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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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Globe and Mail, March 14, 1974.

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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.”

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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

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

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

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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.

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Globe and Mail, December 10, 1972.

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

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1997.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Day by Day in a Cutlass Supreme

Originally published on Torontoist on April 6, 2010.

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Source: Maclean’s, October 1972.

If your friends could see you now in a redesigned ’73 Cutlass Supreme, they’d be impressed by the new set of wheels you got to chauffeur that special person you’re trying to dazzle, even if it is the third new date you’ve gone on this week. Go on, show off your new toy in a public place where people will gawk in amazement and your date will be charmed by your taste for cultural events. Good thing you’ve ventured out at three in the morning to figure out where to ideally position the car for maximum ego gratification.

But the car and its imaginary owner aren’t the reason we’re talking about this ad. Let’s zero in on one of the posters…

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GM’s ad designers may have tried to jumble the letters to avoid copyright issues or invent a foreign-language theatrical sensation, but a sharp-eyed reader in 1972 would have been able to tell that the posters outside the Royal Alex are for the Toronto production of Godspell. After matching the poster with the program, we’ve determined the spotlighted performers below the scrambled title are, clockwise from top left, Avril Chown, Jayne Eastwood, Don Scardino (who replaced original Jesus Victor Garber, who had left to star in the film version), and Gilda Radner. The other poster includes the rest of the cast, which at this point included future SCTV stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and Martin Short. It doesn’t look as if any of the pit band, led by Paul Shaffer, are pictured.

The show’s first preview was in front of a group of two hundred clerics on May 25, 1972. The crowd was pleased with the joyful tone brought to the material, with the exception of a handful of grumbling Roman Catholic priests and nuns who refused to be identified in a Globe and Mail article. When the show opened on June 1, the Globe and Mail’s Herbert Whittaker felt the cast was energetic and high-spirited (“the energy of the performers seem almost diabolical, the frenzy of their enthusiasm unquenchable”), while the Star’s Urjo Kareda found Godspell clichéd, over-directed, and full of self-conscious actors (“there doesn’t appear to be a moment which hasn’t been minutely pre-programmed and choreographed, which leaves the exhausted-looking actors without a hope for the kind of spontaneity or improvisation which might animate and surprise”).

Shortly after this ad appeared, the production moved from the Royal Alex to the Bayview Playhouse (recently the site of a short-lived Fresh and Wild grocery store). Kareda gave Godspell another go after the move and found it more to his liking (“the actual performance is much more relaxed and ingratiating in the intimate confines of the Playhouse”). After 488 performances, the final bows were given on August 12, 1973.

Additional material from the May 26, 1972 and June 2, 1972 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 2, 1972 and September 11, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Even the Hippies…

Originally published on Torontoist on June 5, 2007.

Vintage Ad #248 - Even the Hippies Read Our Magazine

Source: Toronto Life, July 1967.

…need to know the latest bridge strategies.

Businesses rushed to latch onto hippies during the “Summer of Love” as their next target market, if only to convince squarer clientele of how their product swung with the times (and there was a lot of swinging going on within the pages of Toronto Life’s first half-decade).

The pair on the right appears to be part of a Velvet Underground-style band—he with Sterling Morrison/Andy Warhol pockmarked skin, she with Nico’s icy reserve.

The model on the left? Three possibilities:
1) A tourist from the suburbs, pulled away from her garden to make the other two look less remote and threatening.
2) A “lady who lunches” in training, hoping to eventually earn a passing reference on the monthly social calendar photo spread.
3) The only member of the trio who actually hung out in Yorkville.

As for Toronto’s hippies that summer? In August, a sit-in was held to push the city into making Yorkville Ave a pedestrian mall. Despite arrests and follow-up events (a Queen’s Park love-in and City Hall sleep-in), Yorkville was not closed to traffic. The idea of a pedestrian mall lived on, with the Yonge Street Mall experiment during the 1970s and comtemporary special event versions such as P.S. Kensington.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Source: Toronto Star, March 28, 1967.

I don’t know if the ad’s models were ever part of any band, but several years after the original post was published, I stumbled upon a Star article about opening night for the 1967 edition of the annual Spring Thaw theatrical revue. And there were the three “hippies” from the Toronto Life ad, only here they were dubbed “mods.”

Following the show at the Royal Alexander, these young hippies/mods/swingers/fashionistas/whatever-you-want-to-call-them may have joined in the opening night party at Ed’s Warehouse restaurant. Among the attendees were Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Earl Rowe and Maple Leafs star Frank Mahovlich. Among those not present were former Ontario Premier George Drew (stayed at home due to a slipped disc; his wife went) and Mayor William Dennison (at the evening’s other major arts opening, the National Ballet’s production of Swan Lake at the O’Keefe Centre).

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Source:  Toronto Star, March 28, 1967. Click on image for larger version. 

Some of the proceeds from opening night benefitted Niagara Lodge, a summer camp for psychiatric patients operated in Niagara-on-the-Lake by the Metro Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Previously used as a hospital for First World War vets suffering from TB, the aging campsite required plumbing to replace obsolete outhouses and repairs to roofs and walls.

gm 1967-04-01 spring thaw adSource: Globe and Mail, April 1, 1967. Guessing the cartoon depicts Barbara Hamilton.

Besides poking fun at the Centennial Year, the 1967 edition of Spring Thaw, My Country What’s It To You, marked the revue’s 20th year. Written by Don Harron, the show had sold out 58 of its 60 performances across the country before reaching Toronto. It took a humourous look at Canadian history from the ice age onward.

The Globe and Mail‘s Herbert Whittaker enjoyed the show:

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Source: Globe and Mail, March 28, 1967.

The Star‘s Nathan Cohen was less enthralled:

star 1967-03-29 cohen review of spring thaw Source: Toronto Star, March 29, 1967.

These reviews reflect each critic’s style: Whittaker highly supportive of Canadian work, Cohen wanting something better than the norm. My guess is that I’d probably be inclined to side with Cohen on this one, possibly because such patriotic humour isn’t my taste, probably because Harron’s humour regarding Canadiana feels antiquated these days (going by the endless copies of Charlie Farquharson books lining fundraising book sale tables and thrift shop shelves, and the one time I saw him perform at a Heritage Toronto Awards ceremony).