“When I was younger, she had - oh God, this is bringing back some memor… ” Tom Sandler stops mid-word as his voice cracks. “She had bought me a record player,” he resumes, scanning his former childhood bedroom. “It was in the shape of a jukebox and it would glow. And my first record was a baseball record with Dizzy Dean or something like that, then Honeycomb by Jimmie Rodgers.”
It’s likely Mr. Sandler’s mother, Ruth Lowe (1914-1981), brought that record home for her tow-headed, rambunctious son in the early autumn of 1957, after it had hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Of course Ms. Lowe knew a winner when she heard one: 17 years before, her masterful I’ll Never Smile Again, as performed by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra and crooned by a fresh-faced Frankie Sinatra, reached No. 1 in July and stayed there until October.
In the fall of 1957, the Sandler-Lowe family had been living in their ranch-style home in Toronto, just north of Eglinton and Bathurst, for less than a year. They’d come from Chiltern Hill Road, a street just south of that same intersection. Mr. Sandler, then seven-years-old, remembers staying at his aunt and uncle’s house for the weekend, then his uncle driving him ‘home’ to an unfamiliar place. It would become very familiar, since young Tommy – who was named after Dorsey – wouldn’t leave until his parents sold the place in early 1973.
Today, Mr. Sandler, an accomplished photographer, is standing with the son of the couple who bought the place, Lawrence Cohen, who, ironically, was given the same bedroom when his family moved in, and his wife of 39 years, Judi Cohen. Mr. Cohen, a real estate lawyer, and Ms. Cohen, a travel professional, moved into the house in 2000 after Mr. Cohen’s father passed away and they’re listening, rapt, to Mr. Sandler’s reminiscences.
“It was a great house for parties,” is one such memory. Another is: “My mom was incredible, she had the whole house wired for speakers – way before stereo, this was high fidelity!” Mr. Sandler says with a smile.
Indeed, when the Cohen family bought the house, Ms. Lowe’s enormous, mono Wharfedale speaker was right where she’d left it. A third memory is that she had a “trippy” way with interior decorating, with rugs-upon-rugs, banana-shaped cushions in the basement rec room, lots of colour, “artsy” cork-ball drapes in the kitchen, and paintings on practically every wall. “She was not boring,” he admits. “I don’t know if it’s because she came from such poverty, but she was having fun.”
It was Ruth Lowe’s father passing away at a young age that threw the family into poverty, and, ultimately, put her on the path to becoming one of the most celebrated songwriters of the 20th century. As it has been told many times, Ms. Lowe quit school at 16 and began demonstrating songs on the piano at the Song Shoppe on Yonge Street. When she was 21, she became an emergency fill-in when bandleader Ina Ray Hutton came to town and one of her all-women Melodears fell ill. Ms. Lowe so impressed Ms. Hutton that she was asked to join the band permanently and toured with them for two years. In Chicago, she met Harold Cohen, a music publicist, and, after a whirlwind romance, the two were married in 1938.
A year later, Mr. Cohen died during a routine kidney operation and the grief-stricken, 25-year-old widow returned to a small, rented flat in Ernsbert Court at 723 Bloor St. W. that she shared with her mother, Pearl, and sister, Muriel, known by all as Mickey. It was there that her most famous song poured from her fingers, providing catharsis (the building is still there and if there was ever a place for a Heritage Toronto plaque, this is it!). Ruth Lowe got in at the CBC and met composer Percy Faith; Mr. Faith listened to the song and first performed it on his radio show. Ms. Lowe would go on to write Too Beautiful to Last (used in the 1941 movie Ziegfeld Girl) and lyrics to another Sinatra signature song, Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day), which was so important to Mr. Sinatra that it was played at his 1998 funeral.
While Mr. Sinatra has come up between Mr. Sandler and homeowners Judi and Lawrence Cohen – most music historians agree it was Ms. Lowe’s song that changed his focus forever from bandleader to vocalist – right now Mr. Sandler is convinced the Cohens have changed his mother’s master bathroom: “I swear it was yellow,” he says, shaking his head. Well, the toilet and sink are still yellow and original to the period, but Mr. Sandler isn’t sure about the light blue and mauve Vitrolite on the walls: “Maybe I’m wrong,” he admits after Ms. Cohen insists the room has never been renovated. The downstairs powder room, all agree, is just as Ms. Lowe and her second husband, Nat Sandler, left it: dove grey Vitrolite (just like Eglinton subway station, the last to retain the original 1954 Vitrolite tiles) with burgundy sink and toilet.
Standing in the foyer now, Mr. Sandler explains that long-time Honest Ed manager and antique expert Russell Lazare secured the Gothic, stained glass window (the two were great friends) that his mom had installed in the wall between kitchen and foyer. Walking into the living room, Mr. Sandler stops as he faces the Cohen’s couch: “That’s where the piano was,” he says. “I still have it.”
He scans the wide-open living room and remembers a game called “Slide Guitar” that he and his brother would play: “We’d get Pledge and wax the bottom of the guitar and we’d stand back here, like curling, and we’d see if we could get it to the edge of the carpet,” he laughs. “But my mom, she loved being creative and inventive … she thought it was just wonderful that you were expressing yourself.”
And speaking of expressing oneself, while the house has undergone a few changes since 1973 – a wall has opened up; the I Love Lucy twin beds are gone from the master bedroom; a back stair was removed; one of the three bathrooms was renovated; and a pool was added to the backyard – there is still much from the Lowe-Sandler era. “We’ve respected the vintage [parts] of the house,” Judi Cohen says matter-of-factly.
Something much more esoteric remains also: music. Lawrence Cohen, who worked at Sam the Record Man as a young man, is an audiophile, and he cranks his stereo up often, filling the home with everything from Sinatra to Sade.
“It’s very healing being here,” finishes Mr. Sandler, smiling. “I think mom would be very happy.”