The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel

by Tricia Dower

In keeping with my practice of not covering something until most everyone else has read or seen it, I highly recommend the 2007 documentary Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel. It won a 2008 Gemini Award for filmmakers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham. You might have seen the film on TVOntario or at a film festival. If not, you can catch it on Bravo Canada this April 16 at 9 pm EST.

Colin and I attended Victoria’s first screening of it on Monday as part of a homelessness series. Included was a live telephone interview with Roemer after the film in which he talked about how it came to be and answered audience questions. We had visited the Gladstone once for a charity event before the former flophouse became the boutique hotel and arts showplace it is now. I recognized in the film the rough looking lobby with its “No visitors after 10 pm” sign and the dark, uninviting staircase leading to the rooms. Here’s how Roemer and Graham summarize the film:

In 2000, developers purchase the crumbling, century-old Gladstone hotel to turn it from a skid row flophouse into an arts hotspot. They think it's empty... until they meet Marilyn, the chambermaid with a heart of gold; Shirley Ann, the cynical front desk clerk; and a motley crew of residents, including Maryanne, an ex-bag lady with a sweet personality who has turned her room into a toxic zone. The developers come up with a plan: gradual restoration that would see staff and residents remain upstairs while the bar downstairs stocks designer drinks. It doesn't work. Christina Zeidler inherits the mess and is committed to a "business model that includes social change," but the hotel has the last word. City inspectors demand complete rewiring, the boiler blows up leaving the hotel without heat, ceilings leak, walls are crumbling, and everybody's gotta go. Shot over five years with a cinema direct style, the directors have crafted a riveting and extraordinary human portrait of the effects of urban renewal upon the poor and the unintentional roles artists play in the process of gentrification.

The Gladstone Hotel was built in 1889, and still calls itself the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto. Graham and Roemer were regulars at the hotel bar before it became “cool.” They thought it would be interesting to document what was about to happen to the building and the low-income residents who called it home.

The film made me reflect on three things:

How market forces conspire against the disadvantaged: Colin and I paid $1,200 a month to rent a three-bedroom semi-detached house in the Beaches in 1988. Even taking inflation into consideration, there’s nothing fair about Maryanne paying the same in 2000 for a single shabby room with no bathroom in a run-down hotel (and her rent went up to $1500 a month under the new ownership). Because she and other Gladstone residents weren’t mentally and socially equipped to take advantage of better options the owners had no incentive to keep the hotel in good condition and to provide tenants with decent accommodation.

How our desire for gentrification disturbs whole communities of people who don’t fit with a lifestyle of galleries, jazz brunches, lattes and smoothies: Rates for rooms at the Gladstone, renovated and designed by local artists, now range from $125 to $375 per night. (You can see them here.) We’re dealing with this issue in Victoria right now where the city doesn’t want the “blight” of the homeless erecting tents in public parks, yet provides no better alternative than unsafe and unwelcoming shelters.

What the film can teach me as a writer: (1) The filmmakers spent over five years making it, earning sufficient trust from the owners, employees and residents to present with candor and emotion a compelling and dramatic narrative arc. I’m in the beginning stages of a novel right now and trying to develop the patience to allow my characters to trust me enough to reveal themselves and their stories. (2) The filmmakers took an objective approach, presenting the story without overt judgment. Depending on your own perspective, you may come away thinking the owners did only what good business practice dictates, you may find them callous, or something else entirely. It’s a lesson for fiction writers: let your readers come to their own conclusions about your characters and their decisions. (3) The filmmakers started filming without knowing for sure what they would get. They were available and persistent, open to what might come along. The same holds true for writers as we set out to create characters and tell their stories. We don’t know for sure if we’ll end up with something worthwhile but we stay the course and keep ourselves open to the surprising opportunities that might present themselves.

You can see the film trailer here.

Photo: Former Gladstone Hotel resident Maryanne Akulick


Anonymous Larry said...


If I'd known you were going to use that photo of me, I'd have swept my hair back - just a bit.


Thu Jan 29, 08:48:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Sorry, I should have warned you.

Thu Jan 29, 01:37:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I'm definitely going to check this out. I hope Netflix has it!

Thanks, Tricia.

Fri Jan 30, 11:49:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Oh, yes, I remember hearing about this film. It looks great. Thanks for the remind.

Fri Jan 30, 11:09:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I've been to the Gladstone many times recently for artsy fartsy events. I didn't know anything about it's history. I'll search out this film. Thanks Tricia, from miles away, across the vast country you're teaching me about my own stomping ground.

Sat Jan 31, 06:11:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve, Tamara and Andrew. Hope you get a chance to see this film. It's tons better than some of what I've been seeing this week at the Victoria Film Festival.

Thu Feb 05, 01:41:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger rocket9 said...

Having been born in a northern Ontario city, I was really moved by this film. There were/are a lot of crumbling hotels like the Gladstone where I grew up and the alcholic, mentally ill, poor, broken down pensioners (steel plants and mines break the body up over time), and other assorted human flotsam lived in the rooms above the bar rooms.

You would meet them in the off hours of the bar and they were some of the greatest and funniest people I have ever met. Some of them were nasty as well, but that was a minority for the most part. I used to love to hear their histories, about how some of them had come from Italy after the war to work in the steel plant or in the forest industry.

You come to realize that we are all headed for the same place..perhaps our dying chamber will be a little more grand than the squalid bedroom of the lady featured in the film but ALL of them had dreams and hopes and made a living for themselves and their families most of their lives. Then a string of bad luck or bad health or addiction or something else pushed them to the ditch.

They were part of my community growing up and I guess they taught me a lot of lessons..good and bad.

It was a fine film and I commend the makers for a very balanced look at all the players. The hotel needed to change and it did.

Wed Aug 19, 01:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Clive P. said...

I just saw this film on TVO last night. It was simple, yet captivating. As a seven-year resident of High Park and a frequenter of Roncesvalles Village and Parkdale, I was transfixed by the story and the people. However, there was one glaring problem with the film: Maryanne Akulick is not dead! She is a very easy person to recognize, and I have seen her on the streets many times in recent months. That was part of what kept me glued to the story. So when the film concluded by saying that she died three years ago, I was shocked. I think Ms. Akulick would be shocked too.

Wed Aug 19, 09:41:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger rocket9 said...

Wow..she's still alive? That shows you what she is made

She is probably junking up another room somewhere with her stuff "that you just can't find anymore"

hee hee..Well, funnny until you smell it or try to fight off the cock yi yi..

Thu Aug 20, 01:30:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger KC said...

Maryanne has indeed passed away. I have to apologize as I do not know what year this blog and its reply were posted. Today is Dec. 7 2009. She is my aunt and lived a very alternative lifestyle compared to the rest of our family. I guess not what you would consider typical. My father (her brother)I don't think liked the idea of her life being documented, but he has never spoken about it at all. We had a family funeral for her and it was not a happy time at all, but we were all aware of how she lived and died.


Mon Dec 07, 02:47:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger ig said...

You can now watch the documentary online for free at:

Wed Feb 17, 01:01:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

Great article, and I agree with the sentiment about how we deal with the poor.

One point I'd like to add is how we deal with older buildings and which ones get preserved and which ones don't get preserved; (the Drake and the Gladstone were worthy of preservation [and also worth the throwing out of the previous residents] but the stunningly beautiful and futuristic Constellation Hotel out near Pearson airport wasn't worthy of such love-ditto for the Valhalla Inn in the same area-simply because it wasn't 'hip' enough and not in an area 'hip' enough to be gentrified.) I wonder what became of the previous residents of the Gladstone, and how they're now faring.

The reason I'm responding today to this old post? Well, history is now repeating itself with the similar buying and redoing of the similar-looking Broadview Hotel at the other end of Queen Street (Queen and Broadview) although the developers promise to help the people displaced:

Wed Jul 16, 04:48:00 pm GMT-4  

Post a Comment

<< Home