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Arguably, the most famous picture taken at the Albert St. Y: Leible Hershfield tumbling over a group of brave souls in 1937 (photo courtesy Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada)

By BERNIE BELLAN
When it comes to researching the history of the YMHA/Rady JCC, there are no better sources than members who actually belonged to the YMHA when it was still on Albert Street. The stories they have to tell are priceless – especially when it comes to describing what stood for a “gym” in that building.

 

 

 


As the dates for various celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of the YMHA being granted a charter (and that’s what this 100th anniversary business is all about; the first YMHA in Winnipeg actually opened in 1885, according to information written in a column for this paper by the late, great Leible Hershfield in 1980) draw nearer, I thought it would be interesting to hear more about what the Albert Street Y was like. After all, for baby boomers like me, the YMHA on Hargrave is all we ever knew until the opening of the Rady Centre in 1997 (which morphed into the Rady JCC).

91 Albert St. today

It’s always been a point of curiosity for me what the Albert Street Y was like. As for its antecedents – well, according to Leible Hershfield, there were many (and I don’t have a clue what any of these were): Fairbairn Hall, Ripstein Block (Henry and Main), Dominion Bank (Higgins and Main), Berman’s Book Store, Concordia Club, Isaac Letvak’s Delicatessen Store on Selkirk Avenue, Fisher Hall, Selkirk and Main, and finally – 91 Albert Street, in a converted warehouse purchased by the Steinkopf family in 1936 after it had been rented by the YMHA some years earlier. The Albert Street Y was home to the YMHA until the brand new building at 370 Hargrave was opened in 1952.

Plaque on 91 Albert Street commemoraing 91 Albert Street as a former home of the YMHA - the plaque notes that the building was purchased by the Steinkopf family.


I have spoken with several members of the YMHA who were members of the Albert Street Y and in the next issue I’ll have more about some of those recollections, but in the meantime I thought I’d start with memories from Al Chisvin, who not only played an integral role in both the Albert Street Y and the Y on Hargrave, he’s now a vital member of the reunion committee planning events for the 100th anniversary of the YMHA/Rady JCC.

I sat down with Al one recent morning – in his car. (We were talking outside the campus. He said he was cold and wanted to get into some place warmer so we hopped into his car. I felt like Jerry Seinfeld doing his interviews with comedians in cars.)
Al Chisvin was born in 1931, he told me, and joined the Albert Street Y in 1944. (He’s been a member of the YMHA and Rady JCC ever since.) In the mid-1930s, according to an article written by Myron Love on the occasion of the opening of the new Asper Campus in 1997, membership at the YMHA had reached 400. But, by 1947, according to Al Chisvin, membership had grown to 1800.
“One thousand were under the age of 18,” Chisvin noted. “So it was primarily a place for young people.”
I asked Chisvin what the Albert Street Y was like. I said I knew it didn’t have a pool, but what was the gym like, I wondered?
Pointing to a nearby car, Chisvin said it was “maybe from that car to where we are sitting” (and the other car was really close by). I found that hard to believe until I again read a column by Leible Hershfield describing the gym in the old Albert Street Y: “a room about 40 feet square…For basketball, baskets were attached on the walls kitty corner at each end of the floor. A large post was in the middle of the floor, which players had to dodge around to advance to the opposing basket.”
Chisvin elaborated on how small the gym was: “We could bounce the ball off the wall – because it was just so narrow, there was no room. And I think we played three on three.”

Okay – that was the gym. But what was the rest of the Y like? After all, if it had 1800 members by 1947, it must have been one heck of a busy place. So Al began to describe it in some detail: “It was a very narrow building. There was a counter when you walked in where some of the staff worked, and there was a bit of a lounge area behind it. On the left of the lounge area there was a little coffee shop and in the basement was a woodworking shop.
“If you walked to the second floor there were some meeting rooms (also the aforesaid gym) and on the third floor there was a huge auditorium.”
Hershfield, however, gave a somewhat different description than did Chisvin (who, I am sure, will agree that Hershfield recalled the old Y in somewhat more detail): “The second floor was the busiest section of the Y. The front room was converted into a room where members played their daily bridge games after noon hour workouts. At the rear of this floor was the locker room, a rubdown table, showers, and the steam room.” (Ed. note: In our next issue, you can read Sid Green’s description of the Albert Street Y’s steam room as the best-ever steam room – much better than the one on Hargrave.) “Behind the wall of the steam room was a space where logs were fed to keep the boiler hot. The came the stairs that led down to the basket room, managed by Phil Geller.” (Hershfield doesn’t mention the woodworking shop.)
“On Saturdays,” Al Chisvin continued, “we had gym – and there were clubs. The clubs used to have meetings…We played floor hockey in the auditorium” (which Chisvin said took up the entire fourth floor).
“Was it with the round doughnut puck?” I asked Chisvin (which I remember so fondly from my own days at the Y on Hargrave).
“That’s right,” he answered.
“But what about social activities?” I wondered. “Did you have dances there?” I asked Chisvin.
“The Y was the social place for young Jewish kids – teeners. Most of them came from the North End, but also some from the South End and that’s where we actually mixed with the South Enders.”
There was a “teen canteen”, he explained. “First it was in the Peretz Shul on Aberdeen Avenue. We had entertainment – singers, dancers. Later we moved into the Y.
“The clubs would take turns sponsoring the canteen. They would put on a skit, a musical – very talented.”
I asked Chisvin whether, if you belonged to a club, you would stick with it through all your teen years at the Y?
“Oh yah,” he answered. At that point Chisvin showed me a program from a Y reunion held in 1980 of members who had belonged to the Y from 1944-52. On the front of the program were the names of all the clubs. Some of them certainly stand out: “Jarvis Bums”, “Y Not’s”, “Gabalots” – and my personal favourite: “Chicklets” – which was the late Babs Asper’s club.
“When we got to be 17, 18, 19,” Chisvin continued, “we switched to Sunday nights.”


At that point he showed me a page in the program that was the playbill for a musical written by Base Marantz titled “Careeba” and which had been produced sometime in the 1940s. As I looked over the names of performers and behind-the-scenes participants, I noticed that Sid Green’s name appeared as both having contributed “additional lyrics” and as a cast member.
That got me to thinking: Sid Green was a prominent member of the YMHA for years. He was a former youth director and president. He was also the first director of BB Camp. I said to Al Chisvin that seeing Sid’s name in the program made me think that I ought to also interview him about his days at the Albert Street Y. That interview – which I also videoed and which I will post to this website by Sept. 18,  proved to be most memorable – especially when Sid sang an entire song in Yiddish.

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