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The Amazing Mr. Mirvish

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Flamboyant entrepreneur blazes trail from humble beginnings in Colonial Beach to legendary business empire in Canada.

Date published: 11/27/2004

ORONTO--"I have an unlimited capacity for accepting accolades," says Ed Mirvish, and his office bears him out.

Mirvish's honors have long since filled the mahogany walls of the two large rooms. His honorary degrees, awards and other testimonials now descend to every horizontal surface--shelves, tables, chairs and floors.

There are letters of appreciation and best wishes from premiers, prime ministers, popes and royalty. There's a Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. And caps and jerseys from the Blue Jays, Mapleleafs, Raptors and Argonauts.

And photographs autographed "To Anne and Ed" from Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Humphrey Bogart and many other stars from the galaxy of 20th-century show business in which Mirvish himself became a force.

The elderly recipient of all this veneration sits in a wheelchair behind his desk. Mirvish is pale, weak and serene. His thoughts and words come slower now, but his eyes still twinkle, his famous smile beams the instant a camera appears and he chuckles again at the stories, like the one of his circumcision, that he has told countless times before.

A few steps away is the mercantile madness that made him a millionaire many times over and a legend throughout Canada.

The store is named Honest Ed's. Mirvish, a son of a poor, immigrant shopkeeper, started the business with his wife in 1948. Now Honest Ed's is a 160,000-square-foot maze of many levels, stairways, skyways and tunnels that covers most of a city block. Hundreds of tables are piled high with everything imaginable, all of it for sale cheap.

Mirvish's personality and style are displayed everywhere, from the store's Las Vegas-glitzy signs high over Bathurst and Bloor streets to huge photos of him smiling from the sidewalk windows. Inside and out, the store is festooned with blowups of worshipful newspaper articles about his retail antics and advertising slogans corny enough to put at ease even the most skeptical of consumers.

"Come in and get lost!" reads one sign. "Don't just stand there! Buy something!" says another. And this one: "Honest Ed doesn't want to achieve immortality through his work. He wants to achieve it by not dying."

For many years on July 24, Mirvish has given himself a birthday party on the street outside the store, handing out free hot dogs and cheap gifts to the crowds in attendance and entertaining them with music and dance. He also has used the occasion to hand out big checks to Toronto charities.

Last year, Mirvish was near death with pneumonia and couldn't join the party. His illness also forced him to decline the Blue Jays' invitation to throw out the first pitch of last year's baseball season. Much to the amazement of his doctors, Mirvish recovered.

This year, 60,000 people came to the celebration of his 90th birthday. The city installed a granite tablet in the sidewalk outside the store. The inscription calls Mirvish "a beloved Torontonian" who "exemplifies the nobility of the human spirit and has made a difference in many lives."

Russell Lazar started work 46 years ago in a stock room at Honest Ed's and now manages it. He says Toronto usually reserves sidewalk plaques for people who have died, "but Ed convinced the city that death was too high a price for him to pay for the honor."

As it has so many times before, the city came to agree with the unassailable logic of the soft-spoken man who has revitalized entire neighborhoods of the city of 2.5 million, which sometimes calls itself the "Los Angeles of the North."

Mirvish's celebrated birth occurred in 1914 in Colonial Beach. He spent the first two years of his life in the Westmoreland County town before his family moved to Washington. In 1923, they moved to Toronto.

As a boy, Mirvish spent holidays and summers at a bustling resort on the Potomac, where his aunt and uncle Rebecca Mirvish and Harry Mensh, a flamboyant entrepreneur, owned much of the town.

Mirvish's boyhood memories of Colonial Beach are vivid and happy.

He has twice returned, most recently in 1997 with a Canadian television crew who produced an hourlong documentary of his life.

He says Colonial Beach is a far different town than when he was a boy.

"It might as well have been called 'Mensh Beach,' since most of it was Harry's," Mirvish wrote in his 1993 autobiography "Honest Ed Mirvish: How To Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School," published by Key Porter Books of Toronto.

Harry Mensh owned "the raucous shooting galleries, gaming concessions, and kiosks on the bustling boardwalk by the beach, and fertile orchard groves at each end. He owned the elegant Crown Castle Hotel [for Jewish clientele] and another swank inn for gentiles. He owned two restaurants, a movie house, an outdoor cinema, and a dance pavilion on a pier. Harry also owned the Workingman's Exchange, a combination tavern, pool hall, and supply store for crab and oyster fishermen.

"With his handlebar moustache, long slim cigars, white linen suits, and mint juleps, Harry loved to pose as a grand Virginia gentleman, and often alluded to the slaves on his plantation--although the only obvious black man in his employ was an ancient character named Boodie who drove a wagon down the boardwalk daily advertising the current features in Harry's cinemas.

"My father loved the sun and excitement of Colonial Beach when he visited his sister Rebecca Mensh: the crowds on the boardwalk, the big white yachts festooned with flags, the music on the dance pier, and the hustle of the hotel."

Mirvish's father, David, was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1890. David's father was a rabbi who died young and left his widow with three children. She managed to free her two daughters and David from the pogroms of Tsar Nicolas I by sending the kids one by one to America.

David Mirvish was the last to arrive in Baltimore, in 1903. By then, his sister Rebecca and her husband, Harry Mensh, owned several lots and businesses on the Colonial Beach boardwalk at Wilder Avenue.

After a stint selling Masonic encyclopedias throughout the South, David and his bride, Anna Kornhauser, moved to Colonial Beach in 1912, where he worked at the Workingman's Exchange.

"The newlyweds moved into an apartment over the dry-goods store owned by Emmanuel Fox [who'd married one of the Mensh girls]. Then two years later, the Panama Canal opened, World War I began, and the Mirvishes had a son. This, I'm delighted to say, is where I come in. On July 24, 1914, in fact, I beat the war by four days.

"To perform the initial rites of birth, a rabbi named Yoelson was imported from Washington since there wasn't one in Colonial Beach. At the party afterward, Rabbi Yoelson, I'm told, went on about his wayward son who'd rejected the rabbinate to appear on Broadway. Thirteen years later the rabbi's son starred in the first talking picture, 'The Jazz Singer.' I always say my chief claim to fame was being circumcised by Al Jolson's dad.

"My parents named me Yahuda. Fortunately, I had a worldly older cousin, Frances, who instantly Americanized the name to Edwin. Frances was a special lady--smart, beautiful, glamorous. She raced horses, pitched horseshoes, figure skated, and wore scarlet capes in Washington. One of my Aunt Rebecca Mensh's eight children, Frances became wealthy, adored, and wonderfully old without ever marrying. Men, including boys like me, automatically loved her.

"I still remember Frances taking me, as a toddler, on the sunny six-hour excursion trips on the Potomac from Washington, D.C., as a band played on the deckI spent every summer in Colonial Beachand I'd stay in Aunt Rebecca's big house with my cousins. Of the eight of them, some like Frances were already working. Marcus became a big Washington florist who decorated all the embassies. And Dave made movies in California. But the youngest, like Benny, were still at home.

"Benny was two years older than me, and my hero. He and Frances would take me crab fishingin one of their father's rental boats. They'd teach me to pull the line up so slowly the crab didn't even know he was moving--then swiftly scoop the little rascal in a net. We'd sail, we'd swim, we'd have picnics on the beach. When new movies came in, we'd go see them.

"One night I crawled under my seat in the outdoor theater and fell asleep. Benny was so absorbed in the picture, he didn't notice. When the movie ended, I wasn't there. There was instant pandemonium in Colonial Beach. Harry Mensh himself led the posse. Finally, after two hours of hollering my name through megaphones, someone in the search party found me. I woke up and asked where the movie was.

"At the back of the Crown Castle Hotel was a large, screened-in dining lounge looking out over gardens and a sweeping lawn. Benny and I pitched a tent out there and, while listening to the murmur of the diners, we'd fall asleep and spend the nights.

"Every morning we'd dash to the Workingmen's Exchange where Uncle Harry would mix us a milk punch. To a shaker of milk he added one scoop of sugar, one raw egg, and one shot of whiskey. I drank more as a kid than I ever have since.

"After drinking breakfast, Benny and I usually raced down the boardwalk to find Boodie's horse and wagon. We'd jump up behind him and squat beneath the movie posters as he clomped along clanging a brass handbell. Boodie was conscientious, but also adventurous. Often he'd come to the end of the boardwalk--and keep right on going. Out through the orchard groves into the countryside.

"Soon we'd be a couple of miles from town. Not a building, soul or dog in sight. But good old Boodie kept on jangling that bell and croaking out the news that Mister Cee Bee Dee-Mille was currently presenting 'The Ten Commandments,' or Douglas Fairbanks was coming next as the 'Thief of Baghdad.' Even when he rode alone into the country, Boodie continued his announcements. We thought it was hilarious.

"Before I met him, the only blacks I'd paid much attention to were the contestants in the Colonial Beach's popular watermelon-eating contests. They'd gobble down as many melons as they could, bob their faces into flour barrels, then come up grinning. Instant whiteface. The surrounding spectators from Philly, Bayonne, and Newark howled. But Boodie, I noticed, never laughed."

Many Jewish people lived in and visited Colonial Beach in the early 20th century, says 80-year-old Barbara Cooper of Colonial Beach. Her grandmother was Harry Mensh's sister. The Menshes emigrated from Lithuania to Maryland in the late 19th century, "but by 1947, about all the Jews in Colonial Beach were gone," she says.

"My father was more a scholar than a businessman," Ed Mirvish says of his father, David. After Colonial Beach, David Mirvish tried without much success to run neighborhood grocery stores in Washington and Toronto.

In Toronto, the family store on Dundas Street was open from early morning to late at night, but David Mirvish extended too much credit to make a profit. To make ends meet, the Mirvishes rented rooms upstairs to a rabbi, who was soon teaching Yiddish and Hebrew to Ed and many other children.

"I remember that, because there were 50 kids and every time you wanted to go to the bathroom you couldn't get in. That's why, much later, when I saw a house in Forest Hills with six bathrooms I grabbed it," Mirvish remembers.

When David Mirvish died in 1930, his 15-year-old son, Ed, dropped out of high school to help his mother run the store. It never made money, and they eventually closed it. Later they tried a dry-cleaning business and, after that, selling women's clothes.

Ed's life changed in 1941 when he married Anne Maklin, a woman with an artistic bent. She painted, sculpted, played the piano and sang. On their first date, she took him to the Royal Ontario Museum, a far cry from the rough-and-tumble life Mirvish had led on Dundas Street.

Before long, Anne and Ed opened a successful dress shop called the Sport Bar on Bloor Street. In 1944, when their son, David, was born, they managed to buy the building and several others next door. They expanded the dress shop and named it Anne & Eddie's.

"There was just one problem," Mirvish recounted later. "I'd become sick of selling dresses. They required too much service. And they just weren't exciting. I wanted to sell stuff you could simply display and let people pick out for themselves. I was simply tired of catering to customers."

Mirvish started buying merchandise at fire and bankruptcy sales. He and Anne closed down the dress shop, evicted their tenants next door, displayed all the smokey, cheap goods on orange crates in the new space and named it Honest Ed's.

A 1948 newspaper ad announced its birth:

"Our Building is a dump! Our Service is rotten! Our Fixtures are orange crates! But!!! Our Prices are the lowest in town! Serve yourself and save a lot of money!"

Honest Ed's was an instant success. Its profits bankrolled other ambitious projects that pleased his wife and son.

In the early 1960s, Mirvish bought a row of Victorian houses across Markham Street from the store and transformed them into the artsy Mirvish Village. One of the buildings became a sculpture studio for his wife, Anne, and another a modern-art gallery that his son, David, opened when he was 19.

In 1963, Mirvish heard that Toronto's ornate Royal Alexandra Theatre on King Street was for sale. Built in 1907 for $750,000, it featured walnut staircases and paneling, electric chandeliers, European tapestry and marble and ducts for cold air blown from huge tanks of ice in the basement to keep the audience cool in summer.

Performers with names like Barrymore, Bernhardt, Bankhead, Cohen and Gielgud had trod its sloping stage. One Toronto critic called it "the final and greatest gesture of the paramount families of the old Toronto Establishment." Some would-be purchasers of the theater wanted to raze it for a parking lot.

Mirvish, the splashy storekeeper, thought it was a bargain at $215,000 and agreed to keep it open as a theater at least five years. He spent $400,000 to restore and modernize it--adding, among other amenities, the first women's restroom it ever had.

Mirvish's son, David, says, "My father likes a challenge." The Alex provided Mirvish plenty of challenges in the early years, but it is still going strong. The musical "Mamma Mia" has been playing there for the past five years.

In the 1960s, the neighborhood around the theater had changed from its turn-of-the-century, tree-lined elegance into a sooty railroad yard full of grimy warehouses. Mirvish soon recognized that his theater patrons needed places to eat.

He bought an old warehouse next door on Duncan Street next door to the theater, decorated the place himself in a style one critic called "Baroque bordello," put in tables and 192 seats and opened his first restaurant.

"Ed's Warehouse" served only one meal: an English cut of roast beef, rolls, kosher dill pickles, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and canned peas. All for the bargain price of $3.15.

Mirvish found the restaurant business so good that he eventually opened five others on Duncan Street: Ed's Folly, Ed's Italian, Old Ed's, Ed's Seafood and Most Honourable Ed's Chinese Restaurant. Together, they held 2,600 diners, served 6,000 meals a night and made more millions for the boy from Colonial Beach.

In 1982, Mirvish heard an old theater was up for sale in London. It wasn't just any old place, it was the Royal Victoria Hall. Built in 1818, the Old Vic, with its opera, ballet and famous productions of Shakespeare, was a venerated symbol of British culture.

Mirvish had never been to London, but Anne and David persuaded him to make an offer of more than $1 million. Mirvish outbid his chief competitor, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the world's richest composer. He then spent another $4 million to fix the place up.

At the opening production in 1983, Sir Laurence Olivier gave a speech and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whom Mirvish called the "Queen Mum," sat with the Mirvishes for the show.

In 1991, Ed and David Mirvish used gold-plated shovels to break ground for a new theater a block away from the Royal Alexandra. By the time the Princess of Wales was finished in 1993, they had spent almost $40 million on the 2,000-seat palace with one of North America's biggest stages. Contemporary artist Frank Stella painted 10,000 square feet of colorful minimalist murals for the huge hall.

The stage was filled opening night with "Miss Saigon," a $12 million production. By opening night, the show had amassed $30 million in advance sales, the biggest in Canadian history, and the Mirvishes celebrated with a $1 million party.

The Mirvishes' investment in Toronto has been followed by others. Nearby is the 1,300-foot-tall CN Tower that overlooks Lake Ontario to the south and, to the north, the gleaming buildings in stainless steel and glass that have risen where rail yards once stood.

Across King Street from the Royal Alexandra stands the home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Nearby is the immense Sky Dome. A block away, a 46-story building will soon rise to hold the Toronto International Film Festival with condos above.

The sidewalk connecting Mirvish's two theaters on King Street is now known as the Mirvish Walkway. It is also Canada's Walk of Fame, honoring Margaret Atwood, Dan Aykroyd, Glenn Gould, Wayne Gretsky, Bobby Orr, Guy Lombardo, Neil Young, Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Gordon Lightfoot, William Shatner, Celine Dion and many other famous Canadians. The central star, however, belongs to Ed Mirvish.

Things change. Mirvish's mother, Anna, worked as a clerk at Honest Ed's until shortly before her death in 1971 at age 83. Mirvish now leases his restaurants. He and David sold the Old Vic in 1997.

David, 60, now runs Mirvish Productions. He and his family live across the street from his parents, who have been married 64 years. David is a prominent collector of modern art and frequently displays works from his collection at shows around the world.

David is also a partner in a project to build a 51-story building, Toronto's tallest, on King Street not far from the theaters.

David has never been to Colonial Beach. Except for Barbara Cooper, the Mirvishes have no more family ties there. Ed's Aunt Rebecca Mensh died in 1934. Harry Mensh died in 1941. Benny, Frances and all of their children are dead, too.

Few residents of the town have ever heard of Mirvish. But Cooper remembers Emmanuel Fox's dry-goods store where Mirvish was born upstairs. The building still stands on the corner of Hawthorn and Taylor.

Anne and Ed drove through Colonial Beach in 1960 on their way to Florida. The Crown Castle still stands, but, according to Mirvish's biographer Jack Batten, Mirvish found it "a Mickey Mouse place."

It was Anne's first visit.

"I don't know if she was that impressed," says Mirvish. "Over the years we've visited a lot of places and become jaded. When you're young, a place can seem more important than when you get away from it and see the rest of the world. But it's still a nice area on the Potomac River."

The Mirvishes returned in 1997. Their visit was captured for Canadian television. By then, the town of Colonial Beach had bought and demolished many of the arcades, bingo halls, shops and snack bars that once lined its busy boardwalk, now a concrete sidewalk by the beach.

"There's nothing here. The boardwalk's gone. People used to stroll on the boardwalk and talk to each other. It was the life of the whole beach. In those days, it had a lot of appeal," Mirvish said on television.

At the Crown Castle Hotel, which ceased operations as a hotel many years ago, Mirvish said, "I'm kind of disillusioned because I used to think it was something. Of course, the last time I saw it was 75 years ago when I was 8 years old. It had a porch then and people used to sit on it in rocking chairs. Now the porch is gone, too, but in those years it had a lot of appeal. It was a very lively place.

"I guess things change a lot in 75 years," Mirvish said.

In recent years, Colonial Beach has struggled to regain some of its former glory. New developments may bring new residents. Condominiums may rise on the town's boardwalk property where Harry Mensh once prospered.

The old store where Mirvish was born still stands at the corner of Hawthorne and Taylor streets. A neighbor, Steve Basset, says he hopes to buy the dilapidated building, tear it down and build condos on the lot with retail space below them.

A Northern Virginia contractor hopes to restore the Crown Castle Hotel that he bought in September for $175,000.

"We'd like to open up the front porch like it was and add a couple of side porches, maybe a shop or a little restaurant in front, and create a charming, attractive old hotel," says Brian McCarthy, 36, of Clifton. "I'd love to bring it back to what it was.

"I don't doubt that Colonial Beach will come back. The question is how long it will take. I want to see some stuff happen there before we sink a whole lot of money in the Crown Castle."

Why doesn't Mirvish buy property in Colonial Beach and turn it into someplace special like the Toronto neighborhoods he has transformed?

"At 90, I'm not that ambitious, but I'm sure it has potential for some young, ambitious person," he said. "The town has a small population now, and it doesn't seem that ambitious. It needs young people with ambition and dreams."

FRANK DELANO is a staff writer with The Free Lance-Star. Call him at 804/333-3834, or e-mail him at delanobigtree@rivnet.net.

Date published: 11/27/2004

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