Vintage Toronto Ads: The 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival

Originally published on Torontoist on June 30, 2015.

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eye, June 17, 1999.

Three months before the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival opened, new artistic director Chuck McEwen received an unpleasant surprise: a call from the owner of the building where the festival’s offices were located indicating the summer event had to find a new home. “That was an unexpected and high-pressure situation,” McEwen told the Star. “We had such a small amount of time to actually find a space and then move. And it’s difficult finding office space in the Annex area that fits our current budget. So it was tense.”

Quarters were found at Bloor and Spadina, and the festival rolled on. Over 11 days, 93 shows were presented. The best known, The Drowsy Chaperone, was promoted as coming from “the co-creators of Honest Ed! The Bargain Musical.” Having evolved from a stag party, the show earned kudos during its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,” noted Now reviewer Glenn Sumi. “Well, OK, you won’t cry. But you won’t want to leave either.” The Star’s Robert Crew accurately predicted that, with a little reworking, “the potential is enormous and it will be back.” The show eventually won five Tonys for its Broadway run in 2006-2007.

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1999 Toronto Fringe Festival program.

At least one other show had an extended afterlife. Chris Earle’s one-man show Radio: 30, about an ad voice-over artist, received universal praise. “Radio: 30 questions our gullibility and willingness to believe what we hear,” eye’s Kamal al-Solaylee wrote, “or at least what we want to hear. It constructs parallels between acting and advertising…with humour and brutal honesty.” The show returned for the festival’s 25th anniversary in 2013.

As with any Fringe fest, some titles were more interesting than others. We’ll let your imagination figure out the plots of Haroon’s Dinner Theatre of Cruelty Presents Ethyl X in “London Bridge” (A Story of Sex)The Tale of Baldrick the Sausage & Other StoriesThe Fabulous Smokey Topaz Multimedia Extravaganza, and Wanda’s Visit and Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room.

There were also those unfortunate productions which caused critics to hold their noses. For example, Now gave its lowest rating—one N—to three shows: Afterwards You Smoke (“you’ll want them to stand up, shut their mouths and quickly leave”); Broken (“a bathetic, broken record”); and The Dead Monkey (“an overextended, unfunny sketch that veers sharply into unbelievable melodrama”).

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1999 Toronto Fringe Festival program.

Keeners may count how many of the eateries listed in the ad above still feed Fringe attendees. It’s interesting to note the last gasp of Bloor’s days as an outpost for Hungarian food—within a few years, Country Style was the only survivor.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: The Living Rooster Orchestra of the 1890s

Originally published on Torontoist on March 18, 2015.

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Toronto World, February 12, 1891.

When it opened in 1890, Robinson’s Musee Theatre declared itself the “leading family theatre in the city” and “Canada’s great, best, and only amusement enterprise.” Beyond the hyperbole, the Yonge Street venue took a formula popularized by Barnum’s American Museum in New York City decades earlier: part theatre, part zoo, part freak show, and part exploiter of indigenous cultures.

Take the lineup advertised in December 1890. You can hear the carnival barker’s voice at work, promising all sorts of exotic sights to lure in the rubes…er…proper Torontonians:

Barney Baldwin, the only man living with a broken neck; the scientists and physicians puzzled. Gurnam Rose, the Midget Queen. Prairie Dog Village. A Whole Troup of Japanese Wonder Workers. [Reginald] Birchall, as he appeared before and after the execution. Clad in the original suit of clothes as at the time of the murder. The wax figures are true, life-like reproductions, and made from plaster casts exclusively for Mr. Robinson. The Aztec Mummies, relics of an ancient race 3,000 years old. Hungarian Gypsy Band. 10 Masterly Musicians. 10. Prof. Singleton’s Marionettes and Punch and Judy Show. Wax Groups. Mechanical Devices. 1,000 of other Curiosities. 1,000. In the Theatre—FRANK HALL’S ALL-STAR SPECIALTY and COMEDY CO. New attractions every week.

We’re not sure what the “prairie dog village” entailed, but it’s likely animal lovers and protection officials would frown upon the routines today. There were a lot of dubious animal acts at the Musee under its various ownerships, including boxing cats and the rooster orchestra.

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Pittsburgh Press, January 18, 1891.

The musical roosters visited Toronto throughout 1891. They played engagements at the Musee in February and June, then appeared alongside duelling cats and trained seals at the Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner of the CNE) that September. Ads and press releases in Toronto newspapers revealed little about the roosters, other than that, as the Globe observed, they were “gazed upon with astonishment by all who visit the Musee.” An ad from an earlier stop in Pittsburgh tells more: they were dressed in evening wear, played stringed instruments, and were “worth” $75,000.

What was the ideal human pairing on a bill with a rooster orchestra? During their June engagement, the lecture hall displayed “The Lucassairs,” an albino father-and-son duo described as “an odd-looking family from the far-off islands of the Indian Ocean.”

Eventually some locales tired of roosters forced to play music. In 1921, the Star reported that showman John C. Essex was fined for presenting “The Great Sousa Rooster Orchestra” in Blackpool, England. Essex’s act included a bird named “Sandy McPherson” who was forced to do a Highland fling. When Essex tried to force the reluctant bird to perform in court, neither judge nor the magistrates on hand wanted to witness further cruelty.

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The Mail, June 6, 1891.

Robinson’s Musee operated under various names during the 1890s, but it was under that moniker that it offered Toronto’s first public display of motion pictures in 1896. No roosters attended.

Additional material from the June 11, 1891 and September 9, 1891 editions of theGlobe; the December 2, 1890 edition of the Mail; the January 18, 1891 edition of the Pittsburgh Press; and the July 2, 1921 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Come See the Cat Circus!

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2012.

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The News, January 27, 1894.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE! Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages! Today, we have for you the most incredible, the most astonishing, the most breathtaking, and the most amusing sight you have seen all day! Moore’s Musee, in association with Torontoist, is proud to present the world’s greatest novelty sensation of 1894! On today’s bill of 12, count ‘em, 12 sterling speciality stars, you won’t believe your eyes when you set them on Professor Harry Welton’s collection of charismatic, pugilistic, death-defying felines!

May we present to you…Professor Welton’s Cat Circus!

While boxing cats, complete with miniature gloves, was the star attraction of the cat circus, it also offered felines trained to perform somersaults, ride bicycles, and walk through burning rings of fire. None of these talents would likely earn the approval of animal cruelty prevention agencies today.

Within months of its appearance on the stage of Yonge Street’s finest novelty-act theatre, Harry Welton’s cat circus took its act to the world’s first movie studio, Thomas Edison’s “Black Maria” in West Orange, New Jersey. In July 1894, W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise shot a short film of the boxing portion of Welton’s show, which was touring vaudeville theatres in the New York City area that summer. The result, Boxing Cats, was only one of a number of animal-centric films the Edison Company turned out for its Kinetoscope machines. Compared to the cockfights that the studio also filmed, a pair of boxing cats was far less violent. If title cards had been used, the film would have been the 19th century equivalent of lolcats.

Welton was one of the first people to benefit from the new medium, as his live bookings increased after the release of Boxing Cats. We’re sure people were endlessly amused.

 

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 9

Let’s Have a Sherry Before Dinner!

Originally published on Torontoist on July 10, 2012.

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Liberty, October 1955.

As with many cookbooks from the 1950s, print quality and the passage of time have not done wonders to the appetizing qualities of these special oven-roasted meals meant to be enjoyed with a cheap Canadian sherry. That this fine beverage’s economic benefits are touted as much as its palate-pleasing qualities tends to reinforce the poor image the Canadian wine industry enjoyed among serious oenophiles at the time.

We weren’t able to find much about the Canadian Wine Institute apart from its evolution into the Canadian Vintners Association. We do know that they offered a free home delivery service during the 1950s—newspaper ads published throughout the decade offered prompt service if you ordered three or more bottles over the phone from the nearest wine store. The organization also offered cooking guides rich in suggestions for using sherry in ways other than pickling yourself.

How to Solve a Prop Emergency

Originally published on Torontoist on July 18, 2012.

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The Performing Arts in Canada, Volume 6, Number 1, 1968.

In the midst of a busy summer theatre season, a missing prop can strike terror in the heart of any performance troupe. Sure, skilled actors can improvise around an absent item so well that an audience would never notice its absence, but given all the time devoted to maximizing a prop’s symbolic value during rehearsals, wouldn’t you want a replacement or close approximation? Have no fear—the polymer industry has come to your rescue!

Whether it’s Yorick’s skull or a hand-crafted Godzilla statue that the unfortunate fellow depicted in today’s ad can’t find, a quick run to Toronto’s venerable Malabar costume house to pick up some Polysar XB-407 might have solved his problem. Not that it would do a perfect job of replicating everything—we doubt it would have recaptured the texture of Aunt Ruthie’s old scarf that was borrowed for the production, never mind placating Aunt Ruthie once she discovered the neckwear she’d worn since her flapper days was nowhere to be found.

Who is Canada’s Most Quoted Newspaper?

Originally published on Torontoist on September 11, 2012.

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The Telegram, August 4, 1962.

In the three-way battle for Toronto’s daily newspaper readers during the early 1960s, any minor advantage turned into a selling point. For the Telegram, digging up stats on how often it was quoted proved a matter of pride, especially when compared to its ideological opposite, the Star. The Telegram’s quote tally may have been aided its growing roster of editorial columnists—some of whom, like Douglas Fisher and Lubor Zink, would be associated with the paper and its stepchild, the Sun, for decades.

Not that being quotable helped the top two papers on this list. We ask you to observe a moment of silence for the Telegram (died 1971), the Ottawa Journal (died 1980), and the Montreal Star (died 1979).

Watch Your Feet!

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2012.

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Toronto Star, November 21, 1930.

It was one of silent cinema’s most iconic images: comedian Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face in 1923’s Safety Last. Seven years later, talkies had arrived and Lloyd attempted to recapture the excitement of that scene in an extended sequence, complete with period slow-talking racial stereotypes, for his second sound feature, Feet First.

The film made its Toronto debut during a late evening showing at the Uptown. The Star noted that the theatre “echoed to laughter” for over two hours, primarily over Lloyd’s antics. As for the rest of the night’s fare, the paper was succinct: “The remainder of the bill is good.”

Additional material from the November 22, 1930 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Startling Young Sampson

Originally published on Torontoist on December 7, 2010.

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The Mail, October 31, 1891.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! For just ten cents, that’s ten cents, not fifteen or twenty-five, you will be amazed by the acts we have scoured the world for! See the classiest of curiosities! Heights of human endurance! Strongmen, singers, clowns, warriors…you want entertainment, we’ve got entertainment! Step right up…

For the sheer variety of acts, few venues in town could top the Musee theatre. From its opening as Robinson’s Musee in late 1890, the combination of theatre, lecture hall, and dime museum at 91 and 93 Yonge Street offered up a rotating roster of sideshow and vaudeville acts.

For today’s batch of “startling novelties,” the Mail offered a preview designed to draw in the curious (even if by modern standards several of the presentations were, to put it mildly, exploitative):

To see all that is to be seen, one must go to the Musee to see the many features presented by Manager Moore for his patrons. Sampson, a man billed as the strongest man on earth, will appear, displaying his herculean strength by breaking solid bars of iron, snapping in twain welded chains, and other feats that will astonish his audience. A band of Hottentots brought to this country recently by Dr. Stone, the missionary, will enlighten people as to their native customs. Zamossa [sic] the Zulu, who participated in the late Zulu war, will also be present.

Comparing the drawing used in this ad with other 19th century strongman posters, the “Modern Hercules” in question was likely Charles Sampson. Many of his claims about his abilities were highly suspect, including a boast that he acquired his talent for bending iron after being struck by lightning as a teenager in France. He often rigged his performances by using tactics such as emptying backstage the sand or lead that filled his barbell, while his manager dramatically outlined to the crowd the “feat” they were about to see. His “feats” faltered in the face of less shady early bodybuilders, such as the time he was humiliated in a strength contest with Eugen Sandow in London in 1889. While Sampson was exposed as a fraud in front of audiences whenever the rigged methods he used to perform tasks like lifting an elephant with a harness flopped, he remained a popular vaudeville attraction during the 1890s.

The few reports about Sampson’s 1891 visit to Toronto in the local press give no hint of anything amiss. The Mail noted that the audience provided plenty of applause for his “clever exhibitions of strength” and that the week’s program of acts was “without doubt the finest show that has been given at this house this season.”

The Musee passed through several owners during its existence. During the summer of 1891, original proprietor Marion Robinson passed the premises to James Moore, who promptly renovated the facilities. After changing hands at least one more time, Robinson reassumed control in 1896. He offered one piece of programming starting that August which merited the plaque found on the office building currently occupying the site: the first presentation of projected motion pictures in Toronto.

Additional material from the November 2, 1891, November 3, 1891, and November 4, 1891 editions of the Mail.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Stealing a Kiss

Originally published on Torontoist on June 29, 2010.

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The News, October 12, 1918.

As a holiday matinee, a light musical about stolen kisses sounds more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than Thanksgiving. How well a production about a turkey bandit might have done at the Royal Alex near the end of World War I is debatable—would a dashing young man dressed as holiday fowl leer over the stunned damsel in an advertisement similar to this one?

The Kiss Burglar debuted on Broadway on May 9, 1918 and ran for one hundred performances before hitting the road. The story concerned an American staying in Trieste who, while fleeing a gambler, winds up in the boudoir of a local princess. She thinks he’s a thief, but all he steals is a kiss. The princess soon flees to the US due to the war and runs into the young man again. He steals another kiss, they realize they’re in love, and live happily ever after.

Local newspaper previews of the day tended to be regurgitated publicist copy, but there are subtle hints dotted throughout a piece that ran in the News on October 12, 1918 which indicate that the writer determined they had a piece of fluff on their hands. The show is described as having “a light theme—very light—an exquisite love story.” Playwright Glen MacDonough “has tried to get away from all viewpoint[s] and instill more idealism into his little romance,” while composer Raymond Hubbell had “more successes to his credit than any American composer” despite no mention of his other hits (we suspect only the Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone might be aware of his work today). The review printed three days later was lukewarm toward star Patricia O’Hearn (described as having a “dainty figure” but a weak voice) and concluded that “the play, while diverting, does not rank among the best of the season” (which, given critical standards in Toronto papers at the time, indicates it was a true stinker). The World displayed next to no criticism in its review, as it praised O’Hearn for her ability to handle the “new jazz steps that made a fascinating appeal” during a dance number.

The reputation of The Kiss Burglar has not improved over time. A historical survey of American musical theatre published a decade ago noted that “Glen MacDonough’s book and Raymond Hubbell’s music were never much more than competent.”

Additional material from American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (third edition) by Gerald Martin Boardman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), the October 12, 1918 and October 15, 1918 editions of the News, and the October 15, 1918 edition of the Toronto World.

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.