'Honest Ed' Mirvish praised as 'man of the people who made it big'

Ed Mirvish, the Toronto businessman renowned both for his landmark discount store and for his key role in revitalizing the city's theatre scene, has died at 92.

Mirvish remembered for helping make Toronto a player in the international theatre scene

Ed Mirvish, the Toronto businessman renowned both for his landmark discount store Honest Ed's and for his key role in revitalizing the city's theatre scene, has died at 92.

Ed Mirvish walks with Diana, the Princess of Wales, as they arrive at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto to see Les Miserables in 1991. Mirvish saved the theatre from demolition by buying it in 1962. ((Canadian Press))
He died early Wednesday morningof natural causes, his family confirmed.

Toronto Mayor David Miller described Mirvish as a man with "incredible strength of character.

"His store was about making sure that everyone could afford to live with some dignity and decency. His theatres were about bringing some joy and passion into people's lives," Miller told CBC News.

Actress Louise Pitre performed in some of Mirvish's shows.

"He achieved just about everything you can in Canada but was so humble, so soft-spoken, so unassuming … but with a glint in his eye," Pitretold CBC News.

"He had a tradition of taking us all out for dinner as a group when you were doing a show," she recalled about the man who is hailed for sparking a revitalization ofToronto's theatre scene beginning in the 1960s.

"I think [people] will remember him as a gentle, hardworking man of the people who made it big."

As word of his death spread, CBC.cavisitors reached out with tributes, warm memories and kind words.

"Our city, our neighbourhood, our country, will never erase the generosity, the empathy, the contribution, the friendship, and the presence of the giant of a man who dwelled among us," said one.

"Clearly, in Toronto's dictionary, his picture should be found against the word philanthropist. He will be dearly missed and remembered," said another.

Humble beginnings

Born in Virginia on July 24, 1914, Mirvish came to Canada with his family at age nine. His father died when Mirvish was only 15, leaving him to take charge of the family's grocery store on Dundas street.

Despite struggles in the early years, hismarketing savvy and discount prices helped himbuild one storeintoan empire of theatres,restaurants and stores —including his famous discount emporium Honest Ed's at the intersection of Bloor and Bathurst streets in Toronto.

Honest Ed's began as this relatively humble enterprise, eventually growing to encompass 160,000 square feet at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets. (CBC)
The kitschy building, a landmark since it opened in 1948, sports big orange signs proclaiming "Honest Ed's" lit by thousands of flashing lights andhumorous plaques with slogans such as "Honest Ed is for the birds … cheap, cheap, cheap."

Mirvish was known for his giveaways, equal parts marketing stunts and expressions of hisgenerous community spirit: he handed out free turkeys at the discount store near certain holidays and hosted street parties on his birthday, doling out free hot dogs and cake.

"I can imagine the many persons towhom that Christmas turkey and other giveaways provided the most important gift anyone could ever receive: hope," a CBC Your View contributor wrote Wednesday.

Focus turns to the arts

The inside of the discount superstore is plastered with reminders of Mirvish's other side: the theatre impresario. Its walls hold one giant photo after another showing Honest Ed posing through the decadeswith stars of the stage and screen.

Inspired by his wife Anne, an artist and singer, Mirvish began in the early 1960s to addlive theatre to his growing enterprises.In 1962, he bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto's downtown and saved the historic venue — which opened in 1907 — from demolition.

In this photo from September 1963, Ed Mirvish stands in his then-newly-refurbished Royal Alexandra Theatre. ((Robert Ragsdale/CBC Still Photo Collection))
As well as spending approximately double the purchase price to restore the beaux-arts theatre, Mirvish also began opening a host of restaurants nearby to lure theatregoers to what was then a desolate stretch of King Street and to provide a complete "night-out."

Mirvish's efforts helped revitalize Toronto's downtown theatre strip and, eventually, helped vault the Canadian theatre scene to a new level.

"Forty-odd years ago, this [area] was a slum," theatre critic Richard Ouzounian told CBC News in an interview from the King Street theatre district.

"He not only bought it, but he ended up launching a theatre network in Toronto that made it one of the most important cities in North America for theatre."

Lauded for restoring London's Old Vic

Mirvish's involvement with the theatre community didn't end in Toronto. In 1982, he purchased the Old Vic in London, England — acting without even visiting the building, butinspired by the many stories he had heard about the venerable stage from world-famous British actors visited the Royal Alex.

           readers comment on the death of Ed Mirvish
  • 'Funny that a 92-year-old man was one of the coolest things about Toronto. He'll be missed.'
  • 'This outlandish and at times outrageous impresario was a bright light in Toronto.... He will be leaving a very large and historically important footprint.'
  • 'They don't build 'em like that anymore. Thanks, Ed.'
  • 'A true Toronto legend has died and this city is a bit less bright because of it. Sleep well, Honest Ed, you have more than earned your rest.'
  • 'Mr. Mirvish truly loved his neighbour and that was all of us in Toronto. The size of his heart dwarfed the size of our city.'

After outbidding the likes of musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and famed director Trevor Nunn, he refurbished theOld Vic. He and his son, David, were eventually awarded a special Laurence Oliver Award recognizing their revitalization of the theatre.

Under Mirvish rule, the British venue won acclaim for its revamp and critical praise for its productions. However, the big budgets they required plagued the theatre, which suffered several years of financial loss before the Mirvishes sold it to the Old Vic Theatre Trust in 1998.

By that time, the father and son had boosted their theatre empire by building Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre (which opened in 1993 with the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon).

The theatre, which features a series of murals by U.S. abstract–expressionist painter and sculptor Frank Stella, is "one of the most beautiful theatres in North America," Ouzounian said.

"That's at the essence of Ed. 'Let's do something for a business reason. But if we're going to do it, let's do it really right and really good for the city of Toronto,'" he said.

'Astonishing eye for talent'

Ouzounian also praised Mirvish's "astonishing eye for talent" and said that,despite having no theatre training, every now and again, the keen businessman was willing to take a chance on productions that caught his attention.

"The classic example in our time has been Mamma Mia, which was a show that did nicely in London but that no one thought would do well in North America," the Toronto Star critic said.

"They brought it here to Toronto first. It was the incredible Toronto run that galvanized Mamma Mia and helped turn it into the international phenomenon it is today."

Ed Mirvish smiles at an event announcing the Canadian premiere of the musical The Lion King in Toronto in 1999. It was just one of the big-budget shows created abroad that Mirvish brought to Toronto for Canadian stagings. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))
David Mirvish, a former art dealer, has since inherited the day-to-day Mirvish operations as well as his father's dedication to live theatre. The younger Mirvish has turned the family name into a significant force on the international theatre scene with participation in major endeavours like The Lord of the Rings musical as well as producing shows for Broadway and London's West End.

Theelder Mirvish was also known as the man who imported big-budget shows created abroad — mostly from New York or London — to Toronto for Canadian stagings, including hits likeLes Misérables, Rent, The Lion King, The Who's Tommy, Hairspray and The Producers.

More recently, however, the Mirvishes have bolstered these types of headliner productions with smaller, acclaimed shows from lower-budget local troupes like Soulpepper, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Toronto Fringe Festival.

In Britain, Mirvish was awarded the distinction ofcommander of the Order of the British Empire. At home, he wasan officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of hundreds of awards recognizing his contributions to the community.

Mirvish is survived by his wife, Anne, son, David, daughter-in-law, Audrey, sister Lorraine Lazarus and three grandchildren.

The funeral is planned for Friday at 11 a.m. at Beth Tzedec synagogue on Bathurst Street.

Flags at City Hall are to fly at half mast Thursday to honour Mirvish.