The better way to honour Sam Sniderman and help the TTC

A Toronto museum is a great idea, but putting the iconic spinning-disc signs from Sam The Record Man’s flagship store in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life. Sam’s spirit should be surrounded by life and music, and in doing so we could take care of one of the TTC’s outstanding headaches.

samSam Sniderman was a music man, and one thing to know about music is that, unlike man, it has the potential for immortality.

I love the idea of a Toronto museum, but recent suggestions in the Star and Post that we hang Sam The Record Man’s homeless signs in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life — not just in the city he loved, but across Canada.

Gratuitously affixing the spinning discs to the Ryerson building rising on the site of Sam’s store would be nearly as bad, though it feels as if my alma mater deserves some such punishment for cheesing out in this affair.

samsign2But opportunity to do Sniderman proud, make someone some money and contribute mightily to the Yonge Street strip and the city beyond, lies just south, on the other side of Gould Street. The spirit of Sam and the signs in question deserve a space with music and life, a healthy mix of uses to keep things happening at all hours. The site of the old Empress Hotel is perfect on several levels.

Sadly, we’ll never have the Empress back. It was allowed to slide into disrepair during Yonge’s seediest days. It was then destabilized in 2010 and torched a year later.

I mostly recall the red-brick 1888 landmark as Music World, a latter-day Sam’s competitor. In the early 1980s, when I was a Ryerson student, there was also a dingy second-floor burger joint with uneven floors. The baskets of fries were huge and filling. I loved them drenched in vinegar, with beer on the side.

MUSICBut having grown up in Toronto, I somehow knew the place had been Edison Hotel in the ’60s. I was aware of the former buzz — maybe from radio ads of my boyhood, maybe from osmosis, or maybe from co-workers old enough to legitimately spin tales of the great nights on Yonge. They’d seen the Hawks (later The Band), the Ugly Ducklings, the Mandala, Sparrow (pre-Steppenwolf) and the Mynah Birds; they’d frequented the Le Coq d’Or, The Embassy, The Colonial and The Hawk’s Nest.

The tales made me feel I’d been born too late.

Sam was an essential part of that Yonge Street — and Yorkville and much more. Most of the big names from the second half of the 20th century owe much to the efforts he made, especially in the years before CanCon legislation (though he was also instrumental in getting Ottawa to ensure Canadian broadcasters played Canadian music). He was much more than a retailer with charisma and a catchy sign, he helped get Canadian talent onto  the world stage.

According to longtime Maclean’s music critic Nick Jennings, author of a great 1997 book called Before The Gold Rush, Sniderman “built a reputation as the greatest promoter of domestic talent that Canadian music ever had.” 

Veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc lists the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, Triumph, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Raffil, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Liona Boyd, Loreena McKennitt, Sloan, Barenaked Ladies and many others as artists indebted to Sniderman.

Not every music fan closed the deal at Sam’s. I often went home with a yellow bag from A&A’s, two doors up the street (only Steele’s Tavern separated the rivals). But every trip to that part of downtown included a visit Sam’s, and we’d often see Sam in person.

Recent commercial property transactions and current condo developments mean big changes and a lot more life are coming to Yonge. I kind of sense a new golden age in the works. With luck, it will bring enough life to support some good new club-style live-music venues. The place to start is at the fenced-off Empress/Edison site, now being used as a staging ground for the Ryerson construction.

As an urbanist, I don’t much care specifically what goes on the upper floors there, though it should be a primary use other than residential. That’s because the lower floors need a big space for bands, dancing and the Sam’s signs, spinning for people who will appreciate them and their Yonge Street context.

But wait, if we exercise a little foresight, we can turn the basement and part of the ground floor of this building into part of the long-overdue north entrance to Dundas Station, which somehow slipped behind Castle Frank and Donlands in the TTC’s controversial and conceptually challenged second-exits program.

Done properly — in conjunction with a larger development — a second entrance for Dundas can be accomplished at a very favourable price (and, of course, Dundas was an essential stepping-off point for so many of Sam’s customers). Ryerson and the TTC had been in talks to work the north entrance into the Student Learning Centre that’s under construction, but we’re told that talks fell apart.

If the Empress site has to be expropriated, so be it. The public badly needs it to bring the sixth busiest TTC station up to the most basic standards of fire safety, not to mention allowing it to connect better with a rapidly growing university. And it’s not as if we were shy about expropriation tactics at sleepy Greenwood and Donlands a few years back.

Maybe, if necessary, we can have Build Toronto carry the public interest from there. Maybe BT can work in conjunction the current owner, Lalani Group, to ensure a solid economic case and an attractive and appropriate structure rises above the musicians and revellers and TTC customers — and that Sam’s sign.

Call the club Sam’s if you like. Maybe it can be a showcase for both long-respected and up-and-coming Canadian bands. Maybe Robbie Robertson could be the host on opening night, with specials guests of his choosing (as long as I get a ticket).

Of course, it won’t all pan out this way, but this type of blue-sky discussion is needed for many obvious reasons.

The only way I can support putting the signs in the same building as a museum, is if that Toronto museum is part of the upstairs space.

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