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

By Hilary DeVriesStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1983


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

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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.

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.''