TORONTO -- At first
glance, you might mistake Bruce Bell Tours for a one-man operation.
After all, the
eponymous Mr. Bell doesn't own even a minibus or passenger van (he
cabs clients around town if necessary when extolling the virtues of
this city), he doesn't employ a staff of tour guides and assistants
(his daughter Clara helps out occasionally with big groups and with
tips on what's happening and hip) and his headquarters, such as it
is, is his flat in downtown Toronto near the bustling St. Lawrence
But to measure
Bruce Bell the tour operator by the usual standards does not do
Bruce Bell the man justice inasmuch as he is at once widely
recognized in this cosmopolitan burg as a historian, thespian (in
all that grandiose word implies), showman, lecturer, spokesman,
curator, raconteur, enthusiast and booster of all things
One-man band is
more like it.
Bell is the go-to
guy for Ontario Tourism and Tourism Toronto when it comes to
shepherding visiting dignitaries, media representatives and VIPs on
walking tours around town. He resurrects and, literally, preserves
the rich history of this once-colonial outpost of the British
Empire during his peripatetic walking-talking
"Bruce is kind
enough to credit me with starting his career in tourism," said
Helen Lovekin, Ontario Tourism's media relations coordinator, North
America. "I hired him on his first tour to accompany a journalist I
knew to be particularly difficult. I went to meet them with
trepidation. Imagine my delight at seeing them round the corner,
arm in arm, chattering away."
Take one of his
outings, say in the neighborhood of Old York, and you will find
historical plaques bearing his name affixed to city landmarks,
shuttered premises opened to admit him and his group on sight and
even a centrally located mural on the wall of the St. Lawrence
Market depicting market diners reading a newspaper story featuring
the likeness of none other than Bruce Bell.
Bell, who in
addition to his tour operations does theater/history/architecture
performances to sell-out audiences (usually at the Winter Garden
national historic site here), uses his considerable theatrical
skills -- broad gesture, nuanced voice, subtle wit, superb timing,
apt impersonations and, more than anything, stage presence -- to
regale clients with insights, anecdotes and fact-filled
After all, it was
as an actor that Bell got his start in Toronto.
"I came here at 17
in 1972 from Sudbury in northern Ontario to look for work in the
movies," Bell said. "I managed to get a small walk-on in the film
'Class of '44,' a sequel to 'Summer of '42,' and I managed to eke
out a living doing commercials, TV spots and other small parts in
movies. But it was almost impossible to make a living at
To make ends meet,
Bell also worked as a bus boy in the famed Imperial Room of the
Royal York Hotel and later as an elevator operator there. It was
then, he said, that he first became enamored of Toronto's rich
"I really got a
buzz when I found myself telling guests of interesting places here
that they should visit," he said. "Some years later, I started to
think of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and I thought
of my early days at the Royal York and how much I loved showing
people around Toronto. That's when I started to do tours
These days, Bell
operates 10 distinct tours of Toronto at a fee of $25 per person
(groups of 10 or more are $20 a person).
A typical Bruce
Bell Tour outing is the popular St. Lawrence Market Food &
History Tour, which includes a walk through
the market that combines history and tasty samples from cheese,
vegetable, meat, pastry and food shops run by vendors who are all
on a first-name basis with Bell.
by the way, can count on a visit to the Carousel Bakery in the
market. According to Bell, even the top chef at the culinary school
at George Brown College in Toronto comes to the Carousel for his
weekly back bacon sandwich.
"It is truly a gem
within a market full of tempting gems," said Bell.
From the market,
which was the site of Toronto's original City Hall, the itinerary
proceeds to the Farmer's Market; the restored St. Lawrence Hall,
where freed slave Frederick Douglass spoke on the evils of slavery,
Gen. Tom Thumb (a dwarf who rose to fame as a circus entertainer
for P.T. Barnum) performed and Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale,
sang; Toronto's first post office; and the magnificent St. James
Cathedral, whose five chiming bells are still heard throughout the
This tour operates
year-round on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 10 a.m. for
individual and small groups; a 2 p.m. tour is reserved for large
groups. For details, visit www.brucebelltours.ca.
contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].