An empire who could dance; 'Honest Ed' Mirvish, the original discount merchant and theatre revivalist, dies at 92
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 July 2007)

In the middle of the 20th century a shopkeeper named Ed Mirvish generated a fresh breeze that swept across Toronto. A populist with a genius for advertising and a high level of joyful energy, Honest Ed was easily the most unpredictable capitalist in Canada. Who knew that a discount merchant would become an influential man of the theatre? Who knew that a single retailer would bring to life two separate districts, one on Markham Street and one on the King Street strip that included his Royal Alexandra Theatre (which he saved from demolition and elegantly restored) and the Princess of Wales Theatre (which he and his son built in 1993)?

Certainly the young Ed Mirvish, who died yesterday at the age of 92, imagined nothing of the sort.

His father, a bankrupt shopkeeper, died when Ed was 15. Ed left high school and set out to succeed where his father had failed. He tried a grocery store and a dry cleaner's, worked as a buyer with Loblaw's, and in the early 1940s opened a women's clothing shop, The Sport Bar, on part of the land now filled by Honest Ed's.

Then he hit on discount retailing, a new idea at the time. Honest Ed's bargain emporium opened in 1948, with much of the stock bought for nearly nothing at bankruptcy sales and exhibited on tables built from orange crates. In a style Toronto would soon know well, he drew attention to his shambolic decor: "Our Building is a dump! Our Service is rotten! But!!! Our Prices are the lowest in town!"

His no-frills, no-credit, no-service business plan soon caught on.

He didn't deliver, didn't answer the phone, and never employed clerks who bothered customers by asking what they wanted. He made loss leaders into public events that drew attention-getting lineups. At one point he was selling chickens at two for 37.

Sloppy-looking slogans on the exterior of the store made Ed a kind of cartoon character. "Honest Ed is for the birds. His prices are cheap, cheap, cheap!" "Honest Ed's a fat slob, but his prices keep a slim figure."

The renewed Markham Street, which the city designated as Mirvish Village on his 70th birthday, came about by accident. His store's success brought crowds and cars, the neighbours complained, and Ed set out to mollify them with a parking lot.

He bought a block of Markham Street houses at about $28,000 each (this was the early 1960s). Honest Ed's acquired some parking but Mirvish used most of the houses as stores with artists' studios above (one of them occupied by a sculptor, Anne Mirvish, his wife).

He gave a rundown residential street an engagingly bohemian tone, setting the pattern for later developments from the Danforth to Queen Street West. He rented only to businesses that were at least vaguely cultural, like a comic-book memorabilia centre. Art galleries soon opened, the best of them the David Mirvish Gallery, which for a few years sold first-class international art; today it's a big bookstore, probably the only bookstore anywhere with a gorgeous Frank Stella painting on the wall.

For Who's Who, Ed listed his recreation as "ballroom dancing," a simple phrase covering a complex reality. When his son's bar-mitzvah party was approaching he realized that he couldn't dance. He took lessons and, in his dogged way, kept taking them. As a graduate of the Arthur Miller School of Dancing, he entered competitions and brought home trophies. For years he went to a dancing studio two evenings a week.

"He moves around a dance floor like an old smoothie," wrote Jack Batten in his biography, Honest Ed's Story (1972). "Fox trot, waltz, quick step, bolero, cha cha cha -- name it and Ed glides into it."

A shrewd press agent, Ed was also Toronto's most passionate publicity hound. He framed scores of his clippings and mounted them on the sides of his buildings, turning their walls into anthologies of Toronto show-business writing. Long-dead critics and even a long-dead newspaper, The Telegram, lived on nowhere else but in the museum of framed memorabilia on the sides of the Royal Alex. Mirvish never underestimated the value of nostalgia. When he bought the Royal Alex it contained rooms crammed with old playbills and stage properties. Ed put them on sale.

As owner of the Royal Alex, he found it natural to buy other buildings along King Street and fill them with restaurants. He started with Ed's Warehouse (you could have anything you wanted as long as it was roast beef ) and eventually opened Ed's Seafood, Ed's Follies, Ed's Chinese and Ed's Italian. Some nights they served dinner to 6,000. He brought a new vitality to a previously moribund section of King Street.

His touch wasn't always magic. The Mirvishes bought the Old Vic Theatre in London, spent a fortune renovating it, hired Jonathan Miller as artistic director, did some wonderful shows (particularly Shakespeare's history plays) but never attracted the audiences they deserved. After 15 years they retreated, at a loss.

Ed was a detail man who loved being close to the action in all his businesses. He never franchised Honest Ed's; how could he have personally tracked dozens of different stores? Besides, that might have meant going public, which would have required explaining his business to stockholders.

He wanted to be free to act on instinct. His board of directors, he once pointed out, consisted of himself and son David, who grew up in the bargain business, made a great success as an art dealer, and ended up responsible for the theatres.

In the age of fabulously enriching IPOs and clever stock manipulation, Mirvish was a rare figure, an entirely independent businessman who wanted to stay that way till he died -- and did so.

An interviewer once asked what he would like on his tombstone. He answered that tombstones didn't interest him.

"I would like to erect a huge throne in the centre of Honest Ed's. I would like my body cremated and the ashes put in an hour glass. I would like someone sitting on the throne to keep turning the hour glass up and down, and the employees would point to the hour glass and say, 'There's Ed. He's still running!' "

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