Saturday, 16 June 2007

London Press Club

The London Press Club, a rare breed in 21st century journalism circles across Canada, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, as reported today by Joe Matyas in a London Free Press story.

Joe says the London Press Club bounced back from near extinction three years ago, while dozens of once prosperous Canadian press clubs, including those in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, have closed their doors since the 1970s.

His story (in full below) brings back a lot of fond memories. Someone should write a book about the demise of press clubs in Canada. They were second homes for several generations of workaholics, alcoholics, bar stool story tellers, pool players and poker players.

They were haunts where your fellow workers and the competition spent a lot of time comparing notes and bonding. They opened doors for young journalists wanting to spread their wings. And press clubs were also a haven for world-travelling journalists wanting to share a pint or two with the locals. If you were media, you were welcomed.

Press clubs were also known for impromptu visits by politicians, movie stars and entertainers. Stories are still being told about the night Minnesota Fats dropped by the Toronto Press Club in the 1980s for a few games of pool. Jimmy Durante matched noses there. Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau also dropped by.

The Toronto Press Club's address was as transient as a lot of its clientele over the decades, housed for a time at the Prince George Hotel, above Hy's on Richmond Street, on Wellesley near Yonge, in the Sheraton Hotel, at Ed's Warehouse restaurant, Ontario Club etc.

Changing attitudes about drinking and driving, a new generation of journalists opting for affordable homes in the suburbs and sometimes just poor management lessened the popularity of downtown clubs.

So press clubs have all but gone the way of top drawer drinkers, cigar and cigarette smokers, Linotype and teletype machines, compositors, copy boys, pneumatic tubes, typewriters, carbon paper, newsroom rims etc. But the memories linger.

Not in London, Ontario, where 130 members, more non-media than media these days, are keeping its press club afloat.

We'll lift Joe's story because it does deserve to be available online for those who remember the glory days of press clubs:

By Joe Matyas
Two days before Dianne Haskett knocked out Jack Burghardt in one of London's toughest battles for mayor, she performed in a skit at the London City Press Club.

Dressed in black and surrounded by backup singers, Haskett lip-synced the words to Hit the Road Jack.

It was one of the hits of the 1994 municipal election candidates' night at the club, something the public didn't get to see.

But members of the media were used to seeing politicians singing, telling jokes, playing musical instruments and sometimes making fools of themselves on such occasions.

Over the years, it has been tradition for the press club to invite candidates for municipal, provincial or federal office to a pre-election gathering where everyone can put their guards down.

"It's one of those traditions we plan to continue," president Pat Currie said yesterday as his club started celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend.

Near death about three years ago, the club has been revived under Currie's leadership to remain one of the few still in existence.

In the golden age of newspapers, when circulation, advertising lineage and newsrooms were growing, every city worth its salt had a press club.

Now, only a few survive.

"I think the only active one left, besides ours, is the one in Moncton (N.B.)," Currie said after a golf tournament with 60 duffers kicked off the golden anniversary weekend.

"We're dinosaurs that have survived the big impact and it has been a case of adapt or die."

Now located in the London Towers at 379 Dundas St., the first club was on Dundas Street near Talbot, later moving to York Street.

The club opened with fanfare in 1957 with Ontario Premier Leslie Frost in attendance.

Over the years, the biggest names in Canadian politics have visited the club, including prime ministers Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and John Diefenbaker, Ontario premiers John Robarts and David Peterson and Joey Smallwood, the premier who brought Newfoundland into Confederation.

They sometimes held formal press conferences on the record.

But it was the club rule anything said there stayed there, said Currie, adding the club was a place of merriment and ferocious argument.

Originally the private preserve of mainly working journalists and broadcasters, the club changed over the years by accepting first other media employees and then associate members.

There were always associate members - publicists, lawyers, police officers, insurance and real estate brokers and other professionals, said Currie, but they were originally a minority.

"The club's membership was capped and I remember a time when we had 350 members and 150 on a waiting list," said Currie, a retired Free Press reporter.

There are 130 members today.

After a period when the club was faltering, it has raised its profile in the past couple of years with public roasts of Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best and London West MPP Chris Bentley and an evening celebrating some of London's prominent female politicians.

"We no longer count members of the media as the majority of our members, but we still have the press club flavour," said Currie.

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