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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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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
Boa Café GTO ___ 519a767f80c37-BOA-Cafe-3

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…

1990s, 2000s, Breaks, Downtempo, Drum 'n' Bass, Dub, Electronic, Funk, Hip-Hop, House, Jazz, Live Music, Reggae, Rock

Then & Now: Gypsy Co-op

November 24, 2014
Gypsy Co-op Gio 1

DJ Gio Cristiano (far right) beside Gypsy co-owner Mike Borg and friends. Photo courtesy of Cristiano.

 

Article originally published April 18, 2013 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).

Denise Benson revisits this influential Queen West resto-lounge that brought together bohos, bankers, artists and trendsetters for a menu that included good eats, DJed beats, a smorgasbord of live music, and a diverse cast of characters.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Gypsy Co-op, 817 Queen West

Years in operation: 1995–2006

History: Though perhaps now difficult to imagine, in mid-1990s Toronto, it was still unusual for bar and restaurant owners to open sizable spots on Queen Street west of Bathurst. Trinity Bellwoods Park felt far-off, while Parkdale was not the trendy destination point it is today.

Still, evening social life on Queen was slowly moving westward. Boom Boom Room had run successfully for five years, Sanctuary had brought the goths to Queen and Palmerston, Squirly’s offered cheap nosh ‘til late, and Terroni opened its original location at 720 Queen West in 1992.

A pioneering address was 817 Queen Street West, near Claremont. In the late ‘80s, Marcus and Michael O’Hara opened the über-cool Squeeze Club there. The Squeeze was a combo restaurant, bar, art space, and billiards hall that soared at first, and struggled later. When the business went up for sale, the brothers Borg scored the location.

Marcus O'Hara's Squeeze Club pre-dated Gypsy at 817 Queen West. Photo courtesy Vintage Toronto.

Marcus O’Hara’s Squeeze Club pre-dated Gypsy at 817 Queen West. Photo courtesy Vintage Toronto.

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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…

1990s, Alternative, Dance Music, Electronic, Gay, Hip-Hop, House, New Wave, Rave, Rock, Techno

Then & Now: Go-Go

November 18, 2014
Go-Go GTO ___ Go-Go-Ad-1992

Image from a Go-Go newspaper ad, circa 1992. Courtesy of Cheryl Butson.

 

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

The Ballinger brothers – owners of clubs including the Big Bop and Boom Boom Room – were not known for creating sophisticated spots. That changed with the chic, tri-level super-club that brought long line-ups to the Entertainment District in the early 1990s.

BYDENISE BENSON

Club: Go-Go, 250 Richmond St. W.

Years in operation: 1990-1993

History: Though based in Toronto for less than a decade, the brothers Ballinger made a long-lasting impression. The “Rock ‘n’ Roll Farmers” from Dundalk were entrepreneurs who’d originally opened a variety of venues in Cambridge, Ontario in the late 1970s.

In 1986, Lon, Stephen, Doug, and Peter Ballinger opened the multi-leveled Big Bop club at Queen and Bathurst. The wildly popular hangout would anchor the southeast corner for over two decades, and was the cornerstone of the club empire the Ballingers would build. Their Boom Boom Room, opened at Queen and Palmerston in 1988, was much smaller in size, but was trendsetting with its mix of rock, alternative, house, and queer nights. With a few years’ experience in T.O. and a staff that was willing and able to bounce between venues, the Ballingers soon set their sites on 250 Richmond St. W. for an ambitious new venture.

Richmond and Duncan was not yet an obvious choice of location. After-hours club Twilight Zone had closed just the year before, and Charles Khabouth’s Stilife, located directly across the street, was showing signs of slowing. Beyond these venues, and after-hours rave destination 23 Hop, which would soon open at 318 Richmond St. W., the area was still largely deserted at night.

But with Doug Ballinger at the wheel, the brothers would develop a 14,000 square foot, tri-level warehouse building into one of the most innovative and influential clubs Toronto would experience in the 1990s.

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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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