COVER

TRANSATLANTIC IMPRESARIOS

'HONEST ED' MAKES MUSIC AND DRAMA

PAMELA YOUNG March 27 1989
COVER

TRANSATLANTIC IMPRESARIOS

'HONEST ED' MAKES MUSIC AND DRAMA

PAMELA YOUNG March 27 1989

London traditionalists were not amused. It was 1982, and an audacious Canadian entrepreneur had just bought the British capital’s historic Old Vic Theatre for $1.25 million. The city’s theatre establishment expressed outrage over the sale to a foreigner of the building that had once housed Lilian Baylis’s revered Old Vic Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, renovators working for the new owner erected scaffolding around the theatre and started restoration work. Wrapped around the scaffolding was a huge banner that insisted “LILIAN BAYLIS, YOU’LL LOVE THIS—HONEST ED.” It was the sort of gesture that Toronto residents have come to expect from Edwin (Ed) Mirvish, the discount-store king, owner of a string of downtown restaurants and proprietor of the ornate old Royal Alexandra Theatre. British response to the irrepressible Canadian remained cool for a few years. But now, as Les Misérables begins its Toronto run at the Royal Alexandra, Ed Mirvish, 74, and his son and partner, David Mirvish, 44, are gaining credibility across the Atlantic. In London’s most recent annual Olivier Awards for drama, Old Vic productions won in five categories, more than any other theatre in 1988.

Ambition: The story of how Ed the extroverted, self-made merchant and his contemplative art-collector son evolved into transatlantic impresarios is a colorful piece of theatre in its own right. After making his fortune with Honest Ed’s, a down-scale midtown department store with garish signs and bargain-basement prices, the elder Mirvish purchased the venerable Royal Alexandra in 1962 when the 1907-vintage theatre was a target for possible demolition. There, he built up one of the largest subscription audiences in the world by offering mostly middlebrow touring productions. When his only child, David, assumed primary responsibility for both the Royal Alexandra and the Old Vic in 1985, the Mirvishes embarked on a more creative course. For the first time, they began to coproduce plays at both theatres—and take some of those productions to Broadway. And in 1987, after having renovated the Old Vic at a cost of $4 million, David hired the provocative British director Jonathan Miller as the theatre’s artistic director. Said David: “We are trying to give people the biggest scope for their creativity.”

The store that made it possible for Ed Mirvish to realize his theatrical ambitions is still the lifeblood of the family business: boasting a landmark neon sign that contains 23,000 lightbulbs, it grossed $65 million in 1988. Above the display windows advertising automatic self-squeeze sponge mops for $3.99 and knitted skirts for $2.99 is Ed’s cluttered but sumptuous office. Photographs—Ed with the Queen Mother, Ed being hugged by TV personality Mr. T.—line the walls. On the shelves beneath them are more than 100 awards, including a first-prize trophy that ballroom-dance enthusiast Mirvish won in the tango category at the 1965 Dance-O-Rama in Chicago. His appearance is utterly unlike the brash image that he has created for himself: he is a slight, even-voiced man who wears conservative suits. But, seated behind his red mahogany desk during a recent interview, he smiled slyly and said, “I never turn down requests from reporters—I want all the free ink I can get.”

Mirvish, who will be invested as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace on Aug. 1—he was cited for the Queen’s honor for his contribution to British theatre—began his life in modest circumstances. His parents, David and Annie— Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria respectively—met in the United States and moved their family to Toronto in 1923, when their elder son, Ed, was 9. There, the family operated an unsuccessful midtown grocery store. When his father died in 1930, 15-year-old Ed quit school and took over the store. Almost nine years later, he sold it and worked as the manager of a supermarket. In 1941, Ed married Anne Maklin, a band singer from Hamilton, and the couple opened a tiny midtown dress shop with money they received in wedding gifts and from cashing in a $214 insurance policy in Anne’s name. After the war, they were able to buy the store and several adjacent properties, and by 1948 he had turned the jumble of small shops into Honest Ed’s.

Arrogance: Behind a sign that read “Honest Ed’s 4 crooked floors of bargains,” the store boomed. In the late 1950s, Mirvish generated enormous publicity by staging such events as a combined sale and dance marathon, in which the store stayed open for 72 consecutive hours. Although that event coincided with a blizzard, it attracted 80,000 customers. Then, Mirvish gained wider attention with his 1962 purchase of the exquisite but faded Royal Alexandra Theatre for $215,000. Some theatregoers shuddered to think what he might do to the playhouse. In fact, he spent more than $500,000 to restore its original Edwardian lustre. At the time, the new owner admitted that he had scarcely attended a theatre performance. Said Mirvish: “I thought the building should not be demolished, but at the same time I was a businessman and I had the arrogance or ego to think I could make it work.”

The refurbished theatre lost money at first. But, within a few years, Mirvish turned it into a profitable venture by adopting the then-uncommon approach of offering a yearly subscription season. And he kept his patrons happy by booking touring productions of shows that had proved successful on Broadway or in London’s West End. Said Mirvish: “I would buy or sell shows the same way as I was buying or selling any other merchandise.” Realizing that many of the people who attended his theatre would also want somewhere to have dinner, he crammed the building next door full of antiques and opened it as a roast beef emporium called Ed’s Warehouse. In the next few years, he opened five other restaurants in the vicinity and, now, on a busy Saturday night, the restaurants serve more than 6,000 meals. Last year alone, the restaurant chain grossed more than $14 million.

Discriminating: While Ed Mirvish was tending to his expanding empire, David was making a name for himself in the world of abstract art. In 1959, Ed had started buying up Victorian houses on Markham Street—around the corner from Honest Ed’s—and in 1963, his 18-year-old son opened The David Mirvish Gallery in one of them. The young man had developed a discriminating eye for large, abstract modern works. He represented such artists as Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella before they became well-known. Although the gallery became highly profitable, David decided to close it in 1978 and use the space to run a bookstore specializing in art, where he also displays paintings and tapestries on the high-ceilinged walls. Since then, he has worked closely with his father, while remaining an avid art collector.

By the early 1980s, subscription sales were down at the 1,497-seat Royal Alexandra. The Mirvishes attributed the problem to the declining quality of road shows, and decided to coproduce their own. In 1985—the year David took over the responsibility of managing the theatres—the Mirvishes began their venture as impresarios in a coproduction of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing with the Manitoba Theatre Centre that played in both Winnipeg and Toronto.

David Mirvish, taller and less exuberant than his father, is a man who gives reasoned, painstaking answers to questions, occasionally interrupting himself to say, “Boy, I'm serious.’’ His mother, Anne—who moved on to sculpting and acting after her singing career—says of him, “David has my romantic side.” Indeed, his interest in the theatre encompasses much more than the box office. Surrounded by part of his art collection in his office above the Ed’s Warehouse restaurant, he observed, “If you don’t nail a show down artistically first, it doesn’t matter whether you are going to make money or not: it’s not fun; it’s not interesting.”

David brought challenging fare to the Royal Alexandra, including the English Shakespeare Company’s startlingly innovative productions of some of Shakespeare’s history plays. But lighter works, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1986)—coproduced with Canadian choreographer Brian Macdonald—and last summer's revival of the musical Damn Yankees, attracted a wider audience. Last year's subscription audience of 52,000 was the largest ever.

Risk-taking: While Damn Yankees and The Mikado had largely Canadian casts and the current production of Les Misérables has an entirely Canadian cast, the Mirvishes have yet to produce an original Canadian work. Said Urjo Kareda, artistic director of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre: "If you are risking your own money or your investors' money, you have got to be pretty certain you are going to get it back. I'm not sure they have that kind of confidence in what we do here." For his part, David Mirvish maintained that he and his father plan to "do some shows that will be written in this country." But he added: "This is a major international theatre. Its outlook generally is that it reflects the whole theatrical world around us."

To date, success on Broadway has been limited for the Mirvishes. The Mikado moved from the Royal Alexandra for a 30-week run in six American cities, finishing on Broadway at New York City's Virginia Theatre to mostly favorable reviews. But more recently, their production of Michael Weller's play Spoils of War, starring Kate Nelligan, closed after six weeks at The Music Box Theatre. "We didn't make it financially on Spoils, " David conceded. "But I look on that one as a learning experience."

Eclectic: Meanwhile, the 1,000-seat Old Vic is gradually becoming a popular and critical success for eclectic productions under the artistic leadership of Jonathan Miller, who is about to launch his second season there. Said Jane Edwardes, theatre editor for London's Time Out magazine: "Before him, the theatre was floundering because they found it difficult to find the right shows." After his first season, subscriptions have risen to a current 12,000, up by 2,000 from the previous year. With Les Misérables booked into the Royal Alexandra for a minimum of seven months, the Mirvishes have temporarily put their subscription series there on hold. But the staging of Les Misérables has prompted even larger ambitions: the father and son are speculating about building a new arts centre to house two new theatres and several cinemas, as well as David's art collection. In the meantime, the self-made businessman and his creatively enterprising son have already established themselves as ambitious players on the world stage.