All photos in the gallery by Tobias Wang of Visualbass Photography.
After almost two decades of hosting the world’s biggest DJs, alongside some of Toronto’s finest, Canada’s largest nightclub recently closed doors to make way for condo development on the waterfront. With the participation of some of The Guv’s key players, Then & Now delves deep to tell the exhaustive story of a club that mirrors – and contributed greatly to – electronic music’s evolution. Rave on.
By: DENISE BENSON
Club: The Guvernment complex, 132 Queens Quay East
Years in operation: 1996 – 2015
History: Charles Khabouth has been mentioned throughout the Then & Now series as his influence in Toronto nightlife is widely felt. Khabouth’s earliest nightclubs, Club Z on St. Joseph and Stilife on Richmond, were pioneering in very different ways. Early in 1996, he began work on a wildly ambitious project, one so successful that it would both cement Toronto’s reputation as an international clubbing destination, and anchor Khabouth’s ever-expanding business empire. But things could have turned out very differently.
In the mid ‘90s, the stretch of our waterfront near Queens Quay and Jarvis was still fairly isolated and industrial. A stone’s throw from Lake Shore Boulevard, it held factories, parking lots and stretches of open space. Condos did not dominate the landscape.
The 60,000 square foot space at 132 Queens Quay East had housed large clubs in its recent past. From 1984 to late 1985, it had been home to the Assoon brothers’ innovative Fresh Restaurant and Nightclub. For the next decade, it was the location of popular club RPM and its sister concert space, the Warehouse.
When Khabouth took over the building on January 1, 1996 he couldn’t have known that he had almost eight months of renovating ahead. But he did know that he had to compete with Toronto’s then-booming, highly concentrated Entertainment District.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to compete with 50 nightclubs side-by-side downtown?’ Khabouth tells me during an expansive interview. “Kids would go to the one area and bop around all night long. I realized I had to do a multi-room venue or I had no hope in hell. That’s why I created five venues under one roof, plus the Warehouse, which really was a warehouse.” Continue Reading…
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.
BY: DENISE 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.
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.
BY: DENISE 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.
Limelight dancefloor. Photo by Steven Lungley. All rights reserved.
Article originally published July 27, 2012 by The Grid online (thegridto.com).
As the Entertainment District grew more sophisticated in the 1990s, this proudly shabby and unpretentious nightclub drew crowds by the thousands each week to a sleepy stretch of Adelaide.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Limelight, 250 Adelaide St. W.
Years in operation: 1993-2003
History: Before the Entertainment District became synonymous with dance clubs, the well-worn brick building at 250 Adelaide St. W. was home to businesses including a print shop and Old Favorites Books.
Located near the corner of Duncan, the building was spotted by businessman Zisi Konstantinou, who saw its potential as a club space. Richmond Street east of Spadina was already attracting large weekend crowds in the early 1990s, thanks to venues like Charles Khabouth’s pioneering Stilife and the Ballinger brothers’ hotspot Go-Go, which later became Whiskey Saigon. Adelaide east of Spadina was not yet a dancer’s destination.
Konstantinou’s next smart move was to hire Boris Khaimovich as general manager of his club-to-be. Khaimovich—who’d worked the door and managed at Toronto clubs including The Copa, Boom Boom Room, and Go-Go, brought his vision to the project—and was Limelight’s guiding light for eight of its 10 years.
Maria Del Mar (left), Al Jourgensen of Ministry, Ogre of Skinny Puppy and Chris Sheppard backstage at RPM. Photo courtesy of Sheppard.
Article originally published July 26, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
We revisit the club that brought nightlife to the deepest edge of downtown, welcomed legends like the Ramones and Beastie Boys, and transformed resident DJ Chris Sheppard into a globe-trotting superstar.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: RPM, 132 Queens Quay East
Years in operation: 1985-1995
History: Before the mid-1980s, the bottom of Jarvis Street, along Queens Quay, was not a clubbing destination. Sure, people had been known to party at Jackie’s, a nightclub space created within the Hilton Hotel at Harbour Square (now the Westin Harbour Castle), and things at Captain John’s could get rowdy on occasion, but the area was far less traveled than it is today.
In 1984, brothers Albert and Tony Assoon built on the success of their popular Richmond Street afterhours club, Twilight Zone, and opened Fresh Restaurant and Nightclub at 132 Queens Quay St. E. Here, they laid the foundations for an entertainment complex that they would not be able to fully realize. Less than two years after Fresh had opened, the Assoons no longer held claim to the business. (Albert Assoon has told me directly that they were forced out while others have stated the demand note on the Assoons’ loan was called in and could not immediately be paid in full.)
What this legal and financial tussle makes clear is that the huge converted warehouse building at 132 Queens Quay E. had already become a coveted nightclub spot. A week after its doors were chained, a crew of people largely associated with Yorkville hotspot The Copa (including Martin Arts and Neil Vosburgh), along with artist/entrepreneur Murray Ball, were the new owners.
Marilyn Manson outside of Catch 22, circa mid-1990s. Photo courtesy of Andy Gfy.
Article originally published by The Grid online (The GridTO.com) on May 24, 2012.
In the early ‘90s, alternative rock was exploding overground, with the rave scene coming up right behind it. This beloved Adelaide Street club bridged these two movements together in a legitimate, licensed space.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Catch 22 Niteclub, 379 Adelaide W.
Years in operation: 1989-1997
History: While a five-year-lifespan tends to be a decent run for nightclubs in this city, some strike a nerve and manage to go it longer, thanks to an ever-evolving community of supporters. Catch 22 was such a venue.
Located on Adelaide near the corner of Spadina, Catch was slightly off the beaten path as it lay on the edges of the then-developing club district and was a few minutes’ walk south from Queen West. It was opened in November of 1989 by a group of friends—with Pat Violo, Lex van Erem, and Gio Cristiano at the core—in a former storage space on the building’s lowest level.
AnnMarie McCullough a.k.a. DJ Amtrak at Element. Photo courtesy of her.
Article originally published April 26, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
As Clubland boomed at the turn of the millennium, this beloved Queen West space provided a big-room experience in an intimate, underground atmosphere—but it ultimately became a victim of its own success.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Element Bar, 553 Queen W.
Years in operation: 1999-2004
History: In the late 1990s, Toronto’s rave and house music scenes were booming. Raves attracted audiences of multiple thousands while even licensed clubs catering to underground tastes tended to hold at least 800. The Entertainment District was littered with venues—most of them commercial and unadventurous—while the College and Ossington strips had not yet developed into hotspots for small to mid-sized venues.
In this environment, a group of friends rented a decidedly intimate space on Queen, between Spadina and Bathurst, that had been home to popular pool hall Behind the Eight Ball and, briefly, 24/7 Billiards. The address was also known for after-hours parties on its top floor, dubbed Zodiac.
Tony Mutch, Marcus Boekelman, and their silent partner Patrik Xuereb all met in high school. By their late 20s, Boekelman and Mutch had both produced parties, with Boekelman having experienced Ibiza and London and promoted events in Toronto featuring electronic dance-music stars like Paul Oakenfold.
The scene at System Soundbar, September 24, 2005. Photo by Ryan Parks.
Article originally published April 12, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
In the latest edition of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson revisits the Entertainment District institution that brought underground rave culture to Toronto’s mainstream club crowd at the dawn of the millennium.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: System Soundbar, 117 Peter
Years in operation: 1999-2005
History: System Soundbar was an unlikely home for electronic dance music with a decidedly underground bent. Opened smack dab in the middle of the commercial club district, System was owned by Zisi Konstantinou—former owner/operator of successful Adelaide Street spot Limelight—with his partners Spyros Theoharis and Boris Khaimovich. They hired former Limelight employee Orin Bristol as general manager, and the group worked to develop a plan.
“Zisi purchased the building as a property investment, and we were trying to figure out what to do with the basement as it was just being used as storage space,” shares Bristol. “We spoke about doing a nightclub, but thought it would be a hard sell for a mainstream crowd as it was in a basement.
“At the same time, the city was cracking down on raves and there were less and less spots to do parties in. Because of our Wednesday nights at Limelight [with EDM/rave DJs Craig Pettigrew and John E], we had come to know the guys from [promoters] Lifeforce Industries. Between Craig and them, we talked about doing rave-style events in the space.”
Tazmanian Ballroom advertisement, courtesy of Karen Young.
Article originally published March 30, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
A look back at the ‘80s east-end haunt that imported U.K. rave culture to Toronto, let dancers openly shag on the third floor, and gave a young Gerard Butler his first gig as a doorman.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Tazmanian Ballroom, 99-101 Jarvis
Years in operation: 1987-1990
History: Just as true characters have frequented Toronto’s most memorable nightclubs, they’ve owned them as well. Few have been as influential, audacious, or fanciful as nightlife impresario and restaurateur Johnny Katsuras. Since the late 1970s, the man better known as Johnny K has owned and operated a wide variety of thematic hot spots—often with wife, business partner, and chef Laura Prentice—in areas just off the beaten path, with a lean towards the city’s east end.
In the second half of 1987, Katsuras followed on the success of his establishments—including his long-running, self-titled resto and surprisingly successful Beaches dance bar Krush—by turning attention to Jarvis and Richmond. Here, in an area filled with historic, often underused commercial buildings, Johnny K purchased a three-floor heritage property built in 1898, once known as MacFarlane’s Hotel. It had previously operated as The Jarvis House and then gay bar Club 101 by the Chrysalis Group, also owners of Yorkville mega-club The Copa.
Klub Max dancefloor circa 1994. Photo by Steven Lungley. All rights reserved.
Article originally published January 19, 2012 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
Denise Benson revisits the three-storey super-club that was at the epicentre of Toronto’s early ‘90s Entertainment District explosion.
BY: DENISE BENSON
Club: Klub Max, 52 Peter (now 56 Blue Jays Way)
Years in operation: 1990-1994
History: This is a tale of a changing Toronto. It tells the story of an historic area in transition, mere years before it came to serve as the meeting point for the touristy and the trendy. Also at its centre is a man who became one of this city’s most successful nightlife entrepreneurs, as well as a number of our most recognized DJs.
52 Peter Street was once the George Crookshank House. Built in the 1830s, it’s one of the street’s oldest buildings and was designated an historic site under the Ontario Heritage Act. But its beautiful brick frontage would be obscured by modern smoked glass and signage when Nick Di Donato and his Liberty Entertainment Group renovated it extensively at the end of the 1980s to open, at first, a single-level P.M. Toronto sports bar and restaurant.
In 1990, Di Donato and colleague Angelo Belluz developed the property into the area’s first full-on dance club—a three-floor funhouse named Klub Max. It took vision—and nerve—to open a large club there at the time.