Chapter Nine of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

A 1950s telephone ad urging people to get a wall extension phone in their kitchens. Inset photos: A poster outlining Ontario's Sunday (Blue) Laws and the cover of 1956's Peyton Place.

Below is Chapter Nine of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER NINE: ‘Knock, knock….Who’s there?’

By KEITH BLACK

Knock knock……….Who’s there?

Little old lady……….Little old lady who?

Wow, I didn’t know you could yodel!

I know. It’s a corny joke but it does contain a small element of ingenuity. Knock Knock jokes were big in the Fifties. There were also a lot of simplistic television shows as well; I’ll talk about them later. And there were some archaic rules and laws. Many adjectives have been applied to the Fifties, some of them not necessarily complimentary, banal, simple and conforming among them.

But, of course, we are looking in the rear view mirror, a vision which reflects more than 60 years of change. It might as well be 60 light-years.

Knock knock. Don’t worry; it’s not another silly joke. Knock knock. Come in!

We rarely locked our apartment door. And when we heard a knock at the door we would rarely go to answer it; we would simply yell “come in” or “enter!” Most of the time they did come in and, most of the time we knew them.

Even if we didn’t know them they would cautiously open the door, stick their heads in and state their business. This was a common practice throughout the neighbourhood. I don’t think that I ever owned a key to our apartment; why would I need one if the door was never locked? It is somewhat calming to recall that we never seemed to worry about who was “out there” or what was on the other side of the door.

RIIINNNNG! RIIINNNNG! The ringing of the telephone was very loud, very tinny, and incessant; it kept ringing until you answered it or until the caller gave up. There was no call redirect, no message machine and no caller ID.

You will notice that I said “the” telephone; very few homes had more than one. When I ran to answer the phone in our home, I was adamantly reminded not to say “hello”. I would lift the receiver and shyly pronounce “We shop at Power!” or whatever declaration the current contest required. Had it been a caller from Power, the grocery chain owned by Loblaws, a hamper of food would come our way. We never won.

Sometimes when we went to make a telephone call we were unable to do so; the phone was in use.  Like many people, we had a party line; that is we shared the line with another residence. If you were fortunate, your party line partner rarely used the device. We always seemed to share it with long-winded gossip-mongers. At least it allowed us to hear some interesting tidbits from time to time but regrettably it was about people we didn’t know. In the event of an emergency being declared, there was a law in force requiring the other party to immediately hang up. I believe the definition of emergency was in dispute.

If we really had an urgent need to make a phone call, we could simply have gone to a pay phone; there were certainly enough of them, 27,000 of them in Ontario, with the majority being in Toronto. They were everywhere; banks of them on service station lots, several in front of banks, some inside grocery and drug stores and more on the fringes of parks.

Being a child, I couldn’t resist entering every phone booth that I passed in the unlikely chance that someone left a dime behind in the coin return. I found one once in a booth on the Shell service station lot at Glen Manor Drive and I returned to it regularly like a cat returning to the scene of a successful hunt. I think that after all my years of phone booth fishing I am up 40 cents. Better than the lottery!

Starting at a very early age, all kids were instructed to memorize their phone numbers. Ours was GRover 5572.  That’s right; six digits.  It wasn’t till 1955 that our number changed to seven digits, OXford 4-****.  The area code (416) was introduced in 1947 but we didn’t pay any attention to it; most other regions of the country didn’t have one and very few long distance calls were made anyway because of the cost.

Of course like everyone else we played the game. If one of our family members was going on a long trip and wanted everyone to know that he had arrived safely at his destination, he would place a person to person long distance call to a pre-arranged fictitious person. When the operator asked to speak to that individual, she was told that he or she was out. Thus, the call was not completed, there was no long distance charge but we all were relieved to hear that all was well. So was the operator.

A 1950’s telephone was a telephone. And that is all that it was. If you wanted to take a photograph, you used a camera and if you wanted to take a picture indoors, you used a camera with an attachment into which was inserted a miniature light bulb which emitted a brief but very intense light when the shutter was clicked. You would then enter a very dark room, remove the film, and take it to a variety store or a drug store and kaboom, just like magic, in six or seven days your prints would arrive and, by then, the people you took the pictures of had recovered their eyesight.

One would think that discovering that a telephone call could not be made because the line was in use by the party line partner or having been blinded by a flash bulb would result in some inappropriate language. The fact is that, other than the occasional hell or damn, I can’t recall ever hearing my parents swearing. I don’t remember hearing anyone else swearing either. And I don’t remember my friends and I swearing although I am sure that we must have passed through a cussing stage at one time or another. But I’ll be damned if I remember it.

Maybe it was like spitting. At one time we boys got into a spitting phase a la baseball players. My mother saw me do it once and asked if all the other boys were doing the same. When I answered in the affirmative, she told me that that was fine with her but that it looked really stupid. I never spat again.

And that reminds me of my favourite expression emanating from my grandmother, my mother’s mother; “I’m so mad that I could spit!”  Beautiful.

A great number of people were so mad that they could spit in the Fifties for a variety of reasons, most of them being the result of an unimaginable collection of rules, laws and ordinances known as the Toronto Blue Laws and the Canadian Lord’s Day Act of 1906 which essentially outlawed having a good time.

On Sundays, in Toronto, it was against the law to work, to sell anything, to conduct any musical or paid performances of any kind, to hold any sports, games or races at which a fee was charged, to allow pleasure excursions by boat or rail, to hunt, shoot, fish or bathe in any public place, or to gamble, drink or swear. Other than that, go ahead and enjoy yourselves. Up until 1950, even playground equipment was chained and padlocked on Sundays.

On one Saturday night in Toronto in 1951, a playoff hockey game between the Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins was suspended after the first scoreless overtime period; midnight was approaching and they were not allowed to continue play beyond that time. I believe that a large contingent of fans leaving Maple Leaf Gardens that evening was seen to be spitting.

All bars and cocktail lounges were closed on Sundays, and restaurants that were licensed to serve alcohol could not do so on that day.

These facts were of no consequence in the Beach; there were no bars, lounges or licensed restaurants. The Beach was “dry” which sounds like a contradiction in terms. Those who ventured out of the area on the other days of the week were not allowed to drop into a licensed restaurant for a drink; they were required to eat as well.  However, most restaurants skirted this law by serving drinks accompanied by a plate of buttered bread: the meal. No one actually touched the bread; it had been travelling around the premises, from table to table all day.

In 1947, a law was passed allowing the serving of mixed drinks (cocktails) in establishments; previously, only wine and beer were dispensed. But throughout the Fifties the cocktail lounges and taverns (beer parlours in Fifties-speak) struggled with a multitude of strange rules and regulations, one of which was clearly misogynistic. Each of these establishments had two entrances, one for “MEN” and the other for “LADIES AND ESCORTS”. Unaccompanied women were not permitted.

Once inside, you were not allowed to remain standing. You could not stand at the bar nor could you stand anywhere with a drink in your hand. If you wished to change tables, it was necessary to ask a waiter to carry your drink to the new location. And you could only have one drink in front of you at a time which was made worse by the edict that beer could not be served in bottles but rather in miniscule glasses only.

It’s no wonder that my parents didn’t go out very often. I think that they were quite typical of the era; they did not drink at all during the week, but enjoyed a few drinks over the weekends. My father was primarily a beer drinker while my mother preferred Gilbey’s gin mixed with Canada Dry’s Lime Rickey.  I liked it too; periodically I was allowed a small sip.

They weren’t big drinkers by any means but they did enjoy holding parties and going to them at which times I am sure that occasionally they had more than they would care to admit. But I can’t say that I ever saw them inebriated. And economically it made more sense for them to confine what limited drinking that they did to the comfort of home. All they had to do was make brief trips to the liquor and beer stores.

But first my dad had to pay $2 per year. That was the cost of his Individual Liquor Permit which he received after an employee of the Liquor Control Board had determined that he was of good moral character. This permit which was in the form of a book about the same size as a passport, contained his name, address, marital status, occupation and name and address of his employer, and in it were recorded the dates and quantities of his purchases. He would present his permit at each visit and it would first be reviewed to ensure that he wasn’t drinking too much or imperiling his financial wellbeing and only then would the latest purchases be entered.

There was a liquor store in the Beach. This is surprising considering that the area was designated as being “dry” but perhaps it is because it was barely in the Beach; it was on the southeast corner of Queen and Woodbine Avenue. It is also surprising because there were only 24 liquor stores in all of Toronto in 1955. And if you wanted to design the most boring, dull and non-inspirational shopping experience possible, I suggest that you look at the liquor stores of the 1950s for guidance.

A bare colourless room with charts on the wall listing brands, sizes and prices, a few chest-high writing desks with pads of order forms and boxes of pencils strewn on them. That’s it. Fill out the form, present it with your permit and payment to a clerk and he would disappear through a self-closing door and then, a short time later, reappear with your purchase already safely hidden in the bowels of a brown paper bag. You would then slip surreptitiously out the exit onto Queen Street, hopefully unseen.

The beer stores were not any better. There were 27 of them with the closest one to our apartment being on Queen near Pape Avenue. Again a plain room with no product or even pictures of product in view.

There were those who preached that if large quantities of alcoholic beverages were displayed, crazed mayhem would ensue; it would get very ugly, very fast! Of course none of these restrictive rules and laws had a direct effect on me but I do remember numerous conversations about them being held in my presence. And, as a consequence, I became aware at an early age that there were individuals, groups, and institutions that believed that they knew what was best for everyone else and that it was necessary to continually push back and resist them.

In 1957, there appeared a glimmer of hope that the Blue Laws were under assault when a book that had been temporarily banned was allowed to enter the country. This was Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.

Its tortured characters and relatively graphic descriptions of sex became a major conversation piece. It found its way into our home but I was definitely not allowed to read it.

It was hoped that the arrival of Peyton Place would signal the first chink in the puritanical armour. Alas, the liberalization cause was somewhat set back by the death of Ms. Metalious at the age of 39 from…. cirrhosis of the liver.

You may have noticed that I have not really mentioned the subject of wine. I honestly can’t recall seeing a bottle of wine in our home. I don’t remember seeing wine or hearing anyone discussing wine at social gatherings which I attended.

In fact, wine sales in Ontario in the 1950s represented less than five per cent of the total value of all alcoholic products sold. By 2018, it was over 31 per cent. So, simply stated, wine was not widely consumed with or without meals in those years.

But, then again, what wine would you consider appropriate and choose to serve with unspiced ground beef patties fried in oil, boiled cabbage and cream corn? I would suggest something fortified; something highly fortified.

To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Five, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Six, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/


Did you enjoy this article? If so, you may consider becoming a Voluntary Subscriber to the Beach Metro Community News and help us continue providing the community with more local content such as this. For over 40 years, our staff have worked hard to be the eyes and ears in your community, inform you of upcoming events, and let you know what and who’s making a difference. We cover the big stories as well as the little things that often matter the most. CLICK HERE to support Beach Metro News.