square. It’s also about cultural infrastructure.

Brown and partner Kim Storey earned a Progressive Architecture citation from Architecture magazine in 2000.

Crowds took advantage of the square soon after the hoarding came down in late 2002. Protests against the Iraqi War tested how the space would function for mass gatherings. The first year of official programming included concerts, tie-ins to Caribana, and a mayoral debate. (We weren’t able to find out when the first free samples of soda were handed out.)

By the end of the square’s first year, opinion remained mixed. The National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer admitted that the square’s minimal décor was starting to seem more appropriate as buildings rose around it. “It’s a crossroads,” he observed, “a place to take a breath between shopping and dining and movie-going and ersatz bobsledding. A respite from all the flash.” On the other hand, a new publication called Spacing was less entranced by the ad overload and rules meant to prevent users from chalking the surface. “It’s sanitized and militarized,” magazine co-founder Matthew Blackett told the Star. “It’s a public space, apparently, but it’s a mirror to the mall.”

Time has mellowed some early critics. Writing for Eye Weekly in 2003, Edward Keenan lamented the replacement of a streetscape that had grown organically with a square “that looks like an abandoned bus terminal.” On the cusp of tonight’s tenth-anniversary concert, he reflects that “it works because it doesn’t get in the way by trying to be the big attraction itself…it turns out to be a monument to people. To us. To Toronto.”

Additional material from the January 16, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the September 2, 1977 and October 6, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 4, 2004 edition of the National Post, and the May 8, 1926, September 2, 1977, March 18, 2002, May 29, 2003, June 1, 2003, and December 3, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star.

The Revue Cinema Celebrates a Century

Originally published on Torontoist on October 19, 2012.

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Exterior of Revue Cinema, 1941. Archives of Ontario, AO 2020.

The Revue Cinema, on Roncesvalles Avenue, celebrated its 100th birthday on Thursday. It has outlived countless other small movie houses, and is now one of the last classic neighbourhood cinemas in Toronto.

A century ago, when the Revue cranked up its first projector, film was only starting to shed its novelty status. The major American studios of the time were doing their best to quash innovation, but they couldn’t. Movies were becoming longer, developing complexity, and stretching the limits of imagination.

Audiences were discovering the magic of the silver screen, which made Martin Scorsese’s homage to the early days of filmmaking, Hugo, an appropriate choice for a free centennial screening at the Revue last night. Just as one of the movie’s central characters, film pioneer Georges Méliès, experimented with the latest in film technology during the first decade of the 20th century, Hugo offered the Revue a chance to show off its latest acquisition: a 3D digital projector funded with an Ontario Trillium Grant.

The continued existence of the Revue is magical, especially given how close it came to permanently shutting down in 2006 and 2007. Community support revived it, and it now operates as a not-for-profit. Coinciding with the Revue’s centennial is the launch of a new membership program. The Revue Film Society (which operates the theatre) hopes the program will fund improvements, such as internal renovations and the restoration of the marquee that collapsed during the venue’s brief closure.

The Revue’s birthday celebrations will continue throughout the next week. It will be screening 17 film classics, from tonight’s showing of Singin’ in the Rain and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to October 25’s bill of It Happened One Night and The Big Lebowski. The films will be introduced by buffs, critics, fashion designers, and the next generation of film fans.

Editors note: the rest of this article was originally presented in a gallery format.

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Detail from the 1913 edition of Goad’s Atlas of Toronto. Howard Public School is shaded in blue, the Revue Cinema in green.

During the planning stages of the Revue in late 1911 and early 1912 its owner, the Suburban Amusement Company, faced stiff opposition from school board officials worried about the detrimental effects of “moving picture shows” on innocent youth. Like any new form of entertainment in a morally uptight city, films came under fire for the potentially naughty thoughts they could implant on impressionable minds.

During the Toronto Board of Education’s January 18, 1912 meeting, trustee W.W. Hodgson successfully introduced two motions aimed to prevent the Revue from receiving a moving picture license from the Board of Police Commissioners: a request to the provincial legislature to prohibit the construction of any movie theatre within 1,000 feet of any public school, and a letter to the police commissioners to persuade them to deny the license, as it was only 250 feet away from Howard Public School (then located on Howard Park Avenue). Hodgson believed that movies drained children of morals and money. Fellow trustee Dr. J. Noble feared that films caused a condition he termed “moving picture eye” and moved a motion to have a medical inspector investigate the damage movies did to young eyes. Noble was also on the record for finding censors lax for allowing films into the country which insulted the Canadian military—“We don’t want any Yankee jingoism over here.”

The police board didn’t protest the location of the theatre. When the Revue was granted its license on January 30, 1912, the Mail and Empire observed that “the people living in the immediate vicinity did not object to the granting of the license, and in the minds of the commissioners their views were to be considered in preference to those of people who had previously objected.”

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Star Weekly, April 26, 1913.

Given the controversy about the corruptive effects of films on children, it’s not surprising that the Revue lent its name to an advertisement promising “good, clean motion pictures” within a year of its opening. General Film was the distribution arm of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust of studios who attempted to monopolize the movie industry by obstructing independent filmmakers. Like most monoliths, it didn’t stay on top of developments like the growing popularity of feature-length movies. By the end of the decade, only Pathé (later absorbed into RKO) and Vitagraph (later bought by Warner Brothers) remained active out of the trust members listed in this ad, while the studios they tried to suppress evolved into majors like Paramount and Universal. One connection between this ad and the Revue’s 100th anniversary celebrations: among the studios distributed through General was Méliès, the American arm of the Star Film Company run by pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a key character in Hugo.

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Toronto Star, February 28, 1930.

As the Revue was a neighbourhood theatre, it didn’t receive the large-scale newspaper ads reserved for the downtown movie palaces. It was listed among the community theatres, who received either B-movies or first-run features that had finished their runs elsewhere in the city. Married in Hollywood was a 1929 Fox musical of which only 12 minutes from the final reel is known to survive. Of the films playing elsewhere in this listing, Four Devils is considered among one of the most significant lost silent features of the late 1920s. It was one of a handful of American films helmed by F.W. Murnau, whose credits include the early vampire movie Nosferatu.

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Interior of Revue Cinema, 1941. Archives of Ontario, AO 2021.

By 1938, the Revue passed into the hands of Jacob Smith, who hired Sydney Roth to serve as its manager. Besides the Revue, this management team also ran the Kum-C on Queen Street West in Parkdale. They hired local theatre architectural experts Kaplan and Sprachman to remodel the theatre. Among the additions was the theatre’s signature marquee, which would last for the next 70 years. The Revue reached its peak capacity when this photo was taken—543 seats. Cramming in viewers meant sacrificing elements like a candy counter. Hungry patrons waited until 1955 before a proper snack stand was installed, for which two rows of seating was removed. 20121019twentieth1943

Toronto Star, July 31, 1943.

By World War II the Revue was associated with the 20th Century theatre chain, which eventually merged into Famous Players. Effects of the conflict on the theatre included 24-hour operation to accommodate shift workers from war production plants, and free milk for children during matinees (which was a treat given milk rations kids faced at home). The condition of the theatre varied during the remainder of its days as a first-run house. An inspection in October 1956 noted that “although this theatre is much below par and needs painting—it is being kept reasonably well maintained.” Renovations shut down the Revue for an entire month during the summer of 1965.

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Toronto Star, July 6, 1972. Click on image for larger version.

By the early 1970s, neighbourhood theatres which hadn’t been killed off by television or other factors were finding new ways to survive. While several Toronto theatres switched to porn flicks, the Revue changed from first run to rep house fare in 1972. The new programming began with a Canada Day bill of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood and the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born—all for a nickel’s admission. The follow-up was a nine-film Marlon Brando festival, which inspired the Star to run a fashion spread based on the actor’s oeuvre.

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Toronto Star, August 26, 1972.

Thematic festivals were a staple of the new Revue, ranging from Marlene Dietrich to “Trains, Boats, and Planes.”

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Patrons lined up for “Kung-Fu Friday” at the Revue, June 23, 2006. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

The rep house market in Toronto has waxed and waned over the decades. One of its low points came in 2006 when the last three theatres of the Festival group (the Kingsway, the Paradise, and the Revue) announced their closure, blaming the move on poor ticket sales and DVD rentals. Immediately film buffs and neighbourhood residents formed the Revue Film Society to save the theatre. After a showing of Lawrence of Arabia on June 30, 2006, the Revue drew its curtains for what many feared would be the last time.

The Revue’s future didn’t look promising in early 2007. The building was put on the market. A deal to reopen the theatre fell through. Things hit bottom around 3 a.m. on February 18, 2007 when a heavy load of snow weakened a support chain on the marquee, causing it to collapse to the ground. It seemed like the final insult.

Things began looking up in June 2007 when neighbourhood residents Danny and Letty Mullin bought the property and leased it to the Revue Film Society. After volunteers spent the summer fixing the theatre up, the Revue reopened in October 2007 with a screening of Some Like It Hot. Since then, it has offered up a range of regular programming targeted parents with toddlers, bookworms, foodies, and silent film buffs.

Additional information from the January 19, 1912 and January 30, 1912 editions of the Mail and Empire, and the January 19, 1912 edition of the Toronto Star.

Rebellious Councils

Originally published on Torontoist on February 8, 2012.

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City Hall, Front Street East at Jarvis Street, north elevation, 1895 (now the site of the St. Lawrence Market South). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 98.

Rebellion has been brewing at city council. Today’s special meeting points to the increasing frustrations some of our elected representatives have had with the bull-headed management style of Mayor Rob Ford. But today’s debate on the future of public transit in Toronto is hardly the first time a large segment of council has decided not to toe the mayor’s line. In the past, when council has risen against a mayor’s modus operandi, the results have varied. In the examples we’ve exhumed, mayors have found themselves losing critical votes, losing councillors through en-masse resignations, and even losing their office due to opponents who exploit a great opportunity.

1853: John George Bowes and the Ten Thousand Pound Job

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Portrait of John George Bowes from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto Volume 6 (Toronto: John Ross Robertson, 1914). Right: Portrait of Sir Francis Hincks from History of Toronto and County of York Volume 1 (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1885).

Going into his third term as Toronto’s mayor in 1853, John George Bowes had a sterling reputation. The dry goods merchant was known as a man of the people who acted with his fists, occasionally suffering, as Toronto mayoralty chronicler Victor Loring Russell noted, “a broken head.”

Bowes may have wondered if he had cracked his head once too often after his involvement in a scandal known as the “Ten Thousand Pound Job.” Canada West Premier Sir Francis Hincks schemed with Bowes to replace depreciated bonds issued by the City of Toronto to the Northern Railway with a new, more valuable issue. The two leaders quietly bought 40,000 pounds (the local currency before the dollar) worth of old bonds and, as enabled under provincial legislation devised by Hincks, exchanged them for 50,000 pounds worth of new ones, producing a 10,000 pound profit. When Hincks’ role in the scheme became public in the fall of 1853, Bowes denied to his fellow councillors that he’d had any direct connection with the sale.

After Bowes finally fessed up in court about his role, Councillor John Smith moved a resolution at the October 10, 1853, council meeting to censure the mayor for “having practiced such systematic deception towards the Council collectively and its members individually,” and adding, for good measure, that he had “forfeited the confidence of the Citizens of Toronto and of their representatives on this Council assembled.” Bowes’ ally Ogle Gowan introduced several amendments to the resolution to protect the mayor. The first, which resolved that the city shouldn’t attempt to predict the outcome of a judicial investigation, failed by one vote. But the second, which not only stated that none of Bowes’ dealings hurting the citizens of Toronto but also claimed that the mayor had done his utmost to promote citizens’ interests, was left for a future meeting.

When council reconvened on October 24, sparks flew. Gowan’s second amendment was defeated. A series of increasingly testy motions to censure the mayor for lying were also defeated. A final motion introduced by Alderman Samuel Thompson, which regretted Bowes’ lack of candour but stated that his service to Toronto “should exempt him from any further censure from this council in relation to that transaction” passed by two votes.

Councillors outraged by the actions of the mayor and his defenders failed to show up for the next scheduled meeting on October 31. At the November 3 meeting, eight of the 28 sitting councillors submitted a resignation letter. With their concerns overruled by the majority, the departing officials felt that they had little choice but to quit an institution they could no longer trust.

By-elections were called and held within two weeks.

While Bowes decided not to run for a fourth term in 1854, his political career was hardly ruined by the incident. He served in the provincial legislature alongside Hincks, then returned to municipal politics. Bowes was re-elected as mayor in 1861 and served for three more terms.

1886: William Holmes Howland and Liquor Reduction

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William Holmes Howland. Wikimedia Commons.

During his two years as mayor, William Holmes Howland helped birth the notion of “Toronto the Good.” His efforts at civic reform were aimed at moral purification, which seemed to appeal to voters in 1886. Unfortunately for Howland, most of the councillors elected with him were men he denounced during the campaign as stooges of corporations and the liquor trade. This attitude gave the new council little reason to be amenable to Howland’s agenda. Of the 12 councillors who formed the new executive committee, only two could be called staunch allies of the new mayor.

In his inaugural address, Howland proposed several methods of controlling liquor offences, the most controversial of which was a vow to reduce the number of licenses issued to local grocery stores and tavern keepers. The issue was sent to a special committee, whose report included a clause recommending that licenses be capped at 68 stores and 200 taverns, and that the existing license fee be raised by 20 dollars. Howland and his allies spent most of his first month in office trying to persuade councillors to get behind his policies, but a series of late-night meetings frayed everyone’s tempers. When the executive committee received the report on February 18, 1886, it was concerned about how those who lost their licenses through reduction would be compensated. They felt liquor control was a provincial matter, and that since license commissioners already existed, city council had no business getting in their way. The executive committee prepared to shelve the report.

The next day saw a raucous full-council meeting. The World reported that:

The galleries and the benches that run along the walls behind the aldermen’s seats were crowded with spectators. The throngs in the gallery thought it had the right to make a noisy demonstration when it pleased them, and his worship had to suppress them on threats of clearing the room. The proceedings of the city fathers was as Babelish and indecorous as ever. The World would advise some of them to go down to the local legislature and take lessons in parliamentary procedure and order in debate.

Howland grew testy during the meeting, lashing out at the executive committee for illegally interfering with the special committee that had prepared the report. Howland made the fatal mistake of alienating a key ally when he accused Alderman Newman Steiner of cowardice for suggesting that fewer liquor licenses would provoke a rise in illegal establishments. When the report came to a vote, it was defeated 21 to 15.

Opponents used the defeat to pounce on Howland. Supporters of defeated former mayor Alexander Manning produced evidence that Howland lacked the legal property requirements to run for office. The result was a mayor-less city for a week, until a combination of quick legal manoeuvres, public sympathy, and the failure of anyone else to step up at a nomination meeting returned Howland to office. The mayor would have the last laugh, as the municipal election of 1887 brought in a slate of councillors better aligned with his views, which eventually led to a favourable vote on license reduction.

2007: David Miller and the Deferred Tax Vote

As Torontoist’s headline put it, “Davy Had a Bad, Bad Day.” When council voted on July 16, 2007 to defer a final decision on two revenue-generating tax proposals championed by Mayor David Miller, the result was a nail-biter.

Armed with the newly legislated City of Toronto Act, Miller recommended that the city enact a land-transfer tax of up to 2 per cent on home purchases, and a $60 tax applied to motor vehicle registrations. While Miller and his allies crafted the tax proposals, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong assembled a coalition of business and lobby groups to oppose the proposed taxes and lean on undecided councillors, especially the “mushy middle.”

As the tax-proposal vote approached, Councillor Suzan Hall devised a plan to defer a decision until October 22, 2007, which would be two weeks after the upcoming provincial election. Hall reasoned that the campaign period could be used to urge the Ontario government to upload social-services costs, which would have enabled the City to forgo the new taxes. Described by the Star as “a quiet councillor not known as a trailblazer,” Hall came up with the deferral idea after meeting with the Toronto Board of Trade.

When Hall’s proposal was debated on July 16, the National Post felt a speech by Anthony Peruzza marked the point where it appeared Miller was going to lose. Admitting he made his decision five minutes before he spoke, Peruzza, a former NDP MPP, stated that the new format of fixed-date provincial elections provided a “real unique opportunity,” presumably to provide time for political manoeuvring. One member of the executive committee also decided to vote for the deferral: Brian Ashton, who was willing to pay the political consequences so that there was time for tax opponents like the Board of Trade and the Toronto Real Estate Board to aid the city in working out new fiscal relations with the province.

When the votes were tallied, 23 were in favour of deferral, 22 against. Starcolumnist Royson James blamed the result on the city executive’s failure to court the middle, and on Miller acting “more like a monarch than a mayor.” Miller felt that it was unrealistic to expect the province to upload $500 million in social-services costs. “My concern is for the city of Toronto,” Miller told the Globe and Mail. “It is very difficult to look people in the eye and say the resources are not there to meet the needs of Toronto, but that is the fact.”

During the deferral period, headlines were filled with threats of cuts and closures to community centres, libraries, and ice rinks. When the taxes were finally voted on in October, they passed (26–19 for the land-transfer tax, 25–20 for the vehicle-registry tax). Reactions were predictable: Miller told the Star that “It was a tough decision to impose new taxes on the people of Toronto but it’s an essential decision if we want to do our part in creating the kind of city that Torontonians want,” while Minnan-Wong warned the National Post that “The Mayor is coming back for more. There are going to be more increased taxes…that could be in the way of higher property taxes the residents of the City of Toronto have never seen before or more new revenue tools being used.”

Miller, seen as vulnerable, came under increasing attack from his opponents during the remainder of his term. The perception that his administration loved to tax the public was among the factors that propelled Rob Ford into office, which in a way led to the council rebellion that is currently unfolding.

Additional material from The Union of the Canadas by J. M. S. Careless (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), Mayor Howland: The Citizens’ Candidate by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1973), Mayors of Toronto Volume 1 1834–1899 by Victor Loring Russell (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1982), the minutes of Toronto City Council from 1853, and the following newspapers: the July 17, 2007 edition of the Globe and Mail; the November 5, 1853 edition of the Leader; the February 19, 1886 edition of the Mail; the July 17, 2007 and October 23, 2007 editions of the National Post; the July 17, 2007 and October 23, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 20, 1886 edition of the Toronto World.

Casa Mendoza Comes Down

Originally published on Torontoist on January 30, 2012.

When Casa Mendoza closed its doors on New Year’s Day, a chapter of the city’s waterfront history ended. The last motel/restaurant to operate along the Lake Shore Boulevard strip on Humber Bay, it was demolished last week to make way, like its former neighbours, for condos. With it go memories of a row of businesses whose clientele ranged from the postwar families who vacationed there to the criminals and hourly users who frequented the lingering motels by the early 1990s.

During its later years, Casa Mendoza was favoured by people who enjoyed its old-fashioned lounge atmosphere, complete with couples on the dance floor and live entertainment. The property has been owned by developers for several years and had been operating on a year-to-year basis, but its demise hit regulars and management hard. As Teresa Bodzan, who ran the motel and restaurant for the past two decades, told the Star before the property’s contents were auctioned off earlier this month, “Nobody cares for any history or any landmark. Money talks.”

But we care about such things. Follow the story of the “oasis on the lake” below.

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Lake Shore Road, east approach to Humber bridge, looking west, October 26, 1928. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 6373.

Around the time this photo of what was then called Lake Shore Road was taken by the Humber in 1928, Hans Sachau opened a shipyard on the site of Casa Mendoza. Sachau. who specialized in sailboats and cruisers, performed his patriotic duty by building submarine chasers during World War II.

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Globe and Mail, April 19, 1955 (left), Toronto Star, March 29, 1956 (right).

By the early 1950s, Sachau and his wife converted the site into the Dutch Sisters Inn, which included a restaurant specializing in seafood and German dishes like sauerbraten, schnitzel, and strudel. As Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole described the premises in her April 27, 1953 column, “it is as gay and interesting as the two nice people who own it. The décor has the charm of the unusual from the big Dutch stove with real Holland tiles to the Marine Room with deeply recessed pictures of the sea.” The restaurant quickly became a popular spot for family gatherings and wedding receptions.

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Toronto Star, October 9, 1956.

The Dutch Sisters Inn developed a reputation for its desserts, which led Monarch Flour to borrow one of its recipes for an advertisement.

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Lake Shore Boulevard west, looking east, circa 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1464, File 5, Item 5.

Toronto Star writer Robert Taylor was disappointed when he sampled the Dutch Sisters’ Thanksgiving dinner in 1959. While he enjoyed his appetizers, he found the steak rolade (described as “tender steak dressed with bacon and onions”) was “tender and tasteless and cold.” Also not winning raves: roast potato (“soggy”), fruit cup (“looked like the stodgy canned product”), and apple strudel (“soggy and tasteless’). He reasoned that, because of all of the raves he had heard about the Dutch Sisters, the restaurant was either short staffed due to the holiday or having an off night.

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Globe and Mail, August 28, 1974.

In June 1974, the Dutch Sisters Inn changed its name to Casa Mendoza, switching its influence from middle Europe to Argentina. Disaster struck two months later when the restaurant was gutted in a fire caused by a broken gas line. Investigators suspected arson after an empty, barely-damaged safe was found in the ruins—a safe that a motel employee noted was filled with around $7,000 hours before the blaze broke out. The motel was unaffected and no one was injured.

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Best of Toronto, 1980.

According to Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates, the rebuilt Casa Mendoza was “an orgy of Latin American atmosphere,” especially in its foyer. “The entrance is the perfect Toronto paradox: motel-style parking lot and Spanish hacienda, with brick arches leading to a stucco colonnade and massive seventeenth century doors from Argentina,” she wrote in her June 14, 1976 review of the restaurant. “Before you can open the door, a Latin American smoothie in blue satin shirt and beads leaps out to hand you to the hostess. She leads you past the parilla, a South American open grill, past the South American gift shop stuffed to the gills with Peruvian pottery and Argentinian onyx. She hands you over to the maître d’. Buenas noces, buenas noces, buenas noches. It feels like a Berlitz deep immersion course that’s been influenced by a textbook on how to run the perfect them restaurant.”

Kates found the restaurant itself slightly more restrained, thanks to its “astonishingly comfortable chairs.” She noticed that tourists soaked up kitschy touches like strolling guitarists and received more attention than the serious diners in the room. She had mixed feelings about the food: an appetizer sampler was boring, and the desserts were a disaster (“cheesecake with a topping that tastes like Lik-M-Aid”), but main courses such a well-seasoned, juicier-than-average grilled veal steak accompanied by fresh sauteed mushrooms were impressive.

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Photo I took on a visit to Casa Mendoza in 2008.

While the motels around it closed, the Casa Mendoza carried on. The restaurant was featured on Restaurant Makeover in 2006, though owner Teresa Bodzan later noted that she had to close for the following six weeks to clean up after the TV crew left.

“It’s hard when every bit of the history is gone, and the character,” Etobicoke Historical Society Denise Harris told the Star earlier this month. “The city loses something when it becomes too homogenous…Eventually there won’t be anyone left who remembers any of this.”