Club Focus bouncer Marc Kyriacou. Photo courtesy of Johnbronski.
Article originally published February 29, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
Denise Benson looks back at the all-ages venue that first introduced many of today’s top nightlife-industry players to the Toronto dance scene—and also served as a breeding ground for infamous ‘80s street gang The Untouchables.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Club Focus, 14 Hagerman
Years in operation: 1986-1989
History: Club Focus was housed in a nondescript, two-storey building that would have been constructed during the decades (1870-1960) when Toronto’s original Chinatown was centered near the corner of Elizabeth and Louisa. The one-block-stretch that runs parallel to the north end of City Hall, from Elizabeth to Bay, was later renamed Hagerman.
In the 1950s, many buildings in this still-industrial area—with the original City Hall and Eaton’s Annex main store nearby—were obtained by the city for the construction of Nathan Phillips Square and a new City Hall, which opened in 1965 and spurred nearby development. The Eaton Centre was built two blocks away, on the east side of Bay, in the late ’70s.
While Focus opened upstairs at 14 Hagerman as an unlicensed, all-ages dance club near the close of 1986, the site had already been a social hub. As Hagerman Hall, it had hosted community dances (including those of pioneering gay organization Community Homophile Association of Toronto, a.k.a. CHAT, in the very early ’70s) and a karate club; the space was known as Club Kongos in the early/mid ’80s.
Club Focus owner Warren Webley was already well known by Toronto’s music-loving youth for his Sunshine Sound enterprise. Webley and family provided sound gear for school and community dances, while the Sunshine Sound Crew of DJs—including JC, Tony Duncan and Brother A.J.—could often be found behind the decks.
Despite his club’s spitting-distance proximity to Nathan Phillip Squares, Webley erected massive walls of sound in Focus and gave Toronto’s teens a place to soak up new experiences on weekends. Once they made it past security, through the long line and up the stairs (where they paid a $5-7 cover to Webley’s wife), hundreds of kids danced late into the night on a sizable, dimly lit checkered floor. There was also a raised stage by the mirrored back wall, a lounge area with video games and a screen on which hockey games and skateboard videos were projected. Bars of neon illuminated the slightly elevated DJ booth. The most popular drink at the concession stand, by far, was Sarasoda, a carbonated cooler that contained 0.5% alcohol, which made it cool among the kids.
Why it was important: Club Focus was a teenage epicentre, complete with all of the energy and drama one might expect, when you consider the many subcultures gathered. (And given that most teens at the time didn’t carry cameras around at all hours, no photos of the club could be sourced for this article.) Unlike other unlicensed—and, by definition—all-ages clubs that had come before, like Twilight Zone and Voodoo, Focus drew a high-school crowd generally aged 14-18. It was also a heavily inner-city scene, as suburbs like Mississauga had their own all-ages hotspots. Only RPM’s all-ages Sundays offered a similar downtown experience for young dancers.
“Because of its location near the Eaton Centre, and the city’s central skateboarding site at the time—Trinity Square, behind the Eaton Centre—Club Focus was an instantly popular skater hangout,” recalls Hal Wong, a Focus regular now known as DJ Hali of the Box of Kittens crew. “The club was unkempt and a bit divey; it was sort of like a dark, grimy, unsupervised high-school dance, complete with the occasional slow song, like ‘Somebody’ by Depeche Mode. And it was frequented by two main types of people: preps and skaters, and later on by mods also.”
Wong, a serious skater kid who began attending Focus in the spring of 1987 at age 16, describes some of the fashion staples on the new-wave nights he went to: skater tees and shorts, rugby and polo shirts, tightly tapered workpants, Vuarnet sunglasses, and Swatch watches, with a whole lot of Polo cologne in the air. It was racially mixed, but largely middle-class. Depending on the night you went, Focus was packed with mods, rude boys and skinheads, too.
Music was the main draw. In the beginning, Club Focus was the musical domain of Sunshine Sound Crew’s Tony Duncan who, by then, had formed his own KAOS crew with young DJs Jamie Delaney and Steve Webster. The trio played everything from The Beatles, Stones, and Kinks to Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and new wave faves like Depeche Mode, New Order, The Smiths and The Cure. Fridays initially featured heavier doses of reggae and ska, attracting the rude boys and skins, while Saturdays’ new wave emphasis appealed to the skaters and preps with floppy hair.
Warren Webley’s son Devon later became a Focus star DJ. In his late teens, Devon came up playing school dances and then DJed Fridays at St. Joseph Street all-ages Club Z, which his father had bought from Charles Khabouth in 1987. Devon then moved to Fridays at Focus; by 1988, he mixed the music both nights, blending new wave, reggae, ska, hip-hop and house.
“New wave was kicking at the time,” recalls Devon Webley. “The shocking surprise for a lot of people was that it was a black guy knowing and playing the alternative music, not to mention blending it at the same time. I also had a lot of house music and mixed that in.”
“The music that was played at Focus, it was the happening sounds of the time,” says Webley. “Whether it was house or new wave or ska, the beat had to be there. And the sound system was the big thing. Whatever music was played, that bass was coming through your body. You might hear some of the same music at other places, but it wasn’t the same experience.
“Also, I have to say, that if you couldn’t dance and came to Focus, you knew how to dance after that.”
Focus attracted a deeply loyal crowd of regulars, many of whom attended every weekend for months or even years.
Paul Seguro was a DJ who Warren Webley recruited from intimate, Bloor-and-Ossington all-ages spot, Blondie’s. He was already a Focus fan and attendee, so he was thrilled to take over Fridays in ’88, when Devon Webley moved back to Club Z for those nights. Seguro also mixed the likes of The English Beat and The Specials with reggae, house and new wave.
“It was all about the music,” emphasizes Seguro, “played on a great soundsystem in a good downtown space. Some nights, I’d guess there were 500 people packed in there like sardines. The floor would bounce! In the summer, Warren would turn on a big wall fan. It being a sauna in there on a summer’s night, the air outside was actually cooler, so people would rush in front of that fan to cool off.”
Many of the young people who sweated it out on the Focus floor would, like Hal Wong, become deeply involved in underground dance music and nightlife. Focus was a breeding ground for future generations of DJs, promoters and venue owners.
Matt Casselman a.k.a. DJ Matt C, later a co-owner of Industry nightclub, was one of them. As a 13-year-old from Scarborough, he told his parents he was working his bus-boy job at the Royal Canadian Legion while often heading instead to Focus and Club Z.
Some of the friends he rolled with included Wayne McNaught (a.k.a. DJ Wayne Wonder), Chris Sherwood (later co-owner of The Adelaide Street Pub), Roger Moore (now an actor—no, not that one) and scenester Makepeace Charles, who became a surgeon.
“Focus was very cool; the kids were really, really trendy,” Casselman gushes. “We were young and full of testosterone, so trying to pick up girls was a main attraction, too. There was a lot of grinding going on. It was a very sexually charged club.
“Also, Devon Webley was an amazing DJ; he had a massive influence on my DJ style,” adds Casselman, who started playing dances at age 13. “Devon and Warren used to go to New York to buy records, so he had a lot of music that most people didn’t. I remember when Inner City’s “Big Fun” came out in ‘88, that New Year’s Eve, it was the first song Devon played at midnight, and it tore the place apart.
“Another thing I really remember about Focus is that if the crowd didn’t like a song that was being played, they would sit down on the floor cross-legged,” Casselman chuckles. “That was a trendy thing to do.”
Who else played/worked there: Although others, including CFNY hosts like Skot Turner, would grace the Club Focus DJ booth on occasion, the men mentioned above were the club’s main musical draws, along with MCs including Brother Different and Butch Lee.
But at Focus, the bouncers also played a key role. Walking hip-hop encyclopedia Johnbronski worked there for a stretch. A security guy named Garth is mentioned repeatedly, remembered for his ability to hold the masses behind an established, but invisible, line on the sidewalk. Apparently a cousin of famous Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, Garth was also known to select those who would get in on the busiest of nights.
It was crucial that Focus’ doormen could control the teenage masses.
“Focus was not always good times and alcohol-free bubbly drinks,” explains Hal Wong. “In the late ’80s, there was still a lot of lawlessness and crime in the downtown core. Stories of muggings, or being rolled, by skinheads simply for wearing Doc Marten shoes were very common. So were street fights.”
In fact, Wong tells me of a massive, hour-long street brawl between skinheads and skaters that occurred in front of Focus in October of 1987. Cops barricaded the area, but allowed the fight to continue as they threw individuals into police vans. Tensions between skaters and skins remained high, and Focus was prime turf, especially as members of infamous Toronto street gang The Untouchables were also known to frequent the club.
“Focus was the epicentre of all that gang shit at the time,” says Marc Kyriacou, a former bouncer who worked at the top of Focus’ stairs for two years. “We had our fair share of going home with bumps and bruises.”
Now an architect, designer and part of the Uniq Entertainment Group that owns venues including Cobra, Brant House, Maro, The Ballroom and Jacob’s Steakhouse (the latter of which is housed where Roxy Blu once was, Kyriacou tells a chilling tale.
“I remember the first night we got a metal detector,” he begins. “At Focus, once people entered the downstairs door, they were stuck on that staircase until they came up. If you went back outside, you had to go back to the end of the line.
“At the end of that night, when we walked down the staircase, we must have found a hundred knives, sticks and stuff. People hadn’t known about the detector so they pulled stuff out of their pocket and dropped it the ground. We were tripping over things.”
That said, despite its sometimes-violent history, Focus remains close to the hearts of many.
“Focus will always be important to me,” says Wong. “It was the first actual nightclub I experienced, and also the first place I discovered a lot of seminal underground dance music. Hearing songs like ‘Jack Your Body,’ ‘This Brutal House‘ and ‘House Nation’ will forever remind me of those early days. So Club Focus, with warts and all, is like that first sweet love of mine.”
“I can remember every inch of that club to this day,” says Seguro, who now builds homes and, for the purpose of this article, drafted the floor plan below from memory. “It was probably one of the best years of my life. If I could time travel, I would go to a Saturday night at Hagerman. It was home.”
What happened to it: By most accounts, Club Focus closed on Hagerman as its lease expired and the City of Toronto reclaimed the property for development. 14 Hagerman was demolished and a private parking lot currently stands in its place.
As mentioned, Warren Webley also owned Club Z at 11A St. Joseph Street. There was a stabbing there in 1989, and Webley briefly closed the location as a result of the murder.
It then re-opened as the new home of Club Focus, with DJs including Paul Seguro, Devon Webley and younger brother Michael Webley. This closed after less than two years, and the Webleys moved Club Focus to Oakwood and Vaughan, into a spot known as The Cave. Even with a roller rink upstairs and banquet hall downstairs, it never caught on.
Warren Webley then opened a Sunshine Sound and Lighting shop at Christie and St. Clair. Today, there are locations on Eglinton West and in Scarborough, with the east-end location run by Michael Webley.
Devon stepped away from DJing and acted as executive producer for a few releases on Focus Records, including X’onia’s “By The Way.” Today, he’s a happy family man and TTC bus driver.
Thank you to all who contributed research to this piece, also including Adina Shore, Jp Navidad, Johnbronski, Michael Webley. Thanks also to those who searched for Focus photos, flyers or memorabilia. Please let us know if you have photos!