Crowd at Komrads. Photo courtesy of Shawn Riker.
Article originally published June 21, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In this edition of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson takes us back to the after-hours nightclub that helped mobilize Toronto’s gay-rights movement in the 1980s.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Komrads, 1 Isabella St.
Years in operation: 1985-1991
History: In 1980s’ Toronto, street corners and dance clubs still served as essential meeting spots for gays and other marginalized communities. The stretch of Isabella closest to Yonge called out to many, especially after dark.
On the outer edges of the Church and Wellesley-centred gay village, the corner was close to popular homo haunts including Yonge Street’s St. Charles Tavern, Trax, and the Parkside Tavern, with gay dance club Stages above it. Nearby bathhouses were plentiful, Queen’s Park was still a major pick-up spot, and easy bar-hopping meant that gay men had lots of options even in those pre-Grindr days.
“The Yonge and Isabella area was really amazingly gay,” recalls event producer Maxwell Blandford, once a key figure in adventuresome Toronto clubs and now based in Miami. “Many bars, along with stores like Northbound Leather, were within a couple of blocks and infused thousands of gay people into that corridor.
“There were loads of transsexuals, rent boys and other sex workers, cross-dressers, goth kids, punk-rockers, and glam-rockers hanging out around House of Lords. There was loads of cruising all over that area. You could find anything anywhere and at any time.”
The upper level at 1 Isabella was a known hub. In the 1970s, it had housed discos including Mrs. Nights and Cheetah Club. Come the early ’80s, it was the original home of influential alternative spot Domino Klub. That club gave way to notoriously tough gay-and-straight dance club Oz, which boasted entrance hallways designed to look like yellow brick roads.
Alain Plamondon, who would become one of Toronto’s most beloved gay DJs, was a busboy at Oz. He tells the story of 1 Isabella’s transition into Komrads, a club he helped build and would go on to work at as busboy, server, bartender, lighting man, and, eventually, DJ.
“Basil Mangano was the owner of the space at 1 Isabella,” Plamondon begins in an email. “He hired John Burt to be a manager near the end of Oz’s existence. John was well-known in the community, and extremely active in gay politics. He convinced Basil to close down Oz to build a club that would bring class to the gay community.
“Komrads, with its shiny, stainless-steel dancefloor, hi-tech sound and lighting—including pink and purple neon lights—was a hit, and the talk of Toronto’s gay community when it opened in August of 1985.”
Why it was important: Open seven nights a week, with a café serving food from the afternoon onwards, Komrads was a safe and well-maintained club that cared about its gay clientele. The club boasted not only state-of-the-art sound, but also the largest dancefloor of any Toronto gay club at the time.
“John Burt was good at attracting crowds,” says George Fichna, one of Komrads’ longest-serving weekend doormen; he had also worked for landmark local gay bars Club Manatee and St. Charles’ Maygay room.
“John kept the place looking nice, with new carpets, paint, marble countertops on the bars, overhead TVs in the dining room, and so on.”
Partly as a result, Komrads often entertained crowds of 500 to 1,000 people, many of them spilling in from other bars after the 1 a.m. last call.
“For a while, Komrads was the only permanent after-hours club around,” Fichna explains. “In the early days, the bar closed at 1 a.m. and then served coffee, water, or soft drinks. Later, they served under the table.”
Whatever time the crowds arrived, Komrads was a key gathering spot for a community that had grown increasingly organized and politicized. The 1981 Toronto gay bathhouse raids marked a turning point in the community’s fight back against police harassment and other forms of discrimination.
A gay and lesbian liberation movement swelled as queers across this country fought against censorship, worked to win key human rights (we were awarded provincial protection in 1986 when “sexual orientation” was added to the Ontario Human Rights Code as a prohibited ground for discrimination, with the federal equivalent granted only in 1996), and mobilized against the onslaught of HIV/AIDS as it took the lives of far too many friends, lovers, and talented people.
“We were fighting for our rights in the ’80s, and Komrads was the place to go to celebrate our political ‘wins,’ with John Burt at the helm,” Plamondon says. “We chose to celebrate life, and had a ‘We’re not going to take crap from anyone’ attitude. We celebrated and we had a political voice at Komrads.”
At the time, gay and lesbian bars were an intrinsic part of our liberation movement. The dancefloor served as rallying point as much as it did a place to party. For a number of years, Komrads set the pace with its size and unequivocally gay programming.
In the 1980s, the music in gay bars was notably different than most straight dance spots. Whether playing disco, hi-NRG, new wave, underground house, or more commercial house, gay DJs leaned towards remixes, re-edits, and 12-inch extended versions of songs.
Good DJs break new ground, and Komrads’ star resident, Greg Howlett, was one of this city’s best. (Visit the Then & Now Mixcloud page to hear a number of live mixes by Howlett recorded at other venues.)
“Three or four months after Komrads opened, John hired Greg Howlett,” recalls Plamondon. “With Greg at the turntables, Komrads’ success was sealed. Greg played the best that dance music had to offer. He was brilliant.”
Dundas, Ontario native Howlett had played in clubs both straight and gay, including Le Tube, Mrs. Knights and Stages, and came to Komrads as an already-established trendsetter.
“Greg was a risk-taker, and often the first DJ to play songs,” recalls Vince Degiorgio, a good friend of Howlett’s who had DJed alongside him and is now involved in music publishing.
“Because of Greg, there’d be this stampede to stores like Starsound, J’s, and Disco Sound to get what he was playing. Numerous DJs would sit with notebooks, writing down what he played in order to copy what he was doing.
“Greg’s mixing was positively sublime and built a rush. He was a legitimate rock star long before DJs were allowed to be. And he was unique—not in a two-hour residency gig, but in a four-nights-a-week, never-let-you-go, I’m-gonna-peak-your-brains-out style.”
Howlett packed Komrads’ dancefloor during its first few years, but then left the club to work next door at equally popular gay bar Chaps (9 Isabella St., now a Rabba). Howlett played at Chaps until late into his fight against HIV/AIDS. He passed away in 1992, and is reported to have left Komrads in response to internal management struggles.
Plamondon tells me that John Burt resigned as manager after three years at Komrads.
“John, it was his baby, but politics came into play, and Basil and him parted ways in business. John left in the middle of Komrads’ success, and his leaving changed everything.” (Burt chose not to respond to questions about Komrads while Mangano could not be reached for comment.)
Following Howlett, a number of DJs stepped up to Komrads’ turntables at a time when competition was stiff—not only with Chaps next door, but also Club Colby’s at 5 St. Joseph St. and Boots & Buds at 592 Sherbourne.
Lighting man and Starsound Records’ employee Gerry Nault became the key Komrads resident until he too became too sick to DJ. After him, DJs including Carlos C, Kevin Laforme, and Allan Young played for years, but Komrads was equally popular for its live performances.
“Komrads was a dance club, yes, but it was always meant to showcase dance artists and female impersonators as well,” explains Plamondon.
“Divine was featured twice, and was a huge cult hit both times. Many more would perform, like Sylvester, Thelma Houston, Loleatta Holloway, Bronski Beat, and Jennifer Holliday, from the original cast of Dreamgirls.
“Our most successful concert event was by Village People. Unlike the other acts, Village People were promoted on MuchMusic, and much to everyone’s surprise, 80 per cent of the crowd was straight. We gave local talent the spotlight as well; I have great memories of watching Eria Fachin perform her huge hit anthem “Savin’ Myself.””
Komrads also featured some of this city’s greatest female impersonators, including Craig Russell, star of the film Outrageous!, and members of legendary drag troupe The Great Imposters such as Randy Cole, who frequently performed as Tina Turner.
Years later, professional female impersonator Stephanie Stephens, now known for her troupe The Imposters and for her own take on Tina Turner, would perform Thursday and Saturday late nights at Komrads. The show, named Hot Spot, also featured performers including Dale Barnett (The Great Imposters), Jackae Baker, and Komrads’ doorman Tony Brown, who appeared on stage as Toni.
“I will always remember Toni Brown,” says Stephens. “She was the head doorman and wore short spandex pants, and a weightlifting belt around her tiny waist. Toni was eight feet tall, with a James Brown perm. We were friends, and she used to make me laugh, asking people for ID or asking a drunken queen to leave the club, calling them ‘Mary.’
“We had the only late-night show and after-hours crowd, and the place was packed,” Stephens tells me. “It was the spot for drag shows and good DJs. Komrads was lively and welcoming, with little attitude. There was a real sense of community; people seemed to care about what was happening around them.”
With its gender inclusive door policy—Komrads was one of the only gay men’s clubs of the time that welcomed women, both gay and straight—late nights, and capacity crowds, the club attracted audiences who mixed more comfortably some evenings than others.
Doorman Fichna recounts a favourite memory.
“I remember a night when a group of girls came in with some straight young men, and we had to remind them that they were in a predominately gay place so if they got a pinch or a grope, they should let it pass. If they started a fight, they’d get thrown out.
“Two of the guys went to the washroom, and then behind them a transsexual. I had a feeling so I stood in the can and watched. The two young men were apart with a urinal in between them, and the [trans woman] stood in front of it, hiked up her dress, and proceeded to urinate. The two boys finished up quick, and got the hell out of there. When she came out I asked, ‘You just couldn’t just use the toilet stall like a lady, could you?’ She replied, ‘It was more fun that way.’ I agreed.”
Who else played/worked there: Bars often rise or fall based on the word-of-mouth created by their staff. Komrads employed dozens of popular young men, with bar staff including Todd Gibbons, Tom Paradis, Bradford Paolini, and Roger Reynolds mentioned frequently, along with doorman Omar and a beloved manager named Beatrice.
Some of today’s best-known local gay DJs—including Plamondon, Mark Falco, and Cory Activate—DJed at Komrads during its final years.
DJ Scott Cairns became Komrads’ Saturday late-night resident at the close of the 1980s, and recalls playing a mix of underground and crossover house along with more commercial sounds.
“When I first started there, Komrads was basically just another gay dance club, except it stayed open late,” says Cairns. “Because of this, it cleaned up.”
By 1990, however, this was no longer the case. Komrads had lost much of its crowd. Gay men had flocked to after-hours dance clubs like Twilight Zone, and went on to frequent weekly events hosted at mixed clubs like The Diamond, Boom Boom Room, and Tazmanian Ballroom.
Komrads’ owner Basil Mangano approached innovative promoter Maxwell Blandford, who’d been the force behind Tazmanian Ballroom’s successful Rock & Roll Fag Bar weekly, in 1990.
“Basil asked me to take Komrads over and try to revive the venue,” says Blandford.
He agreed on the condition that Mangano would renovate and allow Blandford to reinvent the space. Blandford created a club-within-a-club as he developed a front-room pub dubbed The Amazon Queen.
“We bought the inside of a 1940s gentleman’s club that I found in the Beaches, and installed it,” he says. “We opened with a Madonna Truth or Dare premiere party benefiting the Toronto PWA Foundation, and hosted a voguing ball with Willi Ninja.”
The Amazon Queen also featured Vancouver singer Naomi McLeod (who’d sung with Sarah McLachlan and Skinny Puppy) performing under the persona of Dolly Kelekatrone, and a selection of tunes that ranged “from Nina Simone to Jimi Hendrix.”
Blandford also hired DJs including Cairns, Falco, and Mark Oliver to play “socially relevant house music” in the club’s main dance club area.
“By the time of Amazon Queen, all bets were off,” Cairns recalls. “There was a new attitude and all that high-energy cha-cha music was pretty much abandoned.
“We all bonded over Warp Records, and the label’s output of records like LFO, Tricky Disco, and Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone,’” adds Cairns, who would later make his name at clubs including Chaps, The Phoenix and JOY.
“This UK bleep techno, along with deeper house sounds, were finally breaking into the more mainstream clubs. Amazon Queen and Max brought in a cooler crowd, although that period was more sparse than in the club’s heyday.”
Parties with titles like Fruit Machine and Electric Ass may have brought in trendier gays and celebrities including Boy George, Deee-Lite, George Michael, Depeche Mode, and Adeva, but Blandford couldn’t revive a done deal.
“Our biggest attraction was probably that we served liquor after-hours like a booze can, and never seemed to have any issues,” Blandford admits. “I was told that the reason we were able to remain open was because there was a serial killer targeting gay people on the loose, and the police believed that he was hanging out in Komrads so, by allowing us to stay open, they were able to get better leads. There were always loads of cops in Komrads after hours, and we were never shut down or given a ticket so the story made sense.”
What happened to it: According to Plamondon, Komrads closed in the spring of 1991.
“Komrads closed when Basil sold to the people from Colby’s,” adds Blandford; “Basil gave no notice whatsoever. We just showed up one day and the doors were locked.”
By summer, 1 Isabella St. had re-opened as Bar 1.
“I was fired and later rehired,” recalls doorman Fichna. “When I came back, it was Bar 1, and Basil had his fingers in it again.”
Some of Komrads’ later DJs, including Falco, Cory Activate, and Plamondon—now at The Barn and DJ of the 13-year-strong Retro Drama Sundays at Zipperz/Cellblock—also played at Bar 1. It closed in 1995.
1 Isabella would later host clubs with names like Generations, Radius, and Spincatz, but will long be remembered as Komrads.
“I think Komrads employed a lot of flamboyant gay people who would have had a tough time being themselves working in other venues,” summarizes Blandford. “The volume of clientele that Komrads and the other clubs produced allowed gays to have a serious physical presence, and empowered gay people to rally against homophobia and create community spirit though those dark times.
“Komrads was the anchor of that corner and, as it died, sadly much of the gay presence at that corner ended.”
Today, the site is home of Yonge Street Fitness. [Addendum: Yonge Street Fitness closed doors in December 2013. The space remains vacant.]
Thank you to all who participated, with a special nod to the very helpful Alain Plamondon. Thanks also to Shawn Riker, John Wulff, Gregory Plytas, Allan Tam, Andrew Boyd and the members of Facebook group Komrads Nightclub Survivors.
Late gay activist Rick Bébout provided invaluable history through his important online memoirs, Promiscuous Affections: A Life in the Bar, 1969-2000.