Saturday, September 26, 2015

Four down in the Niagara Restaurant business

I don't often write about dining out and restaurants in this space, which I probably should since my wife and I have frequented more than a few over the years.  So this weekend, as the Niagara Wine Festival reaches its climax and everyone is out and about and enjoying themselves, I'll bring the mood down a bit with news of the passing of four local eateries of note.

Let me state first of all it is well known running a restaurant in this day and age is not easy.  Many of our favourites are owned by large corporate entities and the individual, locally-owned success story sometimes appears harder to come by.  When locals discover a locally-owned establishment they tend to want to keep it to themselves and not let the secret out.

One local restaurant that has experienced tremendous success over the years at several ever-larger locations is Cafe Amore, now on Martindale at Erion.  Previous locations were closer to the heart of the city and possessed a more urban, almost bohemian feel to them.  Owners Al and Nadia Sawatsky have been good friends of ours for years and they continually reinvent themselves in order to make their restaurant an absolute must-try on a regular basis.

In my bachelor days I tended to frequent Cafe Amore almost weekly as well as a couple of other so-called "family" restaurants in Niagara I was fond of, usually trying to keep my dinner tab down to $15 or so each time.  Yes I know, the last of the big spenders...

My wife, however, comes from a family deeply entrenched in the restaurant trade and she herself served for many years in what she refers to as "fine dining" establishments throughout the Niagara area.  So it came as no surprise when we started dating, some of my restaurant choices needed serious upgrading.  They did, and I will be the first to admit I have experienced so much more since we met than before, and my palette has grown as a result.

Be that as it may, I still enjoy what I call "slumming" on occasion if I happen to be out on my own and in need of some familiar fare from some trusted restauranteurs in the Region.  They say you can't go home again, but they never said anything about not going back to your favourite hangouts on occasion.  Besides, I have forged tremendous relationships with the owners of some of my favourite hangouts, and that means a lot to me even to this day.

Now, the four restaurants I wanted to touch on in this space all had their specific clientele, and all but one of them included me as a regular customer.  The one that didn't was Nini Panini on St. Paul Street, next to one of my wife's favourite hangouts, the Carlisle Cafe.  Not knocking Nini Panini; I just never got the chance to stop in while they were open.

But passing by this week while walking downtown, I noticed the windows papered over and thought that must be rather recent.  The next time I walked by later in the week, I noticed a sign in the window indicating it will reopen shortly as a new pizza destination.  No idea when, though.

Nini Panini, Carlisle Cafe and the newly-relocated Dani's Bistro all share space in that block overshadowed by the venerable Leonard Hotel, right across the street from the soon-to-be-open FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Savvy restauranteurs know location is everything, and getting in on the ground floor of the old Leonard Hotel right across the street from where lots of people will be attending concerts and things on a regular basis seemed like a good idea.

It still does.  Sadly, though, Nini Panini didn't make it to the arts ball.  Just why it closed I can only guess, but at least it will reopen under a new name shortly, so the space will not be empty.

About a month ago the owners of Frado's Dining Lounge on Queenston Street at the Homer Bridge also closed for good, having been open at the busy location since the 60s.  Business was still good and the view of the Welland Canal is still amazing, but the owners were tired and ready to pack it in, so a sale to new owners was arranged and a new eating establishment will presumably open in the old Frado's location in the future.

I only made it to Frado's once, but it was certainly enjoyable.  If I remember correctly I ordered a sampler plate of their most popular pasta dishes, and the food was exceptional.  They were not cheap, but the quality was very good and I loved sitting there watching the occasional traffic on the Welland Canal.

Next on the list is the venerable Dom's Resto-Bar and Grill on Academy at King, right beside the bus terminal.  Dom's had been a mainstay of downtown St. Catharines for about eight years now, after moving from a previous location on Schmon Parkway.

The building where Dom's was located, of course, is the old Yorkshire House location, much in need of repair before owner Heather Fasulo took over years ago and made a going concern.  Heather worked tirelessly seven days a week, as many in the restaurant trade often do, to make a go of it in the historic downtown location, but the end has come.

I ran in to Heather a couple of weekends ago and asked about the For Sale/Lease sign on the building, asking if she was indeed still open for business.  No came the answer, with Heather explaining she ultimately couldn't make a go of it.  So Dom's served their last pasta dish about midway through the summer.

I loved Dom's both for the food and the atmosphere, both of which were in abundance when Heather ran the place.  There is no more warm-hearted, good-natured individual in the business than Heather, and her presence in the downtown core will be sorely missed.

Of course, margins are thin in the food business and everyone wants a deal, but Dom's just seemed to rise above the rest with their quality and service for so many years, it's hard to imagine not going there in the future.

I hope Heather finds a new gig somewhere.  She knows the business inside out and always had a large and loyal following at Dom's.

The final restaurant to close recently was the venerable Regal Diner on Main Street in Niagara Falls.  A local institution since about the 40s, Angela Peebles and husband Simon purchased the restaurant a few years ago after driving to Ontario from B.C. with their own food truck.  Settling down in a bricks-and-mortar location made sense to the couple, and picking up the Regal Diner just seemed to be the right move at the right time.

I got to know Ang through social media when I was in the radio business years ago, and when I finally visited the restaurant after several months of conversing on Twitter and Facebook, Ang immediately knew who I was.  I was more than a little taken aback by this.

But I soon realized what others in the busy Main & Ferry business district knew:  the Regal Diner was your go-to place for breakfast or lunch of exceptional quality.  The menu was not large, but filled with great items with a healthy helping of attitude.

The location is small - well, tiny, really - and can not seat really all that many at one time compared to more familiar breakfast and lunch establishments.  But the diner developed a loyal following over the years, both for the food and Ang's politically-skewed social media posts.  She was nothing if not interesting!

Over the years we learned about her garden woes, the so-called "diner orphans" and long-suffering Simon toiling away in the cramped kitchen quarters at the diner.  We also learned about another problem when you own a local restaurant:  people who pretend to be a customer, requesting a menu and then excusing themselves to use the washroom, mysteriously disappearing out the door without ordering.  Yes, people actually do this sort of thing.

If I am in need of a washroom while out and about, I usually find a Tim Hortons and make sure I give them some business before leaving.  Not doing so is an abuse of the privilege in my view.   But I digress...

Last month, Ang posted they have had enough of the long days and constant work and are preparing to return to B.C.  The restaurant would close September 24th, with what she called a "Grand Closing Party" during the annual Niagara Night of Art.  The Regal Diner had always been an integral part of the Night of Art in the past, so Ang figured why not go out on a high note and throw a party to celebrate all they have achieved in Niagara Falls with the restaurant and as citizens.

People who know Angela Peebles will not be the least bit surprised by this fact.  Go big or go home seems to be their motto, and Ang and Simon plan to do both.

I stopped by for lunch one last time on Wednesday afternoon, prior to an appointment I had in Niagara Falls, and enjoyed my time at the old hangout.  The food as always was excellent and eminently affordable.

I'll miss the old place, not that I got there all that often, really, but it always seemed to be your go-to place if you wanted exceptional quality on a budget and/or you were short on time.

Today they held a garage sale at the restaurant to sell off the tools of their trade, and then they are off to B.C. and to new adventures.  Lots of people including myself will miss them and their dedication to the community.

Safe trip home, Ang and Simon, and thanks for the memories.  Oh and the amazing burgers, too.

Enjoy your weekend!

September 26th, 2015.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Opening of Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts redefines downtown St. Catharines

There were several adjectives and phrases used to describe the new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, which opened to the pubic at a gala event yesterday afternoon and evening:  cool,  amazing, transformative, and my personal favourite, mind equals blown.

Yes the new facility, not to be confused with the still-to-open FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre next door, is impressive any way you look at it or choose to describe it.  So in this space this weekend, my own personal thoughts and impressions after attending the opening yesterday and taking the afternoon tour.

Although I have heard the odd student worry about being disconnected physically from the rest of the Brock campus up on the hill, the new purpose designed arts facility gives them so much more than they ever had up there, as will become more apparent the longer the new facility is in full use as it now is.

Here are the numbers that tell the tale:  95,000 square feet of education space; 500 students learning from 50 full-time faculty members, part-time instructors and staff;  $26.1 million investment from the Ontario government along with countless corporate and private donations; a $45.5 million facility that came in on time and on budget.

To say this is a modern miracle might be overstating things a bit, but there is no doubt a lot of hard work, dedication and devotion went in to seeing this dream become a reality.  The speeches delivered at the opening yesterday cite all these attributes and more brought to the table by so many individuals and groups connected to the project.

The vision of former Dean of Humanities Rosemary Drage-Hale and her colleagues was taken up by then-new Brock President Jack Lightstone in 2008, who also believed the vision should and would be part of a larger picture, the revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.  Brock in downtown St. Catharines was not a new concept; after all, the first offices for the fledgling university were in fact located in central St. Catharines back in 1964 when the dream for a university in Niagara became a reality.

But becoming part of the fabric of downtown St. Catharines took more than vision.  Investors were needed, both public and private, and St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, named by Jack Lightstone yesterday as the "Minister of Brock", took up the cause at Queen's Park culminating in securing the $26.1 million in government funding needed to get the ball rolling.

When Marilyn and Norris Walker, both long known for their philanthropy in St. Catharines and Marilyn's love and pursuit of excellence in art, stepped up and made the astounding $15 million donation to help fund the new facility, Jack Lightstone said yesterday everyone connected with the vision knew they simply had to succeed in this.  Failure was simply not an option.

The acquiring of the former Canada Hair Cloth building, an icon of local manufacturing lore dating back to the late 1800s, proved to be the perfect option for bringing the new arts school into the downtown core.  Former Mayor Brian McMullan and the council of the day worked to make the building and surrounding land available to Brock in order to move the project forward.

From there the vision grew, with the decision to hire renowned Toronto firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, also the designers of the neighbouring FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, signalling the project would not fail.

And indeed, it did not fail.

Early on, it was decided the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts would be closely aligned both physically and artistically with the new Performing Arts Centre.  The arts school would be able to take advantage of the performance spaces available next door during the day when they would be vacant.  Being located beside each other, students could travel between the two venues as needed during classes with little effort.  This cooperation with the city-owned facility was necessary for both, saving each venue millions of dollars and needless duplication.

So touring the new arts school yesterday, you cannot help but be excited by what you see.  The blending of old and new, traditional and contemporary is evident throughout the facility.  The bright white walls, wood or concrete floors and tall windows all combine to bring yesterday and today together in perfect harmony.

It is evident nothing was left out in the pursuit of the perfect space for learning in the 21st century, with the departments of Dramatic Arts, Visual Arts, Music and the Centre for Studies in Arts and Culture all finding their home here in downtown St. Catharines.  Each floor has ample space devoted to each department, a far cry from the cramped quarters endured up the hill for so many years.

I particularly enjoyed touring the lower level with the myriad of soundproof music studios and labs available for students to learn in, and the compact but well-designed DART theatre, used last evening for the cabaret show running through to 11 pm.

On the 4th floor you find ample space for the Visual Arts department, each room bright and airy with a blend of the old and the new.

The spacious and bright lobby, located on the south side of the building facing McGuire Street houses the latest creation by Marilyn I. Walker herself, a mammoth nine-foot tall handmade quilt.  The Tree of Learning incorporates uncommon fabrics and techniques from textile and fibre art to depict a dream about learning that floats between reality and fantasy.  It is spectacular, and holds pride of place along the main corridor.

There are events planned all weekend long to celebrate the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts coming downtown, and if you have not already done so you should take advantage of the opportunity while you can.  It is a vision fulfilled, and another part of the revitalization of downtown St. Catharines.

Seems Marilyn is a downtown gal after all...welcome home!

September 19th, 2015.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

It's time for my annual rant about cell phones

Okay, I admit I have written about this before, and likely will again in the future, but the fascination many have with their cell phones has me worried about society as we know it.  So let me get this rant off my chest so I can get on to other, more important topics in this space in the coming weeks and months.

The Pew Research Centre released survey results a couple of weeks ago on cell phone etiquette and what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and frankly, I am appalled at the results.  The Pew folks surveyed 3,200 American adults, most of whom not surprisingly had cell phones.  It would have been interesting to see how the results might have been skewed somewhat by including younger adults into the survey mix, but we can only surmise on that count, unfortunately.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who walks about 77% of respondents think it is okay to use their cell phones while walking down the street.  Most often they are texting, and oftentimes bumping into other people, telephone poles or even falling into wading pools.  Don't laugh, it happens.

About 75% of respondents feel it is okay to use their cellphone while riding on public transportation. Well of course, why do you think wi-fi hotspots are popping up at major transportation hubs now as well as on buses and trains?  Because people feel they have to be connected at all times.  I can live with people texting while on public transportation; what I take issue with is people having loud conversations or worse, arguments on their phones while riding said transportation.

Same goes for waiting in line, of which 74% of respondents feel is okay.  Everyone seems to do it, but does that make it right?  I know people want to maximize their time, but really, the entire time you're in a line up?  Not necessary.  If the line up is at the bank, it is even worse.  I think the height of rudeness while I worked in banking last year was people talking on their cell phones while I am trying to professionally serve them at the branch.

Now here is where the results become more interesting:  about 62% feel using their cell phones at a restaurant is wrong, which means 38% think it isn't rude, it is acceptable.  Sorry, it is rude, plain and simple.  I have excused myself from the table to deal with an important call maybe once in my life; the rest of the time it can wait until after I have enjoyed the meal I am paying good money for with the good company I am keeping at that particular moment.

Want more?  According to Pew Research, 88% of respondents agree using their phone at a family dinner is wrong, and thankfully 94% agree it is wrong to use their phones at a meeting.  Similarly, 95% think it is wrong to use their phones at a movie theatre or other quiet public place and 96% feel using your phone at a church or worship service is wrong.

Good for them.  But I must be hanging around the other 5 or 6 percent in these instances, because I always seem to see people with their faces buried in their phones at concerts, live theatre events and even at church.

So what do these numbers tell us?  For the most part, I think they suggest an addiction, plain and simple.  We can't put the darn things down.  Almost weekly for example, I spy people texting or otherwise engaged on their phones during the homily at mass at my church.  What did we do before cell phones came along, sleep?  Probably yes if the speaker was boring.

So how do you explain sitting in the audience at a live theatre event?  In all likelihood you spent good money to sit there in the first place; wouldn't you want to actually see what you paid for?

This year while attending shows at the Shaw Festival, I found things are getting worse than ever.  Prior to You Never Can Tell at the small Royal George Theatre back in June, I noticed a middle-aged couple at the other end of our row, he on his tablet and her on the phone, each texting people while the house lights went down and the curtain went up.  I mean, for at least a minute after the play started.  All that time, they never spoke a word to each other.  At intermission, the same thing.  The entire time, each one texting on their device, oblivious to the life partner sitting next to them.

At just about any other show I attended this season, people would hold off shutting off their phones until the very last second, and the moment the intermission starts, the phones are out again and they are reconnecting to the outside world.

Do we need to be that connected all the time?  What did we do in the days you had to wait for the payphone in the lobby to be free before you could check on whatever?  We survived, that's what we did.  We also more than likely paid attention to the play and the people around us.

It astounds me how many times I see people at a table sharing a meal, and each one is glued to their phones.  Just recently, I sat next to a grandmother and her 14-year-old granddaughter sharing afternoon tea and conversing, yet the entire time the young lady had the phone in front of her face, constantly checking on whatever.

If I were the grandmother in that instance I would not have been so polite and let it continue, but perhaps she is wise enough to know you can't stop it, so you might as well put up with it.  I am not at that stage yet, nor will I ever likely be.

If I am out with someone, I never check my phone unless I have excused myself to use the washroom first, and then only quickly before returning to the table.  But most often, the text I received or phone message was not urgent, not requiring my attention at all at that particular moment.

While in the theatre the phone is either shut off entirely or on mute, which should be sufficient.  Yet I constantly hear phones ringing while at the theatre, even after the obligatory "Please turn off your cellphones" message is broadcast in the theatre prior to the performance beginning.

Theatres are now even trying more clever ways to get the message across, making it almost part of the performance sometimes, which is lost on that person who has their face buried in their phone and isn't paying attention anyways.

I can understand paying a little more attention to it while alone, but still, you don't have to become a slave to technology.  Just last evening I was out for my after-dinner walk and I encountered a middle-aged gentleman walking his dog, all the while staring at his phone.  He never once looked up to see if there might be some danger up ahead both he and his dog might want to know about.  I suspect the dog was paying attention to the walk more than he was, although even on that count the dog seemed rather bored by the slumbering pace of the walk.

Here's my problem with cell phones:  although it is nice to be constantly connected to your friends and family, it is wise and I would suggest healthy to not be constantly connected.  One of the reasons I walk several times a day is so I can get away from the computer and other technology and marvel at the lovely day, the flowers blooming in the neighbour's garden or the cat that happens to cross my path.

You should take that break so you can experience life around you.  And no, I am not suggesting you should take a picture with the phone of something happening in front of you all the time.  That is the worst possible situation to be in, as you are capturing a picture of life rather than experiencing it first-hand.

Selfies?  Don't need them.  I know I was there and might even take a picture of something I saw, but validating my being there by snapping a selfie just seems a waste of time to me.  Good for you, you took a picture of yourself in front of that elephant at the zoo.  Do you remember anything else about the event other than the fact you posted a picture moments after you took it, and you are in the picture?  Probably not.

Let's at least try putting the phone down and start living life rather than recording it.  We'll all be the better for it.

End of rant.

September 16th, 2015.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shaw Festival looks to the future

I promised a couple of weeks ago I would update news on the Shaw Festival, as there is plenty to report, so this weekend let's look at what the future holds for our venerable theatrical institution.

First off, let's recap the 2015 season, as there is still plenty of great theatre still to go in Niagara-on-the-Lake before the season ends November 1st.  Most of the action for the rest of the season takes place at the Festival, Royal George and Studio theatres, as the 2015 season at the Court House Theatre ends this weekend.

Ibsen's The Lady From the Sea wraps up tomorrow afternoon at the Court House, and Top Girls and The Twelve-Pound Look both wrapped up today.  Of the three, I saw Top Girls and although it was very much an acquired taste, it was well worth seeing this season at the Court House Theatre.

At the Royal George, the big show is Rick Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which closes out the Shaw season this year on November 1st.  Shaw's You Never Can Tell wraps up October 25th and The Divine, a contemporary Canadian play looking at the life of Sarah Bernhardt, continues until October 11th.  The Divine is by Michel Marc Bouchard, translated by Linda Gaboriau.  Of the three, I caught Shaw's You Never Can Tell, which is probably the most light-hearted version of the play we've seen in many years.  Director Jim Mezon scored a major triumph, though, and it is well worth seeing.

On the Festival stage, the big musical this year is Sweet Charity, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon.  Not their best musical, I've heard, but certainly garnering lots of attention all the same.  Sweet Charity runs until October 31st.  Shaw's Pygmalion is the big show at the Festival Theatre this year, a very contemporary take on the classic story directed by Peter Hinton.  It runs through to October 24th.  And Moss Hart's comedy Light Up the Sky, a broadway play about the opening of a Broadway play, continues until October 11th.  I saw Light Up the Sky and it is funny and very well acted for the most part, but it really is dated, and not one I'd recommend with such a wealth of other great choices still available.

Last month, the Shaw announced their replacement for outgoing Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, who steps down at the end of next season.  Artistic Director Designate Tim Carroll will work alongside Jackie Maxwell during the 2016 season, taking over the reigns completely December 1st of next year to begin the 2017 season.

Carroll has 25 years of experience in theatre, beginning his career with the English Shakespeare Company in 1990 before becoming the Associate Director of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter.  Over the years, he has also been Associate Director with Kent Opera, producing acclaimed productions of Britten's The Prodigal Son and Handel's Acis and Galatea.  While Associate Director of Shakespeare's Globe in London, his productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III were very popular, making it all the way to Broadway.

Tim Carroll is no stranger to Canadian stages, either, as he has directed several productions at the Stratford Festival, including most recently King John.  This fall, he will direct Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre back in London.

This will be an exciting new chapter for the Shaw Festival, which has flourished and grown over the past 14 years with Jackie Maxwell at the helm, taking the Festival in different directions after replacing long time Artistic Director Christopher Newton, and Carroll will no doubt do the same in the coming years.

In the more immediate future we have Maxwell's final season starting next spring, and it promises to be another interesting summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The Shaw's 55th season includes 10 diverse productions including works from the Shaw mandate period, as well as contemporary takes on Shaw classics and the world premieres of two commissioned works.

At the Festival Theatre, director Peter Hinton returns to direct a world premiere of a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, commissioned by the Shaw Festival.  Hinton also did the stage adaptation of the musical by Allen Cole.  Oscar Wilde's 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance will be directed by Eda Holmes; this is the first time the play has appeared at Shaw since 2000.  Jackie Maxwell directs the big musical on the big stage next season, and it promises to be one of the more interesting offerings:  the musical thriller Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler.

Over a the Court House Theatre, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which last appeared at the Festival in 1999, will be directed by Jackie Maxwell.  The play was originally produced in 1898, but this will be a new version of the play, although further details are still pending on that aspect.  One of my favourite Shaw plays, Mrs. Warren's Profession, last seen at the Festival in 2008 will return to the Court House next year as well.  The play dates from 1893, although the first production was not until 1902.  Finally at the Court House Theatre, the Festival premiere of "Master Harold"...and the Boys by Athol Fugard, first produced in 1982, will be directed by Philip Akin.

The Royal George Theatre hosts the second Festival premiere next season, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama from 1938, Our Town.  This classic slice of Americana will be directed by Molly Smith, who last directed at Shaw in 2011 when she handled My Fair Lady.  Also at the Royal George, another Festival premiere will see Morris Panych direct Engaged:  An Entirely Original Farcical Comedy in Three Acts by W. S. Gilbert.  Yes, that Gilbert, before Sullivan, circa 1877.  Finally, the world premiere of The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from a short story by Bernard Shaw, will be the Lunchtime show next season.  Directed by Ravi Jain, it is another Shaw Festival commission.

The Studio Theatre will see the Festival premiere of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death in a new version by Richard Greenberg.  Originally produced in 2001, this Festival production will be directed by the one and only Martha Henry.

Tickets for the 2016 season will go on sale this winter, but you can still catch plenty of great theatre for the remainder of this season by calling the Shaw box office at 905-468-2172 or by going to

Enjoy the weekend!

September 12th, 2015.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Touring around Merritton on Labour Day weekend

I've been continuing my travels around the city and region the last few weeks, and the past two Saturday afternoons I have been spending time in Merritton, a friendly, working-class area in St. Catharines that is enjoying a bit of a building boom the last few years.

The first thing I wanted to find out is just where the boundary lines are for Merritton, as it seemed to me to be quite a bit larger than we realize when we're thinking of Merritton.  I contacted my former radio colleague Rod Mawhood, a life-long Merritton resident and inveterate booster of the community, and he simply said it is HUGE.  He added our downtown St. Catharines home might even be part of Merritton.

That piqued my interest, of course, so I consulted the website for the lowdown on just where the boundaries lie, and indeed the area is larger than you think.  They include Jacobson Avenue, Highway 406 and Geneva Street in the west; QEW and Eastchester Avenue in the north; the Welland Canal and Glendale Avenue in the east and St. David's Road in the south.  So yes, a lot of area is covered, but no, Rod, I don't quite live in Merritton.

So armed with that information I ventured into the heart of Merritton, the Merritt Street area most people think of when they think of Merritton, parked the car and started walking.  I quickly discovered even though Merritton amalgamated with St. Catharines in 1961, it still maintains its own identity over 50 years later.

Walking the side-streets here, you don't see large, palatial residences but rather, ordinary homes housing ordinary people, many of whom do extraordinary things in this area.  They work, play, and often promote Merritton with a down-to-earth attitude you can't help but find appealing.

There are also several churches in the heart of Merritton representing many denominations, including St. Patrick's Roman Catholic, St. Andrew's Anglican, and Elm Street United among others.  Each has served the community and respective congregations for many years.

Once you stop and take a look around Merritton, you can't help but notice the building boom that has been going on here for several years now.  It wasn't that long ago, really, the stone building that now houses The Keg restaurant on Glendale Avenue sat abandoned, long-ago retired as a manufacturing entity.  It was the former home of the Independent Rubber Company/Merritton Cotton Mills years ago.  When The Keg opened in that wonderfully refurbished building, it seemed to be the catalyst for a general rebirth of that part of south St. Catharines that continues to this day.

A few years later the former Lybster Mill at the corner of Merritt and Glendale was transformed from a former cotton mill to a modern boutique inn serving a clientele from far and near.  The Stone Mill Inn building dates from 1860 and was one of the pioneering cotton mills in the country in its day.

Today, the sleek and modern Stone Mill Inn, Resort & Spa sports 35 luxurious rooms and suites, nine Jacuzzi suites and two spectacular lofts that are simply breathtaking.  I toured the Inn a few years ago just after it opened, and not long afterwards my wife and I stayed in one of the rooms at the Inn, and we can tell you it is a first-rate place to stay, centrally-located for touring all over Niagara.

The Stone Mill Inn also houses the St. Catharines location of Johnny Rocco's Italian Grill, and this remains one of my wife's all-time favourite places to dine any time of year.  The Tuesday evening specials are especially affordable and more than worth the price.

These former mills were strategically situated to take advantage of one of the earlier Welland ship canals, and if you look closely just south of the Merritt/Glendale intersection, you can see the remnants of one of the old locks.  The water rushes pretty fast here, and as I stood near the stone wall you could imagine ships travelling along this very route so many years ago.

Standing at the corner of Merritt and Glendale, you notice the improvement in traffic flow due to the realignment of the intersection several years ago, making it possible to drive through the intersection much more efficiently than in the past, but really, you should do as I did, stop the car and see what there is to enjoy in the area.

Next to The Keg, for example, you'll find the busy Shops at Glendale Place, featuring a bank, restaurants and fashion boutiques like Honey's celebrating 36 years in business and happy with their relocation to Merritton a few years ago from their long-time home on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.

I visited the store last weekend and was impressed with the decor, selection and design of the shop.  Owner John and his lovely wife have made a good thing better by moving to Merritton, and they tell me the increased traffic to the new location made the move more than worthwhile.

Across the street is another large plaza housing another modern bank, a large LCBO store and a well-stocked Sobey's grocery store.

Another business in the heart of Merritton with a recent history is Mr. Coppola's Men's Hair Styling at 302 Merritt Street.  Opened in 2011 by Joe Falconi, who used to work out of the large barbering establishment at the Pen Centre, Mr. Coppola's offers everything from hair cuts, buzz cuts, head shaves and beard trims, plus what particularly interested me, the traditional hot towel straight razor shave.

I used to go to a barber in Toronto years ago who offered the service and if you have never experienced the true relaxation and luxury of this service, you owe it to yourself to try it at least once.  I hope to myself in the near future.  Just call ahead first to make an appointment.

Joe told me when I visited the busy shop yesterday he is happy with the move and loves being a part of the heart of Merritton.

Walking up and down Merritt Street reveals many places I have visited over the years when the St. Catharines Historical Museum was housed in the former Merritton Town Hall.  The Milk Maid Shoppe is still there, with a faded facade that just seems to fit the area nicely.  Nearby is a very small brick building that once housed a branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia, now home to The Life Centre Church.  The Scotiabank logo on the door pulls and words engraved in the stone above the entrance are cues to the original use of the building.

Merritton is home to two appliance dealers on opposite sides of the street, Pirie Appliances and Star Appliances, and several comfortable gathering places for drinks and fun, including Pizza Jerry's Union House and my favourite due to the name, Blind Referee.  Sadly, the Columbian restaurant El Cafetal is now closed, no longer a home to food and beverages in Merritton.

Driving over the Merritton overpass, newly reconstructed a few years ago, you also notice the very modern yet traditional-looking Merritton Fire Station, known officially as St. Catharines Fire Station No. 4.  I remember when this new facility opened not many years ago, and it is a very impressive addition to the area.

Once over the bridge I recently visited two of my favourite hangouts on the south end of Hartzell Road, Casa Leone Deli and Bakery, with a selection of breads second to none, and our local Dairy Queen location, which was hopping on a recent Friday evening when I visited.  As busy as it was, I was impressed by the very friendly and efficient service provided by my young server.

There's lots more to see and visit in this part of town, like the friendly Griffin Pub, Brewmonger, home to all your beer-making needs, and a little further up Hartzell the Chile & Agave Mexican restaurant, one of the best around.

Back at the intersection of Glendale and Merritt, the local Benjamin Moore paint store anchors a small strip plaza, where for many years I have relied on the friendly staff to guide me with my colour choices as I repaint the front porch of the house every year.

I know I am just scratching the surface here on what's worth seeing in Merritton, but if your interest is piqued, this is a good weekend to explore the area for yourself.  Tonight, for example, the Merritton Legion Labour Day Fireworks display happens at dusk.

Meantime the annual Merritton Lions Club Community Days Carnival, a staple of the Labour Day weekend happens tomorrow, tied in with the annual Labour Day Parade that starts from the Pen Centre tomorrow morning at 11.

The parade begins on Chestnut, heads down Glengarry, along Glendale, up Merritt Street and ending at Community Park.  There, events will continue all day with the beer garden, the carnival with attractions from such local supporters as Niagara Inflatables, and of course, the traditional raffle for $5,000 to be drawn Monday evening at 7 pm.

The Community Days Carnival is different this year, scaled back due to unforeseen circumstances after last year, but the day-long carnival tomorrow and the morning parade will be a fine way to spend your Labour Day in Merritton before the kids get back to school on Tuesday.

Have a great weekend!

September 6th, 2015.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Saying goodbye to an old musical friend this weekend

I have been out of radio full time for just over two years now, and although I still do some freelance work, I don't anticipate that changing anytime soon.  Too bad, as I still love the medium that gave me a career and livelihood for 40 years.  But you deal with things in the present as best you can and that is what I am doing as I currently look for new career opportunities to get me excited.

That being said, it is always fun and at the same time sad to look back on radio's glorious past and wonder at the magic of it all while the medium continues to redefine itself in the current digital age.  I'm going to look back in this column on the history of a station I have never worked for but have long admired.

CKOC 1150 in Hamilton began life in May of 1922 and was the brainchild of Herb Slack, owner of Wentworth Radio and Supply Company.  Herb, like many of his contemporaries at the time, figured he could sell more radios if he owned a radio station.  What can I say, life was simpler back then...

CKOC became only the third radio station in all of Canada that spring of 1922, and still holds the title  as the oldest continuously-operating radio station in Canada.  True, Saskatchewan's CHAB began broadcasting a week earlier than CKOC, but apparently they had an interruption in service in 1933 before reopening, so the key word in all this is "continuous".

There have been many broadcast locations over the years, beginning at the corner of King William and John Streets in Hamilton, before moving to the 11th floor of the late, lamented Royal Connaught Hotel in the downtown core, the corner of James and King Willimas Streets and later the imposing old building on Garfield Avenue near King and Sherman Avenue North.

The frequency they broadcast on changed almost as often as the physical location, including 880, 630 and 1120 kHz, before moving to its present home at 1150 back in 1941.

Most people of a certain age remember CKOC as a Top 40 music station from 1960 to 1992, when it faced the music, as it were, and changed to Oldies 1150 with the call letters CKMO.  Turns out listeners liked the music but not the call letters, so saner heads prevailed and they reverted back to CKOC the following year, and it has remained that way ever since.

Until now, actually.  At noon today the final chapter in the glorious history of CKOC will play out as the final Top 500 Countdown begins to signal a shift in programming at the venerable institution.  After this weekend, the station, owned by Bell Media, will become TSN Radio 1150 and become an all-sports station.

From what I've heard, the programming will be local in the morning and they will carry the Hamilton Tiger-Cats games as well as be the Hamilton affiliate for the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in-between they will be basically repeating the corporate network TSN feed.  So full-time local programming will be a thing of the past.

Too bad, and I know many will lament not just the loss of local programming but the loss of CKOC as a whole.  But radio, as much as many would hate to admit it, is a business, and a business needs to make money to survive.  CKOC bucked the trend for a very long time, not forsaking their musical format on radio until now, even though many others long ago gave up on broadcasting music on the AM band, including my former employer CKTB many years ago.

In radio it all comes down to numbers, as in ratings, and that translates into advertising dollars, and simply put, CKOC was not generating the numbers needed to sustain it in the present marketplace.  I know people will lament its passing, as will I, but the grim reality is you have to have the numbers to make it work.

Like it or not, CKOC simply didn't have the numbers.

So the big change happens Monday, just in time for the annual Tiger-Cats/Toronto Argonauts Labour Day tilt.  Time will tell if TSN Radio 1150 generates bigger numbers than CKOC did.  If not, who knows what the next format change will be, if any.

Radio isn't the fun business it once was.

Although I didn't have a direct connection to the station, I do have an indirect one.  Years ago when one of the sister stations in the group, CKLH-FM, changed music formats and was in need of old comedy albums by the likes of Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart and others, I was contacted by station manager Nevin Grant and a deal was struck to sell my large comedy LP collection to the station for a nice sum of money.  Later I found out the station was willing to go much higher than they actually paid, but I was happy to get rid of them and get what I could for them at the time.

So after my evening shift at CKTB one Friday night, I made the drive down to the Garfield location in Hamilton and dropped off my boxes of albums and collected my cheque before continuing my journey to Toronto for the weekend.  Back then, there was actually a live studio person overnight on one of the stations, so he knew I would be arriving about 1 in the morning or so.

That's as close as I got to being a part of CKOC's history, but at the time none of us had any idea things would change as much as they did.  Back then stations were still playing albums, for heaven's sake, and CDs were the up and coming trend.

As I write this, my former radio colleague and photographer extraordinaire Ted Yates and his former morning-show co-host Shelly Marriage are on the air until 2 pm kicking off the final countdown, with guest appearances by Nevin Grant and Roger Ashby over the course of the two-hour broadcast.  The rest of the team, past and present will carry the tunes the rest of the way until the end of the long run and the start of the new era on Monday.

I wish TSN Radio 1150 luck in the future, and I wish the past and present staff of CKOC (Classic Hits 1150) all the best.  Thanks for the memories, gang, and keep the hits coming in our collective memory banks.

Have a great weekend!

September 3rd, 2015.