Photo of Voodoo coat check girls courtesy of Tracy Graham.
Article originally published November 16, 2011 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In this instalment of her nightclub-history series Then & Now, Denise Benson looks back to a time when Toronto nightlife orbited around Yonge and St. Joseph thanks to early ‘80s after-hours haunt Voodoo, which brought goths, gays and fashionistas together—only to be brought down, ironically, by Jack Layton.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Voodoo, 9 St. Joseph
Years in operation: 1981-1985
History: To discuss this deeply influential alternative after-hours club space is to delve into a history of Toronto nightlife that was anchored around St. Joseph Street and the surrounding area from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s. It’s a history of emerging sounds and fashions, diverse sexualities and late-night community—all played out in a city centre then becoming increasingly residential.
Before Voodoo opened in August of 1981, the original Domino Klub on Isabella was home to punks, rockers and gays alike; there were boozecans along Yonge (most notably on the corner of Maitland Street, above vital clothing store South Pacific); and the addresses 5-9 St. Joseph housed rock bar The Forge at street level, with disco club Bellows above. St. Joseph was a key street for Toronto’s growing gay community; The Forge space became famed gay dance club Katrina’s, with neighbouring homo and mixed social spaces including Le Tube, St. Joseph Café, Stages and Club Manatee.
Against this backdrop and above Katrina’s, Michael Gallow opened unlicensed, after-hours dance club Voodoo. He and DJ Dave Allen had already been involved in promoting Domino Klub and “a series of after-hours uptown warehouse events,” but wanted “to create our own environment for the emerging fashion/music culture of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The theme of the club was—as stated on the brass plaque at street level—‘Metal Music in the Modern Jungle.’”
Voodoo was open Friday and Saturday nights from midnight to dawn, with occasional fashion shows, concerts and other special events taking place before the dancing began (or on different nights of the week). The approach was low budget, with most areas painted fully black amid a minimalist lighting system. No matter. The creative people who partied there—it may have been unlicensed, but plenty of patrons snuck in booze and other “party favours”—added colour to a club where the main door policy was “no blue jeans.”
Why it was important: Voodoo opened at a time when most licensed bars closed at 1 a.m. and crackdowns on boozecans meant that late-night dancing was mainly limited to gay discos. Voodoo added greatly to the musical soundscape of the day and became a hub for the fashion-minded, sexually adventurous avant-garde. Internationally renowned shoe designer Patrick Cox was Voodoo’s first doorman/greeter and many staff members were immersed in new design and music forms.
“The uniqueness of Voodoo was its street-level vibe,” says owner Michael Gallow. “David Allen and Danny Regan [Voodoo’s lighting man] were part of the street scene in the neighbourhood and always kept everyone aware of happenings at the club. It was a very welcoming home for all those creative and fashion-forward individuals in the city. Many of the regulars were experimenting not only with their look, but their sexuality and relationships.”
“I was a Voodoo regular and the inclusive attitude of the place is what made me dream of opening my own bar or club,” says Michael Sweenie (pictured above getting ready for a night out), now owner of Andy Poolhall on College Street. “Your sexuality was not what defined you at Voodoo, just the love of music and an individual fashion style or sense. It was also the first place I ever saw with washrooms that were gender neutral; there were just as many guys doing their makeup in the mirror as girls.”
Voodoo was a key place to hear bold new sounds pouring out of Europe, America and Toronto itself. Music not heard on the radio had a home here.
“I think Voodoo really made dance clubs that came after more open musically,” says Sweenie. “It brought new wave, punk and the New Romantic scene into other clubs that usually played disco only.”
“Voodoo revived the post-bar dance scene and laid the groundwork for many of the late night places that came along,” Gallow summarizes, mentioning Biorhythm, Catwalk and Twilight Zone, of which he speaks highly.
“I always think of the Twilight Zone as the yin to our yang,” says Gallow. “They helped introduce the emerging New York dance scene to the diverse people who were settling in Toronto from around the world. Our focus at Voodoo was very European and fashion-driven.”
DJs, such as myself, who came up playing in the alternative clubs of the mid/late-’80s owe a great deal to Voodoo and its legacy.
“Voodoo was the club that opened my mind to both the culture and music that was exploding in the underground at that time,” agrees Iain McPherson a.k.a. DJ Iain, a Voodoo regular who brought that influence with him as he got his start spinning at 1980s alt-club Nuts & Bolts. “Voodoo was groundbreaking and unique. It was unlike any of the mainstream clubs of its time or even the more ‘traditional’ underground clubs that followed.”
Who played there: “Dave Allen was the spiritual soul of Voodoo,” says Michael Gallow of the DJ who shaped the club’s soundscape. Gallow may have purchased much of the club’s music—at the original Record Peddler, natch—but Allen broke ground with what he chose to highlight. He didn’t mix the songs—unlike jocks at Biorhythm and Twilight Zone, for example, who beat-matched—but Allen played the music first.
“In my mind and, no doubt, all those who were fortunate enough to experience it, Voodoo was the first truly modern, post-disco ‘underground’ music venue,” writes McPherson.
“Dave Allen was a truly fearless DJ. One of my favourite memories is the week that Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream album came out. Dave got on the mic at the height of prime time and announced, ‘This is the new Simple Minds album,’ put on side A and let it play straight through—while he joined everyone on the dancefloor. When the side came to an end, he ran back up the booth, flipped over the record, made a typically cryptic announcement, ‘Side B!,’ and played it through non-stop. The dancefloor remained packed throughout. Such was the adventurous, wonderfully musically open-minded nature of the crowd. This was a special venue at a special time in music. And we couldn’t get enough of it.”
Voodoo also hosted fashion shows by Parachute Clothing, concerts promoted by The Garys (including A Certain Ratio, John Cooper Clarke, DNA, and The Professionals), and even plays like the Dora Award-winning musical Sid’s Kids. Cutting-edge guests often visited the club.
“We had an excellent relationship with visiting bands and hosted great parties with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Adam and the Ants, New Order, Flock of Seagulls, and others,” recalls Gallow. “In that sense, Voodoo was a great symbiosis between the music and fashion biz.”
Sadly, despite the fact that CKLN 88.1FM broadcast Radio Voodoo live from the club for many months, I couldn’t locate any audio or video recordings to share.
What happened to it: Voodoo closed its doors on February 2, 1985. The area had become increasingly residential and neighbours were unhappy with the late-night revelry. Many venues on St. Joseph faced fines, noise complaints and challenges over issues like not providing enough parking for customers.
“Interesting to note that our main adversary was Jack Layton, then the local Alderman,” says Gallow. “I understand his position in hindsight—he was acting on behalf of his constituents—but there were some acrimonious meetings about our existence. I felt that the energy that had driven the club was dissipating and it was better to go out on a high note.”
Gallow also opened trend-setting (and licensed) lounge/restaurant Century 66 at Yonge and Charles, and now owns marketing agency Benchmarx Data Services.
Soon after Voodoo’s close, 9 St. Joseph opened as Backstreet, which drew a similarly mixed clientele, while Katrina’s continued downstairs at 5 St. Joseph. These addresses later went on to house a number of gay and after-hours spots, including Colby’s, Brooklyn and 5ive, with Level 3 Fitness also holding the lease at number 9 for years. Today, the entire corner of Yonge and St. Joseph is under construction to become FIVE Condominiums.
“It is fascinating to see the space today,” Gallow says. “The huge metal structure securing the building’s facade is worthy of a photo essay. The whole district was zoned for condos back in 1984 and guess where we are today. I doubt anyone who buys there now will have been a nightly visitor back then, but how romantic a notion if they were.”
Thank you: to all who shared your thoughts and photos. Thanks also to Carlos Mondesir, David Heymes, Jill Cribbin, Kiki a.k.a. Kaos Theory, Steve Ireson and the members of Facebook group Voodoo Club Alumni for your input.
Stax is such a condescending arrogant ahole, I felt I had to voice my two cents.. So so many talented successful people went though the Voodoo,for him to sum up “his interpretation”and believe he’s correct, is unacceptable. Loved everything about the Voodoo. I was going through my journey at the time and the club was our after hours spot.. From the $5 rum and cokes to whatever recreational drug was around,Voodoo was THE SPOT.Stax,too bad for you for seeing the cup half empty…
Club Voodoo, Pariah nights at Twilight Zone, The Silver Crown, The Dance Cave, with Kai Von Maltzahn were some of the best memories I had of the 80′s. We were both clubbing by the time we turned 16. I love you Kai, forever rest in peace my love!
I loved it, but was way too much of emotional shut-in to understand the vibe, always there by myself, but part of why I later took dance classes, and way before I figured out I was bi. I was a big fan of the Diamond Club for the same reason, again almost always there by myself. Thank you for understanding what I didn’t, and being a place to be.
I mention the club in this poem:
July 20 1982
Scuttling up Yonge before dawn
the morning of my twenty-seventh birthday,
my accomplishments to date,
a filing cabinet full of manuscripts
and rejection notices.
I have driven hack and cleaned vomit
from stifling halls while King Tut’s death mask
looked on with a smile,
I have parachute-panted in Voodoo’s
and held court
beneath spray-painted prophecies.
I have been laid in Anglicans woods
by a woman I never met again,
I have walked streets littered with roses
scattered under after-hour crowds
on my way to booze-can dance floors
overflowing with musicians, dealers,
groupies, strippers and sundry flotsam like me.
But now with the moon hours from predawn,
clearing clouds in the tunnel of downtown
I pass the archway of stone
that stands inexplicably at the mouth of McGill,
the women’s club a few row houses in:
I’d once been a guest inside with a Halloween Butterfly.
North of Wood Street, two jean-jacketed headbangers
from Scarberia wade through junk strewn about Yonge – he
in an AC/DC t-shirt and she in one claiming
‘And on the 8th Day God created Led Zeppelin’
– although I can’t help but doubt it.
A copy of the Plain Truth magazine sprawls
with an empty bottle of wine in a doorway.
A transvestite sits with a male, dwarf-punk prostitute
on the steps of the Country Style Donuts
eating French crullers.
In the always-open Super Duper Sub Shop
the guy with the eternally greasy ponytail is working.
“If you like Genesis you’ll love Myth”
claims the poster outside the Gasworks;
‘Save Daily on Supermarket Specials’
answers the ad on the Star box.
I turn off Yonge preparing myself for the way
the leaves on the trees will animate
the final play of twilight,
instead I come across two cats gutter-coupling.
Dawn pales into rolling clouds piling up
on the distinctly planetary horizon.
My door closes behind me with a click
that no on hears but me, and Atlas,
stained glassed into the mythos of its window.
Before eventual sleep, there is a call from my brother
salvaging the last vestiges of my optimism with small talk.
Fantastic article. That place was the bomb. Wow Stax those are some issues…. there are lots of successful exVoodoo’ers including myself, as some were highlighted above. I am successful as I wanted to be, and did contribute to society on many levels. At the time I was very young, naive, recent to Toronto and was in awe of some of the girls who were super confident and much more streetwise. These were exotic creatures. Being on the autistic spectrum with Aspergers didn’t help. It was great time of learning and growing up. Both good and bad. The music, the fashion, the creativity and the energy was all great. The clothes were amazing and I loved fashion ever since. I have never owned jeans and t-shirts. It also confirmed that I wanted to work in the creative and futurist industries and made me more determined to make it happen. Just what I needed to provide me lessons in life instead of just being academic. Coming out of it and all the crazy excess I felt I could handle anything. Including becoming fiercely independent and travelling globally on my on, starting my own business, buying my own house…. Which is what I did and had a great career and now paint selling, my work in high end galleries. My house is in great neighbourhood in London, UK with money I earned myself. My partner and I have a holiday home together in Spain. The culture of it being a great mix of people has stuck with me and my love of cities didn’t end.
I sat on the floor in the washroom the first time I did mushrooms. I couldn’t move. The music couldn’t have been better that night!
the voodoo!! fabulous times! don’t remember a bad time…
the music was fabulous. i loved the times when the dj would play a song that everyone loved and would turn down the song volume at the chorus and the whole crowd would sing it. imagine everyone singing human leagues’…. “don’t you want me ba-by, don’t you want me oh-oh-oh-oh”!!! it was sublime.
Re: Stax:Your comment about those of us who went to the Voodoo is mean spirited. Many of us already had jobs at the time. I myself went on to work 30 years in social work and I am an artist and published writer. By the way, I moved out of my parents home at in 1985. Not all of us were snotty nosed etc. Please do not paint everyone with the same brush, its unfair.
I have a copy of one of the ckln’s broadcasts done live -to-air but it’s a little wonky. I will try to get some copies made to bring to the reunion. Hey Leif. I crashed in Micky mackznzie’s apartment with Adam and Tammy once, we slept on his floor but it was worth it, only having to stagger over after a great night at Voodoo
I still have a Voodoo mixed tape somewhere. It’s an mp3 category in my collection. I hitch hiked from Kingston regularly to be part of Club Voodoo – does anyone remember Micky Mackenzie? I wound up taking over his flat that you could only access from the “tunnel” alley way / courtyard behind Voodoos and lived there until 1990 – definitely the coolest pad I ever had. Adam Vass and Tammy Lanstreet? Kinga and Gidgit? Ricky? Natasha Pitt? Dave Slade? Didn’t Kinga work at the Diamond Club and have a single “elevator operator” or something like that? Ah yes, I remember it well. I’d love to go back in a time machine for just one more night at Voodoos. I got here hunting for that 80s disco song “Rock Fish” but can’t find it anywhere. Sorry, more questions than answers. I’m going to have to dig out my Radio Voodoo tape I wonder if it still plays.
FOUND IT: “Rockfish” I’m such a dork. It’s Hashim – “Al Naafiysh” https://youtu.be/i46sF1PcqL8
Glad I found this scrappy remembrance of Voodoo – I love all of you, even the bitter one, lol.
Stumbled upon this site researching a band called Hunger Project that supported A Certain Ratio when they played the club in 1981. If anyone happened to see the show and/or remembers Hunger Project, would love to hear from you. Really enjoyed the pics. Reminds me of The Blitz in London.
Sometime after Voodoo closed, there were a few Saturday night events called “Son Of Pariah” that took place there, with Siobhan O’Flynn at the helm, bringing the Wednesday night 185 Richmond St crowd*back* to St. Joseph. These were short lived (only two, I think). I have a handbill somewhere…
This spot was also called “Club DOC”…. after Backstreet, I believe.
I think it was called “Son of Voodoo” – or maybe I’m mixed up, but yes, it was Siobhan who normally did “Pariah” Wednesday nights at the Twilight Zone. That was my high school exercise class, lol – I went to SEED Alternative.
No, it was definitely “Son Of Pariah” – I have the handbill right here (just dug it out)… It opened on Sat. April 20th (1986?). Yes, those Wednesday nights were an integral part of my high school experience, too!
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.
I slept at Voodoo Club almost every weekend when I was like 15 and 16 years old because it was fun and cheaper than a hotel room. I’d leave home for the weekend on Friday afternoon, hang around Yonge street during the days, spend the early nights at Domino’s or wherever, then head to Voodoo after hours, eventually sleeping behind the big speaker cabinets onstage. I absolutely LOVED Dave Allen’s DJ-ing, and always wished I was on whatever drugs Danny Regan was CLEARLY on while doing lights. Looks like maybe Sabrina the cashier in that top pic? Her look changed so much I can’t be sure. The pics also remind me of the clubs “decor” (for lack of a better word). Anyone remember the “Hands up who wants to die!” painted on the stair landing halfway down from the second floor? For some reason that’s very clear it my mind. 10:27 am on March 6, 2013
I basically lived at Voodoo for a period after leaving home at 16. Danced alone, stoned, and happy just dancing alone. Drifting down Yonge street on bright Sunday mornings. I knew most people, or came to know most people by the time century 66 opened. It was like being part of something.. by being outside of the mainstream and living at night, but strangely isolating. 12:19 am on August 18, 2012
I love and miss Voodoo even today. The whole scene was just so full of creativity and energy. It was amazing too see literally hundreds of people on St. Joseph on a summer friday night. Gays, punks, and even blacks that visited the former Manatee gay bar that became a dance club in it’s own right, not too mention all the heavy metal heads just 1 block away at Gasworks. I have some truly definitive memories as a young teen at VooDoo, and will always be close too my heart. 11:13 am on March 18, 2012
Here is a shot of what the location is like now. It is truly the end of a very long era in Toronto’s night life. > https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=400407879980&set=a.277586979980.29025.517224980&type=1&permPage=1 8:17 pm on November 25, 2011
Wow !!!! Yeah… those were the days.. Voodoo was the place for me and my pals circa 82.. Divine’s Native Love (Step by Step slowly I turn.. step by step… come on !!!!) and Nowhere girl by b-movie packed the floor. Amazing dancers from very eclectic backgrounds. Le Tube also had an interesting Latin scene.. good times.. Thanks for the memories 2:21 pm on November 25, 2011
Nice cleaned up history of a place that exploited clueless lemmings. Not a word about the vandalism, the muggings, the overdoses and the stabbings all associated with the St Joseph Street clubs.The skinhead collective used to hang around outside waiting to do their magical acts. No mention of the underage prostitutes working out of some of the adjacent gay bars or of the obnoxious brats puking and pissing in the residentail doorways. I was a regular at Voodoo for a two years. IFortunately, I grew out of my adolescent stupidity and did something with my life. I can’t think of any Voodoo regulars that has actually gone on to fame and fortune, you know something like being a gifted artists, a scientist or someone that contributes to society. Voodoo was a place where a bunch of selfish kids that organized themselves into snotty little cliques hung out feeling sorry for themselves, listening to “music” that destroyed their hearing and manufactured by “artists” that went on to work at the quickie mart. Voodoo’s demise couldn’t have come soon enough for some of us. Those who are still in mourning need to get a grip on life and maybe move out of their parents’ basement in Scarborough or Oakville. 9:41 pm on November 17, 2011
LOL Bitter Much? I doubt very much you were a “Regular” ,and if you were you must have been one of those that made no friends or connections with the music and People- There is no “Mourning” here only a celebration of an era that was wonderful for the people that got it and remember it fondly. But i do enjoy going to the Quickie Mart and being served by Duran Duran band members LOL . ￼ 9:16 am on November 18, 2011
Hmmm… Well does three degrees, A fantastic career in Interior design, three happy children, a house in the country and one being built in Costa Rica count? Wont mention any names but I know a few others that have become very successful business men, lawyers and Steve Butson, pictured in the article (who I went to high school with, sorry Steve if you read this and I’m out of line for commenting) but it’s my understanding that he’s had a fabulous career and is quite renowned as a first camera man! and this is only to mention a few! Well I guess as Depeche Mode would have said “God’s got a sick sense of humour!) And it sounds like the jokes on you! It was a great time and definitely worth a dose of nostalgia! 11:20 am on November 21, 2011
Voodoo did indeed become Backstreet in 1985. It was around for a year or two and had most of the same people. 8:14 pm on November 16, 2011
Wasn’t this club opened as club “five” in the late 90s early 2000s. I believe the hot nights then was Wednesday or Thursday. Fun times as well. 4:32 pm on November 16, 2011
no Club 5 was down stairs where Katrina’s was 4:48 pm on November 16, 2011
i think after voodoo it became colby’s (gay dance club+show bar) and after that it became 5ive. colby’s was around for a while but i am not sure how long 5ive lasted. in the late 70s the very famous katrina’s (unisex) was the spot and was there for some time. i still miss VooDoo. rip in peace to all who are in danse Heaven. i still see Deborah o’Dell downtown sometimes and of course Patrick Cox hit the big time in London. Chris Sheppard went on to become Toronto’s golden boy and good on him he was a decent fellow. and me well i just pray a lot now and hope one i’ll get to a party as good as Voodoo was.+++ 7:43 pm on February 19, 2014
I remember partying in the late 70′s at a place on Phipps Street called David’s They had a 12 foot replica of the statue, and wouldn’t allow us to take any pictures while there. Being the naive straight arrows that we were (and I mean straight) we had no idea of the significance of either! I think it was funded by Jay Cochrane (tightropes, anyone?) and had the biggest dance floor in the city. Ahhh, the good old days! 2:44 pm on November 16, 2011
Century 66 co-existed with Voodoo, and didn’t open after its closing… Great article, though! 2:28 pm on November 16, 2011
Did Voodoo not go on to become Backstreet in ’85? It was above Katrina’s. 2:12 pm on November 16, 2011
George: I remember Katrina’s very well. I loved that place!!! 1:45 pm on November 16, 2011
At the time, I was living in Scarberia and because there was not Sunday morning subway, was relegated to being downtown all night long; no hardship there. Katrina’s to start and then Voodoo’s to finish. There were many runs down the alley to Fran’s for a cup of coffee and to see who’s out and about. Fun fun fun and usually a lot of drama! 12:18 pm on November 16, 2011
Denise, this is a fantastic look back! I have lots and lots of images, clippings and flyers from most gay clubs since the 90s. Let me know if I can assist in any way! Keep up the great work. Club snot only shaped our community, it was our community. Cheers 10:55 am on November 16, 2011
Great article … Voodoo was THE club for many of us who attended it as a right of passage to a wonderful world of music, friends, fashion, and freedom of expression. The club gave meaning to many of us who found acceptance in the way we dressed, the music we liked, and the general culture of the Punk, New Roamantic movements, etc., and all that followed it. It is forever engrained in our minds! Thanks 11:41 am on November 16, 2011