Monday, September 16, 2013



I have a great place for Ryerson and its president Sheldon Levy to shove Sam's sign.
No, I don't mean there, although it's tempting because the university is cheating on a deal.
Levy says he had many discussions with Sam about the sign and Sam never mentioned preserving it.
Bullroar! His family and friends know how much he loved that sign that shouted his name to Toronto like a carny in a brazen bellow.
I spoke with Sam by the hour for decades. On everything from Sunday Shopping and street people freezing in the lane behind the store to dumb aldermen who didn't know the streets.. He was proud of that sign. And Sam, a showman turned music icon, loved to flaunt the neon sizzle around his famous business that nurtured so many future stars whom he helped when they were unknown and penniless..
There is a connection between Sam Sniderman and Ryerson that is being missed. Everyone knows just how close he was to countless Ryerson students after he moved in 1961 to just a block away from St. James Square. Not only did he receive an honourary degree from Ryerson, his close friend Janet had been a dean at Ryerson.
So when they came to Canon Derwyn Shea's home on that lovely stretch above Grenadier Pond, and after he delivered a barrage of friendly insults about what I was doing wrong, the talk over dinner was full of Ryerson and the CNE.
Shea and I had been CNE presidents and Sam, who had been a member of the two boards at the Ex - the one that is the landlord and the one that runs the fair - disagreed with much of what was going on at the Ex. For starters, he thought there should be no admission and we could make our money off food and the Midway.
Sam, bless him, was never bashful about giving his opinion. "You know, Downing," he would say, "you guys just don't know how to run things." And we all would laugh,
So there is my justification for a new home for the two great LPs in 800 neon lights that spun in all their glory above the Sam names at his mecca for anyone who cared about records in the Greater Toronto Area. Mount it at the Ex. Certainly not as busy as Yonge St., the main street of T.O.,  and for that matter, the country, but when you start with the 1.4 million who attend Canada's largest fair, and add the people who go to the Winter Fair, Boat, Sportsmen's and various trade shows, you have a lot of  traffic through  Heritage Court, that huge lovely yellow room south of the Coliseum in the west end of the Direct Energy Centre.
The university bought Sam's building in 2008 after his business fell on evil times due to electronic change and the shifting pattern in stealing rather than buying music.
The idea was that the rowdy colouful sign/front would be kept and hung again on what the university built there. Ryerson says it spent $150,000 dismantling the signs but then everything fell into a limbo not lit by ideas or honouring a contract.
So I propose that the university's former chancellor, David Crombie, use all his expertise as a former mayor, lover of city history, friend of Sam's and lover of the Ex, to hammer out a deal between Ryerson and Exhibition Place where the university restores the sign and pays to have it mounted on the south wall of Heritage Court.
In fact, about a dozen years ago, we had a plan to mount there the neon sign from the Flyer, the famous demolished wooden CNE roller-coaster.. We even had a Flyer car that could have been part of the display. The letters are 84" high, 48" wide and 10" deep. So it wasn't as if it would have filled the wall, but Arlene Campbell, the official directly in charge of the Centre, didn't like the idea.
There is an interesting relationship between the two signs because Sniderman was key in saving the Flyer sign. After all, he cared deeply about Toronto's past and was willing to put his money where his mouth was, something that many, especially councillors, would never do.
If the Ex is ruled out as a home, there are plenty of empty walls at the Metro Convention Centre. I am sure the chairman of that board, Walter Oster, who displayed his love for the past in the wonderful marine items he accumulated in his waterfront seafood restaurants before it closed, would be a sympathetic audience.
Ryerson is talking about sinking plaques in the sidewalk at that corner to remember the store and the man. Levy says the Student Learning Centre being built there doesn't have a suitable facade to which the sign could be attached.. But then that's to be expected from the Ryerson of today that isn't that proud of its history back when Sam arrived  on its scene.
H.H. Kerr, the first principal (he preferred the Scottish title to president) had a dream of the Ryerson campus extending from Yonge to Jarvis. Having a building right on main streets was one of his expansion goals. Dr. Kerr would be so proud of what his baby was accomplishing in new facilities.
I remember him talking about it at length when I interviewed him by the day at his Rosedale apartment for the official history of Ryerson. The university commissioned it from me, accepted the manuscript and paid me, but then never published it because it was perceived as reminding the university community that Ryerson had started so humbly, it constantly was called just a trade school.
I am rewriting and updating the manuscript and just finished the chapter where Sam The Record Man arrived to crush the business at the A and A store just to the north that was the unofficial Ryerson book store.
Of course Sam was famous for his records even before he came to Yonge. The family had a store on a curve of College called Sniderman's Music Hall. Sixty years ago I heard about an LP from Stan Kenton and his Innovations in Modern Music and after school took a trolley coach and two streetcars from Weston to buy the record from Sam who was already ebullient in his trade.
This city is filled with people who remember their first trek to Sam with fondness, flipping through the bins of 78s and 45s and 33s where it was obvious you came for the music, not the decor.
Hanging Sam's sign at the Ex where he was such a fixture for decades would be an honourable compromise for the university. They should pay every cent for refurbishing and mounting, and while we're at it, let them pay for fixing the Flyer sign and mounting it too.
Then there actually would be heritage in Heritage Court. In honour of Sam. A solution that would be welcomed by tens of thousands.

Sunday, September 15, 2013



I'm sure that the Great Blue Heron that stands as still as a statue when it isn't looking suspiciously up the Trent and pooping on my point is now the great great great descendant of the one that came with the cottage on Burnt Point when I bought it several decades ago.
To me it's the same bird. I greet it in the spring with quiet appreciation and then almost take it for granted. But when it lands close to me, we stare at each other and I admire it more than it admires me.
It gave me a magic moment the other day.
Years ago my son Mark went to Bay Bloor Radio (which sells wonderful but costly stuff) and bought me two outdoor speakers that look like rocks. Wonderful sound. I can really crank up the music through them if some jerk fisherman is in his ninth hour of fishing within feet of my shore.  Or when the neighbour's son brings a noisy pack to howl at the moon and play unmusical nonsense at 2 a.m.
The other day, the Toronto classical station which is relentless in promoting the Znaimer Zoomer empire, and Moses' wife, played one of the greatest songs in opera.
I stopped to listen, as I always do, because it is like the heavens opened and angels are serenading mere mortals.
Georges Bizet is scorned by some and his creation of The Pearl Singers may now be remembered mainly for  one musical soliloquy. I refer, of course, to "au fonds du temple saint" when the tenor and the baritone discover that they are in love with the same woman.
The hair stands up on my neck when Jussi Bjorling, the tenor known as the Swedish Caruso, and the great Robert Merill, sing that duet.  It almost makes the so-called "new" 96.3 FM classical station okay despite the incessant propaganda.
Then I noticed that the heron had moved from the very point, where it makes the manure spreaders known as Canada geese look constipated, to a little landing on the side that my son Brett built for his sons Matthew and Mikey for fishing,  We call it M and M Point. The heron wanted to be closer to the speakers. And there it stood listening to every gorgeous note.
It stayed for a few more pieces, listening intently but without the concentration it had given Bizet as interpreted by Bjorling and Merill. Then the mood was snapped by some Zoomer promotion and it flapped heavily away, looking like it was flying backwards, sounding like a rusty hinge.
Yet it does come back, not enough of course. My heron doesn't like the "modern" afternoon drive show music on CBC FM that much but the classics it loves, But then the world has paused for that particular duet every time it's played.
As I've written, I keep a radio playing in the boat house in a vain attempt to stop beavers from turning it into their lodge. Doesn't work. Even rap fails, and that can kill cockroaches. It was four centuries ago that the phrase was coined that "music has charms to soothe the savage breast." It certainly works for me, and the heron, but not, damn it, for beaver.
It is one of my joys of nature that herons and loons in my stretch of the Trent have now been free for generations of idiots who would chase them in their boats. You certainly seem to be able to get closer. I have been swimming around the point and been ignored by a pair of loons who are so busy diving and munching that they don't bother to keep their distance.
I was golfing with my Plewes cousins recently at Pinestone Resort near Haliburton when a very large heron stood near a creek where of course I had driven my ball, It reluctantly moved, even though there were men around swinging shiny clubs. Maybe it figured out we didn't know how to use them.
At St. Pete's Beach in Florida, some cold days there can be more herons near the pool than Snow Birds.
My oldest son John Henry and I went to the Galapagos Islands a decades or so ago at great cost and difficulty. Of course we were entranced by the Boobys (those are sea birds, not blondes) and the giant tortoises. After all, there still may be a tortoise around that Charles Darwin rode because no one knows how long they live.
I returned filled with stories and loaded with film, the digital snapshots not yet having been invented to ruin real photography. It was a busy Friday at the Sun so I didn't notice just how Associate Editor Glen Woodcock was displaying my column and pictures.
So I opened my Sunday Sun at breakfast with the same anticipation as our readers and discovered that  one of the main pictures in my spread was of a Great Blue Heron standing on a point being hammered by Pacific waves.
I phoned Woodcock to grumble mildly that I had flown out to the middle of a giant ocean to visit a famous nature sanctuary and he used a shot of a bird that I could have photographed at my cottage.
It was a great picture, Glen said. And it was. But then it's hard to take a bad one of a heron, the largest of the wading birds of North America, which is now more common than when I was a boy a century or two ago.
I was telling my musical heron story to one of the best dermatologists around, Dr. Franklynne Vincent, after she told me about her birding visit to South America, including, of course, Machu Pichu.
(Vincent rescued me from the deep bedsores given me by the evil care at St. Joseph's in Toronto, which never even bothered to reply when I told hundreds of thousands readers in the Toronto Sun that it was arguably among the worst hospital in Canada.)
Then Vicent one-upped me, which would please my friends who listen to my anecdotes. She and her  husband, the avid birder,  have had a macaw for 10 years which rides around on Vincent's shouder. In the morning before she starts her hectic day, the macaw gets vocally agitated if she doesn't turn on that classical station and let it listen, to the music that is, not the endless Zoomer plugs.
Doubt if I can get the heron to do that.

Sunday, September 1, 2013



The skies were a trifle gloomy on the first day of the CNE air show but the spirits were high in the VIP enclosure on the waterfront. Of course I  mean that we were a happy crowd, not that we were consuming to the extent that the Toronto Star would notice.
The beer and pop were cold and free and the roast beef and sausages were delicious. And no I didn't notice when I chatted with David Onley, the lieutenant-governor with whom I worked decades ago to shoot down an incredible mag-lev experiment on which Queen's Park lost a fortune, whether there was a drink beside him. ( I don't think there was) meaning despite 50 years of journalism I would never be hired by the Star.
My son Mark was busy telling one of the world's most popular astronaut, Chris Hadfield, that he loved the song Hadfield sang in space while he dazzled everyone with his PR savvy and good humour. No, I don't know if Hadfield had a drink and whether Mark was working on a beer or a Diet Coke. So I guess I haven't learned quite how to be a reporter today.
Around us where Canada's military leaders wearing more stripes on their shoulders than a herd of zebras. Didn't look to see if they were holding drinks. As for the fighter pilots in their flight suits, appraising the passing planes with a cold stare, I assume they weren't drinking but, sorry, I really didn't look.
My point, of course, is unless someone is falling down drunk and endangering others, I don't give a damn. You are free to guzzle pop or beer or rum in front of me and I really don't pay much attention. After all, I have been surrounded by drinkers my entire working career.
It didn't start that way.  There was my Baptist youth when I won a gold medal for oratory from the Women's Christian Temperance Union. I listened to the tales of my grandfather who quit as a foreman in the Bols Distillery in Amsterdam when he was "born again." When he told of the stunts be pulled before he quit drinking, he sounded almost whistful about getting the billy goat so hammered it kept running at the wall until it knocked itself out.
When my fellow students were busy in the beer halls of Yonge Street, I was standing on the carpet as the Ryerson student president as the university principal made it plain that he thought any booze around students was evil and I just better do a better job of patrolling the habits of my rebellious subjects (?).
My first weeks at the Toronto Telegram were as part of a five-person crew on the Rewrite Desk. At noon three of them took me to the old Savarin Restaurant on Bay. It had a great buffet which we never saw. We spend lunch buying in turn trays of beer. When I returned to the old office at Bay and Melinda. I was expected to type copy fast enough so that the editors didn't have heart attacks. Quickly I learned how to pace myself around draft beer so that my fingers didn't get stuck between the keys.
I spent my life in newspapers surrounded by free booze. I learned that practically everyone around me had a drink or three in them but that was the way of this world. Big John Bassett and Paul Godfrey both tried as publishers to stop drinking durlng lunch. In Bassett's case, he scrapped the plan an hour after he personally pinned up the edict when he met his Editor returning from lunch smelling like a brewery.
Public attitudes have changed, but some of it is hypocritical.
I remember we used to run cartoons about the RIDE program (of which I am the godfather, but that's another story) which today would be considered insensitive, and MADD (founded by a chap who never lost a relative to a drunk driver, but liked the cause) would probably stage demonstrations in front of the offending newspaper. And yes, in case you wonder, I do hate drunk drivers.
 I come to the question of whether Rob Ford was overly refreshed at a dinner or at the Danforth street party from a cynical point-of-view. First of all, what the hell does it matter if anyone has several beers over an evening if they're not driving? And I would hope that our mayor and other major politicians occasionally chase the demons of their job by relaxing with some drinks.
My main reservation about these stupid drinking sightings is that most observers don't have a clue about anyone's drinking. As a rum-and-Diet-Coke man, I have gone months at events with an open bar where what I drink is big glasses of Coke and lots of ice and lemon slices but no booze. I often explain that quietly to bartenders at the start of the evening, so I don't have to repeat it every time. Some people thought I drank so much that the bartenders recognized me
I recall as a daily Sun columnist when some jerk phoned to report that Paul Godfrey, then the able head of the regional council, had been drunk in a box at the Jays game. Are you sure, I kept asking?
He said he would swear on a stack of Bibles. I told him to leave Bibles out of it because I knew he was a liar because not only does Godfrey not drink, alcohol is almost a poison to him.
I remember someone grumbling about the behaviour of Monte Kwinter, one of the best Liberal MPPs and urban insiders that this city has ever seen. I told him Kwinter only drank water. He never has had tea or coffee or beer or anything other than a few Diet Cokes which he stopped years ago after he was in hospital and disliked the taste of one that his wife had smuggled in.
I hate those "don't drink and drive" campaigns because it turns tens of thousands each night into hypocrites. Surely all those peopler around me at fundraising dinners and countless restaurants are not all taking cabs
What we need is responsible drinking campaigns, not prohibitionists. You can have several drinks over matching hours and not be a crazed law breaker.
The problem with Ford is that he probably looks like he's a drunk when he's sleeping peacefully. When it comes to his weight and clothes, I have walked a marathon in his shoes. I used to be as heavy as the mayor but I'm now 80 pounds lighter and know a few things about buying shirts that don't have collars that immediately stick in the air. A dress shirt is the most important unit in how a man dresses and it is easy and not that costly to have them tailor-made. You also can get reasonable tailoring so that you don't  look like the suit is two sizes too small and your shirt buttons are about to become missiles.
You look at the mayor spilling out of his clothes with a red sweaty face and you know he's a grand target for the Star or anyone else who wants to say he was drunk or sniffing suspicious substances.
What bugs the activists and the Star and the gLiberals is that he stays popular because of his conservative attitudes.
I was at a marvelous wedding reception the other night at Islington Golf Club where the room was filled with successful, confident people, many of them in finance. At my table, Mary and I sat with three couples whom we didn't know. Someone brought up the mayor. I said I thought it was unfortunate that he was so inept and clownish when I liked his striving to cut taxes. The others were annoyed that I didn't give him A+ because they were willing to accept him totally, and to hell with warts and damning pictures and alleged vodka mickeys.
No wonder the Star stock is down.