The man known to millions of Torontonians as ‘Honest Ed’ got an early start in business, and now, at more than 90 years old, he’s never looked back. Mirvish began working in the family grocery store in 1929 at age 15, after dropping out of high school.
In early 1940s, he opened a women’s clothing shop on the site that would become Honest Ed’s, at Bloor and Bathurst streets. To this day, Honest Ed’s is a one-of-a-kind bargain centre that provides an object lesson in successful (if not elegant retailing), with its countless flashing lights on the store marquee, overstuffed merchandising shelves and bins, handwritten signs featuring corny puns (e.g., “We don’t offer service. We have a slogan – serve yourself and save a lot of money” and “Welcome, don’t faint at our low prices, there’s no place to lie down”), and doorcrasher specials such as free turkeys to the first 1,000 shoppers at Christmas). Every year on his birthday Ed hosts a street party that makes him an even greater hero to the shoppers of all ages, genders and ethnic origins that frequent the store.
In the 1950s, Ed negotiated with the Cawthra Mulock trust to buy the then-tired Royal Alexandra Theatre, built in 1907 but slated for demolition. To help attract patrons to his theatre, he began buying properties along King Street West and opened a series of restaurants that ultimately served 6,000 meals an evening. Using such brand names as Old Ed’s, Ed’s Warehouse, Most Honourable Ed’s Chinese, and Ed’s Seafood, it’s clear that Ed understood the marketing concept of market segmentation before the term became popular! In a similar fashion, Ed began purchasing residential properties on Markham Street adjacent to Honest Ed’s to create Mirvish Village, a collection of small, arty business enterprises including David Mirvish Books then run by his son David.
Beyond restaurants, another key ingredient in Ed’s theatre marketing arsenal was his use of the theatre subscription, which helped guarantee audiences for his eclectic roster of touring and later home-grown shows, and which offered weekday matinees that made live theatre more accessible to seniors and students.
In 1993, Ed and David Mirvish opened the brand-new Princess of Wales Theatre a few doors west of the Royal Alex, filling the two theatres with such long-running Broadway and West End hit musicals as Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, The Lion King and Mamma Mia!. More recently, the Mirvishes have helped develop new Canadian ‘theatrical product’ by supporting up-and-coming Canadian plays and playwrights such as Two Pianos, Four Hands, Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy and Adam Pettle’s Zadie’s Shoes.
Ed Mirvish is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for the restoration of London’s Royal Vic Theatre.