Harbord’s many musical gifts to 1930s Toronto

Questions about a Harbord CI student’s musical path drew us into 1930s Toronto—an era of popular radio, big bands, and dance halls.

The Depression dragged along (1928-1939); pre-war Europe simmered, but people flocked to venues like the Palais Royale to hear “Canada’s King of Swing,” Bert Niosi, and his house-band orchestra. The economy and the times were uncertain, but a night out dancing was fun and affordable for many.

Performing with Niosi at the Palais—on Toronto’s Lakeshore at Sunnyside—was piano prodigy and former Harbord student, Martha Borkovitz, the young woman in our query.

We guessed that Martha took a stage name. Yes, Martha Borkovitz became “Martha Burke,” and soon garnered headlines under her new identity.

In Toronto Star regular features such as “Are You Listening?” and “For the Dancers,” we learned that young Martha Burke had debuted on local radio; at times conducted an all-female orchestra; other times was “the only female conductor of all-male orchestras in Canada.” She toured Quebec, composed “a swingy tune,” and performed regularly on Toronto stations such as CKCL and CFRB.

Newspaper clipping of of "Are you listening" column with Martha Burke's photo.
Martha Burke was featured in the “Are you listening?” column about radio programs in the Toronto Daily Star on 14 July 1936, page 18.

Martha wasn’t the only Harbordite using skills honed in high school.

In 1926, Harbord’s music teacher Brian McCool had started Toronto’s first school orchestra. Martha (born in 1915) would have been one of many teenagers who benefited from sharing her talent with schoolmates.

By June 1936, Harbord realized the value of their music and theatre program. The school’s Review (excerpted in the Toronto Star) listed more than 20 former students who had ongoing musical or theatrical careers.

Harry Keith-Beattie, the tongue-twisting expert for the lyrics of many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas performed at Harbord, went to England to be with the Brexton Repertory; moved on as assistant stage manager for the Lyceum’s pantomime, then as manager for their Christmas production of “Puss in Boots.”

Isadore Dresser and Albert Pratz joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Al Steinberg, soloist at the Imperial Theatre, had toured the U.S.A. Esther Hoffman and Nancy Fine were concert pianists.

Also on Harbord’s list: Sam Shopsowitz, “radio star” on CKOC, Hamilton; Henry Dubinsky, radio pianist; Morris Sundin, “arranges music for Horace Lapp”; and William Fraser—bass violinist; tuba player; composer—were all finding their places in the entertainment world.

Photo feature about the Harbord Collegiate orchestra in the Toronto Daily Star on 4 December 1930, page 2. Teacher Brian McCool is #24 in the centre. Already using her stage name, Martha Burke appeared as #2.

Awarded an MBE for distinguished WWII military service—including as principal landing officer at Dieppe—Brian McCool continued his dedication after the war to music students across Ontario. He held various positions with the Ontario Department of Education. Jon Vickers, Phyllis Marshall, and the Leslie Bell singers were just a few who gained musical experience under his tutelage.

Martha Burke, the young woman who sparked this search, moved to the USA to continue her career, making many appearances at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove supper club.

Today’s much larger Toronto board has a number of schools focused on spotting talent and giving opportunities in the arts, but as far back as the thirties, Harbord knew the way.

A New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Metropole in Toronto featured dancing to the music of Martha Burke and her orchestra. Toronto Daily Star 24 December 1935, page 8.

For a short history of Harbord Collegiate and its war memorials, click here.

Click here to read about Harbord Collegiate’s celebrations of its history.

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