Scenes from the Brunswick House
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Scenes from the Brunswick House

Weddings, varying degrees of performing talent, shootings, and other stories from the longstanding bar.

Cover by Robert McInnis, Toronto, We Love You…Volume 1, The Brunswick House, Rolf Kalman, editor Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1975

Cover by Robert McInnis, Toronto, We Love You…Volume 1, The Brunswick House, Rolf Kalman, editor
Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1975.

In a 1970 profile of the Brunswick House, the Globe and Mail described the venerable watering hole as “the poor man’s Granite Club, the only draft joint in town that gives (as they’re proud to admit) ‘Royal York flavours at Scott Mission prices.’ ” At the time, rather than a destination for patrons to drink themselves into oblivion, the Brunny was home to an eccentric cast of characters enjoying a diverse range of activities, including the occasional wedding.

The first bar on the southeast corner of Bloor and Brunswick was a nameless saloon operated by Benjamin Hinchcliffe around 1874. Two years later, the city directory identified Hinchcliffe’s bar as the Brunswick Hotel, a name it used for the next century—during the late 1960s and early 1970s, media reports used “Hotel” and “House” interchangeably. As a local workingman’s spot, it drew little attention from the press apart from occasional violations of Ontario’s strict liquor laws, such as several charges during the 1920s of serving beer that wasn’t weak enough. During a stakeout of bars near United Church congregations in 1938, Rev. George A. Little failed to notice anyone stumbling out of the Brunswick. “A large number of people arrived and departed from the hotel,” Little observed, “but conduct was orderly.”

Source: Globe and Mail, July 16, 1970

Source: Globe and Mail, July 16, 1970.

Following its purchase by Albert and Morris Nightingale in 1965, the Brunswick hosted a broad range of activities geared to both its older clientele and an increasing number of university students. Upstairs became Albert’s Hall, a jazz venue with long residencies from the Climax Jazz Band and Dr. McJazz. On the main floor, the patrons provided their own entertainment via amateur nights. Talent was not a prerequisite, though occasionally stars like Gordon Lightfoot showed up; fun was, as the Globe and Mail’s Lynda Hurst observed in 1970:

Elizabeth is dancing. Again. This time it looks like an Israeli folk dance. Well, at least, Miss Winnifred at the organ is pounding out Have Nagillah. Last time it was a variation on a Hungarian polka. As far as choreography is concerned, Elizabeth is not what you’d call dynamite but she has that certain joie de danse that makes up for the occasional stumble. She is being enthusiastically received by her audience. Most of them have seen Elizabeth perform before, like just about every night. In fact, most of them have been up there with her at one time or another.

The overall attitude of the Nightingales was that patrons should be able to liven up the typically dingy beverage rooms some provincial officials vainly hoped would discourage drinking. Holiday celebrations, pickle-eating contests, and afternoon sketching classes were encouraged. A tongue-in-cheek “Mrs. Brunswick” contest was held for older women. There was even a circus night, though we wouldn’t be surprised if the promised live gorilla was a dude in a moth-eaten suit.

Source: Globe and Mail, November 3, 1969

Source: Globe and Mail, Nov. 3, 1969.

Among its older clientele, strong relationships developed, including romance. After a five-year courtship conducted at the pub, widowed patrons Henry Ford and Nora St. Jean decided to get hitched at the Brunswick. Both felt the bar was home to their friends, and was more comfortable than a church or the anonymity of city hall. More than 250 regulars were invited to the ceremony held on Nov. 1, 1969. The taps flowed freely for four hours, then were shut to allow a Salvation Army major to conduct the vows. Albert Nightingale walked St. Jean down the aisle. “This is the first time I have ever willingly given a good customer away,” he joked.

Politics fit into the sideshow atmosphere. The Brunswick was among the venues community members discussed plans to fight the construction of the Spadina Expressway, which was planned to rip through the neighbourhood. Following the province’s cancellation of the project on June 3, 1971, victory celebrations for Stop Spadina supporters began on the Yonge Street Mall, then moved over to the Brunny. The intended party site was Grossman’s Tavern, but organizers forgot to call ahead and found it packed. Over a year later, Toronto Sun columnist Paul Rimstead used the Brunswick as headquarters for a mayoral run initially inspired by a joke at a “welcome home” party at the bar after wintering in Mexico.

Source: Toronto Star, June 4, 1971

Source: Toronto Star, June 4, 1971.

Amid the hijinks, there were dark incidents. Three weeks after the Ford-St. Jean nuptials in November 1969, a man was gunned down in the hotel lobby in a dispute over a woman. Singer Cal Kelly was urged to keep playing to calm down the audience. A January 1974 incident stemming from a table of women who were initially harassed by male patrons, then got on stage to sing a lesbian-styled take on “I Enjoy Being a Girl” resulted in three charges of causing a disturbance for the women, accusations of police brutality when they were taken away, and an inquiry as part of the Royal Commission into Metropolitan Toronto Police Practices the following year. Though management claimed the audience was riled up by the song, many witnesses felt the crowd enjoyed the tune and the ensuing actions were over the top.

Though the Nightingales sold the venue in 1976 for $1.5 million, the Brunswick continued to various audiences. Vibraphonist Peter Appleyard shot his syndicated television series there in the late 1970s, bringing in guests ranging from Blossom Dearie to Cab Calloway. When comedian Pete Barbutti filmed his series Pete’s Place in 1980, the décor was made tackier to reflect his fictional club’s down-on-its-heels nature. A weekly reading series in the mid-1980s, the Argument Literary Club, drew the likes of Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, and Irving Layton. Students flocked in for cheap booze, campus club get-togethers, and various intimate clothing contests. In 1986, Newsweek ranked the Brunswick among its top 10 bars in the world.

Musically, amateur nights gave way to regular singalongs of traditional tunes with “Rockin’ Irene” (who passed away earlier this year). Albert’s Hall showcased blues stars, including Etta James. Playing the venue for a week a time during a period she battled heroin addiction, James stayed in the flophouse rooms and later recalled other patrons taking care of her and watching bar brawls on the street below.

Source: Toronto Star, February 4, 1979

Source: Toronto Star, Feb. 4, 1979.

An ongoing issue with neighbours, beyond the volume of puke in front yards, was attempts to increase the Brunny’s capacity. Objections to an outdoor patio in 1982 resulted in restrictions, which limited its outdoor licence to between noon and 4 p.m. While alderman John Sewell supported outdoor cafés, he felt the Brunswick was “a very loud drinking establishment, and any sidewalk café is probably going to be an extension of what’s going on inside.”

Three decades later, an attempt to raise capacity by nearly 100 people prompted objections from residents tired of dealing with an increasingly rowdy clientele. Under the ownership of Abbis Mahmoud, the Brunswick shifted toward being a weekend-only, late-night destination for drunken youth and horrifying misbehaviour. Critics felt this business model drew patrons from elsewhere with no attachment to the neighbourhood. “Nothing will change until the business plan changes,” Tim Grant, Harbord Village Residents’ Association chair, told the Star in 2011. “What endures is a very bad neighbour.”

Time will tell if Boston Pizza or other potential tenants will be a better neighbour than the Brunswick, whose lease converts to month-to-month after Dec. 31.

Additional material from the June 25, 1938, Nov. 3, 1969, July 25, 1970, June 1, 1974, March 2, 1976, and Jan. 21, 2012 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the Nov. 22, 1969, June 4, 1971, July 17, 1972, March 2, 1976, Sept. 4, 1982, and Nov. 3, 2011, editions of the Toronto Star.

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