Vintage Toronto Ads: Enjoy the Light Show, Leave the “T-Shirt” at Home

Originally published on Torontoist on February 1, 2007.

Source: Toronto Life, November 1985

Judging from today’s ad, a blinded-by-the-light good time was to be had on the east end of the Danforth in the mid-1980s, as long as you weren’t wearing a “t-shirt”. The quotations around this standard piece of North American apparel makes one wonder how quickly a potential patron would have been tossed for this fashion faux-pas, or if dressier types of non-button-down apparel were OK.

The 1950s sci-fi movie light poles look as if they could have emitted death rays in case the yuppie crowd grew uncontrollable, or as a method of mind control to convince patrons to move to bar #4 after several drinks at bar #2.

2714 Danforth had a long history as an entertainment venue, beginning with its original incarnation as the Grover Theatre. Named after the local phone exchange, the Grover operated as a neighbourhood cinema from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. After its Spectrum period, it was the Thunder Nightclub, complete with appropriately cheesy sign.

By 2001, Thunder’s days were numbered, with two suspicious fires breaking out before the city provided funds to the Dixon Hall social agency to run the site as a homeless shelter. While there was some community opposition, the site was reopened as Heyworth House. Jeans, “t-shirts” and running shoes were more than welcome.

A case of a building repaying society for its past excesses?

Vintage Toronto Ads: Great Depression Hospitality

Originally published on Torontoist on January 23, 2007.

Vintage Ad #133 - King Edward Hotel 1934

Source: Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934

TO. Hogtown. The Queen City of Canada. The Centre of the Universe. Centennial City. All names applied to Toronto over the years.

Centennial city?

That was the nickname tossed around when Toronto celebrated its 100th birthday in 1934. To commemorate the event, a Centennial Committee was put together by city council, whose lasting work was Jesse Edgar Middleton’s book Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934. The book includes a variety of sketches of the city’s first century, as well as a program from a “service of thanksgiving and prayer” (and Wagner and Rachmaninoff) held on March 5th to mark the anniversary. Among the sub-committees formed for the celebration: permanent memorial, song judging (which included poet E.J. Pratt), drill corps display and stamp exhibition.

The last 60 pages of the book feature ads from leading institutions and businesses of the city. One of those still surviving is the King Edward Hotel, recently displaced as the city’s most fashionable place to stay by the newly-built Royal York. Opened in 1903, the King Edward was built on the former site of the Golden Lion department store. The hotel was designed by architect E. J. Lennox, who also worked on Old City Hall, Casa Loma and the Massey Mausoleum in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The original eight floors were joined by an 18-storey addition on the east side of the hotel in 1921.

In 1932, the hotel entered receivership, which probably accounts for the rates “keeping with the times” at the height of the Great Depression. Using the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, based on the Consumer Price Index, shows that the starting rates for those rooms would be $45-120, or your average roadside chain hotel today. The 50 cent breakfast? $7.50.

Note all the elements designed to lure a posh crowd, even as they began to recover from financial ruin. A floor just for the ladies! Not just any run-of-the-mill French chef, but one honoured by the French government! Not just a house band, but “an internationally famous 15-piece orchestra”! The latter claim had some merit – Luigi Romanelli, who led the hotel’s house band from 1923 until his death in 1942, made radio appearances with his Monarchs of Melody on CBC and NBC.

Weak management and competition from newer hotels downtown led to proposals to raze the building in the mid-1970s. Instead, much of the hotel was restored by the early 1980s, though the Crystal Ballroom on the upper levels remains in ruins, used to teach fly fishing.

UPDATE (June 2017): The Crystal Ballroom eventually underwent renovation, reopening for public use in April 2017.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Great Art Has No Price…Or It Didn’t In 1972

Originally published on Torontoist on January 12, 2007. This was the first post I wrote for the site.

There are many ways to chart a city’s history. One can dig into the city archives, flip through photographs or listen to its citizens tell their stories about its daily life. The evolution of a city can also be traced through a vehicle that drives people crazy when it originally appears, but forms a valuable record when seen with distance: advertising.

Old ads are a valuable tool in looking at elements such as neighbourhood socio-economic changes and passing trends. Absurd concepts, outdated ideas and presentation often bring laughs, but if you’re not careful, you might learn something about past prejudices and wrong turns made in local development.

Vintage Ad #84 - Great Art has no Price, Give Us A Building!
Source: Toronto Life, February 1972

Often, trolling through old ads reveals parallels with current activities in Toronto. Exhibit A: the expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Frank Gehry-designed remodeling that is the most obvious sign of Transformation AGO is not the first time the gallery has undergone a major redesign. Back in 1972, the AGO geared up for its first expansion in nearly 40 years. The gallery made a record number of acquisitions in the late 1960s, culminating in a large donation of work by Henry Moore. As Ken Thomson’s donations helped spur the current construction, the volume of acquired work meant that new space was needed quickly to display a fraction of these pieces.

Plans developed in 1968 envisioned the expansion of the AGO in three stages. This ad spotlights Stage I, where the beautiful things done with donor money included the Zacks Wing and the Henry Moore Sculpture Court.

Note the percentage of the project paid for by the Ontario government. For Stage I, the province kicked in two-thirds of the $18 million cost. When the province announced its portion for Transformation AGO in 2002, it kicked in less than a tenth of the current $254 million fundraising goal.

The Stage I campaign soon reached its goal, as construction began shortly after this ad appeared. Stage I was opened to the public in 1974, with Stage II (the Canadian historical galleries) following in 1977. Economic problems delayed the completion of Stage III (the Tanenbaum Atrium) until 1993 – ironically the section now being torn away for the Gehry addition.

So much for those coupons.


The following notes on the genesis of the “Vintage Toronto Ads” column were taken from its fifth anniversary edition, originally published on January 13, 2012.

In the beginning, there was a box of back issues of Sports Illustrated in my Mom’s shed.

As a kid, I loved flipping through SI when it arrived in the mail. The articles didn’t always grab my attention, but the ads did. When the time came to clear out two decades’ worth of magazines, I clipped the ads for future use on my blog. Once I started writing about them, I found myself scouring bins at bookstores and thrift shops for magazines yielding treasure galore.

When Torontoist posted a submission call around Christmas 2006, I figured a Toronto-centric version of the ad posts might fit the site. There was plenty of initial material to choose from: a resident on my street had recently left two boxes of 1970s issues of Maclean’s and Saturday Night by the curb, while a research trip to Guelph had unearthed unbound copies of the first decade of Toronto Life that I had photocopied. The editors gave the green light and the rest is history.

As I pointed out in my first column, advertising provides a valuable view of the time it was created. You can follow the development of Toronto through ads for homes and businesses, or discover what fashion sense people did or didn’t possess. The impacts of wars and other world events on Toronto are revealed, as are period prejudices and social concerns. The rise and fall of local landmarks and political careers can be traced. Sometimes ads are the only information remaining about a long-lost business, failed development, or quack cure-all. These ads have also provided a flexible vehicle for writing everything from short historical sketches to fictional tales built around an ad man’s earnest pitch.

While the column has featured many bizarre ads, the craziest was created by perennial 1950s fringe political candidate George Rolland, a man unfamiliar with the concept of modesty. It requires immense ego or extreme self-delusion to declare to voters that you are “the Greatest Canadian of All Times.” Researching Rolland cast a darker light on the ad when I discovered his racist views, along with tales of his carrying athletic medals everywhere and making claims that he was the only musical composer who mattered over the past 500 years.