chatting before the wild party

During the recent run of Acting Up/Obsidian's production of The Wild Party, I was invited to give a pre-show chat prior to three performances. I split the talk into two sections: the black community in Toronto during the 1920s, and a brief look at vaudeville in the city during that decade.

Wedding of J.M. Williams and Rachel Stephenson, July 28, 1926. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 8380. Click on image for larger version.
Among the weddings detailed on the social and women’s pages of Toronto’s major newspapers on July 29, 1926, regular readers might have noticed something unusual about one of them. As the Toronto Star’s headline put it, “Toronto Jamaica Folk Attend Smart Wedding.” The Star, along with the Globe and the Telegram, covered the union of merchant Joshua Michael Williams and Rachel Adina Stephenson. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the coverage is that, apart from references to the couple’s West Indian origins, it could have passed for any other society wedding. For example, Ms Stephenson was “charmingly gowned in white satin, with the cap of her embroidered net veil banded with orange blossoms, carried a shower bouquet of Ophelia roses and baby’s breath. Miss Gladys Bramwell, the maid of honour, and the five bridesmaids wore gowns of pink georgette, with drooping pink hats and carried bouquets of delicate pink rambler roses.” Also provided were what the guests and child ringbearers wore, the music played as the couple walked down the aisle, and their honeymoon destination (Niagara Falls). Had it not been for the picture printed of the marital party, you’d almost be unaware that the participants were black.

Such a notice might have been unusual given how small Toronto’s black community was during the era of The Wild Party. Officially, there were 1,236 blacks according to the 1921 census, and 1,344 by 1931. Due to the nature of the questions asked about racial and ancestral origin, some historians figure the actual total may have around 2,500. In any case, the black community was a small fraction of Toronto’s overall population – around a quarter of one percent. The community experienced little growth until the 1960s for various reasons—primarily restrictions on immigration. These especially affected the flow of migrants from the Caribbean, which was kind of ironic during the 1920s given that there were periodic calls for Canada to federate with the British colonies of the Caribbean.

In his book Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I, Keith Henry divided Toronto’s post-First World War black community into four groups. Two with the least influence were Americans (migrants, usually seasonal, from the United States, who worked in music, sports, or the railways) and Nova Scotians: (basically treated as the “hicks from the sticks” by everyone else. Regarded as apolitical).

Portrait of William Peyton Hubbard (1913) by W.A. Sherwood (1859-1919). City of Toronto Art Collection, Cultural Services.
The most established group was the “Old Line”: families who had resided in the Toronto area or Ontario since the days of Upper Canada, and who made up most of the local black community prior to the First World War. Despite the periodic displays of racism to them, they didn’t experience as much as blacks in other parts of the province. They tended to favour the ideas of hard work, initiative, and self-support promoted by thinkers like Booker T. Washington. Several achieved prominent roles in Toronto, most notably the Hubbard family. William Peyton Hubbard served as a city councillor for two decades beginning in 1894, becoming the first black elected to public office in a Canadian city. On several occasions, he served as acting mayor. Though he was retired by the 1920s, Hubbard was regarded by the press as the “grand old man” of Toronto politics. His son, Frederick, served as chairman of the TTC during 1929 and 1930.

As Henry puts it, by the end of the First World War, the Old Line enjoyed “a solid institutional life and a degree of economic comfort and civic integration undreamt of by the West Indian-dominated community which emerged during the next generation.” Yet despite the success of families like the Hubbards, and the fact that, unlike other places in Ontario like Windsor, blacks could join community organizations like the Boy Scouts and the YMCA, for many there was only so far they could go. Buying homes in white neighbourhoods wasn’t always an easy task. One never saw a black work as a department store clerk. Some restaurants and entertainment venues were less than accommodating. Racism may not have been as blatant as the southern US, but Toronto wasn’t the oasis of enlightenment either.

The last of Henry’s groups, Caribbean immigrants, were seen by the Old Line as too aggressive and race conscious. They in turn felt the Old Line were too conservative in their assimilationist attitudes. Yet the early Caribbean community in Toronto was, thanks to immigration laws, primarily female domestic workers. Those who did come organized into community groups, starting with the Coloured Literary Association of Toronto in 1919, which quickly became the local branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Some potential leaders of the West Indian community, along with other blacks, would migrate to New York City during the 1920s, as it offered far more social, cultural, economic and political opportunities. It’s almost easy to imagine that the city during the era of the Harlem Renaissance was far more attractive than fussy, dull, uptight Toronto.

Within all of these communities, there seems to have been a streak of rationalizing why they were largely inactive or ineffective in combating discrimination against them. There were many paths to division, from criticizing levels of aggressiveness, to falling back on the notion that, however things were in Toronto, they were much worse elsewhere.

Attorney General’s reception for the Ontario Black History Society, February 16, 1981. Harry Gairey (seated), Beverly Salmon (second from left), Attorney General Roy McMurtry (middle) and other attendees. Daniel G. Hill fonds, reference Code: F 2130-9-1-1, Archives of Ontario, I0027971. Click on image for larger version.
Harry Gairey, a longtime railway employee whose community activism is honoured with an ice rink in Alexandra Park, moved to Toronto from Jamaica in 1917. In his memoir, he assessed how the lack of leadership manifested itself.

Maybe there were black leaders, but not that I know of. Because at that period, the Blacks were almost just emerging. At that period we, the Blacks, were nothing you know, and you just almost gave up and said “What’s the use?” It’s not like now; they were ashamed to identify, they weren’t proud of themselves.

You couldn’t go to Eaton’s and ask for a job, or to the Bell Telephone. It was unheard of to go to a restaurant or a public dance. You wouldn’t go there because you knew you weren’t welcome. That’s a known fact, you see.

Among the jobs that were available was barbering. Gairey recalled the barber shop owned by Bill Smith at Queen and St. Patrick, whose clients included businessmen, city councillors, and longtime mayor TommyChurch. You can trace a hint of distaste in Gairey’s voice when he described a set of black workers Smith didn’t cater to. “I don’t think he would like to get the railroad porters and all them because they would come in and sit down and take up space and all that sort of thing.”

Much of the black social life of 1920s Toronto appears to have revolved around its churches, many of which were located in the low-income Ward neighbourhood around present-day Nathan Phillips Square and the hospitals around University Avenue. As Gairey observed, “The boys would go there because the girls were there, not from any spiritual standpoint”

On stage, if blacks got into theatre, it’s likely the only black performers they might have seen would have either musical performers or blackface comedians like you’ll see with Burrs tonight. It may be worth noting that ministrel shows were still seen as an OK thing in Toronto into the 1950s (and toured Nova Scotia into the mid-1960s) and that it wasn’t until 1932 that a touring group of black actors, assembled by Louisiana-based Richard Huey, toured Canada.

This provides a segue way into the second half of my talk, about vaudeville in Toronto. With its location between New York and Chicago, Toronto was one of the prime stops on the vaudeville circuit. By the late 1920s, around 50 theatres across the city offered vaudeville acts, usually mixed with film screenings. Among the first was Shea’s, opened at 91 Yonge Street in 1899. Brothers Jerry and Michael Shea built up an empire on both sides of the border – among their later theatres which still survive is the Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo. Following a fire which destroyed their Yonge Street theatre, the Sheas built a new venue at the southeast corner of Victoria and Richmond. Opened in 1910, Shea’s Victoria held 2,000 patrons who came to see bills featuring eight acts. As newspaper writer Hector Charlesworth once observed, pure vaudeville like that presented at the Victoria “consisted of singers and dancers, slight-of-hand and juggling acts, trained animal acts (anything from the elephant to flea), slapstick cross-town comedians, trick bicycle riders, and above all comic monologuists, the best of whom were usually headliners.” The Victoria was later purchased by Famous Players, who also used it for offices and storage until it was demolished in 1956.

Shea's Hippodrome, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 840A.

Soon after the Victoria came a series of larger venues. Among them was Loew’s on Yonge Street. Opened in 1913-14, the Canadian flagship of Marcus Loew’s North American theatre empire was unique in that it was a double-decker – a main theatre seating around 2,150, and an upper theatre, the Winter Garden, which packed in an additional 1,400. Both theatres mixed films and live acts until 1928, when the Winter Garden was closed and the lower theatre converted to films only. Both venues were restored during the 1980s and greet patrons today as the Elgin and Winter Garden. A few blocks north, the Pantages circuit opened a combination film/vaudeville theatre in 1920 which, after various reconfigurations over the years, still operates as the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Across the Don River, Allen’s Danforth provided 1,600 seats ads “Canada’s First Super-Suburban Photoplay Palace,” though it mixed in vaudeville acts. Today, it is the Danforth Music Hall.

But the largest of them all, and the one considered to be one of the big four North America’s vaudeville showcases (along with the Palace and State in New York, and the Orpheum in Los Angeles), was Shea’s Hippodrome. Located at the northwest corner of Queen and Bay in present-day Nathan Phillips Square, the Hippodrome opened in April 1914 with 3,200 seats, which included 12 grand opera boxes.  Among the famous names who appeared on its stage were Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cab Calloway, Red Skelton, Olsen and Johnson, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller.

To give a sense of what vaudeville was like in Toronto during the era of The Wild Party, let’s look at a preview of the Hippodrome’s bill from the September 17, 1929 edition of the Globe:

The program presented in Shea’s Hippodrome this week rises far above mediocrity. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the best entertainments given in this first-class vaudeville theatre for quite a long time. Topping the bill, and rightly so, is Henry Santrey and his soldiers of fortune, all highly accomplished musicians and versatile dancers. Gaynor and Byron evoke hearty applause by fine exhibitions of roller skating on a circular table that appears much too small for their daring tricks. The comic element is supplied in abundance by Jimmy Lucas and his clever lady partner. A born imitator of all national types, “Jimmy” sings songs in all languages but of his own make, and keeps everyone laughing heartily with his irresistible mimicry and “funniosities.”

The evening ended with short movies and a feature presentation of the “talkie” feature The Flying Fool, starring William Boyd, who was later famous as cowboy star Hopalong Cassidy. By this point, like the other vaudeville venues, the Hippodrome mixed vaudeville and films. The latter began to win out once sound was introduced in 1927. Historian John Kenrick summarized the impact of film on vaudeville:

Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for one-time pay-offs, inadvertently helping to speed the death of vaudeville. After all, when "small time" theatres could offer "big time" performers on screen at a nickel a seat, who could ask audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live talent? The newly-formed RKO studios took over the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit and swiftly turned it into a chain of full-time movie theaters. The half-century tradition of vaudeville was effectively wiped out within less than four years.

Editorial, the Globe, June 15, 1929.
Vaudeville, and theatre in general in Toronto, faced another problem: the censor. In his monthly report to police in June 1929, city censor Harry Wodson vowed to clean up the city’s stages with a blacklist of plays and acts theatre managers couldn’t book. Wodson felt that some vaudeville acts had dropped so far below Toronto’s lofty moral standards that they were removed from bills. He noted that because so many theatres offered vaudeville acts, it would be impossible for him or his assistant, William Wiggins, to police them all each week. Wodson’s report doesn’t specify which particular acts were objectionable or why their material was immoral, but it states one of his big fears for the legitimate stage. “A scourge of female wantons and illegitimacy has swept across the legitimate stage in the land to the south of us during the past few months. The business of censors is to see that the epidemic does not reach Toronto.” An editorial in the Globe hailed Wodson for his efforts to “stop the flow of filth and putridity that seeks to present itself in the form of entertainment before the public of Toronto.” It also criticized the lax censorship laws in the US, where “there has a developed of late years a deplorable epidemic of obscenity masquerading as “art” on the stage and on the screen.” That the Globe reacted in such a way is not shocking given that its owner at the time refused to run horse racing results or advertisements for female undergarments. One can only imagine what these puritanical killjoys would have made of The Wild Party had it been staged at that time.

As elsewhere, vaudeville gradually faded away. After occasionally dumping it, Shea’s Hippodrome dropped it for good in 1941 –the theatre was demolished in the late 1950s to make way for Nathan Phillips Square. The last venue considered to present vaudeville, the Casino at 87 Queen West (now the site of the Sheraton Centre), lingered into the early 1960s. 

Additional material from A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I by Keith S. Henry (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Palaces of the Night by John Lindsay (Toronto: Lynx Images, 1999); Too Good To Be True: Toronto in the 1920s by Randall White (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993); The Blacks in Canada by Robin W. Winks (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997); the July 29, 1926, June 14, 1929, June 15, 1929, and September 17, 1929 editions of the Globe; the September 27, 1941 and June 20, 1942 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 29, 1926 edition of the Toronto Star.


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