Toronto legend Edwin “Honest Ed” Mirvish has died. He was 92.
The philanthropic businessman was a crucial part of Toronto’s reputation as a world-renowned theatre centre, and had been mostly out of the public eye after contracting a severe case of pneumonia in 2003 and experiencing deteriorating health ever since. Mirvish died at St. Michael’s Hospital at 1:30 a.m.
Mirvish was born in Virginia on July 25, 1914 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His introduction to the entertainment industry came early, as he claimed his bris was performed by the Rabbi father of Al Jolson.
In the 1920s, the Mirvish family moved from Washington, D.C. to Toronto, where Ed’s father opened a grocery store on Dundas Street. Following his father’s death, Ed opened a dry cleaning shop and worked as a buyer for Loblaws founder Leon Weinstein. Mirvish married Anne Macklin, a Hamilton singer, in 1941—a union which begat only son David.
The infamous Honest Ed’s bargain store at Bloor and Bathurst opened in 1948, and the emporium soon became known for its rock-bottom prices and quirky hand-painted signage, which featured pithy slogans and groan-worthy puns, like Don’t faint at our low prices; there’s no place to lie down! Mirvish was also a master of publicity, incorporating odd stunts like picketing his own store over its dress code to giving away free turkeys. The store would eventually expand to cover the entire block, and the saloon-style illuminated marquee would become a local landmark.
Where Mirvish made his most significant contribution to the city was in the live theatre industry. Mirvish bought the 1907 Edwardian Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1962, saving it from demolition and making it a classy and viable venue for touring and permanent productions. 1982 saw the purchase and renovation of London’s 1918 Old Vic theatre (now sold), and in 1993, the Princess of Wales Theatre was built to house Miss Saigon. At the time, the facility was the only privately-financed North American theatre built in three decades. Mirvish has also been credited with the development of much of the King Street Entertainment District by opening an entire block of restaurants on the formerly decrepit strip.
Today, Ed’s theatre legacy is maintained by his son David. Mirvish Productions stages and produces major productions like The Lion King, Mamma Mia! and Hairspray, and the company manages the Canon (formerly Pantages) Theatre across from the Eaton Centre.
Mirvish was also named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is also the recipient of more than 250 prestigious awards.
Ed Mirvish’s annual birthday celebrations have been a tradition ever since he turned 75, and always included free food and family entertainment for crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. Last July, he celebrated his 92nd birthday with his traditional lavish street party outside Honest Ed’s, where many items were available for 92 cents. It is expected that this year’s planned birthday celebration will proceed as a celebration of Mirvish’s life and contribution to our city.
“Canada has allowed me the freedom to work, express myself and develop,” he has said. “In spite of little formal education and very limited or practically no financial base, it has been possible for me to go from Dundas Street to Buckingham Palace, and it has been a nice trip all the way.”
Top photo courtesy of the Mirvish family; bottom image via CBC.