Remembering Boblo

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2012.

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The band from Boblo. Photo by Abhishek Chandra.

***1/2 out of *****

A suggestion while watching Boblo: buy a can of Faygo soda from the theatre’s concession stand, preferably a tooth-rotting flavour like Redpop or Rock & Rye. Keep it handy for swaying when the band plays the nostalgia-laden jingle used in 1970s Faygo TV ads shot on the large Bob-Lo Island ferry boats, which made daily runs along the Detroit River from the Motor City to the island amusement park.

Faygo may be sticky sweet, but Boblo isn’t. Billed as “A Rock-n-Roll Concert, A Final Transmission,” Kitchenband’s live theatrical performance reflects on the fleeting nature of memory within the context of a former theme park. Like radio waves floating across the universe, memories of Bob-Lo Island may be drifting away, but—even 20 years after the last screams from the midway echoed across the water to Amherstburg, Ontario—they continue to surface.

Boblo was an amusement park that operated From 1898 to 1993 on Bois Blanc Island, a small piece of land situated between Amherstberg and Michigan, a little south of Detroit. (Before providing a summer day’s getaway for generations of families in the Detroit-Windsor region, the island saw action during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and as one of the final stops along the Underground Railway.) Over the years it boasted the typical array of roller coasters, bumper cars, midway games, and fast-food stands, along with attractions like a dance pavilion, an observation tower, and its iconic steam ferries. Since the park’s demise, part of the island has been developed into a private residential community.

The park’s fadeout is well reflected by Boblo‘s ghostly feel. Spectral figures sway in the background behind the plastic wrap circling the stage, while certain touches, like old-fashioned microphones, add to the out-of-time feeling. These elements echo the current state of the island, where the ruins of 19th-century blockhouses and park structures remain. Ghostly memories will also stir among those, like co-creators Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, who visited the park during its century of operation or who, like me, were among the generations of Amherstburg teenagers who worked at the park every summer. I can vouch for the uniforms being as bad as described.

Anchoring Boblo is its music, which mixes originals by Penner and songs, like the Faygo ad, associated with the park during its century of existence. Ranging from melancholy string-heavy songs related to tragic events in the island’s history to energetic dance tunes the audience tapped its toes to, the diverse nature of the score combines with the multimedia stage effects to simulate something like the experience of riding a roller coaster. The acting creates a similar impression, with Sophia Walker demonstrating a chameleon-like versatility, going from a girl mapping out her experiences on the island to a slightly sinister carny whose light-swinging suggests a spinning wheel from which no one will win a prize.

Like any swooping ride, Boblo dips between its peaks. The multimedia nature of the show leads to serious sensory overload, like going on a ride after eating too much. Some background choreography and special effects could have been reduced to allow more focus on the foreground action. The use of crackly radio voices alternately adds to the dream-like atmosphere and grates when the dialogue borders on unintelligible.

A production about a bygone era is appropriate for The Theatre Centre’s final presentation in its home at the Great Hall. Following Boblo, the organization is moving into a “pop-up” location a few doors west, then into its first permanent home at 1115 Queen Street West.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

This may have been the only time I worked my hometown into a Torontoist piece (though articles about Ann Arbor and Detroit came close).

A month after writing this review, I visited Boblo Island for the first time since the park closed down two decades earlier. Here are some pictures from that trip – for the full set, check out this Flickr album.

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One of the first sites when you come off the current ferry is this monument. The following plaque was placed on it in 1948:

DEDICATED TO 134 YEARS OF AMERICAN-CANADIAN FRIENDSHIP

ACROSS FORTY FIVE HUNDRED MILES OF UNFORTIFIED BORDER, PROTECTED ONLY BY THE MUTUAL RESPECT AND UNDERSTANDING ONE NATION HOLDS FOR THE OTHER

COMMEMORATING THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOB-LO EXCURSION COMPANY AND THE FIFTY YEARS OF CANADIAN-AMERICAN USE OF BOB-LO ISLAND AS AN INTERNATIONAL RECREATIONAL AREA

A second plaque notes the monument was “erected as a tribute to the sailors of the Great Lakes.”

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Opened in 1913, the Dance Pavilion was commissioned by Henry Ford and designed by architect Albert Kahn, whose work shaped the look of Detroit during the automotive boom era.

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Snow covering the former bumper car area. As of December 2012, one could still see traces of this ride, along with the antique cars track and mini golf course.

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The base of the observation tower.

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A ghost of the antique car ride track.

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One of the surviving blockhouses built in 1839 following the Mackenzie rebellions. On the day I visited, restoration work was underway, and I was given a mini-tour.

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The blockhouses and this lighthouse form the Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse and Blockhouse National Historic Site of Canada.

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The old ferry dock. The left side serviced the giant steam ferries from Detroit until the end of the 1991 season. For the amusement park’s last two seasons, visitors had to arrive from Amherstburg or Gibraltar, Michigan (one of Detroit’s far southern suburbs).

Toronto Illustrated ’57

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on December 11, 2010.

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Toronto from Lake Front.

Toronto, “The Queen City,” has many attractions for its citizens as well as for the thousands of tourists and others who visit it each year. It occupies a fine site by the shores of Lake Ontario, has beautiful residential areas and public parks, many handsome financial and industrial buildings, a good transportation system and a wide range of high-class retail stores, equal to the best found anywhere. It has an abundant supply of cheap hydro-electric power and natural gas and a large airport with worldwide connections. It is also a centre of cultural life with its churches, University, colleges, museum, art gallery, Conservatory of Music and technical schools. Its social service organizations receive generous support of the citizens each year.

With those words, editor James Cowan introduced the 1957 edition of Toronto Illustrated, an annual guide for visiting businesspeople and tourists. Following greetings from Metropolitan Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner and Mayor Nathan Phillips, the guide provides a heavily illustrated selection of noteworthy events and sites around town.

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The cover features a northward view along University Avenue, with Richmond Street along the bottom.

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Pre-9/11, the United States Consulate on University Avenue seems bare without its concrete barriers and security precautions.

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Continuing north, the newest attraction at the Royal Ontario Museum was a presentation of the story of creation in the geology gallery (seen above on the right; the Ming Tomb is on the left). Access was far more affordable than now: free, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when it cost a quarter to get in.

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The lone map in the guide points out the locations of local attractions and landmarks, including many that have faded into history. Given special attention is the three-year-old subway line, which is described as “the world’s newest and most modern.”

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Break time! Care for shopping and entertainment along Yonge Street near Dundas Street? For those looking for modern touchstones, the Imperial is now the Ed Mirvish Theatre, while the southwest corner of Yonge-Dundas Square occupies the site of the Downtown.

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A view of the western harbour, featuring sites still around (the Tip Top factory, the Island airport) and long demolished (Maple Leaf Stadium). Absent, but not for much longer, is the Gardiner Expressway: the section between the Humber and Jameson Avenue opened the following year and was extended to York Street by 1962.

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Quick, name the first ongoing Shakespearian festival in Canada. Stratford? Nope. Try the yearly selections of the Bard’s works staged outdoors on the grounds of Trinity College, presented by Earle Grey and his wife Mary Godwin. Actor/director/producer Grey staged his first production (Twelfth Night) at what is now the north end of the quadrangle at Trinity in 1946. The festival officially began three years later and featured a mix of experienced British actors and rising local talent—among the Grey company’s alumni were Timothy Findley, Lorne Greene, Don Harron, and William Hutt. The magazine notes that “it is a joyous and unforgettable experience to pass an evening watching one of these great plays being performed under a starlit sky, while a sly moon peeps over tower or turret.” Grey’s slate for 1957 included The Tempest (whose opening night was marred by rain and faulty lighting in the backup venue), The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.

Despite the higher prestige of the Stratford Festival, Grey’s festival appeared to have a promising future. The following year, funding was secured via grants from the city, province, Canada Council, and the Atkinson Foundation, and a new three-level stage was constructed on the west side of the quad. The promise of productions to come didn’t last long—following the death of Trinity College rector and longtime supporter R.S.K. Seeley, his successor declined further use of the site for productions. After an unsuccessful search for a new site, Grey and Godwin returned to their native England.

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Also spotlighted was the new home of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind on Bayview Avenue. The site’s mix of libraries, offices, and residences had been officially opened by Governor-General Vincent Massey the preceding April. Tenants of the Clarkewood residence were relieved to have private bedrooms after having lived in dorms in the CNIB’s former residence on Sherbourne Street. Among the amenities was a ‘Garden of Fragrance” that included metal Braille plates to identify the flora in the flower beds. The new facilities were judged to be “a fine tribute to the noble cause which they represent.”

After brief surveys of the city’s past and present, the editorial staff looked ahead to Toronto’s future:

At no former period in its history has Toronto witnessed such rapid development as at present. The central area is undergoing great changes, old office buildings are giving place to large modern structures, commercial buildings are moving out to the suburbs or are undergoing “face lifting”; family residences, with their lovely gardens, places of gracious living in Victorian days, are being replaced by apartment blocks of strange design—the city is changing with the times. Other developments planned include the following: the creation of a large civic square, adjacent to the present city hall, to be flanked with a large modern civic building, court house and other public buildings; an up-to-date civic auditorium at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets; completion of the Regent Park Housing development providing 1,289 units of modern sanitary housing; the extension of Eglinton Avenue East to connect with Scarboro Township; an extension of the present subway on the line of Bloor Street; an expressway across the southern part of the city near the lake front; diagonal highways to connect with the north-eastern and north-western areas of the city…in addition, the opening up of the St. Lawrence Seaway to permit the entrance of ocean-going ships to the upper lakes will greatly increase shipping and call for the enlargement of the Port of Toronto.

Additional material from the Summer 2005 edition of Trinity Magazine and the February 21, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star. All illustrations derived from Toronto Illustrated.

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.

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.