Sometimes, the names you uncover on a ghost sign aren’t ghosts at all.
Regular readers of this space will recall that I wrote about my hunt for a building for my wife’s mid-century modern furniture store, Ethel-20th Century Living, this past November, and how I, being forced to leave a large downtown condo, was hoping to be compensated by some sort of heritage Easter egg in return. And, further, that after purchasing an old variety store on the Danforth near Coxwell, I found one in the form of a large sign underneath the “Helen’s Variety” sign box, likely made from Vitrolite – a type of pigmented structural glass popular on storefronts from the 1920s to the 1950s – covered under five layers of paint.
But what, I wrote then, would I find underneath? Would it be one of the earliest businesses to occupy this 1922 building? Nope.
“Yeah, that’s where my customer, Joe the Doctor, went for guitar lessons,” said Sebastian Terzo as he looked out the window of his Danforth East Soccer Café toward my building across the street. “I think the guy was a singer maybe?” After two days on a borrowed scaffold breathing in chemical paint strippers, I’d finally uncovered my ghost sign, “Monticone-Silvani Institute of Music and V”, and I was showing it off to my new neighbour. (The last part of the sign was missing, having been obliterated by the installation of an air conditioner by a later tenant. We assume it was “Voice.”)
“When would this have been?” I asked, sipping the expertly crafted cappuccino he’d handed me a minute before.
“Oh, I dunno, early seventies? He’s not much older than you.”
But how could this be? A hand-painted sign on Vitrolite, and it wasn’t from the 1940s or ’50s?
The next day, I consulted the City of Toronto Might’s Directories online, scanned by Toronto Public Library and covering 1797 (if you can believe it!) to 1969. Might’s are mighty indeed, as they not only list city residents, businesses are listed by street, making it easy to follow the history of a particular building. So, starting with 1921, I learned that my part of the Danforth was sparse, with few addresses listed but, in 1922, my street number appeared for the first time and was listed as “vacant.” In 1923, it became Brice Hardware; by 1933, it had changed hands to become Trelford Hardware. In 1940, it became a tailor shop and, right on time for the baby boom, Tic Toc Baby Wear from 1948 to 1956. After a few years as a realtor’s office, it was vacant again; for one year in 1966 it was Moat Memorial Spiritiualist Church, then Metro Judo Club in 1968-69.
But no Monticone or Silvani. So I headed to the Reference Library to consult the yet-to-be-scanned Might’s Directories. “Courier Racing Svc” for 1971-73, vacant in 1974, and the directory for 1975 not on the shelf.
Then, there it was in 1976: “Silvani Tony & Colucci Music Center.”
And that’s when I learned about Maestro Tony Silvani (born 1932), who came to Toronto in 1959 with his wife, Giovanna, and daughter (and another on the way), from the Abruzzo region of Italy. For decades, Southern Ontario’s Italian community was entertained by the Tony Silvani Orchestra, and thousands of children were taught at his music schools.
Already an accomplished musician when he arrived, Mr. Silvani was soon playing with Mille Luce at dances around town while delivering Mio ginger ale by day. Soon, the ambitious young accordionist met the legendary Johnny Lombardi, founder of CHIN radio (1966), who got him onstage with Italian superstar Mina at Maple Leaf Gardens, and, later, with singer Claudio Villa and jazz trumpeter Nini Rosso.
After performing practically nonstop, Mr. Silvani purchased his first home in 1964. Two years later, alarmed at the lack of places to obtain quality musical instruments, he opened the Tony Silvani Music Center on Finch Ave. W., which also provided music lessons to 250 students. Three more locations would follow: Dufferin and Eglinton, Mississauga and my little building at 1781 Danforth Ave.
“I think [my mom] was too young to work, but my aunt worked there, and so my mom would go in and watch her work sometimes,” said Mr. Silvani’s granddaughter, Dia Di Bartolomeo (who sings under the stage name “Dia”), over the telephone. “It’s so incredible that you found that [sign] … I told my mom and dad this morning, and my mom cried.”
Thanks to Ms. Di Bartolomeo, who wrote her 2014 university master’s thesis on CHIN’s role in sustaining Italian musical culture and her grandfather’s life in music, I can bring you, gentle reader, Mr. Silvani’s story in this sort of detail (while Mr. Silvani is still with us, his memory isn’t what it used to be). As for who “Monticone” was, Ms. Di Bartolomeo explains that Aldo Monticone was an accordion player as well, and while he partnered with her grandfather at the Danforth location, they “lost touch after the school” closed in 1978. A quick Internet search, however, provides evidence of an LP titled “Johnny Lombardi Presents … An Italian Artist in Canada: Aldo Monticone Vituoso of the Accordion.”
And Mr. Monticone (if you’re still with us), while your name is partly covered by our sign, you’re invited, along with Mr. Silvani (whose name was partially obliterated by the installation of an air conditioner decades ago), to come see my efforts to restore your legacy on the Danforth.
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