110 Lombard Street (The Old Firehall/Second City)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 5, 2013.

old-firehall-1970

110 Lombard Street, circa 1970. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 2.

Though no engines have raced out its doors in over 40 years, the origins of 110 Lombard St. are imprinted in a roundel above its main entrance: CENTRAL FIRE HALL 1886. During its long existence, the building has balanced coping with tragedy with making the city laugh.

The building was designed by David Roberts Jr., whose architectural career was tied to the Gooderham family. Beyond working on many structures in the Distillery District, Roberts designed landmarks like the Flatiron Building and the George Gooderham House at Bloor and St. George streets. The firehall, once touted by the Globe as “the finest building of its kind in the Dominion,” was equipped with sleeping space, a gym, and a state-of-the-art telegraph fire-alarm system. Though the hall was scheduled to open in July 1887, service was delayed by the poor condition of Lombard Street.

globe 1887-07-08 keys handed over

The Globe, July 8, 1887.

After the City rejected a proposal to build a larger firehall elsewhere, the site was expanded with a water tower in 1895. Firefighters based at the station would battle some of the city’s greatest disasters; several sustained eye injuries during the Great Fire of 1904.

By the 1960s, plans were underway to replace the station with a new firehall at Front and Princess streets. “It is so old,” the Star said of the building in February 1966. “Firefighters have to beat the rodents off before they can slide down their polls.” Alderman June Marks added the hall to a list of buildings and residences in her ward to which she handed out free rat poison. (The firehall’s supply came gift-wrapped, topped with a red bow.)

ts 71-11-15 renting ad

Toronto Star, November 15, 1971.

After the firefighters departed, the City hoped, as one advertisement announced, that “some ingenious entrepreneur will grasp the opportunities in leasing these premises.” The site was converted into a dining and entertainment complex—dubbed The Old Firehall—in 1972, with family-style dining in the basement and the Fire Escape disco on the ground floor. Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole lured customers with promises of “great platters of golden southern fried chicken, prime, juicy roast beef, bowls of succulent gravy, and that special Fire Hall apple pie.”

ts 73-07-06 firehall ad conkie

Toronto Star, July 6, 1973.

Looking for a cabaret-style attraction, the Old Firehall signed a contract with Second City in January 1974; the improv company needed a new space after their first Toronto home was padlocked by the landlord. Moving into a venue that possessed a liquor licence was a critical factor, as the lack of one doomed their six-month stay at Adelaide and Jarvis in 1973. (Provincial liquor officials felt the neighbourhood was already saturated with drinking spots, and didn’t believe Second City’s rented space was a true theatre.) Old Firehall manager Oscar Berceller, who previously ran celebrity-magnet restaurant Winston’s, saw Second City as part of a planned revamp of the building that would have converted the basement to a “gypsy cellar” with violinists. Berceller’s death soon after appears to have curtailed this idea.

tspa_0128758f_640

“Brian James, founder of a new organization which will send used tools to underdeveloped countries, seen with cast members of Second City revue Rosemary Radcliffe, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, John Candy and Joe O’Flaherty.” Photo by Reg Innell, originally published in the Toronto Star, April 17, 1974. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0128758f.

With a company featuring John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Rosemary Radcliffe, and Gilda Radner, the Second City made their Old Firehall debut in March 1974 with Hello, Dali! The Star‘s theatre critic, Urjo Kareda, felt the initial revue showed more bite than previous efforts and worked in Canadian-centric material without being pushy about it. Radner was praised for realizing that “she can be gorgeous and hilarious at the same time, without one distorting the other,” while Levy provided the show’s highlight with a skit about “Ricardo and his trained Amoeba.”

gm 74-03-14 whittaker on sc

Globe and Mail, March 14, 1974.

ts 74-03-14 kareda review

Toronto Star, March 14, 1974.

In its early days at the Old Firehall, Second City competed with musical acts playing elsewhere in the building. “The only way we could attract an audience was to offer free draft,” producer Andrew Alexander later noted. “I think the audience thought they were there for the beer and rock ‘n’ roll—and the comedy was interstitial.” Among other short-lived 1970s distractions was The World’s Greatest Hamburger, which Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates found “tough and dry.”

gm 75-08-25 worlds greatest hamburger

Globe and Mail, August 25, 1975.

When Second City prepared to move to Blue Jays Way in 1997, spirits long-reputed to haunt the Old Firehall didn’t take the news well. The frequency of odd events increased during the troupe’s final month in the building, including a burst pipe that flooded the theatre, flickering lights, and mysterious computer shutdowns. Friendly spirits, however, appeared onstage, as some famed alumni participated in the final shows. After making a surprise appearance at an improv set, Martin Short told the Star that “The Old Firehall is one of those important places for me. We’re always looking back for familiar places, whether it’s granny’s house that still exists, or your mom’s.”

A Second City alum was honoured as the building transitioned into its next incarnation. Following Radner’s death from cancer in 1989, Gilda’s Club was established to provide support and therapy spaces across North America to those living with cancer and their families. The Toronto branch opened in the Old Firehall in October 2001 and remained until it moved to Cecil Street in 2012. It was replaced on Lombard by the College of Makeup Art & Design.

Sources: The Great Toronto Fire by Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1984); the April 7, 1887 edition of the Globe; the March 31, 1973, January 10, 1974, August 25, 1975, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 2, 1998 edition of Maclean’s; and the September 20, 1895, February 4, 1966, April 23, 1969, November 13, 1971, January 5, 1973, December 11, 1973, March 14, 1974, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

ts 1895-03-28 letter to editor about new fire hall

Letter to the editor, Toronto Star, March 28, 1895. 

globe 1895-07-24 accounts of fire hall runs

Lombard firefighters in action, from the July 24, 1895 Globe.

tspa_0112378f_firepole

Photo by Frank Teskey, originally published in the January 22, 1971 Toronto Star.  Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0112378f.

This photo accompanied another image of a prospective renter. From the caption:

To prove that the facilities are still in good operating order, fireman Gord Didier slides down the pole, while firemen Ron Horniblow (left) and Ray Samson watch. On January 31, City Property Commissioner Harry Rogers will open sealed tenders from prospective tenants who want to lease the 86-year-old firehall, now replaced by a new building at Front and Princess St. It might be converted by someone into a restaurant.

gm 72-12-10 xmas firehall ad

Globe and Mail, December 10, 1972.

gm 73-03-31 mary walpole on firehall

Mary Walpole’s advertorial take on the Fire Hall. Globe and Mail, March 31, 1973.

gm 97-11-15 firehall closes

Globe and Mail, November 15, 1997.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Phyllis Diller on Ice

Originally published on Torontoist on August 28, 2012.

20120828diller

Toronto Star, August 16, 1962 (left); Globe and Mail, August 21, 1962 (right).

When Phyllis Diller, who died last week at the age of 95, began her career in the late 1950s, female stand-up comics were a rarity. Figuring out how to book them could be a challenge, which led to some odd bills. Take one of Diller’s earliest appearances in Toronto, where she shared the spotlight for two weeks in August 1962 with an ice revue presented by Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen.

The mix didn’t work for Globe and Mail reviewer John Kraglund, who was unimpressed by the first hour-and-a-half of the evening. He didn’t feel any sparks until Joe Jackson Jr., “a ragged tramp of a clown with an almost guileless smile and a bicycle” performed a quiet but funny routine about his disintegrating bike.

Jackson was followed by Diller, who Kraglund considered one of the night’s highlights. He wrote:

A few minutes later Phyllis Diller slithered sexily on to the stage, then became herself and proceeded to convulse the audience with skillfully timed, loud, earthy humour. At 10:45 p.m., I left the theatre, firmly convinced there is nothing like a couple of topnotch professionals to pep up an amateurish production.

It was back at her early days at San Francisco’s Purple Onion that I first met Miss Diller. In those intimate quarters she was funny, for one could not ignore her wickedly lusty laugh, broad gestures and constantly changing facial contortions. She is one of those rare performers who can project most of this through the vast expanse of the O’Keefe Centre.

Perhaps last night there was too much of her own laughter and too much bobbing and weaving; although she may feel this necessary if she is to reach the most distant observers. But I do not suppose the humour would have been lost if she had stood still to describe her badly dressed hostess: “If her neckline had been any lower she would have been barefoot.”

Even with these reservations, Miss Diller was rather like a breath of fresh air after a rather lengthy period in the doldrums, which had only been relieved by Mr. Jackson.

Additional material from the August 21, 1962 edition of the Globe and Mail.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

dillerkensington

Good time: Comedienne Phyllis Diller checks out budget-priced watches at a Kensington Avenue stall. She’s a self-confessed shopaholic. Photo by Bernard Weil, 1991. Toronto Public Library from the Toronto Star Archives, tspa_0043919f.

When updating this piece, I dove into the Toronto Public Library’s Toronto Star photo archive to see if there were any contemporary pictures of Diller. There weren’t (the oldest were from 1972), but this image stood out, showing the comedian having what might appear to be an ordinary day for anyone wandering Kensington Market. According to a November 28, 1991 Star article, besides browsing watches, Diller stopped at Courage My Love (“this is my kind of place,” she said as she bought a lilac velvet lounging jacket and a black cotton top hat), a sock stall, and Tom’s Place.

Summer’s Here And The Time Is Right For Golfing In The Streets

Originally published on Torontoist on June 5, 2008.

Home-grown small-screen productions have also made ample use of our city’s streets since CBLT debuted in 1952. During the summer of 1971, comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster used downtown as a backdrop for an exciting new sport, city golf. Over the course of 18 holes, cameramen preserved pieces of the city that development has changed significantly in the ensuing years, from landmarks in their infancy to retail icons that have moved along.

Besides, wouldn’t shooting a golf ball down Queen Street over lunch hour be a great stress reliever, as long as you don’t brain any onlookers?

Among the sites to watch out for while viewing this clip (or to skip ahead to if Wayne and Shuster are not your taste):

1:54: City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, only open for six years at this point. Note the waving spectators on the top ramp.

2:10: Eaton’s Queen Street store. Initially located south of Queen when Timothy Eaton set up shop in 1869, the store moved to 190 Yonge Street in 1883 and gradually expanded to take up the entire block bounded by James to the west and Albert to the north. Company warehouses stretched along neighbouring blocks while a second retail store, the Eaton’s Annex, opened at Albert and Yonge. During the mid-20th century, the Queen store was Eaton’s mid-range store, with the Annex (destroyed by fire in 1977) catering to bargain hunters and their Yonge-College store (now College Park) attracting upscale shoppers. The sale advertised on the Queen entrance places filming around August, when the following ad appeared in local papers.

2008_06_04eatonshome

Globe and Mail, August 2, 1971.

Across the street Simpsons also had a month-long sale running, though they appear to have taken less care in design and material with the “Great Toronto Days” banner.

The two stores would draw shoppers on either side of Queen until 1977, when Eaton’s consolidated their downtown retail operations into their new store at Yonge and Dundas during the first phase of Eaton Centre construction.

3:10: The first hole is near the King Edward Hotel, then on a downhill slide (note the less than elegant front sign). Before the decade was out, the hotel was threatened with demolition before being rescued by new investors…though its Crystal Ballroom might be a decent locale to practice short putts.

5:44: The original configuration of the 401/Don Valley Parkway interchange. The DVP had been built as far north as Sheppard by 1966, with Woodbine Avenue continuing northwards until the first phase of Highway 404 to Steeles Avenue was completed in 1977. More bridge hazards after recent construction would create a greater challenge in a modern game.

6:00: Long-gone parking lots on the south side of Carlton Street opposite Maple Leaf Gardens, later occupied by condos, fast food joints, Mick E. Fynn’s, Peach Garden, and Golden Griddle.

6:37: The Odd Fellows Hall at Yonge and College can be seen behind Wayne. Then a branch of CIBC, now home to Starbucks.

2008_06_05jarvismap

7:40: The drawing of the 10th hole refers to several vanished buildings along Jarvis Street. The Four Seasons Motor Hotel at 415 Jarvis was the launchpad for the luxury hotel chain, which it maintained through the late 1970s. Opened in 1961, it won a Massey Medal for Architecture. Toronto Life’s Toronto Guidebook described the Four Seasons as:

…a great place: small and slightly chic (because of all the visiting celebrities who stay there, because of the proximity of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation across the street); not too expensive; only three storeys, so you don’t have top cope overmuch with elevators; and hassle-free parking. There’s a swimming pool in the central courtyard…a bar-cum-discotheque downstairs called The Studio from which, at lunch time, the timeless Elwood Glover conducts his CBC-TV interview show.

This was a boom time for the chain, with Inn on the Park humming along, its first overseas hotel welcoming guests in 1970, and the development of a new location on Queen that became the Sheraton Centre. The Motor Inn was closed in the late 1970s and eventually demolished, with The Central condos currently staying for the night at its address.

CBC was headquartered at 354 Jarvis until the opening of the broadcast centre on Front Street. Its land is now occupied by Radio City and the National Ballet School. We suspect “the beverage room” was a watering hole for employees of the Corp.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

“City Golf” originally aired on the September 19, 1971 edition of The Wayne and Shuster Comedy Special. According to a capsule preview in the previous day’s edition of Starweek, the show also featured a spoof of Citizen Kane, and a sketch going behind-the-scenes of a minimum security prison. Musical guests were Salome Bey and Gilles Vigneault.

gm 1971-09-20 review of w&s city golf

Blaik Kirby’s review of the show, from the September 20, 1971 edition of the Globe and Mail. The comedic merits of the city golf sketch are still debatable.