Presenting: Bruce Bell – Comedian, Actor, Playwright, Renowned Historian and Lover of Toronto
4. You also worked as a stand-up comedian. Please tell us more about that time, what was it like, where did you perform?
After I left the Imperial Room I wanted to be in showbiz myself full time, not an easy thing to do I soon realized. I took a job as an usher at the Royal Alexandra Theatre where for the next couple of years I got to see some of the world’s greatest actors in action.
The most down to earth actor I met back in those heady days was, the legend herself, Katherine Hepburn. She would let me sit with her in her dressing room while she dabbed on what she called a necessary evil of showbiz – her make-up – and tell me stories of old Hollywood. But for all the great stars I was rubbing shoulders with it just made me want a life on the stage for myself. While working at the Alex I did manage a walk-on role in a production of Cinderella that just added fuel to my fire.
In the mid 1970’s I became friends with Mark Breslin who was starting up a comedy club called Yuk Yuks and asked if I would be interested in joining. While not a standup myself I loved comedy and together with a friend of mine Colleen Pierce we formed a comedy duo named BELL and PIERCE where for the next couple of years we performed all over Toronto, on TV, radio and even made a movie together : THE RISE AND FALL OF TONY TROUBLE, a satire of old Hollywood movies with me as fictional 40’s film star Tony Trouble. By the mid 1980’s I had branched out on my own and became a standup comic and started to do TV commercials to subsidize my income.
5. You have also been working as an actor and a playwright. Please tell us more about that.
As much as loved the world of standup by the late 1980’s I felt I wanted to branch out as my comic routines were more in the vein of long stories that I would act out so I decided to write another play. I had written a few plays earlier, including one based on the life of stage legends John Barrymore and Tallulah Bankhead and one that our movie THE RISE AND FALL OF TONY TROUBLE was based on.
I wrote I SLEPT WITH TONY TROUBLE in 1989 (as a sequel to the Rise and Fall) and became a great success on the fringe circuit her in Toronto and had productions in Edinburgh festival, Stratford, Vancouver and London, England.
After that I wrote and produced a few more plays and in 2000 I won a Toronto Arts Council award for playwriting.
However, as much as loved acting, comedy and playwriting I felt the early passion I once felt was gone, and now I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing something that I loved. All my life I loved history and somehow I wanted to make a living writing about history, especially Toronto’s, for a living.
St. Lawrence Hall
6. Furthermore, you write a history column about the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Community. How and why did you become such a history buff?
I moved to the St Lawrence neighbourhood in 1993 where I found myself smack dab in the middle of where Toronto started as the town of York way back in colonial times. I had been reading about our early history for years and now I actually was living in an area where it all began. In 1999 I began to submit stories to the St Lawrence Community Bulletin which was the main newspaper for people who lived downtown and from that a new career was born that combined my love of acting, writing, comedy and history all into one.
7. You seem to have a special love for Toronto. Why is that?
My love for Toronto began as a kid when we used to come down from Sudbury to visit the CNE every year. Even as a young child I had a fascination with this big beautiful city with its subway, skyscrapers and all theses people on the street!
I think anyone coming from a small town to Toronto either is completely overwhelmed and wants to go back home or like me wants to stay.
8. What are some of your favorite historic Toronto places and stories?
I love Union Station and still to this day when a friend calls up and wants to meet for coffee or a walk around I always say lets meet in front of Union Station. Not only is it a beautiful building but its very vibrant. I think of Union Station not only as the gateway to our innercity but as the heart of Toronto.
I have a great affection for St Lawrence Hall also. It was there during the mid 1800’s that some of the world’s greatest singers, speakers, dancers, actors, writers, politicians all came to entertain and inform Torontonians in a time before TV, radio, movies and the Internet.
The Great Hall is one of the only rooms left in Canada where all the Fathers of Confederation had met and during its day St Lawrence Hall was the scene of many anti slavery meetings denouncing the practice of slavery that America was fully entrenched in.
9. You are the official historian for a number of famous Toronto buildings, including the St. Lawrence Market, St. Lawrence Hall, the Hockey Hall of Fame and others. How did that come about?
As I began to write my regular column and delve into the past of some of our greatest architecturally treasures I came up with the idea of approaching the owners of these magnificent structures with the idea of making me their official historian as a way for me to become more involved in these buildings. Its strictly voluntary and makes for good stories when I do my tours.
Great Ballroom at St. Lawrence Hall
10. Today you offer special tours of Toronto, such as the St. Lawrence Market Tour, the Distillery District Tour and the Toronto Art Deco Tour. Please tell us more about these tours.
I try and add a personal touch to my tours (hence my honourary historian titles) and some of my tour guests often comment jokingly that the tours are more often about me than the city itself. I like to combine my love of history with a bit of drama, making a tour with me a walk my guests are not likely to forget. I look upon the sites I visit as a stage set.
With the Distillery I like to tell of the Irish Imigrants who after fleeing the great famine back home in the 1850’s standing before the very gates we are now about to enter ourselves and thinking what they were thinking, a new start of life.
With my Art Deco tour I like to take my guest back to the roaring 1920’s when flappers decked out in furs would drive up to the bank in their sportscars and withdraw money for a night on the town, never thinking the big crash was just around the corner.
11. What’s in store for Bruce Bell over the next few months and years?
My only goal in life professional speaking is to continue to do what I do for as long as I can. I have finally found something that not only is a passion of mine but a good way to make a living, telling stories about the greatest city on earth. Toronto.
Thank you Bruce, for telling us about yourself. We certainly share a love of this city and I look forward to sampling one of your other tours in the near future. All the best…