Monday, February 20, 2012



I hope you're happy. All I wish is that you stew in your stupidity.
The idea of a strong mayor setting the entire agenda for their city has been around for decades. Ontario and Toronto politicians, and "experts?" and ivy-coated profs, thought it would just be great to impose this in Toronto.
I guess they never bothered watching the many strong mayors drunk on power and corruption, with the occasional good idea thrown in for relief, strut around American cities and Montreal.
The headline on this column/blog was last used by me on Nov. 29, 2010. And I wrote about it on July 28, 2008. Indeed I have been writing about it for years.
I even participated in a Board of Trade task force in 2003 making recommendations to Queen's Park on mayoral powers, length of term and other alterations to the municipal system that had been operating reasonably for decades.
I was the only media member. My colleagues, which included Mike Wilson, the former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, Al Leach, the provincial minister who brought amalgamation to Toronto, and some key former insiders, largely ignored my warnings.
I said that a strong mayor was a great idea when you liked the man or woman who was mayor but a terrible ideas if they were dumb or easily manipulated.
Four years was too long as a municipal term, I also argued. Even elephants have shorter gestation periods, so who needs four years to make a difference.
I also argue that council had too many members. No need to defend that. It's obvious from the dysfunctional body we have now.
Wilson thought a mayor should have enough power to get his election promises through. Of course, he was always a federal guy. And we certainly know how the national government is really a one-man government with all those ministers and MPs merely window dressing.
The main problem with democracy today, I argued, is that too many confuse democracy and dictatorship because they're too lazy to let a reasonable process operate.
I reminded our task force about how a board of control had been a great idea. Such boards started as a municipal reform in Albany, New York, around 1915 and were designed to allow the public to chose the cabinet to run the city. It is a compromise between a mayor running everything and a council that tries too. A city works better when you don't put on your political eggs in one basket. And that's what you get when there's a useful tussle over ideas between the mayor who wants to be despot and a council that has real clout because four of its members are also elected city-wide.
Toronto and its big suburbs, and other cities like Hamilton, London and Ottawa, had these boards where all the voters chose four controllers. This meant that mayors could not claim that they were the only ones  who spoke for all the people. Not only was it a useful nursery for the training of future mayors, it also gave challengers to the mayor more clout because they also had city-wide experience.
In our past, most Toronto mayors were controllers first.
It was such a good idea that, naturally, it got dumped.  The board was replaced with an executive chosen by the council. And now we have this modern concoction where the executive includes too many people, and probably their pets too, and they and the committee heads are ordained by the mayor.
In this present mess, Rob Ford is running around like a conservative dinosaur with its head chopped off by the lefties and mushy middle. Most of his good ideas about spending restraint spurt out like blood and then clot uselessly in the sand of the arena.
Consider the supposed super mayors since this mess began. There was Super Mouth, also known as the Mouth that Roared. Mel Lastman is still around, fortunately in his best role as an appliance salesman. Then there was David Miller, the darling of the left and the environmentalists who never saw a green idea that wasn't worth an extra million.
And now we have Ford, and his brother, Doug, who unfortunately doesn't  know enough to learn the history of an issue before he shoots his mouth off at the nearest mike.
There have been Toronto municipal leaders who have ruled through hard work and smarts, like Fred Gardiner and Paul Godfrey. There have been those who ruled by charm like David Crombie. And those who dominated through the force of words or speed of delivery, like Phil Givens and Allan Lamport. Bill Dennison, Nathan Phillips and Art Eggleton endured longer than all the other mayors just by knowing more about the nuts and bolts of City Hall than the councillors. And they were very very careful. Caution can be more important than charisma.
Ford has been given too much power by the system. So councillors rebel at such good ideas as more contracting out and eliminating the costly tyranny of the fair wage policy. He can't articulate well enough to sell like a Crombie, and just ends up as a target in the confusion.
 If there were four deputy mayors, elected to represent the west, north and east of the old suburbs, and one for the greedy downtown, and they along with the mayor served as the elite executive, council would be more efficient, and, oh yes, far more democratic than this supposed one-person rule that doesn't work.
What a shame that all the supposed experts who imposed strong mayors on Toronto aren't still around in active politics to have all the resulting nonsense dumped all over them. May they drown in the crap, along with our taxes.

Sunday, February 19, 2012



I was following my wife down a quiet street in central Etobicoke when she stopped suddenly. I pulled my car beside her's and asked why. She thought she had ticked a truck.
The truck in question was a monster. Great big flatbed piled with shingles with a motorized delivery gizmo hanging off the back. No bumper to stop you from having your head and the top of your car ripped off if you were unlucky enough to hit its rear.
I looked at the monster and saw nothing. Maybe a mark on the big left rear tire. Then I walked around to the passenger side of the Toyota Sienna and found $6,000 in damage - a mashed fender and side.
The driver had parked on an angle on a narrow street to argue with a homeowner who said the shingle colour wasn't right. Since he hadn't been in the monster, he refused to show me his driver's licence and really didn't give a damn. After all, his vehicle had no damage. So he went back to arguing about colour.
I won't go into detail about the hassle of reporting the accident, having the van fixed, and having TD Insurance inform me that the next time my premium would go up. (I'm sure that TD and every insurance company on earth has never lowered premiums and is quick to judge you at fault for everything to do with every accident.)
I spare you details because those were a couple of days that I would just as soon forget, along with the $500 deductible.
Since the monster was parked, albeit stupidly, the accident was ruled my wife's fault. I think her fault was driving down the narrow street in the first place because the Royal York and Bloor area is now infested with every form of truck as monster houses are rising on the nice lots where decent, but smaller, homes have stood for decades.
And the drivers of these trucks have never passed a parking test and indeed will often block traffic with their doors open etc. while they discuss why the Leafs can't play like a decent team  or who's getting the coffee.
As I write, the radio is reporting that traffic at the junction of 400 and 401 is stopped because a tractor trailer has rolled on its side like a tired sow. Nothing remarkable about that. Just watch one try to waddle around an ordinary intersection and you have just another textbook example of how authorities have allowed all forms of trucks to bloat to such size that they block streets during delivery, scare the hell out of car drivers when they zoom up inside of you, and generally behave like drunken cowboys in a poor rodeo as they snarl traffic.
Except size problems aren't the truck drivers fault. Transport companies run the biggest trucks they're allowed so they can cut down on the number of drivers they have to hire. And so a routine sight is some tractor trailer awkwardly trying to make a turn without crushing most of the cars in sight.
The politicians and traffic engineers are no help. Since even if we have legislation reducing the size, we will still have some bigger vehicles around, meaning the city must shave and adapt some major corners so that tractor trailers, buses and fire trucks can more easily make the turn
Yet the authorities defiantly or stupidly do nothing. And on occasion, out of sheer devilment I presume,  they constrict the intersection to increase the degree of difficulty.
For example, in my neighbourhood alone, we have the corners of Glenroy and Prince Edward, and Norseman and Royal York,  deliberately screwed up to handicap vehicles.
Stand at the corner of  Park Lawn and The Queensway at any hour and watch the big trucks headed for the Ontario Food Terminal have to agonize through what should be a simple turn because there's enough public land there to make it far easier.
I once got squeezed by a tractor trailer on the Ambassador Bridge between Canada and the U.S. Caught between police jurisdictions. Fortunately I ended up with just a bashed fender. And then there was the tractor trailer who rode me into a tunnel wall because the driver just didn't see me from his high cab as he pulled over on top of me. If I hadn't been a reasonably good driver in a great car, my BMW 325, I wouldn't be here today.
Such experience have left me expecting the worst when I'm driving near a truck.  I'm seldom disappointed. And there are plenty of drivers like me. I know drivers who won't use 401 because of the rolling walls of tractor trailers.
So anything that can be done by the provincial transport ministry to return us to the days when the big tractor trailers were supposed to be used between cities and their loads were then transferred to smaller trucks for deliveries inside the city.
That was the theory, more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Transport companies thought the hell with that and lobbied to reduce the number of drivers and handling time. So you have big tractor trailers and huge construction equipment routinely on the busier city streets when that should be a rare sight..
When I was kid reporter covering a Toronto Transit Commission meeting, I heard something that I just didn't believe. So I asked and asked, and my story became front-page news in the Toronto Telegram. The TTC had bought buses that were too big for the roads. Literally! Not only where they illegal, there were bridges in the suburbs where the buses grounded.
No, they didn't sell the buses. They changed the law.
When I was a director of the Ontario Safety League, an advisory group to government, the reps of the trucking industry hastened to tell us how few accidents truck drivers are involved in compared to car drivers. Tragically, it really doesn't matter if tractor trailers are involved in, say, only 3% of the accidents, they are killers when they do. The lobbyists also explain the failure rates of nearly 50% when police do safety checks on tractor trailers, saying the police target independents and not fleet trucks because big fleet operators have the resources and the will to make their trucks as safe as possible.
I don't care about the stats when I drive Nor do I listen to the lobbies who influence too many politicians with their "campaign?" contributions.  I just look around and see trucks which are almost the width of the lane. Then there are the trucks with no pretence of bumpers that would prevent serious accidents. I would rather be hit by the great metal maw of a snowplow, and heaven knows they look menacing enough, particularly the amateur version with plows wider than the pickup, than slide under the deadly innards of a tractor trailer train.
The problem with all those tractor trailers that can't make a turn without manoeuvring like a squashed turtle is that they are rolling bottlenecks. If a company really wants to use big tractor trailers to make deliveries, limit them to the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. (Did you know that in ancient Rome, the chariots and wagons were limited to night hours for deliveries.)
The evidence is all around us that the situation cries out for reform. Perhaps that will only happen when the premier's driver can't avoid some giant tractor trailer towing a pup trailer on Dalton McGuinty's trip home to Ottawa. There is no argument more vivid than the memory of being squeezed by a mass of metal.
I dream of the days when you have to go to arenas to see monster trucks.



After 4,400 kms in my 2012 Elantra Touring, I have not changed my mind from my initial assessment that I wrote last Nov. 5.  Great car! But migawd the ride is hard. And it's silly to think you're going to get anything close to the mileage claims of the ads.
Yet this car keeps piling up the accolades. The Elantra just won car of the year at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto and is second in sales in the country to the Honda Civic, long the champ in sales.
Steve Kelleher, the president of Hyundai Auto Canada Corp., says the plants worldwide are running at capacity as the Canadian company has overtaken Honda in becoming the fifth-largest seller of vehicles in the country. He says the company is concentrating on not letting success go to its head when it comes to quality control. What a good policy. Yet as I wrote before, I think what has gone to its head is too much contentment in the sales staff. I wasn't impressed at my treatment.
I wanted a downtown car because my 2005 Toyoto Sienna is a great highway car and has the capacity of a tractor trailer but it's not the easiest for the short city trips where you are always trying to park in cramped spaces.
On Oct. 3, I sang the praises of the best downtown car I have ever owned, my 1992 BMW 325, as it was towed to the scrap heap but not out of my memory after 250,000 kms.  And it's pleasant to report that my Elantra is also great on those trips of 5 kms or so. The BMW ride wasn't exactly soft but the Elantra's is terrible, almost as bad as Toronto's roads where spine-crunching potholes are too often the norm.
My mileage is even more disappointing. I know how to drive to save gas, and only when I'm in a hurry do I give in to jackrabbit driving. Yet the ads tout 6.4 litres per 100 km. with only one Hyundai model being said to be harder on consumption. So I'm paying the price for the zippier motor and if I had chosen the sedan the robbery at the pump wouldn't have been quite as onerous. But I am finding that even in careful driving on short trips, where my average speed is around 29 according to the dash, my consumption is over 11 litres per 100 km. My big Sienna gets better mileage.
I realize that the experts says that the fuel claims based on EPA tests are 20 % lower than the reality of ordinary driving. So I am willing to live with mileage of 8 or  9 or 10 litres per 100 km., but I really didn't expect that even routine city driving would be higher.
I am waiting for the ideal long trip where I am going to drive quite carefully and see just how much higher my consumption is over the touted figures of the ads. If it continues to be too high, I will shout from the rooftops.

Thursday, February 16, 2012



When I think of Montreal, which is not often these days, the deli fiefs of Schwartz's and Ben's slide into my thoughts as if they had just been goosed by warm memories of mounds of smoked meat wedged between rye and devoured with gulps of cherry Coke.
They were the nicest icons in Canadian food emporiums. I say "were" because Ben's has been gone for a few years after a strike and Schwartz's has been bought by a consortium who I pray will not turn out to be Philistines intent on franchises.
I loved Schwartz's before I knew it was an institution. My bride and I and her parents decided to visit relatives who lived near Schwartz's in a messy big old house which had once housed a poet loved by the separatists.
The car broke down,  I felt guilty because my humble father-in-law couldn't afford the car repairs and I really didn't have any money, and I couldn't find the relatives near St. Laurent.
The next morning some kind of honourary uncle to Mary gathered me up in the late morning. We dined at Schwartz's, warming up on some weiners grilled over the flames, then devoured a large plate of dark red medium pastrami which I was informed had been smoked, of course, that day.
I licked the fat off my lips. A far cry from WASP meat-and-potatoes.  Then a couple of stomach-burning shots at the corner tavern and I returned to my bride slightly the worse for wear but burping contentedly.
It was the start of many visits, generally for the large plate and some crunchy pickles, before I found that Ben's just beside the hotel in which the old press club resided uncertainly was a great place at 2 a.m. when you were ravenous after all those rums and didn't want to go too far north.
Some days it was Schwartz's at noon and Ben's in the middle of the night. And the hell with those who claimed smoked meat led to stomach cancer.  I'm sure the two were fixtures on the expense accounts of most Toronto reporters who were pretending they had wined and dined their contacts at much posher places.
I recall the wee hours at Ben's when my friends and I were over- refreshed, as we used to say about drunk politicians we were trying to protect.  I was kidding with the cashier when she announced she was also a fortune teller. And she told my fortune. The hair still stands on my nape when I remember because she knew my past and predicted some of my future.
One magical weekend before the opening of Expo 67, several of us shivered through a late-winter storm and headed for the warmth of Schwartz's. It was a great Friday. We had already filed for the Saturday Telegram and we could just enjoy ourselves.
Back at the Crescent St. apartment that the Tely had rented for Expo's duration, to escape the horrendous hotel prices that had been jacked for the world's fair, I got a call from Windy O'Neill, a fringe Leaf defenceman in the 40s who had defied Conn Smythe and had quit to become a lawyer.
He had two tickets for the Saturday afternoon game at the old Forum. Not just a routine game but the Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Toronto now remembered as the last time Toronto won the Cup.
I prepared by going to the opening of the Jamaican pavilion at Expo which featured every rum imaginable. I arrived at the Forum in a fine mood, only to find that Windy's ticket was in the opposite corner to mine.
Half-way through the first period, Bob Pulford got into a fight with Terry Harper. Pully and I had played football together and dated together so I cheered the Leaf on with bellows while the crowd around me got quite mad.
Sausages rained down. I continued to be quite rambunctious. At the first intermission, a man sitting behind me tapped me on my shoulder and said that he was Randy Ellis, father of the Leaf Ron Ellis, and he was sitting with Ron's wife, who was pregnant, and I was starting a riot.
So I simmered down, made easier because the Leafs won. Besides I was cold. I was missing my overcoat. I stood outside after the game and felt so expansive that I decided to drive to Toronto to see Mary.  I'm not sure I was totally welcome when I swept in unexpectedly and immediately went to sleep.
Early Monday I drove back to Montreal, still shivering without my coat. I decided to start the week off just right by going to the old smoky ambience of  Schwartz's, a cocoon in the storm of life.  And there hanging in a corner was my overcoat. It had been there for four days during a cold weekend and no one had walked off with it.
When I complimented the waiter, and the waiters always seemed to have been there forever, or at least from the opening in 1927 - a line borrowed from the Richlers, father and son, who immortalized the  Hebrew Delicatessen and are one cause for the lineups - he acted as if His Customers would never dream of boosting even a fine tweed overcoat.
They say the smoked meat is a lot better in Toronto these days. And it is too. But it can never be better than the ruby pastrami I had as a young reporter  at Schwartz's because it came slathered with mustard and one of the finest of all spices, nostalgia. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012



The media have been filled with praise for that elegant jockey of a man, Trent Frayne, who knew how to talk and write as if birds nestled in his words. They could sing or have the sarcastic irony of a Jay.
Here is one story that few know, and one which I promised never to write until Frayne died because it would have seemed like an intrusion that exposed his very soul. A fine companion at a game or the track, but there was walls of silence around the personal.
The California Angels were in town and Reggie Jackson, then one of baseball's superstars, had hit one of his 583 home runs.
Frayne wrote in the Toronto Sun about how the player known as Mr. October for his World Series clutch hits had held court later in the locker room. He stood, flaunting his nudeness, a king holding court before the serfs who would copy his every utterance.
Frayne wrote how Jackson had thanked God for letting him hit that home run. And Frayne had tackled him on that, saying he hadn't thought Jackson was one of those in sports who dragged God into every game.
Frayne had done his usual wonderful thorough story on the Jackson performance. It intrigued me as a fellow columnist about how he had done it. It was filled with quotes. Did he use a tape recorder, which were not as common in the mid-1980s as they are today? Did he scribble notes? Or did he memorize key phrases and flesh out the sentences later?
Frayne was wonderful to colleagues, especially to the cubs.  He always took time to help. And he loved to yarn about the business.
He confided that the heart of the exchange between Jackson and him never made the paper. He censored himself because he didn't want to hurt the great love of his life, his wife, the famous writer June Callwood.
Frayne said that Jackson had replied angrily to his question about why Jackson had given credit to God for just another of his many home runs. And that was the end of what he wrote.
But Frayne confided that Jackson had demanded "Don't you believe in God?" And Frayne said he ducked. He said he wasn't the subject of the story but Jackson was. Jackson persisted. Finally Frayne said that no, he didn't believe in God.
Jackson reacted as if he had been stabbed by the words. He ordered everyone to leave. He yelled at reporters who were slow. He waited. And finally there were just the two, the big black with the bulging muscles and the small dapper writer who usually had the nice crinkle of laughter in his smiling eyes.
But Frayne had decided to dig in.
"So why don't you believe in God," Jackson demanded again? And again Frayne said nothing. But Jackson persisted, the famous athlete looming up over the dapper writer whom generations of sports writers wanted to imitate.
Finally Frayne said: "I don't believe in God because of how he hurt my wife. The most important person in my wife's life was our youngest son Casey. And he came home from university for the Christmas holidays in 1982. He was returning to Kingston when his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver going the wrong way on a highway ramp. He was killed instantly. And I know there is no God because God would never have done that to my wife."
Jackson said how sorry he was, but there really was a God, and they said He moved in mysterious ways. They stood there awkwardly but there really wasn't more to say.
Frayne and I were in the middle of the bustle of the Sun's newsroom, with reporters yelling questions at each other and editors complaining about missing copy. And we also didn't say anything for a few moments. And finally he turned, and looked back with a sad smile, and walked away, leaving me with the tears of any parent who fears the death of their child.
Trent and June buried the ashes of Casey under a stone in the driveway of their home near the Old Mill where they lived for decades. Casey's name is on the home that June founded for HIV-AIDS sufferers, just one of the many ways that the greatest power couple in Canadian journalism left their mark and their words on their adopted city.
They were the couple that everyone wanted at their event. I recall one black-tie dinner honouring Gerald Ford in a fund drive for Israel. Mary and I saw a sign for the VIP reception. As we contemplated whether we should try to go in and hob nob with the famous,  like the former U.S. president, the Fraynes swept us up and we marched in together.
We were standing beside Ford when June asked me in a whisper why all the nearest men were hard of hearing. I told her they were Secret Service guarding the former president and the ear pieces were part of the two-way radio system.
"You mean they're Secret Service," June said, and stuck out her tongue at the nearest one. He was scanning the room when he saw June's tongue out of the corner of his eye and did a double take. He looked away and then looked back quickly, but June acted demure.
I asked why she didn't like the Secret Service but June had no particular reason. As an activist from the radical side of socialism, she was just against all varieties of police out of principle.
We stood there embarrassed. Mary, trying to mend the silence, complimented June on her tan, asking if she had been south. "No," June said, "I'm part Indian you know."
Many people tell many stories about Trent and June because they always made a difference with their actions and their words.
There are also a lot of stories about Reggie Jackson because he acted larger than life. He was an intimidating Hall of Famer and proud of it.  There is the legend about Jackson getting on a busy elevator in New York with two large dogs. Jackson uttered the stern command "Sit" to the dogs. And two young blondes immediately sat on the elevator floor.
Probably not true, but it's been told for years. Then there is this other unknown story, about him giving a lecture on Christianity to a writer in Toronto, which I know, sadly is true.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012



It was a sunny walk that I will never forget.
When you walk along Yonge with one of the most famous mugs in comedy, the fun is watching the people's reaction as they saw Jack Benny's face.
Some actually walked into sign posts. Some just stood and stared. And Benny smiled at them all.
Somewhere around Queen he told me how much he admired Stephen Leacock. And that's the reason for my story.
In the Toronto Star the other day, Rob Salem,  while writing about the new and good CBC TV movie about Leacock and his wonderful Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town, said that the Canadian humorist/economist's most famous book was not just acknowledged here at home "but also south of the border. Anecdotal history has Groucho Marx giving a copy to Jack Benny back when both were still struggling vaudevillians."
I'm not sure that's the way it happened. Not only was Benny closer to the brother Zeppo Marx,  the way he told it to me, he first read Leacock in a scrawled line on the dressing room wall in Winnipeg. He was struggling and  playing the Canadian loop of the vaudeville circuit that circled from Manitoba to Toronto and then Montreal before performers return to the States.
Benny was to die in a few months but there was no sign of his illness when he came to the the Toronto Men's Press Club for lunch in 1974. As president, I hosted the lunch on behalf of the club's executive, and then said I would ride shotgun when Benny talked about strolling back to the Royal York Hotel.
He was 80 but he loved to walk. He said he walked every day in every city where he performed. He told me about playing a Chicago night club when after the first show he headed out the door to stretch his legs. The club's owner ran after him, waving to the limousine at the curb. "I rented it for you," he said. Benny said he preferred to walk. The owner insisted. And Benny got stubborn. Finally the owner said that if Benny didn't take the limo, he was cancelling him because he didn't want to be known as the owner of the club where Benny was playing the night he got shot.  I really didn't need Benny to tell me  it was a tough neighbourhood.
So we walked and Benny talked and Torontonians gawked. And then he mentioned Leacock.
"Mr. Benny," I said, "I love Leacock and I'm proud of being a Canadian and I really like you. You  don't have to praise Leacock just to make me feel good.
And Benny stopped in front of the old Birk's jewellery store and the crowd parted around us as if we were boulders in a river and he started quoting the sinking of the Mariposa Bell and the legendary yarn about getting panicky in the bank.
"Oh yes, John," he said, " I love Leacock."
The world did too. Salem is a fine writer but he didn't quite seem to grasp that Leacock was a world figure. As a McGill prof he authored a book on economics that was a world best-seller. In Orillia, which he named Mariposa, he was the cocky gentry that everyone gossiped about. (He was also a strange employer. He hired the father of James Bartleman,  our former lieutenant-governor, to do chores, and when Leacock saved him from drowning one day, he phoned the item in to the Star so that everyone would know. Another Bartleman relative was hired just to clean the dogs' slobber  off the sheets in the bedrooms.)
It wasn't unusual for Canadians to stride confidently on the world stage a century ago, particularly when it came to books.
Why even our governor-generals from England took their turn. John Buchan wrote the thriller The Thirty Nine Steps which was made into at least four movies, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock.
A forgotten huge success is Ralph Connor. His books about Upper Canada life, such as Glengarry School Days, were world best-sellers.
One of the most famous medical texts ever written,  The Principles And Practices of Medicine, made Sir William Osler one of the most famous doctors and medical professors on earth. (And I prize the copies my father bought a century ago after he taught long enough to make enough money to go Western's medical school.)
I told Benny about the other famous Canadian writers and scholars. We never got around to Wayne and Shuster because there was no need. After all, everyone in show business knew about how they had appeared more on the world's top variety program, the Ed Sullivan Show, than any other act.
Benny was a nice man. Nothing like his stage persona where he acted the mean skinflint. One story illustrates that so much that I imagine his friends used to tear up when they told about the provision in his will. He had used his wife Mary Livingstone as a foil for his TV, radio and stage comedy. But every single day after he died, for the nine years that Mary lived, a florist delivered one single red long-stemmed rose to her.
They still tell stories about Benny, and young comics have said they watch his old TV shows for the timing when he delivered his lines. No wonder people loved to watch him for 60 years. And on that day on Yonge St. when he walked and talked as if life had been very good to him after those tough times when he and the other teenagers known as the Marx Brothers struggled towards their first break.

Sunday, February 5, 2012



It was Tory penis envy. This time over a place.
When Ontario Place opened its three islands to the people whom Bill Davis hoped would continue to vote for his revamped Conservatives, it could trace its raison d'etre to the huge success of Expo '67, the Montreal world's fair that left Toronto, and Ontarians,  greener with envy than any environmental activist.
Now the province had scored a coup itself at Expo with the deserved success of the Ontario Pavilion and its catchy theme song A Place To Stand A Place To Grow. It became a provincial anthem even before Hollywood noticed and gave an Academy Award to a documentary about the pavilion which featured that song.
Expo made the Canadian National Exhibition look like a really Old Lady of the Lakeshore. And the Tories, hunting for ways to retread their reign, figured they would reproduce Ontario Pavilion, and all the zany and interesting architecture and media gimmicks of Expo, right on the capital's waterfront on bridges and fill, just like Montreal did in the St. Lawrence.
Queen's Park presence at the CNE was wrapped up in the triangular Ontario Government Building, which featured tanks of fish and pens ofwild life in its courtyard.  Kids loved the wild life displays, but they weren't flashy enough for the Tories who wanted to create an image that they knew what came next in life.
They chose a cigar-chomping wiz called Kirk Foley, technically only director of economics in the finance ministry, to be the Moses leading them to new votes. First it was OB, then the disaster known as the Urban Transportation Development Corp. which tried to make mag lev trains work several decades before China did at an airport.
 Left behind in the dust of really old Toronto was the provincial Ex building, which evolved into the first CNE Casino, and its initials OGB were said then by staff in cheeky racism to stand for the Oriental Gambling Building. (Because Canadians from Asia sure outnumbered the staid Torontonians.) Now it's evolved graciously into the Liberty Grand, and I'm proud to boast I moved the approval motion.
The irony now that the end of OP's first era has arrived is the certainty that it couldn't be built today. Do you really think that radicals of city council  and Ontario politics would tolerate the government sinking several old freighters as a breakwall and doing those great costly creations of Eb Zeidler on fill?
If you have survived to your 70s in Toronto, you remember driving the Lake Shore when it really was the lake shore because the lake came right to the iron railing beside the road.  Most of the land that now extends south of the road, from Marilyn Bell Park in the west to Coronation Park in the east, has been created by man. It was the way Toronto grew until recently. They just were copying all the landfill that created much of the Ex, the waterfront and Toronto Island.
As proof that all that landfill wouldn't happen today, I cite as my witness Tony O'Donohue, the veteran city politician and municipal engineer, who was hired in the 1980s to develop a scheme that not only would have enlarged OP with a useful island created from all the earth being dug out by construction, the scheme would have produced a million dollars for the city.
It was blown out of the water, so to speak.
The days of Ottawa and Queen's Park using their powers to ignore city council when they built OP and the CN Tower without permits or any form of permission are long gone. I guess I should say thank heavens for that in honour of city democracy but we did get iconic buildings as a result, like Cinesphere.
Then there was the minor problems of costs. Premier Davis and his aides like Claire Westcott, who had clever ideas about just about everything,  downplayed costs, of course, when they set out to win elections with a modern fun park on the lake off the Ex and fancy trains without drivers or wheels floating on elevated guideways around the Ex.
The UTDC costs were enormous, confused and hidden. OP was said to be budgeted at $5 million, is now said to have cost $29 million, and I used to use the figure $34.5 million without the Tories getting too incensed.
The problem was, just as the obscene building rush later at SkyDome, that anything goes when politicians and their captive bureaucrats are drunk with the need to open as quickly as possible.
I wrote after the flush of excitement had died out after the OP opening that the government even paid triple time to the guys fashioning the cloakrooms, hardly an essential.
After months of bashing away in my column at OP and the new spending monster called UTDC, I passed Doug Creighton, the founding Sun publisher, in the hallway. He remarked he was getting tired of my criticism and having to field calls next morning from powerful Tories.
He had a strong argument against me. "Damn it, John," he said. "The public loves Ontario Place."
And they did too. A fact I went to great pains to note that evening when I wrote another column bashing OP.
Doug, of course, never mentioned it again, which was another great thing about the Toronto Sun during its baby steps.
OP in its early days bought acceptance with clever ideas and marketing, bolstered by free passes that rained on the media and any useful person. My favourite moment was lounging on a grassy knoll and watching the Toronto Symphony brass its way through the patriotic stew known as the Last Night At the Proms. All free at the Forum, which was too bucolic and nice and not large enough for the hot money dreams of OP bureaucrats who only seemed to know how to lose a lot of money.
So the Forum hardened and expanded into the Ampitheatre. Successful for a time because it didn't have to deal with unions, compliments, strangely,  of Bob Rae's NDP government.
Just to the north, Exhibition Stadium, which was saddled with unions, couldn't compete because it cost $31,000 just to open and run for a night. I brokered a deal as a CNEA executive that we would cover those costs and give the stadium free to any promoter who was willing to stage an event that would bring people to the Ex. No promoter was interested.
 Then the city used the $5.5 million repair fund put aside from ticket revenue to demolish it, a stupid move, and then built, in another stupid move, a smaller stadium for $72 million in a deal that benefitted mainly MLSE, the millionaires who soak us with the lamentable Leafs.
I can't wait to see what happens at OP next. Merging it with the CNE has been so logical, it has been proposed by just about every one of the hordes who have studied the taxes being wasted by OP.
Then there's the idea of having a casino there. Of course the OP staff aren't exactly ecstatic about that because they know Queen's Park would grab all the revenue.
One useful deal would be for OP and Exhibition Place to merge and to be kept afloat by an expansion of the present CNE casino which operates in August. This can be done without legal or political hassles because the Ex is allowed a casino under the provincial regs governing agricultural fairs.
The Ex and OP would operate the casino and some other attractions from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving but really concentrate on July and August when high school and university students would be available for staff.
This is such a logical merger that it could be up and running this year instead of all the people studying the issue running around like a headless chicken just before death.
There's only one thing certain for now if we're not careful.  Listen to the wet dreams of all the politicians and it will cost you and me a lot of taxes. And we will also have to listen to a lot of hooey and baloney. But if  the new creation makes money and not just fuss, it truly will be a wonderful new attraction on our waterfront.
No, make that it will be a wonderful new miracle, and God knows, we need one considering the chuckleheads mismanaging City Hall and Queen's Park.