Paul Wilson: Big Top Restaurant's long-lost circus mural is back

The Big Top, at the corner of Main and Sherman for more than 60 years, just finished some renovations. The owners made the most amazing discovery.
Helen and Pank Patel, owners of the Big Top at Main and Sherman, have just uncovered the restaurant's long-lost circus mural. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

It began when Helen Patel got out the spatula. 

Helen runs the Big Top Restaurant, Main and Sherman. It opened in 1952, and Helen started working there at 12, some 30 years ago. She and husband Pank, a Hamilton cop, bought the place five years ago.

Helen had been itching to do some renovations. Finally, she could hold back no longer. She took a spatula to some wallpaper at the back of the restaurant. The work did not go well and she damaged the drywall.

His shift of protecting the city done for the day, Pank arrived. He saw he would have to pull some of that drywall right off.

The man who opened the Big Top was an artist by profession.

When the first chunk came down, he saw the oddest thing. A clown’s leg. He pulled off more drywall. There was a carnival barker. A muscle man named Mousie Morris. And kids with candy floss. There was a whole circus under there.

Pank got on the phone to Helen. “You won’t believe what we’ve got here.” 

They keep coming back

It actually took a week to gingerly pry all the drywall off, and even then there was some damage to the mural. But not much. Pank stood back and looked at it in amazement. 

The Big Top is the kind of restaurant that’s a hard habit to break. Customers in their 40s who came as kids now bring their own kids. Why not? Here, breakfast is $4.95. Burgers are never frozen. Fries are always hand-cut.

The odd old-timer mentioned that there was once a mural on that west wall. Everyone figured it had been painted over decades ago.

With inspiration from Barnum and Bailey.

This month the restaurant closed for renovations for three weeks, paper over the windows. But one evening, seeing lights, a fellow named Brendan Kavanaugh knocked on the glass.

He makes it habit of stopping by every now and then. He has good reason. His father opened the Big Top 61 years ago.

Brendan walked in, just after Pank had discovered the lost circus. “I was awestruck,” Brendan says. He had long heard the story.

He jumped in the car

He rushed back to his home downtown, called brother Tim in Stoney Creek. Tim’s phone wasn’t working. Brendan jumped in the car, drove to his brother’s place and they talked for hours.

They told their big sister in England. Here’s part of what she just posted on Facebook: “I’m bursting with pride and crying at the same time. I remember being there when my dad painted it. I’m thrilled beyond words.”

Gerry Kavanaugh, their father, was a commercial artist. In those days when theatres had locally-produced posters to promote shows, Gerry did work for the Strand, the Capitol, the Tivoli. Labatt’s was a client too.

When carnivals had barkers and sideshows were a quarter.

Gerry was an entrepreneur, and decided to turn a small grocery into the Big Top Restaurant. As for that name, the boys do recall that dad liked to take them to carnivals on the Beach Strip.

Gerry designed the mural, and an apprentice named Mary Muzyka helped him complete it. The boys met her once at their mother’s funeral in 1990. 

She told them she remembered the Big Top job, up on a ladder and nervous – not because of the heights, but because Gerry Kavanaugh was an exacting boss.

He didn't stay long

He only stayed in the restaurant business a few years, and sold it in 1956. Two generations of the Zolis family took over.

As for the Kavanaughs, a new life was just down the road at a house on St. Clair Boulevard. On the third floor, Gerry carried on with his commercial art. 

He never did it without a cigarette in hand – two-and-a-half packs a day of Buckinghams, no filter. Lung cancer took him at 39.

Back when candy floss was good for you.

Life was harder then. Son Tim helped out the family by earning money with a Spectator route. On Friday nights, after collecting, there would be one treat. He would head over to the Big Top, have a Coke and fries and gaze up at that magic mural.

The years – and a lot of cigarette smoke – have darkened the circus.  And there are those scars where the drywall was attached. The Patels are shopping around for someone who can restore the art.

Tim and Brendan Kavanaugh are grateful for all this. They lost their father so young. And suddenly, on a restaurant wall where elephants dance and trapeze artists soar, it seems as though he’s back. 

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

To read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson, click here.


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