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Friday, January 31, 2014

The History of The Rondun Hotel: Part One



Toronto in Winter is so ... romantic? The Rondun Hotel was on the right.

My grandfather was born on a kitchen table in Parkdale. Parkdale is not much to look at these days, last on the list for its token gentrification, but at the turn of the last century is was a lovely area full of wide grand avenues and large square stone houses. Parkdale is an elevated cliff-like area with marvelous views of Lake Ontario and easy access to downtown via the trolley car, such as it was. My grandfather Charles was the eldest of three brothers, next was Eddy, then Lorne. The brothers were wealthy, good looking and did not work but lived in their mother’s house. They had trouble filling the hours. Lorne was a gentle soul but Eddy was a spendthrift like his father with 40 pairs of shoes and 100 silk ties all carefully laid out in his dressing room. He would change clothes several times a day. He sang Irish love songs on the radio and showed up to New Year Eve with a showgirl on each arm. This was during the Depression. When he was ejected from a baseball game for using foul language, it made the front page of the Toronto Star. On hot summer nights all three dressed in matching sparklingly clean white suits with top hats and white patent leather shoes and canes. They would sit perfectly still with crossed legs on a park bench by the lakefront until a beautiful woman walked by in her diaphanous flapper dress at which point they would simultaneously kick out the cane and re-cross their legs on the other side. All without making a sound.

Charles was restless and wanted to see something new. He travelled to New York City and worked as a doorman at the Waldorf Astoria. He travelled to Boston to do the same job but didn’t last long. When he was awoken in the middle of the night by Al Capone’s gangs with tommy guns killing each other in the street he decided he liked adventure but he was not a fool. Besides, he had received an interesting call from his mother Julia about a hotel job up north and decided to return to Toronto. Actually it was more than a job. His father John had died after a lifetime of riding the trains selling the provincial stock of alcohol to all the bars and restaurants and hotels in Ontario and there was some insurance money. You see, then, as today every establishment in Ontario buys its liquor from the government which imports it and taxes and monitors it. Julia had purchased some land at the corner of Dundas and Roncesvalles Ave and was building a small hotel with a bar room on the first floor. You see, then, unlike now, men and women did not drink together but in separate rooms. The hall was a single empty room without a stick of furniture, the only feature a long mahogany bar with brass taps. In the 1950s four large colour TVs were chained to the ceiling in the corners of the room, but no matter how loud they were turned up, they could never be heard over general din of the room. On the same floor, across the entry hallway was the full dining room that provided a full dinner every night of the week, except Sunday when it produced a great roast beef with all the trimmings. And off that was a ladies drinking room, with a few tables and delicate chairs. This was where woman and children, or women and a date could meet with some measure of modesty and decorum. The Rondun was built during the Prohibition in America and the sense of alcohol being the root of all evil never left the original design. Charles came on as the manager and pretty soon The Rondun sold the largest monthly gallonage of beer in Ontario.

Now that he had a job, Charles could think about getting married. He had met a pharmacy bookkeeper named Emma Estelle McWilliams, who everyone came to call Stelle. Stelle was formerly of the Ottawa River Valley, the eldest of six girls and the one boy, the youngest named Hal. She had moved to Toronto right off the farm as soon as circumstances would allow and lived in an apartment with a female friend. Then, unlike now, everything in Toronto closed on a Sunday, even the movie houses. There was church or there was nothing. Stelle and her roommate gave “tea dances” on Sunday afternoon. They would have a few people in for “tea”, move the furniture, turn on the record player and dance the afternoon away. It was really fun, apparently, and Charles told Stelle while they were still dating that they would be able to “tell our grandchildren” about it. Consider it told, grandfather.


Charles gave Stelle a ring and brought her home to meet his mother and brothers. Stelle had no more than crossed the threshold than Eddy walked up to her and said a comment so shocking she almost took it to her grave. Almost, but not quite. Towards the end of her life she admitted that what he said was, “Say now, you’re the girl he’s been fucking”. What happened next was repeated often and everywhere: Stelle – farm girl that she was – hit Eddy square in the face with a closed fist. The comment and subsequent hit happened so fast that both needed a moment to catch their breath. Neither one knew what to do so they both sat down to Sunday dinner and never really mentioned it again.

1 comment:

  1. Long time resident of Roncesvalles neighbourhoodSaturday, December 13, 2014 11:16:00 AM

    It was really tragic when a developer bought the corner of Dundas West and Bloor Street West in Toronto and destroyed at least three or four thriving businesses. I always appreciated the Rondun Tavern's convenient location, especially on cold nights in the dead of winter. Now the corner where it was located, with a health food store beneath it and other business on the north side, is completely derelict. The so-called Giraffe Condo development was a complete failure which destroyed a hive of social and business activity at Dundas West Station. It remains an eyesore today.

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