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In today’s edition we reminisce about Honest Ed Mirvish who would be celebrating his 106th birthday this week. Our very own Franca Longobardi, who currently works in the marketing department at Mirvish Productions, spent 39 years working at Honest Ed’s and brings us a uniquely wonderful perspective on the famous celebrations Ed held for his birthday each year.
Ed’s first foray into the theatre business came with his purchase of the Royal Alexandra Theatre; the 113-year-old building is the oldest Mirvish-owned theatre. With its long history comes a storied past rife with mystery, intrigue, and of course ghosts. With this, we have our 2nd instalment of the Ghosts of the Royal Alex story. If you missed the first instalment, get up to speed by reading it here or listening to it now wherever you get your podcasts!
All this plus a great new music-focused episode of Check In From Away, our Les Misérables contest winners, and more!
Read by David Mucci / Length: 18 minutes
In Chapter Two of the Ghosts of the Royal Alex serialized story, Herbie, the theatre manager, must decide whether to enter dressing room 13, enticed there by the pitiful voice of a woman who identifies herself as Yvette. What he finds when he unlocks the door will lead him into an odyssey of self-discovery and challenge his lack of belief in the spiritual world. Listen to the chapter as a podcast or read it here. Chapter One is also available, if you are just joining the story.
For the second song in Ron Jacobson’s Ghosts of the Royal Alex song cycle, we are delighted to announce that Broadway star Jim Walton is both singing and accompanying himself on the piano. Jim filmed the music video of the song in a Manhattan apartment and on its roof, with a view of the city in the background.
The second song is entitled Poetry Feet and is about Oscar O’Hare, a phenomenal dancer whose incredible talent led to hubris. He dared to go into unknown and dangerous dance moves which resulted in his tragic death. He now haunts the Royal Alex.
Jim Walton’s career began auspiciously. He was plucked from thousands of young performers to be one of the leads in Stephen Sondheim’s now-legendary Merrily We Roll Along. He was 26 when the show had its world premiere on Broadway in 1981. Sadly it closed after 16 performances. But its original cast recording gained cult status, generating legions of fans. Numerous revivals have subsequently been produced around the world. (A major film adaptation is in production by director Richard Linklater.) Jim’s beautiful vocal work on the cast recording lives on and is now part of theatre history.
Subsequently, Jim starred in 42nd Street, Sweeney Todd, Closer Than Ever, And the World Goes 'Round, The Fix, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Company and many more shows on Broadway and beyond. In Toronto he starred as Bobby in the Canadian premiere production of Crazy For You at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
He joined the cast of Come From Away on Broadway in 2018. When the show was shut down due to the pandemic he was playing Nick, the British businessman who meets and falls in love with his future wife in Gander, a role he will return to once the theatres reopen.
This July 24th would have been Ed Mirvish’s 106th birthday. He passed away in 2007. Honest Ed, as he was affectionately known, founded Honest Ed’s “World Famous Bargain Shopping Centre” at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets in 1948. At the end of 2016 Honest Ed’s closed after 68 years in business when the property was sold to make room for a new development.
Before we go on with this story I should introduce myself. My name is Franca Longobardi and I was the Advertising & Marketing Manager of Honest Ed’s for many of the 39 years I worked there. After the store closed I started working for Mirvish Productions.
At Honest Ed’s, I had the honour and privilege of working with the Mirvish family and Russell Lazar the store's General Manager who oversaw the day-to-day operations and came up with many of the promotions. He is presently General Manager of Ed Mirvish Enterprises.
Honest Ed’s was the first bargain department store, boasting 160,000 square feet of bargains. Known for its unique form of advertising and zany promotions, it attracted thousands of customers and visitors daily. The signage couldn’t help but get your attention — “Come in and Get Lost! There’s no place… like this place… anyplace!! Only the floors are crooked at Honest Ed’s — Other famous “edlines” included:
HONEST ED IS NO ANGEL! But he has heavenly bargains!
HONEST ED ATTRACTS SQUIRRELS! At these prices they think he’s nuts!
HONEST ED’S NO BLOOMIN ROSE!! But his bargains are worth pickin!
HONEST ED IS FOR THE BIRDS! CHEAP! CHEAP! CHEAP!!
All the signs that were used inside the store were hand painted and people loved them. When the store was closing we started to sell them. The response was AMAZING!!! Customers lined up for hours to buy the signs. We sold tens of thousands of them.
Other outlandish promotions over the years included the 72-Hour Dance Marathon, Win a Date with Robert Goulet, The Wilderness Girl, The Pink Elephant Sale, a triplet contest, a Twist-a-thon and Edwins of Bloor Street to name a few.
In the late 1980s Honest Ed started the Holiday Turkey and Fruitcake giveaway. This became an annual tradition that spanned 29 years with more than 10,000 pounds of free turkeys and thousands of fruitcakes given out to customers on a first-come, first-served basis. The event was always hosted by Ed and David Mirvish. When asked by media why he was doing this, Ed Mirvish would reply “I’m selfish, it makes me feel good”. The first customers in line would get free theatre tickets and other gifts.
One of Mr. Mirvish’s favourite celebrations was sharing his birthday with the public, known as the Ed Mirvish Public Birthday Party. Each year Markham Street would close for an eight-hour party filled with rides, food, giveaways and a lineup of entertainment, all for FREE!
The day would begin at 11:30 a.m. with ceremonies to kick off the celebration with dignitaries like Mayors, Police Chiefs, the Lt. Governor of Ontario and other notables.
Each year a young individual would be chosen for The Anne and Ed Mirvish Young Achievement Award (started in the early 1990s). The inaugural recipient was Carlos Costa who became the first physically challenged person to swim across Lake Ontario, on July 23, 1994. His crossing from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Leslie Street Spit took a gruelling 32 hours and 43 minutes. Carlos received a monetary award and a plaque to commemorate the achievement.
As part of the ceremonies the Mirvishes made donations to the Police Widows and Orphans Fund, M.A.D.D, Covenant House and many other worthy causes.
Of course what is a public free birthday party without a birthday cake and when it came to Honest Ed the more unique it was the more he loved it! The first birthday cake made for our public event was a 6-foot high styrofoam cake adorned with all the trimmings. Each year the colours and the number would change. These cakes looked so real everyone thought they were edible but of course they were not. The first year the media kept saying to Mr. Mirvish, “Ed, cut the cake” so, of course, Mr. Mirvish cut into the styrofoam cake and it looked so real he even took a bite! Needless to say the next year we inserted a piece of real cake so Mr. Mirvish could really take a bite, after which he would welcome everyone. He would always say how fortunate he was that at his outdoor birthday celebration,“ the sun always shines. But don’t worry….in case it rains, you can always go inside Honest Ed’s to shop”.
For his 80th public birthday party there was a giant cake with a top made of white paper. The idea was that Mr. Mirvish would jump out of the cake and surprise everyone. Mr. Mirvish and I both got into this giant cake in the laneway of Honest Ed’s. I was armed with a walkie-talkie so that Russell could give me the signal when it was time for Mr. Mirvish to jump out of the cake, once we got wheeled onto the stage on Markham Street.
The ride to the stage wasn’t too long but 60 seconds in Mr. Mirvish says, “Can I jump up now?” because he was so excited to do it. I said, “No, Mr. Mirvish we have to wait for the go-ahead from Russell.” This went on for a few minutes, then finally I get the green light and I tell Mr. Mirvish to jump up and he says, “Are you sure?” And I say, “Yes, I‘m dead sure.” It was a great hit and the Globe and Mail published the photo on the cover of the paper the next day.
I was so honoured to share that moment with Mr. Mirvish and I will always cherish that memory!
The free entertainment would start immediately after the cake-cutting ceremony. Over the years the public was entertained by cast members from Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Forever Plaid, The Lion King and The Drowsy Chaperone plus Tommy Hunter, John McDermott, Ronnie Hawkins and so many more.
The celebrants would feast on endless delicious hotdogs, cakes, and other yummy treats, take in a ride or two and, of course, grab as many one-of-a-kind giveaways like t-shirts, buttons, pens, keychains etc., all commemorating the event.
Mr. Mirvish would spend the rest of his birthday enjoying the show with his family and watching all the celebrants having fun!
By Antonio Tan and Franca Longobardi
Ed Mirvish was the theatre impresario and businessman who co-founded our company. Although he needs no introduction, here are several things you need to know about him.
1. Ed was born on July 24, 1914 in Colonial Beach, Virginia, to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He had one brother, Robert (Bob) and one sister, Lorraine (Lakie). The family emigrated to Toronto, in 1923, when he was just nine years old.
2. In 1936, Ed went on a date with a radio singer from Hamilton named Anne Macklin. They dated for five years before getting married in 1941. They had one son, David, who was born in 1944 and runs Mirvish Productions.
3. In 1943, Ed cashed in Anne’s insurance policy of $212 in order to open their own ladies’ dress shop which they called the Sports Bar. Eventually the store became so successful that they expanded and re-established the business as Anne and Eddie’s in 1944. Then in 1948, the store was expanded again and became Honest Ed’s where tables were piled high with merchandise and customers were sure to find a bargain. By the 1960s the store had grown into the world’s largest discount department store and took up the entire block, selling everything from groceries to clothing to toys to vacuums. On a side street next to the store, Ed bought up Victorian houses and transformed the street into a hub of artists’ studios, shops and galleries called Mirvish Village. Honest Ed’s became a landmark destination for fun and bargains, with its flashy 23,000-strong light bulb marquee, corny slogans, and over-the-top marketing gimmicks.
4. In 1962, at the urging of his wife, Anne, Ed rescued the Royal Alexandra Theatre from demolition by buying the theatre for the bargain price of $215,000. He spent another $600,000 on renovations. Inexperienced at running a theatre, he promised to keep the Alex as a legitimate theatre for at least five years after which he was free to do with it what he wanted. He often said, “theatre is a disease, and I caught it” and eventually he would present over 330 shows over his lifetime, making theatergoing a habit in Toronto with his successful subscription series, one of the largest in North America.
5. To help attract people to the then derelict King Street West neighbourhood where the Royal Alexandra Theatre is located, Ed opened Ed’s Warehouse in 1965. A restaurant of mismatched styles that only served roast beef (cut in three different ways), it initially seated only 180. He eventually expanded the restaurant to four dining rooms able to seat 1,300 and with a varied menu. In 1969, he opened another restaurant across the street called Old Ed’s. Both eventually could serve 3,000 meals at a single sitting. The success of the restaurants attracted others to open in the area, and were credited for starting the neighbourhood’s revitalization. The last restaurant closed in 2000.
6. In 1982, Ed bought and restored the historic Old Vic Theatre in London, England, which he and his son, David, operated for 16 years, producing hundreds of plays. Ed was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to British Theatre. Ed and David sold the theatre in 1998.
7. On May 26, 1993, Ed and David opened the Princess of Wales Theatre with the Canadian production of the London and Broadway smash Miss Saigon. Built specifically for that spectacle-laden production, it was the first privately owned and financed theatre built in Canada since 1907, and the first anywhere in North America in over 30 years.
8. Ed Mirvish authored two books, his autobiography, How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School which was published in 1993 (it became a bestseller in Canada) and There’s No Business Like Show Business published in 1997.
9. Ed Mirvish was presented with honorary degrees from six Canadian Universities: Trent, Ryerson, Waterloo, York, McMaster and the University of Toronto. He also received an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University in Israel.
10. Ed passed away on July 11, 2007, just shy of his 93rd birthday. David Mirvish renamed the Canon Theatre on Yonge Street to the Ed Mirvish Theatre on December 6, 2011, in his honour.
Check future Meanwhile issues for more theatre and showbiz DID YOU KNOW? trivia by Antonio Tan.
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Toronto's First Family of Theatre
Today's Check In From Away is all about music! SnL check in with Bob Foster, Levon Ichkhanian, get a ukulele lesson from Melanie Doane and more!
Plus, if you participated in the Check In From Away trivia from the Canada Day episode, Steffi and Lisa have made a short video to announce the winners!
Ask Me And I’ll Sing is a philanthropic initiative that started in Brazil and has recently been expanded to Canada. Created by Jules Vandystadt, the free service aims to connect professional singers and residents of long-term care homes through music. Seniors have been deeply affected by COVID-19, often left isolated from their loved ones and unable to engage in activities they cherish. Ask Me And I’ll Sing uses technology to bridge this gap.
The process is very simple. Long-term care facilities that wish to participate send out a list with each of their resident’s names and song of choice. The singers who are part of the project review this list, pick one of the songs and record it in an original video. The video is a personal gift in which the singer addresses the resident and dedicates the song to them. All videos are organized and sent back to the care facilities to be enjoyed by the residents.
Know a singer that would be a good fit for this project? Work at a long-term care facility and would like to participate in the initiative? Email Isabela at email@example.com.
Care facilities should tell us a bit about their activities, and provide us with some information such as their website, social media handles and a contact number.
Singers should tell us a bit about their work with music. It’s important to note that this project is for experienced musicians only.
Last week, we asked you to share your favourite Les Misérables stories for a chance to win one of two exciting prize packages. This week, we are excited to share the winners with you!
Leonardo de Melo
“Les Misérables was the first professional stage production I had watched and quickly became my favourite. My English teacher at Central Tech spoke about the story so many times and quickly arranged for the class to attend an evening production. At the time student tickets could be purchased for about $20 (refer to attached image of a few of my ticket stubs). An evening out to Les Mis was not complete without a visit to one of Ed’s restaurant. My favourite had to be the prime rib with mashed potatoes and peas. Having watched the show a few times, I knew it well and at one of the productions at the end when Cosette lays her head on Jean Valjean’s lap she later is supposed to turn to the audience as the ghost of Fantine and Eponine approach Valjean. However, this one evening Cosette’s wig had caught onto Valjean’s zipper. That evening the show had a slightly different ending but magical all the same. Can’t wait to watch that show again!”
If you remember last week’s video of the cast reminiscing about their favourite stories, Kim Huffman shares the exact same story but from her perspective. Talk about a wild coincidence! Watch the video for the full story.
“I credit this show with changing my life. Since the age of 17 till now (48) this is still my fave show and Toronto my fave cast. I have seen it 28 times throughout the years. Most with the original cast in Toronto. Pictured below are various items from my collection over the years including original lobby poster signed and that one mug is a pic of me backstage with Michael Burgess, Phillip Kerr and Duff MacDonald, Darin Baker etc. I can still remember the concert at the Dome as well. My bud and I traded our last row tix and paid a scalper to get us half way back in the floor. Wish my poster would’ve survived over the years from that. I have been blessed to run into many of the cast over the years and have kept in contact with them over the years as well. My license plate is 24601 as well as that is tattooed on me as well with another verse from the show. When I got married in NYC four years again Les Miz was playing and we had a photo shoot done after the wedding in front of the theatre so Les Miz Toronto gets full credit to making me who I am today as well as a life long fan and got me involved in theatre as well. This August would’ve been another trip to Mirvish to see Les Miz. Oh well. Lots of years left!”
Desmond, you are – without a doubt – a superfan! And might have the coolest license plate in Ontario.
Congratulations, Leonardo and Desmond! You will each receive two exciting prize packages, which include an exclusive vintage vinyl Les Misérables bag and a limited-edition Team Canada Cosette notepad. You will both be contacted via email to arrange delivery of your prize.