Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bruce Bell: Toronto’s Tour Guide and American Spy


“In the beginning, I always loved history,” says Bruce Bell, Toronto’s premiere tour guide, as he reflects upon his youth in Sudbury, Ontario. “Mom and Dad loved history. We as kids were always driving somewhere; getting in the car and going places.”

One such destination: Toronto, about a five-hour drive southeast of Sudbury, where not only the history intrigued him but also the architecture. When he was seventeen, Bell moved to the big city. Not to pursue a formal degree in either of his favourite subjects, though. With a walk-on bit part in the movie “Class of ‘44” (in 1972) on his resume, Bell returned, for good, to Toronto in 1973.

For twenty years, Bell bussed tables, acted, wrote and produced plays, and did stand-up comedy—he was a founding comedic member of Yuk Yuk’s Stand up Comedy Cabaret. “Never making much money,” Bell says, laughing, “but having a really good time.”

All this while, though, history tugged at his coattails. Was he really that passionate about acting? Bell recalls, “I was still reading up on Toronto history. Friends would come to Toronto, and I would show them around. And I realized: This is what I want to do; this is it.”

Not until his late forties, however, did Bell take action. “This is what I want to do” became “I’m going to do this.” He says, “I stopped whatever else (I was) doing, and (said) I’m going to become what I always wanted to be.”

“The Internet changed everything,” Bell says. The wonders of a Web site. Tourists contacted him. Business began to bloom, and so did Bell. In 1999, He began documenting Toronto’s history in The Bulletin, a widely-read community newspaper, and he wrote the book on the St. Lawrence neighborhood where he now lives. The St. Lawrence Market, in turn, named Bell its official historian in 2002.

The love of history his parents had instilled in him, his affection for architecture, and his performing experience: These factors guided Bell to his true calling, and he incorporates them all into his act. This walking, talking, taste-testing and teaching tour guide relishes the challenge every tour presents. An audience of one? Or twenty-five? Visiting from Ireland? America?

He tailors his tours to the personality and predisposition of his customers. “I can pretty much suss them out in the first couple minutes,” Bell says. “There are some people who are very serious about their history, and I enjoy that.”

Especially if said history buffs are Americans. “Nothing makes me more happy (than) if I get an American on a tour who knows his history, who knows a bit about Canadian history. That is so enjoyable, how we can go back an forth.”

To and fro, he says is the nature of American and Canadian history. We were once part of the same country, after all. American history students are familiar with the Thirteen Colonies, but they tend to forget about Canada’s influence on the States.

Bell loves taking Americans to two places. “I take a lot of them to St. James Cathedral,” he says. A loyalist haunt in the heart of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, the cathedral served as a hospital during the War of 1812. Bell says the church is where many ex-Bostonians—descendents of the Mayflower who believed that God could not speak to a president—congregated here. These United Empire Loyalists, many of whom lost their property as America emerged as a nation to be reckoned with, set the foundation for Canada as an English-speaking country. “Our heritage,” Bell tells his audience, “is American.”

The other landmark Bell visits is Commerce Court, what some call Commerce Banking Hall There, Bell encourages Americans to imagine Penn Station in New York, as the grand and ornate edifice stood before demolition commenced in 1960. “This is what you lost,” he says to Yanks. “This is what was torn down in 1966 (demolition took three years). When you enter this bank, pretend you’re entering Penn Station and you’re about to catch a train to go to Philadelphia or Boston.”

New York and Boston: Both cities Bell has visited. “I really loved New York City a lot.” He hasn’t been to Boston since about 2002, but he’s eager to return. First, though, he’s going to revisit Chicago, to lead a tour. You see, Bell is more than than a connoisseur of Canadian culture, more than a trusted Toronto historian: He loves that which transcends our borders—the shared history, the architectural similarities, and the friendly ties. He is an American spy.

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