Toronto tour guide shows his love for the city's history

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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 Market.

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 Toronto.

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 wanderings.

"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 history.

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 it."

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 past.

"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 full-time."

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. 

Tour participants, 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 city.

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.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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