An arts club for kindred spirits…

Just a few steps away from the noise, traffic, and somewhat tawdry aspects of Toronto’s Yonge Street, there exists a place where tradition and civility are still prized. The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto is located on a side street, in a lovely old historic building — an oasis from the madding crowd. And… I’m invited to lunch!

The Club was founded over 90 years ago by Augustus Bridle, for many years The Toronto Star‘s eminent art, music and drama critic, who envisioned a place for “The Gathering of the Arts.” At that time Toronto was a fairly conservative city. There wasn’t a comfortable gathering place for creative people to meet, discuss, debate and generally enjoy the company of other “kindred spirits,” as Bridle called them. Within a year of its founding, there were newspaper people, musicians, writers, entertainers and painters as charter members. All the “movers and shakers” in the arts either joined or partook of the club’s renowned hospitality.

Who came to dine? The Group of Seven met for lunch almost every day. Sir Wilfred Laurier, Noel Coward, Jascha Heifetz, Rupert Brooke, Sir John Gielgud and Arthur Rubenstein were among the prestigious guest Other famous members: composer Healey Willan, conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan, patron of the arts Floyd Chalmers, and sculptor Emanuel Hahn, who was a charter member (a retrospective of his work was on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., this summer).

In more recent times: Robertson Davies, writer/director Mavor Moore, actor Robert Christie, former Globe and Mail theatre critic Herbert Whittaker, and esteemed choral director/musician Nicholas Goldschmidt who, along with fellow member Betty Oliphant, the founder of the National Ballet School, will be a recipient this November of the Governor General’s Award for lifetime contribution to the arts. Over two dozen members have received the Order of Canada.

The Arts and Letters Club was a “must stop” for visiting artists before and after performances at the Royal Alex or Massey Hall. Imagine luncheon with Noel Coward, Walter Huston, Leopold Stokowski, or dinner alongside Sir Thomas Beecham, Paul Robeson or Ezio Pinza? If these old walls could only talk!

With an average age of 60, you might well expect to find a quiet, even sombre atmosphere with stodgy members playing cards, or ensconced in leather chairs reading… perhaps even nodding off. This perception is immediately dispelled upon entering the bar for a pre-luncheon drink. Each new arrival, whether guest or member, is warmly greeted. When drinks are delivered, instead of heading for a quiet corner, I join a group at the famous “round table” — a favorite spot of the Group of Seven — where introductions are made and newcomers are immediately included in the conversation.

Lunch in the baronial “Great Hall” with it’s lofty ceilings, its minstrel gallery and the surrounding heraldic banners (created by the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. Macdonald) could be intimidating, but at the long refectory tables the conversation is lively with lots of laughter and good natured kidding. The camaraderie is palpable and contagious. Club members may be in their 60s, even 80s, but I found more stimulating repartee here than at your ordinary cocktail party.

Touring the Club after lunch was a marvelous journey from the early 1900s to the present day, especially with my two delightful guides, Margaret McBurney and Ray Perringer. McBurney has been a member for 11 years and is an unabashed supporter. Perringer was the club archivist for 10 years and says “It was a labour of love, the subject is so intriguing.” Every room is a step back in time: A marvelous photograph of the Group of Seven; some unique sketches of Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) done by club members when he visited just a day before his real identity was uncovered; a portrait by Fred Varley of Vincent Massey — treasured reminders of Canada’s cultural and political past.

The archival material (now being catalogued) is also quite astonishing, a wealth of letters, sketches, autographs, photographs and film, and a book has been commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Club.

From the beginning, plays, exhibitions, musical evenings and lectures were held. In the early days, the Club was renowned for its high spirited “happenings.” That spirit continues with the annual, and always topical, Spring Revue — always a sell-out during its week-long run. And the annual Boar’s Head Feast is a legendary Christmas event.

Browsing through the Club’s calendar gives you a feel for the variety of activities that continue to make it vital. Mondays are Club Night where you could be entertained by a children’s choir, a Brahm’s concert, the Metro Toronto Police Chorus; the Literary Table takes place Tuesdays, when guest authors discuss their work; Wednesday is the Music Table, a theatre excursion or a movie; Thursday could be a jazz group, a trio from York University or a soloist singing Schubert; and Friday is the Painters Open Studio where member artists enjoy a day of sketching and painting.

Although The Arts and Letters Club is an association of creative individuals, it doesn’t have a hidebound philosophy as to what constitutes “the arts”. Members are an eclectic mix, from a variety of contemporary artistic pursuits: photography, commercial illustration, theatre, film and TV, design and computer graphics. The Club also welcomes people who merely have a sincere appreciation of the arts.

Women make up 40 per cent of today’s membership and this fall Margaret McBurney will be sworn in as the first female president. Many younger people are joining the ranks, a positive and encouraging sign of the Club’s future. As well, an Internet site has been created and the Club will be officially “online” this winter.

There’s a unique aura about the place and it’s clear that the aims and ideals espoused by the founder, Augustus Bridle, continue to this day. And yes, Augustus, the art of stimulating conversation and good fellowship is alive and well among the “kindred spirits” who continue to gather at the refectory tables in the Great Hall.

For more information on the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, please call (416) 597-0223.