There's an old adage that one starts their career in entertainment in Canada and for the REAL money, they head to the states. In two cases, famous Americans might have come back to Toronto after they've left this mortal coil.
Recently, one of our readers reminded us of a rather interesting legend at the El Mocambo nightclub on Spadina in Toronto. The much vaunted home of a gig by the Rolling Stones at the height of their career and oft "hang out" of Margaret (Maggie) Trudeau when she was in Toronto and not making life... interesting for our former and now deceased prime minister, Pierre. The "Elmo" always had an air about it although some might say it was because it was kind of a dive with good acts.
One person of note that also played the "Elmo" was blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan who was easily the best blues guitarist of his generation and many before and likely after him. Vaughan didn't seem to hold the "Elmo" with any more or less reverence than many of the famous folks who hit the stage (at least, none that we know of) at this venue but according to one staff member, on the tragic day in 1990 that Stevie Ray passed on due to a helicopter crash the sound of a distinctive blues guitar was heard being played by a phantom guitarist. The staff member was convinced this was the ghost of the 35 year old Vaughan but who knows. There have been no further reports of the phantom guitarist that we know of and one does have to remember that the sound of a musician in that area (just outside the club) in 1990 would not be unfathomable but still, considering the deserved mythos and accolades of this extraordinary musician, it's a nice thought that Stevie Ray was playing the "Elmo" one last time.
Another famed person who might be haunting Toronto is Al Jolsen. The man who starred in the first "talkie" and famed "black faced" vaudevillian did play at The Royal Alex during his long and illustrious career and it was said that the now Mirvish owned theatre was the biggest and brightest theatre of it's day so possibly it held a special place for Jolsen.
During the performance of the stage play "Jolsen", a man in "old fashioned clothing" was seen walking along the balconies and was once seen under the stage beneath a trap door. According to Barbara Smith's book, Ontario Ghost Stories (copyright 1998 - Lone Pine Publishing), there was sincere speculation that "Joley" had returned to oversee the play about his life.
Along these lines and possibly much less ghostly but a piece of Toronto "insignifica" is another American of fame... or infamy.
When the double-decker theatre, The Elgin (Canon) and Winter Garden Theatre, was going through it's extensive renovations, the preservation group looking after it went far out of their way to make sure that everything was as authentic as possible. Right down to the chairs used to seat people.
Using a database of theatrical "stuff", they located a possible source for the original type of chairs used by the Wintergarden in Chicago... The Biograph Theatre there to be exact.
The transaction was made and soon a "theatre-full" of chairs were shipped to Toronto.
When they arrived, all of them were the same colour except one chair which was upholstered in a different fabric. It was obvious to the staff that they indeed had a chair patched with whatever they had handy and off the chairs went to be re-upholstered to match the rest of the chairs in this exquisite theatre.
After a time, a call came in from the Biograph management to ask how the chairs were doing. Needless to say, the preservation staff were thrilled and conveyed thanks.
At that point, the Biograph had asked about the "one special chair" and before they could say anything, the Biograph employee said that this chair was specially upholstered to let people know that this was the last theatre seat of John Dillinger, "Public Enemy #1" in the 1930s. The notorious bank robber and killer was gunned down after attending a show with Anna Sage (the "mysterious Lady in Red") outside the Biograph at 10:40pm on Sunday, July 22, 1934.
So, Dillinger's last theatre seat is now lost in the sea of chairs at the Wintergarden and it is interesting to note that one of the reported stories of this theatre is the chairs that seem to have a mind of their own... or an invisible audience sitting in them. Is it John Dillinger? Probably not but it's a good story anyway.
There's probably many more of this type of story and I have a feeling a "part two" of this article will be online at some point, but I figured I'd whet everyone's appetite and maybe convince more stories to appear from submissions. We do know of one American actor that has made her possible home in an Ontario theatre she loved but that one... well... that's for another time.