Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growing up Doris, or What is Red Ryan Up To Now?

An old lady died recently. She was 96. She was my favourite aunt. We were lifelong pals, and I miss her a lot.

We sometimes forget that old ladies were once young ladies, and one sees amazing changes when one lives for almost a century. I shared the following account of her first 21 years with some of her younger relatives on the occasion of her 90th birthday. I wanted to help them imagine the Toronto in which Doris grew up.

I hope you find it interesting.
You were always the cool one, the stylish one, the gracious one, the sophisticated one who went off to work downtown for a big company in a big office building. You skied at Gray Rocks, you played golf, you belonged to a bridge club, and went to the Granite Club. You wore taupe. You even smelled sophisticated!

You were the one who taught us table manners —— not to dip the knife in the jam jar, how to break the roll before buttering —— stuff like that. Knowledge we’d appreciate years later at an important business lunch or a job interview.

You were the generous one, always ready with a few bucks to help us take out a date or cover a parking ticket.

So, as you were such a big part of all our lives while we were growing up —— three generations of us now —— I thought that on the occasion of your 90th birthday, it might be fun to see what was going on while you were growing up. So here goes…

While you aren’t aware of it at the time, on the very day that you are entering the world, August 8th, 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton is launching his 3rd polar expedition with the ship "Endurance." The Panama Canal has just opened, as has the Royal Ontario Museum.

Also that year, 1914, Toronto wins its first Stanley Cup, University of Toronto wins the Grey Cup, Babe Ruth hits his first home run at a stadium on Hanlan's Point, Sir Henry Pellat finishes building Casa Loma, and construction begins on Union Station.

While you wouldn’t need it for a while, your mom and dad could have gone down to Adams furniture and bought you a brass bed, complete with springs and mattress, for $27.65. A new Ford runabout costs $540.

There was lots going on around town. D’Urbano’s band was playing at Scarboro Beach, there was a 48th Highlanders concert at Hanlan’s Point, burlesque at the Gayety and Star theatres, and the play “Sherlock Holmes” at the Alexandra. Twenty-five cents got you into the vaudeville show at the new Winter Garden and Romeo the chimpanzee was headlining at the Hippodrome, along with Red Skelton, Groucho Marx, and Jimmy Durante.

Former bicycle and chicken thief Red Ryan is serving a 2nd term at Kingston, when he gets released to become a soldier. This does not slow Red down, and he spends much of the war in the army lock-up for robbing stores.

By 1924, as you celebrate your 10th birthday, the top musical hits include California, Here I Come, It Had To Be You, and Somebody Loves Me. Al Jolson is the current heart throb. Flag pole sitting and dance marathons are all the rage, and folks are doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Shimmy. Mah-jongg, ouija boards, and crossword puzzles are hot. Prohibition is in effect and the cops are chasing bootleggers and smashing cases of whiskey.

Toronto now has its own symphony orchestra and Foster Hewitt is broadcasting hockey games from the Mutual Street arena over radio station CFCA, even though only about 1,000 Torontonians have a radio. It’s the roaring twenties, but Sir Henry Pellatt is in dire straits and auctions off the contents of Casa Loma.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. visit Toronto, the Group of Seven are big on the art scene, and the current craze is ladies’ softball. Superstar do-it-all athlete Lionel “Big Train” Conacher’s amazing career is underway. He’ll be a light heavyweight boxing champ, runner, high scoring Argonaut halfback, baseball standout, lacrosse player, and pro hockey player. It’s a good time to be a sports fan in Toronto.

The deep thinkers are beginning to discuss creation of the St. Lawrence seaway, and psychologists are trying to figure out why people laugh when they’re tickled. Professor J.C. Flugel determines through a scientific study that optimists outnumber pessimists.

You’ll soon be wanting some silk stockings (at 39 cents a pair), but right now you’re more interested in the funny pages, featuring Tillie The Toiler, Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google, and Toots and Casper.

Red Ryan is busy. While serving 25 years for a string of bank robberies in Hamilton, he escapes by stabbing the Chief Keeper with a pitchfork, holds up a Bank of Nova Scotia branch to get some spending money, and heads for the states. After 12 days on the lam, he’s now back in Kingston serving a life sentence. Ernest Hemingway, a Toronto Star reporter, keeps everyone up to date on Red’s adventures.

A year later, traffic stops on your 11th birthday. Yes, on August 8 1925, Toronto's first automatic traffic signals go into operation at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. Ted Rogers is exhibiting his new invention, the plug-in radio, at the CNE.

In 1926, it’s the Stork Contest, with a million dollar purse. Mothers compete frantically with each other to give birth to the most babies in ten years.

Red Ryan is in the news again. Apparently he has reformed, and is now the altar boy in the prison chapel.

Then Prohibition ends in 1927, which isn’t a big deal now that you’re just 13, but turns out later to be important when you discover rum and cokes (Doris' favourite cocktail). Also this year, Conn Smyth buys the Toronto St. Patricks, and calls them the Toronto Maple Leafs, CFRB goes on the air, and it’s now legal to make a right turn on a red light.

While in town with the rest of the royal family, Edward the Prince of Wales opens Union Station and, along with brother George, dedicates the Princes’ gates at the C.N.E.

On August 8th 1929, your 15th birthday, the German airship Graf Zeppelin begins a round-the-world flight. The Royal York hotel opens for business, and the first "talkies" are in the movie theatres.

Red Ryan is now working in the prison hospital, sweeping floors, feeding prisoners, taking temperatures and acting as an occasional scrub nurse. The prison chaplain is working actively for his release.

On your birthday in 1934, you are no longer a teenager. The top hits are Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, I've Got You Under My Skin, and You Oughta Be In Pictures. Rudy Vallee is the big star and big band music rules.

In the headlines are the Dionne quintuplets and a couple of Canadian pilots who take off from Wasaga Beach headed for Baghdad, 6600 miles away, in an attempt to set the world record for the longest flight. They make it as far as Heston, England, failing to set the distance record but becoming the first non-stop transatlantic flight from central Canada to Britain.

Prime Minister R.B. Bennett visits Red Ryan in prison, likes what he sees, and orders his release. Red gets a job writing for the Toronto Star.

Maple Leaf Gardens is 3 years old, but Sunday sporting events won’t be allowed in Toronto for another twenty years. Monopoly is the hot parlour game, and child star Shirley Temple is captivating audiences everywhere.

The Great Depression is on, and wages of 25 to 30 cents per hour are common, but some folks can still afford the movies --- Ruby Keeler is starring in Dames, and fashionable ladies are striving for the hourglass look.

As 1935 unfolds, you’re twenty-one and there’s a crime wave in progress. A man and his son are shot dead trying to stop a robbery. A few days later, two masked men heist a crowded liquor store in Sarnia and a passerby calls police. When a constable arrives he's murdered at point blank range, by the taller robber. In a blaze of police bullets the thieves are killed. The taller one is … Red Ryan.

So we’ll leave you there, on the threshold of adulthood, even though there’s much more to tell.

We know you don’t want us to get all sloppy and sentimental, so we’ll just say that a big part of the people we’ve become —— your nieces and nephews, your grand nieces and grand nephews, and now your great grand niece and great grand nephews —— is due to your generous spirit and genuine friendship over the years.

Happy Birthday, Doris!
Doris passed away at home on March 22, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Doug. I really enjoyed the history - didn't know about that rascal, Red Ryan!

    Your aunt must have been a special person and what a wonderful way to tell her how much she meant to your family.