Last year, the TTC retired the last of its orange-vinyl-seat subway cars. Then, earlier this year, we learned that the World’s Biggest Book Store would be closing. And now Captain John’s. The icons of our cheeseball heritage are slowly disappearing.
The Toronto of my youth was a land cascading with blinking light bulbs and gimmicky gimcrackery. And it was awesome. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, famously uptight Toronto underwent a garish revolution: The restaurants at the top of the CN Tower and the Westin Harbour Castle actually revolved, as did the sunken stage at the Ontario Place Forum, which was situated right next to the modernist orb of the world’s first IMAX screen at the Cinesphere. Oh, the superlatives. Everything was the world’s tallest, or biggest, or first: not just the freestanding structure and the bookstore and the cinema, but the World’s Biggest Jean Store and the world’s first retractable roof multi-purpose sports and entertainment facility (built just as the world decided to start constructing single-purpose, open-air baseball shrines instead). And, of course, predating all of this was the world’s biggest, most brazen bargain-house, Honest Ed’s.
Ed Mirvish was the godfather of loudly, proudly tacky Toronto. His restaurant, Ed’s Warehouse, where we’d all don the mandatory jacket and tie to go for special meals as children, was a wonderland of crushed velvet and stained glass lamps. For more kid-centric fare, we’d overload our senses at the Organ Grinder, where the giant novelty organ would drown out the digital bleeping of the video arcade. Genuinely upscale diners wallowed in a similar orgy of garishness for generations at Winston’s, where celebrities and power brokers were issued gold-plated VIP keys and had private phone lines installed at their tables.
Oh, and there was glitter, too: Sam the Record Man and A&As Records had duelling marquees, across from the shimmering silver discs of Pizza Pizza. From the Lake Shore motel strip to the cascading neon of the Yorkdale subway station to bright yellow police cars, we were a city with big ambitions and questionable taste, crying out for attention. Today, slowly, we attempt something a bit more dignified—steel and glass and heritage restoration projects. Gradually, our proudly kitschy heritage fades into memory. At least we still have, for a few weeks a year, the midway at the CNE, a living museum of the blinking, barking, unembarrassed cacophony of our past.
Related reading: The rise and fall of Captain John’s