The line above, “Be it ever so humble,” could most certainly not be applied to any of the owners of the Gladstone Hotel in the past half-century. Like the overpasses that collapse to deadly effect in Québec, the poisoned water in Walkerton or the life-ending, “protein enriched” pet food sending cats and dogs to early exits across North America, the perpetual avarice of the “owners” (commercial or governments as the case may be) leave those of humble origins in graves, permanently disfigured or roaming the streets.
Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham’s lovingly crafted film serves as a timely metaphor whose message of the ravages of systemic neglect will likely fail to move those currently in power that are involved in the fine art of protecting and preserving our past when the ecological, artistic or architectural horses have long since galloped out of the barn.
The heroes/victims are, of course, the staff and residents of Queen Street’s most infamous flop house. John Steinbeck couldn’t have assembled a finer bunch. Prime amongst them is Philosopher Queen and chambermaid to the “stays,” Marilyn. The eleven-year veteran goes the extra mile for her near-destitute charges, decorating their rooms with yard-sale prints and curtains. After vacations, “I bring back my stays a little souvenir.” But as the five-year renovation gets mired in conflict amongst the principals (Michael & Ann Tippin—self-proclaimed saviours of historic properties; Jane, Margie & Christina Zeidler—artistic devotees—assisted with cash flow by the family’s architect firm), Marilyn packs up her caring and takes it elsewhere.
The film’s dramatic climax is the unexpected, security-enforced eviction of the tenants and termination of staff (February 20, 2002). The cowardly action (launched by the absent-except-for-parties Michael) incites Margie’s vow to serve and protect the helpless residents forever!
At this point, the filmmakers appropriately cue up a ballad from the bar, “Send the clowns back from the circus.”
The on-camera interviews with the Tippin/Zeidler clans are remarkable for their unrepentant candor, but lack truly probing questions. Michael eventually shows up to blame the late-night disruption on a lack of insurance, which, if anything terrible happened “would have ruined me.” Unasked question No.1: If the project was so dear to your heart, why was the insurance allowed to lapse in the first place?; Unasked question No. 2: Why should paying tenants be victimized if the “partners” can’t get along? So the real rage simmers rather than boils, letting those in authority off the hook far too easily.
A mini-portrait of Maryanne Akulick provides emotional and personal glue to the perils of long-term residents. Clearly in need of social and medical assistance, she wanders the neighbourhood streets, filling her room with anything discarded to the point that the explosion of cockroaches forces her own eviction. Watching her desperately pack up her squalid possessions should be required viewing for all government officials, city planners and landlords. But, no worries, she moves out and passes on—another “problem” solved by society’s favourite response: inertia.
Shirley Ann, the indefatigable front-desk clerk finally walks away when she realizes that with room rates tripling and so many queer people who “kiss right in front of you” holding events and managing the now “cheap, chic boutique hotel,” (the Zeidler’s own the joint; lesbian Christina oversees the permanent eviction of the previous tenants—this time it’s the broken-down boiler and total rewiring job that’s shattered the dream of a socially neutral renovation) is driven away to find work where people will understand her and vice versa.
Now the Gladstone offers travelers with “le gout” for something unique their choice of artist-decorated suites and revelers a trendy spot for avant garde fashion shows, alternative theatre, book and film festival launches (cross-reference below).
Yet when all is sung and done, seems like the closure of the Melody Bar changed the tune of “Toronto’s oldest continuously open hotel” from C&W classics to "Requiem for the Disenfranchised." JWR