Boom cage dancers Mikey (far left) and friends. Photo courtesy of Sofia Weber.
Article originally published February 1, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In this instalment of her ongoing nightlife-history series, Denise Benson looks back at the notoriously decadent late-’80s dance club that brought metalheads and rap fans together, installed a hot tub and cages on the dancefloor, and effectively brought the “queer” to Queen West.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Boom Boom Room, 650 ½ Queen St. W.
Years in operation: 1988-1993
History: One cannot discuss this city’s nightlife history at any length without mention of the brothers Ballinger: Lon, Stephen, Douglas and Peter. The self-described “Rock ‘n’ Roll Farmers” from Dundalk, Ontario ruled the roost in mid-to-late-1980s Toronto. In 1986, they converted the former Holiday Tavern at Queen and Bathurst into The Big Bop, a multi-floor rock and dance club that packed in the student crowd. Its success paved the way for future Ballinger club endeavours, including Go-Go, Rockit and, at the northeast corner of Queen and Palmerston, Boom Boom Room.
Previously, 650 ½ Queen West was home, at street level, to live blues venue The Pine Tree Tavern, with a hotel above. In 1988, the Ballingers bought and renovated the building, turning the upstairs into Hotel Heartbreak—a hotel-cum-rooming house announced by a big, bold neon sign—and the downstairs into a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Danceteria” that was far more intimate and edgy than their other club efforts.
Boom Boom Room was well suited to its surroundings. In the late 1980s, Queen west of Bathurst was still the great unknown—wild and peppered with unique possibilities thanks to then-affordable rent. With the newly opened, artist-owned Mexican restaurant La Hacienda a couple of doors down (and the Bovine Sex Club not yet in existence), Boom Boom Room became Queen West’s new meeting place for punks, metalheads, fashionistas and assorted nocturnal creatures of all genders and orientations.
The Ballingers chose a rugged and raw aesthetic, with metal and exposed concrete at the core of their 350-capacity space. The entrance, made of prison-cell bars, led to a catwalk lined by highway guardrails. From there, one could play voyeur and watch people dance on the floor below or—after it was added a year later—in the showpiece metal “go-go cage” found directly across. The infamous raised DJ booth was hell to access—up a tall, vertical metal ladder—but provided incredible sightlines once records were lugged up.
“The space was unlike anything I had seen before: all concrete and metal and sparse, but with a killer sound system,” recalls James Vandervoort, who originally worked lights, and later earned his DJ stripes and alias of James St. Bass at the venue.
Vandervoort also recalls the “the family vibe” of the Boom as managers, DJs and other staff who worked in Ballinger-owned venues hopped between clubs as needed. Many of them also lived upstairs in Hotel Heartbreak.
“It was chaos some nights,” Vandervoort exclaims. “With the Big Bop, Boom Boom and Go-Go all built and opened over a few years, all of the staff was tried out in all the club combinations.”
Why it was important: Boom Boom Room brought a diverse clientele further west along Queen, largely thanks to its staff and quality music programming. The two original resident DJs—Vania and Richard Vermeulen—were key. Vania and host KC were the forces behind hugely popular Wednesday weekly Sgt. Rocks, arguably the first club night in Toronto to mix metal with alt-rock and hip-hop.
“I was always at Sgt. Rocks because it was a great party, filled with biker-style dudes and hot rock ‘n’ roll girls,” says Vandervoort. “This was at the best time for ’80s hair rock—think Guns N’ Roses, Faster Pussycat, Jane’s Addiction and The Cult circa Sonic Temple—but Vania mixed it up and played Public Enemy and other hip-hop to the rock crowd, too. They loved it!”
For much of the Boom’s first year, DJ Richard Vermeulen worked its booth Thursday through Saturday. He had developed a strong following while resident on Tuesdays at early Richmond Street hotspot Stilife, and had a wicked way of blending rock, funk, disco, acid house and more.
Vandervoort became St. Bass—and inadvertently helped lay the foundations for “Queer West” beyond Bathurst—in 1989, charged with the task of drawing a larger audience on Thursdays. A queer rocker boy with a big love for Toronto’s after-hours house scene and clubs (including Twilight Zone and Tazmanian Ballroom), Vandervoort began playing a blend of house, disco and exclusive British 12-inches, sent to him by friends who had moved to London. Not surprisingly, the night packed up with a fashion-conscious crowd, including a lot of gay men. Re-branded Boys Night Out, Thursdays became a Boom signature night.
“Guys were coming down to Queen and Palmerston from Church and Wellesley. We were attracting major numbers of queers out of the established clubs in the Village, which had not happened before to my knowledge,” says Vandervoort. “I wasn’t trying to prove anything vis-a-vis Queen West versus Church Street, but Boys Nite Out did prove there was gay club life beyond the gay ghetto.
“I’d like to think it was because of the music,” says the man who went on to helm CIUT’s popular Hard Drive show. “I was packing the floor with sounds like [A Guy Called Gerald's] “Voodoo Ray,” E.S.P.’s “It’s You,” and all the Ten City records I could get. Thursdays grew quickly to become the busiest night, and I learned to mix as I went along.”
It didn’t hurt that the night also featured hosts including Stephen Wong—now half of fashion house Greta Constantine—and “untraditional boys in underwear doing their thing” as go-go dancers in the caged catwalk.
“Most famous was Noam Gonick, now a hip queer filmmaker based in Winnipeg, who dazzled with outrageous drag outfits and fetish gear, and really took the night over the top visually. The first night Stephen Wong sent him into the cage to dance, Noam cut himself to shreds on all of the sharp metal and unfinished edges. The whole space was dangerous that way; we are all scarred from the booth, stairs and that catwalk,” Vandervoort recounts.
James St. Bass soon DJed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, leaving to become a resident at Go-Go in 1990. So began phase two of Boom Boom Room, marked most obviously by the sale of the club business to Steve McMinn, a manager at both the Boom and Go-Go, and his then-girlfriend Kim Ackroyd.
“Our first six months consisted of throwing lots of parties, fashion shows, cirque, music performances, piercing-and-tattoo demonstrations—basically exploring what worked in the space and what didn’t,” Ackroyd recalls.
“We found that the neighbourhood itself was very diverse and therefore it made sense that the club should be. Within a year, we had five strong and very different nights, with hard rock on Wednesdays, a boys night on Thursdays, Dyke Nite on Fridays, a more suburban rock night Saturdays and industrial on Sundays.”
Full disclosure: I was the DJ and promoter of Dyke Nite, which ran from 1991 to 1993. It remains a highlight of my DJ career, both because the Boom was where I really began to blend rock, reggae, rave, hip-hop and house, and because early ’90s dyke-and-queer culture was expressive-to-the-point-of-explosive. With full Boom Boom Room support, we featured early evening experimental film screenings, readings by the likes of Sarah Schulman and Alec Butler, community fundraisers, concerts by Ani DiFranco, hot-tub parties and more. The club’s catwalk and cubbyholes were put to good use, with the night’s vibe captured in Excess Is What We Came For, a short film made by Kathleen Pirrie Adams and Paula Gignac.
“Back then, it felt like we were just throwing some really fun cool parties, but in hindsight, there was a social revolution going on, especially on Dyke Nite,” says Ackroyd. “We were pushing all kinds of boundaries and sailing in uncharted territory. We provided space for people to express themselves, to find their voice. It was a beautiful thing.”
“Imagine Cheers with a clientele of goths, punks, freaks, rockers, gays, lesbians, preps and glam all rolled into one room,” summarizes Michael X Mckinlay, resident DJ and mastermind of the wildly popular Sunday Night Asylum from 1989 to 1993. “You didn’t need to go elsewhere.
“Steel cages kept you separated from the go-go dancers but, once the dancers had left, the cages were yours. Being a narrow, two-storey club had its drawbacks, but over all, the Boom lived up to its name—boom!”
Who else played/worked there: “One real benefit of the Boom was the diversity of its DJs,” asserts Mckinlay, himself known for mixing the likes of Prince with Rage Against the Machine, Sisters of Mercy and Apotheosis’ “O Fortuna”… before closing it all out with some John Denver.
“You had crossover-play between the DJs, but they were really unique and had different styles and followers,” says Mckinlay. “We were allowed to play what we wanted and weren’t held back by a ‘club theme’ or a prerequisite style.”
Some of the other core DJs who played during different periods included Mark Oliver, Matt C, Jason Steele, DJ Iain, Shawn MacDonald and DJ Dwight. Louie Palu, now an award-winning documentary photographer, and DJ Joe held down Sgt. Rocks together as “DJ Joe Louie” after Vania departed, while Mr. Pete rocked Saturdays for years. When Mr. Pete split, a Boom bartender named Shannon got her DJ start by taking the helm on Saturdays.
“I’ve been so influenced as a DJ by the Boom,” says DJ Shannon, now a 17-year-strong resident at the Dance Cave. “There was no holding back on the dancefloor as we played for open-minded people who loved all kinds of music. I like to think I’ve been keeping the flame alive all these years. I miss that bar so much; I’d say it was my favourite haunt back in the day.”
Many other creative Torontonians lent their skills to the Boom, including promoter Steve Ireson (he went on to manage at Go-Go), bartenders Julian Finkel (now owner of Model Citizen in Kensington Market) and Michael Schwarz (now an owner of Insomnia on Bloor), tattoo artist Mikey and fashion designer Deanna, a Queen Street darling now also known for her years of bar service at the Bovine.
“We were lucky that our core bar staff were very talented people,” says Kim Ackroyd. “We had fashion designers, DJs, tattoo artists, musicians, and graphic designers working as bus-people, bartenders, wait staff and doormen. Our success was heightened by the dedication of the staff who contributed more than what they were hired to do.”
Most memorable moments: Deanna, who worked in various capacities from 1988 to 1993, cites the club’s hot-tub parties; setting things on fire while serving customers; the time actor Doug Bradley (a.k.a. Pinhead in Hellraiser) judged a Halloween contest; and the opening of Dyke Nite in 1991.
“The very first Dyke Night was so fucking busy we had to hire another busser on the spot,” she shares. “That night, we had more than 500 people through the door; the bussers had to walk outside and around to the front door to service the front bars. You couldn’t move in there.”
“The girls had some pent-up energy that they let loose,” deadpans Ackroyd, who also recalls visits by Madonna’s dancers and crew during the Blonde Ambition tour stops and “some things I just can’t share. Sex and drugs and rock and roll…”
“In today’s world, if asked whether I had any fun stories of the Boom Boom Room, well, it would be considered NSFW,” agrees Mike X Mckinlay. “Let’s just say that having a hot tub in the middle of your dancefloor can create an intimate experience for you and some friends. Oh yeah, pool tables are great too. So are elevated, virtually inaccessible DJ booths.”
What happened to it: Most people I spoke with say Boom Boom Room closed near the end of 1993, while a few suggest early 1994 feels more like it. The crowds had thinned by then, but long-time staffer Deanna also recalls that, mysteriously, the Ballinger brothers still held the liquor license and let it lapse. The brothers opened New York mega-club Webster Hall in 1992, and own it to this day.
Later in the 1990s, Boom Boom Room became intimate rave haven Fat City—owned for a stretch by Steve Ireson and Mychol Holtzman. The venue then became the uniquely (some might say “bizarrely”) decorated Volcano Room, owned by Michael Sweenie who would later open Andy Poolhall on College Street. In 2005, it opened as a Hero Burger, with the Hotel Heartbreak sign still found above. The one time I visited the washroom there, the Boom’s original corrugated steel doors were still in place, as was the club’s lower level concrete dancefloor. Take a wander, and imagine for yourself.