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There's No Business Like Show Business

For the week of Monday July 21, 2008

On July 24, 1914 Edwin Mirvish was born. The child of European immigrants, Ed’s early life was modest. When his father died, Ed, age 15, dropped out of school to manage the family’s Toronto grocery store. Although Ed worked tirelessly to support his mother, sister and brother, the store remained close to bankruptcy. Ed finally closed the grocery store in 1938 and after a series of other, generally unsuccessful ventures, opened a dress shop with his wife, Anne.

Ed Mirvish outside of the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Ed Mirvish outside of the Royal Alexandra Theatre
© Courtesy of Honest Ed’s
The dress shop allowed Ed’s family to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, but Ed disliked the fact that selling dresses required him to wait on customers. Instead, he started to sell miscellaneous items, which he bought and sold at liquidation rates. Since Ed did not have to promote this type of merchandise in the same way, he purged the store of all frills. Merchandise was displayed on orange crates and customers served themselves. At first, the store was even closed all but one day a week in order to minimize operating costs. The new store, “Honest Ed’s,” became wildly successful.

In 1962, the Royal Alexandra Theatre was put up for sale. When the theatre opened in 1907, Toronto millionaire, Cawthra Mulock, had spared no expense. The Royal Alex’s lavish décor included gilded plaster, silken wall coverings, and imported marble and velvet. The auditorium was unique in that its broad, but shallow design allowed the audience to sit closer to the stage, creating an intimate atmosphere. Ed knew nothing about the theatre business, but offered to purchase the Royal Alex because it was a bargain. As a condition of the $215,000 sale, Ed agreed to preserve the Royal Alex’s Edwardian appearance and to operate it as a theatre for at least five years.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre
The Royal Alexandra Theatre
© Parks Canada
In 1985, Ed transferred the management of the Royal Alex to his son, David. At the same time, the Mirvish’s began to produce, rather than import, shows for their theatre. Producing a show meant that the set was constructed there, the cast was Canadian, and everything was funded by the Mirvish’s.

Ed Mirvish died in 2007. He was a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. Through his involvement with the Royal Alex, “Honest Ed” helped to transform Toronto into one of North America’s theatre centres.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre is a National Historic Site.

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