The least likely art patron in the world

JANICE TYRWHITT October 5 1963

The least likely art patron in the world

JANICE TYRWHITT October 5 1963

The least likely art patron in the world

is Honest Ed Mirvish of Toronto, who has branched out from running his city’s most raucous discount house to owning its most aristocratic theatre. This is what Honest may do to Canadian culture, and what it is already doing to him

JANICE TYRWHITT

LAST FEBRUARY a forty-eight-yearold businessman called Edwin Mirvish bought a fifty - six - year - old Toronto theatre called the Royal Alexandra. By this single act Mirvish effected a change of personal image that was as startling as if Dr. Mutchmor turned apologist for the breweries or Charlotte Whitton danced Giselle with the National Ballet. As Honest Ed, owner of Canada’s first and most spectacular bargain house, Mirvish has prospered mightily on a policy of corny self-mockery (HONEST ED HAS A KIND FACE — THE KIND YOU WANT TO TH ROW ROCKS AT). As purchaser of the Royal Alexandra, he became instantly a patron of the arts; without his intervention, the stately Edwardian theatre would probably have been torn down for a parking lot.

The walls of Ed's store, a dozen blocks west of the fashionable part of Bloor Street, are plastered with wisecracks reiterating the theme that low overhead (no refunds, no credit, no delivery, practically no service) enables Honest Ed to sell clothes, drugs, hardware, food and all kinds of household equipment very cheaply indeed to six million

customers who spend fourteen million dollars a year.

The store has become a byword: a small shopkeeper, protesting against competition from discount stores, recently lamented, "The whole city is one big Honest Ed's." After fifteen successful years it has also become a Toronto institution which sightseers cover on their way from Casa Loma to Old Fort York.

The Royal Alexandra is a Toronto institution of a very different kind, and no one is more aware of the difference than Mirvish. The theatre was built in 1907 by Cawthra Mulock. son of the Ontario chief justice of the day, Sir Wil-

liam Mulock, and he conceived it as a jewel for the adornment and enlightenment of Toronto society. He paid $750,000 to put up a fifteen-hundred-seat theatre building that is still the best in Toronto (in the gigantic O'Keefe Centre it’s often difficult to see, hear or feel involved wdth the actors) and one of the best in North America. For over fifty years the Royal Alexandra presented so many stars of the first magnitude, and gave so many Torontonians their first glimpse of live theatre, that everyone forgave its occasional lapses into shows like Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath. A few years ago, when word went

round that C'awthra Mulock’s heirs were pressing for the theatre’s sale because it showed only a token profit and urgently needed capital for repairs, many CdPple petitioned for its survival. C —TYMirvish put up the cash.

At first T (was shocked and apprehe 'uld Mirvish put rock ’nf b stage and sell popcon its a bag in the lobbies? he indulges his flair fp’ Deration by staging ' delights as twist mí gating contests aí leaders ( a motor! ¿inety-fivc, a Gef or a dollar ninete Bob Goulet for s! ("Another of his d: his office, a sumjf ^ room hidden department, Here, sh’s shifting tash Robert Varvai 'ilpture by Dc uneasy CO! £S in urns an *d paperw I '*e office is is four b nillion ence

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Since Ed took over the Alex, people think he’ll buy anything

when he confronts angry manufacturers. As his son David explains. “A manufacturer will come charging in because we’re selling his tooth paste for five cents less and the office stops him so he doesn't actually hit Dad."

Mirvish’s appearance is equally disarming. Far from being the brash huckster his customers might imagine, he's a small, neat man with a soft voice. His manners are courtly and his clothes faultlessly tailored in discreetly opulent Italian fashion. His natural shrewdness is tempered by a wide-eyed, wondering quality that allows him to ask obvious questions. Behind a big curved desk paved in ivory leather he presides over a little empire of companies and properties — the store, a plastics factory, a machine shop, a drug business, some real estate — all separate, all near Bloor and Bathurst Streets, and all owned by Mirvish alone.

One of his three telephones is a black French period piece with a cluster of cherubs painted on its belly. The two working telephones are ivory, and one rings now. Mirvish answers the wrong one and switches with a long-accustomed gesture. "Hello. Yes. How are Sharon and the kids? And your mother?” He listens intently and his tone becomes earnest and reproving, “No, no, the theatre opening has to be a status thing. We don't want anything gimmicky at this time. With my name it might be dangerous.”

Mirvish has no secretary, and a girl from the business office brings letters to sign. He says, “I often spend three or four hours a day just signing cheques. It's a busy day but it’s good."

He does, though, keep one girl in the business office working full time on varied requests for his donations, his interest and his time. The causes he regularly supports arc diverse, and include the United Jewish Appeal, the St. Thomas Aquinas Foundation, the John Howard Society which helps exconvicts, and the Martin Luther King fund. He gets (and answers) forty to fifty letters a day asking him to serve on committees or make speeches. Since he bought the Royal Alex many people have got the impression that he’ll buy anything, and he has been deluged with strange offers and requests.

A woman in Alberta asks him to buy her something she has always wanted, a cemetery. A man in Toronto wants him to buy an old synagogue to be converted to a coffee house. Someone asks him to stake the production of a six-hour verse-playplus-ballet. A delegation of nonviolent Doukhobors ask him to subsidize their campaign to distinguish themselves from the Sons of Freedom. A Dutch soldier writes to ask for a free theatre ticket, adding, “I would appreciate if you would include an airline ticket for the round trip, Amsterdam to Toronto. Canadians here tell me you have brought off greater stunts than this one.”

Mirvish admits he enjoys this type of uninhibited response to the publicity that has followed his entry into the arts. “My wife and son have the culture and a little rubs off on me,” he says. Anne Mirvish, a vivacious woman with dark hair and hazel eyes, trained as a singer in her teens and has been studying painting and sculpture for several years. Her taste and her husband's do not yet coincide exactly. Last spring she came home from six months at a sculpture centre in New York, where she produced a series of promising wax - figure sketches, to find that he had had their living room in Forest Hill Village redecorated in such vibrant shades of deep red and yellow that the room, which houses two baby grand pianos, was overwhelming. She discreetly waited a month, then had the room done over in a more conservative decor.

Logically for a man who has made a fortune by the fast turnover of goods, Mirvish hates to have chattels lying around idle. When he decided to replace the old plush seats of the Royal Alex, he had a hundred and seventy-five of them installed in part of the ground floor of his machine shop which he converted into a little theatre. He dickered unsuccessfully with the people w'ho run Toronto's Village Playhouse, but is confident that he can find some homeless theatre group to perform in his “little Royal Alex.”

A much more ambitious Mirvish improvisation has transformed a block of ancient row houses on Markham Street south of his store into an artists' colony. He had bought the houses for up to fifty thousand dollars each and intended to tear them down for a parking lot (with the blessing of Toronto’s traffic police, who have nightmares over the traffic jam Honest Ed's customers create). When the city

council decided not to grant a demolition permit. Ed was stuck with a dozen shabby grey elephants of houses. Mrs. Mirvish suggested that he convert them into studios for painters, potters and sculptors.

A crew of maintenance men from the store moved in to repaint, replumb, reheat and rewire the shabby old buildings. As one of his tenants put it, “When Ed starts something it has to be done yesterday.” An artist asked him to paint the outside of one house a gentle pink with brown edges. Mirvish decided, "I can do better than that,” and had the others painted exhilarating combinations of apple green, egg-yolk yellow, sky blue, orange, mauve and chartreuse. As soon as each house was finished, studios were rented for twenty or thirty dollars a month to artists including Don Jean-Louis, Martin Berkovitz and sculptor Augustin Filipovic. To make sure the tenants were serious and productive, one of Mirvish's assistants showed a list of applicants to a woman who knows most Toronto artists. Among some unfamiliar names she recognized a well-established painter. Reassured, the assistant confessed, "He's the one w'e were worried about; he looks kind of a beatnik type.”

Some of the tenants came from the Gerrard Street Village, a downtown patch of studios, galleries, shops and restaurants evicted to make w'ay for a hospital parking lot. Jack Pollock, an art teacher and dealer who organized a vain, valiant petition to save the Village, is opening a new gallery and school on Markham Street, next to an antique shop and a coffee shop run by a young Hungarian designer who dresses Honest Ed's store windows. Typically, the coffee house sprang from a chance remark: Charles Band, a Toronto art collector, asked for a cup of coffee while he was sitting for

a portrait head in Filipovic’s studio. Pollock, something of a promoter himself. has joyfully joined forces with Mirvish to plan a street of little shops selling books and handicrafts. When Mirvish decided to buy some of the houses on the other side of the street, Pollock suggested digging up the pavement to make a canal. The next time they met, Mirvish cried, “Jack, I've got an idea. I’m going to make Markham Street a canal. Bridges! Gondolas! Venice on Bloor Street!”

Even without the canal, some artists find Markham Street too picturesque. One told me, “I wouldn't go near it; you’d worry about splashing paint on the floor.” But forty-odd others have settled in happily despite minor complaints (not enough space, too many sightseers, some tenants think other tenants arc phonies).

One tenant is Ed’s son David, a tall nineteen-year-old who collects chamber pots and antique Oriental snuff bottles. David is preparing to open an art gallery this winter, financed by his Bar Mitzvah money which he has been saving for several years.

The Mirvish family’s preoccupation with culture has had a noticeably moderating effect on the promotions of Honest Ed's emporium. Gone are the days depicted in the garish posters of the Wolf Girl and her team of huskies racing across the frozen tundra toward Honest Ed’s, Daffy the Seal and a pink elephant performing outside the store, and carloads of policemen charging up both fire escapes to quell a riot when Honest Ed combined a dance marathon with a special on chickens.

The store's baseball team has been replaced by a more fashionable racing car, a Lotus 23 complete with driver.

More and more, Mirvish’s new commitment to the arts cuts into his office day, which runs from nine to six without a break (he doesn't eat breakfast or lunch). One night when a theatre benefit kept him up till five in the morning he told Edwin De Rocher, manager of the Royal Alexandra, “I can’t keep this sort of thing up. I’ve got to be at the store in the morning.” He added gloomily, ‘4 guess I'll have to start drinking, too.” Occasionally he even misses his favorite meetings, wild brainstorming sessions in which his executives argue ideas. (Shall we buy a streetcar or an old fire engine?)

But nothing can keep Mirvish from his periodic trips of observation through his bustling store, where one of the blue-smocked saleswomen in the ladies’ wear section is his seventyfour-year-old mother. “Mother figures the store would close without her and maybe she’s right,” says Mirvish. His father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, died broke in 1930 when Ed was fifteen, ieaving Mrs. Mirvish and her three children to run the family grocery store on Dundas Street. Ed’s younger sister is married to the owner of another bargain house called Mickey Finn’s, and his younger brother Robert is both a novelist (twelve published books) and a radio officer in the United States Merchant Marine. A big, burly fellow who has been knocking around the ports of the world for twenty-five years, he turns

out a book every few months and has two scheduled for publication next year.

Ed Mirvish tried to peddle Bob’s first novel, because Bob, then fourteen, didn’t think he looked old enough to impress publishers. The book, a thousand-page melodrama set in the Khybcr Pass, never was published. This was Ed’s closest brush with culture until his wife's persistent interest in art, music and theatre gradually got through to him. They had their first quarrel the night they went to a concert where Ed sat behind the brass and suffered through Beethoven’s Fifth. When she took him to hear Lily Pons sing at the Exhibition he sneaked off to look at model bungalows. She was just as bored when he took her to Arthur Murray's, where he still enjoys dancing.

A welcome from the Establishment

But during the past summer Mirvish spent hours every day supervising the restoration of the Royal Alexandra, which he seems to regard with respect and even reverence. He first bid for it secretly three years ago. using agents to make overtures; these fell through because the owners wouldn’t disclose operating figures to an anonymous buyer. Meanwhile, Gordon Perry, executor for the Mulock trust, had persuaded the shareholders to turn down bids of up to three hundred thousand dollars from buyers who wanted to replace the building with an office block or parking lot. Deciding he had nothing to lose, Mirvish went to sec Perry himself. Perry said they would have taken Mirvish's first offer if they'd known it was his.

At $215,000 the Royal Alexandra was as much a bargain as any of Ed’s gate-crasher specials, since the land alone is worth more than that. By promising to keep the theatre running, however, Mirvish committed himself to a huge repair bill. He has already spent more than the purchase price on a restoration program which has developed into an orgy of crimson damask wallpaper, gold leaf and glittering chandeliers. Happily, Mirvish's rich and eclectic taste coincides exactly with the baroque style most becoming to the Royal Alexandra. He says. “They wanted me to tear out the boxes but I’m going to exploit them by putting glamorous and beautiful people in them. The social crowd is part of the show.”

With his usual luck. Mirvish may already have recovered a fraction of his expenses. Pawing through abandoned properties at the back of the theatre, he pulled out a painting of a seated nude, dated 1926 and signed “Henri Matisse.” For a couple of months he carried it around in a paper bag and showed it to people who told him it might be a Matisse gouache (worth up to thirty-five thousand dollars) or a good copy. Eventually Mirvish took it to officials of the Art Gallery of Toronto, who sent photographs of it to Matisse’s son and Alfred Barr Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art, who have not yet pronounced judgment.

Reassured by his manifest sense of mission, Toronto's Establishment welcomed Honest Ed. Good wishes came from Vida Peene, president of the

Dominion Drama Festival, and Tom Symons, principal of Trent Universitvto-be at Peterborough. Ont. Producer Brian Doherty invited the Mirvishes to the Shaw festival at Niagara-on-theL.ake. L.ady Eaton, a lifelong theatre enthusiast and matriarch of the Eaton department store family (whose boast. "We will not be undersold" is often challenged by Honest Ed's prices), asked the Mirvishes to luncheon. Mirvish said later, "Who would believe it? Up drives a Rolls-Royce and out steps Lady Eaton followed bv Honest Ed!”

Mirvish used to get his name in the Toronto papers by passing out dollar hills on the street and giving New Year’s babies their own weight in silver. After he saved the Royal Alexandra. the Telegram editorialized. “Happy is a community that harbors public-spirited men,” and its publisher. John Bassett, presented him with a theatre award for community service. Star critic Nathan Cohen, stirred to rare approval, wrote, "Ed Mirvish is a benefactor.” Herbert Whittaker of the G lohe and Mail hedged by delicately admonishing Mirvish to “serve Toronto with dignity and taste.” From outside, the Kitchener - Waterloo Record apostrophized wistfully, “Oh, for more such Honest Eds, especially in this part of Ontario!”

Mirvish says, “A lot of people are sceptical. They figure I’m going to come up with some kind of explosion and make a lot of money in a noncultural way, or else that I'll lose my shirt. But the way I see it, if we buy good merchandise the theatre fills. I’d go for names, plays that are hot, because I like merchandise that’s presold. These way-out plays run into box-office problems. I saw Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Civic Square and the place was empty. Later on, if we make a profit, we'll encourage modern plays and Canadian talent, if it’s real talent. I’m no judge because I'm too easy to please. I saw one of the Dominion Drama Festival plays and thought it was well done, anti then the adjudicator stood up and tore it to pieces. I would have gone out happy and never known the difference.”

Mirvish adds gently. "I'm new in this business and I have a lot to learn.” Some people who have been longer in theatre business think he may also have something to teach. One of them says, “He'll do us a favor if he can show us how to make theatre pay. He has the touch.” ★