By Vanessa Greco
Jack Newman, founder of the Imperial Pub and a community advocate, died last week. He was 93 years old.
For more than six decades, his pub lured Ryerson students to Dundas Street, and that’s what Newman had in mind when he built a small library on the bar’s upper floor. His rationale: students could say they were going to the library when they ventured down the street for drinks.
The iconic pub also became a symbol in the fight to preserve the old-city charm in the modernizing downtown core. When the City tried to take over the land and redevelop it in the late 1990s, Newman successfully fought the attempt. He also preserved two of the few remaining jazz jukeboxes in Toronto inside his bar.
“My father was a people person. He gave me business advice every day for 41 years — up to and including two weeks ago,” says his son Fred, 62, who began working with his father in 1967, and currently owns and manages the bar with his own son, Ricky.
Jack, born Israel Newman on Niagara Street in Toronto on Apr. 14, 1914, greatly admired his father Sam — also an entrepreneur.
In 1944, Sam heard the Imperial Hotel was on the market and asked his 30-year-old son how he’d feel about owning a bar. Newman was hesitant at first, but after only one visit, he became enamoured with the Imperial.
“He’d had other businesses, but he came into his own here,” says Ricky. “This was Jack’s place right from the beginning.”
In the 1950s Newman installed the pub’s pi`ce de résistance: two Seeburg Entertainer jukeboxes, one for the aquarium bar, the other for the library bar upstairs. He stocked them with thousands of jazz classics on original 45s. Newman handpicked every single record — Billy Holiday, Fats Waller, Glen Gray — and cleaned each one regularly.
But much as he was known for preserving the old ways in the vinyl records he kept in the pub, his biggest challenge involved saving the historic Imperial.
In 1996, the city was making room for Toronto Life Square, a retail and entertainment complex on the north-east corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets.
The Imperial Pub faced expropriation as the city began uprooting local businesses to accommodate the redevelopment.
Newman backed a petition that earned thousands of signatures from bar patrons and locals. He won, convincing council to limit the re-development to the intersection. But you’d never hear any of this from Newman.
“Being as humble as he was, he never told those kinds of stories about himself,” said his grandson Michael Israel while manning the pub’s taps.
But while his business was important, the major theme of Newman’s life would always be family. He had three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Every morning he would serenade his wife Dorothy with Frank Sinatra’s “I Love You.” Newman was a notorious charmer, always tipping his hat for female passersby.
Sharla Thompson, who has been bartending at the Imperial for 24 years, recalls how Jack always stood to the side of a stairwell in order to let women pass in front of him. Lillian Stevenson, 77, has been a regular for over 50 years and says she’d be lost without the Imperial.
“I come here to talk and be amongst friends,” she says pointing and naming nearly everyone in the room. “Jack was my friend. And this place? Well, it’s like a second-home.”