He’s gyrated with go-go girls, cozied up to chickens and donkeys, and painted himself silver—all in the interest of trading cold, hard cash for your family jewels. Getting to know one of Toronto’s most notorious characters.
“Call me Cashman.” Those are the final words in the first message he leaves on my answering machine, and they’re essentially redundant. Everyone calls him Cashman. It’s how he’s greeted by the night guard outside his lawyer’s office, by the teenage girls smoking near the bus stop, by the host at his preferred Chinese restaurant—and that’s just on a two-block January stroll up Bay Street. Each time, Russell Oliver removes his gloves to shake their hands.
Like all good inventions, Cashman sprung from necessity. In 1990, Oliver’s 20-year-old retail shop, Oliver Jewellery, had been forced into bankruptcy by the collapsed economy. Though he managed to re-open the next year on Eglinton Avenue, by the mid-’90s traffic had stalled once more. Oliver believed—over the objections of his family, who felt a middle-aged man should perhaps not wear blue-and-red spandex—that the superhero character would attract attention, which would translate into sales. He poured $30,000, the entire year’s advertising budget, into a month’s worth of Cashman TV commercials. Vindication was swift: Customers flocked to the store to banter with Oliver, and stayed to exchange their diamonds (which are then sold elsewhere) and their gold (which, typically, is melted down). He now spends an annual $1.5 million on television ads, and business has remained sufficiently brisk that a second Oliver Jewellery outpost will launch in Oakville this spring.
But the cape was simply a shiny new accessory to drape over a man who’s long understood how to make a sale. In 1971, when Oliver opened his jewellery store in a third-floor office at Yonge and Queen, he hired kids to flood the intersection with promotional flyers. “And when I say flyers, I don’t mean 20,000 or 50,000, I mean millions of flyers,” he clarifies. “And when I say kids, I don’t mean three or five, I’m talking 20 kids a day.” Before that, as a university student in the late ’60s, Oliver owned a discotheque (his word) on Church Street called the Village Green After Hours Club, where the lack of liquor licence proved no impediment to getting people drunk and pulling in more than three grand a weekend. Before that, in high school, he had a Toronto Star paper route—his favourite job, buying newspapers for about eight cents and selling them for 10; his eyes go a little dewy when he speaks of it—which he also parlayed into a side business, babysitting for customers.
And before that, as a nine-year-old in his native South Africa, Oliver hawked make-up door-to-door. “My friend had a father who made cosmetics in his basement,” he says. “I’ll never forget his name: Moishe. But children were not allowed to work, so that job didn’t last. I got arrested right away. I knew it then, though—I liked making money.” Young Oliver walked into that Johannesburg jail a boy, but he walked out a salesman.
If you are breakfasting with Russell Oliver and it is a Wednesday or a Saturday, he will have coffee and a bagel. “Well, the bagel is really the carrier of the margarine,” he says, “and then the coffee is the melter of the margarine.” If it is not a Wednesday or a Saturday, he will have a Diet Coke With Lime.
If you are dining with Russell Oliver and you are at a Chinese restaurant (like Dynasty at 69 Yorkville Ave., which is where one of his jewellery stores once stood), he will have sesame-lemon prawns and crispy beef. He would like to have the oven-roasted pork, but it’s a Thursday, and that dish is only available on weekends.
III: Big-top son
In the ’50s, in South Africa, Russell Oliver’s parents ran a travelling circus. Mostly, when they left town with their acts and their animals, he and his three siblings stayed behind, but as the eldest boy, he was at times allowed to tag along, to make popcorn and train the ponies.
It wasn’t idyllic. “I have some terrible memories about animals,” he says. “Once, my father had to kill a lion—the lion was old, or he wasn’t producing—and he made me watch, which was horrible.” Sitting very straight in his office chair at the back of the jewellery store, Oliver lays eight fingers along the edge of his desk; his thumbs hook underneath its glass top. He stares for a long while at something past my left shoulder. Perpetually kinetic, he is now almost completely still.
Was his father making a point, I ask—demonstrating that those who profit off an animal’s life must also bear responsibility for its death? “He didn’t give it a second thought,” Oliver says. “He was an idiot. I remember my father doing a lot of shooting, and always having a gun, and chasing people, and people chasing him in the circus. In South Africa, where everyone shoots everything, what the hell is killing a lion? He loved animals, but what’s killing a lion?”
When Oliver’s father was in his 40s, he suffered a heart attack and retired from the circus trade. Soon after, he decided to escape the country and its violence. The family travelled to Cape Town, then to England, then rode over the Atlantic in a cargo ship, before landing in Toronto. “Honestly, in 1960, when my parents arrived with four kids, they had no idea where they were going to live. They knew nothing about Canada. That’s where I got this bold bullshit from. They had guts.”
IV: Family man
Wife: Barbara. They celebrate their 40th anniversary on Valentine’s Day. No plans yet. They’ll probably stay home.
Sons: Justin (b. 1976), Jordan (b. 1980), Jarred (b. 1985), Jonas (b. 1988). No daughters.
Three dogs: all Coton de Tuléars. They are washed and groomed once a week. The girl, Toulie, wears a small bow. Russell Oliver has a photo of them on his iPhone lock screen. Toulie’s on the left.
V: Reality-show star
Cameras are nothing new at Oliver Jewellery. There are 30 of them, recording every angle of the sprawling store: the bare-bones front room, where the deals are done; the sorting room, where gold is examined, diamonds measured, silver weighed; the office where Russell Oliver works; the basement; the kitchen; the hallway with the man-sized safe (one of five). Three enormous flatscreens display a grid of the security cameras’ grainy feeds.
But a few months ago, producers from Frogwater Media—they have a program called Chefs Run Wild—approached Oliver’s son Jordan with a pitch for a reality show. It would capitalize on the success of a series like Pawn Stars, only with more sons, more antics, and, of course, the charismatic Cashman. Cameramen were prepared to descend as soon as the contract was signed.
The family, predictably, was skeptical. All four sons work at the store, and they worried about having their embarrassing moments broadcast and their privacy lost. Oliver insisted they view it as one giant, free commercial—he also insisted on final cut—and so the sons conceded. Barbara continues to have no interest in being involved in the show. (“She will be, for 50 grand an episode,” Oliver promises. “She said a million bucks, but I know the price. For 50 grand, she’ll be interested.” Her children are inclined to disagree.)
If all goes according to plan, the Oliver family reality show—working title: The Golden Boys—could be on the air in a year. That’s a reasonably short turnaround, and yet the show seems to come conspicuously late. Russell Oliver was the canary in a particular coalmine of celebrity: He understood, long before Snooki and Honey Boo Boo’s rural relatives did, that a willingness to tolerate humiliation could help one secure fame. People would not only watch camp, they would reward it. But everybody knows that now, and television stations are duly littered with assorted Kardashians and Real Housewives. Reality-show bandwagoner is a label that fits Oliver about as awkwardly as his spandex Cashman suit.
VI: Pop-culture maven
“You see Django Unchained? Oh, it was good, but the accents were so thick. And Flight? One of the top movies I’ve seen in a long time. Great twists and turns. Maybe Denzel Washington’s best work. And John Goodman! He’s in that, and he’s in Argo. He’s just fabulous in everything.”
Russell Oliver gets a lot of screeners.
VII: Olympic hopeful
When Russell Oliver was 10 years old, a trainer would come each morning at 5 a.m. to lead him from his house to the family pool. He was a swimming prodigy. He won every competition. He was meant to go to the Olympics.
Oliver recalls with perfect clarity a swim meet more than half a century ago. It was an important one, though his parents were not there. He remembers sitting in the stands with his schoolmates, and being called to the start of his race; he remembers the long walk down the side of the pool. All he heard—and he can hear it still—was the commotion of the crowd: “Here comes Oliver! Here comes Oliver!” And then: “He’s the best! We’re gonna win!”
In 2007, he returned to Johannesburg for the first—and, he believes, last—time. He went back to the house that he lived in, and then he went back to the swimming pool. It was winter; no one else was there. Oliver sat in the stands, then rose to his feet and walked that same long walk beside the water. He waited for goosebumps and the sound of the crowd that he has carried with him for 50 years. It didn’t come. He heard only silence. He got on a plane and went home.
VIII: Unrepentant soft-drink addict
Russell Oliver drinks 10 Diet Cokes With Lime a day.
Russell Oliver is 65 and not especially deft with dates. But asked about the 1986 robbery at his Yorkville store, where he sold, rather than bought, jewellery, and the man is absolutely certain. “Saturday. Eleven o’clock in the morning. April 7. They were young kids, one was 16, one was 18, and they came with guns to rob me.”
To announce their arrival, the kids fired a bullet past Oliver’s head. They smashed a crowbar through the display case—the noise, steel against glass, scared him more than the gunshot did—and scooped the shard-covered rings into a cloth bag. He pursued them into the street, grabbing for the bag. The weapon reappeared, then went off. Oliver would have liked to chase the kids further, but there was a bullet in his foot.
The police managed to retrieve most of the rings. Oliver regrets nothing—“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” he says, our very own Zapata—and his foot no longer hurts when it rains.
In the summer of 1999, Russell Oliver learned he had a date with the federal court. It turns out that DC Comics and its owner, Time Warner, weren’t fans of Cashman—in fact, they were pretty sure that Cashman constituted copyright infringement. And so they brought a claim enumerating the similarities between Cashman and Superman, among them: a) a flowing, calf-length red cape; b) full-length blue leotard; c) red calf-high boots; d) red briefs; e) yellow-gold belt; and f) reliance on a phone booth for superhero transformation.
These things were true. But the claim failed to account for the considerable differences between the two characters—differences that Oliver’s lawyer, Jerry Levitan, was very careful to highlight in his written argument. Among those distinctions: a) the sole function of Cashman is to buy and sell jewellery; b) Cashman does not have an athletic physique; c) Cashman was not born on the planet Krypton; d) Cashman is not vulnerable to any of the numerous forms of kryptonite; and e) Superman has no need to purchase jewellery, as he has been known to mine jewellery for himself and to manufacture diamonds from the compression of coal using super strength.
“Oh, it was terrific fun,” Oliver says. “It was so much fun, and we could have gone to court, but we didn’t want the seriousness, so we decided to settle.” He considers this. “Also, we would have probably lost.”
As part of the terms of settlement, Cashman’s cape and costume have been permanently retired. The name remains.
When Oliver Jewellery went bankrupt in 1991, Russell Oliver went to bed. He stayed there for a year.
He says he wasn’t especially worried—he knew it was a stage, that he needed the rest, that there was money to rely on, and Barbara would look after the boys. He says nothing particular brought him out of the depression, other than time. He had a wife and four kids. There was a jewellery store on Eglinton he could purchase. He dressed and left for work.
Russell Oliver did not dream of diamonds and gold. He had been accepted in 1971 to Dalhousie law school—the only law school to accept him—and he was working that summer at the third-floor jewellery store on Queen. The brothers who owned it were looking to sell: $12,000, all in, the price of the inventory. Oliver had no special interest in the trade, but he sensed an opportunity.
When he created the Cashman character to revive static sales, Oliver received immediate censure from his peers in the industry. “Jewellery is supposed to have an elegant status,” he says. “Jewellery is not supposed to be degraded; it’s not supposed to be used and sold. People want jewellery to last forever.”
But in dispensing with these 24-carat fantasies, Oliver has tapped into the reality of how jewellery is actually used. Sure, it’s pretty; it’s also transactional. It changes hands. Sometimes, that’s because of hard feelings—nearly every day, Oliver fields a ring inscribed with some variation on “love always.” Often, it’s because of priorities—making a mortgage payment is far more urgent than hanging on to a hunk of gold.
Of course, pawning can be a humbling process. And here’s how Oliver helps distinguish himself from competitors like Jack Berkovits of the Omni chain and Harold the Jewellery Buyer—here’s the genius in his shtick. A man who so willingly paints himself silver or wraps his sizable frame in spandex is not a man who appears given to judgment. These embarrassments, easily embraced, can stand in for your own.
The sons have it now. Jordan manages the front room; Jarred runs the small boutique next door; Justin sells merchandise on the road; Jonas will open the Oakville location. “I’m very content these days going to bed knowing that all of my boys can make a living out of Oliver Jewellery,” he says. Together, those boys are more than capable of running the operation—though Russell Oliver likes to maintain some vestiges of control.
“The money!” He giggles here. “The cheques! The cash! I am the Cashman!” Bookkeeping, allocation, disbursements—they still funnel through him. But the boys have become a little more brazen with their jokes about retirement, and the notion is edging into Oliver’s mind. He’s considering swimming again, and there’s the possibility of taking up golf.
In a city that can claim few legendary local characters—perhaps only Honest Ed Mirvish and Mel Lastman, old-school salesmen both—the Cashman is a figure that endures. And though people are drawn to the store by the idea of interacting with him, that actual interaction is far less important than the idea itself: Once they’ve laid their jewellery on the table, customers are just looking for a sale. Oliver has been preserved in the amber of those campy commercials, which frees the man beneath the cape to go home. Just not quite yet.
“People think I can’t sit around, can’t stop,” he says. “And I can’t do it at this very moment—don’t ask me—but I think I’m capable of learning how to behave contrary to my nature.” He shifts his weight on a stool in the Oliver Jewellery kitchen, his elbow leaning hard on the formica counter. Twenty feet away, a giant television displays 30 views of the business he has built. It’s 11:30 in the morning, a Saturday, and customers have been steady. Russell Oliver cracks open his first Diet Coke.
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