The Odeon Carlton Theatre during the summer of 1957.
Remember when the Toronto theatres and Eatons and Simpsons were the only air-conditioned places in town?
I do, and I am thoroughly enjoying this July heat-wave, though I admit that I am fortunate as I have no respiratory difficulties and air-conditioning for sleeping. During the frigid dark days of January, many people pay a great deal of money to travel south to vacation destinations where the heat and humidity are similar to a good “old-fashioned” Toronto summer. The difference is that when they journey south in winter, because they are not working, they can lounge beside a pool or reline on a beach, sip cool drinks, and wear little or no clothing. Yes, there are nude beaches down south!
However, working on a humid sunny day is a real bummer. Perhaps that is why most of us retain fond memories of the summers of our youth. Our parents worked to earn the family income and prepare meals, and we were left to our own devices to amuse ourselves. This was rarely a problem.
Unlike today, most streets in the city possessed vacant building lots where we gathered with our friends. Due to infill, they have now disappeared. Most of the lots contained bushes, a few mature trees and open grassy areas. They were gloriously close at hand. We climbed the trees, built bush-forts in the clumps of shrubs, and organized impromptu baseball games. Sometimes we played “cowboys and Indians,” the name of this game now being politically incorrect. “British-bull-dog,” “kick-the-can,” and “hide-go-seek” were also popular. If we played “Doctor,” we never told anyone. If you are familiar with this game, shame on you.
If we were lucky, we received a nickel to purchase an orange Popsicle, and we sat in the shade of a driveway between the houses to consume our cool treat and read comic books. If we were unable to afford a Popsicle, we waited until the ice truck arrived on the street. When the deliveryman was carrying a 25 or 50 pound block to a customer, we lifted the canvas cover on the back of the truck and swiped small pieces of ice. The fragments were created when the iceman used his icepick to separate the blocks of ice into appropriate sizes. The purloined treat slid down our throats better than the rum-infused pina coladas of today.
On Saturday afternoons, my brother and I walked to the nearest movie theatre to take advantage of the air-conditioning – the Grant or the Colony Theatres. We saw two feature films, a newsreel, cartoon, and several trailers (previews). I still remember the blast of hot air that hit my face when I exited the Vaughan Theatre on St. Clair Avenue. We thought it possessed the best air-conditioning in the city – “goose-bump” cold.
If it were really hot, we ate supper in the cold cellar of our home. Most houses contained a “cold cellar,” sometimes referred to as a “root cellar.” It was a space in the house that was at least partially below ground-level. During the cold months, it was where my family stored bushels of root vegetables for the kitchen tables. Lacking a freezer, and because there were no fresh imported fruits and vegetables, only canned or preserved produce was available. As kids, we considered a meal in the cold cellar a treat. It was akin to an indoor picnic. In August, when the Ontario sweet corn and free-stone peaches arrived in the corner stores, the root cellar became a gourmet banquet room.
Visits to Sunnyside or High Park, or a voyage to Centre Island on one of the Toronto ferries – the Bluebell, the Trillium, or the Primrose – were exotic journeys that in our eyes compared to trips to Europe. On the Islands, the wide sandy beaches on the south side were wonderful, despite the water temperatures that caused certain parts of our bodies to shrink to the degree that they were invisible. The waters of the inner harbour were warmer and quite clean, but less exciting. Across the harbour, the skyline was dominated by the Royal York Hotel, the spire of St. James Cathedral, and the Bank of Commerce. When our family visited the Islands for the day, my dad joined us after his work-day was over. On the return trip, though exhausted, my brother and I always went to where we were able to gaze down into the ferry’s engine room to watch the huge pistons rotate. On the ride home on the Bay streetcar, we eagerly sought a window seat. Opening the windows as high as possible, we enjoyed the cool night air as the Peter Witt streetcar rumbled north among the sky-scrappers of the financial district. A brass sign attached to the window ledge warned “Keep Arm In.” We hung our arms out as far as possible, until our parents demanded that we obey the sign. Being a criminal was great. I sometimes wonder if it was the beginning of my career of literary crime.
When August arrived and the days became shorter, the Ex opened its gates to an enthralled public. The free samples, midway rides, smell of fried onions near the hamburger stands, and the sight of mounds of pink candyfloss were wondrous. The Grandstand Shows, featuring Hollywood stars, created excitement that no rock concert of modern times could ever generate. After Labour Day, we returned to school with our supply of free ink blotters and book-covers from the Ex. The summer had sadly ended.
“Nostalgia makes liars of us all.” Perhaps. But I still look forward to a July heat-wave, when the memories of childhood flood back. Happy is the person who never loses the enjoyment of the delights of childhood.
A Peter Witt streetcar of my youth. These cars plied Bay Street to carry us to the ferry terminal. Photos taken at the Halton Railway Museum.
A PCC car (President’s Conference Car) on Dundas Street in China Town in the 1970s. When I was a child, they were on the St.Clair route. My brother and I longed to board them, but as we were always journeying downtown with our parents, we climbed on the old Peter Witt cars.
Children’s playground at Sunnyside in the 1920s
I have spent much of my adult life researching Toronto. Despite the traffic jams and daily congestion, I find Toronto an exciting and vibrant city in which to live. I enjoy exploring its past through my writing. One of the books, “The Villages Within”, was nominated for the Toronto Heritage Awards. If interested in exploring my literary crimes, the books are available by following the link: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/toronto-author-publishes-seventh-novel/
They can be purchased in soft cover or electronic editions. All books are available at Chapters/Indigo and on Amazon.com. The electronic editions are less that $4 on Kobo and Kindle. Follow the links:
There Never Was a Better Time: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000056586/THERE-NEVER-WAS-A-BETTER-TIME.aspx
Arse Over Teakettle: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000132634/Arse-Over-Teakettle.aspx
The Reluctant Virgin; http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000188306/The-Reluctant-Virgin.aspx
The Villages Within: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000175211/The-Villages-Within.aspx
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