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Legendary eatery changes hands

But the Thunderbird will live on

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It started when a million-dollar fire destroyed the Paladin restaurant in 2011 and the city lost one of its finest made-from-scratch casual restaurants. Then, the famous Wagon Wheel stopped turning out its famous clubhouse sandwiches in 2012. And earlier this year, Mary Kelekis hung up her apron and shut the doors on her family's legendary North End eatery in January, after 81 years of serving hotdogs and chips.

And now Johnny Ginakes has quietly sold the Thunderbird, after 53 years under his watchful eye. This is his final weekend.

"It changes over on Oct. 1," says Ginakes sadly. He will only say he has "sold to an Asian couple -- very nice people. They had been asking me for about a year if I would sell." It will still be called the Thunderbird and keep the iconic sign soaring high above McPhillips Street and Jefferson Avenue. And Johnny says he believes the menu is going to stay much the same. That'd be burgers like his famous Thunderburger and Masterburger, plus hotdogs, pizza, chicken, Greek salads and the big breakfasts. It was always food that attracted families, students and dating couples. "We've had lots of people meet here and get engaged," he smiles proudly. "Some of my customers are fourth-generation now."

Ginakes -- a brother to well-known Winnipeg restaurateurs Jimmy and Perry -- started with 20 inside seats and carhops. He later expanded to 70 seats with comfy brocade booths and seats and the jukebox playing in the background. He says he will be a consultant for a few months for the new owners, but this is it for the old lifestyle. "I've been coming here every day six to seven days a week since 1960. It's my home away from home."

When he first built the T-Bird at 1970 McPhillips St., people thought he was nuts. "We had open fields behind us, a pig farm and a riding stable on Pipeline." Sometimes people would come on horseback for a burger. But Northgate Shopping Centre was coming and Garden City was developing as a larger community. From its first day open, when he didn't expect much business, he had crowds. "I didn't know where everybody was coming from!" Famous customers over the years include actress Nia Vardalos, musician Burton Cummings, mayors Steve Juba and Sam Katz, former Jets Bobby Hull and Dale Hawerchuk and Blue Bombers Kenny Ploen, Chris Walby and Charlie Shepard, former premier Gary Doer, former chief justice Ben Hewak and businessman Phil Kives. Is he feeling his age now he's in his mid-70s? "No, I feel like I'm 19 every day! But people have been bugging me and wanting me to quit, so I can have time with the grandchildren and my wife (who also worked many years at the Thunderbird) would like to do some travelling." But for Johnny, not coming to work from his house three blocks away, is going to be hard to get used to. "For me, I loved the people. My clientele have always been great people and I will miss them very much."

-- -- --

BEHIND IN THE COUNT: Wednesday night, hundreds of people crammed the Garrick Centre to see the public screening of Behind in the Count. The 41-minute independent film is the true story of a scrappy baseball team from Winnipeg's North End who started the game as little kids with broomsticks for bats and didn't even have proper-fitting uniforms. To everyone's amazement (even their own) they went on to win the national Little League championship at 12 years old in 1965. By this time, the team of many racial backgrounds was backed by CPAC (the Canadian Polish Athletic Club) and wearing CPAC uniforms. The team members are 60 years old now -- and most are still Winnipeggers. They've had their precious red Canadian championship jackets remade to fit bigger bodies and proudly posed onstage at the end of the movie to huge applause and whistling.

Winning that championship had been a life-changer for them. MLA Kevin Chief spoke before the film, saying there's no point talking to kids about overcoming their disadvantages and challenges "unless you can show them some successes." Former Goldeye Scott Neilis backed him up with his speech, as did successful musician and producer of the show Jesse Green who plays with Buffy Sainte-Marie on tour. His business, the Strong Front TV production company, produced the movie. Don Boreski, who was on the baseball team and was the head writer for the film, is a freelance filmmaker and also writes as columnist Don Marks in the Free Press. Boreski's teammates included Grant Buckoski and Neil Avery, who were the film's production co-ordinators. Other players and coaches included Joe Lambert, Bernie Dolski, Pat Wozny, Doug West, Allan Harmacy, Bryon Taylor, Anthony Biegun, Richard Ruggles, and team coaches Don Butt and Rick McGill. The show was dedicated to the three players who have died: Neil McLean, Al Giesbrecht and Ed Parisien. "We hope to put Behind in the Count into film festivals and market it to baseball-crazy countries such as Mexico and Cuba," Marks said. Ticket sales of $4,000 went to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sports Achievement Centre. When it was announced as a surprise the 1965 CPAC team who practised their way to glory on the Old Exhibition Grounds is going to be inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame, it brought the house down.

Got tips, events, sightings, unusual things going on? Call Maureen's tip line at 204-474-1116, email, or send letters to Maureen Scurfield c/o The Insider, 1355 Mountain Ave., R2X 3B6

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2013 B2

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