Written by Barb Legault
Robert Thomas Allen, Journalist and author. Born 1911 in Toronto.
“Toronto was an exciting place in the Summer. The docks were open and the parks were full and the Island ferry was crowded with picnickers and the whole upper deck smelled of fresh starch and cucumber sandwiches. I’ve never taken an ocean voyage, but I know if I ever do, it will never be as exciting as when the old Trillium swung her stern out to sea and gave a blast on her horn.” (When Toronto Was For Kids by Robert Thomas Allen, 1961, published by McClelland and Stewart)
Humourist Robert Thomas Allen (1911 – 1990) gave readers a glimpse of what life was like in Toronto in the early 1920s in When Toronto was for Kids. Growing up near Danforth and Coxwell, Allen recounts a Toronto “criss-crossed with ravines that a boy could reach in fifteen minutes, from the time the schoolbell rang, and lose himself in until suppertime.” (1) Published in 1961, this book describes the excitement of the Canadian National Exhibition, swimming in Lake Ontario in late August, adventuring in the Don Valley catching ‘pollywogs’ and looking for muskrat trails, and secrets told back and forth through the hot air pipes of his family’s duplex.
Allen began his career in the advertising and promotion departments of Canadian publishing companies and newspapers, and department stores such as Eaton’s and Simpsons. However, by 1948 it became evident that he had a gift for telling stories, and he began contributing regularly to magazines such as Maclean’s, Saturday Night, the Star Weekly, Reader’s Digest, the Canadian and Weekend magazine. (2) Allen was a prolific author; he wrote for almost all of Canada’s major magazines and published 14 books. His articles were still being published after his death in 1990. (3)
Allen was married in 1934 and he and his wife had two children. His domestic life often became the subject of his writing, and it was his ability to apply humour to his everyday experiences that appealed to a wide audience. Told from the first person, his intimate stories are filled with humour and dry wit. For example, The Grass is Never Greener tells the story of Allen’s adventures travelling through Canada, the United States, and Mexico with his young family in his $400 Chevrolet looking for “the Perfect Place to Live”. (4)
Allen’s descriptive, nostalgic style and his perceptive wit endeared him to millions of Canadian readers and he was honoured with many awards for his stories. (5) He won a Governor General’s Award in 1956 for a Christmas story published in the Canadian Home Journal called “I’m looking for the man we celebrate”. He was the winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for both The Grass is Never Greener (1957) and Children, Wives & Other Wildlife (1971). (6) He won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award in 1977 for his children’s book The Violin. (7)
Allen retired to San Diego, California in 1983, where he continued to write. (8) His wife kept everything he wrote in 12 large scrapbooks, which she donated to the City of Toronto Archives after his death in 1990. (9)