Backstage In "GRAND HOTEL"
War has made Canada's biggest hotel one of the Dominion's most densely populated places—a concentrated centre of human activity
THE British Empire’s biggest hotel is the Royal York in Toronto. That is a fact so well known that any member of the armed forces who has passed through the Union Station—and what Canadian fighting man in this war of constant movement hasn’t?—can quote it. What isn’t so commonly known about the massive 27-story inn on the corner of Front and York Streets is that quite often it becomes one of the most densely populated places in the Dominion of Canada, and ranks with the major cities as a centre of concentrated human activity. / /
On such occasions (notably the annual Police Ball, which still holds all records for packing them in) 10,000 people come together beneath the vast stained-copper roof to sleep and eat, to transact business, to earn their livings by the sweat of their brows, to entertain and be entertained, to grieve and suffer in the lonely privacy of their $4.50-a-night rooms or to dance and be noisy and gay to the music of orchestras on crowded ballroom floors. Every activity common to humanitywith one exception— haé been known to occur between the three-foot Avails of this fascinating building. The one exception is birth. Many people have been sick in the Royal York and some have died but never, since the hotel was opened on June 11, 1929, has a baby been born there.
John Johnson, urbane and unexcitable manager of the hotel, views this gap in the list of “things that go on around here” as calmly as he does the mountain of real problems with which he must contend. After long and successful association with the business of providing board, lodgings and entertainment for the travelling public, he has learned not to be astonished by the occurrence or nonoccurrence of any event. About babies he merely observes that he has never heard of one being born in a big hotel. “1 don’t know why,” he says. “Everything else happens in hotels.
I suppose it must be because the people who stay in them can usually afford a hospital. And if they’re bright enough to get a reservation in a hotel these days, they can get a room in a hospital.”
Getting a room in the Royal York, even on the “big nights,” which usually occur over the week ends when the Army and Air Force move in, Is neither as difficult nor as unlikely as many imagine. With 1.200 rooms to shuffle and a skill that sometimes passeth understanding, Mr. Johnson, his assistant managers and the harried room clerks manage to squeeze in almost everybody. Because of a smoothly functioning quota system—which exists, although the management declines to admit it or to explain it -—it is even possible to arrive at the desk without a reservation and be given a room. But, as the management points out in a bland understatement: “If you neglect to reserve your room, you’re taking a chance.”
Since the travel boom hit the hotels, it’s a “quiet” night in the Royal York when the population falls below 3,500. The willingness of travellers, especially men in uniform, to double-up, has made it possible to put 2,000 guests in the hotel’s 1,200 suites and bedrooms. To keep the machinery humming requires
a staff of more than 900, and the supper-dance crowd in the Imperial Dining Room often reaches 700. The hotel has been doing “capacity” business since the first year of the war. What that means in terms of income is the CPR’s business—but it is also anybody’s guess. As the management puts it: “We’re doing very nicely.”
Hotelmen in the United States claim they break even on 60% occupancy. The Royal York’s occupancy rate has been substantially higher than this for over four years. So figure it out for yourself. The lowest rate for a room is $4.50. Suites range up to $50. Supposing the average rental per night per guest is as low as $5 —the income from rooms alone might be estimated at $5,000.
Meals, Meals, Meals
LAST year the Royal York served 1,775,000 meals À to its guests. Queues—an unheard-of sight prior to 1940—form every day before the entrance of the Venetian Room during the noon hour. The Coffee Shop in the basement, which serves low-price meals, enjoys a popularity which has spread to the battlefields of Europe. Recently two RCAF fliers came in and asked for Len, the chef. “Chap in Cairo told us if we came in and asked for you, you’d make us the best chicken omelet in the world,” they explained. “We want two—each.”
Compared with similar hotels elsewhere (try getting a 50-cent breakfast in a big New York hotel, for example) Royal York meals are reasonably priced. Nevertheless, an average of 5,000 meals a day represents a pretty penny. Add up the revenue from dances, service to conventions, the sale of beer in the beverage room and the rentals which the hotel collects from various concessions and a daily “take” of over $10,000 could be a conservative estimate.
It also looks like an enormous sum until you recall that the hotel cost more than $18.000,000 to build and that carrying charges on the bonds can’t be much less than $2,500 a day. In a single year the hotel’s huge payroll went up $285,000. Unlike American hotels, the Royal York maintains that only a very small part of its profits comes from serving meals.
“We make our profit from rooms,” says Mr. Johnson. “Rooms, rooms and more rooms. That’s where revenue in a Canadian hotel comes from.” Travellers from the big cities in the United States proclaim themselves baffled by the standard of service the Royal York has maintained. According to them, war shortages of help and materials have sent the American hotels’ standard down badly. But if all the things which go to make up what a hotel calls its “service” appear to the guests to have been miraculously preserved in the Royal York, to the management and old-time members of the staff they seem to have degenerated to the point of scandal.
However shorthanded it may be the hotel can rely upon its superb equipment to provide a fair approximation of its pre-war service. The complex, hidden machinery by which a guest’s comfort is assured begins in the subbasement, 21 feet below street level. This machinery is common to other hotels in Canada, but this is the story of the biggest of its kind in Canada’s largest hotel. Steam Is brought by an underground tunnel from an outside plant several blocks away from the hotel. Duplicate intake mains guard against interruption of the steam supply. Duplicate city mains, entering from different streets, guard the water supply. Over the year a big part of the hotel’s electrical power is steam-generated Continued on pa°e 45
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in the hotel’s own plant and the exhaust steam is used to heat water for the hot-water system and for the laundry.
The laundry, incidentally, had one of its rare visits from one of the hotel guests recently. The guest had complained about not getting his laundry back the day he sent it out. "I’d like just one minute with whoever does the laundry around here,” he shouted.
An assistant manager obligingly took him down in the subterranean workshop of the hotel where he saw, instead of the small hand-laundry establishment he had expected, one of the biggest and most superbly equipped laundries in Toronto. He watched 130 white-coated workers operating power washers, electrical driers, heated tumbling drums that fluff towels as they dry them, 10-foot flatwork ironers, steam and electrical pressera and—of particular interest to him—one unit capable of turning out 75 shirts an hour.
The laundryman explained to the guest that with personal laundry from the rooms running between 80 to 100 bundles a day, 15,000 to 20,000 pieces of house linen, staff uniforms, drapes, curtains and 20,000 pieces of bed and table linen from the CPR trains, his plant was handling in the neighborhood of 100 tons of dry weight laundry every week. "We do our best,” he apologized.
Lined along what seems like miles of underground corridors are similarly well-equipped shops for the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, printers and repair men who keep the vast machinery of the hotel going. In 15 years not a single stick of furniture has been sent out of the hotel to be repaired or reupholstered. All curtains, drapes and cushion covers are made by the hotel’s own staff of needleworkers, who also do the endless repair work required by towels, sheets, tablecloths and napkins.
At the rear of the hotel, a few steps up from the subbasement, is the main kitchen, where Odiau, chief chef of the Royal York, reigns supreme. Odiau is that most pitiable person—the artist forced to become executive. He has lost many of his best chefs to the armed services and the future looks gloomy to him because he can find nowhere among young Canadians apprentices willing to learn the art to which he himself is dedicated. The kitchen over which Odiau rules is a model of efficiency, run like a factory on a conveyer-belt system.
Like Colony of Ants
Menus are arranged days in advance and are posted on wall charts for reference. Behind a high stainless metal bar the rows and rows of whitecapped cooks work over steam ovens, electric hot plates and charcoal fires. Waiters and bus boys stream past like a colony of ants preparing for winter. Some carry huge trays poised above their heads. Others trundle the little wheeled tables on which meals are taken to the rooms. At his executive desk in a glassed-in office, Odiau supervLses and directs.
“I never cook anymore now,” he says with a mixture of resignation and pride in his voice . . . "except rarely, when a guest orders a specialty or an unusual dish . . . then I show them how it is done.”
The calls on Odiau’s art are exceedingly rare in these days of food rationing and nonappearance of imported delicacies. Since meat rationing has been lifted, the problem of produc-
ing 5,000 meals a day has been made somewhat easier. There still remain, however, the limitations on tea, coffee, sugar and canned goods.
All rationed articles are released to the hotel on a quota basis established by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board for three-month periods. Purchases of these commodities are made through the hotel’s bank which issues food-cheques to the extent of the hotel’s “credit” in rationed articles.
"We trade in food instead of money,” the steward explains, “and we can’t overdraw our account for tea or sugar anymore than we could if our deposit was in dollars and cents.”
A standard banquet for 500 persons requires 11,000 service items—not counting tables and chairs. It is not unusual for 3,000 persons to be dining simultaneously in the Royal York. Milk consumption for last year was 30,000 gallons plus 180,000 individual bottles; cream, 18,000 gallons. In one month this year 80,000 eggs, 6,800 pounds of fish, 34,000 pounds of poultry, and 20,000 pounds of meat were used.
Even the figure for the number of glasses broken in the Royal York during a year is staggering. One estimate puts the total at 60,000. The number of assorted spoons, knives, ash trays, towels and bath mats carried away would, as one hotel executive admitted, "astound you.” But about the actual financial loss incurred by the hotel from this strange and deeply ingrained habit of the travelling public, the management maintains an impenetrable silence. To them, all guests are honest—even when Royal York towels are returned from customs inspection offices along the U. S. border where they have been removed from travellers’ baggage.
The universality of the trust placed in its guests by the management of a large hotel is really amazing. One piece of luggage is all the evidence of respectability one needs. With that in your possession the hotel will extend to you a week’s credit and provide you with a fully furnished domicile worth at least $2,000.
However, after this original display of trust, the hotel gives its guests considerable protection against possible error. On the basis of population, the Royal York is more adequately policed than any Canadian city. Head house detective is Frank Budd, a mountain of a man.
"You’ve got to be policeman, lawyer, judge, doctor, nursemaid and father confessor on this job,” Budd maintains. "The person you’re dealing with is a guest. And the guest is 99.9% right all the time.”
The burlesque conception of the “house dick” doesn’t fit Budd or his staff. Much of their work is serious criminal investigation. One of the most successful thieves on the continent was caught in the United States as a direct result of painstaking sleuthing by the Royal York’s house staff.
“Sure we have our criminal element,” says Budd. "What city the size of this one doesn’t have them?”
But the hotel differs from the ordinary city in this respect. The lawbreaker never gets a second chance. Once caught, he never enters the hotel again. Budd and his men see to that.
Fantasy of Locks
As further protection to its guests the Royal York has a system of locks and keys that borders on fantasy. Guests may be careless of keys, but the hotel is not. A street of six $5,000 bungalows could be built with what it cost to equip the hotel with bedroom locks alone.
A guest’s key will open the room door
and the clothes cupboard—hut no others. A housemaid’s key will open all bedroom doors on lier floor but it will not open any cupboard doors. A housekeeper’s key opens all doors and cupboards on bedroom floors. An “emergency” key, carried only by the manager and assistant managers and used in cases of fire, accident or death, will open any door.
The “emergency” has another remarkable use. It can lock any door in such a way that not even the housekeeper’s key will open it. And weirdest of all is the “shut-out” key carried by the credit manager. It locks doors— any room in the hotel—but it can’t unlock them.
Beyond these are some further variations of locksmithy craft so secret they cannot be divulged.
Anyone who has stayed in a hotel in the past three years will recall the sign requesting guests to please return keys. Keys are extremely difficult to replace in wartime. The Royal York maintains a full-time locksmith who is a wizard. In his workshop in the basement he can produce a new key for any door in the time it takes a guest, waiting at the room clerk’s desk, to smoke a cigarette. Part of his job is opening guests’ luggage when keys have been lost and it is an unusual day when he is not called upon, at least once, to perform this cunning little trick . . . always in the presence of the guest..
The same guests who forget their keys forget thousands of articles in their rooms. Articles found in rooms by the maids are delivered to the housekeeper, from whose office the Lost and Found clerk collects them daily. Every effort is then made to return lost articles to their owners, but if not claimed in three months it’s finders •keepers, and the maid gets them. Money, jewellery, cumeras and other valuables are held in the manager’s vault for one year. Then they, too, revert to the finder, whether still in the employ of the hotel or not.
Stock on hand in the hotel’s Lost and Found department rivals a pawnshop for variety. A typical day’s collection from the rooms included a pair of rubbers, slipixirs, pyjamas, dog harness, an RCAF greatcoat, belts, three scarves and two YWCA towels. The towels went back to their owners, as do towels belonging to other hotels.
Many a serviceman has a fond recollection of Miss Lost and Found. She never allows a man in uniform to go away improperly dressed if, among lier unclaimed articles, she can find a swugger stick, gloves, hat, l>elt or rubbers. In the matter of articles lost by servicemen the Navy holds a unique record. In four years only three Navy articles have come to the office. One was a wullet. Another was a hat grabbed by merrymakers from a sailor’s head. The third was “the works”—a bag containing a complete issue of gear.
One of the hotel’s most amazing corners is its main telephone switchboard room, where 45 girls work in shifts, under a supervisor, at 11 operator “positions.” Eight additional operators are in other hotel departments.
Normally a girl operator is expected to handle 120 calls an hour. Today, lined closely along before the board with its tiny flashing lights and endless demands for service, each is taking from 200 to 260. Guest “wake-up” calls, 500 a morning, half of them between 7 and 7.30, are important. From 400 to 600 outgoing long-distance calls are completed daily; another 300 incoming. The entire board must be
gone over four times daily to keep up with the rapid shuffle of checkouts, arrivals and room changes. It takes a year to train a girl for this special operating.
The constantly changing inhabitants of “the biggest hotel in the British Empire” come from the far corners of the earj^i—and some of them come on very strange errands indeed. They include all types and classas and nationalities and their behavior in the hotel is as varied as their origins. Many—the majority, in fact—are there because the conduct of their affairs requiras them to travel away from home and, while they are away, a room in which to keep appointments and transact business and a bed to sleep in are necessities. There are many others, however, who come to the hotel because it is one of the chief entertainment centres in Toronto.
The dances are always crowded. Since the war the Roof Garden supper dance has been discontinued because' the floor space could not begin to accommodate the crowds. In the Imperial Dining Room, however, it is not unusual to see as many as 900 enjoying themselyes at the supper dance. Formal dinner wear has been discontinued and uniforms have replaced dinner jackets.
“It’s sort of sad, watching how the dinner dance crowd changes,” observes Kay Moore, hostess and social secretary for the hotel. “For weeks you’ll see the same crowd coming and being gay and having a good time. Then the men go away overseas and the girls who used to come with them disappear. Until one night someone will ask for a special table—it’s always the one
they used to occupy before they went away—and you’il see a girl you recognize. The orchestra will get a request for a number that was popular months or years back. A couple will go dancing by absolutely blind to everyone but themselves. Then you know what’s happened! Somebody’s come home. They’re having their reunion and celebrating it here—probably where they said good-by.”
If all of Canada’s soldiers and airmen who have made datas for reunions at the Royal York “after this is over” were to arrive together, the hotel wouldn’t be able to accommodate them —but it would try. The armed services have given the hotel a good proportion (about 27%) of its business over the past four years. Airmen especially have made the hotel their rendezvous and they have carried memories of time spent there, as well as the fame of the hotel, around the world.
They’re all coming back for that “one big bust” they’ve been promising themselves.
But no matter how great the crowd, or how many are in line ahead of them, three Canadian airmen are sure of their room. They reserved it last March. Their message, sent from the notorious Nazi prison camp, Stalag Luft III, where 83 Allied fliers already have been murdered, Is among the proudest possessions of the manager. It read:
“We fellows, F/Sgts. Harry Olsen, Jake Watson and Blackie Porter, reckon that the war has run its course so we wish you would reserve a suite for our use this coming Thanksgiving Day. Yours optimistically—The Three Kregies.”
There will be a suite for them.
Goose Bay in Labrador, on which Canada has a 99-year lease for defense purposes. We wanted to make our sovereignty absolute and indisputable over all such bases in Canadian territory. It seemed unwise to pick and choose, leaving American dollars unredeemed in the Hudson Bay Route, It might lead to just the kind of international unpleasantness we want to avoid —all to save $27 millions which we have to get rid of anyway, or lose it in cancelled war contracts.
Maybe by next year we’ll have our income tax forms simplified by a major operation—removal of the dual taxation feature, the “normal” and the “graduated” tax, which has been the taxpayer’s worst arithmetical headache since the really tough taxation began. The Finance Department has experts at work, trying to find a way of eliminating this mathematical booby trap. It’s not easy, though. Apparently “normal” tax (which used to be the National Defense Tax on small wage earners) and “graduated” tax (which was the old, straight income tax) started off originally on different time schedules, and covered different periods. For some reason, unintelligible to the layman, this created apparently insuperable difficulties when the Government tried to merge the two into one. The difficulties remain, and maybe they really are insuperable. But at least, Ottawa’s at last making a real attempt to get around them.