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Numerous surprises await researchers at the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre who browse through the assortment of old scrapbooks and other materials representing local chapters of Beta Sigma Rho, the Alpha Omega Dental Society and other Jewish fraternities and sororities.
Two oversized scrapbooks, relics of the local chapter of the Beta Sigma Rho (BSR) fraternity from 1937 to the 1990s, are stuffed with memorabilia ranging from newspaper stories, playbills, photos, initiation dinners, correspondence, wedding invitations and other items. These colourful bits and pieces of social history attest to the inescapable conclusion that, although they must have been saddled with a heavy scholastic workload, university students in those days also managed to have fun.
Fans of the famous Canadian comedy team Wayne and Shuster will find plenty of historic items related to the duo’s early years at the University of Toronto and entertaining Canadian troops overseas during World War II. Wayne and Shuster later springboarded to stardom with a record 67 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the famous American television variety program.
The names of Frank Shuster and Louis Weingarten – the latter being comedian Johnny Wayne’s name before he changed it for show business purposes – appear frequently in the scrapbooks throughout the 1930s and 1940s. An early reference in December 1937 refers to “Shu and Lou, two rip-snorting comedians fresh from their success in the U.C. (University College) Follies.”
There are numerous backstage, costume and newspaper photos of the pair and their colleagues in various shows, including The Army Show of 1943, which opened at Toronto’s Victoria Theatre and was eventually staged for Canadian troops overseas. As Time magazine then reported, the show was a large-scale musical revue that featured a big South American number combining hot dancing with jokes (“Army life is terribly strict – lights out at 9 o’clock, women out at 10”).
Several years ago, OJA archivist Donna Bernardo-Ceriz was flipping through the newly acquired scrapbooks when she spotted a drawing of a caped superhero with the initials “BSR” – Beta Sigma Rho – emblazoned on his chest. The drawing was signed by Joe Shuster, the Toronto-born artist who, with Jerry Siegel, created the legendary Superman comics as published by DC Comics in the United States, beginning about 1938.
“I recognized it right away,” Bernardo-Ceriz said of the drawing. “My husband is a comic book collector so I was exposed to the names of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for many years. I recognized the signature and realized that we had a real Superman drawing in the scrapbooks.”
Joe Shuster, a first cousin of comedian Frank Shuster, moved to Cleveland with his family around 1924, and might have drawn the undated Beta Sigma Rho superhero during a visit to Toronto as early as 1937, but probably no later than 1940. The figure resembles a Shuster-drawn Superman that appeared on the cover of the Superman comic of September-October 1940.
“The sketch already exhibits many of the hallmarks of Superman as we know him – the shorts-over-tights costume, the square jaw, and the lone curl on his forehead,” OJA director Dara Solomon observed.
Soon after it surfaced, the sketch was featured in an article in the New York-based Forward in June 2013. “The drawing will remain on view at the Ontario Jewish Archives in North Toronto,” the article concluded. “No word yet on an early version of Lois Lane as sorority sister.”
Besides the Wayne and Shuster memorabilia and superhero sketch, other items of note in the BSR scrapbooks include music reviews by Louis Applebaum, later a noted conductor and stage and screen composer; and a 1938 article titled Diplomacy and International Lawlessness by David C. Vanek, later a noted provincial court judge.
Bill Gladstone is a Toronto-based writer and frequent contributor to these pages. This is the first in a series of seven articles about the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre to be published periodically, funded by the J.B. & Dora Salsberg Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. This series is in partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, and draws on their collections: www.ontariojewisharchives.org.