Gary Topp’s cartoons about coming of age in Jewish Toronto

Gary Topp

The graphic novel memoir TOPP: Promoter Gary Topp Brought us the World was inspired by cartoonist David Collier’s friendship with the man who hired him as a busboy in 1979 at the Edge, a punk rock nightclub in Toronto.

Four decades later, their collaboration was published by Conundrum Press at the peak of the pandemic. The book renewed attention to how Topp went from running repertory movie theatres to introducing the city to a few hundred of the most influential musicians in history.

Before all that, Gary was born into the typical life of a Jewish baby boomer—until he started catching the bugs that defined a career of cultural curiosity. The story begins with memories like these:

Eighty-one Whitmore Ave. was the original address our family home in northwest Forest Hill: Old Forest Hill Road crossed Eglinton and continued northwest one block to Hilltop, where the name initially changed to Whitmore. We lived three blocks west, a half block beyond Glenarden. The map above shows the area in 1935, as the neighborhood was being developed. My parents were involved in the “Stop the Spadina” movement, even though our house was meant to be spared from the bulldozer, three east of the expressway that never was. It’s still standing.

Ted Cole was one of the sons in the Coles bookstore chain. Bruce was the other. We all went to Camp Tamarack, the Jewish cub and scout summer camp near Bracebridge. Ted turned me on to folk music, which kickstarted my interest in alternate, rebellious culture. I owe Ted so much. Ted eventually founded Camp Walden where my son had life-changing experiences as well. (But the two never met.)

West Prep was the public school I attended in the late ’40s and early ’50s, with a predominantly Jewish population. It was a wonderful experience despite the authoritarian principal, Mr. Salmon. Every winter, boards went up in the playground and an ice rink was created. It didn’t get much better for a kid. Our kids attended West Prep in the 1990s. But the neighborhood was changing and a huge portion of Jewish children stopped registering. One neighbour told me emphatically, “I’ll never send my kids there!”

Beth Sholom was our local synagogue. My dad and his siblings were responsible for one of the original stained glass windows, with an image of Moses visible on Eglinton Avenue. I remember my dad going to the artists regularly to proof the colours. I never found the synagogue a happy place. We had to attend classes five days a week—which meant I missed the chance to play in the West Prep floor hockey league.

Jewish Vocational School is where I ended up being sent as a result of not, in the least, being interested in the Forest Hill education system. My head was wrapped around music, pop art, pot and protest: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol and John Coltrane were sweeping me away. Going there was an attempt to figure me out, and tell my high school principal (who reminded me of Hitler) what I actually wanted to do with my life. The answer, after a week of testing, was “disc jockey.” I was now, officially, a true freak of nature. And the assessment was correct. Within a decade, I’d be promoting bands like the Ramones, the Police and the Dixie Chicks—and even Ofra Haza from Israel.

Bob Dylan just turned 80. I was beyond lucky to have caught him in 1960, when he was barely known. I was 16; he was 21. When his first album was released, it sold poorly. I loved it. One Sunday afternoon, as I was blasting it in my bedroom, the neighbours called the cops. I was disturbing the peace with that horrible voice. He changed my life.

CHUM once banned me from winning radio contests, because I was so good at it. My mom, a staunch supporter of me despite my bad marks, placed a call to Civil Liberties. I was reinstated. But they brought in new criteria for contest qualifiers. You can thank me for that one!

The Rolling Stones was a band I heard for the first time on Fairleigh Crescent. I’ll never forget that moment, nor Rochelle Bernstein. I saw them three times in 1965-66. The concerts never sold out. Their appearances were my first riots. You could say I was experienced at an early age.