The Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience of The Electric Circus (and the story of 99 Queen East)

Originally published on Torontoist on February 18, 2015.

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The Telegram, December 21, 1968.

For Torontonians of a certain age, the phrase “Electric Circus” conjures up the 1990s dance show on Citytv and MuchMusic. Its name paid homage to the dance club that Citytv replaced at 99 Queen Street East when the station launched in 1972. The original Electric Circus arrived in town with great hype, and ended as a newspaper auction ad.

“I believe in Toronto,” Stan Freeman, Electric Circus co-owner, declared when he announced the club in May 1968. “It’s one of the grooviest cities in the world for rock, and I’m investing $300,000 in that belief.” Along with business partner Jerry Brandt, Freeman, a Torontonian who once worked for Clairtone, promised a venue over twice the size of his flagship club in New York City’s East Village. The original’s mix of circus performers, electronic music, experimental theatre, light shows, and live bands would be imported, all for a then-stiff $4 cover charge.

The site, whose past tenants ranged from an ornamental ironworks to a Simpsons used-furniture depot, would see its 38,000 square feet of floor space reimagined into a realm designed for the groovy hipsters. Split into seven rooms, it included a strobe-lit dance hall, chambers lined with foam rubber, a boutique, and a restaurant. Unlike the NYC location, the light shows would be programmed via computer.

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Left: Toronto Star, January 25, 1969. Right: Toronto Life, April 1969.

Trouble plagued the project from the start. Construction costs doubled as the concept evolved and the city demanded numerous safeguards. The opening date, intended for July, was delayed for months. When the Electric Circus finally opened for a VIP-only fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund on December 20, 1968, it was far from complete. Despite staff putting in 24-hour shifts, little was truly ready for guests like John Craig Eaton, Peter Munk, and Marshall McLuhan to enjoy the full freak-out experience. Plaster dripped and wires were exposed. Carpenters hammered away. Welders sprayed sparks onto the floor. Drinks were served in paper cups because the bar glasses had been stolen. The light show was still in test mode. Amid the chaos, floor staff ran around in lab coats and sweatshirts with “HELP!” written on the back. “C’mon, honey,” one tuxedo-clad guest told his wife. “This is terrible! They can’t have a party in here!” Perhaps prime minister Pierre Trudeau was relieved when he declined his invitation.

The press found reasons for optimism. “If you’ve been mouthing McLuhanisms for the past couple of years without really knowing what things like ‘media barrage’ and ‘total environment’ mean,” the Globe and Mail observed, “you can experience them in their most intense form at the Electric Circus.” The Star’s Jack Batten predicted it would be a “groovy experience” when properly running.

The club closed for a month to complete renovations. Over 2,000 people, many armed with free passes from CKFH radio, lined up when it reopened on January 23, 1969. While the pulsating liquid patterns and strobe lights impressed patrons, many wondered what the hype was about. As one partier observed, “everything else you can do at home.”

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Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

What you actually could do at the Electric Circus, according to Star art columnist Gail Dexter, boiled down to four things: dance, eat, go nude (a practice encouraged among female patrons), and hide in a “womb room” outfitted with flashing lights. It was also utilized by the Ontario College of Art for its annual Beaux Art Ball—in the spirit of the era, its 1969 edition was named after a catchphrase from the TV series Laugh-In (“Look it up in your Funk and Wagnall”).

As 1969 wore on, the club’s troubles mounted. A Sunday night live concert series was discontinued due to performers being late or, in the case of Ten Years After, failing to show up at all. Crowds dwindled to 80 people on weeknights. Tradesmen registered liens as they waited for payment. Creditors were offered shares in the New York club. By 1970, new management contemplated providing an atmosphere that was less plastic and more conducive to young people enjoying live music. “They shouldn’t go to Massey Hall,” manager Bob Cohen told the Globe and Mail in May 1970. “I’ll make them feel at home. I’ll give them a community. I’ve got rid of most of the environmental junk we had, and I’m trying to make the Circus a place just to relax and listen to the music and groove with the other freaks.”

Pandering to draw “freaks” failed, and the Electric Circus’s groovy goods were auctioned off. Less than two years later, over $1 million of renovations transformed the site into Citytv’s first home. The station took advantage of the wiring system the club left behind, while the light-show gondola became Moses Znaimer’s office. The old club’s address is currently occupied by The Carbon Bar.

Additional material from the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969, November 6, 1969, and May 16, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 27, 1968, October 19, 1968, December 20, 1968, December 21, 1968, March 1, 1969, March 11, 1969, and April 26, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the history of 99 Queen East in the following article for The Grid’s Ghost City series, which was originally published in April 2013.

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The Globe, October 28, 1922.

Anyone purchasing their heating needs at the Nipissing Coal and Wood Yard in the mid-1870s never imagined that a century later 99 Queen Street East would fuel people’s quest for controversy and entertainment. By the end of the Victorian era the yard was cleared away and replaced by a building which would house a series of industrial business ranging from wrought iron fencing to laundry machines.

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Toronto Star, November 14, 1935.

When Star Electric Fixtures moved in during the winter of 1934, it promised consumers the “most up-to-date showrooms in the Dominion of Canada.” They weren’t at the forefront for long, as a two-alarm blaze destroyed the business on Boxing Day 1935. Though a feared building collapse was avoided, firefighters contended with dense smoke and freezing temperatures which turned their streams into sheets of ice. A year of legal sparring between Star Electric and its insurers saw the company’s president refuse to answer certain questions about the incident.

After the damage was cleared, Simpson’s moved in to run a “trade-in” store specializing in used furniture. Following the department store giant’s departure in 1944, other furniture businesses occupied the premises before it was vacated during the mid-1960s.

In early 1968 Jerry Brandt and Stan Freeman, owners of the hip Electric Circus disco in New York City, announced Toronto would host the second in a planned series venues across North America designed to attract an audience in the 14-to-25 demographic. For a stiff $4 cover charge, patrons would be dazzled by a 1,500 capacity main dance floor with live and recorded music, circus acts, and light show, while side rooms offered dining, shopping, and foam rubber walls. Freeman chose 99 Queen Street East because he “liked the sound of the address.” The venue, which was intended to be alcohol- and drug-free, was billed as the “Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience.”

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Toronto Star, December 21, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

The Electric Circus was immediately plagued with problems. Renovation issues delayed opening by six months. Constant design changes and safeguards demanded by the city caused the cost to balloon to over $500,000. When it finally opened for a Save the Children Fund benefit on December 20, 1968, attendees were underwhelmed by the unfinished space—one complained to the Globe and Mail that “they should pay us to come in here.” When the Star’s Jack Batten arrived at 10 p.m., he found “several hundred beautifully dressed people” looking “desperate and mad” as the space was “a shambles of exposed wired, dripping plaster, rough wood floors and a dozen hammering carpenters.” Light show technicians were still in test mode, while welders provided their own sparkling display. Drinks were served in paper cups after the bar glasses were stolen. Despite the hiccups Batten predicted the Electric Circus would “be a groovy experience” once it was properly running.

Finishing work closed the Electric Circus for a month. When it reopened on January 23, 1969, 2,000 people lined up. Only the strobe lights and pulsating liquid patterns impressed the crowd, many of whom had received free passes from radio station CKFH. Otherwise, as one patron put it, “everything else you can do at home.” A Sunday night concert series featuring headliners like Procol Harum and Sam and Dave was quickly curtailed, though local acts and groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Alice Cooper continued to grace its stage. Weeknights drew as few as 80 bodies. Construction workers registered liens against the club. While attempts were made to make the club seem less soulless, and events like the Ontario College of Art’s Beaux Arts Ball were held there, by August 1970 its items were up for auction.

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The full article on the OCA’s Beaux Arts Ball, Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

In March 1972, over $1 million of renovations began to transform the space into Toronto’s newest television station. Managing director Moses Znaimer claimed the light show gondola as his office. The heavy duty wiring system the Electric Circus left behind was a blessing for the tightly-budgeted station “Somebody up there likes us,” Znaimer told the Star.

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Toronto Star, June 10, 1972.

When Citytv debuted at 7:30 p.m. on September 28, 1972, a large cardboard poster on Znaimer’s office wall beaming “SEXY TELEVISION BEGINS SEPT. 28” crashed to the ground. “Was the Great Producer in the Sky trying to tell Znaimer that he disapproved of City’s raunchy programming policies?” joked Star columnist Alexander Ross. Sex that fueled the station’s early success thanks to the Friday night Baby Blue Movie. Despite frequent police morality squad visits regarding the airing of soft core flicks, mail praising the show flowed in. Several letters claimed the techniques demonstrated onscreen saved their marriages. By March 1973, the show drew 60 percent of the midnight audience.

Besides Citytv, the building housed one of the station’s first spinoffs, MuchMusic. Both stations honoured 99 Queen East’s heritage when, a year after they moved to 299 Queen West, a new dance show launched in 1988 bore the name Electric Circus.

Meanwhile, the old building became a mixed-use space which lost its historic address when it was integrated into the Queen Richmond Centre at 111 Queen Street East. Disney used the studio to train dancers for its cruise ships. The Grid looked into the space while it was up for rent in September 2011, noting that the location would soon be in high demand due to imminent construction in the parking lot across the street. The parking lot is still there. While the exterior offers no hint of the current tenant, a peak through the window reveals plenty of scaffolding inside.

Additional material from the December 27, 1935 edition of the Globe, the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969 of the Globe and Mail, the September 30, 2011 edition of The Grid, the December 27, 1935 edition of the Mail and Empire, and the January 30, 1934, July 27, 1968, December 21, 1968, April 26, 1969, March 18, 1972, September 29, 1972, March 20, 1973, and May 3, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.

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“Bravo for the Women of Canada”

Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2013.

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Globe and Mail, January 29, 1988.

As anticipation mounted for the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the country’s abortion laws on January 28, 1988, residents and business owners near Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic at 85 Harbord Street hoped the ruling would bring quiet to their neighbourhood. Since Morgentaler, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 90, opened his clinic in June 1983, they had witnessed an endless stream of occasionally violent protests. “We think the street has gone through a lot, and showed a lot of patience as it has dealt with all this for the past years,” observed Harbord Street Association president Neil Wright.

The first protestors showed up outside the clinic around 7:30 that winter morning. Police erected rows of barricades to allow pedestrians to move around the growing crowd of pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The pro side soon had reason to celebrate: in a five-to-two vote, the Supreme Court struck down Section 251 of the Criminal Code, which forced women seeking legal pregnancy terminations to submit to the approval of a hospital abortion committee.

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Toronto Star, January 29, 1988.

Morgentaler, who had crusaded for women’s choice in Canada for two decades, and whose clinic was dragged through the legal system following a Metro Toronto Police raid within a month of its opening, was relieved. “Bravo for the Supreme Court of Canada,” he told the crowd waiting outside an Ottawa courtroom. “Bravo for the women of Canada. Justice for the women of Canada has finally arrived.”

Around 7 p.m. that evening, Morgentaler greeted supporters on Harbord Street. By that point, the pro-choice presence strongly outnumbered the opponents still outside the clinic. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he declared. “I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

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Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

All three of Toronto’s major dailies supported the court’s decision. The Globe and Mail felt the pressure was now on Parliament to stop “hiding behind a bad law” and create legislation that trusted doctors and pregnant women “to do the right thing.” The Star called the ruling “forceful” and “reasoned” in recognizing that the Charter of Rights didn’t permit the state to “unreasonably interfere with the personal reproductive choices of women.” The support wasn’t unanimous—a few columnists raised objections—but even among the Sun‘s conservative ranks the consensus was that the court had decided well. The Sun wrote that the ruling was “logical, inevitable, and necessary,” and reminded readers that both the Canadian Medical Association and Ontario Medical Association had passed resolutions six years earlier that closely matched the court’s decision.

Globe and Mail columnist Michele Landsberg found the decision dizzying, in a good way:

At a stroke, the Supreme Court of Canada has wiped out one of our country’s meanest injustices. The abortion law, a shabby and cringing deal made among men who rule, and made at the expense of women, has been named for what it is: painful, arbitrary, and unfair. Those who have not been personally touched by the women’s movement may find it hard to credit the depth of emotion we feel today. It’s important to understand that the abortion fight has not been about abortion, but something which runs far deeper: the right of women to be autonomous.

Back on Harbord Street, the decision didn’t quiet the battle. As governments tried to figure out new abortion legislation, skirmishes at the clinic continued, culminating in a firebombing in 1992. The clinic eventually moved to its current location in North Toronto.

Additional material from the January 29, 1988 and January 30, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, the January 28, 1988 and January 29, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 29, 1988 and January 31, 1988 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Cartoon by Andy Donato depicting John Turner, Brian Mulroney, and Ed Broadbent, Toronto Sun, January 30, 1988.

One of the pleasant surprises I discovered while researching this story was that all of Toronto’s major newspapers agreed that the Supreme Court of Canada made the right decision to kill the existing federal abortion law. There were notes of caution (the Sun’s editorial strongly recommended counselling on alternatives and birth control, while the Star suggested some controls would be necessary), but they weren’t accompanied by troglodytic language. 

I was impressed by the Sun’s coverage—it was very even-handed, to the extent of a point/counterpoint piece where representatives from pro-choice and anti-abortion groups were given space to state their views side-by-side. There was one exception, and it’s a doozy.

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Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

Tough-talking, uber-conservative columnist Bob MacDonald felt his readers could “say goodbye to Canada as we know it today.” Yet the main concern in his January 29, 1988 column wasn’t the pro- and anti-choice divide, but the effect more abortions would have on the ethnic makeup of the country. MacDonald believed a lower Canadian birthrate would stimulate a larger demand for immigrants, and that “pressure will build to accept most phony refugee claimants.” And those immigrants wouldn’t be from traditional European sources: “Yesterday’s decision can only add to this already revolutionary change in Canada’s cultural, racial, and religious mix.” 

This must have made xenophobic readers feel better.

Actually, they were already out in force. MacDonald quoted a caller to the Sun who wondered why Morgentaler didn’t set up shop in India, where more money could be made curbing runaway population growth.

Cue a jaw drop heard across the basement newspaper room of the Toronto Reference Library.

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Toronto Sun, January 31, 1988.

Much classier was Sun colleague Douglas Fisher, who reflected on the history of federal abortion debates and laws in his January 31, 1988 column. Fisher recalled that when he was a federal CCF MP in the late 1950s he made passing references to abortion and illegal birth control information during a speech in the House. Veteran Liberal MP Paul Martin Sr.advised him afterwards to never mention those subjects again. “Nothing could get me in more trouble,” Fisher reflected. “His emphasis was: Leave ‘religious’ subjects alone.” Fisher checked Hansard from the 1960s and could not find a solid reference to abortion until April 1967 when somebody suggested they should be legalized (which happened three years later).

When it came to Henry Morgentaler, Fisher observed that “whether one cherishes or detests him, he is a brave citizen.”

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It’s often weird to see writers you associate with a particular paper show up in another. Such is the case with Michele Landsberg. I think of her as a Star columnist, but she had a stint with the Globe and Mail in the late 1980s, and it was there she commented on the Supreme Court. Here are her personal thoughts on Morgenthaler from her January 30, 1988 column:

Henry Morgentaler is an important hero of mine. He may come across as irascible or abrasive, words that reporters have used about him, but whenever I’ve spoken to him, he’s been gentle, rational and idealistic. In private conversation he would brush off the personal hurts; his anger was saved for the stupidity and inequality of the laws. A small man with a stereotypical Jewish face, a survivor of Auschwitz, he’s had to live with constant ridicule and anti-Semitic vilification from the more extreme of his opponents. He’s been dragged to court over and over again, thrown in jail (just imagine what jail is like to a Holocaust survivor), harassed and threatened beyond most mortals’ endurance. A doctor who could have become smugly affluent in quiet private practice, he repeatedly risked everything to confront an unjust law.

***

The week after this piece appeared, I wrote an installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid about the Morgentaler Clinic’s Harbord Street location. Here is the text of that piece, originally published on June 4, 2013. After it was published, the paper gave my number to a caller who wanted to talk to me. Turned out they were upset that I had not included their conviction that one of the fiery incidents was an inside job. Note to future clients: do not give my phone number out after I write about controversial topics.

When the Toronto Women’s Bookstore needed space to expand from its Kensington Market home in 1975, it settled upon the ground floor of a three-storey semi-detached former residence on Harbord Street. As one of the first feminist bookstores in Canada, the collective-run business quickly became a supplier to libraries, schools, and women’s centres who drew on stock emphasizing works by Canadian authors on topics ranging from health to non-sexist Kid Lit. During its first few months on Harbord, store staff estimated that around 25% of its clientele were men who were either curious about the concept or deeply committed to feminist issues.

During the spring of 1983, the bookstore learned it would have a new upstairs neighbour. Following a search delayed by threats of prosecution from the provincial government, Dr. Henry Morgentaler who passed away last week, announced he would open his first Toronto abortion clinic on the upper two floors of 85 Harbord on June 15. The press was shown a freshly-renovated space filled with plants and wicker furniture that Morgentaler hoped would create “a soothing atmosphere” for patients.

The clinic’s move-in wasn’t a peaceful one. Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry expected police to charge in if any abortions were performed; at the time, the only legal option required the consent of abortion committees offered by some hospitals. Anti-abortion groups promised plenty of protests. When opening day arrived, a man wielding garden shears attacked Morgentaler. Repeatedly yelling “bad people, bad people,” Augusto Da Silva was intercepted by pro-choice supporters led by clinic spokesperson Judy Rebick before Morgentaler was seriously harmed. Da Silva then waved his shears in the air, told the crowd to move back, then ran from the scene (he was soon arrested).

The inevitable police raid came on July 5, 1983. After a pair of undercover Metro Toronto Police officers arranged an abortion, other officers swept in and removed equipment during a three-and-a-half hour raid. Morgentaler, who was vacationing in California, surrendered to police upon his return to Toronto two days later. The raid set off years of legal battles which culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down federal abortion law in January 1988.

85 Harbord became a battleground in the divide over women’s choice and a target for extreme anti-abortionists. Around 3:15 a.m. on July 29, 1983, a man who failed to break into the clinic managed to get into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. He set bags of paper afire under the stairwell, which ironically was near the pregnancy and childbirth section. A note left behind read “If your mother had taken your life away, you would not be living it up, Morgentaler.”

While the clinic suffered smoke damage, the bookstore was gutted. The back stock was destroyed, while recently renovated basement offices suffered water damage. With the support of customers, the bookstore set up temporary quarters in the Poor Alex theatre building at Bloor and Brunswick before moving into a new home at 73 Harbord in June 1984. The store remained a neighbourhood fixture until it closed in November 2012.

The fire increased the anxiety of neighbours, who formed an action committee to get rid of the clinic. Over 2,000 residents signed a petition demanding its closure. The Harbord Street Business and Residents Association soon arose and plead with demonstrators to leave their neighbourhood alone. Die-hards ignored their pleas; as Right to Life Campaign president Laura McArthur observed when asked if she was concerned about the impact of her group’s constant picketing on local businesses, “I have no sympathy for these people when they have an illegal operation in their neighbourhood. They should be joining the pickets.” For a time, a pro-life group ran a pseudo-restaurant in the adjoining half of the building at 87 Harbord, further exacerbating tensions.

When the Supreme Court decision was announced on January 28, 1988, Morgentaler arrived at the clinic around 7 p.m. to greet supporters. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he told the crowd. “It is also a victory for children. I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

The ruling didn’t cool tensions. Violent clashes occasionally erupted, such as one which resulted in 160 arrests from both sides of the divide in January 1989. An injunction against pro-life demonstrators from picketing in front of the clinic was granted in May 1989, but vandals continued to spray-paint anti-abortion messages.

At 3:23 a.m. on May 18, 1992, a blast blew off the front wall of the building. A gasoline bomb sent glass and debris onto Harbord. The clinic had just rebuilt its entrance following a firebomb attack that January. “It looks like a war zone,” one neighbourhood resident told the Star while waiting to return home. “This is stupidity…It really is.” The blast accelerated plans for the clinic to move to larger quarters—by the end of the year it settled on its current home near Leaside at 727 Hillsdale Avenue East.

The old clinic was demolished and a new 85-87 Harbord Street was built for office and residential use. Space on the 85 side of the building is currently for lease, while past tenants of 87 include Ms. Emma Designs.

Additional material from the July 10, 1975, July 6, 1983, and January 29, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 7, 1983, June 8, 1983, June 16, 1983, July 30, 1983, August 1, 1983, August 17, 1983, February 10, 1985, August 27, 1985, January 15, 1989, May 19, 1992, and September 28, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

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

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

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

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

UPDATE

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

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 2 Queen West

From 2012 to 2014 I contributed to The Grida weekly magazine/alt-paper which was known as eye for most of its existence. The publication folded in July 2014, with its web presence vanishing soon after.  As some articles had already vaporized when I finally got around to collecting them for my records, some reprints will be based on original drafts. This installment of my “Ghost City”column was originally published on December 11, 2012. As plans to revamp the building have been released, it seemed appropriate to exhume this piece.

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Yonge Street looking north from Queen Street, early 20th century. 2 Queen West is the Knox store on the left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 495.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the intersection of Queen and Yonge was a battleground for clothiers and dry-goods merchants. While Eaton’s and Simpson’s wound up on the top of the heap, other merchants left their own marks, such as the building at the northwest corner named after men’s fashion provider Philip Jamieson.

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Toronto Star, October 20, 1900.

Jamieson was en route from his native Scotland to Australia in 1873 when he visited his brother-in-law, Bartholomew Spain, in Toronto. Instead of continuing onto the land down under, Jamieson partnered with Spain in a clothing store on the current site of Old City Hall. By 1877, the partnership had dissolved, and Jamieson moved east to the corner of Yonge and Queen. Disaster struck just after midnight on March 4, 1895, when fire destroyed the recently built Simpson’s store across the street to the south. The blaze jumped north across Queen Street, destroying Jamieson’s store and its neighbours, except for Eaton’s, which was saved by its sprinkler system and swift-thinking employees who lived nearby. Despite $150,000 in property losses, Jamieson temporarily moved a few doors north on Yonge and vowed in his ads that “a magnificent building” would rise from the ashes. Designed by architects Samuel Curry and Francis S. Baker, the Jamieson Building, whose original address was 180 Yonge St., included a rounded corner and plenty of plate-glass windows at street level to showcase Jamieson’s goods.

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Toronto World, February 6, 1909.

On April 30, 1897, the S.H. Knox Company opened its first Canadian five-and-dime store one door north. Owner Seymour Knox previously partnered with his cousin Frank Woolworth in the variety-store business south of the border, and continued to share suppliers when he set out on his own. Knox agreed to not build anywhere near the early Woolworth stores, making Toronto an attractive locale. (Knox’s heirs left their mark on the Buffalo area—Seymour II was involved with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, while Seymour III and his brother Northrup established the Sabres hockey franchise.) In January 1909, Jamieson retired and Knox expanded into the space. Jamieson planned to travel around the world, but died the following month. The Knox nameplate remained until the chain merged with Woolworth’s in 1912.

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The discounter’s long presence at one of Toronto’s top retail corners was aided by a stipulation landowner Naomi Bilton included when she sold the property to McMaster University (established by her father) for a dollar in 1917. Bilton had an undisclosed beef against the Eaton family and placed a condition that the property could never be sold to the Eaton’s or their related businesses. (Decades later, neither McMaster nor Woolworth’s showed any interest in selling the space to Cadillac Fairview during construction of the adjacent Eaton Centre.)

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The Telegram, November 26, 1969.

A succession of short-term retailers filled the space after Woolworth’s departed in 1980. When new owners purchased the site in 1985, they hired architect Lloyd Alter to design the restoration of the aging building. Alter referenced archival photos to glimpse what was buried under a layer of metal added by Woolworth’s. “I wanted to peel back the cladding like unwrapping a present,” Alter recalled in a recent email. Engineer Peter Sheffield devised an iron column up the middle of the barely-holding-together structure, to which three layers of plywood were bonded on each floor. While portions of the old brick were exposed, new blue-green aluminum cladding was added.

The project experienced lengthy bureaucratic delays due to the owner’s decision to add a floor at the top for a fitness club (eventually the site of the Goodlife Fitness that vacated the building last year), which made it difficult to meet environmental load requirements. The frustration surrounding the project led Alter to change careers from architect to developer. As for how he could have handled it differently, Alter says that he “would have restored the prism glass and the whole ground plane to the way it was and figured out how to expose the iron-cast columns.” He would have treated the south section as “a real restoration,” while the north half might have been replaced with a new tower.

The Tower Records store that occupied the lower floors from 1995 to 2001 also experienced its share of frustrations. During its first Boxing Day, store managers asked Metro Toronto Police if they should open, given provincial regulations about closure that other retailers increasingly violated. “They laughed,” general manager Bob Zimmerman told Canadian Press, “and said, ‘We really can’t advise you, but you should probably take a look at your competition and do what they do.’” Tower angered Canadian publishers when they discovered the store broke federal guidelines by carrying American-distributed copies of Canadian books. Already edgy over rumours of American book chains eyeing the Canadian market, lawyers were dispatched and letters were written to the feds. Tower officials blamed a rushed store launch for the move, saying that they couldn’t find local wholesalers in time. The offending titles were pulled off the shelves and replaced with perfectly legal titles.

When Tower departed, its space was quickly snapped up by the Forzani Group, who used it as a flagship location for its Coast Mountain Sports chain. The store was later switched to Forzani’s Atmosphere banner.

Additional material from History of Toronto and County of York, Ontario Volume 1 (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1885); Remembering Woolworth’s by Karen Plunkett-Howell (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001); the March 4, 1895 and July 10, 1895 editions of the Globe; the February 1996 edition of Quill and Quire; and the March 4, 1895, February 9, 1909, February 10, 1977, January 3, 1986, September 26, 1987, and December 27, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.