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.

A Poor Crop of Hearts

Originally published on Torontoist on July 28, 2010.

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Left: Stuart Whitman and Sandy Dennis wander through the Ontario Science Centre. Don Mills Mirror, November 11, 1970. Right: poster for The Heart Farm.

Imagine you’re a movie producer in 1970 searching for a location in Toronto to shoot a thriller about organ transplants. The script calls for a semi-futuristic scientific complex. Your problem is solved quickly thanks to the recently opened Ontario Science Centre. Within its walls you shoot a film that you hope will impress viewers of ABC’s Movie of the Week and theatregoers in Canada.

Despite having two Oscar winners (Sandy Dennis and Burl Ives) in its cast and a budget twice that normally allocated to TV movies, The Heart Farm went into cardiac arrest after encountering local film critics. The plot: a millionaire (Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin RoofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) establishes Science City (guess where!), a research centre where all of the experts just happen to have the same blood type as he does. Seems our benefactor has a bum ticker and figures he’s good for only one more heart attack. A researcher (Stuart Whitman, The ComancherosNight of the Lepus) is the lucky donor of a new heart…whether he likes it or not. Dr. Whitman falls in love with a blood specialist (Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Out of Towners), and both figure out what’s really happening. The film turns into a James Bond-esque ski chase through the Rockies as agents working for Ives attempt to secure his key to immortality.

Interior sequences were mostly shot in Toronto during May and June 1970. When the Star interviewed Dennis (who had visited Kleinburg, Ontario several years earlier to shoot the controversial drama The Fox), the paper seemed more obsessed with her odd fashion sense than her acting talent. Clad in a beige turtleneck poncho, “she looked more like some fey wayward waif straight off Yorkville than your genuine 33-year-old, Oscar-award-winning star.” Apart from a reference to his toupee, the Star was gentler to Ives, even if it allowed him to admit that things might not have been going so well at a Yorkville soundstage. “I was skating on thin ice yesterday,” he told the paper. “Couldn’t remember my lines. It doesn’t roll yet. Not like Tennessee Williams does…But it will, it will. [stage whisper] After I rewrite it.” Producer Terry Dene was happy with the assistance he received from the Science Centre after awkward scheduling elsewhere. “They bent over backward to help us,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We screened our rushes in their film theatre, and late at night they’d even crank up the laser beam when we needed it for a shot.”

All involved could have used lasers and other advanced technology for personal protection after their masterpiece was unveiled. The first local review appeared in the November 11 edition of the Don Mills Mirror. Writer Kirk Brown was impressed with the Science Centre’s potential as a film set, but that was as far as his enthusiasm extended. He felt the film “abuses the Centre by depending on its futuristic design to set an atmosphere for a bad story and all too familiar plot… The actors have as much impression as a smudge of chocolate ice cream left by a scoop on a vanilla serving.” Especially unsatisfying was the romance between Dennis and Whitman, whose love scenes were “pathetically clumsy.”

But the critical knives were only beginning to sharpen…

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1970.

Outside of a showing at the Science Centre, the film ran briefly at the Yonge cinema downtown. The fleeting run was too long for the Star’s Urjo Kareda, whose review was merciless from the get-go:

Well, we’ve touched bottom now: The Heart Farm is the first out-and-out Canadian-made bomb, a movie beyond redemption…In a way, you can only bring yourself to believe in the existence of movies like The Heart Farm if you imagine them being thought up in the dim hours of the morning and somehow filmed in those couple of hours before the sunrise cleared everybody’s head.

Nobody involved in the hapless film escaped Kareda’s scorn, whether it was the stars (“Anyone who’d let the twitchy Miss Dennis play around with their corpuscles is beyond help”), the skiing sequences (“touchingly, the film has substituted lyrical scenes of downhill skiing for scenes of actual passion between the two”), or the misuse of the Science Centre (“photographed to look like a particularly unconvincing cardboard set”). Even Dolores Claman, composer of Canada’s other national anthem, was fingered for a score that resulted in “awful, signalling music” which left “no crudity unturned.”

As far as we can tell, The Heart Farm (which was also known as The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever) has never been released on video and hasn’t surfaced online. So much for its quest for immortality.

Additional material from the June 6, 1970 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 30, 1970; June 13, 1970; and November 23, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star.

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.