Published: October 27th, 2011: By: Nick Hughes
Ed Mirvish was 15 when his father died. As a result, he had to drop out of high school to run the not very successful store his father had opened in Toronto. He struggled to keep it afloat for 9 years before conceding defeat. But this inauspicious start to Ed’s business career was not indicative of what was to follow.
Ed and his wife Anne then opened their first venture together, a dress shop. It was perfect timing because the war had started and Toronto was filling up with young single women who had flocked to the city to take up the thousands of factory jobs opened up by the war; and they had money! When the war ended and the single young women went home or got married they decided to change their shop into a discount dry goods store. And opportunity knocked again.
His landlord died and Ed jumped at the opportunity to buy the building. Over the next few years he took over the adjoining properties until his store occupied the entire block from Bathurst to Markham Street. Honest Ed’s, the new and greatly enlarged discount store opened in 1958 and Toronto was never the same again. It is garish and fun with 20,000 blinking lights and self mocking funny signs covering its exterior. If you live in the Toronto area and have not yet visited Honest Ed’s; go now. If you are visiting Toronto; go now!
I think Ed must have bored easily because by the 1960’s he was looking for new challenges. He heard the Royal Alex theatre was up for sale. At that time the theatre, built in 1907, was in an awful state of disrepair and was located in a run down area populated by ugly warehouses. In fact the theatre was to be torn down, which was a common reaction to old buildings in the 1960’s.
Knowing nothing about the theatre business Ed bought the Royal Alex for $200,000 and proceeded to spend an additional $400,000 to renovate and restore it. A huge amount of money in those days! For Toronto, his effort and investment was well worth it. It is a beautiful and graceful theatre that is another “must see”if you haven’t been inside. And it is successful!
But when the newly renovated theatre reopened Ed realized there was nowhere nearby for theatre goers to have dinner. So he bought the ugly warehouses and opened his first restaurant; Ed’s Warehouse. Its menu was simple; roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, peas and mash potatoes; that’s it! Nothing more! But it too was a huge success. And so he went on to open other restaurants in the ugly warehouses; Ed’s Chinese, Ed’s Italian, Ed’s Follies, Ed’s Seafood. They are all gone now but the area is awash with a large variety of excellent restaurants; all thanks to Ed paving the way for these others to follow.
Ed had never been to a theatre in London England. In fact he had never been to London. And yet when he heard the Old Vic, an old prestigious London theatre, was up for sale he bought it and again spent a fortune renovating and restoring. For his efforts at reviving this historic London theatre the Queen rewarded him with a CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He thought it meant Creating Bargains Everywhere.
In the 1980’s huge blockbuster plays became popular. One of them was Miss Saigon, which Ed wanted to bring to Toronto. There wasn’t a theatre in Toronto large enough to hold the play so he built one. The Princess Diana Theatre opened in 1993 to great acclaim and has continued to hold successful plays ever since. Located just a stones throw from the Royal Alex it completed the renewal of the area into today’s well known theatre district.
Why was Ed Mirvish so successful? He certainly didn’t follow the normal business rules of staying focused on one thing. He was all over the map; discount stores to theatres to restaurants. But wait; I do see a focus here. He brought entertainment to the public. Honest Ed’s may be a discount store; but it is very entertaining. And his restaurants were entertaining; full of glitz and glamour and flamboyant antiques. And of course the theatres provided entertainment. So he was focused! I also think he was successful because he just loved doing what he was doing; challenging himself with high risk ventures and loving every minute of it.
He was a very liked and trusted man by friends, family, business associates and employees. Even those of us who never met him had great respect for him and for what he was doing to our city. When he died in 2007 at the age of 92 Toronto lost a little something special. Richard Ouzounian wrote in the Toronto Star: “He may have begun by showing us where to find a bargain, but he wound up by giving us much that was priceless.”
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