Friday, February 28, 2014

The Story of the Stained Glass Windows

IN 1940, the ArchDiocese of Toronto wanted to build a new church in the west end. They chose a spot of empty land at the corner of Bloor and Montgomery, one block west of Royal York Rd. There was already an Anglican and Lutheran and Episcoplian church in the area and the Vatican was beginning to panic. To build a church you need money, lots of it and to get lots of money you need a large group of Catholics, hopefully rich ones, and to get the money donated you need a charismatic priest that everyone likes. Enter Father William O’Flanagan, or as he came to be called “Dollar Bill”. Dollar Bill was a good-looking well-educated Jesuit who could dance, golf, ski, swim and be anywhere to anyone who was willing to listen to his pitch about how great it would be to donate money to the church. How much did he want? No less than $5,000 per family. (This was 1940! They were in the middle of a war! For perspective, think of a young Dick Whitman on the farm and how much $5,000 might have been to at the time…) Of course, one could donate any amount at all, no amount was too small but for the princely sum of $5,000 there was a sweetener: You could then be eligible to purchase (donate) a stained glass window with – wait for it – your family name and a few words, to be visible fo'eva. And these weren’t just any stained glass windows; these were the original, beautiful, ornate, multi-coloured, elaborate, glistening panels reminiscent of ancient European cathedrals.

In fact, Dollar Bill had another less popular nickname, Father Chicago, and he knew exactly what he was doing. For Catholics, donating money isn’t nearly as attractive as showing off. Dollar Bill got his money and sold all of the stained glass windows, except for the last two. One was “The Scourging at the Pillar” (too violent) and “Adoration of the Virgin” (too sensual). For some reason, no one wanted these and so Father Chicago put the hurt on; he started calling the wives of parishioners like the priest from The Sopranos. He wined them, he dined them, he encouraged them to ask around. Finally he got to Coba. You remember Eddy, don’t you? (please see After a lifetime of womanizing, Eddy finally fell in love with a stunningly beautiful Dutch girl who was all of 18 years old, and asked her to marry him despite the fact she was 20 years his junior. (But first, Coba had to move out Eddy’s live-in mistress!) Coba – short for Jacoba – was as devout a schoolgirl as they come and even today is a daily communicate at the same church. Coba had humble beginnings but Stelle always said she seemed to have no trouble spending Eddy’s money given half the chance. She took up Father Chicago’s mission and somehow managed to the largest contribution; she bought both stained glass windows. The scourging at the pillar she (hilariously) assigned to the memory of her late in-laws, and The Adoration of the Virgin? She dedicated that one to herself. It was in this way that my mother’s family is the only family to have two stained glass windows at the same church.

Sadly, Eddy died before his time leaving Coba with two small children. But 10 years later she re-married to a lovely man with the initials JC (no joke!), and Coba took her unmarried sister into her new home. Charles used to shout when he saw the three of them, “Here’s comes J___ C____ and his TWO wives!” Long after Coba re-married, long after her second husband became a millionaire and long after he died, Coba never forgot that Charles had supported her through the lean years. When it came time to stop driving, instead of giving her car to her beloved granddaughter, Coba gave the car to me. When I asked her who told her to give the car to me, she answered “God”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The History of The Rondun Hotel: Finale

Charles proved to be a good businessman. He was disciplined and focused on the job. He ran a tight ship, he was a good provider, he was established in the community. He was also pretty cagey, he could spot a trick a mile away. He called them “fiddles”. The thing about a fiddle is that everyone is doing it, or trying to figure out how to do it. Charles had a lot of sayings and one was “People are busy”. What he meant was that it’s fair to assume that everyone is looking for a way to get ahead. He wasn’t upset about it, but he was very careful, because …people are busy. Charles’ mother Julia, contented that he sons had finally found their way in the world, took to her bed to die. She wasn’t sick, she just put on a pair of fresh silk pajamas and took her meals and her visits in her bedroom and waited for the inevitable. My mother has fond memories of arranging her grandmothers jewellery box full costume jewelery on long Sunday afternoon visits.

When Charles mother Julia died her maid Martha came to work for his family. Martha was famous for this one story: One Christmas Day, after spending a day and half preparing a large roast beef dinner, Martha dropped the entire platter on the floor just as she was entering the dining room. There was a shocked silence when Julia’s clear voice rang out “That’s OK, Martha, just go in and bring us the OTHER roast beef”. Of course, there was no other roast beef. Martha picked everything up, slid behind the kitchen door, re-arranged it all again, and walked through holding her head high to applause. Everyone asks what colour Martha was and so I will tell you: She was white and Irish like us. She had arrived when she was just a girl as an indentured servant and expected to be provided a job for the rest of her life. It was in this way that she came to live and work in the house my mother grew up in. Martha was an odd duck. She was intensely Catholic and eyed the television set – when it arrived in 1953 – with a great deal of suspicion. She would not be in the same room as a TV. She was a heavy drinker and on her day off she would go out with her “boyfriend” and he would spend all her money. If someone tried to counsel Martha, she would say in her think Irish accent “Who wouldn’t have a man around the house, for the little bit he eats”.

In addition to his brothers, Charles’ uncle Patty Ryan (brother of Julia) was also a part owner. His uncle Patty was a drunk and one day, out of the blue, he sold his share to the butcher around the corner. The butcher died and so Charles was now in business with the butcher’s son. Despite his success, Charles was under a lot of pressure. First his mother died and then in short order both of his brothers married and had children, and then both of his brothers died. If you are doing the math, that meant he was now supporting himself, his wife, his two children, his maid, his brother’s wives, their children and one of his brother’s wife’s lame spinster sister just for good measure. (She wasn’t actually anything wrong with her body at all, she just didn’t want to get married and needed an excuse) It was upwards of 11 people and they all had to eat, pay mortgages, wear clothes and drive cars. And so Charles made a decision that would last the rest of his life; he began to embezzle from the government. Pay attention because this is the important part. Every keg of beer is intended to be sold to a certain pressure, meaning every glass gets a certain amount of beer and a very small amount of foam. A small change in pressure is not noticeable by a regular customer but on large gallonages it can mean a significant profit over time. And since all alcohol is purchased from the government, they would be aware of how much could be expected from each keg, and any more would be suspect. It’s math not magic. The government probably noticed the problem right away but they turned a blind eye for the first 20 years. Then they started sending letters which were dutifully ignored. Circa 1970 the government got a lawyer and things got serious. It took four years but in the end they were all fined for “moral turpitude” which is tax evasion by any other name, and by fined I mean the Gov took everything that wasn’t nailed down. Charles was lucky not to go to prison but by then he was an old man. Charles lost his liquor licence and The Rondun was sold to the highest bidder: a strip club. Pretty soon naked women were dancing on the tables and Charles was getting calls from old regulars demanding an explanation. Then it became a location for live music, as it was certainly big enough, but I don’t know a thing about that. It is probably for these reasons that The Rondun was not saved or even noted by the historical society, and that’s a shame because many people remember it fondly. For further reading please refer to Linden MacIntyre’s book “Why Men Lie” where The Rondun is briefly mentioned.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The History of The Rondun Hotel: Part Two

Ah... the romantic streetcar. And the Rondun Hotel on the right, after it was sold.

To say that The Rondun was successful was an understatement. It served the largest gallonage of beer in Ontario and maybe Canada. It was so successful that when someone once sneered that Charles was the “Beer Baron”, he took it personally. The Rondun served a lower income area and was best known by the new Canadians that arrived in great waves after WWII; those who settled in an area called the Junction, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The tracks being trains filled with animals brought to the city for slaughter and processing. That is why some parts of Toronto are called HogTown, and the The Big Smoke. No one has ever asked why it had 12 hotel rooms that were never filled, but I will tell you anyway: It was to qualify for a certain type of liquor hotel/ dining room licence, as opposed to a bar licence. A bar can get shut down if it has underage people in it, but a dining room and hotel can not. Once there was a severe snowstorm and 5 truckers holed up at the hotel for 2 days. They had a good time, but Charles had to send one of the waitresses out to buy linen for the beds because he didn’t actually have any. This also meant the Rondun had to serve food. And it did. You can not serve alcohol before noon but The Rondun opened at 10am to accommodate those who were getting off shift and wanted a large breakfast before they went home. There was really nothing else in the area, so the Rondun filled the void.

Legend has it that Charles turned on the beer taps at 5pm and never turned them off until 1am when the bar closed. The waitresses just passed glass after glass under the taps, filling each to the line drawn on the glass as required by the province, never spilling a drop. My mother says that there was room for 700 people in the main drinking hall and another 300 in the dining room, roughly a 1,000 people in total and the place was always packed. This is in the days before credit cards or debit and all transactions were done with cash. Luckily there was a bank across the street and during daylight hours they would pick up large sacks of cash and keep it overnight in the vault until it could be counted the next day. Occasionally a fight would break out, or someone would try and run out or cheat on a tab. At that point, Charles would shut the taps, pull down the steel cage that covered the cash register during the night (which was heavy enough to break a man’s hand) and flip up a shot gun that was hung under the bar leaving a dent in the think mahogany surface of the bar itself. The bar would clear pretty quick and things would go back to normal. There were also raids on the beer hall looking for underage drinking. Men from Europe were in the habit of ordering their sons a beer after a hard day’s work and Charles wasn’t in the habit of asking for ID. Actually, Charles didn’t believe in carrying ID at all, he found it very un-Canadian since he knew everyone and everyone knew him, but more on that later.

Charles and his brothers were all part owners, but Charles was the General Manager and the only one who showed up to work everyday. The other two brothers had established the JEDennie paper company and sold stationary. That building stood off to the side of where City Hall and the ice rink stands today. Apparently Eddy and Lorne invented the square bottom paper bag but either they didn’t patent it or it’s a myth, because I would be rich if that were true. The thing about The Rondun, and Toronto in general, is that it ran like a small town. Everyone knew everyone else and there were some characters. After decades in business, stories would accumulate. There was the alcoholic beer salesman who got sober and was discovered wandering from table to table through The Rondun handing out AA cards and preaching religion. There was the thief who tried to take cash out of the till only to have heavy steel cage fall on the back of his neck. He didn’t die, though. There was the small European skirmish that called all its expatriates to arms in the motherland. The night before this certain ethnic demographic was due to leave, The Rondun rang with song and almost literally ran out of kegs of beer, it was filled to capacity with men saying their final goodbyes. In the morning, not a single soul got on the ship. Charles laughed about that.