Fifty years ago (July 4, 1965) my parents let their daughter loose on the streets of Toronto at the age of seventeen, for good. That’s when I began life as a grownup. My parents made the two-hour drive to Toronto and dropped me and my little white suitcase off on the front steps of Willard Hall at 20 Gerrard Street East. It was a bright, warm Sunday afternoon and the following day I began my first full-time job as a clerk-typist with The Bell Telephone Company of Canada, as it was called then. Willard Hall was a ladies residence for working girls and students run by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and recommended as accommodation by the nice lady who hired me at the Bell. It housed about two hundred girls my age who, like me had left their homes in small towns to begin life in the big city. We could look out the front windows of our rooms facing south and watch the tower cranes rising above the skyline dominated by the CIBC Tower and Royal York Hotel as the new Toronto-Dominion Centre was being built.
Toronto in 1965 was very different from today, with a total population of around one million people (less than half its current size). Most of the girls living at Willard Hall walked to work at downtown office jobs and on weekends we took the ferry to Toronto Island, shopped at newly-discovered stores in the big city or trooped up to The Village, the burgeoning hippie haven on Yorkville Avenue north of Bloor Street. Care to stroll down Yonge Street and memory lane with me circa 1965?
Walking out the door of Willard Hall, Gorrie Motors was to our left on Gerrard Street and Ryerson Polytechnical Institute across the road. We turn right and walk a few hundred feet to Yonge Street. The Cornet Theatre on the northeast corner screened mainly foreign films and required we show I.D. for admission. Across the road, on the northwest corner was a little artisan shop called African Modern where they sold a variety of imported merchandise like carved statues and jewelry where I once bought a tiny jar with three little Mexican jumping beans for three dollars. A boring bank was located on the southwest corner and on the southeast corner was the famous Bassel’s Restaurant where all the girls used to go at night for coffee and a cigarette (forbidden in residence) or to meet a date.
Strolling south on Yonge Street, we’d pass the Zanzibar Tavern (far too racy for us) and Ford Drugs where a faded sign in the window offered pregnancy tests, a shocking prospect at that time. There were a few tables in the back where you could grab a snack and the place was always full of cigarette smoke. We liked to speculate about what other nefarious activities took place behind the counter at Ford Drugs. Further south we encounter A&A Records, then Sam The Record Man with his giant neon LP record sign flashing above the storefront. We frequently witnessed a strange, dirty old man with plugs up his nostrils holding onto the fire hydrant in front of Sam’s, having some kind of fit. Sad, in retrospect.
American country singer Johnny Paycheck regularly sang his famous “Take This Job and Shove it” at the Edison Hotel at Yonge and Gould. Then we pass the open door of the C’oq d’or with smoke and loud music from Ronnie Hawkins and his band pouring out onto the sidewalk. Before we reach Dundas Square, we could pop into Steak ‘n Burger with a date for a cheap cut of grilled steak with fries, canned peas and half a toasted bun. South of that we have the Friar’s Club, a little more upscale but equally noisy and busy or if we were old enough, the famous Silver Rail at Shuter Street, Toronto’s first licensed cocktail lounge.
The last movie I saw at the Pantages when it was still a movie theatre was This Property is Condemned with Natalie Wood in 1966. Strolling down to Yonge Street in our nylons and high heels to Queen Street, we approached the heart of Toronto’s shopping mecca. Or we could drop into the wonderful Diana Sweets for lunch or a cup of tea. On the east side we have the retail trifecta of Town & Country, Braemar and Fair Lady, three nearly identical stores owned by Dylex offering affordable and attractive clothing for working girls and the Elgin Theatre which was also still a movie theatre in the sixties. On the west side of the street with Eaton’s and Simpsons located a block apart, we could also shop at Woolworth’s, Zeller’s and Kresge’s. Birks’ main store at Yonge and Temperance still had the old-fashioned pneumatic brass tubes that took cash from the sales person behind the ancient wooden and glass display cases to the upstairs cash office to make change. The original Fairweather store and The May Company were located here as well so the entire area contained everything any young working girl would wish for in the realm of retail destinations.
Returning to Yonge and Gerrard, I remember walking through the old Gerrard Street Village on the south side (where the Chelsea Inn now stands and predating the Yorkville era) and across from Elgin Motors, past the original Marilyn Brooks Unicorn shop, Prince of Serendip Antiques and various other colourful little shops to my job with Ma Bell on the fifth floor of the (former) Maclean Hunter building at 481 University Avenue and Dundas. At that time the gay bath houses were still flourishing on Bay Street alongside “The Hungarian Village” restaurant. It was from my office at the Bell in the summer of 1965 that I experienced so-called Chinese food for the first time. Growing up in a small town of 3,200 people in the fifties and early sixties, we had nothing as exotic as Chinese food or pizza, so I’d tasted neither until I was eighteen years old. Chinatown at that time covered the area on Dundas Street between Bay Street and University Avenue and I was always horrified to see dead ducks and chickens hanging in the windows of Chinese grocery stores. When my co-worker and girlfriend, also named Linda accompanied me for my first meal of Chinese food at lunch one day, we ordered the simple “dinner for two” not realizing we would be served enough fried rice, chicken balls, chow mein and sweet and sour pork to feed most of greater Canton.
Turning north on Yonge Street from Gerrard was just as exciting as the southern stretch. Next to the Cornet movie theatre on the east side we had Lindy’s Restaurant, another late-night haunt for Willard Hall girls and downtown dwellers. One block north and across the road we had the famous Eaton’s College Street store where my roommate toiled in the new data processing department in a corner of the basement. The College Street store was Eaton’s carriage trade location. The stunning Georgian Room on the upper floor catered to sophisticated ladies’ lunches and the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carluke) hosted a variety of theatre events. Later, in 1970 I worked for a year behind the cosmetics counter at Eaton’s College Street for Yardley of London. That experience was remarkably similar to the scenes depicted in the old British comedy Are You Being Served shown frequently on Vision TV and PBS.
On the northeast corner of Yonge and Carlton, there was a little lingerie shop called Evangeline with entrances on both Yonge and Carlton. They carried sweet little frilly things that working girls who were now earning their own money liked to buy, such as the demi-slip (a bra and slip combination) like the one worn by Charlotte Rampling in the movie Georgie Girl. We also loved to go to the Carlton Theatre just east of Yonge Street. Before the movie started in the ornate grand old theatre we were treated to music played on a giant organ that ascended from below the stage.
Friday and Saturday nights were on-the-town events for Willard Hall girls and we loved to trek up to Yorkville Avenue to witness the burgeoning hippie scene in the days before the area became gentrified. Old storefronts and rag-tag shops carried Indian hookah pipes, gauzy blouses and assorted avant-garde fashions. I wasn’t old enough to drink (legal drinking age at that time was twenty-one and fake I.D. never occurred to me) but a date once took me to the Riverboat where we heard Gordon Lightfoot perform to the tiny capacity crowd. Further along, toward Avenue Road was The Purple Onion but I never did gain entrance there.
Rochdale College students mingled with the hippies and the squares (me and my friends) who strolled back and forth along Yorkville Avenue at night. Where Teatro Verde (an upscale housewares shop) is now located, the original structure housed an old folks’ home (as we called them then).
The exterior bricks were painted white and the front lawn accommodated the residents who enjoyed sitting outside in the evening on webbed lawn chairs watching the colourful pedestrians pass by.
Shopping on Bloor Street in the mid to late sixties wasn’t the high-priced monument to exclusive branding it is today. There was a modest old department store called Morgan’s where Holt Renfrew now stands and where the Chanel boutique now stands on the south side near The Colonnade, I once purchased a long yellow evening dress for the Ryerson Blue and Gold prom at a classy store called Harridges (a hybrid name selected for its inferred combination of famous London store Harrods and Claridges).
Those were the days my friend. Even though we thought they’d never end, they did. Yorkville real estate is now only for the elite classes. Rochdale College is a distant memory. Willard Hall is now Covenant House, refuting the rumours nearly fifty years ago that it was to be torn down due to fire regulations. All the bars and restaurants we knew, even the seemingly invincible department stores like Eaton’s and Simpson’s have disappeared. Toronto is nearly three times the size it was in 1965, much like my waistline. Back then, the subway line ran from Union Station to Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway stopped at Lawrence Avenue East where we exited and headed up Victoria Park Avenue to get to Highway 401.
I never dreamed the changes that have taken place would be my future fifty years later, including the Leafs’ never winning a Stanley Cup again. Like most young people, back then we didn’t look much beyond what we were going to be doing on the weekend. As John Lennon requoted from someone else, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I never had a plan but I’m pretty happy with the way life happened to me. And I wouldn’t want to go back a day. How about you?