If the City of Toronto changed the sign on High Park’s north gate – those slim letters, with the kerning between the H and I just a bit off – would it anger you? When “For Lease” replaced the jaunty, green letters of the October Convenience sign across the street in 2020, did it make you sad? Would it have bothered you if, during the recent renovation of the Park Hyatt, the very art deco 170 Bloor West address sign over the door had been removed? Did you cheer when the 1950s Weston Credit Jewelers sign was revealed almost fully preserved in the early 2000s, but boo when, in 2020, a development sign went up, meaning it would soon be entombed again? Did you smile when the TTC began using their in-house, custom 1950s font again after decades of Helvetica?
Then you, like me, are a typography nerd … er, aficionado … and you understand that commercial signage, typography and advertising are direct, tangible and poignant links to our collective past. And because signage was never precious, it’s a more accurate and honest representation of who we were. In other words, this was business rather than art, but business that employed artistic methods to gain attention.
Yet, over the years, I’ve seen ‘ghost signs’ revealed, only to be covered with beige paint by cheerless building owners. I’ve seen vintage neon come crashing down without a thought that a private collector or a museum might wish to preserve it. And, worse, I’ve seen ideas such as Yonge Downtown BIA director Mark Garner’s for an outdoor neon museum (restored signs in an alleyway off Yonge Street) fail to gain traction for lack of an enthusiastic donor. And now that Mr. Garner has jumped ship for Calgary, well …
“You can choose the kind of city your want, right?” says Gail Packwood, managing director of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres. “And these are the kinds of things that make a city interesting and vibrant; it’s about telling our stories.”
Currently, Ms. Packwood and her colleague, Ellen Flowers, the theatre’s marketing and communications manager, are telling the story of how their “ghost sign,” high above Victoria Street, was restored during the extensive restoration of the building’s south wall. It reads: Loew’s Leads in Toronto / Show Starts Daily 930 AM.
A little history: In 1913, at 189 Yonge St., Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre opened as the flagship of the Canadian chain of vaudeville theatres. New York-born Marcus Loew (1870-1927), got his start in the penny arcade business but soon converted these into a chain of successful vaudeville and silent movie houses. By the time he was working with Scottish-born, New York-based architect Thomas W. Lamb (1871-1942) on the Toronto theatre, he operated more than a dozen in New York, as well as properties in Washington, Boston and Philadelphia. In 1920, Marcus Loew purchased Metro Pictures Corp., and then, a few years later, Goldwyn Picture Corp.
The Toronto sign, says Ms. Packwood, dates from “after 1928″ and before 1942 based on historic photographs that have been uncovered. And, with such an early start time of 9:30 a.m. advertised, the assumption is that the sign likely dates to 1929 or 1930 since the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, had come to the city in 1927 and “the talkies” had continued to enthrall moviegoers (1930 is a likely year, as that’s when vaudeville shows were dropped in favour of full time movies).
However, when the Ontario Heritage Trust took the building over in 1981 – and hosted Cats in the fully restored Elgin in 1985 – most of the south wall was painted over to allow for productions to be advertised: “So there was a Who’s Tommy ad painted on the wall, a Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat], and then this building got built so that practice stopped,” says Ms. Flowers, pointing to the backside of the rather tall 2 Queen St. East.
But, with so much paint applied over the decades, the wall was suffering from spalling, brick failure and loose mortar. So, when capital became available for a full restoration, it was decided to retrace the old Loew’s sign – the earliest version of it – as part of the project. For this portion of the job, Lori Le Mare Studio, a Hamilton-based firm that specializes in historic painting restoration and decorative/faux finishes such as wood grain simulation in heritage houses, were called upon. (In Toronto, the firm also restored The Brunswick Balke Collender Co. sign in Liberty Village). While the wall restoration took much longer, the Lori Le Mare crew spent about a month to restore the Loew’s sign. It was unveiled on Dec. 5, 2022.
There is, however, still work to be done. Ms. Packwood and Ms. Flowers take me up to the Winter Garden Theatre (one of the most beautiful rooms in Toronto in my humble opinion) to show the damage that sealed brick on the outside can do to the inside via lime leaching and moisture damage. And, since this is Toronto’s “atmospheric” theatre (it simulates a magical garden), some lovely murals are what need attention.
For those interested in seeing the world’s last operating Edwardian double-decker theatre (according to Atlas Obscura) and its rejuvenated ghost sign, the Elgin and Winter Garden will be open on May 27 during the city’s annual Doors Open festival. Regular tours will also begin in June.
“The great thing about the sign, though, is you can see it any time, every day,” finishes Ms. Packwood. “It doesn’t have to be a special day.”
Google “Doors Open Toronto” for more information on the event. After viewing the Loew’s sign (Victoria Street just above Queen Street), stay on Victoria and walk north of Shuter Street: on the side of the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre (also by Thomas Lamb), which is now mostly blocked by the Pantages Hotel and Condominium, there is a 1990s ghost sign advertising The Phantom of the Opera.