September 10th, 2013
The National Post
Ryerson University, which bought Sam the Record Man in 2007, signed an easement agreement with the city, committing to preserve the sign and put it back on its new Student Learning Centre, or on its library. But on Tuesday, with help from City of Toronto staff, Ryerson sought to wriggle out of the deal.
Stephen Gallo was a student at St. Michael’s Choir School when he first walked into Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street.
“I met Sam when I was 12 or 13,” Mr. Gallo recalled, speaking Tuesday to members of Toronto and East York community council. “That’s where we used to go and get The Beatles after chanting all day.”
Mr. Gallo joined a collection of musicians and music lovers Tuesday who asked city councillors to protect Sam’s world-famous, gaudy sign, with two huge neon records, currently in storage.
Ryerson University, which bought Sam the Record Man in 2007, signed an easement agreement with the city, committing to preserve the sign and put it back on its new Student Learning Centre, or on its library. But on Tuesday, with help from City of Toronto staff, Ryerson sought to wriggle out of the deal. A staff report said that the sign could leak mercury, that there are fewer professionals who know how to maintain such signs, cited the “structural risk” of mounting the sign, and questioned “the amount of energy needed to operate the signage.”
After a nearly three-hour debate, community council voted 7-4 to let Ryerson out of its commitment. The school will instead install a “commemorative insert” in the Yonge Street sidewalk in front of its student learning centre, to remember Sam’s.
But Ryerson is not yet off the hook on the sign. The motion passed at community council instructs staff to sign a new deal with Ryerson “to secure the restoration and installation of the neon signage in an alternate location satisfactory to the chief planner.”
Ryerson, a growing, thriving university, is a great asset in the heart of Toronto. But on Tuesday the school took an oddly blasé attitude toward the Sam’s sign. The office of Ryerson’s president, Sheldon Levy, is about 10 minutes’ walk from City Hall. Mr. Levy was in Toronto Tuesday, but didn’t show up. Instead Ryerson sent Julia Hanigsberg, the school’s vice-president of administration. She bristled under the questioning of Councillor Josh Matlow.
“If it is going to cost Ryerson more, then so be it,” Mr. Matlow said. “Is that not Ryerson’s problem?”
Ms. Hanigsberg replied, “Without wanting to take issue with the question, which isn’t very productive, there are differences of opinion.”
It may be that Ryerson was not prepared for the emotion packed into the sign debate. Nicholas Jennings, a longtime music writer whose books on the history of Canadian rock include, Before the Gold Rush, read a letter from Sam Sniderman’s two sons, Jason and Bobby.
“Ryerson knows that any commemoration plan other than the re-installation of the signs requires our approval,” the letter reads. “It was only after the staff action report was released with an alternative plan that Ryerson even made an attempt to contact us. My brother and I support the re-installation of the signs as per the existing signed agreement and know that our father would have most certainly wanted that to happen.”
Mr. Jennings recalled bands that got their start on Yonge in the 1950s and 1960s, including Steppenwolf and The Band. However, his hyperbole may have veered slightly over the top when he said, “Sam’s neon sign was the most identifiable symbol of Toronto until the CN Tower was built.”
Jane Burnett, a jazz musician, rejected the sidewalk insert plan. “If Sam was here, he would have said, ‘Forget it, man.’ “
Ryerson seeks to focus the debate on the technical difficulty of restoring and displaying the Sam’s sign. Supporters of the sign spoke of the memories that it evokes, of the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll.
But perhaps the most telling comment came from a Sam’s lover, Kurt Swinghammer. He noted that, if Ryerson succeeds in getting out of its easement agreement, “It sends out a message to Ryerson business students that it’s OK to renege on a deal.”
The sign debate now heads to city council for a final decision.
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