Anything could happen at Club Z. Photos courtesy of INK Entertainment.
Article originally published February 16, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In this instalment of her ongoing nightlife-history series, Denise Benson looks back at the first club creation of Toronto nightlife magnate Charles Khabouth. At just 22 years old, he opened Club Z in 1984, but its groundbreaking legacy lives on to this day.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Club Z, 11A St. Joseph Street
Years in operation: 1984-1989
History: Tracing the history of this city’s nightlife tells us much about its physical transformation and urban development. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the corner of Yonge and St. Joseph. Here, we’ve recently seen a few significant buildings largely demolished as part of their ongoing metamorphosis into Five Condos.
I had often wondered about the physical similarities between the original red brick buildings at 610 Yonge, 5 and 11 St. Joseph, and 15 St. Nicholas, but only recently noticed the plaque on 11’s easterly side. It turns out that moving and storage company Rawlinson Cartage built all of them, with the warehouse space of 11 St. Joseph constructed between 1895 and 1898.
Gay Torontonians who socialized in the 1970s and early ‘80s will remember 11A St. Joseph as popular all-ages discotheque Club Manatee, a three-level spot where the DJ booth was in the bow of a boat hanging above the crowd.
In September of 1984, directly after the Manatee’s closing, a 22-year-old Charles Khabouth debuted as a nightlife entrepreneur by opening Club Z in that very location. Now known as the CEO of INK Entertainment, whose many impressive properties include The Guvernment, La Société Bistro and the Bisha hotel/condo project, Khabouth started with just $30,000 and a desire to fuse his love of music, fashion and dance.
At the time, unlicensed (hence all-ages) after hours clubs were more common. Twilight Zone had opened in 1980 and was a bold new force on Richmond Street; Kongo Club (later Club Focus) would soon open on Hagerman; and Club Z neighbours Le Tube and Voodoo drew large fashion-conscious crowds, both gay and straight, with blends of new wave and alt disco.
“Back in those days, most nightclubs were limited to the confines of hotels,” recalls Khabouth. “In the early ’80s, the St. Joseph Street area was known to be the more underground social hub of nightlife. That area at night had an energy and vibrancy about it—an aura that you couldn’t get in hotel clubs. It had a bohemian feel, which is why it appealed to me.”
Khabouth describes Club Z’s aesthetic as “Do it yourself industrial design,” with much of the décor reportedly purchased at Canadian Tire. The club was bare bones, dark, but splashed with neon paint and squiggly lasers projected onto screens. It was multi-level, with two dancefloor/stage areas, high ceilings and a raised DJ booth accessed by a ladder. The back of the club contained a juice bar and video games like Pac-Man.
Club Z’s soundsystem was huge, and the space was reportedly licensed for 700-plus, but attendance was dauntingly low at first—until Khabouth rented a tiger to build buzz.
“After only being open for two months, and having no budget for advertising a Halloween event, I had to be creative,” he explains. “I had heard about a zoo up north that had tigers, and before I knew it, I had one delivered to the club. My office at the time had a large window and was street level, so it made for the perfect observation space. It caused quite the commotion.”
That’s an understatement. The tiger smashed the window in the early morning, and though still confined by a metal grille, it drew large crowds of people, the police, and the Humane Society. The incident made headlines and Club Z became a sensation.
Why it was important: Club Z was one of Toronto’s first clubs to feature breaking sounds in dance music, with house mixed alongside freestyle, electro, early hip-hop and new wave. Khabouth himself took regular trips to New York, Detroit and Chicago “To hunt for new sounds in record shops.”
Music was central to creating an atmosphere that brought together a diverse downtown crowd Friday-through-Sunday, with Sundays a dedicated gay night that included drag shows.
“The crowd was very urban and eclectic,” recalls Toronto house music bricklayer Dino Demopoulos, who got his DJ start at Z, playing with twin brother Terry on occasional Fridays.
“There were a lot of alternative types there, the kind of freaks that you only had in the ’80s,” he says lovingly.
“During the Charles years Club Z was very hip downtown,” agrees journalist, DJ and then-Starsound Records employee Johnbronski, a regular at the club who later tended to its sound system.
“Gay, straight, new wave, hip-hop, disco, black, white, Chinese, Indian—it didn’t matter because the music came first. Remember, no booze was sold; it was just a big warehouse type space for dancing to some serious bass. The shared love of hip-hop and dance music culture was a very big part. You really needed to have an ear to the streets to know what was up back then.
“It was a place where a teenager could escape,” Johnbronski adds. “You’d sneak out of your house at midnight and head downtown, meeting and making new friends that you’d only see between 1-to-6am on weekends. Teachers and school friends thought I was making up stories about an all-ages dance club that opened at 11pm.”
Khabouth, who could often be found by the club’s front door, built his own career foundations at Z. He’s clearly proud of it to this day.
“I believe that Club Z pioneered a whole new music direction and a generation of club culture in Toronto. That’s why I am still looking for the latest sounds, and still find it crucial to invest in the best sound systems. Music is everything, and it’s the soul of any club.”
Club Z’s rise, in fact, can be heavily attributed to its star DJ: JC of the Sunshine Sound Crew, a Z resident from 1985-1988, long before he helmed the Phoenix’ famous Planet Vibe Sundays.
“Club Z was really all about JC,” says Demopoulos. “His talent put Z on the map because the club was known for having a shit-hot DJ playing all the best electronic music in Toronto, in my opinion. Though he didn’t play that much house, he covered a lot of ground musically, from Kraftwerk and Alexander Robotnik to New York electro and freestyle stuff like Debbie Deb’s ‘Look Out Weekend,‘ and just a lot of great club music like Denise Edwards, Joyce Sims, Nu Shooz, Madonna, and Colonel Abrams.
“JC was also the first DJ that we saw who had a drum machine—a Roland 808—up in the booth, and he would do much more than just play records. He was super professional at what he did, the most technically perfect DJ we had ever heard, so he really raised the bar for what a DJ could and should do in a club. He was that good.”
Dino & Terry were Club Z regulars, not only listening to and learning from JC, but also throwing occasional parties there and guest DJing alongside Dave Ahmad during his Friday night tenure between 1986-87.
“We’d been DJing at house parties, school parties and things like that,” says Demopoulos; “But this was our first real club, playing the kind of music that really changed our lives and put all the rest of our music career things in motion.
“At the time, pretty much only the Twilight Zone was playing underground house from Chicago, Detroit techno and New York stuff, and we were pretty crazy collectors of anything in the genre. We would take all the latest and greatest white labels and hard to find stuff to play at Club Z on Fridays. A fun story: we used to make sure to pour very stiff drinks for Dave Ahmad so that he would get really drunk and let us play for longer. He was so cool, and really progressive with the underground music at the time. Although JC would play some underground house stuff, Dave and us played a lot more of it.”
As for Ahmad himself, he’s one of Toronto’s true dance music pioneers. From 1981-2000, he hosted a variety of programs on CKLN 88.1FM, most notably influential Sunday afternoon program Dave’s Dance Music. He also DJed at Toronto hotspots including The Copa, Twilight Zone and Fresh.
“We played mainly house, but threw in some heavier electro and some wave; Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill‘ was a big one then,” Ahmad recalls of his Fridays at Z. “The crowd loved their music, but took time to rock out to anything new.
“I remember breaking out ‘Erotic City‘ by Prince there. Half of the crowd went nuts while the others didn’t know what hit them. [Dancer/choreographer] Steve Bolton was in the crowd, and ran up to the booth. I showed him the cut—it had just come in at Starsound that night. So the crowd was not all trendsetters, but they loved their music. Hot clothes too!”
Who else played there: Other Club Z residents included electro, freestyle and new wave DJs Chico and Sherwin, who also opened popular after hours spot Amadeus right around the corner.
“I used to make my pilgrimage down to Z to hear Sherwin,” says Johnbronski. “I loved the way he mixed stuff like ‘I Love You‘ by Yello with Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode—those were essentially house beat records before house was even a concept. He was ahead of the curve on that, and mixed on three turntables, taking pieces from here and there, and layering in acapellas.”
International guest DJs and performers at Club Z included Grandmaster Flash, Newcleus, De La Soul, and Joyce Sims.
Also interesting to note is that famed New York nightclub operator and restaurateur Jeffrey Jah got his start producing parties at Club Z.
What happened to it: Charles Khabouth sold Club Z to Warren Webley, father of Sunshine Sound Crew and owner of Sunshine Sound and Lighting, in 1987.
“I had opened up Stilife and needed to focus strictly on that,” says Khabouth of the trendsetting, sophisticated spot he opened at Richmond and Duncan in 1986. “Although I was still involved with Club Z, it broke my heart to sell it.”
While DJ JC continued to play at Club Z, a lot of the house heads switched their allegiances fully to Twilight Zone.
Johnbronski, who began to work for Warren Webley as a DJ, sound tech and occasional doorman, recalls that his boss—also owner of Club Focus on Hagerman Street—closed Club Z’s doors for a period. It was re-opened as the new Club Focus in 1989. By that time, the area had become much rougher, with vandalism, muggings and overdoses all associated with the St Joseph Street clubs. Racist and homophobic skinheads were also a problem.
A young man named Jamie Withers was, in fact, stabbed and killed inside Club Z in 1989. His death is said to have prompted Webley to close Club Z and later re-open the space as Focus.
“My memory is that the fights and stuff were mushrooming and that I wanted to stay away from there,” says Johnbronski. “It was at a time when Toronto was beginning to go through a real urban expansion. I mean, think about it—it’s Toronto after hours, it’s near Yonge Street and we’re talking before Richmond and the whole club district existed. That area attracted a lot of everybody.”
11A St. Joseph later became dark after hours spot Playground. In the late ‘90s, Steve Ireson and partners cleaned the space up and opened it as The Pad. Between 2002 and 2004, 11 St. Joseph was redeveloped for residential use. It’s now marketed as Eleven Residencies.
As for Charles Khabouth and INK, they recently launched Chroma inside The Guvernment. Their newest nightclub, Cube, will open at the end of February, replacing INK’s Ultra club at 312 Queen West. Many Torontonians will most strongly associate this address with the BamBoo, a legendary restaurant and live music venue that was at the heart of Queen West for decades.
Thank you to all who contributed to this piece, including Paul E. Lopes, Hal Wong, Steve Ireson, Carlos Mondesir and Chris Torella. Sadly, despite much searching, very little photographic evidence of Club Z could be found. Please let us know if you have photos!