The most important date on the calendar of the Canadian blues scene is fast approaching in Toronto. This year, the awards show is supplemented by the Blues Summit 8 conference and showcase event. Pictured: executive producer Derek Andrews.
Me and Mrs. Mirvish
For 12 years, I rented a one-room, third-floor flat facing Markham Street across from The Green Iguana Glassworks and my buddy Darrell Dorsk in Mirvish Village. The room served as home office for the Jazz Report magazine - published by myself and Huntsville, Ontario high school teacher Greg Sutherland. Greg and I hung in 19 years and wisely retreated when advertising dollars began to dwindle.
During those 12 years, Markham Street rarely bustled with activity. It was a fading shell of good intentions. The main attraction was the cut-rate price for the Sunday edition of the New York Times that brought activity every Sunday to David Mirvish Books – next door to my hideaway. Cars rolled in and out – families gathered, then dispersed.
Each August, the Mirvish family threw a street party. The top of Markham street was roped off and a stage was rolled out. Stars from various Mirvish-supported musicals would sing and dance while Ed and wife Anne sat patiently under unrelenting heat. Cookies and pink weiners were served along with a few rides for the kiddies. Ex-mayor David Miller designated August 12 as “Ed Mirvish Day."
Early years, it was Italian restaurant Carlo and Adelina’s Place that drew the most attention. When in town on a film shoot, actors John Travolta and Robert De Niro could be seen coming and going. Slathered with the most sumptuous garlic cream sauce, my partner Kristine and I often dined on the veal and chicken. Lunch time, I’d order a takeout veal sandwich and vinegary salad and listen to three recurring versions of “Time to Say Goodbye” while chef Vince and Adelina Nicolucci assembled my prize. Sadly, Adelina never fully recovered from the death of beloved Carlo.
Suspect Video, attached to Honest Ed’s, was my go-to film library. From directors Ingmar Bergman to Aleksandar Zarkhi, I rifled through foreign films – each with a small story to tell. Coated in black, the room was a sweltering claustrophobic hull during summer visits. I’d often choke on noxious cigarette smoke and chuckle at all the glam-boy toys and alien figurines behind plexiglass. Yet, it was a cinephile’s pleasure palace.
Darrell Dorsk played the best jump blues sounds. The Green Iguana Glassworks had been in play for over 30 years. Open the front door and a bell sounded and alerted Darrell of your arrival. Through stacks of bike parts, old frames, past soldering irons, sheets of glass, memorabilia or the funniest quotes about Richard Nixon, Darrell would come flying down the stairwell and quickly engage in conversation. It was always an epic performance.
As the years pass and both Kristine and I nurture a growing passion for photography, David Mirvish Books began to play a central role in our education. Mirvish had the most eclectic books: Essays on photography, picture books and “how-to.” Mirvish also carried the Jazz Report. In fact, I always got a chill seeing our magazine racked at Coles, Book City, Mirvish, even at Pearson airport on newsstands.
Eventually, photography won out over jazz storage space and we became a photographic studio. This is where I captured portraits of Jeff Healey, Kirk MacDonald, Emile-Claire Barlow with Eliana Cuevas and Dione Taylor, Archie Alleyne, Doug Riley, Phil Nimmons, Shakura S’Aida, and hundreds more.
Once Adelina called it quits, Butler’s Pantry moved in. We were thrilled to have a new restaurant in the area, one saxophonist (the late) Dr. Kira Payne and I had been frequenting, on lower Roncesvalles. From time-to-time, Kira would pick me up and we’d spend an afternoon talking literature, music and art, while feasting on the jambalaya.
During the big changeover, a music guy and architect Mike Clifton and pal Barush Zone moved below The Green Iguana and opened a used CD shop. Another place to hang and socialize.
Let’s get to Mrs. Mirvish. Evidently, Mirvish Village was a gift from Ed to wife Anne. Anne was a grand supporter of the arts and yearned to create an artist colony in Toronto. This very unique and quaint street was preserved and shared with artists of all stripes. My building housed painters, a seamstress and downstairs - The Art Zone, specializing in stained glass, operated by jazz saxophonist John Johnson’s wife Kathryn Irwin and her sister, Jane. The building became one big family.
Rents! This is what sent my head spinning. My flat ran $150 a month – front window space main level; $400 a month. Entire floors, $1,500 monthly. There was basic electricity, but each renter was responsible for their own hydro line and paid according to usage.
It was mid-summer and Butler’s Pantry had been open a short time. Kristine and I would take the window booth to the left; Ed and Anne, the middle booth. There were days I’d walk in and Ed would be sitting alone and he’d ask, “Have you seen Anne?” I’d vow to look out for her.
Ed had no idea who I was. There were times Anne would be situated waiting for Ed and I’d walk through the front door and she’d ask, “Have you seen Ed? I’m to meet him here.” I’d keep an eye out. The ritual was so damn sweet!
One afternoon, I heard a cry for help and noticed a woman had stumbled and collapsed in front of Butler’s Pantry. I quickly hustled across the street and was met by Mike Clifton. Mike helped her up as I pulled a chair onto the sidewalk. The woman was in severe pain and I didn’t recognize who she was.
The next hour was spent in conversation – the history of the street and artists who had come and gone. She then introduces herself – “I’m Anne Mirvish, and you?” I point to an upstairs window across the street and tell her I rent from the family. She then gives me a history lesson about the building and asks, did I know her son David? I explain my fascination with the bookstore and what we did as a magazine and truly appreciated the rented space. She then says, “You must visit me at the pink building front-end on Markham near Bloor.”
A couple days pass and the telephone rings, “Bill, is that you? It’s Anne – could you meet me at David’s store? You were so very kind staying with me. I want to talk to you.” We arrange a time.
I show as scheduled and before me stands Anne. “Bill, I’m painting a portrait of Lincoln Alexander. When I get farther ahead, I want you to come by my studio.” At this moment, I’m hers. “I’m just going to run downstairs for a minute and when I get back, we’ll talk some more.”
I hang around the front desk, skim through a few art books and no Anne. Then an attendant says, “you might as well go about your day, she won’t be back.” What? “Once she goes to the basement she starts sorting through carboard boxes and rearranging. This could take hours.”
True to habit, that’s what occurred. How could one not embrace and savor?
I ran into Anne on several other visits to Butler’s Pantry. Each time she’d introduce me as the nice man who helped her recover from the fall. Ed was always gracious, then asks what I did. I tell him I’m a musician and my photo appears on a post in the women’s shoe-wear section courtesy of Gino Empry, when I played the jazz club Lites with Pat LaBarbera. “It’s an honor to be part of the great names that cover the walls of your store,” I say. Empry notified me first floor was reserved for the Barrymores, Angela Lansbury and the biggies and how fortunate for me to make it to women’s shoes. I asked Gino – “what if they think I have a foot fetish?” He didn’t get it.
Honestly, I was never as taken with Honest Ed’s as I was attracted to Mirvish Village and I will cry boulder-size tears if the street is leveled and replaced with spiritless condos. Honest Ed’s? Fine with me. But please, please keep Anne’s dream in play!
Anne Mirvish passed away September 20, 2013.
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