Historicist: Starstruck at City Hall
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Historicist: Starstruck at City Hall

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Mayor Nathan Phillips and Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, look on as Maurice “Rocket” Richard signs City’s guest book, mayor’s office, Old City Hall, January 18, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, series 1057, item 4138

Civic officials have long been eager to greet any visitor to our fair city with the slightest whiff of fame. Opportunities to pose with celebrities and have them sign the official guest book or test out government furniture have long been attractive to our elected officials despite occasional hiccups—Mel Lastman’s feud with the Spice Girls, anyone?
Sometimes the person receiving the red carpet treatment represents a rival city, as was the case with Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. On January 18, 1956, Richard, who Mayor Nathan Phillips felt did “not belong to Montreal exclusively, he belongs to Canada,” was awarded a pair of gold cuff links bearing the city insignia. Richard repaid the city for its generosity by leading the Habs that night to a 3–2 victory over the Maple Leafs. Though NHL head Clarence Campbell attended the ceremony, no riots broke out.

Mary Pickford in mayor’s chair in Council Chambers, with Mayor [Ralph] Day, 1938. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, series 1057, item 4006

“America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford came home to Toronto in August 1938 to lend her support to the Toronto Star’s annual Fresh Air Fund charity radio broadcast. Though she had retired from the silver screen five years earlier, Pickford received regal treatment from all, including the use of Mayor Ralph Day’s chair. The Star provided wall-to-wall coverage of her every thought and move, from playing up the poverty of her upbringing (“I firmly believe it is necessary to experience want and privation to be able fully to appreciate the trials and heartaches of others”) to noting her visits with hospital patients. The broadcast raised nearly six thousand dollars to send underprivileged youth to camp. While the Telegram provided little coverage (why promote a competitor’s pet cause?), The Globe and Mail praised Pickford on their editorial page. “Thousands of people,” it was noted, “have been induced to give a second thought to those about them who are not as well off, because Mary Pickford travelled from California to remind them, ‘in his name,’ that there is a special obligation to ‘the little children.'”
One element of Pickford’s visit that didn’t pan out in the long run was her proposal to purchase the decaying remains of her birthplace on University Avenue near Elm Street and operate it as a tea room, with all profits going to Sick Children’s Hospital. The building is long gone, but a plaque near the site marks Pickford’s achievements.

Anna Neagle signs City’s guest book as Mayor Fred J. Conboy, and Herbert Wilcox look on, mayor’s office, Old City Hall, circa 1939-1941. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, series 1057, item 3887

Anna Neagle was one of Britain’s leading actresses in the 1930s and 1940s. Often directed by Herbert Wilcox, who she married after several years of collaboration, she built her fame on playing historical British heroines ranging from Nell Gwynn to Florence Nightingale. Based in Hollywood during World War II, Neagle made numerous visits to Toronto to promote her films and boost morale for servicemen. The City Archives dates this photo from 1939, but the job title bestowed upon Frederick Conboy (mayor from 1941 to 1944) and the portrait of Winston Churchill on the wall (who became Britain’s prime minister in 1940) leads us to believe that she may have signed the guest book while on a production break from Sunny in April 1941.

Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox, by sign advertising their movies, August 1939. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, series 1057, item 3854

Not that Neagle and Wilcox were absent from Toronto in 1939. The pair stopped by the city to promote their Queen Victoria biopic Sixty Glorious Years in May and Nurse Edith Cavell in August. The picture above was taken from the latter visit, which included a stop at the new Pylon Theatre on College Street on August 24. Neagle dedicated the venue by leaving her footprints in concrete in the lobby. The ceremony was mentioned in passing by local newspapers, whose coverage focused on the world premiere of the movie that night at the Canadian National Exhibition. Similar neglect would befall her footprints, which were covered up for years. They returned to public view when the theatre, later renamed the Royal, was renovated in 2006.

Mayor Nathan Phillips looks on as actor Joe E. Brown signs City’s guest book in the mayor’s office at Old City Hall, May 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, series 1057, item 2441

Flash forward to 1956 and a return appearance from Nathan Phillips, this time watching comedian Joe E. Brown sign the city’s guest book. Brown was in town as the guest speaker for the Old Timers Baseball Association’s annual “Meet the Ball Club” dinner (the team in this case the triple-A Maple Leafs). Brown had once aspired to be a professional baseball player but settled for being a booster of the sport, a love which he passed on to his son Joe L. Brown, who was the architect of World Series winning teams in Pittsburgh in 1960 and 1971.
The Telegram noted Brown “sent the $10-a-plate diners home with more laughs and more grainfield, pragmatic philosophy than one expects from a Hollywood personality.” He expressed no regrets about his change in career plan. “As a comedian it has been my privilege to make millions of people laugh. As a baseball player, I might have entertained fewer people for fewer years. The way it worked out, I’ve had a good life.”
Three years after visiting Toronto, Brown uttered one of the greatest punch lines in movie history during the finale of Some Like It Hot.
Additonal material from the August 16, 1938 edition of The Globe and Mail, the May 3, 1956 edition of the Telegram, and the January 19, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star.