Fifty years ago this September, a discount-department-store owner who knew zilch about theatre opened his very first stage production in a neglected Edwardian playhouse he'd bought for a song.
The play was Never Too Late, a hit Broadway comedy starring then-popular TV and radio actor William Bendix. The theatre was the Royal Alexandra in Toronto. The producer was the late Edwin (Honest Ed) Mirvish.
Recently, Mirvish's son David took to the boards of the Royal Alex to announce a record-breaking 50th-anniversary playbill of 18 shows in Mirvish Productions' four downtown venues. The half-century between those two events is a classic showbiz success story, filled with exhilarating highs, near-disastrous lows and many memorable performances. Along the way, the Mirvish family became Canada's leading commercial-theatre producer and played a starring role in making Toronto one of North America's major theatrical centres.
Here is a decade-by-decade look at some Mirvish milestones:
1963 – Ed Mirvish, owner of the Honest Ed's bargain emporium, buys the down-at-heel Royal Alex – a 1,497-seat "jewel box" built in 1907 and named after King Edward VII's queen, Alexandra of Denmark – for a paltry $215,000. Ed and his wife, Anne, a former singer, proceed to spend an added $650,000 restoring their newly acquired gem. "The Royal started out as a hobby and a foil to Honest Ed's," David recalls. But soon his father succumbed to the glamour and peril of running a theatre. "What he discovered is that it wasn't really a business, it was a disease."
1969 – After years of watching Toronto's larger O'Keefe Centre (now the Sony) steal the big Broadway touring shows, the Mirvishes finally hit back with Hair. The Royal Alex plays host to a Canadian staging of the landmark hippie musical that plays for 53 weeks – at that point a record run for a Toronto theatrical production.
1972-73 – Inspired by the success of Hair, the Mirvishes produce a Canadian version of another hippie hit, Godspell. Its now-legendary cast of young unknowns includes nascent SCTV comedians Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Martin Short and Dave Thomas, as well as future Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner. A baby-faced Victor Garber plays Jesus and a kid named Paul Shaffer is the musical director. The show beats Hair's record run, playing for 488 performances at the Royal Alex and the Bayview Playhouse.
1982 – Ed buys and restores his second theatre, London's legendary Old Vic, launching the Mirvishes into the far-more-competitive British theatre scene. David takes over the Old Vic's management in 1987. Despite hiring distinguished artistic directors Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall, and reaping critical acclaim, he's unable to keep it out of red ink and eventually sells it in 1998.
1986 – Ed gives David control of the Royal Alex and David founds Alexandra (later Mirvish) Productions, decisively moving the company from a presenter to a producer. He enters into joint ventures with the Canadian Opera Company, Stratford and Shaw festivals, and Canada's big regional theatres. "At the time I realized the shows we were bringing in from New York and London were not as good as what we could do if we did them ourselves, with our own actors," he says.
1989 – The Mirvishes team up with super-producer Cameron Mackintosh to create a painstaking Canadian replica of his Broadway-West End blockbuster Les Misérables. A smash hit, it plays the Royal Alex for a total of 27 months, tours nationally and begets a second, French-speaking company.
1991 – Proving his commitment to new Canadian work, David brings Tomson Highway's tragicomedy Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing to the Royal Alex – the first time a First Nations play has had a major commercial run in Canada.
1993 – The Mirvishes open their second Toronto theatre, the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales.
2000 – Mirvish Productions brings in the new millennium with a roar, co-producing Disney's The Lion King, which plays for four years at the Princess of Wales. The Royal Alex, meanwhile, shatters its own record with a five-year run of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia!
2008 – Expanding his empire, David buys the 2,300-seat Canon (formerly Pantages) Theatre, once the jewel in the crown of rival impresario Garth Drabinsky, as well as the smaller 700-seat Panasonic. In 2011, David renames the Canon the Ed Mirvish Theatre in honour of his father, who dies in 2007 at 92.
2013 – Anne dies in September. She was 94.