Photo by Julie Levene, courtesy of Barry Harris.
Article originally published March 15, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
Denise Benson looks back at the massive, corporate-owned Yorkville spot that helped create Toronto’s big-ticket nightclub experience in the early 1980s.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: The Copa, 21 Scollard
Years in operation: 1984 – 1992 [Original article stated 1983 - 1992]
History: Yorkville dance club and concert venue The Copa made its mark as one of the largest and busiest nightclubs to emerge in early 1980s Toronto. Opened in August 1984, the hotspot was located on the south side of Scollard, in a mixed commercial and residential area.
Its owners, the Chrysalis Group, were no strangers to Yorkville, having already opened trendy restaurants Bemelmans and the Bellair Café nearby. Chrysalis, in particular its CEO Tom Kristenbrun, would also go on to open Toby’s Goodeats and Bistro 990, but Chrysalis Group would make their mark with music as well as food.
“They were rocker guys, tavern guys with long hair from North Bay who came into town with some money and bought The Ports of Call on Yonge Street, the El Mocambo on Spadina and the Jarvis House Tavern,” recalls Arnie Kliger, former owner of Stages Nightclub on Yonge Street, who also worked as assistant manager at The Copa during its first year of operation.
“They were beer and wings guys who had a dream of opening a restaurant after having the bars,” says Kliger.
Chrysalis, while still known as Consortina Inc., made their mark on 1970s Toronto with The El Mo, The Ports and 101 Jarvis, but by the early ‘80s they were hosting celebrities, society types and Toronto Film Festival parties at their Yorkville venues. Opening a mega-club was a logical new feather in their corporate cap.
The Copa may have been corporate-owned, but to place it in context, it was large (legal capacity 1100) and licensed, where most other dance clubs of the time were either unlicensed (Twilight Zone, Club Z, Focus), or licensed and located in hotels or other touristy spots, as with the CN Tower’s Sparkles disco.
Why it was important: In this environment, The Copa emerged all shiny and new. Chrysalis spared no expense, installing an incredible and intricate sound system, computerized lighting and lasers, and banks of television monitors on which music videos played. The DJ booth was custom-built and massive, there was a raised stage area in the middle of the narrow, rectangular-shaped room, and an overhanging balcony ran the club’s entire length.
While opinions vary as to whether this balcony added to the party by offering a primo view of the action below or dissipated the club’s energy by its placement, the young, fashionable, heavily uptown crowd packed the place. The Copa, with its 39 bartenders, VIP room and super VIP room (behind closed doors, with its own bathroom and bar), was ready to serve. In order to meet the food-to-liquor-ratio laws of the day, The Copa also had a full-time chef who cooked up the club’s infamous buffet. Opinions on the quality of the food also vary wildly, but numerous Toronto clubbers have told me they went to The Copa in part to eat a full meal.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, the club featured DJs most nights, augmented by live concerts. The Copa—along with The Diamond and, later, RPM—put Toronto on the map as far as licensed venues go, but its music format was a lot more commercial than many dance clubs of the era, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.
Early resident DJs included Terry ‘TK’ Kelly (who later established himself as the DJ at RPM) and Jeff Allan, a dance music DJ who was also an announcer at rock station Q107. Now a morning show host at Kitchener’s 570 News, Allan created extended dance mixes of rock songs during his Copa days, including this one of Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.”
Although bars at that time had to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. on Sundays, they were consistently among The Copa’s busiest and most musically adventurous nights. Early on, Sundays were alternative nights DJed by CFNY’s Chris Sheppard and hosted by the station’s equally infamous personalities Earl Jive and Beverly Hills.
When that crew departed to work at RPM—opened by a group that included Martin Arts, The Copa’s original general manager—Sundays morphed into one of Toronto’s first house music weeklies in a licensed club. DJ Barry Harris was hired in the spring of 1986, and thoroughly transformed Sundays during his year-and-a-half residency.
“I originally slid in quite comfortably by playing Ministry, The Cult, Beastie Boys and other CFNYish music, which I enjoyed,” recalls Harris, who had previously DJed at 101 Jarvis. “It was great playing Sunday nights as it was known as ‘alternative night’ and not commercial.
“As the alternative crowd started to discover RPM a few months later, my Sunday night music became more influenced by the Twilight Zone and [CKLN’s pioneering Sunday afternoon program] Dave’s Dance Music. Host Dave Ahmad recommended The Copa to his audience each Sunday and by fall of 1986, the crowd had completely changed. We continued to maintain an average of 1100-1300 people, but it morphed naturally into a house night. House music was really starting to explode in 1986, and soon the crowd would stop dancing and stare me down if I played rock or something like Ministry. They reacted more positively to freestyle artists like The Cover Girls.”
Harris also took on The Copa’s Saturdays for a few months in the summer of 1987, but found the crowd too mainstream for his liking.
“Sunday nights were the best, and my favourite night to play,” he says. “It was a DJ’s dream gig as the audience was magical. They really knew their music and were hungry to hear the latest house. Really, the night kind of became ‘The Twilight Zone part two’ of a weekend; if you wanted more of that sound and spirit, then you came to The Copa on a Sunday. I think the night introduced house music to a lot of people who might not have went to the Zone.”
The Copa and Twilight Zone had another key element in common: fierce, crystal clear sound designed by New York’s Richard Long, known for his systems at clubs including Paradise Garage.
“That system felt very powerful, almost overwhelming at times actually,” Harris recalls. “With an Urei mixer and three floating turntables as well, it could be quite a rush from a DJ’s point of view. The Copa was a large, rectangular warehouse space, but Richard Long thought of everything, including digital delay for speakers placed further away from the stage.”
Harris left The Copa in October 1987 to become the main resident DJ at Charles Khabouth’s Stilife, and later had a massively successful production career, recording as Top Kat, part of Kon Kan and, most notably, Thunderpuss, the duo who crafted smash dance club remixes for pop stars including Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Britney Spears.
The Copa had, by then, also become a house haven on Wednesday nights, thanks to influential promoter Wanda Marcotte and DJ Jason ‘Deko’ Steele. The two had been a core part of The Diamond’s success—Steele was its star resident DJ for five years before defecting to The Copa—but jumped ship after a falling out (Marcotte) and frustration over pay (Steele).
“Wanda was one of my favourite people ever and the reason I went to The Copa,” says Steele. “She was this fucking obnoxious lesbian dressed in black from head to toe, she smoked profusely, wore French braids, and had the most gorgeous lover, Irena Joannides. It wouldn’t be fair at all to do a story about that time and not cover Wanda. She was everything. Wanda was largely responsible for a third or more of the scene, in terms of the progression of house, new wave and the Queen Street art fag kind of crowd in the 1970s. She was an absolute cornerstone who, sadly, died of ovarian cancer about a decade ago.”
Together, they transformed The Copa’s Wednesdays. The crowds went from a few to fifteen hundred as house was added to Deko’s already eclectic mix.
“Really, nobody but Barry Harris and I were playing house music in big, licensed clubs back then,” says Steele. “But I didn’t just play house. I’d also play “Go See the Doctor” by Kool Moe Dee, old Aretha Franklin, some great old disco tracks—basically the roots of house.”
For a period, Steele entertained The Copa’s crowds several nights a week.
“My signature was that I didn’t have one particular sound,” he recalls. “I made sure that everything was played in a night, from the pop stuff you had to play to some edgier stuff. I’d literally play Bob Marley, go into U2, and then into something completely different.”
Unhappy with The Copa’s vibe and weekend crowd, Steele returned to The Diamond within seven months. There he was greeted by bigger pay and great fanfare.
Who else played / worked there: The diverse DJ Dante held down weekends for much of 1987. That same year, Dave Ahmad, host of Dave’s Dance Music and a resident DJ at Club Z, took over Sundays for a period. Unlike Steele, he was a fan of the club.
“The Copa was the big cheese back in the day,” says Ahmad. “It was definitely the ‘beautiful people’ spot, with a hip, fashionable crowd who knew their music. Everyone would come through on a Sunday—lots of DJs, flight crews, young professionals, people from The Zone.
“The Copa was absolutely influential,” Ahmad emphasizes. “They showed that big dance clubs with multi-format nights could work. You could go The Copa on any given night and hear something that you had not heard before. It was a commercial bar, but the music mix was smart.”
Sundays returned to an alternative music format circa 1990, when DJ Iain McPherson, then still calling himself DJ EN, was brought on board by promotions manager Max Blandford, formerly of Nuts & Bolts.
“Sundays became ‘Piccadilly Circus: A Human Zoo,’ a delightfully irreverent night that did quite well for a while,” McPherson says. “There were ‘go-go humans’ in cages, hard-core clothes, and I played emerging underground electronic sounds, like New Beat and early Acid House. It was a far cry from the mainstream dance music that The Copa was known for at the time. We even had in live acts, including Karen Finley and Skinny Puppy.”
The Copa is largely remembered for hosting an impressive array of live shows, with 1980s appearances by the likes of Fela Kuti, Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Berlin, Chaka Khan, Beastie Boys, A Flock of Seagulls, X, Erasure and Ministry.
Reggae greats including Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and Freddie McGregor performed, courtesy of late, great promoter Lance Ingleton and his LIP Entertainment. Jermaine Stewart performed in December of 1986, and received a gift from Santa. The Cult played in 1987; vocalist Ian Astbury notoriously smashed an overhead neon light with his mic stand. A bootleg recording of The Cult’s set from this night can still be found online.
“The biggest thing I remember about The Copa is that there was a constant diversity of crowds,” summarizes Boris Khaimovich, a Copa doorman who also worked as head of security and assistant manager between 1987-1989.
“We went from doing reggae nights to fetish nights. We did everything from black-tie events to hosting a Skinny Puppy concert two days later. The Copa was a club that was able to morph into whatever was needed, and even though it was corporate, the managers were given a fair amount of leeway to make decisions.”
The Copa’s large staff was filled with talented people who made their mark at that club and beyond. Many interviewees give special mention to The Copa’s main lighting woman, Andrée Emond, who worked in early dance music record shops and provided a visual aesthetic for numerous dance clubs. National Velvet vocalist Maria Del Mar was a Copa cigarette girl (yep, people could smoke and buy cigarettes at clubs back then). Promotions manager Max Blandford now promotes and markets large events and venues in Miami.
“I tried to give somebody a brief history of the Toronto nightclub scene the other day and it all kind of led back to The Copa,” says Khaimovich, who himself went on to manage Toronto clubs including Go-Go and Limelight. He now owns Maple Crescent Farm in Northumberland County.
What happened to it: While The Copa had its heyday in the ’80s, it continued to operate until the early ’90s. Online research indicates that the club closed in 1992, while some of those I spoke with thought 1991 to be more accurate. What is clear is that The Copa was inundated with noise complaints throughout its existence and, in fact, was made an example of by Toronto city councillors when they voted to create the Entertainment District through a series of new zoning laws (read more about this here).
21 Scollard became The Barracuda in 1992. The sports bar and dance club famous for its cheap beer, indoor beach volleyball court and car on the roof closed in 1996. The property was heavily renovated in the early 2000s and is now a seven-storey condo, attached to the building at 18 Yorkville.
Thank you to contributors Arnie Kliger, Barry Harris, Boris Khaimovich, David Ahmad, Iain McPherson, Jason Steele, and to Carlos Mondesir, David Heymes, Don Berns, Julie Levene (R.I.P.), Mitch Winthrop, Shawn Squires.