They’re creepy, they’re crazy, they’re raucous, and slightly raunchy.
But what’s best about the mischievous monsters that festooned the façade of Lee’s Palace is: they’re baaaaack.
Throughout the past seventeen years, the mural of multicoloured mayhem became emblematic for the iconic concert hall where bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana made their Toronto debuts, attracting the adoration of live-music junkies, Dance Cave–dwellers, and local Annex-ers alike. The mural has also developed some less desirable traits—chipping paint, rotting wood, and a coating of almost two decades worth of pigeon droppings. Nevertheless, when the bright cartoons were quietly dismantled this past November in order to construct a new Big Fat Burrito in the Lee’s Palace storefront as part of the City of Toronto’s Commercial Façade Improvement Program, it struck a fearful chord in the hearts of Torontonians. At first glance, it appeared the friendly freaks were going for good.
But you can hold the funeral march for now. Over the past few weeks, the monsters have slowly begun to creep their way back onto the scene as surreptitiously as they left. With faint outlines of metal cogs and one-eyed critters, Toronto artist Al Runt is beginning to bring his urban “Hanna-Barbaric” style back to Lee’s for the third time in over twenty years.
The first mural dates back to 1987, when Runt was working as a waiter at Lee’s while making his name in the art scene through work at various galleries, magazines, and at the Bamboo Club (now Ultra Supper Club). Fortunately for us, the service industry was not Runt’s calling—he was fired for drinking on the job. Instead, Lee’s hired him to paint the front of the building, the owners hoping to add a little of the artsy ’80s Queen West vibe to what was formerly a 1920s movie theatre. But when they wanted a Rock’n’Roll theme in 1993, Runt fought for his signature style and created the characters most of us had come to know and love; they consoled us when our first fake IDs were rejected, they entertained us we endured painful wait times to meet our friends inside. That is, until they ended up the treasure of dumpster divers (some in search of nostalgia, others of profits on Craigslist). At least some can find solace in seeing the centrepiece from the old mural on display at the Dance Cave, located above the concert venue.
When Big Fat Burrito spearheaded the façade’s remodel, it meant only two things for Runt: free burritos, and a new job. Bored with the art business, he took a hiatus five years ago to do general labour and other “crappy jobs.” Now, at forty-nine, he’s excited his most popular piece of work is in pieces scattered around the city.
“This one will be newer,” he said, not one to wax poetic. “I’m glad. I can do a better job now.”
Runt says the half-painted border of machine-like cogs and the creatures within them that we see now represents one-fifteenth of what the final product will be. Soon, more metallic siding will be added to the second floor to reach just above the windows; the siding also ensures the mural will age much more gracefully than its pigeon-poopooed predecessor. The centre of the design will feature a busy urban cityscape, complete with interweaving roller coasters, buildings, and cars. If all goes to plan, not that Runt has much of one, it won’t matter how often you patrol the Palace, something new in his eclectic eye-candy will always catch your eye.
“Each one gets more and more complicated. It’ll be denser, a lot more going on,” the self-confessed procrastinator said staring at the blank wall. “Well, hopefully. You never know until it’s done.”
Which should be by the end of June, as long as the weather and Runt’s self-motivation hold out. If you just can’t wait that long, Runt can be emailed at [email protected]⎯he just may give you a sneak peak. As for the rest of us, we already know it takes a woman to make a house a home. But in June, we’ll see if it takes a Runt to make a bar a Palace.
Photos by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.