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Toronto's iconic Honest Ed’s sign to be saved

The Honest Ed’s sign contains some 23,000 lightbulbs.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Part of the iconic Honest Ed's sign will be preserved, the store's former owner announced Wednesday, and will move to a prominent place outside the Ed Mirvish Theatre in downtown Toronto in honour of the bargain-basement store's flamboyant founder.

David Mirvish, the late Mr. Mirvish's son and owner of the family theatre company, said the outpouring of affection for the pioneering discount retailer in the weeks before its closing on Dec. 31 encouraged him to save the sign from the scrap heap.

"Ultimately, I guess I'm sentimental," he said. "More than I realized."

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One of four 30-by-60-foot placards bearing the store's name – which together contain some 23,000 lightbulbs – will be taken down and reassembled on the Victoria St. facade of the Ed Mirvish Theatre, in Mr. Mirvish's plan, which still requires approval from the city.

"This is terrific news for the city of Toronto and the retention of heritage and history," said Joe Cressy, city councillor for Ward 20, which borders on the Honest Ed's site.

The current sign went up in 1984, and was preceded by frontings that included a series of spinning, candy-striped balls and a massive, backlit "Readograph" that spelled out messages in detachable black letters. The garish displays were part of Mr. Mirvish's penchant for attention-grabbing stunts, including giving out free turkeys before Christmas and once painting a live elephant pink.

The sprawling store opened in 1948 and became beloved by bargain hunters across the city, but especially the working-class, immigrant residents of the surrounding neighbourhood. Even for many who never shopped there, the building became a kind of kitschy landmark, with its Coney Island-meets-Vegas aesthetics and its quirky, improbably cheap merchandise.

The sign's projected relocation will be anything but a steal, Mr. Mirvish acknowledged. The move is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, although Mr. Mirvish declined to give a precise estimate, not wanting to dwell on a figure that still makes him cringe.

"Every day that I investigated it got more and more expensive, so that made me take pause," he said. "But in the end I decided to bite the bullet."

The placard will be taken apart into about six segments, and its famously splashy lightbulbs removed. "What we won't do is tart it up like when it was new," Mr. Mirvish said. "We'll keep the wear and tear."

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A plaque at ground level will explain the history of the store and its connection to the theatre, Mr. Mirvish said. In the flush of its success, Honest Ed's funded the Mirvish theatre empire, which began with the purchase of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963.

Real estate developer Westbank Corp., which now owns the Honest Ed's site and the surrounding Mirvish Village, with plans to turn them into an apartment and retail complex, has offered to cover about a third of the sign-relocation cost.

"That was an unexpected delight," Mr. Mirvish said.

The store's closing tapped a well of nostalgia for Honest Ed's, and a rush to buy the store's distinctively hand-painted bargain signs before they ran out. That tide of goodwill was matched by misgivings about the loss of such a fondly familiar sight, and the history it represented.

With this move, Mr. Mirvish hopes to pay deference to that feeling and honour his family . Ed Mirvish helped mock up the sign himself, including its recognizable mustard-and-ketchup colour scheme.

"It's nice to unite it with a theatre that's named after my father," he said.

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