Even to this day, downtown Yonge Street is far from sanitized, with strip clubs like the Brass Rail and Zanzibar biding their time until Ryerson University and other local property owners figure out a way to clean things up. But there was a time when Yonge Street’s seediness was more than a vestige—a time when, in fact, Yonge Street’s seediness was the point. That, at any rate, is the thesis of a new documentary, made for TV by Toronto-based director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Pontypool, Trigger), that will air in three parts on Bravo, starting Monday, March 21.
Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, as the doc is called, weaves archival footage of Toronto’s music scene in the fifties and sixties together with interviews with people who were there—some of whom, like Robbie Robertson (The Band) went on to success elsewhere, and some of whom, like early rock impresario “Rompin'” Ronnie Hawkins (the Arkansas-born rockabilly whose backup band provided Robertson and other eventual members of The Band with their first professional training opportunities), stayed in Toronto and grew awesomely eccentric.
In the doc, McDonald traces this city’s fifteen-year transition from its whitebread preference for country and western through the era of R&B, then rock, and then, eventually, the folk scene in Yorkville.
The portrait that emerges from all the first-hand testimony and snappily edited Super 8 footage is of a Yonge Street far more neon-lit than it is today (imagine a whole strip of marquees with the scale and wattage of Honest Ed’s), where bands with names like the Gems, the Suedes, or the Hawks played in nightclubs overrun with grifters and the occasional gangster. (Robbie Robertson has an anecdote about a stolen guitar that is, unfortunately, too good to spoil.) Even Zanzibar, it turns out, was once a music destination. So was the Empress Hotel, then known as the Edison. The Empress was recently destroyed by a fire that police say was set deliberately, and its now-empty lot awaits redevelopment.
But even though the Yonge Street rock scene is portrayed as being totally unsavoury, the net effect is a sense of nostalgia, and even pride. There’s something soul-stirring about knowing that, even fifty years ago, Toronto had an underbelly.
McDonald, reached by phone Thursday morning, thinks the appeal might have to do with Toronto’s squeaky-clean image.
“We only get the ‘Toronto the Good,’ right?” he says. “And here’s seedy, nasty, dirty Yonge Street with pimps, and hookers, and crooked cops. It’s a delight to hear that.”
But why is that delightful?
“It’s a big-city thing, right? Toronto likes to consider itself a big city, and big cities come along with crime lords and mafiosos.”
McDonald graduated from Ryerson and has continued to live in Toronto (mainly Kensington Market and Little Italy) for most of his professional life.
“I grew up in Toronto and had no notion of a scene prior to Yorkville,” he says. “And I read about Yorkville from the American press.”
“That’s part of the reason this [documentary] is sort of a joy, and kind of a fun thing to watch. Because it’s unearthed history.”
Aside from the unearthing, accomplished with the help of archivist and music producer Jan Haust, Yonge Street also does some substantial time compression, cutting fifteen years of Toronto’s musical history down to two hours and change, and McDonald acknowledges that this had its own effect on the final product.
“We tended to go with things that tilted towards busting a myth, or building a myth.
“You’re not engaging in other things that were going on at the time—political things, whatever. So you’re tending to sandwich a time and place in a very particular lens, which is going out, dancing, having fun.
“That place never existed, in a certain sort of way, but we make it seem so.”
For a city like Toronto, perpetually in search of a sense of itself, a little careful editing—and maybe a little dirt on the lens—could be healthy.
The first installment of Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories airs on Monday, March 21, at 10:00 p.m., on Bravo.