Wednesday, October 24, 2012

past pieces of toronto: the sam the record man signs

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was orginally published on November 21, 2011.

Lighting the Sam The Record Man Sign for the Last Time (2)

For four decades, solo or as a pair, the spinning neon records of Sam the Record Man were a Yonge Street landmark. Tacky to some, a reassuring sight to others, they lured music lovers into the store to linger. When the site was purchased by Ryerson University in 2007 part of the deal was that the discs would be remounted on the school’s new Student Learning Centre or a nearby building. Now that Ryerson President Sheldon Levy is having second thoughts about bringing the signs out of storage, there’s a strong possibility the only places to see them will be old photos, YouTube videos and SCTV’s parody of Goin’ Down the Road.

Entering Sam the Record Man was like visiting a museum of music history. The place had a ramshackle charm, with numerous expansions resulting in clashing decor styles and uneven floors. The walls of the older sections were filled with fading celebrity signatures. You didn’t dash in and out of Sam’s for the newest album you wanted; you spent hours browsing for hidden treasures, whether it was an obscure import, cassettes of bird sounds from Point Pelee or a Body Break CD from the bargain bin. As late as the 1990s the store’s warehouse reportedly had 30,000 78s in stock. As Dave Bidini summed up the Sam’s experience in a 2001 National Post article, “In a world that's changing too fast too soon, going to Sam's was to escape, to be swallowed in the bosom of the past, where discovery and adventure was part of life.”

Sam Sniderman entered the music business as a teenager when he began selling records in his family’s radio store on College Street in 1937, allegedly to impress his future wife. In 1961 he moved the business to 347 Yonge Street , where he set up shop two doors south of main rival A&A Records. As Sniderman noted in a 1967 interview with the Globe and Mail, “we’re friendly competitors, except that we’ll stab each other in the back whenever we get a chance.” By the end of the decade, Sniderman opened his first franchised store, located in the Golden Mile area of Scarborough, and erected the first of the iconic spinning records. They replaced a neon assembly that featured the store’s address number and a giant thermometer.

Over the next few decades, Sam the Record Man gradually expanded into three neighbouring properties. To the north, the store took over the site of one-time Gordon Lightfoot haunt Steele’s Tavern, which had served as a buffer between Sam’s and A&A and where the second spinning record was placed. To the south, the store crept toward Gould Street, swallowing up a historic CIBC branch. Sniderman also invested in other ventures that played off his store’s name, such as the Sam the Chinese Food Man restaurant, and built a chain that operated over 100 locations at its peak.

By the new millennium, Sam’s was in trouble. The business was slow to adapt to internet retailing and computing in general (Sam admitted he was a “paper-and-pencil guy”), while the rise in online file sharing took a bite out of sales. When Sam the Record Man declared bankruptcy on October 30, 2001, newspapers were filled with reminiscences of customers sad to see the store. The flagship store closed briefly after that year’s Boxing Day sale, but the records didn’t stop spinning for long—Sniderman’s sons Bobby and Jason reopened it in January 2002. They kept the store running for another five years until it closed for good in June 2007. A lone franchise carries on at Belleville’s Quinte Mall. The neon records spun for the final time during 2008’s edition of Nuit Blanche, then went into a hibernation that increasingly looks like a permanent rest.

Additional material from the February 11, 1967 edition of the Globe and Mail, the November 1, 2001 edition of the National Post, and the November 3, 2001 edition of the Toronto Star. Photo of Sam the Record Man taken by Jamie Bradburn, October 5, 2008. "Sam the Record Man" Sniderman passed away in September 2012.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

past pieces of toronto: the uptown theatre

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist .The following was the debut installment of the series, originally published on November 4, 2011.

Equipped with the latest in sound technology in its later years, the main auditorium of the Uptown was a great place to see films in which things go boom. As the action unfolded on the screen each punch or explosion reverberated in your seat. Such experiences, and the grand architecture and decor, made the demise of Uptown Theatre so painful: its final corporate parent refused to pay for wheelchair accessibility upgrade.
Loew’s Uptown opened on September 20, 1920 as a 1,600 seat theatre showing pioneering director D.W. Griffith’s film The Love Flower. As the Globe's E.R. Parkhurst reported, “it would be difficult to conceive of a theatre more admirably designed for the comfort of its patrons or better adapted for the enjoyment of the very best that brains, equipment and talent can provide in motion picture entertainment.” The opening gala saw appearances from leading lady (and Griffith’s lover) Carol Dempster, movie star/former Upper Canada College student Bert Lytell, theatre owner Marcus Loew, and Toronto mayor Tommy Church. A live orchestra was present, as it would be through the silent era until the Uptown became one of the first theatres in Toronto wired for talkies.

Following a fire in 1960, the theatre underwent renovations that, when officially unveiled to the public in 1962, the Toronto Star saw as a barely a nod to the new post-television reality of movie-going as a social occasion. “In New York,” noted Star writer Wendy Michener, “many houses serve coffee and have a really comfortable sitting-meeting-talking lounge. In Toronto, the only move in that direction to date has been the installation of hot-dog machines.” Perhaps theatre management sensed that Torontonians of the future would be able to snack on frankfurters anywhere downtown.

Shortly after the 20th Century theatre chain took over the Uptown in 1969, the cinema closed for four months as it was converted into a five-screen multiplex under the eye of architect Mandel Sprachman. Referring to his work on the Uptown and the Imperial Six further south on Yonge (now the Canon Theatre), Sprachman noted that “if I didn’t step in, those grand opulent cinema temples would be torn down and replaced with parking lots and high-rises. What I do is to give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking, I do my damnedest to help the old and new live together.” In the case of the Uptown, the result was a 1,000 seat main theatre for first-run spectaculars (starting with the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips), two other mainstream first-run screens, and the two “Backstage” theatres that specialized in art films. The complex was redesigned in eye-catching, playful pop-art influenced colours.

Over time, the Uptown became a key venue for the Toronto International Film Festival, especially as other Yorkville-area cinemas such as the Hollywood and Plaza closed their doors. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission ordered Famous Players to make the Backstage, Eglinton and Uptown wheelchair-accessible in 2001, the chain decided to close the historic theatres rather than incur the cost of required renovations. Famous Players cited a changing market and shifting demographics as the real reasons for the closures, but these were treated with skepticism in the press. The Backstage shut down immediately after the closures were announced in December 2001, and the rest of the Uptown lingered on until it took its final bow during the 2003 edition of TIFF. While the Eglinton survived as an event venue, the Uptown was sold to condo developers. Tragically, the theatre experienced a final burst of reverberating action during demolition work in December 2003 when a section collapsed onto the neighbouring Yorkville English Academy, killing student Augusto Cesar Mejia Solis.

Image: Uptown Theatre, interior, Cinema 1, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett. City of Toronto Archives, series 881, file 169, item 2. Additional material from the September 21, 1920 edition of the Globe and the August 16, 1962 edition of the Toronto Star.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

past pieces of toronto: the dominion coal silos

Starting today I am republishing the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column I wrote for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following article, though not officially part of the series, can be considered its pilot. It was originally published on October 11, 2011.

Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 125
 To some, they were a nostalgic landmark, a throwback to a time when Toronto homes relied on coal as home heating fuel. To others, they were a contemporary eyesore that should have been razed long before condos took their place. Regardless of one’s views, the nine storage silos that operated for 70 years by Dominion Coal and Wood at Merton Street and Mount Pleasant Road were a key visual element of North Toronto. The Dominion silos will be memorialized with a plaque from Heritage Toronto that will be unveiled in a ceremony at the site at 5:30 p.m. on October 11.

Designed by the E.P. Muntz Engineering Company, the concrete coal silos went into operation in 1929 with a storage capacity of 350 tons each. Along with the Milnes Fuel facilities at Yonge Street, Dominion Coal bookended a series of construction and industrial sites bordering the old Belt Line railway along Merton Street that served the growing population of Toronto’s northern edge. Dominion fought for the residential coal business in Toronto against long-established sellers such as Elias Rogers, and over a hundred
other licensed dealers who sold the black mineral by the sack-full. When a steep decline in home coal usage caused many of Dominion’s competitors to cease business during the 1950s, the company survived by latching onto the emerging do-it-yourself home construction market. By the mid-1980s, coal and firewood accounted for only 2 per cent of Dominion Coal’s sales, mostly to rural customers who continued to rely on old-fashioned stoves and furnaces. The company didn’t forget what built its reputation: in the 1990s, it received a merit award from Heritage Toronto for restoring the painted advertising that covered the silos.

A fresh coat of paint didn’t have much of a chance against rising land values and a site with an elevation attractive to condo developers looking to sell future residents on great views of downtown. When Dominion Coal president Bruce Chapman announced in May 1999 that the silos would close, he anticipated little resistance from the city in changing the zoning from commercial to residential as other properties along Merton Street had done. Before the last batch of construction material was sold that September, the site was purchased by Urbancorp, whose intent was replace the silos with two condo towers.
Local heritage agencies worked to preserve them. Already listed by the Toronto Historical Board as having “architectural and historical importance,” the site was granted a heritage designation that delayed redevelopment plans. City councillors debated the merits of salvaging any part of the silos. While local representative Michael Walker argued for discussions with the community about preservation, councillors like Mario Silva saw no redeeming aesthetic qualities in the structures—as he told the North Toronto Town Crier in December 1999, “I hate silos myself.” Silva felt they were “extremely ugly” and believed that “the neighbourhood would be relieved to see these silos finally go.” While Urbancorp argued about the excessive costs to build around the silos (which were considered too small to be converted into condos) and the test soil contamination levels around them, the developer devised several plans that allowed the historic structures to remain.

But none of those plans were enacted. By the time Monarch Construction acquired the site in September 2002, the silos had disappeared from the North Toronto skyline and the way was clear for the residences currently occupying the corner. One of the few reminders of their existence was found a few blocks north along Mount Pleasant Road in the window display at George’s Trains, where models of the silos were incorporated into the backdrop. Unlike George’s, which has moved on, the Heritage Toronto plaque will provide a permanent memorial and a space for people to debate whether creative reuses for the silos could have been implemented, or if they deserved their fate.