Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Heller's Angels: Saturday, October 1 2016

Heller's Angels is an excellent documentary about Marianne Heller and her founding of the Inner City Angels. I was privileged to be invited to attend a small, private screening, here in Toronto. The producer, Jenny Baboolai, hopes that the film will be appearing in the Hot Docs Festival.

It all began in 1969, when Marianne met Doug Balmer, who was at that time Principal of the Duke of York, the first school in Toronto designated as Inner City. He was keen to have the Arts in the school, and Marianne offered to work with him to achieve that goal. She was looking for a worthwhile project to which she could devote her energies, and here it was. She embraced it wholeheartedly.   

Balmer had rescued an old streetcar from the City, and he gave it to Marianne to use as a base. Marianne, herself, paid for the Young People's Theatre to introduce the children of the Duke of York School to the magical world of theatre. Then artists in various fields were invited, and paid by Marianne, to work with the children, demonstrating their art, and encouraging the children to use their own creativity to produce art. The bus became a children’s centre where they could discover the world of Art. Parents were encouraged to become involved, and many events were created in the bus, and also in the playground on which it sat.

Marianne then approached many prominent people in Toronto to be Angels and contribute to her project. She called her new organization the Inner City Angels, in honour of those who gave generously. Marianne's many supporters included Mayor David Crombie.

Marianne extended the program to other schools in the city. She would approach them with the offer of artists to work with the pupils, paid for by her Angels. The schools willingly accepted these offers, and both the artists and the children benefited.
When Marianne pointed out to  "Honest" Ed Mirvish that empty seats in his theatres were not good for the performers, he agreed. He gave her his fullest support, and, more importantly,  gave her unsold tickets to theatre productions in his theatres in the city, including Opera and Ballet. Many bus-loads of inner city school children were ferried to shows, which were often their first introduction to these Arts. This was the beginning of No Empty Seats. Tickets were often given to parents so that they too could fill the empty seats. The recipients of the tickets were happy, and so were the theatre owners, and especially the performers: much better to play to a full house.

Marianne now called on other Theatre owners to donate empty seats. This they did willingly, and the project grew. Maryanne became friendly with Robert Swerdlow of the Global Village Theatre, and discovered that the owners of the Toronto Theatre didn’t know each other. She invited them to her home for their first meeting, where they were introduced to each other. They discovered that it was to their great advantage to be acquainted with each other. Thus began what became the Toronto Theatre Alliance.

When it was first proposed that the present-day Eaton Centre be built, Scadding House stood 150 feet away from its present location. It was the home of Henry Scadding, rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, which also stood in the way of the planned new development. Many citizens of Toronto were concerned that the church and manse would be demolished to make way for the new Centre. Their efforts saved the church, but John Bennet and Louis Shore of the Board of Education were specially interested in Scadding House. They approached Marianne to raise funds from her many Angels to have the house moved close to the Church. The developers had agreed to include it in the space for what now is Trinity Square, at the Eaton Centre. Scadding House was moved. The Inner City Angels now moved into Scadding House. In 1978, Marianne, as Executive Director of the organization, had an office there. She was instrumental in having a little theatre built under the House where shows were put on for the Inner City School children. Art programs were conducted, there was a Children’s Library, and Scadding House became a place where Inner City children could “hang out”.

The Inner City Angels is now a Charitable Foundation, and is still doing good work, promoting the arts in Toronto inner city schools. Incorporated in 1979, No Empty Seats is also still carrying on the proud tradition begun by Marianne. The Toronto Theatre Alliance is very much to the fore in the world of Toronto theatre.

1 comment:

Julie said...


Thank you for being so supportive of my Mom. I'm so glad you were able to represent the Manulife social group at the screening of the documentary. I was so impressed Jenny Baboolal's in depth look at all of the things my mother was busy doing for the Arts in Toronto while I was growing up. Hoping that the film will be shown at Hot Docs and we can round up the group from the building for a screening. Loved your write up. Thanks again for being there for my mom.