T.O. History Revisited – The Royal York Hotel

By Bruce Bell

Bruce Bell is the history columnist for the Bulletin, Canada’s largest community newspaper. He sits on the board of the Town of York Historical Society and is the author of two books ‘Amazing Tales of St. Lawrence Neighbourhood’ and ‘TORONTO: A Pictorial Celebration’. He is also the Official Tour Guide of St Lawrence Market. For more info visit brucebelltours.com

I arrived in Toronto at the age of 18 (with the intent of becoming a famous movie star of course) in January 1973. Like thousands of people who came before me I hurried out of the cavernous Union Station onto Front Street with the taxi cabs lined up, the people hurrying to catch the 5:15, the vendors, the pigeons, the noise, the rush, the smells and the realization that I wasn’t in Sudbury anymore.

As I stood on the plaza waiting for a cab I also thought about where I should start looking for a job (to kill time while hundreds of movie directors sought me out) when I found myself staring up at the massive Royal York Hotel rising up from across the street like a Himalayan mountain and thought why not try and get a job there?

The next day after settling in at a friends place I headed on down to the hotel, went to the personal office and applied. There was one job available that I felt I was pretty much suited for, busboy in the famed Imperial Room. As fate would have it, the CP Transcontinental train that took me to Toronto named its dinning car The Imperial Room after the Royal York’s. I took it as sign.

I was hired on the spot with the next thing I knew I was in full dress uniform being introduced to my new boss the formidable Louis Jannetta, the Imperial Room’s renowned maître d’.

During its heyday the Imperial Room saw many stars come and go, but none of them could match the longevity of Mr. Jannetta himself, a former busboy of the great room who moved up the ranks to become the figurehead of an entire way of dining the likes this city will never see again.

During my year spent bussing tables in the opulent dinning room I also happened to ingratiate myself with some of the biggest stars in showbizness as they passed through on the lucrative supper club circuit.

I stood in awe (hidden behind the curtains because busboys weren’t allowed in the room during showtime) as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennet, Duke Ellington, The Mills Bros, Peggy Lee, Cyd Charise, Count Bassie and the mesmerizing Marlene Dietrich performed in the vastness of the Imperial Room.

Some of these legendary names were just starting their careers when the Royal York Hotel opened its doors for the first time on June 11, 1929. There have been various hotels on the site of Royal York ever since 1856 when a row of town houses was first built for a Captain Dick operator of a Greats Lakes passenger and freight steam ship company in 1842.

Those first houses were built by John George Howard whose own home, Colborne Lodge, still stands in High Park, once his entire estate and left to the city as his gift. (If you hurry to 81 King E, south side between Church and Leader Lane renovators are removing an early 20th century façade revealing underneath the original 1844 building named Victoria Row that Howard had built around the same time he was building those row houses on Front Street.)

For a time Captain Dick’s Georgian style homes were used as the Knox Presbyterian training college. When the school moved out Dick partnered with Patrick Sword and the houses were then converted into Sword’s Hotel. Because the new hotel was within walking distance to the then Parliament Buildings (just north of the CBC headquarters at Front and Simcoe) most of the clientele were Parliamentarians, and when Quebec City became the capital in 1857 the men followed and Sword’s Hotel quickly emptied. Sword sold his hotel to BJB Riley who re-named the place Revere House.

In 1862 Captain Dick- a born hotelier -took over the Revere House and renamed it. The Queen’s and a legend was born. The Queen’s was the most fashionable hotel in Toronto for almost sixty years and was even though it was anything but modern by the time the King Edward Hotel opened in 1903, the Queen’s managed to retain its crown as Toronto’s foremost luxury hotel.

The Queen’s guest list encompassed the movers and shakers of world history during the late 19th century. Most notable were Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States and his arch enemy General Sherman, commander of the Union Forces during the American Civil War.

The four story hotel had one of the finest dinning rooms in the city, 210 guest rooms or boudoirs as the staff like to refer to them, seventeen private parlours for gentlemen and ladies to entertain at their leisure, a garden and an observation tower in the cupola that was the Queen’s signature architectural feature. The hotel had been the first in Canada to use hot air furnaces for heating and to have running water in all the guests rooms and the first hotel in Toronto to use passenger elevators.

It was gracious, restful, dripping with old world charm and like most other hotels in Toronto of the time extremely restrictive. With its umpteenth course dinners served at a red velvet pace, the hotel became the preferred rendezvous juncture for traveling European royalty, actors, statesmen and the favorite hotel of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

When the Great Fire of 1904 swept through the downtown core decimating much of lower Bay and Front Streets, the Queen’s was spared party due to the soaking wet bed sheets hung out the windows by guests to stop the fire from consuming the hotel. But its days were numbered all the same.

As our city rapidly grew during the first part of the 20th century the Canadian Pacific Railroad was planning on building a massive castle-like hotel in Toronto to compliment the others already or in the process of constructing.

These beaux faux châteaux including the Banff Springs, the Empress in Victoria, and Ottawa’s Château Laurier have all become a part of our country’s architectural landscape and now it was to be Toronto’s turn. Not only were we to have the biggest in the country, but we were to have the largest hotel in the entire British Empire.

The site chosen was obvious, across the street from the busiest train station in Canada, Toronto’s new Union Station opened in 1927 by Edward the Prince of Wales (although the station was complete it still would be years before the tracks were in place and passengers still had to use the platforms at the old Union station on the other side of York Street). The Queen’s was purchased by the CPR and unceremoniously torn down.

One of the great legends of that demolition was that workers came across a massive blue whale’s skeleton fully intact. Stunned at their find it was later learned that back in the 1880’s the area was once Harry Piper’s Wild Animal Zoo (Piper
Lane behind the Royal York is named for him) and the centre attraction was this dead whale held in a outdoor pen. As big a draw as this whale was it was still a dead whale and soon began to rot and stink mightily so it was buried and forgotten about until the foundation of the Royal York was dug.

As work began on the new hotel it soon became apparent just how massive this behemoth was to be. It rose above the existing skyline eclipsing everything in sight and for the next 30 years the hotel and the CIBC building (still standing on King E) dominated our city’s skyline.

Everything about the new hotel was going to be colossal. A thousand guest rooms, a lobby and mezzanine bigger than the previous Queen’s Hotel itself, a concert Hall second only to Massey Hall, a supper club for 500 and to top the whole experience off, the most luxurious roof top ballroom in all of North America, The Roof Garden with its hand painted ivy clinging its way across the ceiling and walls.

Like a great pyramid rising out of the desert, the Royal York Hotel opened June 11, 1929 and Torontonians gasped including me when I first laid eyes on it. There was a time in my life when the Royal York Hotel seemed like a second
home to me. Arriving from Sudbury and barely knowing a soul I got a job as a busboy in the hotel’s famed Imperial Room where for the next year the colossal hotel and its staff become my surrogate family.

Like a scene out of some old Hollywood movie I now find myself sipping a vodka martini in one the hotel’s great suites peering out the window down at Union Station where 32 years ago I arrived as a wide eyed teenager full hope and

Little ‘ol me from the outskirts of a Northern Ontario mining town, all grown up, tall, lean, muscular, incredibly good-looking (hey its my movie) a one time busboy now sitting on top of the world (compliments of my former employer, thank you very much) caught up in the reverie of the moment, remembering an exciting time of my life long, long ago.

The Royal York when I worked there back in the early 1970’s was experiencing a
reawaking after the doldrums of a bleak and sterile Toronto of the 1940’s, 50’s and
60’s. After a massive renovation the hotel was determined to bring back the opulence and glamour it first envisioned when it opened in 1929.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s put an end to its ambition of being a haunt for the very rich with hotel employees instead going out onto the street in search of potential guests. A brief return to the limelight occurred when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) arrived for a stay during their now legendary cross country trip in 1938.

During the Second World War the hotel came into its own as the hot spot playing host to the great big bands with couples dancing the night away high above the city in the famed Roof Garden Ballroom to the sounds of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller’s Orchestra.

On September 16, 1949 Toronto was to experience its greatest loss of life when the cruise ship The Noronic caught fire in the harbour, killing 118 people. Just like the great ocean liners did during WWII, the Royal York too was pressed into service with its lobby transforming itself into a field hospital with many of the guests and staff tending to the hundreds of injured.

The early 1950’s saw Canadians once again hitting the road with Toronto (thanks in part to the CNE) becoming a major tourist destination. In 1956 our largest hotel was getting cramped, so a 164 room addition was added to the back.

During Urban Renewal with its vast destruction of the downtown core there was talk of knocking down the Royal York and replacing it with a sleeker, more modern hotel. Unlike milk cartons, buildings have no best before dates.

In 1959 a more ambitious renovation was called for, one that would once again make the Canadian Pacific’s Royal York the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth, (a claim that was given up to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal) with a new 400 room, 17 story addition which increased the Royal York’s capacity to 1600 rooms.

While working there I was never intimidated at the hotel’s size because at its heart the Royal York is run like a small town where every one knew everybody else and it was this village-like atmosphere that Arthur Hailey captured so brilliantly when he used the Royal York as the inspiration for his best selling book “Hotel”.

I used to love wandering around the enormous hotel sneaking into rooms that either were closed to the public or completely off limits to everyone including the absolutely forbidden Royal Suite (especially to busboys), home away from home to HM The Queen when visiting Toronto.

While not as ostentatious as some of the other great hotel suites in this city (including the Royal York’s own Governor General Suite), this pleasing two bedroom suite has the look and feel of any upscale yet un-pretentious Rosedale apartment. In other words…. real class.

I also used to wander up to the Roof Garden Ballroom on the 19th floor, once the most luxurious rooftop space in the city. By the time I arrived on the scene the ballroom was un-used and empty, its hand painted ivy fading as the sun streamed endlessly through its massive 20 foot windows overlooking the lake.

Closed due to shifting tastes and fire regulations the Roof Garden Ballroom was destroyed and carved up into office and private function space in the early 1980’s. However, one treasure the Royal York did manage to save and refurbish was its Imperial Lobby adjacent to the Imperial Room. This beautifully restored ante room hidden for years under a false ceiling and carpeting with its recessed archways, travertine pillars and marble flooring was recently restored back to its 1929 splendor.

The Royal York Hotel has survived 75 years of Depression, Recession, good times, bad times, Urban Renewal, an almost name change, sleeker discount hotel chains and me.

Even though I was hired to clean away dirty dishes and change tablecloths, this brash kid from Sudbury couldn’t seem to do enough for the greatest entertainers of the 20th century who happened to be performing on the Imperial Room stage. I helped set up Duke Ellington’s music stands, I would place Tony Bennett’s glass of champagne on the piano for his opening number (To the Good Life) and with my first tip I bought jazz great Ella Fitzgerald a rose.

Bussing tables isn’t the most thrilling of jobs but to say I made the most of a situation was an understatement. I once found myself being summoned to clear some dishes away from legendary screen siren turned chanteuse Marlene Dietrich’s dressing room. All of a sudden there I was face to (incredible) face with one of filmdom’s great beauties and within moments of shoving plates and glasses into a bus-pan I was knocking back vodka tonics with her. She was as down to earth as my next door neighbour but as soon as that skin-tight-see-through-dress-and-the-coat-made-of-the-breastfeathers- of-350-swans went on…..the myth was created. For an entire week I was allowed to follow the film Goddess around like the excited puppy I was.

Wherever she walked from her hotel suite down the service elevator through the enormous kitchens and throughout the backstage I had to put up hundreds of Marlene Dietrich glamour posters, not so the Royal York’s staff would know that we were in the presence of a great star, but for Dietrich herself to prepare for that night’s show giving her audience the full monty so to speak.

The Royal York Hotel became a legendary landmark the day it opened on June 11, 1929, the same year Dietrich hit the big screen in The Blue Angel. What a woman and what a hotel! They were made for each other.

When Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts acquired the Fairmont Hotel chain in 1999 controversy arose when it was declared that the Toronto landmark would now be known simply as The Fairmount.

Local newspapers, TV news and even City Hall got into the debate that the name of our most famous hotel at the very least should retain the Royal York name. We weren’t alone as all the 25 plus Fairmount/CP hotels were to have their names changed (Fairmont Château Frontanc, Fairmont Lake Louise ect) with one notable exception The Plaza in New York City. In the end the great red neon sign that for the last 70 plus years has blazed across our skyline was reconfigured to read Fairmount Royal York.

So I’m back where I started all those years ago, this time walking around with my friend Craig in the vast emptiness of the greatest supper club of them all, The Imperial Room. We went backstage where I told him my Dietrich story and as we stared at the faded star on the dressing room door I remarked that not much has changed except for the fact vodka tonics are 10x what they were when I used to knock them back with my ol’ bud Marlene.

The Imperial Room (now used for private functions), where every morning I had to polish the brass rail surrounding the dance floor and sweep rose petals off the stage from the previous night’s show, served its last 6 course dinner in 1984 was completely renovated in 2002, bringing back its 1920’s elegance.

As colossal as the Royal York Hotel is (it’s height comes within a few meters of the great Pyramid at Giza) it still manages to have an intimate and friendly atmosphere.

I personally want to thank the staff at the Fairmont Royal York for their generosity in making me feel welcome when this prodigal son returned home for a memorable stay and for allowing me to remember a joyful time of my life long, long ago.

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