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1980s, After-hours, All-ages, Alternative, Dance Music, Disco, Electro, Freestyle, Funk, Gay, Goth, Hip-Hop, House, New Wave, Post-punk

Then & Now: TWILIGHT ZONE (extended mix)

March 16, 2017
L to R: Michael Griffiths, Albert, Michael, David and Tony Assoon. Photo by Charmaine Gooden.

(L to R) Michael Griffiths with Albert, Michael, David and Tony Assoon. Photo by Charmaine Gooden.

The original Then & Now: Twilight Zone article was published October 5, 2011 and was second in the web series originally developed for The GridTO.com. As the Then & Now series expanded in reach, so too did the length of each story and number of participants who contributed to each. This expanded history of the Zone was written in March 2015, and was exclusively available in the Then & Now book until this time.

 

Trailblazing 1980s nightclub Twilight Zone brought diverse crowds and sounds to Toronto’s Entertainment District long before such a designation even existed. Those who were there lovingly explore its lasting legacy.

ByDENISE BENSON

Club: Twilight Zone, 185 Richmond Street W.

Years in operation: 1980 – 1989

HistoryLong before the Entertainment District was awash in condos, clubs, and restaurants—back when the area was still largely non-residential and known as the garment district—four brothers opened a venue that ultimately influenced the neighbourhood’s development.

Tony, Albert, David, and Michael Assoon forever altered Toronto’s dance club nightscape with their Twilight Zone, but that venue’s reach was rooted in earlier efforts. The Assoon family moved from New York to Toronto in the 1970s. During their high school years in Scarborough, the music-savvy siblings produced events in school spaces.

“That was back in the day, when Soul Train was on, and we wanted to have something that was more in our culture,” describes Tony Assoon. “We decided to have the first soul party ever in Toronto. It was funk music, a little bit of disco, and so forth. That’s how we started.”

Assoon says they produced a few successful parties, and the idea spread to other high schools before the brothers all graduated. Tony moved back to New York during the height of the disco days.

“I was a club hound,” he laughs during our lengthy conversation. “I went to all kinds of places, like the Commodore Hotel, Night Owl, The Great Gatsby, Paradise Garage, The Loft, and Milky Way.

“One of the clubs that I hung out at a lot, that really influenced me, was called Melons. It was on the top floor of a loft and was a roller skating rink in the daytime. A legendary DJ called Tee Scott played there. Later, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles also played.”

Assoon brought his knowledge and love of New York clubs, style, and music with him when his parents requested that he return to Toronto. He mentions checking our ’70s disco hotspots like Heavens, Checkers, and Mrs. Nights, but landing a job at the Yonge and Bloor Le Chateau clothing store, conveniently located next to a modeling agency, connected him with a different crowd.

“We all loved fashion,” says Tony. “At that time, the whole new wave look was in so we’d dress freaky.”

The Assoons began to do parties at places like The Ports, on Yonge near Summerhill, and in a building on Sherbourne.

“They were great promoters,” says friend Charmaine Gooden of the brothers. She first met them at The Ports, then spent lots of time listening to music with the Assoons and other friends, and attended their early events.

“They started renting rec rooms in apartment buildings to have parties. These were well attended by a diverse, mixed-up crowd—older, younger, money, and fashion. Part of the fun was dressing up. [People came] from Forest Hill, Regent Park, the suburbs, and Scar- borough, so it was varied.”

Through the apartment parties, the Assoons built a solid following and set out to find larger, more secluded spaces.

“We first experimented at 666 King West in September of 1979,” recalls Albert Assoon. “We had to move from there quickly because dust started pouring out of the ceiling from the vibration of the bass. We went on the prowl and eventually wound up at 185 Richmond West. We sought these locations because they were in areas where we wouldn’t get noise complaints or disturb residents.”

“It was desolate,” says Tony of the Richmond and Simcoe area where the Assoons, along with close friends Bromely Vassell and Luis Collaco, launched the Twilight Zone in January of 1980. “It was just industry and factory buildings. Everyone thought we were kind of crazy for moving there, and into a warehouse, but I was used to seeing things like that in New York, so it didn’t seem to be a big deal.”

Soon, crowds would come from far and wide to attend this magical late-night place where the mix of people was as eclectic as the music they were treated to.

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2000s, 2010s, After-hours, Breaks, Electronic, House, Techno

Then & Now: Footwork

December 9, 2014

Click through the photo gallery for a look at some of the many DJs who graced Footwork’s booth.

 

Article originally published February 11, 2014 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In the face of King West’s rampant condo-ization and nightclub-ificaiton, this beloved, recently shuttered basement venue held it down for underground sounds—and continues to do so at a newly opened space in the Annex.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Footwork, 425 Adelaide W.

Years in operation: 2005-2013

History: The story of one of this city’s most beloved, internationally recognized house and techno clubs begins with the unlikely pairing of two men raised on rock.

Hamilton native Joel Smye was a long-haired fan of bands like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine until his parents sent him to Switzerland to complete high school. While there, he also got an education in rave. By 1997, he hit up massive Toronto parties each weekend, and taught himself to DJ. As Baby Joel, he would become known for his love of funky Chicago house.

Originally from Ottawa, Stephan Philion moved to Toronto 11 years ago, already experienced in the hospitality industry, and in throwing house parties, which were largely a means to accumulate sound and lighting gear. He had a lean toward Britpop and grunge until party promoter and friend Gairy Brown took Philion to Fly Nightclub, where he fell for dance music.

Smye and Philion met in the early 2000s, while waiters at Brassai. The two talked music. Philion got to hear Smye DJ, loved his take on house, and invited the DJ to check a club sound system that was just gathering dust at the time.

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2000s, After-hours, Breaks, House, Techno

Then & Now: Boa Redux

November 30, 2014
Boa Redux club shot 2

On the dancefloor at Boa Redux. Photo courtesy of Carey Britt.

 

Article originally published June 10, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In the 1990s, Boa Café was one the city’s busiest late night hangouts; in the mid-2000s, its second incarnation –a much larger, full-blown dance club– was hailed as the best-sounding. But with high expenses and no liquor licence, the party couldn’t last for long.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Boa Redux, 270 Spadina Ave.

Years in operation: 2003–2005

History: In an earlier edition of Then & Now, we explored the story of Rony Hitti’s 1990s Yorkville hotspot, Boa Café. By the time Hitti closed the Café in 1998, he owned a number of other fine-dining establishments, including Brasserie Zola and Winston’s. A few years later, he closed the book on his life as a restaurateur, keen instead to open a large underground dance club, which had been a dream for decades. Hitti would soon bring Boa’s name to a new generation by creating an after-hours venue of a much different nature than its predecessor.

“Boa Redux came out of my desire to have a house club in Toronto similar to Montreal’s Stereo,” he begins.

Hitti spent two years searching for the right location. A real-estate agent took him to 270 Spadina Ave., former home of a rundown porn theatre. At 16,000 square feet, with soaring ceilings and multiple levels, the space had great potential.

A big staircase dominated the room, its large steps each allowing a view of the entire area. A separate lounge space would be built on the lowest level, also to serve as the club’s entrance. There was an existing stage, later to be utilized both for dancing and late-night performances. In total, Boa would have a legal capacity of more than 1,300 people, an ideal size for a club purpose-built to feature some of the globe’s top underground DJs in a city that continued to have a thriving late-night scene in its post-rave years.

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1990s, After-hours, Dance Music, Disco, Funk, House, Latin, Soul

Then & Now: Boa Café

November 30, 2014
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Boa Cafe, as it appeared in the Oct. 1991 edition of Interior Design magazine. Photo courtesy of INK Entertainment.

 

Article originally published May 23, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

A special two-part edition of Denise Benson’s nightlife-history series begins with a trip back to the Yorkville venue that brought fine dining and club culture together—before going down in a hail of bullets.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Boa Café, 25 Bellair

Years in operation: 1989-1998

History: This is a tale of two interconnected yet vastly different Toronto venues, each influential in its own way. For this article, I will be focussing on the first, Boa Café; the story of its second incarnation, Boa Redux, will be told in the next edition of Then & Now.

At the story’s centre lies Rony Hitti.

“I grew up in a family of restaurateurs and hoteliers, and was supposed to be the banker in the family,” says Hitti, who would instead become owner-operator of both Boas.

Hitti dutifully studied business finance and politics at York University, but also DJed steadily during the 1980s. He played a variety of Midtown-area clubs, and started his own DJ company, dubbed Earthquake in reference to the powerful Sensurround sound system created for the 1974 film of the same name.

“It used to shake movie theatres, and I bought one. I did pretty much all of the dances at York with that system.”

Banking didn’t work out for Hitti at the time, nor did dishwashing at his father’s restaurant. Instead, he studied culinary arts in Switzerland for a year. Upon returning, Hitti brainstormed a business plan with Charles Khabouth; the two Lebanese-Canadians had become friends as Hitti spent much time at Khabouth’s trendsetting Stilife nightclub.

“Charles and I were really close. We hung out, and traveled together. On a trip to Montreal, we went to a place called Lola’s Paradise. Lola’s was fine dining with that really cool Montreal vibe. We thought Toronto could use something like it. Continue Reading…

1970s, After-hours, Dance Music, Disco, Gay, Live Music, Pop, Punk

Then & Now: Club David’s

November 24, 2014
Club David’s GTO ___ 51a7a0c4bcc10-Sister-Rock-On-aka-Jimmy-Alan

Allan Bell a.k.a. Phyllis (left) with Sister Rock-On at David’s. Photo courtesy of Wendy Peacock.

 

Article originally published March 26, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In its brief lifespan, this ‘70s hotspot served as both a gay disco and punk-rock haven—before it all ended in a mysterious fire and murder.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Club David’s, 16 Phipps

Years in operation: 1975-1977

History: The allure that the Yonge and St. Joseph area once held for creatures of the night has been detailed in a number of previous Then & Now pieces, including those about early 1980s venues Voodoo and Club Z. Here, we visit a prior decade to travel a short distance south, down a once-existing strip of the St. Nicholas alleyway, to a barely-there street called Phipps.

Moving and storage company Rawlinson Cartage constructed the building at 16 Phipps in the late 1890s. A small tunnel, thought to once hold a conveyor belt, connected it to the building directly north, at 11A St. Joseph. As with a number of neighbouring structures, it was also erected by Rawlinson.

In the early 1970s, 11A St. Joseph was home to popular all-ages gay male dance club The Manatee. Nearby Yonge Street bars The Parkside Tavern and St. Charles Tavern were gay hotspots, as was intimate Isabella Street disco Mrs. Knights.

Club David’s added new possibilities to the mix when Jay Cochrane and Sandy Leblanc opened it in the spring of 1975.

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1970s, 1980s, After-hours, Alternative, Goth, Industrial, Live Music, New Wave, Post-punk, Ska

Then & Now: Domino Klub

November 21, 2014

All photos in gallery by Alice Lipczak, Wonderland Photography 

 

Article originally published March 12, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

Denise Benson revisits both the original Isabella Street location that laid down the breeding ground for Toronto’s early-‘80s alternative music and fashion scenes –also seeming to be U2’s home away from home– and the Yonge Street haunt that later served as a hangout for goths, punks and ska fans alike.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Domino Klub (1 Isabella St.), later Klub Domino (279 Yonge St.)

Years in operation: 1979-1987

History: In the late 1970s through much of the ’80s, Yonge and Isabella was an epicentre for emergent music, arts, and fashion culture. The area came alive at night, with numerous booze-cans and after-hours clubs drawing dancers to upper-level locations on Yonge and decadent discos on side streets, especially St. Joseph. Before Domino’s opened upstairs at 1 Isabella, the venue had been the Cheetah Club. Owned by Gunther Weswaldi, whose background was in the food and beverage industry, the Cheetah was short lived. It’s thought that Weswaldi and his wife Darlene opened Domino at this address in early 1979. (Weswaldi’s current whereabouts are unknown.) Advertised as a venue where people could meet for “lunch, dinner, dancing, disco,” Domino’s was a licensed restaurant and nightclub open daily. It did not launch with a distinct identity. Continue Reading…

1970s, 1980s, After-hours, Dance Music, Disco, Electro, Gay, New Wave

Then & Now: Stages

October 29, 2014
STAGES 004

The scene at Stages. Photo by Terry Robson, courtesy of Arnie Kliger.

 

Article originally published December 4, 2012 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

With the help of two rare DJ mixes, we revisit the early-‘80s Yonge Street club that provided Toronto’s gay community with a safe haven and showcased cutting-edge dance-music sounds, before the spectre of AIDS brought the party to a close.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Stages, 530 Yonge

Years in operation: 1977-1984

History: The northwest corner of Yonge and Breadalbane was once occupied by the Hotel Breadalbane. In 1945, the Bolter family purchased the hotel and would transform the downstairs of 530 Yonge into The Parkside Tavern. The Bolters also owned The St. Charles Tavern, at 488 Yonge. By the mid-1960s, both taverns were known to be gay bars.

At that point in history, gay nightlife in Toronto was still very much underground. It was common for the heterosexual owners of gay bars to be contemptuous of their clientele. This seems to have been the situation at The Parkside, a dingy beer hall largely frequented by a daytime crowd. The Parkside’s owners allowed police to regularly spy on patrons in the washrooms, waiting to nab men engaged in any sort of sexual acts. Arrests were made, and the practice continued throughout the 1970s, even as gay activists organized leafleting campaigns and called for boycotts of the bar.

These conflicts were characteristic of the time. During the mid-to-late-1970s, Yonge Street was the main artery of Toronto gay social life (it would shift to Church in the mid-1980s). Those looking to dance could hit a number of spots near Yonge and Wellesley, like The Manatee, The Quest, Katrina’s, Club David’s, The Maygay (later Charly’s), and Cornelius, which sat above biker bar The Gasworks. By 1977, there were even two gay-owned bars in the area: The Barn, opened by Janko Naglic at 418 Church, and small cruise bar Dudes, opened by Roger Wilkes, a founder of the York University Homophile Association, and his partner David Payne in an alley just behind The Parkside.

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2000s, After-hours, Dance Music, Electro, Electronic, Hip-Hop, House, Techno

Then & Now: CiRCA

October 26, 2014
from BBS upload

Inside CiRCA. Photo by Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star.

 

Article originally published October 22, 2012 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In this edition of her Toronto-nightlife history series, Denise Benson revisits the biggest, most ambitious, and most fatally expensive nightclub the city has ever seen.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: CiRCA, 126 John St.

Years in operation: 2007-2010

History: The four-storey heritage property at 126 John St. has housed many businesses since its main structure was built in 1886. Originally, it was the site of John Burns Carriage Manufacturers, followed by other industrial-machinery companies.

By the early 2000s, the 53,000-square-foot space was an anchor for play in Toronto’s bustling Entertainment District. Mondo video arcade Playdium gave way to mega-dance club Lucid in 2004. The heavily hyped commercial club lasted only a year; its doors were locked in July 2005 when more than $400,000 in back rent was owed to landlord RioCan. (You just don’t mess with Canada’s largest retail real-estate firm.)

Enter New York City club magnate Peter Gatien. The Cornwall, Ontario native had moved to Toronto in 2003, following deportation from the United States. Gatien is, of course, one of the world’s most famous nightclub impresarios, having owned deeply imaginative and influential N.Y.C. hot spots including Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA, and Palladium during his 30-year career.

The one-time millionaire’s very public fall has been well documented in both print and film. To recap: New York police and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) pursued Gatien relentlessly in a 1996 federal investigation that attempted to directly link him with the sale of street drugs, particularly ecstasy, in his clubs. Gatien was acquitted, and then later arrested on tax-evasion charges, to which he pled guilty.

Once in Toronto, Gatien—later joined by wife Alessandra and their son Xander—was interested in exploring a boutique-hotel concept. He tells me during a recent phone interview that a RioCan representative approached him in a park, during a dog walk, in the fall of 2005, and requested that Gatien pay a visit to 126 John.

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2000s, After-hours, Breaks, Drum 'n' Bass, House, Rave, Techno

Then & Now: Turbo

October 24, 2014
Turbo GTO ___ ruckus2

Ruckus tears up Turbo. Photo by Jay Futronic.

 

Article originally published September 24, 2012 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

360 Adelaide St. W. has had many incarnations over its 90-year-plus existence, but it is best remembered as the home of Toronto’s burgeoning drum ‘n’ bass scene in the early 2000s.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Turbo Niteclub, 360 Adelaide W.

Years in operation: 2000-2003

History: Built around 1920, the six-storey red brick office building at 360 Adelaide St. W. has been home to multiple dance clubs, many of them owned and operated by Vincent Donohoe. He’d opened Top 40 venue Denile at the address in 1997, a time when the Entertainment District was synonymous with nightclubs, but Donohoe was no newbie. He’d already helped finance Charles Khabouth’s first two clubs in the 1980s—Club Z at 11A St. Joseph and Stilife on Richmond—and run other businesses.

“Although Charles Khabouth never seems to want to let people know, I was a full partner in Club Z and the money behind Stilife,” writes Donohoe in an email. “He was broke when I met him, and at one time I owned two thirds of Club Z. I also helped put together Orchid Nightclub [on Richmond Street], and was general manager for their first three years, until I built Denile.”

Donohoe’s one-floor Denile later morphed into Jet Nightclub, a hybrid venue that held successful commercial nights, and was regularly rented out by rave production companies like Ritual, Empire, and Lifeforce Industries for much more underground, after-hours events.

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1980s, 1990s, After-hours, Dance Music, Disco, Gay, House, New Wave

Then & Now: Komrads

September 25, 2014
Komrads GTO ___ Komrads-crowd-1

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.

BYDENISE 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.

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