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Ed Mirvish: A salesman for all seasons

In 1985, Ed Mirvish enjoyed such a high profile that Japanese and American businessmen came to visit him in search of his secret


 

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In black ties and evening gowns, London society turned out in its glittering glory. By the planeload, Canadian theatregoers and critics flew across the Atlantic to attend the event. Although the caterers were late with the food, and the musical which premiered that night, Blondel, was attacked by critics, the reopening of London’s refurbished Old Vic theatre was a hit that fall, two years ago. And there, in the royal box beside the Queen Mother, was the unlikely figure of Edwin (Yehuda) Mirvish, 71, the discount retailer from Toronto who had bought and saved the ailing London theatre. Observers said he appeared nervous that night, unlike a previous occasion when he and his wife, Anne, arrived at Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence. As the lords and ladies waited to greet him, the renegade of the Canadian establishment walked up to his hosts and said, “Hi. I’m Honest Ed.”

The Old Vic’s financial health is still unstable. But in Canada, Honest Ed continues to prove that art can make money just as surely as selling cutrate clothes: last year Mirvish’s Toronto theatre, the Royal Alexandra, boasted 50,000 subscribers and sales of more than $12 million. This month his only child, David, 41, will present a Canadian production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, currently showing at the Mirvish now enjoys such a high profile that Japanese and American businessmen visit him looking for his secret Manitoba Theatre Centre—and which is being cofinanced by the Royal Alexandra. It will open there on Dec. 22.

Still, despite the family’s glamorous involvement with the stage—and despite the fact that Ed Mirvish also owns 50 pieces of prime real estate in downtown Toronto, including six successful Toronto restaurants which serve an average 4,000 meals a day—the patriarch is first and foremost a shopkeeper. In fact, he is a shopkeeper whose discount store turned over $50 million in sales last year while more venerable institutions, such as Simpsons, suffered multimillion-dollar losses. Ed Mirvish now enjoys such a high-profile that Japanese and American businessmen visit his Toronto store, looking for his secret.

His retailing style has been called vulgar, and the theatre community has criticized his theatrical ventures as artistically tame and irrelevant to Canadian culture. But there is no disputing the genius of his basic idea. Mirvish is credited with inventing the widely copied concept of a self-service discount house. Ever since his store, Honest Ed’s, opened on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets in 1948 Mirvish has nurtured his invention, spending almost every morning in his second floor office.

While David has always been involved in his father’s business, he now works with him full time. He has assumed the job of president in his father’s empire, while Mirvish senior is chairman. “And we have our board meeting every morning walking to work along King Street.” Still, Ed oversees and approves all the store’s major decisions —window displays, ads, stock and sales. “The store is important to me,” said Mirvish. “I started there. It is a romantic world, and I have an affection for it.”

But his own father’s experience as a salesman proves that it is also a harsh world. After immigrating from Russia to the United States at the turn of the century, David Mirvish struggled to make a living selling the Freemason encyclopedia. He and his Austrian-born wife, Anna, decided to settle in Toronto with their nine-year-old son, Edwin Yehuda, and his baby brother, Robert. In 1925 they opened a grocery store on Dundas Street in the Jewish district south of Toronto’s Kensington market. A third child, Lorraine, was born later. During the Depression his father gave customers credit. When they did not pay their debts, young Edwin often bicycled to their homes to collect the money. Throughout his childhood the store was often on the brink of bankruptcy. After his father died, Ed tried to make a go of it for eight years before he finally sold it.

Then he worked as a manager for his childhood chum Leon Weinstein, who owned Power Supermarkets, a chain of grocery stores. In 1940 he married a beautiful dark-haired singer from Hamilton, Anne Maklin. The two opened a midtown dress shop, the Sport Bar, which Anne ran while Ed continued to work at Power. At the end of the war he sold a $250 life insurance policy that Anne owned to buy up properties in the area. Three years later he opened Honest Ed’s in the same location with small goods—utensils and knick-knacks he had picked up from a burned-out Woolworth’s store in Hamilton. His first advertisement in a Toronto newspaper read: “Our building is a dump! Our service is rotten!... But!!! Our prices are the lowest in town!”

Mirvish worked at the dining room table of his semidetached house in North Toronto, personally writing the ads that brought the customers. And the store spread from two storefronts to the city block it now occupies. Said Anne: “Neither of us visualized it this way. It has gotten so big.”

Then, in 1962 Mirvish shattered his vulgar image by buying the beautiful old Royal Alexandra theatre. The acquisition caused alarm in Toronto’s theatre community: fears abounded that he would turn it into a carnival or a strip joint. Instead, Mirvish spent more than $500,000 to refurbish it to its original grandeur. From the beginning, Mirvish was determined to run the venerable cultural institution like any other business. At first, said renowned Canadian thespian Mavor Moore, “he tried to do everything because that was what was expected of the Alex.” But because the cost of presenting a theatrical production could only be recouped with a guaranteed audience, he turned to the subscription series concept, at that time rarely used in theatre. To lure theatregoers into buying a season’s series of tickets, Mirvish tried to book plays with audience appeal and a good track record, rather than take risks on original works. The formula worked. And Mirvish, the barker of bargains, became a patron of the arts. It is a role that he has relished ever since.

He also became a restaurateur. When he opened the theatre it was isolated in a district of only rail yards and warehouses, west of Toronto’s Bay Street corridor, which was a wasteland at curtain time. As a result, Mirvish bought the building next door and filled it with used furniture. He recalls that 10 minutes after he got his liquor licence on Jan. 20, 1965, he opened Ed’s Warehouse, the 180-seat restaurant that served only roast beef dinners. Now Mirvish’s impressive restaurant empire includes 10 dining rooms.

At his restaurants Mirvish markets his image as carefully as he markets his door-crasher specials at Honest Ed’s. Blowups of newspaper stories about the Mirvishes decorate the walls on the street outside. Inside are testaments from famous figures who have dined there. Pressed for comment, Mirvish said, “I tell myself that the posters sell roast beef.”

Mirvish’s Midas touch in Toronto has not yet translated into transatlantic success. In June, 1982, when his bid of $1.23 million for the Old Vic theatre was accepted, his competitors for the property were outraged. Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of such successful musicals as Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and Trevor Robert Nunn, the director of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Cats, who had formed a partnership to bid on the theatre, quickly demanded that Mirvish “give back the Old Vic. It should be British-owned.”

But Mirvish, who had bid a reported $100,000 more than Webber and Nunn, invested another $4 million refurbishing the grand old theatre. Then, after he donated the space in the adjacent five-storey building to Britain’s National Theatre as a place where new playwrights and young directors could hold workshops, The Times hailed him unequivocally and fulsomely as a “Toronto Medici.”

Still, the character from the colonies continues to puzzle many Britons. Michael Billington, drama critic for The Guardian added: “We do not have characters like that in Britain. He is a salesman—a fascinating, buccaneering tycoon. Although we were initially taken aback, we were amazed at his courage in pouring so much money into the Old Vic.”

If Mirvish is a financial risk-taker, his son is showing him how to take artistic chances. In 1963 David opened his own international art gallery on Toronto’s Markham Street, where his father had bought several buildings in which he rents cheap spaces for artists. The David Mirvish Gallery was a critical success: the contemporary artists he promoted include Jack Bush and Kenneth Noland. But in 1978 David abruptly closed the gallery and joined his father in the family business. David told Maclean's that he is more “willing to make artistic judgments” than his father. Indeed, instead of bringing an American touring company’s production of The Real Thing to Canadian audiences, the Mirvishes, enouraged actively by David, have financed the Canadian production in Manitoba.

Honest Ed Mirvish has gambled often in his life—and reaped glittering rewards. Although he insists, “We are not put here to have a good time,” his irrepressible irreverence contradicts that philosophy. Last year, when the Queen Mother was visiting Toronto, Mirvish learned that she had made an unscheduled visit to the CN Tower. He quickly dashed off a note to her secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat. “You were right across the road,” he wrote. “So how come you didn’t stop in for lunch?”

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