Canada's 'Honest Ed' comes to the rescue of London's Old Vic

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was presumably a mixture of hyperbole and heartfelt sincerity when The Times (London) christened Canadian multimillionaire Ed Mirvish the ''Toronto Medici.''

But the phrase has a nice ring to it - and more than an ounce of truth. For Mr. Mirvish, in true White Knight fashion, has swooped out of his Toronto headquarters - ''Honest Ed's Famous Bargain House'' - and come to the rescue of one of London's most cherished damsels in distress: the Old Vic.

It is an odd pairing of the ''World's Most Famous Theatre'' and this self-made millionaire, who calls himself a ''storekeeper.'' But ''Honest Ed,'' who built his retail discount fortune with such slogans as ''How cheap can one guy get? Come in and find out,'' decided to rush in where others (notably the British government) feared to tread.

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Thanks to Mr. Mirvish and his millions, the 165 year-old theater - ''dark'' for nearly two years after the National Theatre and the British Arts Council pulled out - has literally gained a new lease on life. With a winning bid of (STR)550,000 ($825,000) and an additional (STR)2 million ($3 million) to restore the 1,000-seat house to its original Victorian splendor, ''Honest Ed'' is now the proud new owner of a little bit of British history.

Opened first as a house for melodrama and farce in 1818, the theater rapidly deteriorated until the ''audiences (were) even rougher than the shows,'' according to one chronology. Reformed and rebuilt, the theater served as a temperance music hall. It later became home to the Old Vic Shakespeare company under the colorful management of Lilian Baylis, who purportedly cooked sausages backstage. Bombed during World War II, the much-abused Old Vic eventually reopened as home to several repertory companies before its latest transformation as a commercial theater at the hands of Mr. Mirvish.

''Well, it's a new experience for me,'' says the new owner, who smiles modestly when asked about his Daddy Warbucks role. ''But I already own one of the most beautiful theaters in North America.''

Indeed, Mirvish, who made his fortune by creating Canada's version of Filene's Basement, stepped into the cultural arena back in 1962 when he purchased Toronto's on-the-skids Royal Alexandra Theatre. Today that house, surrounded by five of Mirvish's restaurants (among them ''Ed's Warehouse,'' ''Ed's Seafood,'' ''Old Ed's,'' and ''Ed's Italian Restaurant''), is one of the most successful theaters in town.

''I guess everybody thought I was going to rename this place 'Ed's Old Vic,' '' he says with a sly smile, ''but . . . I'm just fixing it up.''

Shaking it up is more like it. With his folksy common-man touch (his first preview performance played to all the workmen who renovated the theater) and shrewd marketing techniques, which include a heavily promoted subscription series, Mirvish has taken London by storm.

In the first four weeks that the theater was officially open under new management there were press conferences, a visit from the Queen Mother, and soaring promotional balloons, all proclaiming that the Old Vic is back in business. And nearly everyone - from The Times, which parodied ''Honest Ed'' in a cartoon, to the London telephone operator who murmured, ''I wish that Canadian all the luck in the world,'' while looking up The Old Vic number - has sat up and noticed.

A small man who dresses somewhat flashily in three-piece suit and black patent-leather shoes, and who carries a large gold watch, Mr. Mirvish is proving to be something of an anomaly among London's cultural elite. Not only did he buy the theater sight unseen (after outbidding English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wanted to keep the Old Vic a British institution), but he is candid about his impoverished Toronto upbringing, where his Russian immigrant father sold The Encyclopedia of Freemasonry door to door. He is also not shy about his own taste in theater. ''We did Pinter's 'No Man's Land' at the Royal Alexandra,'' he says, ''and frankly . . . it went right over my head.''

As for his chances of success in this new venture, Mirvish is equally straightforward. ''Look, I know it will be tough. But we'll give it a couple of years to go,'' he says. ''What I really hope is to carve out a new theater audience. I want to pay attention to the folks this side of Waterloo Bridge.'' Unlike the rest of the commercial theaters in the West End, the Old Vic is situated in a relatively rough working-class neighborhood on the south side of the Thames.

''I was outside the theater the other day,'' he says, ''and I went over to a group of people and asked them, 'You ever been to the Old Vic?' 'Never.' So I said, 'How long you been livin' here?' 'Fifty, sixty years.' 'You wanna see it?' So I took them inside, showed 'em around. I told them they could buy a show here for a pound and a half. You can't do a movie in this town for a pound and a half. But for that you can own a piece of this theater. I sold three subscriptions. Hey, I'll sell to anybody.''

According to Old Vic administrator Andrew Leigh, more than 14 percent of the entire season had been sold in the first three weeks. ''We're completely optimistic about our chances of success,'' he says. Like his boss, Mr. Leigh attributes those chances to ''a wide mixture of shows.'' Already on the docket for this season is the current ''Blondel,'' a new musical by Tim Rice; ''Master Class,'' a new play by David Pownall; a remake of ''The Boyfriend''; a revival of ''Serjeant Musgrave's Dance,'' with Albert Finney; ''Saturday Night at the Palace''; and a Canadian opera company's version of ''The Mikado.''

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics who insist that London is a single-show-buyers' town. And more than one observer has been heard to grumble about the lack of serious theater in the Old Vic lineup. But Mirvish retorts: ''You'll never get a cabdriver in here with just Shakespeare.'' He also insists that series tickets will sell. He maintains that subscription seats to his Royal Alexandra have been handed down in wills and battled over in divorce settlements. And he aims for the same here.

But first he wants to show off ''the front of the house.'' On his way down the theater's back stairs - up which floats the sound of hammering and the smell of paint - the owner is careful to say ''Hi'' to everyone from the carpenters and actors to absolute strangers. The theater proper is admittedly a gem - fresh paint, hand-blocked wallpaper, newly gilded stage boxes, and a mirrored red-velvet curtain reminiscent of the famed ''Looking Glass Curtain'' which hung in the theater in 1882. Mirvish ambles around the lobby like a child in a playhouse. ''You wouldn't believe what we've done here - we've opened all this up,'' he says with a broad gesture at the open-air, three-story lobby lighted with floor-to-ceiling windows. ''This used to be all little meeting rooms. But I don't need that. When I do business, I phone up, 'Yes, No, OK'; that's it.''

Is there anything Mr. Mirvish hasn't got to go his way? ''Well, I wanted to put up little strings of lights all over the outside so we would look like Harrods (department store), but they said we were a historical building and I couldn't. I didn't want to get pushy. I have to try and act British and think Yiddish. But I think I'll sneak them in.''

Almost as an afterthought, he makes a grand gesture with his arms. ''Actually , I'd like to put up a 200-foot sign saying, 'Don't Just Stand There - Buy Something: There Isn't Any Place Like This Place. Anyplace.' ''

Ed Mirvish is undoubtedly right.

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