Earlier this year, Ryerson University announced its plan to re-instate the Sam the Record Man sign above Toronto’s bustling Yonge-Dundas Square. The bright neon sign, with two giant spinning records, is an important artefact of Toronto’s music history (You can read more about Toronto’s music history here and here). Yet, a lot of people don’t know who (or what) Sam the Record Man is.
In 1959, Canadian-Jewish entrepreneur, Sam Sniderman, opened a record store on Yonge Street after the success of the record sales at his family business on College Street (which introduced records in 1937). In 1961, the two retail outlets combined to become Sam the Record Man at their flagship location on 347 Yonge Street. Throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the Sam the Record Man franchise became one of Canada’s largest record retailers, with approximately 140 locations across the country.
However, the flagship location on Yonge Street was the heart of the franchise, contributing to the “Toronto Sound” of the 1960s, alongside the taverns and clubs that attracted international artists like Bob Dylan and Elton John. Sam the Record Man’s presence on the music scene was iconic, especially for those growing up in Toronto while the music scene was at its peak (between the 1960s and 1980s).
Doug Taylor explores his fond memories of Sam the Record Man in his blog post:
“Wishing to attract more attention to his enterprise, he hired the best-known sign company in the city – Brothers Markle. It created the iconic sign that became a favourite of many Torontonians. Requiring two months to complete, the neon vinyl sign resembled a huge record disk, approximately 7 metres by 5 metres. The neon tubes flashed on and off, creating the effect that the record was spinning on a turntable…It was visible to everyone who nightly strolled ‘the strip,’ as that section of Yonge Street was known. The brightly-lit sign became an integral part of the scene.”
And what about Sam the Record Man himself? Many remember him as a colourful (and musical) personality whose enthusiasm for Canadian music gave Canadian recording artists essential exposure. He was also instrumental (pun intended) in providing the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music Library with the recordings archive. To date, there are approximately 175, 000 items at the archive. Sniderman was also a member of the Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand attractions committee, and supported the restoration of the CNE Music Building. To make it official, in 1976 Sniderman was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian music.
But, hard times were ahead for Sam the Record Man. As CDs gained prominence in the early 2000’s, Sam the Record Man could not compete with retail chains like HMV. In 2001, Sam the Record Man filed for bankruptcy, and by 2007, their flagship location on Yonge street closed its doors.
This is where Ryerson University comes in. The former site of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street is now home to the new Ryerson Student Learning Centre, built in 2015. When Ryerson purchased the site, they became responsible for the preservation of the iconic sign as it was designated as a piece of city heritage. According to the Toronto Star, Ryerson had originally agreed to display the sign in their new building, but then asked to be released from the agreement because they feared the sign would “clash” with their design.
In 2014, a new agreement was reached, where the sign will be displayed on top of the Toronto Public Health building, overlooking the now vibrant Yonge-Dundas Square.
In 2016, Ryerson began the process of finding the right company for the installation, aware that the sign had been in storage since 2008. In March, Ryerson announced that Sunset Neon was the company chosen for this important task. They are hoping to have the sign installed, in all its former glory, by the end of 2017.
In a statement released by the Sniderman family, they expressed relief and gratitude that their father’s music legacy would continue to shine in Toronto’s downtown core:
We are certain that our father would be so pleased with the work that has and will be done and that these iconic symbols of our store and the music industry will be a lasting legacy…which we will share with him and the community … forever.”
Research courtesy of The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Toronto Star, and Ryerson University.