1990s, After-hours, Alternative, Dance Music, House, Rave, Techno

Then & Now: OZ, The Nightclub

September 20, 2014
OZ, The Nightclub GTO ___ 77-970x642

Photo inside OZ, courtesy of Luke Dalinda.

Article originally published November 2, 2011 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).

In this instalment of her nightclub-history series Then & Now, Denise Benson looks back at a mid-’90s raver mainstay that was so popular, it inspired a TV show.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: OZ, The Nightclub, 15-19 Mercer Street

Years in operation: 1993-1997

History: Previously known as Factory Nightclub, an early home to techno in Toronto, 15 Mercer Street was reborn as OZ, The Nightclub in March of 1993. Factory founder Skot Fraser partnered with Americans Jim Pici and Mike Hamilton to open the new fantasyland, with input from key event producers including DJ Iain, promoter James Kekanovich and Steve Ireson, a former manager at the Ballinger brothers’ influential club Go-Go who would soon become a core manager at OZ.

OZ attracted large enough crowds that it soon grew to include a lounge on its second floor and, after that, it expanded into 19 Mercer Street, where the “Emerald City” VIP area was built. By then, OZ contained three separate dancefloors spread across 20,000 square feet, giving it a capacity of roughly 1,200 people.

Why it was important: Venues of similar sizes started sprouting up in the early-to-mid ’90s, parallel to Toronto’s increasingly massive rave scene, but what gave OZ an edge was its creative staff—including Michael “Mychol” Holtzman and Douglas Barnier, who designed freshly themed décor and installations every few months—coupled with sophisticated sound and lighting, and thoughtfully diverse programming.

OZ bar. Photo courtesy of Luke Dalinda.

OZ bar. Photo courtesy of Luke Dalinda.

“Toronto had not seen this level of partying before or since,” says Ireson. “The people involved, owners and staff alike, were all pioneers and had a grand flair for fun, adventure and carrying on—to the extreme. We knew how to have fun ourselves and made sure everyone else did too. In its prime, OZ was open six nights a week and each crowd gave ‘er as much as the next.”

Tuesdays hosted a jam-packed all-ages night where DJs including Mark Oliver and Matt C solidified their followings. Wednesday nights were for gay men and friends while Thursday’s “Hell” was all about the rock; DJ Iain’s retro Fridays combined ’80s synth-pop with ’90s alternative, and equally popular Saturday night DJs Scott Cairns, James St. Bass and Chris “Cooley C” Cooley mixed dance music ranging from mainstream to underground.

“Thundergroove Sundays though, that was a real legendary night,” says Ireson. “We brought in the big-name house DJs before places like Industry and The Guvernment existed. It had the feel and energy of a warehouse party in a fully equipped nightclub, with a perfect mix of gays, straights, guys and girls. There were people in costumes and wild outfits, fire breathers, drummers and dancers, all with the thundering house music played by the best. I find it hard to put into words just how spectacular this night was.”

Photo by Alex D. of Tribemagazine.com

Photo by Alex D. of Tribemagazine.com

Debut issue of TRIBE Magazine, August 1993. Image courtesy of TRIBE founder/publisher Alex D.

Debut issue of TRIBE Magazine, August 1993. Image courtesy of TRIBE founder/publisher Alex D.

Thundergroove—with resident DJ Kevin Williams and guests including Peter & Tyrone and Shams (who later became residents)—regularly drew crowds approaching 1,000 people. The night so impressed TRIBE Magazine publisher Alex Dordevic that he featured both Williams and OZ as cover-story subjects in the August 1993 debut issue.

“I spent a lot of time at OZ, mostly on Sunday nights for Thundergroove because that is where all the best DJs and a lot of the cooler bar staff in the city were on their night off,” says the man better known as alexd. “We came to unwind after the crazy illegal warehouse parties the night before. Below the booth or in the VIP bar area was the place to hang out, dance, and listen to one of the most technically perfect house DJs I have ever heard, Kevin Williams, spin exactly what he wanted to spin on a killer sound system. Kevin was unbelievable; his mixes were so good they would bring tears to your eyes.

“Then, every couple of weeks, you would get Peter, Tyrone and Shams spinning pretty much nothing but white labels and acetates, testing records out on crowds before dropping them on warehouse parties. We were like a family at Thundergroove. It was heaven. It was also an industry night, long before Industry.”

Photo by Alex D. of Tribemagazine.com

Photo by Alex D. of Tribemagazine.com

James St. Bass, an OZ Saturday night DJ and later one of the hosts at Thundergroove, echoes the sentiment.

“OZ was the most successful at having warehouse sounds and clientele in a relatively safe licensed club venue. If the Factory was Toronto’s first licensed rave club—as compared to [the unlicensed] 23 Hop—then OZ was one of the first to capture, I feel, some of the chaos and glamour of New York– and South Beach–style clubbing. There was lots of mixing—drag queens and thugs, bikers and ravers, all ages and all backgrounds—with shooter and cigarette girls working the room and everyone always striving to make it wilder, more fun and more outrageous. There were no shortages of hot messes on a good night at OZ!”

Finally, OZ played an important role in supporting Toronto’s burgeoning rave movement, which, by then, had caught the attention of mainstream media—and the law.

“It was a regular thing for us to receive a call on a Saturday night from the rave promoters looking for a place to bring their party after the police had shut down their event,” recalls Ireson. “We would close the club a bit early—bars stopped serving at 1 a.m. back then—rush people out, give the floor a quick sweep and re-open to the thousand people lined up outside coming from the rave.”

OZ dancefloor. Photo courtesy of Luke Dalinda.

OZ dancefloor. Photo courtesy of Luke Dalinda.

Adryin in OZ's Emerald Lounge. Photo by Alex D of Tribemagazine.com.

Adryin in OZ’s Emerald Lounge. Photo by Alex D of Tribemagazine.com.

Who else played there: In addition to the ace locals mentioned above, dozens of top international house artists—including DJ/producers Tony Humphries, Frankie Knuckles, Oscar G and Roger Sanchez graced the booth while vocalists like Lonnie Gordon and Michael Watford performed.

“You would get the visiting house DJs like Louie Vega, Disciple and Pierre, who immediately felt at home in the booth with the old Rane MP22z mixer, and their sets were epic,” says Alex D. “This predates the ‘superstar DJ’ phenomenon, so there was no pretension, no attitude at all by these visiting greats, or from the people who came to hear them. You could get close to them—you could feel close to them and what they were trying to do.”

OZ on TV: OZ so captured the imagination of budding young television writer and producer Luke Dalinda that he taped the entire first season of his club culture series Dance Nation on location there in 1996. The weekly 30-minute program aired for three years on NBC in the U.S. (CHCH 11 for Season 1 in Canada). Its high ratings spawned related CD compilations, radio show and events back in the day, with a new season currently in development.

Dance Nation was the underground alternative to [CITY-TV's] Electric Circus,” explains Dalinda by email. “We allowed DJs to play full sets and we recorded the first 13 episodes at OZ, which was Toronto’s foremost underground nightclub setting. Being at OZ allowed us to capture the essence of club culture at the time, with real dancers, breakers, DJs and incredible nightclub lighting. The reality dance shows of today cannot compare to the pure eye candy that OZ had featured every weekend.”

What happened to it: According to Ireson, “After an ongoing dispute with the landlord over rent, OZ shut down on New Year’s Day 1998 following a spectacular 36-hour event. We backed a transport up to the doors, stripped the club and loaded it all into the truck.”

Maison Mercer

Maison Mercer

15 Mercer Street would go on to host a variety of nightclubs, including the short-lived, unfortunately named Schmooze. It is now home to Maison Mercer (pictured above). 19 Mercer became high-end Asian fusion restaurant Rain. Owned and operated by the Rubino brothers, the fantastically designed resto closed in 2009; in September of that year, the brothers partnered with Charles Khabouth to open Ame, a restaurant and lounge that occasionally hosts intimate classic house events and the like. [Addendum: Ame closed doors in 2012. Khabouth opened Italian restaurant Buonanotte at the address in January 2013.]

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8 Comments

  • Reply LLOYD August 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Peter Cass dated Hopper?in the mix from what club, time date, maybe Gillies!dance, oh! la! first lap dance?was it rough trade Carole Pope!

  • Reply brad goldfinger August 23, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Hey…no mention of Xit……

  • Reply Timber Masterson May 21, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Wow, you really missed me Ms. Benson. I was kind of an integral part of OZ when it first opened, renting costumes and hosting the first opening 3 nights there, hiring 2 sets of friends to play Dorothy, lion, tin man and midgets, I hired midgets. How could you miss this, did i do something to you?! I was certainly one of the fellows who helped provide the entertainment and atmosphere on Sunday evenings; designing VIP badges, hiring doorgirls, those drummers, fire-breathers and a whole lot of other whack jobs that made it perfect for the times, yes, the day after the “illegal warehouse parties” (that I also was found to be hosting a good chuck of the time. Too bad, otherwise, there’s some things in here that seem fairly nostalgic and good enough to read. Oh well. Hope your club book does well.

    • Reply Denise Benson May 22, 2015 at 8:39 am

      hey Timber,
      I’m responding as you asked a very direct question and clearly have taken some things personally. This is the first I have heard of your contributions to OZ; these stories did not come up in the interviews done for this piece. That said, this article was one of the earliest in the Then & Now series, back when the pieces were meant to be brief and the focus weighed heavily to the music played so that’s what the people who contributed to this piece focused on. Definitely not a personal slight of you. Thanks for adding some details to the story of OZ with your comments.

      • Reply timber masterson May 22, 2015 at 9:25 am

        Thanks for saying that…just seemed odd. I mean, who cares about an article written years ago about a club 20 years ago, right, it just hit me strangely when I read it, that’s all. Cheers.

  • Reply Thomas Weller January 25, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Can´t say I know much about the OZ cuz by the time it became the OZ the space was kinda done with from my humble point of view. What I DO remember, however, was walking into the FACTORY one cold night in 1991, I think first few days after launch with MAYBE 15 people there, hearing Dominator and going like…´what the fuck is THIS!!!´referring to the first time I´d ever heard techno…and in an instant recogonizing that something incredible was about to happen to the city. From around ´89 – ´90 ´til that time I was promoting 23 Hop but back then 23 was still just pretty much an empty…but very cool, edgy wareHouse scene/space. There was NOTHING in the area except for lots of warehouses and FACTORY began to anchor what much later would become …¨puke, gag, puke… the Entertainment District.¨

    Well…Factory exploded in no time, and if I´m not mistaken, the first raves were organzized/promo-ed from there…anyone remember that poster with the dalmation superimposed on a black and white checkered background? Pure bliss…some of my most cherished clubbing days were thanks to the Factory. Alas, the rest is history…23 went mainstream, Go Go´s opened, later Limelight and the place went to the shit´s and is what it is today…question…why does Toronto always have to commercialize everything??? Thanks Scot, Tanya for great memories…fell in love more than once! T.

  • Reply E January 9, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    These are all such great articles. I can’t believe the bartenders of Oz weren’t mentioned. There were two of the hottest, coolest women that I have ever seen working that centre bar. Burned into my head after two decades of partying. Such good times there.

  • Reply Sarah Wayne December 12, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    All comments in the string below have been republished from their original appearance on The Grid website. We’re including the readers’ comments as they add to these Then & Now stories. We look forward to reading new comments here as well.

    neil forester
    
WOW!!!! this brings back big big memories.
I have worked at most of the top venues in the city over the past 15 years and people always ask me what the best club was … and OZ is always my answer
It was one of the first places I started to promote … working for $20 to handout flyers all night and bring people … Faud! I earned my stripes there … but I never cared about money, i was a 19 year old just loving the vibe
there has never been a club like it since
best memories ever
and on a very funny note … why did I just show my kids images of me dancing in the background on dance nation … lol … when i was much younger and had hair!
seeing some of the names on here posting comments brings back great memories
jennstar … g money ….. steve ireson … great great times! 

11:32 pm on March 9, 2014 






    Douglas Barnier
    
Once again, an article written without the facts…”CREATIVE STAFF”
was me DOUGLAS BARNIER..why do you always leave me out of the articles, It was like I never existed…cmon Denise! 

4:01 pm on March 8, 2014 







    Lee Osborne
    
I had some great times there being introduced to the underground movement in Toronto. I do recall passing out behind a speaker at 11:00 am one new years day. 

8:13 pm on March 7, 2014 







    DAVID JAMES 

    One of the best spots ever. I remember checking out several RAVES starting at 2am after the usual bar closed. i think Pleasure Forces Chains of Love was held there. 

7:31 pm on March 6, 2014 






    Ya Wish
    
My Cousin Jim Pici was involved with this club and it closed because of debt….. Not because of rent dispute. No pay bills the vendors come collecting. Mismanaged to the tilt. Jim Pici Passed on quite a while ago BTW. 

3:53 pm on July 6, 2013 






    Pandora
    Oz was my second home. I still miss it and I’m 37 now. I still have my Oz key chain, is that wrong? Lol! do an article on RPM pleeeease! Thank you for all your then and now articles they make me smile and then I listen to some dove song and I’m happy again…. 

2:35 am on June 22, 2012 







    Brett Gelfant 

    Denise, great job on this definitely brings back lots of memories of the good ol days before Colin Vaughan! 

2:06 pm on February 9, 2012 







    Liisa 

    Really enjoying this series Denise. Oz, like many venues of that era, gave up some of its weeknights for “alternative” DJs, and I have fond memories of Hell Thursdays (I think VJ Vania?) and Fridays with Iain. It was always a pleasure to dance to White Zombie or NIN or whathave you in a place with a great sound system that wasn’t too icky to sit down in, you know? 
I look forward to more of these retro reports….. 

5:09 pm on November 3, 2011 







    Ken
    This was one of my first playgrounds in Toronto – even the parking lot out back was fun! Can’t wait til you write a piece on the other landmarks which had fundamental impact on me: the supremely cool GoGo and of course the legendary Industry. 

2:14 pm on November 3, 2011 






    Luke Dalinda
    Thank you so much, Denise, for such an amazing feature.
Here is the video in HD:
http://youtu.be/UGttBLGJnoc 

10:01 pm on November 2, 2011 







    Juan”GMONEY”Jaramillo
    
WOW THAT WAS AMAZING TO SEE A LOT OF OLD FACES BACK IN THE DAY . THX DENISE AWESOME JOB !!! 

2:52 pm on November 3, 2011 







    Scott Cairns
    
Great story, Denise! 
I have many fond memories from my years at OZ, and this stirred up many more that I had forgotten about. Thanks for that. 
“The good old days”… sigh. 
Scott 

7:03 pm on November 2, 2011 







    Jennstar 

    Love the article Denise!! 
The DN vid brings back sooooo many memories. The Oz was definitely home to me many nights of the week and there was too much fun to be had.
xo
Jennstar 

6:48 pm on November 2, 2011 







    steve ireson
    
Denise… reading this and watching the DN video gave me goosebumps! An amazing account of one of Toronto’s most legendary clubs not since matched. The staff, the crowds, the vibe… stellar! Thanks for this! 

5:36 pm on November 2, 2011

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