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Our most creative citizen

THE ERA OF HILL'S BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES. In my last reminiscences of George Hill I talked of his start in the hotel business and my troubling fixation with the Mayfair soda bar! But the Mayfair was never just another restaurant- it was so much more.. It was an experience in becoming a social animal in a period when all the world, certainly our little world of Portage la Prairie, seemed swept up in a cycle of good times and buoyant expectations for the future. But that feeling died somewhere along the way. Now surveys indicate that we expect our children to do less well than we did. Perhaps it took thirty years for the economy to wind down after the pumping up it had in the Second World War! The Mayfair Hotel was Portage's first touch of a new age of sophistication. That gold-flecked tile covered building and the ambiance within made us feel that we, ourselves and our town, had finally come of age! In those first summers of the 1950's we had a new drive-in theatre, two downtown theatres, two bowling alleys, the fashionable Olympia Restaurant, Robbies selling blue ice cream, an A&W Drive Inn, and Saskatchewan Avenue was lined with interesting and classy shops. The Avenue was walkable , parkable, and had allure with dress shops, butcher shops, drug stores, jewelry . stores, shoe repair, watch repair, men's suits, restaurants, a stock broker, thriving hotels and bars, great shopability! Merchants decorated their windows and washed the sidewalks. It all disappeared! Do you have the answer why? W e also had a new Manitoba Hydro Building at the corner of Second and Sask. Avenue (old McLenaghen Block corner). We had welcomed a new Monarch Queen Elizabeth II . “Regina Elizabeth” the celebration sign read in the window until somebody probably a former student of Margaret Webster, went in and told the manager that it should read 'Elizabeth Regina'! Some of us still knew our Latin syntax. Do you remember the Hydro's magic mirror that spoke to you? The voice came from behid the 2-way glass. Well, the marquis over Hill's new Mercury dealership became the stage for George Hill's special brand of Christmas entertainment. Hill knew that a major downtown Christmas event was crucial to kick off the shopping that made up one half of most merchant'-s annual sales, and so he invented his own Christmas spectacular. How we kids looked forward to the bands, dancers, costumes ,singers and performers and finally the appearance of Santa in his sleigh. From the stage he would toss out candies and oranges to all the cold but glowing kids! This Disney-like event began with four hours of cartoons at the Army Drill Hall. By the way, the year before in l949 the huge limestone pillared Dept. Of Veterans Affairs building had burned down next door and Hill was busy hauling the remains over to the Island for an elevated and secure footing for his new home then underway. The columns from that building are still on my back patio!.After all those hours of cartoons and treats there could not have been a decent kid who was not anxious to show his appreciation to Mr. Hill by dropping into his drug store to buy such swell gifts as shaving soap in a wooden bowl for Dad and a flacon of Evening in Paris perfume in that long blue bottle with a tassel for Mom. Oh, in those days we were all pretty easily satisfied. In the early 1960's Hill embarked on his most lavish and theatrical business venture and one that would prove to be a fantastical escape for Portagers. At that time a trip to Winnipeg was still a great adventure! A large renovation project to the eastern part of the hotel (old Cannif Drug Store) slowly turned into an authentic looking Polynesian cocktail lounge. For years Hill had been bringing back saleable exotic souvenirs to stock his gift shop and in the process he had fallen in love with the special charm of the South Seas. Now on the very spot where twenty five years previous he had begun his drug store career, he reached what I think was his finest moment! This was the spot he chose to convert into the ultimate theme lounge---the Mauna Loa. ('Big Mountain'). Appearing before us was a room with walls and ceiling of grass matting sewn onto large bamboo poles. It was in effect a large Polynesian hut with glimmering coloured globes hanging around an outrigger canoe and a lighted King Turtle Shell. Blow fish hung in round windows (Hill loved the circular line). The walls were alive with gilded tiles, village scenes and painted leather. Fountains tinkled near the mahogany bar, peacock chairs waited to envelope you next to hand carved tables .(Bill Kirkland). Waiters wore flowered shirts, white pants and flower leis. Over all this tropical splendour flowed the strains of Hawaiian music. A storm may have been raging with winds howling across Saskatchewan Avenue but in the Mauna Loa Lounge we were safe in our South Seas cocoon! Hill's bankers said this bar would never work in Portage and advised against it, but within six months Hill had the ten thousand dollar loan paid off! The drinks were just as exotic as the surroundings, served in Tiki God crockery or cylinders of brightly coloured glass. Singapore Slings each wore an umbrella! The Mauna Loa Singapore Sling recipe- in a tall glass add ice cubes, one and half ounce gin, orange juice. Grenadine, cherry kiafka, add a twist of orange, swizzle stick and umbrella! You knew you had been enjoying yourself too much when the table became littered with cute umbrellas! Here and there stood strange Polynesian “Gods” hand carved and painted in authentic hues, one even had a ruby in it's navel. These Gods were the creation of my old pal Daryl Giffin and myself. They added flavour to this tropical stage set! The interior décor had been carried out by artist Edith Holden. . The opening day bar tenders were Ken Bowman, Eddie Koppen and Ed Stellar. The serving staff forbade profane language or bad behavior. Once a waiter banned you only he could re-instate you! George Hill told the bar tenders that if a banned guest protested that they were a personal friend of Mr. Hills then the miscreant was to be given a Nickle and told to phone George ! The 'God of Good Luck' Buddha sat over a fountain at the bar. Your wish just might come true if you rubbed it's tummy! Someone must have felt down on their luck for the Buddha suddenly disappeared! Anyone want to sell it to me? One evening Edith Holden sat by that fountain and along with her cocktail ordered a sandwich. The bar tender Ed Stellar hated food in the bar and when he finally brought the sandwich up from the kitchen to her Edith purred, Mae West style,“ I hope you didn't have to make that yourself honey!” Those were the days my friend....


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