Sam Sniderman and the forging of the Canadian music scene

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An advertisement for records that were sold at the original store, Sniderman’s Music Hall, on College Street. Toronto Star, 1950



Buying a record was once a private matter. It was personal.


Sniderman’s Music Hall, the origins of Sam the Record Man, earned its fame and fortune because its many listening booths allowed music to be sampled prior to purchase. Denise Cronenberg, the acclaimed costume designer and her brother David, the director, remember being sent to the Music Hall by Esther, their mother, to haul their father back home.


The Music Hall at 714 College St. evolved from Sniderman’s Radio Sales and Service and was founded by Sid Sniderman in 1929 to cater to the boom in radio sales, which was driven by the boom in car radios at that time. Saul Sniderman, Sam and Sid’s father, was a tailor (in German, a “schneiderman”) but Sid convinced him to put some radios in the store’s front window.


For a while, the family lived in the back of the store and their only washroom was downstairs in the waterlogged basement, but when the radio business took off, “We were rich,” Sam told me, “so we moved upstairs.” By 1936, Sid had paid off the mortgage and was looking for new real estate, a life-long passion. Sam was now a business partner at the insistence of Gertie, their mother and a force in their lives, and the space was reinvented in 1937 as a music emporium with Sam as the face of the business. The Cronenbergs lived on Crawford St. near the Music Hall and were often stopping by with their big red setter, which could be found outside the Sniderman shop. They were a bookish and intensely musical family. Denise remembers her mother playing piano for the silent movies at the Pylon Theatre nearby, a heritage site now known as the Royal Cinema. Milton, her father, was an audiophile with some 4,000 discs back home. He’d spend hours at the Snidermans’ just listening, usually under Sid Sniderman’s watchful eye.


“It was a huge place with all these little rooms where you listened,” says Denise. “I wanted to make a little house out of one of those rooms. It had a door. It was little and contained.”


The Cronenbergs were a happy family, much to the disappointment of many of David Cronenberg’s biographers who would prefer he lived a darker, twisted childhood to explain some of his film work, Denise notes.


“My parents adored each other all their lives,” she remembers. “But a lot of people in the area at the time had unhappy marriages because there was always pressure to get married just because of sex. A lot of people were horribly mismatched.”


This proved true for Sam’s and Sid’s parents’ marriage.


“My dad got kicked out of the house when I was only 11-years-old because he had a very loose fly,” Sam said. “My mother simply got fed up with him. I’ll never forget that. So I really didn’t know my dad. The last time I remember him, he was in a car with another woman and they were making love. The problem was Sid and I didn’t get along. He was 13 years older and had to be like a father to me. There was no one in the gap between us. I couldn’t stand it. I needed a real father.


“I used to come home from school at Harbord Collegiate and install car radios for Sid. I got very expert at it. In 15 minutes, I could put in a radio. But I wanted more. I had given up on becoming a lawyer because somebody had come into the store and had said, ‘There’s no more room for Jewish lawyers and if there was, why bother?’ So when I’d told Sid I wanted to put in records in the store he’d said, ‘no.’ He simply didn’t think it was a good idea. My mother, God bless her, said to my brother, ‘You’ve only got one brother, look after him.’”


This uneasy, yet profitable relationship, lasted the rest of their lives. Jason remembers talking to Sid Saturday afternoons in the big Yonge Street store. “He’d say, ‘You know, I indulged him.’ Your father (Sam) was spoiled, but basically he has a good heart.”


Yet each brother acknowledged the other’s skill. “Sid always had his hand on the till,” says Brian Robertson, one of Sam’s lifelong friends and former head of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, now Music Canada. “But Sam made the business run.”


Sam, barely out of his teens, knew that to hustle product he had to hustle himself. “They had terrific advertisements back then, reminding you that they were at the Crawford Street streetcar stop,” remembers David Cronenberg.


Sam would later say the same thing about a bus stop just outside the door of 349 Yonge St. The fact it was untrue deterred him not the least from making the claim.


A small aside: I knew Sam – and I knew about Sam long before I ever met him or had even read about him. I’d heard about him through visits made to the store by my father, Jack Goddard, a piano accompanist around town and teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Jack had far more vivid stories about meeting Sam at the store than he did about any famous musician he had met. When I finally convinced dad to come downtown to the Sam the Record Man store on Yonge Street years later, he was absolutely tongue-tied just meeting Sam again in person. Sam had grown grander still in my father’s memory it seemed.


“There were already other people in the record business at the time,” Sam told me. “Eaton’s and Simpsons were selling the $1.99 stuff. But I’ll never forget what the guy from RCA said to me – he convinced me to sell records in the first place -   about going up against Eaton’s and Simpsons. ‘Don’t disturb the lion,’ he said. ‘He may turn around and bite you.’ So we didn’t. I used to drive across the Peace Bridge to Buffalo to pick up these foreign records and bring them back home. I did that once a week for many weeks. At the time, we were selling 10-inch foreign records – not even 12 inches. If it hadn’t been for the foreign records, especially the Jewish records, we could not have started this at all.”


The story goes that Sam beefed up his classical records section to impress Eleanor Koldofsky, a “cultured” young woman (in Sam’s words) from a huge family living next door. If so, the ploy worked – for a time. Married for 42 years, the couple grew wealthy, famous and had three sons – the eldest, Stephen died in a freak accident at camp in 1959 – before their acrimonious breakup caused deep fissures in the family. Friends say Stephen’s death, due to faulty electrical wiring, only made the bitterness between them grow worse.


“I still can’t get over it,” Sam said. “He was not yet 16, my first-born.”


Eleanor, who has enjoyed considerable success on her own as a writer, record producer and historian, told Toronto Star columnist Ellie Tesher some years back that Stephen still “lives in me.”


Because it meant setting up shop next door to A&A’s at 351 Yonge St., the move to 347 Yonge St. seemed risky to Sid and Sam, but not to their mother, a dominant figure in virtually any story of the Sniderman clan. “Didn’t Simpsons move across from Eaton’s?” she said to her sons. “You do it.”


Nevertheless, this was a huge cash outlay they were talking about.


“The guy who owned the property wanted one hundred and twenty thousand dollars for it,” said Sam. “We told him, ‘We can’t put up this kind of money.’” (In other versions of the story the sum is $140,000.


“You put it up or forget about it,” he told the Snidermans.


Sid was adamant. He wanted the property.


“Sid was always coming to me and would say, ‘I’m going to buy this bit of property, and he’d do it,” Sam explained.”Even when I didn’t want it.”


Sam figured there might be other properties because Yonge Street real estate, as unsettled as its morals and with its bars and burger joints coming and going, was always being made available.


Sam wanted to negotiate. “So I went back to the owner and said, ‘Listen, I’m a poor Jewish guy. Can I have the property for less than $120,000?’”


Again, the answer was no. “But we took it anyway,” said Sam.


“He came along at a fabulous time,” says John McBride, the former store manager at Sam’s on Yonge St. “He survived the Great Depression and World War Two before the time he reached Yonge St. It was the beginning of a time of phenomenal growth.”


“We never looked back,” said Sam.