Russell Oliver

The Cashman Cometh

Who is the most iconic Torontonian that you can think of? I’ve heard many answers: Mel Lastman, Margaret Atwood, Drake, Rob Ford, and Jane Jacobs among them. But there was one name I never heard, though his face appears on CP24 more often than the mayor’s, if not the newscasters’. The man is Russell Oliver, owner of Oliver Jewellery, otherwise known as The Cashman.

In his advertisements, Oliver dresses up like a Mountie to promote his loan services, he blings it up, waving around stacks of cash as scantily clad back-up dancers shake their jelly, and once, he even bought the royal jewels from Princess Diana. The Cashman joins Ed Mirvish and Bad Boy Mel Lastman in a triad of Toronto kitsch. If Honest Ed is the face of a fast-fading downtown eccentricity, and Lastman represents the North York booster, Russell Oliver lands somewhere in between, in Midtown.

Growing up in Southern Ontario, Oliver Jewellery ads made Eglinton Avenue the first Toronto street name I ever knew. Toronto, in my young imagination, was a collage of the bank towers you see during sports broadcasts, the endless high rises from the 401, and above all, Eglinton. It was Main Street. It was on television. It was, as far as I could tell, the most exciting street in the universe.

I wasn’t completely wrong.

Today, Eglinton is a construction site, but when the LRT is finished (underground between Keele and Laird), it will be the longest and busiest east-west transit corridor north of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line. The Crosstown is going to shift Toronto’s centre of gravity northward, as Midtown, Forest Hill, and Eglinton West grow denser, taller, and easier to get to.

For many downtowners, Eglinton remains (at least psychologically) the last stop on the Yonge line. Given the state of parking and congestion downtown, it’s not hard to imagine that many drivers in North York and beyond don’t go far south of Eglinton. At 366 Eglinton West, on the edge of Forest Hill, Oliver Jewellery is in the heart of a burgeoning midtown where the old city of Toronto and the inner-suburbs collide. After all, Eglinton is the only street in Toronto to pass through all five of the city’s boroughs.

Lastman is a great contender for the most iconic Torontonian. Not only was he the first mayor of post-amalgamation Toronto, but he is also the prison-striped mascot of Bad Boy Furniture. Lastman, however, will always mean North York. He was the man who pushed the Sheppard Line through council, who encouraged a central North York that could rival most Ontario cities in height, and who now has a square in North York Centre bearing his name.

Oliver, on the other hand, has moved  through the city with the decades. He started out in the jewellery business in the ’60s at a shop at Yonge and Queen, spent the ’80s in Yorkville where he sold jewellery, and after his shop’s bankruptcy, he bought a jewellery business at 366 Eglinton West in the early ’90s.

Eglinton, historically residing at the far end of Toronto, experienced several booms through the twentieth century. In the ’30s, development brought Art Deco to the avenue, and apartment towers around the subway terminal in the ’60s. By the time Oliver Jewellery moved to its new location, Eglinton Avenue was at the heart of a sprawling GTA home to 4.2 million people.

forest hill

One of Forest Hill’s more modest estates

In Crestwood Heights, a sociological study of Forest Hill, John R. Seeley writes, “the name [Forest Hill] suggests, as it is clearly meant to do, the sylvan, the natural, and the romantic, the lofty and serene, the distant but not withdrawn; the suburb that looks out upon, and over the city.” Forest Hill, the suburb of the upwardly mobile and the “nouveau riche” fell victim to its own passion for living on the edge of the city. Surrounded by less exclusive suburbs and urban neighbourhoods, Forest Hill is now firmly inside the city, and the LRT will take millions of up-and-coming commuters through (or rather underneath) it.

When Oliver first introduced the Cashman campaign, he was derided by other jewellery merchants for bringing camp into the jewellery trade. As Danielle Groen points out in her exposé of Oliver, the camp was meant to alleviate the embarrassment of trading your gold, an act associated with hard times, failure, and downward class movement. He still earns a whole lot of vitriol for his profession, from claims that his ads are disgraceful to accusations that he encourages break-ins and jewellery theft. But if Russell Oliver seems bold and tasteless to some residents, it may only be old Toronto’s distaste for his man-of-the-people image. Oliver’s ads elicit the same groans and curses as Lastman and Ford, and it’s not hard to believe that in his day, the shoppers at Eaton’s felt the same way about that charming huckster, Ed Mirvish.

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