Wednesday, February 28, 2018

George Richards: Mr Big & Tall

George Richards is an interesting name from the past.

Famous for his Big & Tall clothing shops which catered to athletes and big men, including many of the Toronto smart dressers including Whipper Watson, Pat Flanagan, and Athol Layton.

Before opening his chain of stores Richards was a pro wrestler here in the 1930's and '40's. Born in 1914 he had taken up wrestling to help support his family after his father died. When Maple Leaf Gardens opened in Nov 1931 the teenage Richards was selling programs at the arena he would later wrestle in.

He went pro in the early 1930's and in addition to the local scene he traveled a bit working around New York and Ohio (as Benny Stein) alongside fellow Toronto stalwart Jerry Monahan.

Here he was mostly a prelim type guy wrestling on the openers. One listing in NJ has him (if he is Benny Stein) wrestling Gino Garibaldi.

In 1936 he tried his hand at boxing and entered into the Jack Dempsey 'White Hope' tournament
under the tutelage of Ed Kellar who had competed in the 1930 British Empire games in Hamilton.

During World War II he enlisted in the Air Force and helped to train troops on the ships going from Halifax to London. On the return trip he'd be in charge of German prisoners of war coming to Canada.

After the war he opened his first store and noticed he was seeing a lot of his athletic colleagues so started catering to men taller than 6'1 (sized 38-60) and to stout men 200-450lbs (sizes 42-66), It was in an instant hit for football players and of course the wrestlers who were now able to get quality suits in their sizes.

Athol Layton who was 6'6 265 wore a size 52 tall and appreciated the bright colors, shirts in pink, lilac, and chartreuse. He was one of the snappiest dressers among any athlete both on TV as a commentator and at the many charity functions he appeared at. .

It wasn't exclusive to athletes, some of the city's more famous 'stout' men were customers including former police chief Harold Adamson (6.2 210lbs) and Sam Shopsowitz of Shopsys -the hot dog king
(5'10 270lbs).

Shopsowitz once said about Richards suits 'The fact that I'm fat doesn't mean that I don't like to follow fashion trends. I object to elephant pants but I like patch pockets on my suits'  indeed!

In 1954 after the Toronto Tag Trophy (sponsored by Calvert Distillery dubbed the Calvert trophy) was destroyed by the Mills Brothers,  Richards donated a new trophy to be awarded to the Tag champs - the George Richards Trophy which was awarded through the balance of the 1950's.

By 1980 under the banner George Richards Kingsize Clothes  it had grown to 16 locations around the country and while George still remained active his son Michael was running the day to day operations. The Grafton-Fraser company who had bought 50% share in 1977 purchased the balance of the company in 1981

George was still leading exercise classes for seniors into his mid 80's and at 87 (2002) was still working out 4 times a week. Was unable to find a date of death, if anyone can help please contact me.

The name lives on as George Richards Big & Tall and I still frequent the one near me today. (6'3 240 but working on it!)
1957 with Whipper and Pat 

some info from the book - I Know that Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-known Brand Names from ...By Mark Kearney, Randy Ray

edit : Always a pleasure to receive a note from Roger Baker , our Maple Leaf source of golden info

... enjoyed it (George Richards post) as old memories of the days when I worked out at the Bloor St. YMHA. came back. Alfie Richards, who was George's younger brother was in the weight room on a regular basis, he was a big guy, and so were some of the guys that he had workouts with, he was friends with Les Lyman (promoter/wrestler), who also occasionally worked out at The YMHA.. I remember the time when Alfie invited myself and a friend that I worked out with to be seconds at a wrestling show that he had a hand in. Insofar as Alfie Richards being an active wrestler, no don't believe he ever was, I'm thinking that he worked in men's fine clothing sales, as did his older brother George.

Roger also sent over a photo of Alfie Richards wrestling with Les Lyman on a mat at the YMHA. Richards clad all in black. It sent me looking through some ads from shows that Les Lyman promoted around Toronto in the mid 1950's. On some of those shows, one 'Blackjack Richards', Roger remembers 'Killer' Jim Conroy on those shows too.

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