David Mirvish recounts the history of the Princess of Wales Theatre and his family’s connection to Toronto’s King West theatre district
My father (Ed Mirvish) bought the Royal Alex in 1963 when most of the city planners were saying the City of Toronto would expand to the east. All the offers they had for the theatre were to turn it into a parking lot, because those people understood theatre and my father didn’t know what he was getting into – he always said too much knowledge is dangerous because you wouldn’t do things if you knew.
What he discovered is that people keep their theatres closed because then they knew what they were losing every week. If you’re open there’s no limit to what you can lose. So when he bought it, he said he would like to run it as theatre for five years and if he failed he could do what everyone else wanted to do with the site.
He just couldn’t understand how such a beautiful building with all this plaster all these facilities that cost $750,000 in 1907 should be torn down. At the end of five years he developed an affection for it, and saw a 5 per cent profit for about 90 per cent of his effort. But he had a profit and he was glad and over the years he presented something like 330 different productions.
Because he was a storekeeper and didn’t know better he kept open all the time. And when you’re open you have 12,000 seats to sell and that means thousands of people are coming in this direction all the time and didn’t have a place to eat. He looked around and saw this warehouse to the west and he bought it. His plan he was to make the lobbies bigger, because in 1907 women didn’t leave in the intermission they stayed in their seats. There were very few washrooms for them, the men came out to smoke a cigar and then they went back in.
He was originally thinking he’d make more lobby space and instead ended up opening a roast beef restaurant. It started out with one room and all he had was roast beef. It eventually grew to 11 rooms and on a busy Saturday night he served 6,000 roast beef dinners. He eventually added steak, but he wouldn’t serve steak in the same room as roast beef so when you got to the front door of the restaurant you had to decide what you wanted. It was a big part of people’s lives and existed from 1975 to 2002.
Then he recognized the neighbourhood had changed over those years and now new buildings and there were now maybe 85 restaurants in the neighbourhood and realized it takes a certain kind of temperament to be there every day. My father was at the restaurant for lunch every day. He’d start at Honest Ed’s in the morning and you could set your watch on him coming to the restaurant.
There was an evolution to these places. Eventually they offered for sale the General Electric building that was to the east of the Royal Alex, and they had a parking lot that came with it. Knowing our experience in the neighbourhood we just thought it would be a convenience if we could offer parking to the people. So we bought that parking lot and we ended up running a parking lot for some time.
Then we produced Les Misérables and went 14 months, but we had subscription and we couldn’t continue to disregard the subscribers so we had to stop and bring subscription back and do 15 months more.
It wasn’t a good system. We realized we needed another theatre. And fortunately we had bought 10 years earlier this parking lot. We went to the city and said we would like to build a temporary theatre for 10 years and this would be the Princess of Wales theatre.
I had a competitor, and he came to city hall and said you aren’t providing enough parking. They passed a bylaw. Nobody had ever built a live theatre with parking. They said they were going to take us to the OMB and stop us for three years and then we wouldn’t be able to do Miss Saigon and pay for the theatre.
I was stubborn and said no, we will dig eight floors down and put underground parking. We hoped I wouldn’t have to build eight floors and find something within 300 metres, but I was forced to say I’d provide this parking if I wanted to go ahead with the timetable so this show would work.
So, we went from doing one theatre, to restaurants and warehouses, to a parking lot, to building a theatre to buying another property in the neighbourhood so we’d have parking for that theatre and because we did that we built the theatre in a much more permanent way.
So we ended up with three and a half floors of underground parking. I thought this theatre was going to be forever so I wanted to make it the most beautiful and comfortable theatre I possibly could. I have very definite idea about what makes great theatre and how you connect the audience and the actors. So we built this theatre.
My father closed the restaurant in 2002, recognizing the neighbourhood no longer needed us to provide it…we’ve had a role in the development of this neighbourhood and it’s almost 50 years later – what’s the legacy that we want to establish here?