Vintage Toronto Ads: My Dinner with Chewbacca

Originally published on Torontoist on July 6, 2010.

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Toronto Sun, November 20, 1977.

We wonder if the phones at the Toronto Sun were overwhelmed with calls from early Star Wars zealots incensed to discover that their beloved “wild wacky Wookie” (other articles couldn’t decide how many “e”s Chewbacca’s species required) was being compared to a carpet. Goofy writing didn’t deter the ten lucky winners who weren’t devoured by actor Peter Mayhew during dinner at the CN Tower. After seeing their picture with the costume-less giant printed in the Sun, contest victors who still hadn’t had their fill of Star Wars could still catch the movie at a handful of big screens around Metro Toronto where it had settled into a long run, including the Elane (at Eglinton and Danforth), Fairview Mall, Mt. Pleasant, and the Varsity.

Mayhew took a weekend off from his day job as an orderly in England to attend the Vantastic van show and dine with the contest winners. Columnist Sylvia Train was impressed with the sheer size of the seven-foot-plus visitor while lunching with him at the Courtyard Café (“One of my hands spread out fitted easily in his palm”). Show organizers had difficulty finding a hotel bed suitable for Mayhew’s frame until they finally located one at the Bristol Place, where he was quickly besieged with autograph requests from the staff and their families. When the limousine company hired for Mayhew discovered his claim to fame, they donated their services in exchange for a set of autographed pictures. When asked if he had been approached to reprise his role in “Star Wars II,” Mayhew responded: “They have offered me the part and though I haven’t accepted as yet, I’m sure I will.”

Additional material from the December 2, 1977 edition of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Here are winners of the Sun‘s contest to have dinner with a wookiee, as presented in the December 2, 1977 edition of TO’s daily tabloid.

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From the same edition, columnist Sylvia Train compares her size to Mayhew’s. As she succinctly put it, he was “really big.” Special note was note was made that “though he is large he’s perfectly proportioned,” so that readers wouldn’t worry about the man suffering from any size-related physical deformities (who wanted to talk acromegaly or other disorders in a fluffy entertainment column?).

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Connecting Canadians and Cannibals

Originally published on Torontoist on January 19, 2010.

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Cinema Canada 13, April/May 1974.

How do you attract attention to a film-production facility deep in the heart of west Etobicoke in the mid-1970s? Follow the trend of many theatres trying to stay in business at the time—offer a hint of nudity. To ensure the right amount of Canadian content, ask the model to seductively grasp a maple leaf.

The “recent original productions” hit theatres between 1972 and 1975. Most of the titles listed are safely classified as B-movies, most with a sprinkling of international talents to bring in bookings—want to see an undersea disaster epic with Ernest Borgnine that isn’t The Poseidon Adventure or an early Tommy Lee Jones vehicle? The best known of the bunch might be Cannibal Girls, a 1973 horror-comedy that helped launch the careers of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, and Ivan Reitman.

Filmed in ten days around Richmond Hill with a twelve-thousand-dollar budget (most of which appears to have gone towards grooming Levy’s hair and moustache), Cannibal Girls turned a tidy profit after it was picked up for distribution by American International Pictures. At a horror film festival in Spain, Levy and Martin earned best actor and actress awards for their work.

Local critics were unimpressed—the headline over Clyde Gilmour’s review in the Star stated “Cannibal Girls show movies at near worst.” The veteran reviewer felt that the movie could make Canadian filmmakers proud in one respect: “Despite the fact that the Americans outnumber us ten to one, Canadians needn’t take a back seat to our southern neighbours in the manufacturing of lousy movies.” Gilmour found that director Reitman and writer Robert Sandler produced a flick that was “bumbling, tasteless and relentlessly sophomoric. The acting is terrible; the editing, chaotic; the direction so lacklustre that it doesn’t even give us a close-up of the evil parson when he makes what is clearly meant to be an electrifying entry into the story.”

As for the film’s gimmick, a chime to warn delicate audience members of gore to come, Gilmour felt “a bell at the beginning of the whole movie and a chime at the finish would have been a more sensible procedure.”

Besides brief glimpses of the future SCTV stars, watch for an appearance in the trailer by Fishka Rais (Igor from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein) as a friendly neighbourhood butcher.

Additional material from the June 11, 1973 and November 8, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.

Tales from the Tivoli Theatre

Vintage Toronto Ads: An All-Talking Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on April 21, 2009.

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Toronto Star, September 21, 1929 (left) and August 31, 1929 (right).

For Toronto moviegoers, 1929 saw major changes at many of the city’s theatres, which were busy wiring up competing sound systems as silent films gave way to the talkies. The first all-talkie film to debut in Toronto made its appearance on December 28, 1928, when a crowd gathered at the Tivoli at Richmond and Victoria streets to see a midnight screening of The Terror, a thriller presented with the sound-on-disc Vitaphone system.

By the end of summer silents were quickly on the way out, as the major studios built soundstages and converted films already in progress to talkies. The movies in today’s ads were among the early wave of sound films to hit the city. Madame X was a venerable weepie that has been filmed at least ten times since 1910. This ad captures the anguish displayed in this version by star Ruth Chatterton, who was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. She lost, as did director Lionel Barrymore.

For lighter fare, one could have headed to the Uptown to catch the Marx Brothers in a musical based on one of their Broadway hits, The Cocoanuts. The plot found Groucho managing a Florida hotel during the height of the 1920s land boom, with intermittent production numbers. His character’s name, Mr. Hammer, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Rufus T. Firefly.

Terror at the Tivoli

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on May 16, 2009.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1928 (left), January 5, 1929 (right).

Dateline: Toronto, December 28, 1928, the corner of Richmond and Victoria streets. Over a thousand people gathered at the Tivoli theatre to attend a midnight screening of the first all-talking feature to play in TorontoThe Terror. The crowd was treated to a tale of an organ-tinkling homicidal maniac preying upon guests at an English hotel, with sound provided via the Vitaphone system of giant record-like discs synchronized with the film.

The “What Press Agents Say About Coming Events” section of the following day’s Toronto Star gushed about the film:

In this sensational production not one single title appears on the screen, but every character in the play speaks every word of his and her part. This weird and wonderful picture is the most astonishing mystery play ever produced…you will be absolutely thrilled to the depths by this stirring and amazing story. But The Terror is not without comedy and one is forced to laugh between every gasp at the humorous and comical incidents.

Critics, especially those across the Atlantic, weren’t as enthusiastic. The New York Times noted that reviewers in London felt the film was “so bad that it is almost suicidal. They claim that it is monotonous, slow, dragging, fatiguing and boring.” Other reviewers felt that star May McAvoy’s voice was so squeaky that it could be classified as a sound effect.

The novelty of sound drew crowds to The Terror until it wrapped up its run at the Tivoli on January 18, 1929. The next film promoted on the theatre’s marquee was another May McAvoy flick that made movie history two years earlier: The Jazz Singer. While one can watch Al Jolson sing “Toot Toot Tootsie” on DVD, little apart from the sound disc is known to exist of The Terror.

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Tivoli Theatre, possibly mid-1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124. ID 0148.

Originally called the Allen, the theatre served as the premiere venue for its namesake chain in the city, whose other venues included what is now the Music Hall on Danforth Avenue. The theatre was purchased by Famous Players in 1923 and officially reopened as the Tivoli that November. The stadium-style theatre boasted a wide, bright screen and an orchestra led by Luigi Romanelli. Prestige pictures were the favoured fare, for which audiences had to book their seats in advance. Its wide stage allowed it to run 70mm Todd-AO films in the 1950s. The curtains were drawn for the last time in late 1964—as demolition neared the following summer, the marquee displayed one final, grammatically dubious message: “Teperman’s Tearers Strikes Again.”

Additional material from the July 28, 1965 edition of the Globe and Mail, the November 18, 1928 edition of the New York Times, and the December 29, 1928 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

This is a strong contender for being one of the shortest Historicists ever, suggesting that I was scrambling for content that week. Don’t expect this one to ever appear in any future print compilation. This piece demonstrates how the column was still evolving a few months into its run – frankly, it’s indistinguishable from later Vintage Toronto Ads columns.

Saluting Saturday Night at the Movies (and Magic Shadows) with Elwy Yost

Part One: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Originally published on Torontoist on January 2, 2008.

Vintage Ad #439: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Toronto Life, December 1985.

Nobody likes to be stranded during the holiday season due to car trouble. Whether it’s a dead battery, unexpected snowfall, or executing a 180-degree spin into the ditch alongside the 401 on the way back to the city, inclement weather and Murphy’s Law often combine to make this a busy time of the year for auto clubs like CAA. Even beloved weekend movie hosts occasionally require their assistance.

Before gaining fame as a movie host, Weston native Elwy Yost’s occupations included stage actor, high school English teacher, employee in the personnel department of A.V. Roe during the Avro Arrow controversy, and television quiz show panelist. Yost’s first film show was Passport to Adventure, a mid-1960s CBC series in which features were presented in a serialized format alongside interviews with performers. When Yost began his film-hosting duties for TVOntario in the 1970s, he utilized the serial format for Magic Shadows on weeknights, while a rich archive of interviews with filmmakers and critics provided the context for the feature presentations on Saturday Night at the Movies. The bubbling enthusiasm he displayed for films during his 25-year run on TVOntario helped inspire a generation of film geeks. For his final broadcast in 1999, Yost screened Speed, written by one of those he inspired, his son Graham.

While waiting for his vehicle to be pulled out of the snow, one wonders if Elwy and the driver discussed movies with well-framed towing sequences.

Part Two: Curtains Fall on Saturday Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2012.

When the phrase “plan that looks to future” sits atop a press release, it’s often code for cutbacks or reallocation of resources. So it is with a missive released today by TVO, which buries the axe amid plans to direct reduced provincial funding into digital children’s and current affairs programming. Not until paragraph six does the bombshell hit: Saturday Night at the Movies (SNAM), currently the longest running movie program on television, will soon load its final reel.

According to TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde, “When Saturday Night at the Movies began almost 40 years ago, it broke new ground but now entire TV networks and web services are dedicated to movies.” While this may be true, those other services lack the extensive archive of interviews TVO has built up since SNAM debuted in March 1974. Those other services offer studio-produced puff pieces and PR junket quality featurettes on movies, but they don’t reach into the mechanics of filmmaking as SNAM’s conversations do. Since the late 1990s, the series has been included in York University’s film curriculum.

Beyond fulfilling TVO’s mandate as an educational broadcaster SNAM, especially during Elwy Yost’s quarter-century run as host, turned a generation of viewers into film connoisseurs. As Torontoist’s Christopher Bird noted in his obituary for Yost last year, “He was the friendliest man on television who wasn’t Mister Rogers, because he had the best job ever: he got paid to talk about movies, and movies deserved better than cynicism and snark to someone like Elwy Yost.” His manner and the show’s excellent programming choices helped the series become the network’s highest-rated series.

To a child growing up in a pre-cable household during the 1980s, SNAM was a gateway to classic movies that weren’t regularly shown on television. Under Yost’s warm guidance, it was a place to discover films that they only knew through stills in picture books, to understand who Groucho Marx was beyond the inspiration for gag glasses, spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos, and crack the mystery of “Rosebud.”

Besides SNAM, TVO also announced that it is ending Allan Gregg in Conversationafter 18 years. While Big Ideas is being cancelled as an ongoing series, the network indicates the lectures will reappear as an occasional segment of The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The total cuts announced today will save TVO $2 million and axe up to 40 jobs. But amid the carefully vetted talk about fiscal realities and leveraging efficiencies, a little magic has been lost.

Part Three: More Than Turning On a Projector

Originally published on Torontoist on November 20, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, November 5, 1975.

Last week, we reported that TVOntario is cancelling Saturday Night at the Movies after almost 40 years on the air. Today’s ad from the show’s early days sums up the things that made it a hit: an enthusiastic host, smart programming choices, and the use of the medium as “a springboard for discussion, ideas, feelings and—education.”

Saturday Night at the Movies was prominently featured in the network’s “TVOntario opens eyes” print advertising campaign during the mid-1970s. Today’s ad gives a feel for the range of films the series was showing at that time: Hitchcock thrillers, swashbuckling adventures, and Cold War–paranoia sci-fi.

Sharing space in this ad is host Elwy Yost’s weeknight gig, Magic Shadows. To fit the half-hour slot, movies were split up, serial style, and curated by Yost in a less formal manner than the Saturday-night feature bills. The show featured an imaginative—if slightly frightening to children—animated opening sequence.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here’s a sense of what Magic Shadows was like, via a series of intros from its presentation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

TVO’s online archive includes several episodes of Talking Film, which thematically compiled Yost’s interviews (and was another series I ate up as a kid).

Combined, all of Yost’s TVO film shows, combined with the guidance of my father and devouring many library books, helped me develop an appreciation for cinema that remains today. The few times I watched the series after Yost’s retirement, it always felt like something was missing. I think it was his sense of infectious enthusiasm, mixed with a deep appreciation for film history, that made the package work.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Little Tramp Likes Spaghetti

Originally published on Torontoist on October 2, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, September 1972.

If you were a child passing through Toronto since the early 1970s, there’s a good chance you may have eaten at The Old Spaghetti Factory. Kitschy antique decor, the pots of whipped garlic butter that arrived with the loaf of bread and a family-friendly atmosphere have kept the crowds coming for nearly four decades.

The Old Spaghetti Factory opened its first location in Portland, Oregon in 1969, a period when themed sit-down restaurant chains like Shakey’s (pizza and Dixieland jazz) began to pop up across the continent. Expansion came quickly, with the first Canadian location opening a year later in Vancouver. Toronto’s branch set up shop in August 1971, behind the recently-opened St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. At this time, nostalgia seems to have been the drawing card, even if Charlie Chaplin is more representative of the then-current 1920s revival than the Victorian era.

Another growing fad was the salad bar, though it’s debatable whether it led to healthier eating habits, a wider variety of toppings beyond the traditional bowl of iceberg or flat out gluttony. One wonders what qualified as “seasonal fresh makings” back then.

As for Chaplin, 1972 saw his return to the United States for the first time since being denied re-entry to the country twenty years earlier due to McCarthyist fears about his leftist political leanings. Chaplin visited Los Angeles in April to receive a honorary Oscar, resulting in the longest ovation in Academy Awards history. In his scrapbook My Life in Pictures, Chaplin noted that “I was touched by the gesture—but there was a certain irony about it somehow.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Chaplin’s acceptance of his honorary Oscar remains one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Academy Awards. One person who wasn’t happy to see him back in town was former friend and United Artists business partner (and Toronto native) Mary Pickford. According to the Star, Pickford called Chaplin a “stinker” and refused to let him anywhere near her home at Pickfair.

From the book Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1997):

Pickford sulked. While the rest of the industry engaged in mass repentance, Mary’s streak of compassion had run dry. “He wasn’t grateful for his career,” she complained to a reporter. “It’s disgraceful that he never became a citizen.” Sinking lower: “I think they should ask his wives what they think of him.” (Chaplin married four times; of course, Pickford married almost as often.)

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Review of The Old Spaghetti Factory, Star Week, September 18, 1971. 

A stop at The Old Spaghetti Factory on childhood trips to Toronto was a given. It was the perfect place to take kids: familiar food, the novelty of pots of garlic butter, and all the cool decor. Once in awhile, I’ll eat there out of nostalgia – the food isn’t the best Italian-American you can grab in the city (though old school red sauce cuisine isn’t one of Toronto’s culinary strengths), but it makes no bones about what it is and evokes plenty of happy memories.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Your Festival of Festivals

Originally published on Torontoist on September 4, 2007.

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Source: Toronto LifeSeptember 1985.

With this year’s Toronto International Film Festival kicking into high gear, it seems appropriate to look back to the advertising for its tenth edition, back in the days when it was known as the Festival of Festivals.

Besides today’s ad, Toronto Life also featured an article on the festival, highlighting its first decade and offering a preview of that year’s fare. The “Tribute to” event was scratched for 1985, after the debacle surrounding the previous year’s salute to Warren Beatty (cost overruns due to a switch in hotels from the Sutton Place to the Four Seasons and footing the bill to jet Jack Nicholson in, plus Beatty’s decision to sit in the audience for most of the night instead of onstage with Siskel and Ebert). New features included a series of pre-festival free screenings in High Park and “Open Vault,” a series of restored silent films with live musical accompaniment.

The magazine also offered their picks and pans:

What to See: Joshua Then and Now (the opening night gala), La Historia OficialThe Devil’s PlaygroundColonel RedlKiss of the Spider WomanThe Funeral and a restored version of Way Down East.

What to Avoid: Dim Sum (“You can tell it’s authentic because people talk very slowly and never say anything very interesting”) and Mishima (“More a graduate seminar than a movie”).