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.
BY: DENISE 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.]