Honest Eds

Ed Mirvish

Edwin "Honest Ed" Mirvish, OC, CBE (July 24, 1914July 11, 2007) was a Canadian businessman, philanthropist and theatrical impresario who lived in Toronto, Ontario. He is known not only for his flagship business, Honest Ed's, a landmark discount store in downtown Toronto, but also as a patron of the arts, instrumental in revitalizing the theatre scene in Toronto.

Early days

Born in Colonial Beach, Virginia, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania (his father, David) and Austria (his mother, Anna). His parents gave him the Hebrew name, Yehuda, but at the urging of a cousin, they added a more American name, Edwin. Mirvish often told the tale of his bris; there was no mohel in Colonial Beach, so the family hired one in nearby Washington, D.C., to come down to perform the ceremony. The mohel chosen was Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, the father of Al Jolson. Mirvish credited this as his introduction to show business.

The family later moved to Washington, D.C., where Mirvish's father opened a grocery store. The grocery store went bankrupt in 1923, and David Mirvish moved his family to Toronto where he worked as a door-to-door salesman – peddling, among other things, Fuller Brushes and the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry – until he opened a grocery in the Toronto Jewish community, on Dundas Street. The family lived above the store, sharing their tiny apartment with a Hebrew school. Mirvish would often joke that it was his dream in those days to someday have a bathroom he didn't have to share with 50 others.

First business ventures

Mirvish lost his father at the age of 15. He dropped out of school to manage the store, becoming the sole support of his mother and his younger brother, Robert (who became a successful novelist and short-story writer) and sister, Lorraine. The grocery business did not do well, and Mirvish closed shop to reopen as a dry-cleaner, in partnership with his childhood friend, Yale Simpson. The shop was known as "Simpson's". When the well-known downtown Toronto department store "Simpson's" attempted to force him to change the name of his business, Mirvish pointed to Simpson and said, "Here's my Mr. Simpson. Where's yours?" The dry-cleaning business did no better than the grocery, however, and Mirvish soon abandoned it to take a regular job working as a produce manager and buyer for Toronto grocery store entrepreneur Leon Weinstein.

Now financially stable, Mirvish bought a Model-T Ford and began to court a radio singer from Hamilton, Ontario, Anne Macklin, whom he married in 1941. In 1945, their son, David, was born.

History of Honest Ed's

During World War II, Ed and Anne Mirvish opened a dress shop known as "The Sport Bar." They ran this business until 1948, when Mirvish cashed in his wife's insurance policy to open a new business, a bargain basement known as "Honest Ed's", stocked with all kinds of odd merchandise purchased at bankruptcy and fire sales, and displayed on orange crates. This unique no-credit, no-service, no-frills business model was an immediate success. Mirvish claimed to have invented the "loss-leader", below-cost discounts on selected items designed to lure buyers into the store. "Honest Ed's" gradually expanded to fill an entire city block. Billing itself as "the world's biggest discount department store", it was soon bringing in millions of dollars a year. The store expanded and, in the late 1950s, Mirvish started buying up houses on Markham Street running south from Bloor. When his application to tear down the Victorian structures in order to build a parking lot was rejected by the city Mirvish, at the urging of his wife and son, rented them out at low rates to local artists and the street soon became a community of artists studios, galleries, boutiques and niche shops known today as Mirvish Village.

Publicity stunts

Mirvish was renowned for getting free publicity, doing everything from riding elephants, to hiring protesters to picket his own restaurant over its dress code. Every Christmas, Mirvish gave away ten thousand pounds of free turkeys in his store to shoppers who stood in line for hours. A tradition since his 75th birthday has been the annual birthday bash outside the store, with free food, entertainment and children's rides. In 2003, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman proclaimed Mirvish's birthday "Ed Mirvish Day".

Theatres and restaurants

In addition to Honest Ed's, Mirvish was known in Toronto for his theatres and restaurants. His first purchase was the Royal Alexandra Theatre, an Edwardian landmark building slated for demolition. Mirvish purchased the building in 1962 and refurbished it, revitalizing the Toronto theatre scene. To liven up the neighborhood and provide patrons with a place to go before and after performances, Mirvish bought and renovated a nearby warehouse building, which he turned into a restaurant. To cut costs, Ed's Warehouse at King Street West and Duncan Street, served only one meal: an English cut of roast beef, rolls, kosher dill pickles, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and canned peas. Along the same street, Mirvish later opened Ed's Seafood, Ed's Folly, Ed's Chinese, Ed's Italian Restaurant and Old Ed's, which attracted local residents to the previously neglected King Street area and served 6,000 meals a night. All the restaurants have since closed.

In 1993 the Mirvishes built the Princess of Wales Theatre, the largest new theatre - and first privately financed theatre - in North America in the span of thirty years. In 2001, Mirvish Enterprises signed a management contract to run the Pantages Theatre, renamed the Canon Theatre, for Clear Channel Entertainment (now Live Nation), which had bought up the assets of the bankrupt theatre company, Livent. The first show under the Mirvish banner was a touring production of Saturday Night Fever.

He and his son David operated Mirvish Productions, which staged major touring theatre productions from Broadway and London and which produced and/or co-produced the Canadian stagings of such recent hits as The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, The Producers and Hairspray. In 1982 Ed and David Mirvish bought London's Old Vic for £550,000 (CAD$1.23 million) and spent four million renovating it. Under their management, The Old Vic was celebrated for winning more awards for its productions than any other single theatre in Britain; It never made money, however, and they sold it to its present owners, a theatre trust, in 1998. Ed Mirvish was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for saving the Old Vic.

Birthday and anniversary celebrations

In June 2006, Ed and Anne Mirvish marked their 65th wedding anniversary with a party at the Princess of Wales Theatre. The mayor of Toronto, the chief of police and other public figures delivered congratulatory speeches, followed by a program of vocal music by some of Toronto's opera and theater stars. In July 2007, Mirvish celebrated his 92nd birthday with a lavish party at Honest Ed's. In honor of this occasion, many items in the store were on sale for 92 cents.

Death

On July 11, 2007, the Mirvish family released a statement to announce the death of Ed Mirvish after midnight at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto.

The funeral service was held at the Beth Tzedek Synagogue in Toronto. Mirvish was buried at Pardes Shalom Cemetery in Maple, Ontario. His store was closed and its lights were dimmed, as staff bid farewell to the former owner. A similar gesture was made by theatres on Broadway, which dimmed their lights for one minute at 8pm on July 13. Toronto Police provided ceremonial and mounted units (including the horse Honest Ed) for his funeral. Flags at Toronto civic centres were lowered to half mast.

On August 12, 2007 The City of Toronto had granted a closure of Bloor Street between Bathurst and Markham Streets to accommodate a celebration in honour of Ed Mirvish. Ceremonies began with Mayor David Miller, who proclaimed August 12 “Ed Mirvish Day” in the City of Toronto.

In response to his death, Jones Cane Sugar Soda issued bottles of their soda with a picture of Honest Ed on them, with "Honest Ed Mirvish 1914–2007" placed where normally a photo credit lies.

Awards

References

  • Batten, Jack (1972). Honest Ed's story: the crazy rags to riches story of Ed Mirvish. PaperJacks, Don Mills (Toronto). ISBN 0-7737-7031-3.
  • How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate, or 121 Lessons I Never Learned at School, the autobiography of Edwin Mirvish, published by Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1993
  • There's no business like show business : but I wouldn't ditch my day job by Ed Mirvish, published by Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1997.
  • Retail Council of Canada's Awards of Distinction

External links

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