"Lol" Solman, once "Canada’s Uncrowned Amusement King," is all but forgotten today.
Although he’s largely unknown today, in the first three decades of the 20th century, “Lol” Solman played a pioneering role in building Toronto Island into a summer destination, enshrining the city as a destination for first-rate theatre, and popularizing baseball and hockey as professional sports in the city. Envisioning entrepreneurial possibilities where others predicted only failure, Solman took risks and, through tireless work and adaptability to evolving circumstances, he proved successful in nearly every venture he touched.
Over the course of his career Solman would be owner, partner, or manager of Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, the Toronto Ferry Company, the Maple Leafs Baseball Club, the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Sunnyside Amusement Park, and Maple Leaf Stadium, as well as occupying senior positions (with responsibility for Canadian operations) in the Shubert Brothers and Loews Theatres entertainment empires. “Mr. Solman had a real love for everything about Toronto, and a great affection for its people,” an obituary in the Toronto Globe (March 25, 1931) acknowledged of his public spirit, and, as a result, the self-made businessman was “one of the most widely known citizens of Toronto.”
Lawrence “Lol” Solman was born on May 14, 1863, to Samuel and May Solman, who had been among the founding members of the city’s first Jewish synagogue (which grew into the Holy Blossom Temple). Growing up in modest means on John Street near Richmond, Solman was educated in the city’s public schools and at the local Mechanic’s Institute. After working as an errand boy at a Yorkville hardware store and as a baker’s apprentice, Solman moved to Detroit to work in the mail-order trade in 1885, eventually operating his own small business there. By 1893, he was back in Toronto, managing the restaurant at Hanlan’s Point. That year, he married Emily Hanlan Durnan, the widowed sister of champion rower Ned Hanlan.
Hanlan’s Point, which included a number of popular amusements near the hotel and restaurant—including a merry-go-round, shooting galleries, a bandstand, and a “museum of living curiosities”—was already drawing crowds to the Island in the 1890s. Solman, however, saw potential for developing it into the summertime destination, and for earning profits from the passenger ferries as well admissions to the amusements.
When the Toronto Ferry Corporation was incorporated as a joint stock company on August 27, 1890 by prominent financier Edmund B. Osler of the Osler and Hammond brokerage firm, Solman was appointed general manager; he would eventually buy out the other partners and assume ownership by 1906. Within a few years of its founding, Mike Filey notes in Trillium and Toronto Island (Dundurn, 2010), the company acquired nearly all the other ferry companies operating on Toronto Harbour to secure “a virtual monopoly on hauling the public to and from the Island.”
With backing from Ambrose Small, the owner of the Grand Opera House, and H.C. Hammond, the other half of Osler and Hammond, Solman convinced Ned Hanlan, his brother-in-law, to enlarge and improve the attractions into a full amusement park with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and eventually a baseball stadium. It proved to be a lucrative investment for Solman over the years. “One might never have suspected it and it may seem hard to credit,” he told a reporter, “but the earnings of that little old gold mine at the island never varied more than few dollars year by year.”
Solman was a man of broad sports interests (including ice-boating on Lake Ontario) and it was natural that he used spectator sports to drive passenger traffic to his ferries and amusement park.
First, he became involved with the Toronto Tecumsehs lacrosse team, when that sport was among the country’s most popular. Then, at the urging of his friend Jim McCaffery, he joined a group of local businessmen who stepped in when the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league baseball team was under threat of relocation to the United States after the 1896 season. While McCaffery, as president, acted as the public face of the baseball club, Lol Solman, as secretary-treasurer, remained in the background to tend to its business affairs. The Leafs began playing their games on Hanlan’s Point, at a newly built grandstand shared with the lacrosse team, ensuring that all fans who bought a ticket also paid a ferry fare.
At the insistence of Ed Barrow, a high-profile new coach and co-owner, the Leafs played on the mainland from 1901 to 1906. But in 1907 they returned to Hanlan’s Point, where a new, ten-thousand-seat ballpark had been built after a fire destroyed the original grandstand in September 1903. Solman was such a shrewd entrepreneur, Sally Gibson suggests in More Than An Island (Irwin Publishing, 1984), that even as the grandstand was aflame he had his ferries run special service so passengers could watch the fire from up close.
The grandstand burned down for a second time in a devastating August 1909 fire that caused $200,000 in damage while destroying the hotel and most of the amusement park. Even before the debris had been cleared, Solman was hard at work drafting plans and negotiating City approvals for a larger, steel-and-concrete stadium, and a new generation of rides, amusements, and concessions. Just as Solman had pledged, the sixteen-thousand-seat stadium was ready for the opening day of the baseball season on May 10, 1910.
When Cawthra Mulock, a 21-year-old businessman from a prominent family, hatched an ambitious plan to open a state-of-the-art playhouse in 1905, the 400,000 residents of Toronto were already served by five large theatres (the Princess, the Grand Opera House, the Majestic, the Star, and Shea’s), competing to stage high-class touring shows. But even the best of these, the well-travelled Mulock reasoned, were dated, and couldn’t match the technical capabilities of the leading New York City playhouses, meaning that many of the latest extravagant productions might bypass Toronto for want of a fine, modern theatre. He secured investors, and two years later the Royal Alexandra Theatre opened its doors. Solman was a partner and manager for nearly 25 years.
In The Royal Alexandra Theatre: A Celebration of 100 Years (McArthur & Company, 2007), Robert Brockhouse speculates that Solman was an odd choice of partner for Mulock—a self-made man who’d risen from humble origins far outside Mulock’s social circle. But the entrepreneur had a number of important connections, and throughout his career Solman would prove adept at blurring socio-economic divisions, forging close relationships with, among others, the business establishment and politicians at all levels.
Despite his years promoting popular entertainment, Solman had less experience in the business of high-class, respectable theatre. But he shared Mulock’s aspiration to bring the leading touring and repertory companies, and so headed to New York to meet Abraham Erlanger, chief booker for the Theatrical Syndicate, which exerted near-monopoly control over the legitimate theatre in North America.
Formed in 1896 by a coalition of theatre owners, the Syndicate coordinated bookings with actors, theatre owners, and even railroad companies. Venues across the continent were stratified according to the particular type of entertainment they offered. In Toronto, for example, the Syndicate decided that the Princess Theatre on King Street West would book only first-class productions, while the Grand Opera House was consigned to second-class bookings, and so on.
In the Syndicate’s estimation, a city of Toronto’s size couldn’t sustain a second first-class theatre, and Erlanger proposed that the Royal Alex be the Syndicate’s vaudeville venue. The suggestion was insulting, as the Alexandra Company had built their John-Lyle-designed playhouse to meet the technical specifications of the most extravagant and prestigious shows, not slapstick comedians and second-rate singers. When Solman declined the offer, Erlanger became enraged, reportedly threatening to bankrupt the Royal Alex and turn it into the stable for the Princess Theatre patrons.
(Right: Portrait of Abraham L. Erlanger by the White Studio. From the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.)
In response Solman negotiated with the upstart Shubert brothers, Polish immigrants who’d turned an assemblage of theatres in New York state into a fledgling independent production company. The Shubert brothers set themselves up as a nationwide alliance of independent theatres in direct, and bitter, competition with the Syndicate. Promised 25 to 40 weeks of first-class, legitimate theatre productions, Solman signed the Royal Alex into the Shubert network.
Fearing this new competition from the Royal Alex, the Syndicate-backed management of the Princess Theatre undertook major renovations and modernizations. Each theatre’s programming was consciously selected to counter that of its rival. When the Royal Alex opened on August 26, 1907, with a Wizard of Oz knock-off musical called Top O’ Th’ World, the Syndicate quickly booked a similarly elaborate staging of a fantastical story entitled Land of Nod.
When Solman and his partners—who were content if musicals and light comedies filled the seats but preferred serious, less popular fare like Shakespeare and Ibsen—got into a disagreement about the quality of productions being offered by the Shubert network, Solman withdrew the Royal Alex from the coalition. Faced with the prospect of running a truly independent theatre—while the Princess down the street still enjoyed first-rate Syndicate bookings—Solman’s solution was inspired. He engaged an actor to form a new company that Solman advertised as The Royal Alexandra Players. The company, an early example of an emerging Canadian theatre scene, pulled in reasonable audiences performing top-rate interpretations of comedies, tragedies, and classics.
The Royal Alex weathered a 15-month-long lean period until an agreement was once again reached with the Shubert brothers to provide productions for the 1909 season. Later, when the 1920s proved to be difficult times for the theatre industry, Solman booked Canadian acting troupes, and became a leading supporter of the famous Dumbells comedy troupe. “He had strong local sympathies; to him the Alexandra was a Toronto family theatre more than it was a Shubert house,” critic Augustus Bridle wrote in the Star (March 24, 1931), arguing Solman had been an early supporter of a made-in-Canada theatre scene. (Impressed by Solman’s success without them, the Shuberts brought Solman aboard as general manager for their Canadian operations.)
The Royal Alex’s bitter rivalry with the Princess ended on May 7, 1915, when the latter was gutted by an overnight fire, leaving the Royal Alex as the city’s only remaining first-rate theatre. The Syndicate’s power over the theatre business would eventually be undercut by the Actors’ Equity strike in 1919.
Solman’s instincts for the public’s entertainment interests was perhaps best demonstrated by his involvement in the construction of a hockey arena. He was among the partners who constructed the 6,593-seat Arena Gardens—later known as Mutual Street Arena—at a cost of $500,000. Though many claimed it was too big, the venue became home, until 1931, of the city’s team in the nascent National Hockey League.
Its opening in 1912 was heralded with a gala musical festival featuring 23 popular performers, and a new orchestra composed of members of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera conducted by Nahan Franko. Calling the festival “probably the greatest musical event in Canadian history,” the Toronto Star noted that Solman risked nearly $39,000 to stage the event, with a potential profit of $15,000 if all eight performances sold out. “I want to see if Toronto would like a week of the best music at popular prices every year,” he proclaimed. “If it shows that it does, I will provide it with the best that can be got.” In subsequent years, he twice booked opera companies, as well as the Pavlova Ballet, to perform in the arena.
Solman was also a begrudging local pioneer in the motion picture business, becoming vice-president of the Loews chain’s Canadian operations. Only on rare occasions, such as a 1909 documentary on the Wright brothers’ first flight or the Canadian premiere of D.W. Griffith’s controversial Birth of a Nation (1915), did Solman allow films to be screened at the Royal Alex. When there were suggestions of installing a sound system at the Royal Alex to allow performance of “talkies,” Brockhouse notes, Solman threatened to quit before eventually allowing the screening of the Academy Award-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Facing Depression-era economics, the business-minded theatre manager recognized that showing Hollywood films in a first-rate playhouse was preferable to turning the venue’s lights out indefinitely.
Meanwhile, since its creation in 1911, the Toronto Harbour Commission had set about transforming the Toronto waterfront with a comprehensive plan calling for land reclamation on a massive scale, the construction of a new shoreline boulevard, and the creation of a new amusement park east of the Exhibition Grounds. Solman astutely recognized the automobile’s growing importance, and realized that the future of popular entertainment in Toronto lay on the mainland, not Hanlan’s Point. When Sunnyside Amusement Park opened in 1922, Gibson reports, Solman was its manager. That his wife, Emily, died in May 1917 would have only strengthened his initiative to turn his focus to the mainland.
By early 1920s, automobile-driving fans were balking at paying the ferry fare just to watch baseball, and game attendance dwindled despite the team’s on-field success. As early as 1922, Solman had been demanding that the City construct a bridge spanning the western gap or he’d move the Leafs to a new stadium on the mainland. Balking at the cost of a bridge, in 1926 City officials instead decided to bring the ferries under public control. They bought the assets of the Toronto Ferry Company, including the stadium and amusement park at Hanlan’s Point—only to discover that the ferries and the docks had fallen into disrepair. Solman’s high selling price led to some public controversy, including accusations that he’d underhandedly sold the City dilapidated goods. “I am not as young a man as I used to be and the injustice of those charges was a mighty severe blow,” Solman told the Star Weekly after being exonerated of all malfeasance.
At the same time as he was divesting himself of his Island-related holdings, Solman—by then the Leafs club president—privately bankrolled the construction of a new state-of-the-art baseball stadium on an automobile-friendly parcel of reclaimed land at the foot of Bathurst Street. Constructed in five months at a cost of $750,000, the twenty-thousand-seat stadium was built of concrete and was considered by the local press to be “the finest baseball park in minor league baseball.” Some, including major league baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, suggested the new ballpark be named Solman Field. But Solman, shying from public attention as always, demurred, and new facility was instead dubbed Maple Leaf Stadium.
On April 29, 1926, the Maple Leafs opened the stadium with a victory over the Reading Keystones, kicking off a season in which the franchise won the Eastern League pennant and the Junior World Series. “It is not generally appreciated up here just how much favourable publicity Toronto has received in the States through our team winning the junior world’s championship,” Solman told a reporter of the 1926 Leafs. “In my opinion, it is worth far more than all the paid propaganda we might care to invest in. I’ll venture to say there are lots of people who never heard of Toronto before.”
Although, by their very nature, his entertainment-industry ventures required him to be a congenial showman, Solman was happiest to let others take centre stage and shied from the limelight. Solman’s shrewd handling of business ventures had brought him great wealth, but his lifestyle was never ostentatious. His automobile, one reporter noted, would’ve made some of his employees blush. He continued to live near his childhood home at John and Richmond streets, long after the neighbourhood had ceased being desirable. This circumspection “has kept his achievements from being more generally recognized and appreciated,” a 1926 Star Weekly profile argued. “If he had been an equally successful playhouse operator in one of the large cities of our southern neighbor, his name would appear in the big electric sign out in front. And if he had built there as a magnificent a stadium his friends would have insisted on the park being known and advertised by a more appropriate name.”
Generous and civic-minded, Solman contributed time and money to charity. While some of his efforts were well-known—like ferrying hospitalized children to summer residences on the Island, or donating trophies and equipment to amateur sports organizations—Solman kept most of his efforts private. When a former employee died in a New York City fire and her family lacked the means to cover hospital bills, for instance, Solman stepped in to settle accounts and arrange the transportation of the body back to Toronto.
A respectful manager, Solman took his employees’ long-term interests to heart. It was said that he never fired anyone, but was rather generous with second chances and willing to re-assign staff to an alternative position instead dismissing them. At one point, he operated a large, unprofitable restaurant on Yonge Street for the sole purpose of offering wintertime employment for his Island employees.
The enduring affection and loyalty this earned Solman was evident at his funeral on March 27, 1931, when many long-time employees were among the thousands assembled at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian. Although Solman counted mayors, city councillors, provincial politicians, prominent athletes, and actors among his friends, his eight pallbearers were drawn from among his longest-serving former employees. So many flowers filling the church, the Star (March 27, 1931) suggested, “that it might have been an emperor or a king who was dead.” As per his request, the service was simple, and the evening’s performance of A.A. Milne’s comedy Michael and Mary at the Royal Alex went ahead as scheduled. Solman was interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
In the decades after Solman’s death, the rides and concessions fell silent first at Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park, and then at Sunnyside; both were dismantled by mid-century. Maple Leaf Stadium was torn down in 1968, after decades as the city’s home to professional baseball (and occasionally professional football). So was Arena Gardens, the NHL’s first home in Toronto, in the late 1980s. But for the Royal Alexandra, which continues booking first-rate stage productions, and the refurbished Trillium ferry, the last of the Toronto Ferry Company’s vessels remaining in operation, Solman’s tangible legacy in Toronto would be gone entirely.
(Right: Lol Solman of the Toronto Ferry Company, ca. 1930. From the City of Toronto Archives (Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4300).)
Additional sources consulted: Toronto Island: The City Years (Market Gallery, 1981); Louis Cauz, Baseball’s Back in Town (Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); Mike Filey, Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide (Dundurn, 1999); Filey, Toronto Sketches: ‘The Way We Were’ (Dundurn, 1992); Jane Finnan Dorward, ed., Dominionball: Baseball Above the 49th (Society for American Baseball Research, Inc., 2005); and articles from the Toronto Globe (March 25, 26 & 28, and May 6, 1931); and the Toronto Star (March 26, 1901; September 21 & 28, 1912; November 24, 1922; March 8, 1923; March 19, 1929; March 9, 24 & 27, 1931; April 29, 1989; November 1, 1992; September 20, 2006).