My colleague Jesse Michaels has written nostalgically about the demise, just this past week, of Toronto’s Funland Arcade. His post got me feeling a bit nostalgic myself.
On the face of it, this is a local story, but in its heyday, Funland was a magnet for teens from far and wide. I remember my buddy and I saving up our money one summer in the early eighties to take a trip down to Toronto on the bus from our little village north of Parry Sound. Our destination was simply “Yonge Street,” roughly between Queen and Gerrard. It was a legendary place.
That notorious strip included dozens of head-shops, where we spent our summer wages on funky clothes and posters, and ogled the paraphernalia. We never would have dared to buy or bring home any of the bongs, bottles of Rush, Freak Brothers comics, switchblade knives or syringes that gleamed beneath the glass counters, but they formed our impressions of a wild world beyond our woods.
Naturally, we hit the Eaton Centre next – already wearing the weird clothes we’d bought. I remember someone pointing at us on the escalator, saying “check out those break dancers!” We were as surprised as anyone; we thought we were dressed like heavy metal rockers.
And then there was Sam the Record Man, which closed a couple of years before Funland and to a lot more fanfare. These were the days long before the Internet, when a few radio formats dominated the airwaves and when kids from small towns were largely out of the loop. Just having looked through the wares at Sam’s would earn us wizard status back home. For we had seen mythic, mystical things: every Led Zeppelin album, including the mysterious Presence – in one place. I bought every one I’d been missing, on tape. I have them still.
Coming out of Sam’s my buddy and I got another Yonge Street eye-opener. We’d already seen hookers and hawkers and buskers, dope peddlers, probable pick-pockets and gay men wandering down from Charles Street holding hands. Any one of these sights would have horrified the church-going old-timers back where we were from. But what blew our young minds was the sight of people pouring out of the Dundas subway entrance as a squad of firefighters struggled to get in. Word was that someone had jumped into the path of the subway train.
It was all part of the adventure for us. We sauntered in to Lick’s for a famous burger (we knew they were famous because the sign said so) and were treated to the mad chorus of burger-flippers singing out their orders. A great place to rest up and pore over our purchases, Lick’s still exists as a chain, but that location was torn down and paved over years ago to make way for Dundas Square.
And now it’s Funland going under the axe. I don’t know how much money I had left in my pocket by the time we got there on that long-ago day, but I know the blinking, buzzing buzzards of the almighty arcade feasted on my remaining cash. Frogger, Centipede, Digg Dugg, Defender… the video games of a bygone age. That was our last destination of the day before trudging over to Bay Street to catch the milk run bus back to Parry Sound. The pings and boings echoed in my ears on the long ride home up through the farm country north to Barrie, and on into the rock cuts of cottage country all the way back home.
I can’t claim the old Yonge Street strip was a glorious place, or that head-shops and arcades were great places for young guys to be hanging around. Still, with the demise of Funland, another small piece of my youth is gone, and it aches just a little bit to see it go.