By Peter Saunders
One of Canada’s longest-awaited sign projects finally reached its completion recently when the ‘spinning’ neon records of Toronto’s defunct flagship Sam the Record Man music store were relit in a new location atop a building next to Yonge-Dundas Square. While the project always enjoyed broad public support, there were a number of challenges that hampered its progress along the way.
Origins of an icon
The flagship ‘Sam’s’ store, named after owner Sam Sniderman, originally opened at 347 Yonge Street, just north of Dundas Street, in 1961 and remained in business until 2007. The first of its neon signs included a thermometer, a triangle indicating weather conditions and the address in large numbers, ‘347.’
In 1971, Sniderman commissioned local signmakers Sam and Jack Markle to add a new sign to the façade. Their colleague Jack Derraugh sketched a giant neon spinning record. Sniderman loved the idea and convinced record companies to help fund it by offering them advertising space in the centre of the sign.
White neon tubes were arranged in circular rows in an 8-m (25-ft) wide square metal sign box to represent the grooves of a record. To produce the illusion of spinning, different sections flashed at different times. It was the first large neon sign of its kind to light up Toronto’s downtown core.
After Sniderman acquired and expanded into the building next door, he hired another company, Claude Neon, to produce and install a replica of the neon record right next to it in 1987. The two records became iconic elements of Toronto’s streetscape over the years, appearing in many photos and movies.
Facing strong competition, initially from international retailers and then from online music downloading and sharing, Sam the Record Man filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Corporate stores closed first, followed by franchises, but the flagship location managed to reopen and remain in business until 2007.
Toronto’s city council granted heritage designation to the famous signage. This designation was intended to ensure the giant records would remain at 347 and 349 Yonge Street indefinitely, but the specific details of how this would be accomplished were unknown, since the matter of preserving the signage would be up to the future owners of the property.
The issue of ownership was resolved in 2008. Nearby Ryerson University acquired the site with plans to construct a new mixed-use facility.
Sheldon Levy, then-president of Ryerson, assured the public he was committed to remounting and displaying the giant records in a new permanent home on the campus, to
be determined. In the meantime, they would need to be removed before the empty building supporting them was demolished.
Gregory Signs & Engraving, based in Vaughan, Ont., was commissioned for this task, which involved removing, tagging and crating each tube, bolt, wire and section of sheet metal. This process took more than two weeks. Ryerson had the components placed into long-term storage at Gregory Signs’ facility, pending the construction of the new building.