Portrait of an Institution
I heard today the very sad news that Kate Buckman’s Bridge Studio is no more. It is hard to put into words what this club meant to Toronto bridge players of my generation. In recent years, under Barbara Seagram and Alex Kornel, it had regained much of its past glory and once again was the pre-eminent mid-town club. However, it was sold last year, and in a few short months, the new management has driven it into the ground. Kate Buckman’s Bridge Studio in Toronto was one of the great bridge clubs of North America. It is also an illustration of the truism that a bridge club is made or broken by the personality of its owner.
What follows is an article I wrote about the club and its legendary founder for Canadian Master Point magazine over ten years ago. It seems appropriate to reprint it here for those who may not have seen it at the time.
The recent passing of Toronto’s Kate Buckman, at the age of 94 after several years of ill-health, set me thinking about the lady I had known, and her influence on me and on the rest of Toronto’s bridge community in the 60s and 70s.
Kate had introduced duplicate bridge to Vancouver in the post-war years, and opened her Toronto premises in 1959. By the time I arrived in Toronto, ten years later, there was only one major duplicate club in the city: Kate Buckman’s Bridge Studio, known to everyone as just "Kate’s". It was called "Kate’s" for simplicity, and because in every meaningful way, the club reflected its owner, the redoubtable Kate Buckman whose personal management of the operation made it what it was. It had become the largest bridge club in Canada, and the third-largest in North America, averaging three hundred tables a week, and introducing almost a thousand students to the game each year. The major competition, the venerable St. Clair, catered only to rubber bridge and an IMP league. For matchpoint players, there was only one choice.
But it was an easy and pleasant choice, for "Kate’s" truly was a ‘club’, a place to meet your friends and a place to feel at home, whether or not you actually wanted to play bridge that afternoon or evening (although there would usually be some gentle persuasion applied to get you involved). As a newcomer to Toronto (and Canada), I found it especially welcoming. Hanka (Kate’s able assistant) found me another expatriate, Brian, who could play the Acol system that was all I knew at the time; Brian traveled on business a fair amount, but when he was in town, I could expect a call from Hanka to round me up for a game that night.
But I quickly became friendly with a group of players around my own age who, some more than others, seemed practically to live at "Kate’s". Some of them have drifted away from the game over the years, but most of them still play bridge, and I still regard many of them as friends. People would drop in and out of the club during the afternoon, and a group would usually gather between five and six o’clock, whether or not they intended to play bridge that night. The surroundings were congenial, and depending on your mood, you could play cards, or just hang out in the comfortable lounge, swapping bridge stories with whomever happened to drop by.
If you wished, you could even have dinner at the club (the kitchen was presided over by a man with the unlikely name of Cary Grant). A few tables at one end would be transformed with tablecloths, red linen napkins, and glistening silverware, and a fine three-course meal was available. For most of my crowd, however, the preferred spot was Fran’s, around the corner. It was cheap, cheerful, licensed, open 24 hours, and had a plentiful supply of paper napkins on which you could write out hands and auctions. I’m not sure I ever saw it earlier than 1 A.M., our usual time to head over after the game for post-mortems.
It was at Kate’s that I met my future wife, Linda — she was running the bridge school, and I became, for a short time, one of her staff. But we were not the only couple whose partnership, founded at "Kate’s", came to extend beyond the bridge table.
This was an atmosphere in which young players could not help but grow and develop their game; there was consistent high-level competition, and top stars like Murray, Elliott, Kehela, Cowan and Gowdy were often there to play. It was at "Kate’s" that short-lived conventions such as ‘Knapik over Notrumps’ were first tried, alongside such longer-lasting innovations as ‘Guoba rescues’. Anything went, and you might encounter pairs playing Blue Team Club, Precision, Acol, EHAA, or even No-Peek during the course of an evening.
The games were a good size, and frequent special prize events added to the good-natured competition (I well remember the first Midnight Game, which followed after the regular duplicate and ended with a breakfast buffet!). This was in the days before computer scoring, of course, so someone had installed a huge whiteboard on one side of the playing area, which you could watch as the scores were entered and boards matchpointed at the end of the game (which was why we rarely got to Fran’s before 1 A.M.!). Sometimes other groups would continue through the night – rubber bridge, or gin and other quasi-legal ‘short-cards’ games. These were the players who never showed up until midnight, but who might, on occasion, still be there at noon the next day.
And over it all presided Kate herself, regal and firm, making sure that everything was exactly as she wanted it, and that her club was always a place where people wanted to come and spend their time. The club ran into some financial difficulties in the early 70s, and there were several ownership changes, but eventually Kate re-established control. However, I started a new job in late 1973, and the first time I went out of town on business, fire destroyed the old building that housed the bridge club (for some reason I have always felt a vague sense of responsibility for the disaster). The club reopened in another location, but the old "Kate’s" atmosphere was gone, and a period of decline followed that lasted well past the point where Kate Buckman’s growing ill-health would not allow her to continue to play an active role. Happily, today, under the energetic ownership of Barbara Seagram and Alex Kornel, "Kate’s" has once again become the preeminent club in central Toronto,
Kate Buckman was named winner of the Edwin A. Wetzlar Memorial Award and an Honorary Member of the ACBL for lifetime services to bridge in 1973, the first Canadian to be so honored. She is remembered in Toronto through the Kate Buckman Award, given annually to the Toronto-area person adjudged to have contributed most to people’s enjoyment of bridge; she was, naturally, the first recipient.
There could be no more fitting memorial to a great lady.