July 11, 2007

Honest Ed passes on

First we lost Sam's, now another Toronto icon has passed away. Edwin Mirvish, better known and loved by all as "Honest Ed", died this morning at the age of 92. Condolences go out to his family and friends. I'm sure this city will throw him a rip-snortin' wake.

His most famous legacy (on this side of The Pond) will always be Honest Ed's. Everyone's shopped there, or browsed in wonder, or at least enjoyed the evening light show (so very unPC these days, bless 'em). The store itself has been around since 1948:

"In 1948, Ed Mirvish opened HONEST ED'S which became the WORLD'S FIRST true bargain store. All with the help of cashing in his wife's $212 insurance policy. In April of that year, Ed painted a sign over his store which read "NAME YOUR OWN PRICE! NO REASONABLE OFFER REFUSED!"

Info and great historical pic from Mirvish Productions.

From such humble beginnings, an empire grew. If you've never been, have a peek inside via this site (although I don't agree with all of the comments, what kind of thrifty nutbar *washes* 99 cent plastic plates?!) A couple of classic signs from the gloriously cluttered walls:

The building itself takes up the corner of Bathurst and Bloor and is a sight to behold. Here's a nice shot from here:

It's much more impressive at night (from Wikipedia):

As much as he will always be a Toronto icon, Ed was in fact an American (born in Colonial Beach, Virginia). His introduction to showbiz, according to him, was having his bris performed by Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, Al Jolson's father.

From Wikipedia:

"During the War, Ed and Anne Mirvish opened a dress shop known as "The Sport Bar". This business ran until 1948, when Mirvish cashed in his wife's insurance policy and opened a new business, a "bargain emporium" known as "Honest Ed's", stocked with odd lots of merchandise purchased at bankruptcy and fire sales and displayed on orange crates. He quickly found success with his unique no-credit, no-service, no-frills model of doing business. Mirvish claimed to have invented the "loss-leader", below-cost discounts on selected items designed to lure buyers into the store. "Honest Ed's" gradually expanded to fill an entire city block. Billing itself as "the world's biggest discount department store", it was soon bringing in millions of dollars a year.

Mirvish was renowned for getting free publicity, doing everything from riding elephants, to hiring protesters to picket his own store over its dress code. Every Christmas Mirvish gives away ten thousand pounds of free turkeys in his store to shoppers who stand in line for hours. A tradition since his 75th birthday has been the annual birthday bash outside the store, with free food, entertainment and children's rides. The mayor of Toronto has declared his birthday a national holiday."

It didn't end with the massive success of the store. In 1962, Ed bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre, a stylish and popular landmark built in 1907 and slated for demolition. After a massive renovation, it reopened and revitalized the theatre scene in this city. It now holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatre in North America.

To capitalize on the theatre crowd, Ed opened Ed's Warehouse, a restaurant close to the Royal Alex in 1966. While the decor was always tasteful with Tiffany-style chandeliers over every table and a dress code was in effect long after jeans and t-shirts became the norm elsewhere, it was a definite continuation of the Honest Ed's policy. Give the people what they want, but keep it cheap. They only served one meal: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, canned peas, rolls, and dill pickles.

One thing led to another and the surrounding area was soon filled with restaurants: Ed's Seafood, Ed's Folly, Ed's Chinese, and Ed's Italian Restaurant. At their peak, they served around 6,000 meals a night. All the restaurants have since closed with the original Warehouse being the last to go in 2000. The Peel Pub now occupies the spot, I believe.

In 1982, Ed and his son David (aka Mirvish Productions) bought London's Old Vic for a million bucks, spent four million renovating it, but eventually sold it in 1998. Not before winning a slew of theatre awards for its productions, more than any other single theatre in Britain. Ed was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for saving the Old Vic.

In 1993, the empire grew again with the addition of the Princess of Wales Theatre, the first privately financed theatre in North America in thirty years. Mirvish Productions now runs the Canon Theatre (previously the Pantages where "The Phantom Of The Opera" held court) and has been behind many popular productions ("the Lion King", "Mamma Mia!", "The Producers", and "Hairspray."

Bless you for bringing live theatre back to this town, Ed. And thanks for the 99 cent plastic plates and $1.99 velvet paintings of Elvis too. We're richer for both.