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   1999-08-20 Mel Lastman, Ed Mirvish Profiles




Two super salesmen of Toronto

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Aug. 20, 1999: 


By Donald H. Harrison

Second in a series

Toronto (special) -- This city has two Jewish super-salesmen who branched out from their original lives as retailers and flamboyantly won their way into the hearts of Torontonians. 

One is Ed Mirvish, the bargain store owner who became a leading figure of the legitimate stage as the owner of two of Toronto's major theatres. The other is Mel Lastman, a former appliance store owner who today is His Honor the Mayor.

Both are self-made men whose offices are filled with keepsakes from lives crowded with sales promotions, publicity stunts and ad campaigns in behalf not only of profits but also the causes they
believed in.

Now in his mid-80s, Mirvish watched Lastman, who is nearly a generation younger, as a kid coming up. There are some decided similarities between the two .

For example, Mirvish once won a lot of attention (and protests from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) for a "pink elephant sale" in which he painted an actual elephant pink (quickly washing him down after it was explained that elephants keep cool through the pores of their skin).

Similarly, Lastman during his "Bad Boy" Appliance Store heyday made what now would be considered "politically incorrect" news by actually "selling a refrigerator to an Eskimo." Today, the term "Eskimo" has been replaced by "Inuit." Even in an environment where there's ice
and snow all around, a refrigerator has utility. Meat can be stored conveniently without fear of an animal digging it up in the night.

Mirvish was nine years old when his parents moved to Toronto from Virginia and only 15 when his father died. He quit school to take over the family grocery store, and got a powerful education in business.
He related to HERITAGE that his father "used to give everybody credit and it was the Depression years so nobody could pay the bills, so we were always in bankruptcy. Once we got out of there, I never gave credit--just strictly cash. "

No credit, and other cost saving policies -- those are the secrets behind the success of his massive discount store, Honest Ed's, which to American eyes looks like a giant Pic n' Save that has expanded from one store by cutting through walls and ceilings to neighboring stores so that today it is a warren of bargain basement items. 

Some of the signs around the store proclaim: "Honest Ed's a lazy lout: he won't get his prices up"; "Honest Ed's a freak but his prices ain't so weird"; "Honest Ed's no midwife but the bargains he delivers are real babies" and "Honest Ed won't squeal, he lets his bargains do the talking."

"There is no magic," Mirvish said about the art of keeping 

   Ed Mirvish celebrates his 85th
prices down. "We eliminate all the services -- no refunds, no credit, no delivery, no free parking. And we try to pass the savings onto the public." 

Mirvish happily accepts the title "king of the tscotchkes," although in fact, you can find in his store not just keepsakes but a wide variety of useful items ranging from housewares to clothing.

To make certain people kept stopping by the store to check out his bargains, Mirvish dreamed up lots of publicity stunts over the years.One year, he held a 72-hour dance marathon right in the store, and on another occasion, the bargains were shoved aside to make room for
an in-store roller-skating derby.
"We get a lot of publicity," he said. "That's what it is all about.
"Because if you buy advertising lineage, it isn't the same as if they
cover you for nothing. Publicity that is news gets more readers and it
doesn't cost the same."

No wonder HERITAGE was able to get in for an interview with
Mirvish without an advance appointment!

Differentiating Honest Ed's from other discount stores are scores of

   The discount store
posters advertising plays, musicals and other spectacles that have been the staple of Toronto's theatre life for nearly four decades.

"Thirty-seven years ago, they were going to throw down the Royal Alexandra Theatre which was built in 1907 and I knew nothing about theatre because I was a storekeeper," Mirvish related. "If I knew what I was doing, I wouldn't have touched it, probably. But I bought it and I was committed to keep it for at least five years as a legitimate theatre.

"At the end of the fifth year it was breaking even and making a little, so it is 37 years that I have that theatre now. For 20 years I complained what an aggravation it was, so 17 years ago I bought the Old Vic in London -- which is one of the most historic theatres in the world --and we had it for 16 years until we sold it last year. 

"Meanwhile, about six years ago, we built the Princess of Wales Theatre (in Toronto) because there was not a theatre here that could accommodate Miss Saigon and the helicopter. We had Miss Saigon for about two years, and then Beauty and the Beast another two years."

Whatever prompted him to become a theatre owner? As the owner of Honest Ed's, he said, he knew a bargain when he saw one.

"I knew that they paid $750,000 to build that theatre in 1907 and I was able to buy it for $215,000, including the land," Mirvish said. "But the first thing I learned about the theatre was that as long as you keep it locked up, you know how much it costs you every week. Once you
 open the door and put something on the stage you can go broke realquick. You can lose $50,000 a week. But I was committed to keep it for at least five years."

One immediate benefit of the purchase, he laughed, was that "people who never shopped in my store -- they were ashamed to be seen here -- now they could come in and pretend to be patrons of the arts. "

Many of the people who shop at Honest Ed's have to stretch their dollars, but "I have a picture of a Rolls Royce that was parked outside" Mirvish chortled.

Refurbishing the Royal Alexandra cost double the theatre's purchase price, Mirvish recalled. The first production was Never Too Late with William Bendix.

Mirvish said that production and others that followed "did fine." The reason that his predecessors sold the theatre "was that it was dark about 40 weeks a year. The O'Keefe (a much larger theatre) had just opened and all the productions were going there. The 37 years that
we've had it, we've never been dark. We are open 52 weeks a year."

What he did was "buy shows from London's West End or from Broadway, or anywhere in the world, and sell them. I would just handle it like any other product. It was not so artistic. If the show was a hit I went after it, and it seemed to work. And then I built up a big subscription with 52,000 subscribers for seven weeks each show, six shows a year. And every show that came in was 85 percent sold out."

Then came the musical Hair, for which Mirvish interrupted the subscription program so it could run for 53 weeks -- although not without controversy. "That was 26 years ago, and it was radical at the time," Mirvish recalled. "We didn't know if they would close it down because it was the first time they had frontal nudity on the legitimate stage."

After the last performance of Hair, the subscription was reinstituted until Les Miserables came along and ran for two years, followed by Crazy for You which ran another two years.

Of course, Mirvish couldn't resist trying his hand at producing his own show, including one which went to Broadway called Like Father Like Fun. "It played six weeks at the Royal Alex, and then we took it to Montreal for four weeks," Mirvish recalled. A local critic warned that
it was not good enough for Broadway, "but you know, my ego, I wanted to prove I could do it in the Big Apple. So we took it there, and it closed within a week.

"Only one critic gave it a good review," he said. "That was Walter Winchell; you probably remember his column. He died a few months later, but it wasn't the show that killed him."

The Old Vic, built in 1818, was purchased by Mirvish when the London landmark was threatened with being torn down, as the Royal Alexandra had been previously in Toronto. Mirvish sold the famous theatre last year to a non-profit organization on whose board his son, David, now sits. 

While operating theatres in two countries, Mirvish made numerous connections, including an association with Cameron Mackintosh with whom he partnered in creating the Canadian touring production of Miss Saigon . When that production opened in Tokyo, Mirvish and his wife Anne ("Anne with an 'e'; she is very particular about that") traveled throughout Asia, purchasing items to be used in productions then sold from his museum.

Ed's Theatre Museum, located in the theatre district, is a "museum of the absurd, unusual and the ridiculous," Mirvish said. "It has been running for quite a few years, but I think I might close it, because it is a lot of work for the return. But when we do shows and the shows are finished, we have the sets, the costumes and the furniture, and it is the only museum in the world where everything is for sale.

"The items range from 5-cents to $95,000," Mirvish said. A pause. "Usually all the men ask 'what is 5 cents?' and the ladies want to know 'what is $95,000?'"

He paused again. 

"Okay," I said, taking my cue, "what cost five cents?"

He bestowed upon me a big smile. "For five cents we have old programs and flyers from all the different shows over the years and then we have steak knives from our restaurant. When they get dull we sharpen them, but when we sharpen them so many times that they can't cut better, we put them into the museum."

Then my wife, Nancy, took her cue.

"What's $95,000?" she dutifully asked.

"Oh, we have a large cloisonne vase from the People's Republic of China -- it's ten feet high."

The restaurant -- Old Ed's -- is next to the Princess of Wales Theatre, and it is one of six restaurants that Mirvish has owned around Toronto.

Another enterprise is Mirvish Village, near Honest Ed's, where artists including his wife have their work spaces.

Besides being a man of the arts, Mirvish is a contributor to various Jewish causes and is a member of three Jewish synagogues, one Reform, one Conservative and one Orthodox. But when he and Anne attend services, normally it is at the Reform congregation, Holy Blossom, because "my wife likes it. We are married 58 years."

In Mirvish's personal collection are giant cardboard "cakes" celebrating his 80th and 85th anniversary, correspondence from the late Princess Diana, various honors and medals, and an early 20th century Sephradic Torah and case. He presented another Sephardic Torah to the Royal Ontario Museum, where it is now on display.

* * *
There's an outdoor amphitheatre with a bandstand in the North York portion of Toronto named Mel Lastman Square after the man who served for a quarter century as North York's mayor when it was an independent city. Two years ago, when several cities in greater Toronto were amalgamated, Lastman was elected as the first mayor of the mega-city.
Having a square named for him while he is still alive "felt strange at first, but then I started thinking it is better to have it named after you when you are alive than when you are dead," the mayor told
HERITAGE. "How the hell do you know it is there when you are dead? Maybe you do know, I don't know. But at least I know that it was named after me when I was alive, and I am very proud of it. "

But, he confided, he personally never refers to it as "Mel Lastman Square." Maybe "everybody else does, but I don't. I just call it 'the 

    Mel Lastman Square

Such modesty is not normally associated with Lastman, who won fame in Toronto as the pitchman for his "Bad Boy" Appliance Store. In one set of commercials he even appeared in the costume of an ultimate "bad boy" -- prison stripes -- to promote the "steals" one could find at his store. It's hard to imagine a politician in the United States giving an opponent such an opportunity for a mischievous counter-commercial. But Lastman has reason to be confident, noting "I have been elected and reelected 11 times."

Lastman now is on a campaign to win recognition for Toronto as "the most multi-cultural city in the world" as well as a place "where people can work, play, have fun and live in peace."
"We are the most diverse city in the world, more so than New York or Los Angeles or anywhere," the mayor declared. "There are people here who come from 169 different countries and speak over 100 languages. ...In fact it is the only place I know where people who hate each other in the countries where they come from, where they kill each
other -- they come here and they get along. 

"Maybe inside they don't like one another," the mayor said. "Maybe it is the Macedonians and the Greeks, or the Armenians and the Turks, or the Jews and the Arabs, I don't know, but they don't bring out their hostility here. Their kids play together, go to school together, and so on, and that is the miracle of Toronto."

    Mayor Mel Lastman at his office
So where does this miracle come from -- the waters of Lake Ontario?

"I don't know if it's in the air or in the water, I am not sure," the mayor grinned. "It could be a combination of the two. Whatever it is, it works and it works really well, and I am so proud about it."

At a recent G-7 meeting of the world's industrial nations, Lastman delivered a speech on multi-culturalism, and "I am so pleased that I mentioned it because now it has gone around the world about the diversity of Toronto. We even got a convention over it; the world AIDS convention with 15,000 researchers, doctors and so on, all coming here in 2004 because of Toronto's diversity.

"It is getting around the world, everywhere, about what is going on here," the mayor said. "We are a city of celebration; we have more celebrations than anyone in the world. The reason that we have more celebrations is because we have more diversity. Everybody has a celebration. Like the 'Taste of Danforth' is coming up-- that's named for a street in the Greek community in Greektown."

Whereas there tend to be few "ethnic neighborhoods" in places like San Diego, in Toronto various parts of the cities are associated with various ethnicities. "There is nothing wrong with that," said the mayor. "I know in Israel they are having problems with people who come from Russia all living together, and not being able to separate them, but I say 'don't-- don't even try.' Because the kids will automatically assimilate, move into other communities, and it works out well.

"People want to have somebody they can talk to, somebody who speaks their language, someone they can communicate with, someone who understands them," said the mayor. "Everyone has celebrations.Every weekend in the summer we have three or four celebrations."

Lastman makes it a point to attend most of his city's ethnic street fairs, carnivals and parades which range from an Ashkenaz Festival, in which Jews of Eastern European backgrounds parade using oversized props, to the annual Yonge Street Festival in which one of the city's main north-south thoroughfares is turned into a street market and outdoor happening for several miles. 

The Yonge Street Festival "started off last year with 400,000; this year we had 625,000 people," he said. "Everything is free- except the food. Everybody loves these street festivals. The writeups are unbelievable. I want to keep people busy. Now I am working on the waterfront. I
have the premier (of Ontario province) involved; he is is anxious and excited about it."

Recently Lastman marched in his city's Gay Pride parade, resulting in criticism from some religious people with fundamentalist views.Lastman shrugged the criticism off.

"If I am representing the people, I have to represent all the people or none of the people," he said. "There is no way to say 'no' to a fairly large population in your city."

He pointed to his souvenir wall of cartoons and photographs, saying "here it shows me being sprayed with water. Here is a transvestite giving me a kiss. I almost died; I didn't know it was going to happen!"

Though he supposes that being Jewish may account for his interest in other cultures, "the thing is, it doesn't matter that I am Jewish, because everyone is Ukrainian, Polish, Macedonian, Greek, or whatever, Somali, Tamil, and it doesn't make a difference. That is the beauty of
this country; you can be Jewish and you can get elected as the first mayor of the new mega-city." Jews constitute about 175,000 people in a city of 2.4 million.

Although not particularly active in the Jewish community's religious life, Lastman has attended High Holy Day services at Pride of Israel Synagogue for the last few years since his father died. "He asked me to join and I never did but when he died, I felt he had to," he explained.

Though Lastman tries to be interested and friendly with all groups, the mayor has had his share of arguments.

For example, there was a battle with the Spice Girls, whom he refused to give a key to the city. As he tells the story, "we had a talk with their agent to put on a free concert for the people who couldn't afford to go and see them, and we made all kinds of arrangements with the cops,
the firefighters, ambulances and so forth so we could look after 200,000 people outdoors. They were only supposed to sing three songs, but then they said 'no,' so I said 'no' too. 'You want a key to the city, too bad! No key!' Then they invited me to come down to one of the music places where they were doing their thing and I said 'no, I don't want to see you; I want nothing to do with you. You made a promise and you are not keeping it."

Another feud was with Premier Mike Harris of Ontario, whom Lastman felt was shortchanging Toronto in the budget allocation process. One cartoon on the wall shows a small Lastman hanging onto the premier's nose, with a doctor telling the premier about his diagnosis of this unusual growth: "We are sure it is Mel-ignant, but you should be able to remove it in about three years," the doctor says. The premier, in a reference to Lastman's appliance selling days, says in the cartoon:"Fridge off!"

Lastman says of Harris: "We are good friends now, great friends. In fact, the best friends I've got are the ones I fought with."

If that's the case, Lastman can look forward to a future friendship with members of the homeless community, with whom he has been carrying on a battle over his campaign to prevent them from using the parks at night.

"We don't let the homeless sleep in the parks, " he said. "They use the parks as toilets and they leave their condoms there. "

A group called the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has been protesting Lastman's use of police to roust the homeless from the parks at night, but Lastman is unapologetic. The mayor said he has
been campaigning to get 2,000 low-cost housing units built a year, because "I don't want to have them sleep in the streets, because when they sleep in the streets they use the streets as toilets."

The mayor also wants to rid his city of people he calls "squeegies" -- the homeless people who start washing your car's windshield when you stop at an intersection. "They intimidate people," the mayor said. "If you don't give them money, they will bang on your car; if you don't give them money, they will spit on your windshield; if your window is open, they will spit on you. We don't want that. I am pushing the pronvincial government to give local authorities ways to deal with the

In the meantime, he said, "I am offering to give them jobs; I am offering to train them. We have put money aside, so far $650,000 in order to train them for jobs, but these guys don't want to work."

People who take away from the image of Toronto that the mayor is trying so carefully to build -- or who foul his beloved parks -- can count on having him as an enemy.

While Lastman was mayor of North York, he became an advocate of "water parks" -- places where people could go on a hot summer day and be wetted down by sprinklers that periodically would emerge from the lawn, or which would pour down water from the treetops, or
squirt at each other from pieces of playground equipment. 

"Everyone is different and the people love it," the mayor said. "My objective is to keep people in Toronto for the summer. Everybody used to go out of town. Now they don't want to go out of town. There are too many functions. I want to keep them here."

Now that he is mayor of all of Toronto, Lastman is on a campaign to build similar water parks throughout the city. He enlisted his son Blane in the campaign. Having taken over "Bad Boy" Stores, the son recently opened a micro-brewery, and created a beer called "Toronto's Own."
For every case of 12 beers sold, $1 is donated to the city's fund for water parks.

The mayor produced two bottles of beer, one for me and one for Nancy. "You can't drink this outside" because it's against the law to imbibe on the public steets, he advised, "but you can drink it here (in the mayor's office) if you want to."

We thanked His Honor and asked if we could take home the brews as souvenirs. The mayor beamed. "Show them to everyone," he said. "Each bottle has a message about Toronto."