The groovy club whose name later inspired the 1990s dance show.
For Torontonians of a certain age, the phrase “Electric Circus” conjures up the 1990s dance show on Citytv and MuchMusic. Its name paid homage to the dance club that Citytv replaced at 99 Queen Street East when the station launched in 1972. The original Electric Circus arrived in town with great hype, and ended as a newspaper auction ad.
“I believe in Toronto,” Stan Freeman, Electric Circus co-owner, declared when he announced the club in May 1968. “It’s one of the grooviest cities in the world for rock, and I’m investing $300,000 in that belief.” Along with business partner Jerry Brandt, Freeman, a Torontonian who once worked for Clairtone, promised a venue over twice the size of his flagship club in New York City’s East Village. The original’s mix of circus performers, electronic music, experimental theatre, light shows, and live bands would be imported, all for a then-stiff $4 cover charge.
The site, whose past tenants ranged from an ornamental ironworks to a Simpsons used-furniture depot, would see its 38,000 square feet of floor space reimagined into a realm designed for the groovy hipsters. Split into seven rooms, it included a strobe-lit dance hall, chambers lined with foam rubber, a boutique, and a restaurant. Unlike the NYC location, the light shows would be programmed via computer.
Trouble plagued the project from the start. Construction costs doubled as the concept evolved and the city demanded numerous safeguards. The opening date, intended for July, was delayed for months. When the Electric Circus finally opened for a VIP-only fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund on December 20, 1968, it was far from complete. Despite staff putting in 24-hour shifts, little was truly ready for guests like John Craig Eaton, Peter Munk, and Marshall McLuhan to enjoy the full freak-out experience. Plaster dripped and wires were exposed. Carpenters hammered away. Welders sprayed sparks onto the floor. Drinks were served in paper cups because the bar glasses had been stolen. The light show was still in test mode. Amid the chaos, floor staff ran around in lab coats and sweatshirts with “HELP!” written on the back. “C’mon, honey,” one tuxedo-clad guest told his wife. “This is terrible! They can’t have a party in here!” Perhaps prime minister Pierre Trudeau was relieved when he declined his invitation.
The press found reasons for optimism. “If you’ve been mouthing McLuhanisms for the past couple of years without really knowing what things like ‘media barrage’ and ‘total environment’ mean,” the Globe and Mail observed, “you can experience them in their most intense form at the Electric Circus.” The Star’s Jack Batten predicted it would be a “groovy experience” when properly running.
The club closed for a month to complete renovations. Over 2,000 people, many armed with free passes from CKFH radio, lined up when it reopened on January 23, 1969. While the pulsating liquid patterns and strobe lights impressed patrons, many wondered what the hype was about. As one partier observed, “everything else you can do at home.”
What you actually could do at the Electric Circus, according to Star art columnist Gail Dexter, boiled down to four things: dance, eat, go nude (a practice encouraged among female patrons), and hide in a “womb room” outfitted with flashing lights. It was also utilized by the Ontario College of Art for its annual Beaux Art Ball—in the spirit of the era, its 1969 edition was named after a catchphrase from the TV series Laugh-In (“Look it up in your Funk and Wagnall”).
As 1969 wore on, the club’s troubles mounted. A Sunday night live concert series was discontinued due to performers being late or, in the case of Ten Years After, failing to show up at all. Crowds dwindled to 80 people on weeknights. Tradesmen registered liens as they waited for payment. Creditors were offered shares in the New York club. By 1970, new management contemplated providing an atmosphere that was less plastic and more conducive to young people enjoying live music. “They shouldn’t go to Massey Hall,” manager Bob Cohen told the Globe and Mail in May 1970. “I’ll make them feel at home. I’ll give them a community. I’ve got rid of most of the environmental junk we had, and I’m trying to make the Circus a place just to relax and listen to the music and groove with the other freaks.”
Pandering to draw “freaks” failed, and the Electric Circus’s groovy goods were auctioned off. Less than two years later, over $1 million of renovations transformed the site into Citytv’s first home. The station took advantage of the wiring system the club left behind, while the light-show gondola became Moses Znaimer’s office. The old club’s address is currently occupied by The Carbon Bar.
Additional material from the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969, November 6, 1969, and May 16, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 27, 1968, October 19, 1968, December 20, 1968, December 21, 1968, March 1, 1969, March 11, 1969, and April 26, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.