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.