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Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Day in Toronto

"It's called 'Novy with a schmeer on a bagel!'"
"I've never heard it called that before."
I was describing one of the delicacies of New York --in a strong Brooklyn accent--to a polite, if slightly shocked, native of Nova Scotia at the Waterfront Festival in Toronto. Queen's Quay was sprinkled with tall ships and tall people wearing bright blue kilts striped with black, the colors of Nova Scotia. People were handing out flyers advertising the beauties of the region, which appeared to be considerable. And they were giving away foam lobsters on metal leashes, very Daliesque. I got one.
"I've never been to your province but I've had your lox."
Then I had to explain what lox is. This is not surprising since the word is a variation on the German/Danish word lachs, not English at all. Nova Scotia Lox, or novy, as it's known in New York, is considered the finest smoked salmon in the world. The man in the kilt smiled proudly. "I will have to remember that."
Queen's Quay and the Toronto waterfront is very desirable living space with a great many amenities that I did not have time to properly explore. I had a date, a theatre date. The theatre in question was the last remaining functional double decker theatre in the world, the Elgin and the Winter Garden on nearby Yonge street. I took the streetcar which literally burrowed under Union Station, then switched to a subway. Toronto is the only city where I've seen streetcars going under ground. It makes sense, and it's an easy and free transfer to the subway.
The Elgin and Winter Garden are two theatres that literally sit one on top of the other. Built as a 'high class vaudeville house' in 1913 by American theatre owner Marcus Loew, the lower half was originally called Loew's Yonge Street theatre. The name was changed to the Elgin when it was restored. "Why?" I asked. "And who was this Elgin?"
"There is no historical significance to this whatever," the giude replied. "When they were remodeling the theatre, they were changing the sign and found they had the E, the G, the N, and the L. So all they needed to buy was the "I". it was done solely for cost."
The cost of restoring the two theatres was considerable. The downstairs Yonge Street changed from live entertainment to sound movies in 1928. The upper theatre was closed. Everything in it stayed where it was for nearly sixty years.
When it was inspected in 1981, it was a time capsule of the vaudeville age. Remarkably, over 100 pieces of scenery were still in storage, though heavily deteriorated. The ceiling of the Winter Garden was still hung with the thousands of beech leaves and lanterns that gave the illusion of an actual garden. Everything was intact, but the leaves crumbled to powder upon being touched, and the huge central stairway acted as a funnel for soot and pollution, so all was black and fragile.
The two theatres were restored, complete with new beech leaves, thanks to the Ontario government that now owns the theatres. And what a treasure they are. The Winter Garden is breathtakingly beautiful, with the colored lamps once again twinkling in a leafy rooftop, and the pillars that support the building camouflaged as tree trunks. The original drop front with a country scene is still used as the main curtain. I expected to see Buster Keaton run out from the wings and do a little soft shoe with his double on the stage. And yes, he and his family vaudeville act had played this theatre when it was new.
The Elgin's decor is more conventional, but it too was lovingly restored to its original 1913 appearance, including the misspelled name 'LIZT' on one of the entranceway's commemorative cartouches. (These also commemorate 'Tableaux' and 'Vaudeville'. I don't know what the former is, but would like to see the latter make a comeback.) The Winter Garden has the same fairyland quality as the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, which was ten years older and considerably larger and restored from a similar state of decrepitude to its original glory. How much nicer both these theatres are than the nasty plastic boxes of your average 'multiplex'. Even if the show was mediocre, you could enjoy the theatre. This was in fact the original idea. The entertainment at the Yonge Street (lower theatre) was continuous, and patrons came and went as they pleased. Performers did two-a-day downstairs, with the Winter Garden reserved for one performance per day for the 'class acts'
Over one hundred pieces of scenery were found intact in the theatre. Most of them are in storage still awaiting restoration. Three vaudeville flats, "The Peacock Flat", "The Butterfly Flat" and "The Lane" were restored and hung on the walls of the now much enlarged building. Old retail spaces were converted to modern lounges and additional bathrooms during the renovation. One of the original dressing rooms was restored, complete with old makeup pots and some donated costumes.
As a special treat we were allowed to see the original 1913 men's room, which was clean and contained original fixtures, but was no longer in use. Our guide actually knocked on the door before unlocking and entering the room. "I'm notifying the ghosts that we're coming," he said, with a perfectly straight face.
"Have you seen any ghosts?" I asked him.
"I had someone or something tap my shoulder one day, and when I turned around nothing was there. It was a very firm tap," the man continued, "I definitely did not imagine it. And sometimes the elevators--which must be manually operated with a control--someone must bring it to you when you want to go somewhere, you can't move them by pushing a button--move by themselves when I'm the only one here."
Sometimes the elevator also stops by itself on the third floor of the seven story building. There is no door opening on that floor. "Was there one there historically?" I asked. "I don't know," the man replied.
I ended the day by going to the Toronto Powwow in honor of Aboriginal Nations Day. The weather tried to rain, thought better of it, and the day ended warm and beautifully.
Today I have to work to get more stuff out of boxes and get ready for a meeting on Monday.
And I must look after Gizmo, who had some health issues this weekend, but appears to be doing better now. I think she was annoyed at being dragged to the vets twice in a month and wanted to give the lie to his pronouncement that she was just fine. Maybe she wanted to teach me a lesson about going out all day and leaving her alone, who knows.

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