A Brief History of the Legendary El Mocambo
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A Brief History of the Legendary El Mocambo

A look back at the iconic Toronto music venue whose days may well be numbered once again.

El Mocambo sign, March 23, 2010  Photo by Rick McGrath from the Torontoist Flick Pool

El Mocambo sign, March 23, 2010. Photo by Rick McGrath from the Torontoist Flick Pool.

The El Mocambo has had more lives than most cats. Just when it appears the venerable music venue at 464 Spadina Avenue will close its doors forever—when the crowds line up for a “final show” and the obituaries are published—the music rolls on. Now, yet another change in ownership threatens to bring the final curtain down on the El Mo.

The building was put up for sale in March for $3.95 million, and last week co-owner Sam Grosso announced that it’s been conditionally sold, with the venue set to close in November. Regardless of what the next owners decide to do with the site, Grosso hopes its iconic neon palm tree will survive. “I would love to have that sign stay on the building or moved somewhere else in the city,” he told the Toronto Star. Grosso has also considered donating it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Music historian Nicholas Jennings, meanwhile, wants to see the sign preserved as “a connection to its earlier eras.”

The palm tree reflects the El Mo’s early days as one of Toronto’s first cocktail bars. The venue’s history can be traced back to the Liquor License Act of 1946, which loosened the province’s alcohol regulations, allowing hard liquor to be sold by the glass for the first time since 1917. It also laid out new classifications for licensed establishments, which outraged temperance activists. Especially upsetting was a provision that exempted five cities (Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Toronto, and Windsor) from holding municipal referendums to approve venues such as dining lounges and cocktail bars. Premier George Drew defended the exemptions, arguing that they would help the tourist trade by not forcing visitors to sneak nips in their cars or hotel bathrooms. (This didn’t satisfy the likes of the Star, which called the new rules “thoroughly evil.”)

The new rules appealed to Joseph Brown and John Lang, who applied for a license for their restaurant at 464 Spadina. Brown’s inspiration for the venue’s name and neon palm sign came from a nightclub he frequented in San Francisco. The building, whose past tenants included a dry goods store, a barbershop, and restaurants, was transformed with the creation of a dining area on the first floor and a dance hall on the second. Ads placed in the March 23, 1948 editions of Toronto’s daily newspapers promised the El Mocambo’s opening gala, taking place that evening, would include “the finest of food served in pleasant surroundings.” Subsequent ads touted steaks made from Royal Winter Fair award-winning beef, and plenty of “night time gaiety.”

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, March 24, 1952

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, March 24, 1952.

Early performers dealt with ridiculous limitations set by the meddlesome killjoys at the Liquor License Board of Ontario. Soon after the El Mo opened, the LLBO banned live entertainment at cocktail bars and dining lounges. The decision was reversed in July 1948, but singers, strolling musicians, jugglers, and ventriloquists were still banned. Musicians were notified if anyone snitched about patrons requesting songs or singing along. (The latter was considered “rowdyism.”) If the venue sat fewer than 100 patrons, only a solo act was allowed. More than that, and only trios were legal.

How these rules played out in practice was reflected in the Globe and Mail’s February 1949 review of Gus Mauro and his Gay Caballeros:

At El Mocambo—how Latin can you get?—Toronto has what is probably the world’s only set of stationary strolling troubadours. Gus Mauro and his Gay Caballeros used to stroll until the liquor board decided that mobile music was out. Now they sit and save their arches.

Gradually the El Mocambo became, as writer Jack Batten observed, “one of those nightclubs hardly anyone ever notices.” In the ’60s, when Adam Schuy owned the venue, it offered music to appeal to the city’s Hungarian, Irish, and Portuguese communities. It earned some notoriety in August 1963 when the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that Deutsches Tanz Lokal, a German dance club that operated on the second floor, had discriminated against blacks on at least two occasions. By the time Schuy died in 1971, strippers were performing on the main floor.

In 1972 the building was bought by Mike Baird and Tom Kristenbrun. The pair had been friends since high school. Baird left a career in the plastics industry, while Kristenbrun had been a Toronto Argonaut and an accountant, and had extensive experience in the restaurant business. The new owners initiated a music policy that was heavy on rock music favoured by young patrons who took advantage of a reduction in the drinking age, from 21 to 18 (raised to 19 in 1979). For a time, blues performers ranging from Buddy Guy to Muddy Waters were favourite attractions, while the Downchild Blues Band played so often they effectively became a house band. Raunchy comedy, from the obscenity-laced routines of MacLean and MacLean to a touring National Lampoon revue in 1974 (notable for jokes about Uranus delivered by a young Bill Murray), occasionally took the stage. Eclectic, well-chosen programming ensured the success of the venue, which was packed even on weekdays.

El Mocambo, May 21, 2013  Photo by Dominic Bugatto from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

El Mocambo, May 21, 2013. Photo by Dominic Bugatto from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The El Mo developed a reputation for showcasing rising talent, even if the acts occasionally mystified patrons and reviewers. The Globe and Mail‘s Robert Martin described Tom Waits, who opened for The Good Brothers in 1975, as sounding “like the world’s youngest version of an 87-year-old black delta bluesman with a voice that he had obviously carefully abused with whisky and cigarets.” He went on to argue that the “El Mocambo’s beer drinkers aren’t interested in sensitive lyrics and subtleties of language. They want, generally speaking, good time music.”

That’s what they got when the Rolling Stones played for two nights in March 1977. To fill the bar for the initially secret shows, CHUM ran two contests—AM listeners were asked to pick up tickets for a live recording of an April Wine show, while their FM counterparts wrote essays on why they were keen to party with the Stones. As CHUM transported unsuspecting winners to the El Mo on March 4, Mick Jagger rode to the venue in a limo with Margaret Trudeau (who had agreed to a trial separation from the prime minister that morning).

April Wine played the opening set as advertised. Then, after a 45-minute break, the Stones began their two-hour performance with “Route 66.” The show energized the band; it was their first club show in years, and offered some respite from the fallout of Keith Richards’s drug bust a week earlier. Trudeau’s dancing in the audience raised eyebrows among the tabloid press. Four songs wound up on the album Love You Live.

It was the moment the El Mo earned its place in rock history. Over the next few years, acts that were too small to fill arenas or that record companies wanted to break played upstairs, while Canadian musicians dominated the cover-free first floor. The bookings read like a who’s who of the era, with established acts such as Blondie and Devo appearing alongside up-and-coming bands like U2.

Source: the Toronto Star, March 7, 1978

Source: the Toronto Star, March 7, 1978.

Among the most notable performances was Elvis Costello’s on March 6, 1978. Fans lined up for seven hours, with about 1,000 failing to get in. “Hello Canada,” he yelled from the stage. “We are here from England to take the country back.” As the Star’s Peter Goddard observed, “by the time he was finished, most people were ready to give it to him.” The show was taped for radio play, but it circulated for years afterward as a bootleg.

Things turned sour in the early ’80s. Record industry cost-cutting affected bookings. More local acts headlined, occasionally leading to odd performances such as the time Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae performed three original compositions for a peace benefit. (One attendee’s verdict: “I don’t think the El Mocambo will book him in here for a week, but he did all right.”) Industry observers like promoter Richard Flohil believed the problem was that it hadn’t kept up with newer venues, and that its deal with Concert Productions International reduced opportunities for other promoters.

After years of joking that it was for sale, Baird and Kristenbrun finally sold the El Mo in 1986, which initiated nearly 30 years of ownership shuffles. The interior gradually deteriorated as the El Mo fell from its perch atop the local music scene. When it was briefly padlocked in May 1989, the Star called it “a pathetic relic, a beer-stained vestige of its glory days.” It was shut again that December partly because of a rent dispute. (As a result, a shady booker who had falsely planted hints that Keith Richards might stop by for a blues jam while the Rolling Stones were in town was forced to move the event to a club on Coxwell Avenue where Richards didn’t appear and none of the bands played the blues.)

Subsequent bookers periodically found themselves locked out over rent disputes, leading to frequent El Mo death notices in the papers. For a time in the mid-1990s, the venue was home to the Elvis Mondays showcase. “I’ll take risks,” noted series booker William New. “If they’re a crummy band, it’s only 25 minutes. It’s not like they’re going to chase anyone out of the club.” From 1998 to 2001, Dan Burke booked out-of-town acts he described as “slightly off the radar screen,” as well as local performers such as Danko Jones, the Deadly Snakes, Peaches, and the Sadies. “Being a show promoter is like gambling,” Burke told The Grid years later. “When you win, sometimes you also get to see a great show. When you lose, sometimes you get to see a great show. It’s the greatest job in the world if you can keep going.”

Source: the Toronto Star, May 31, 1984

Source: the Toronto Star, May 31, 1984.

One of the most controversial purchases occurred when Abbas Jahangari bought the building in September 2001. He announced that upstairs would become a dance studio, and that other portions would be converted into a spiritual centre and women’s shelter. As obituaries for the venue began to appear in the media, Burke and his partners were booted out, prompting a war of words in which they attempted to claim the El Mocambo name for use elsewhere. By the end of 2002, after some renovations, music was back on the ground floor.

Jahangiri held onto the building until, after seven months of negotiations, he sold it in 2012 to support his missionary work. Renovations commissioned by new owners Sam Grosso (Cadillac Lounge) and Marco Petrucci (99 Sudbury) added a new stage and rooftop patio and restored the palm tree sign. But a lack of investment capital hastened its eventual sale.

Will the music finally fade out for good on November 6? As Carl Wilson wrote when the El Mo appeared to be a goner in 2001, “Cities are not museums, rock clubs not cathedrals, and not every ramshackle spot with a story and a million songs can be frozen under glass.” Though online rumours suggest a computer store might move in, it’s hard not to think that there’s always a chance the El Mocambo could pull off one more resurrection.

Additional material from Rock and Roll Toronto by John Goddard and Richard Crouse (Toronto: Doubleday, 1997); the August 10, 2012 edition of The Grid; the January 1986 edition of Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal; the March 29, 1946, July 29, 1948, December 7, 1948, January 7, 1949, February 26, 1949, August 2, 1963, September 14, 1972, December 7, 1974, April 11, 1975, March 7, 1977, June 13, 1981, March 30, 1985, December 16, 1994, and October 4, 2001 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the April 2, 1946, March 23, 1948, March 5, 1977, March 7, 1978, May 31, 1984, May 17, 1989, December 4, 1989, December 5, 1989, October 14, 2001, July 24, 2012, and September 17, 2014 editions of the Toronto Star.

CORRECTION: September 25, 2014, 12:20 PM This post originally stated that in 1972 patrons took advantage of a reduction in the drinking age from 21 to 19, when it fact the reduction was to 18. We regret the error.

CORRECTION: October 27, 2014, 1:40 PM Following the original publication of this article, further information surfaced regarding the early ownership of the El Mocambo, specifically the involvement of Joseph Brown. We have updated the article.