One of the key figures of the Toronto legit scene, Edwin Mirvish, the impresario and philanthropist known in theater circles as “Honest Ed,” died Wednesday in Toronto. He was 92.
A merchant who built an empire out of cheap household supplies and terrible jokes, Mirvish was a vital part of the theatrical life of his native city, running one of the most successful legit operations in North America.
Back in the early 1960s, Toronto was in danger of falling off the North American theatrical map due to its lack of an appropriate touring venue for mid-sized shows. The Royal Alexandra Theater was at that time an Edwardian playhouse in a sad state of disrepair, situated in a disreputable section of the city.
Originally built in 1907 at a cost of C$750,000 ($710,000), Mirvish bought it in 1962 for the fire-sale price of $189,000 and then spent more than twice that amount restoring the theater to its former glory. The Royal Alexandra re-opened on Sept. 9, 1963 with the touring production of “Never Too Late,” starting 44 years of non-stop activity that continues today.
Over the years, Mirvish hand-picked his own subscription seasons rather than buying available packages. He liked to mix West End farces with Broadway musicals and even offered an out-of-town home to some legendary flops that never made it to New York like “Say Hello to Harvey,” starring Donald O’Connor, and Cy Coleman’s “Home Again, Home Again.”
In 1982, Mirvish ventured across the Atlantic and wound up entering into a bidding war for another theater in need of restoration, the Old Vic. He outbid the likes of Trevor Nunn and purchased the theater for £550,000 ($1.1 million), putting an estimated $4 million into restoring it. But the subsequent seasons he ran under the artistic directorship of Jonathan Miller proved financially disastrous. Mirvish eventually leased the facility to the National Theater to use as rehearsal space, before finally selling it a loss in 1998.
Back home in 1989, he faced a dilemma. His subscription numbers reached 52,000, but he was offered an opportunity from Cameron Mackintosh to mount a Canadian production of “Les Miserables.” Mirvish took a chance by suspending his subscription series for a season and enjoyed tremendous success with the open-ended run of the Boublil-Schonberg musical.
But when he was offered a similar chance a few years later with “Miss Saigon,” Mirvish instead chose to build a new theater together with his son, David, putting $20.8 million into the luxurious Princess of Wales Theater, which opened in 1993.
Since then the Mirvish Organization has had massive successes (“Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King”) as well as some notable failures (“The Lord of the Rings”).
But the org remains the major producing force in Toronto theater today. The city owes its place in the world market to the quixotic businessman who purchased a crumbling theater 45 years ago and founded an empire out of it.
Mirvish is survived by his wife, son and sister.
— Richard Ouzounian