Banner image is of the Toronto skyline at night, between 1976 and 1994. Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives.
It has been far too long since I last wrote here and so much has changed in that time that it’s hard to know where to begin. Of course, it would be impossible to write a word here without mention of COVID-19 which, ages ago now, seemed a story happening elsewhere but has since stretched across the world, leaving its devastating mark on every community.
My family too has changed. We have suffered a tremendous blow – my dear sister Corrina has died. She had been unwell, and then early this year they found she had cancer. Still, we were hopeful. But then she contracted an infection, pneumonia set in quickly and she was unable to fight it. She passed late in the evening of May 29th.
Though COVID-19 was not a factor, its long shadow meant we could not be with her at the end and so, for this reason, I can’t help but feel we are also a casualty of this grisly virus.
Well, as you’ve likely gathered, this will be quite a different sort of post for this site. Rather than take you back through the muddy, poorly paved Toronto streets of long ago, as I would normally, I’d instead like to share a more recent history of the city. That is, the one I shared with my sisters, Corrina and Lenora.
As the youngest, I’m so grateful to have had two older sisters cart me around town. Now this may be sentiment speaking but it seems to me that our childhood was special – at least, we certainly seem to have had a much longer leash than most kids do today. I mean, I remember being about 8 years old – which would make Corrina 12 – and taking the subway to the Eaton Centre just to ride the elevators. When the security guards tired of watching us go up and down and suggested we move along, we’d amble over to the Panhandler toy store just to look at the stuffed Gund dolls. Then, our days’ work done, we’d head back home.
Home for us was the Junction Triangle, which I’ve written about before here. Ringed by rails, the area began as a heavily industrial one. When the great developer Simeon Heman Janes laid out his residential plan for the area in the late 1890s, it still was one and would continue to be so for quite some time. And so it was when our parents bought our house on Perth in the late 1970s. Just the same, there was a nice bit of greening in the area – we had Perth Park next to our elementary school, and Campbell Park with its sweet ice rink a couple streets over. But for us girls, there was nothing quite like the fun and adventure to be had in exploring the Solway scrap metal yard at the end of Ernest Ave.
Corrina was absolutely fearless, easily the bravest of us girls, and would climb into Solway’s enormous dumpsters looking for things to play with without the slightest hesitation. The clearest memory I have of this time is Corrina pulling out a car tire, putting me in the centre of it and rolling me down the alley. I know, that sounds like something terribly old-timey – and I suppose it kind of is, now – but it really was all the entertainment we needed.
A funny detail about those scrap yard adventures is that I was always barefoot. For some reason even I’m not sure of, no one could get me to wear shoes in the summer, and so I was always hot-footing it around the neighbourhood. Well, I’m here to tell you that scrap metal yards aren’t the safe, cushy places you might imagine. As a consequence, I stepped on a lot of rusty nails in my time. So many in fact that I think I might very well hold some kind of record for nail extractions at St. Joseph’s.
Of course, the rest of the neighbourhood didn’t share our love of the scrap yard – though I understand that some local artists enjoyed canvassing it for interesting bits and pieces. During the day it was always exceedingly busy, with enormous semi trucks constantly going in and out. Certainly an odd and unwelcome sight in any residential area. Despite years of protest from the neighbourhood, Solway would continue its operations on Ernest Ave deep into 2012, before finally being demolished in 2013. Remarkably, before the wrecking ball came, it was discovered the old yard was sitting on 1,107 wartime UXOs – that’s “unexploded explosive ordnance” to you and me. According to a Toronto Star account at the time, the devices ranged from mortar bodies to rockets. Makes me kind of happy now that I only found the rusty nails.
Another early, safer amusement was hitting the video arcades. Though I was not particularly interested in them myself, I’d happily tag along with Corrina to see how she fared – and also because I just didn’t have a lot going on. With quarters found who knows where (cough, mom’s purse) she would spend hours in the little arcade room built off to the side of the neighbourhood corner store.
Occasionally, though, Corrina would collect enough coins to head downtown to Yonge St which, at the time, was riddled with proper arcades. Along for the ride, of course, I would follow her from game to game, leaning against the warm machines, feeling very cool and urbane for being downtown.
While we may not have shared a love of video games, one thing we all enjoyed was roller-skating. Now, when I say roller-skating, I mean the classic white boot- red wheels skates – not rollerblades, which came a bit later and we never really got into. While our neighbourhood sidewalks were witness to much of our brilliance on wheels, we’d occasionally get to go to a real rink. And in 1980s Toronto, this meant The Terrace.
Located at Dundas and Mutual Sts, the Terrace we knew was a re-vamp of the Mutual St Arena, which had been built as a sporting and entertainment venue by Sir Henry Pellatt in 1912. For its grand opening that year, a music festival was held featuring some of the greatest vocalists of the period, including Marcella Sembrich, Alice Nielsen and Olive Fremstad. In later years, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams Sr would also appear on its stage. This being a hockey town, of course, the arena’s perhaps best remembered as the first home of the Maple Leafs. From 1917 to 1931 the team played at the arena before moving to its own, purpose-built venue Maple Leaf Gardens.
In 1962, a $3 million renovation put the emphasis on curling and skating and transformed the space greatly. Rechristened as The Terrace, it would, at the time, be heralded as the second largest curling club in the world.
Somewhere along the way, however, the focus shifted to roller-skating and it’s in this form that it’s best remembered today.
In 1989, when it was announced that The Terrace would be closing, there was a huge public outpouring of grief from generations of Torontonians. You can watch a video of the grand finale skate here, complete with teens sobbing on each others’ shoulders.
For all this rich history, I wish I could tell you that I remember the beloved old roller rink in great detail. Sadly, however, beyond lacing up and going round and round, my memories are hazy.
But there is one spot in this city whose details I can recall with crystal clear clarity and that is the former Ukrainian Hall on Bathurst, where we girls did gymnastics every Saturday.
Built in 1928, the hall was first known as the Ukrainian Labor Temple. With its large open areas on the first floor and basement, it was well-built for gatherings, meetings and classes. But its greatest feature was its large stage fit for lavish theatrical productions.
Today, the former Ukrainian Hall is home to the Ching Kwok Buddhist Temple, and its past life and history is likely unfamiliar to most Torontonians. But there was a time when it was regularly in the news and enjoyed a certain reknown.
Despite garnering regular heat of the type noted above, the Ukrainian Hall would endure, despite continued attempts to shut it down – some of which were far more serious than others.
Of course, by the time my sisters and I came to frequent the Ukrainian Hall, there was no hint of this turbulent past. Every Saturday morning, for nearly a decade, we’d pull on our leotards and bundle into the car, heading to 300 Bathurst for our weekly gymnastics class.
The hall itself was a source of endless delight for us girls. There were countless nooks and crannies to explore – filled with weird old-timey things which fired our imagination. At the back of the hall, stairs below the stage area led to a long, shadowy dressing room. This, to me, was a place of wonder. Along one wall of the wood floored room sat a row of old vanity tables. How I loved to sit at them and look through the drawers. Inside many were tiny tubs of pancake stage make-up which smelled delicious to my young nose – like rose oil, vanilla and talc. I don’t know how long they’d be forgotten there but they seemed like relics from an entirely different century to me. Farther back and deeper into the shadows was an enormous closet with a massive wooden door filled with heavy, ornate costumes – all satins, wools, ribbons and embroidery.
As for our gymnastics training, i.e. the actual reason we were there, we would each achieve varying degrees of success. I managed difficult feats like front-rolls, cartwheels and round-offs – though what I really longed for was fame on the uneven bars. (A pursuit which would prove to be short-lived.) Lenora, who flourished especially in the dance and ribbon routines, would eventually become an instructor to the younger kids. But Corrina – as in all things – was the true dynamo. She blew us all out of the water. She could do aerials on a dime and tumble across a room like she was floating on air. And, I kid you not, she continued to be able to do so even in recent years – when the very idea of doing a bridge these days makes me wince.
Now, you can’t mosey down Memory Lane without revisiting the excitement of a childhood birthday party.
Like many kids who grew up in Toronto from the ’70s to the ’90s, a banner birthday was one spent at either the Organ Grinder or Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants on The Esplanade. These two neighbouring restaurants had much in common – and for many years that even included ownership.
Both restaurants were large spaces with menus that catered to kids’ palates – oodles of non-remarkable pasta and platters of sizzling pizza. Like all family restaurants of the era, they both featured lots of dark wood, heavy carpeting in busy patterns and bowls of pillow mints at the hostess stations. But their biggest draw was their kinda bonkers decor.
The Old Spaghetti Factory, harnessing an Old Curiosity Shop-vibe has walls chock-a-block with antiques and curios but is especially famed for its tables set within a century-old carousel and a Toronto Railway Co streetcar.
The Organ Grinder next door had a similar energy except that the focus was on music and oddball musical gadgets. Throughout the room were countless bells, whistles, sirens, horns, tambourines, drums, a player piano and god knows what else – all of which were controlled by the organist who sat at the front of the room, leading the charge on a 1929 Wurlitzer outfitted with over 1000 pipes. In addition to the joyous cacaphony were flashing lights that really appealed to the small child letting loose for the first time, but probably made more than one parent fear they’d trip a synapse. (If any of this is difficult to envision, there’s a great video from the ’90s which has preserved the experience.)
Funny enough, a detail which had escaped me until now is that both the Organ Grinder and Old Spaghetti Factory belonged to chains with locations in Canada and the U.S. This I find incredible and, frankly, not a little unsettling. For so long, the memory of either has been a touchstone for kids of our generation. So the idea that this could be happening in Vancouver or Portland or wherever? Gah. That practically puts us in Chuck E. Cheese territory, and that is not right.
Whew … got myself a bit het up there, sorry.
Happily, the Spaghetti Factory still exists while, sadly, the Organ Grinder has retreated into the sands of time. Its doors closed in 1996 and the space is now home to the Bier Markt.
Childhood summers, of course, had a magic all their own. I’ve written before of going to the CNE with Corrina and the Midway ride, The Zipper, which we both loved so much (and then came to fear like nothing else.) But what I didn’t mention was that one summer, years later, we worked there together. Corrina had done it the year before and enjoyed it so much that she talked me into signing up with her the following summer.
For those two and a half weeks, we’d wake at dawn and walk to Dundas West Station in the chilly half-light to catch the Ex-Express to the CNE grounds. Once there, we’d be given our float for the day before being loaded onto the golf carts which would take us to the gates where we sold tickets. Corrina and I never worked the same gate, but sometimes she’d walk over to see me while on her break. Other times, we’d just pass each other on golf carts and wave merrily at one another.
Corrina was right, of course – working at the Ex was a lot of fun and a tremendous experience because you get the chance to see it in a whole new, special light. You share in the stories of new friends who work the other staples of the fair – the food trucks, the midway games, the CNE shuttle. (From the latter I learned that, despite regular warnings, people always jump off while it’s moving. And always fall flat on their faces.) You aren’t visiting it, you’re part of it. You soak up the festive atmosphere while seeing the inner workings. And I’m forever grateful to my sister for talking me into it and having that experience.
Well, believe it or not, I’ve been writing this post since summer but for one reason or another have found it difficult to finish. And now here we are on the cusp of Christmas – another occasion steeped in wonderful memories. Ice skating at Nathan Phillips Square, enjoying the window displays at Simpson’s, listening to Christmas carols together in the darkness of our room on Christmas Eve…
It strikes me that I could go on and on here. There are so many more memories to share of the places we loved. I can almost feel Corrina at my side, bristling with her excited energy, urging me to tell you of other favourites like the Mr. Greenjeans restaurant and store, or the old Eaton Centre movie theatre where we would do cartwheels down the aisles. So many to be remembered, so many now gone – but they will always remain cherished and loved. They live on in us – as does our Corrina.
And now, I think I will leave you with this photo taken one Christmas some years ago. Corrina and I had tried so hard to get just one good photo together, but each was so terrible that we eventually came undone and fell apart laughing. Though Corrina’s face is partially hidden and I look clownish, this is now my favourite photo of us. It is the essence of us in one very jolly, Christmas-y nutshell.