Thursday, June 28, 2012

# 28 ~ Rich Little, John Diefenbaker and the Royal York's Imperial Room, Then and Now

THEN : A 1964 menu from the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel.

In recent months, I have enjoyed giving more frequent tours of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.  Opening on June 11, 1929, and replacing the old Queen's Hotel, which had enjoyed celebrity status on the same site for several decades, the Royal York has gone on to become an icon of Toronto hospitality.  What always intrigues me are the "big names" that have come and gone through the hotel.  Some have been guests, others have been on hand to film movie scenes in the hotel, while more still have played the Imperial Room, which served for sixty years as one of the top hot spots for night club acts across Canada.

The man who made the Imperial Room famous as a nightclub was Canadian band leader Moxie Whitney.  Moxie Whitney and his orchestra played the Imperial Room on a regular basis for a quarter of a century, from 1948 until 1972.  The only hiatus to the orchestra's regular appearances came over a twelve month period between 1960 and 1961.  Don't feel too bad for Whitney and his orchestra though - during this dry spell they played the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.

NOW : The entrance to the Imperial Room today.

NOW : The night club days may be gone, but the Imperial Room is still an impressive event venue.

Forty years ago, if you were a star in Canada, or wanted to be, you wanted to make a good impression on Moxie Whitney.  He was put in charge of booking all the talent in the grand palace hotels that Canadian Pacific operated across Canada.  Anne Murray, Doug Henning, and Rich Little all got their start under the patronage of Moxie Whitney.  Times were changing, though, and by the early 1970s, television had been eroding live entertainment in Canada and around the world for twenty years.  The first big spike in television purchases in Canada came in 1953, when it was announced that the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II would be broadcast across the airwaves.  Live event venues and movie theatres suffered from declining attendance from that point forward.  Any gimmick to draw audiences back into night clubs and theatres was given a shot, but the writing was on the wall.  With the changing times, Canadian Pacific and Moxie Whitney could not hammer out a new contract, and their long association came to an end.  The Imperial Room would carry on as a night club until about 1990, and although it continued to bill big acts, its time as Canada's hottest night club eventually came to an end.

NOW : The star on the door of the Green Room, which served as the dressing room for some of the biggest acts of the twentieth century, when they played the Royal York's Imperial Room.

NOW : Inside the Green Room today.

THEN : Moxie Whitney and his Orchestra on stage at the Royal York's Imperial Room.

Even in the 1980s, the Imperial Room was still drawing some big name acts, and with a cover charge of only $20 for some of the hottest names in entertainment, the hotel didn't make much money on operating the night club.  The only man who turned a profit was Louis Jannetta, the long time maitre d' of the Imperial Room.  Slipping the right amount of money across his palm ensured the best seat in the house - the room seats about 500 and if you did well by Jannetta, you could get a table right by the stage. 

THEN : Louis Jannetta, the long time maitre d' of the Imperial Room.  He first job at the Royal York was working as a busboy, and to land it, he lied about his age.

All the big names in mid-twentieth century entertainment - Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Peggie Lee, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt and even a young Jim Carrey - appeared on the stage at the Imperial Room.  Tony Bennett played the Imperial Ballroom, as did Canadian born Guy Lombardo.  Rex Battle was a famous conductor, composer and performer, who was a child prodigy. He died in Toronto in 1967. Buddy Rich, often billed as the “world's greatest drummer”, drew crowds to the Imperial Room as a jazz drummer and bandleader.  Another act was Nelson Eddy, the American singer who made nineteen musical films in the 1930s and 1940s, and who was also a big name in opera, in concerts, in international night club venues, as well as in radio and television. He was one of the first "crossover" stars, a superstar appealing both to shrieking bobby-soxers as well as opera purists, and in his heyday was the highest paid singer in the world.  Another act at the Imperial Rooom was Al Martino, who is remembered by many for his singing career, but who also made a cameo as the Italian-American crooner, Johnny Fontane, in "The Godfather".  Other big names sometimes showed up to sit in the audience and watch the show.  They didn't always get in - Janetta famously denied entry to Bob Dylan, because he wasn't wearing a tie.

On June 28, 1964, Rich Little - one of the greatest mimicks of the 20th century - was officially censured, when the Canadian government ordered him to drop his impressions of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker from is act at the Imperial Room.  Rich Little was born in Ottawa in November of 1938, and got his start in entertainment as an usher at the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa.  On a side note, this was the same theatre where Canadian theatre magnate  Nat Taylor added a second screen, and thus opened the first cinema in the world where you had to specify what movie you were there to see.  Little began practicing his impressions of big stars at the theatre, and while still in his teens, he formed a comic partnership with a friend, and began to do impressions of famous Canadian politicans like Diefenbaker and Charlotte Whitton, the mayor of Ottawa.

THEN : Long before the Rich Little Show aired in the mid-1970s, Little was regarded as one of the most entertaining comics to ever take to the stage and screen.  It was Moxie Whitney and the Imperial Room that helped Little get his start.

The rest was history.  After auditioning for Mel Torme, Little won a spot on the "Judy Garland Show" in 1964, and stunned and entertained American television audiences with his ability to do impressions of famous American politicians and celebrities.  Through the 1960s and 1970s Rich Little made countless appearances on regular television series, variety shows, and in films, where he made a career out of lampooning notable luminaries.  Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson were popular targets for the talents of Rich Little. 

Not as much has been heard from Rich Little since the climax of his career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he has continued to appear sporadically in various television specials.  Perhaps his most recent cameo appearance has been in the animated television series "Futurama", playing his own celebraty head - and introducing himself as "Rich Little here, as Howard Cosell."

Today, Rich Little is living in Las Vegas, and still going strong at the age of 73, where he still gives frequent performances.  He became an American citizen in January of 2008, but it was 48 years ago today that his act at the Royal York was censured for his lampooning of Canada's government leaders.


  1. Great post, Richard! I never knew so much about the Imperial Room, but I would have loved to visit it back in its heyday. Good to see you haven't given up on the blogging :)

  2. Hi Richard:
    I enjoyed reading your post. I was the music director of the Imperial Room from 1974 to 1986. Some great acts graced our stage during those years. I am writing down my recollections of those days in a blog (, which is challenging since I am now 92 years old. Thanks for the memories.