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1980s

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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1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, Dance Music, Disco, Electro, Funk, Hip-Hop, House, New Wave, Post-punk, Rave, Soul, Techno, Toronto Rave

THEN & NOW: Book July 15. Launch July 23.

July 12, 2015
Then & Now book cover. Design by Noel Dix.

Then & Now book cover. Design by Noel Dix.

Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History
By Denise Benson. Foreword by Stuart Berman.

Published by Three O’Clock Press. Publication Date: July 15, 2015  

562 pages, with four sections of colour photos. 

More info and to pre-order: http://threeoclockpress.com/titles/then-and-now

The history of Toronto’s nightlife reveals its pulse.

From award-winning veteran music journalist and DJ Denise Benson comes Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History, a fascinating, intimate look at four decades of social spaces, dance clubs, and live music venues. Through interviews, research, and enthusiastic feedback from the party people who were there, Benson delves deep behind the scenes to reveal the histories of 48 influential nightlife spaces, and the story of a city that has grown alongside its sounds.

Advance Praise

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, Toronto has known how to party for a while. Then & Now tells a heretofore untold social history of Toronto, including the clubs where often-marginalized people found both community and liberation deep into the night. This book is an essential chapter of Toronto’s recent history.” ̶    Shawn Micallef, Author and Spacing Co-owner

“The early days of punk and new wave at The Edge; clubs like Voodoo and Twilight Zone where you could be normal being weird; playing Depeche Mode and New Order at Focus and Club Z; dancing to The Specials at Nuts and Bolts and Fad Gadget at Domino Klub; playing The Happy Mondays at Empire … Legendary Toronto club culture and memories brilliantly captured and stamped in time.” ̶    Scot Turner, Producer/Host CFNY 102.1, Program Director Energy 108

“Denise Benson’s Then & Now … shines a deserved light on the many young, often disenfranchised, DJs, promoters, and business owners who created scenes from nothing, providing safe and exciting spaces for alternative communities and culture to flourish. Denise gets it so right because she was there herself, is still there. Good thing, since reading her chronicles makes me want to dance!” ̶    Liisa Ladouceur, author Encyclopedia Gothica

“Denise … ambassadors all good things in the Toronto music scene. The work she’s accomplished documenting pivotal moments in club history is nothing short of amazing. She is a proven archivist and we are lucky to have someone with this level of passion in our ever-growing and evolving scene.” ̶    Nitin Kalyan aka DJ/producer Nitin, co-founder of No.19 Music

Then & Now launch party poster design by Noel Dix

Then & Now launch party poster design by Noel Dix

Please join us in celebrating the release of Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History!

Featuring:
Denise Benson in conversation with Stuart Berman (8:30-9:30)
followed by DJs spinning through sounds, genres and decades from 10pm ’til late.

MARK ‘SHUGGY’ OLIVER

PAUL E. LOPES & MIKE TULL

JAMES ST. BASS

DJ BARBI

and DEKO-ZE

Then & Now will be for sale at a special launch price and Denise will be signing books.

***

About the launch party:

Light refreshments will be provided.
There will be a cash bar and a full dinner menu available to launch guests.

The main floor of NEST is physically accessible. We regret that there will not be ASL interpretation provided.
Please contact: publicity@threeoclockpress.com with any accessibility queries or concerns.

This is a FREE event.

 

1980s, 1990s, Alternative, Dance Music, Disco, Funk, New Wave, Rock, Soul

Then & Now: The Big Bop, part 1

December 10, 2014

Click through the photo gallery to see more scenes from inside the Big Bop.

 

Article originally published April 29, 2014 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In the mid-1980s, the Queen-and-Bathurst area was a wasteland—until this multi-floor/multi-genre dance-club rocked the corner to life, and shifted the future course of Toronto nightlife in the process.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: The Big Bop, 651 Queen St. W.

Years in operation: 1986-1996

History: The heritage building on the southeast corner of Queen West and Bathurst has long been a prominent marker in Toronto’s collective consciousness. Originally known as The Occidental Building, it was built in 1876 for the Toronto Masons, and was the work of Toronto-born architect E. J. Lennox who also designed Old City Hall, Casa Loma, and more than 70 other buildings in this city.

The south-east corner of Queen and Bathurst, circa 1928.

The south-east corner of Queen and Bathurst, circa 1928.

In 1948, the upper part of 651 Queen St. W. was demolished and the address opened as the Holiday Tavern. The Holiday was a dinner club, complete with stage shows, including jazz and R&B bands. Later, the Tavern would become known as a beer hall and strip club. An attempt to revive it as a live-music venue was made in the ’80s, with bands like The Shuffle Demons holding down residencies.

It was also during this period, specifically in 1984, that the largely white building underwent a neon, new-wave makeover by Toronto artist Bart Schoales, who was commissioned to create both interior and exterior murals.

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1980s, 1990s, Alternative, Electronic, House, Industrial, Rave, Rock

Then & Now: Empire Dancebar

December 4, 2014
Empire GTO ___ 525441edbf581-Empire-Opening-of-Psych-Wed

The Empire crew is decked out and ready to dig Psychedelic Wednesdays. Photo courtesy of Michelle Fabry.

 

Article originally published October 8, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

This edition of Denise Benson’s Toronto-nightlife history series tells the story of how a local gay-community landmark was reborn in the late ’80s as a cutting-edge alternative club where you could dance to acid-rock and acid-house alike.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Empire Dancebar, 488A Yonge

Years in operation: 1988-1992

History: In a city where history is so often obliterated or obscured to make way for the new, there’s something comforting about the old clock tower still found atop 484-488 Yonge. It was built in 1870, as part of the original Toronto Fire Hall No. 3, which remained at the address until its move around the corner, to Grosvenor Street, in 1929.

After the hall closed on Yonge, that building was occupied by retail businesses until the St. Charles Tavern took root in 1951. By the early 1960s, the St. Charles was known to be a gay bar. It, along with the nearby Parkside Tavern, became a significant gathering spot that would help hasten the development of queer social life anchored around Yonge during the 1970s. The St. Charles, while also remembered as the focus of homophobic attacks (especially at Halloween), remains one of this city’s best-known gay bars of all time. A number of discos opened above it over the years, with the most popular being The Maygay and Charly’s. A club called Y-Not also operated upstairs in the mid 1980s. By 1987, following years of neglect, the St. Charles was a shadow of its former self and closed.

A year later, the upper level would re-open as Empire Dancebar, a versatile venue dreamed up by friends Dave Craig and Michael Marier. As a teen, Craig had been an MC and DJ in TKO Sound Crew, a popular group that was eventually inducted into the Stylus Awards Hall of Fame in 2008. Craig left TKO to join a new crew, Romantic Sounds, which was started by Marier. Together, they produced events including The House, a weekly underground jam held at the Party Centre at Church and Shuter. As their crowds increased each week, so too did the building manager’s rent demands.

“Eventually Mike’s dad, Bob, suggested that we should get our own space, and he funded the creation of Empire with a quarter-of-a-million dollar investment,” says Craig.

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1980s, 1990s, Dance Music, Disco, Electro, Gay, House, New Wave, Pop

Then & Now: Boots

December 3, 2014
Boots staff, including Casey McNeill (in denim shirt) and Brent Storey (in white tank top). Photo courtesy of Storey.

The Boots dancefloor during a 1990s Pride weekend event. Photo courtesy of Casey McNeill.

 

Article originally published September 17, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

One of the largest and longest-lasting gay dance clubs in Toronto, this Sherbourne Street super-club went through a number of evolutions as it spurred the local mainstreaming of gay culture during the ’80s and ’90s.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Boots/Boots Warehouse, 592 Sherbourne St.

Years in operation: 1981-2000

History: The story of Boots, one of Toronto’s best-known and longest-lasting gay dance clubs, begins in 1980 at the Waldorf Astoria apartment building. The basement of what was once a hotel at 80 Charles St. E. was rented to a group of men; their first incarnation of Boots proved popular enough that there were noise complaints. The lease was not renewed.

The original Boots on Charles Street. Photo by Joan Anderson, courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives.

The original Boots on Charles Street. Photo by Joan Anderson,
courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives.

By late summer of 1981, Boots re-opened in another lower-level location, this time at 592 Sherbourne St., site of the historic Selby Hotel. Once a grand mansion, the building was constructed in the late-1800s, and was home for more than 20 years to members of the wealthy Gooderham family. In 1910, a large addition built on the rear of the mansion opened as Branksome Hall, a private school for girls.

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1980s, 1990s, 2000s, African, Blues, Dub, Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Latin, Live Music, Reggae, Ska, Soul

Then & Now: BamBoo

December 3, 2014

Take a tour of the BamBoo through the gallery above. All photos noted as courtesy of Patti Habib are copyright the Estate of Richard O’Brien and the BamBoo.

 

Article originally published July 16, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

Denise Benson revisits the legendary restaurant and club that served as an island oasis amid a rapidly transforming Queen West strip.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: BamBoo, 312 Queen St. W.

Years in operation: 1983-2002

History: Like the best of clubs, Toronto’s BamBoo was produced out of friendships, late-night revelry, and the desire to create a unique experience for a core community. The path that co-owners Richard O’Brien and Patti Habib took to get there was filled with fateful turns.

Both were in media and loved the nightlife: O’Brien had been a freelance journalist and live-music booker in California before returning to Toronto where he worked for TVOntario and later CBC, while Habib was a story producer for CBC Radio’s As It Happens. In the late 1970s, O’Brien, also known to friends as Ricci Moderne, partnered with infamous bon vivant Marcus O’Hara to produce annual St. Patrick’s Day parties, dubbed the Martian Awareness Ball (2013 marked its 35th anniversary), with Habib joining them a few years in.

Not long after, the trio—along with a group of friends that also included Dan Aykroyd, publicist Joanne Smale, John Ball, and Roots co-founder Michael Budman—put together an extensive business proposal to re-open The Embassy Tavern, a 1960s Yorkville bar and live-music venue. The plans did not come to fruition. Instead, in 1980, O’Brien and Habib launched the MBC boozecan in what had been her third-floor loft at the corner of Liberty and Jefferson.

“I had to move out,” laughs Habib during a lengthy phone chat. “Richard brought in all his records, and it became an after-hours club opened Mondays—a theatre night—and Thursdays only.”

For two years, the duo drew crowds to this largely deserted part of town we now know as Liberty Village. They booked bands that ranged from reggae to Rough Trade, from a newly formed Parachute Club to soul man Junior Walker. Jamaican patties were the only food served. Income earned at the door was hidden in record covers, and put aside with larger goals in mind.

Habib and O’Brien were also regulars at influential upstairs Queen West boozecan-cum-nightly-artist-hangout The Paper Door. As luck would have it, on an evening spent sitting on the venue’s back balcony, O’Brien looked down and spotted Wicker World, a shop at 312 Queen St. W. set back from the street. The location had been a laundry for years before, looked industrial, and piqued O’Brien’s curiosity. Not long after, he spotted a “For Lease” sign at the address, put down a deposit, and was given three months’ free rent in order to build his business.

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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…

1980s, 1990s, Alternative, Disco, Funk, Hip-Hop, House, New Wave, Rock, Soul

Then & Now: Stilife

November 17, 2014
Stilife GTO ___ stilife

Stilife interior. Photo courtesy of INK Entertainment.

 

Article originally published January 28, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

After cutting his teeth in nightlife as owner of Club Z on St. Joseph, Charles Khabouth relocated to open this dramatically designed destination spot that kick-started the development of Toronto’s Entertainment District.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Stilife, 217 Richmond W.

Years in operation: 1987–1995

History: Built in the 1920s, the six-storey brick building on the southwest corner of Richmond and Duncan Streets exemplifies the major changes experienced by this Toronto neighbourhood as it morphed from Garment to Entertainment District.

The once heavily industrial area, located south of Queen and bordered by University to the east and Spadina to the west, was occupied by factories, warehouses and daytime workers for the better part of the 20th century. By the 1970s, most of the factories had closed, and many of the buildings lay empty. It was only after the opening of the SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre) in 1989 that municipal politicians began to amend zoning laws in order to encourage development in the region.

But in the 1980s, before these sweeping changes took place, the former Garment District was a land of opportunity.

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1980s, Dance Music, Disco, Funk, Jazz, Lesbian, Live Music, New Wave, Pop, Rock

Then & Now: Chez Moi

November 3, 2014
CHEZ MOI T-shirt!

DJ Dallas (centre, in Chez Moi T-shirt) and friends. Photo courtesy of Dallas Noftall.

 

Article originally published January 14, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In the 1980s, Toronto’s lesbian scene was underground—quite literally, as it was often relegated to out-of-sight basement venues. Here, Denise Benson revisits the club that changed all that.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Chez Moi, 30 Hayden

Years in operation: 1984-1989

History: Though it may be difficult for younger dykes socializing in today’s Toronto to imagine, it wasn’t so long ago that queer women in this city had few options for meeting, dancing, and creating community.

From the late 1970s into the ’80s, there were occasional “Women’s Dances” (rarely was there a trendy title to be found) at venues including The Masonic Temple, The Party Centre, and The 519 Community Centre, as well as union halls, church basements and, well, basements in general. Lesbian bars were often dark, small, and far from central, although some—like The Blue Jay, Kit Kat Club, Deco’s, Fly By Night, Cameo, and The Warehouse—are still talked about lovingly in some lesbian circles. There were also mixed queer venues, like The Carriage House on Jarvis, The Quest on Yonge, and Katrina’s on St. Joseph, where gay women were very welcome.

By the time Chez Moi opened in 1984, there was a dearth of social spots for lesbians, despite the explosion of gay men’s bars on Yonge, Church, and surrounding streets. In fact, The Chez itself wasn’t even a dedicated spot for women when it first opened.

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1970s, 1980s, Dance Music, Disco, Funk, New Wave, Pop

Then & Now: Sparkles

November 3, 2014

All photos in the gallery courtesy of the CN Tower Archives.

 

Article originally published December 21, 2012 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

In this edition of Then & Now, we travel back three decades—and up 1,100 feet—to revisit the CN Tower’s beloved in-house discotheque.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Sparkles, 301 Front St. W.

Years in operation: 1979-1991

History: When the construction of Toronto’s iconic CN Tower began in February of 1973, few would have imagined it filled with strobe lights and spandex. The Canadian National Railroad’s Tower would be an impressive engineering feat, serving as both tourist attraction and a communications boon for radio and television broadcasters seeking a taller building on which to place transmitters for stronger signals.

The CN Tower opened to the public in June 26, 1976. At that time, the surrounding area was far from dense or residential. The north side of Front Street was largely parking lots, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre had not been built, nor had the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). In fact, one accessed the Tower by walking through a pedestrian bridge—starting from where Rogers Centre is now—that crossed over sets of train tracks. There was a reflecting pool at the Tower’s base, and fields nearby.

In 1979, to coincide with the Tower’s third anniversary, one-third of the indoor observation level was developed into a discothèque. The goal was to attract diverse evening crowds to this floor, which lay below the Tower’s rotating 360 Restaurant and above the outdoor observation deck.

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