Historicist: How the St. Charles Tavern went from Chinese-Food Restaurant to Popular Gay Bar
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Historicist: How the St. Charles Tavern went from Chinese-Food Restaurant to Popular Gay Bar

"Meet under the clock" was a slogan ingrained in the city's gay community.

St. Charles Tavern,  1955. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library.

St. Charles Tavern, 1955. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library.

“Meet me under the clock”—for several decades, it was the slogan of the St. Charles Tavern. While it began in the early 1950s as a cocktail lounge owned by a prominent local horse breeder, the St. Charles gradually became one of the city’s most prominent gay bars, thanks to a combination of location and unintended consequences of Ontario’s liquor laws.

The clock tower above 484-488 Yonge was built as part of Fire Hall Number Three, which operated from the early 1870s until a new hall was erected on Grosvenor Street during the 1920s. Many tenants filled the space over the next three decades, including a bicycle shop, and a succession of car dealers who sold North American (GM, Kaiser, Hudson) and British (Austin, Morris) vehicles.

Among the most newsworthy incidents during this period was a fire which struck the second floor Metropolitan Gallery of Fine Arts in January 1940. The blaze damaged several paintings which, ironically, were brought from Europe to prevent damage during the Second World War. Among the major losses was 17th century Dutch painter Ferdinand Bol’s “Handwriting on the Wall.”

Advertisement, Globe and Mail, March 31, 1950.

Advertisement, Globe and Mail, March 31, 1950.

The site soon caught the eye of Charles Hemstead. From a childhood stint as a newsboy at Bathurst and King, Hemstead built a fortune on real estate investments, including several downtown hotels and taverns. Horses were his passion, as he operated several breeding farms which produced prize-winning stallions at several country fairs. Hemstead’s most notable horse was Paolita, who beat the longest odds in two decades to win the 1943 King’s Plate (currently the Queen’s Plate). Paolita was such a long shot that $2 bets paid out $76.50.

Described by the Globe and Mail as a man who wore “finely tailored suits and a diamond horseshoe stickpin and a ring worth $6,000,” Hemstead’s luxurious tastes occasionally got him into trouble. When he drove into his driveway on Jackes Avenue at 3 a.m. one morning in January 1952, three men were waiting to rob him. “I couldn’t get to the house before they caught me,” he told the press, “so I turned to face them.” Despite his assailants’ efforts, which included smashing either a gun or a pipe over his head, they failed to remove Hemstead’s diamond rings after he fell.

Charles Hemstead being rewarded at the 1943 King's Plate, as "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford looks on, Globe and Mail, May  24, 1943.

Charles Hemstead being rewarded at the 1943 King’s Plate, as “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford looks on, Globe and Mail, May 24, 1943.

Hemstead opened the St. Charles Tavern in August 1950. Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West described the scene:

We’ve never seen so many sports celebrities all under one roof at the same time. A novel feature of Charley’s party was that—apart from wining and dining his guest—he also allowed them to set their watches free by the clock which towers above his spot on Yonge St., just north of College. Used to be an old fire hall and the brass rail is still there. Except that now you slide up it to the second floor, instead of down, and water pressure is the least of your troubles.

Serving a menu of steaks, pork chops, and Chinese food alongside its roster of cocktails, the St. Charles was popular enough that Hemstead soon opened a satellite branch at the Canadian National Exhibition.

A wheeler-dealer when it came to real estate (including the land Dixie Mall sits on), Hemstead sold the St. Charles in 1958. The following year, he launched a new, self-titled year-round restaurant in the old Women’s Building section of the Manufacturer’s Building at the CNE, spending $250,000 to convert the space into three rooms serving 1,000 diners. He also proposed building a 200-room hotel on the exhibition grounds to serve tired convention and fair patrons.

From the Toronto Star, January 18, 1961.

From the Toronto Star, January 18, 1961.

On January 3, 1961, fire destroyed Hemstead’s CNE restaurant. City councillor William Dennison said it should never have been allowed on the premises, claiming that “a restaurant is always a bad fire hazard because of the amount of wiring and the danger of fat igniting.” Less than two weeks later, on January 16, another blaze destroyed the Carson Hotel at Church and Shuter, killing two. He had little insurance for either property, though was expecting to add more to the Carson once renovations were completed.

The strain was too much for Hemstead. Just after dinner on January 17, he suffered a fatal coronary thrombosis. Or, his personal physician put it, “you could say he died of a broken heart.”

While the St. Charles Tavern continued to serve Chinese-Canadian fare after Hemstead sold it, the clientele began to change. When the Westbury Hotel (now the Courtyard Marriott) opened down the street in 1957, it included a bar in the basement. The Red Lion Room soon drew a reputation for homosexual clientele, earning it the nickname “The Pink Pussy.” Provincial liquor regulations ruled that beverage rooms which sold no food, like the Red Lion, had to close for an hour and a half each evening, to theoretically allow patrons to go home for dinner, or stumble to a proper restaurant. Cocktail lounges like the St. Charles sold food and could stay open.

Years later in The Body Politic, Gerald Hannon reflected on the shuffle between bars along Yonge:

Many men who probably found the family ambiance at the St. Charles hard to take (at the time it housed a popular Chinese restaurant) headed back to the “Pink Pussy” promptly at eight. Others, who found its attempts at chic somewhat more to their taste (the bar lights were shaped like violins) stayed, settled in, and became the beachhead that eventually made the St. Charles the gay bar it is today.

Ontario’s liquor laws also discouraged a female presence in beverage rooms, lest they be too corrupted by demon booze or allow men to fall prey to prostitutes. While some bars included a “ladies and escorts” room, others became strictly male domains. This inadvertently, as gay rights activist George Hislop noted, “played right into our hands.” The laws also forbade any obstructions which prevent anyone from having a full view of the beverage room. “Open vistas,” activist Rick Bébout observed, “amply abetted another vice: cruising—except that no one but a waiter was allowed to stand up and walk around with a drink.”

Clockwise: Toronto Star, August 17, 1950; Globe and Mail, August 26, 1950; Toronto Star, January 26, 1966.

Clockwise: Toronto Star, August 17, 1950; Globe and Mail, August 26, 1950; Toronto Star, January 26, 1966.

When the Red Lion Room closed in 1965, its patrons were soon welcomed near the St. Charles at the Parkside Tavern at the northwest corner of Yonge and Breadalbane. There, the wall which had separated the ladies and escorts room was knocked down. Despite an ongoing police bathroom sting, gay drinkers flowed in. Parkside owner Norman Bolter, a straight man who once observed “a gay person shouldn’t own a place like this, he’d get too emotionally involved,” went on to buy the St. Charles during the 1970s.

Signs that the St. Charles was catering more to the gay community came via newspaper ads published in January 1966 which invited patrons to check out the “Call Me Miss-Ter” female impersonation revue. By decade’s end, the St. Charles and its neighbouring bars became the spot for drag queens to be seen on Halloween, especially after the Letros Tavern on King Street instituted a “no costume” policy. The general public reacted by gawking and jeering at what they considered a parade of freaks.

Upstairs, a series of clubs operated. One incarnation, the May Gay, was profiled by the Globe and Mail in 1971:

It costs $2 to get in. The guy in the white hotpants gives you a red ticket that says Admit One and he stamps the palm of your hand. You enter and turn the corner and there they are dancing and fondling each other just like at a high school dance. There is a difference. Straight guys call them fags, queers, and homos: they like the word gay…The two of them are taking a break. One is blond, a flirt, and he is dressed in a black pantsuit with a low back, the other is in a beige pantsuit with a zipper up the front that is unzipped to his navel. They are in love, these two. They can’t keep their hands off each other. They take turns as go-go dancers on a round platform with a full-length mirror behind it. Now and then they admire their pelvic movements in the mirror.

Some are blatant and proud in their perversity, with their bleached blonde hair and their wildly contoured clothes, but others are straight-looking with short hair and ordinary street clothes. It is a fast, promiscuous world and they keep their bodies in shape. This one is about 40, sitting by himself, and nobody will ask him to dance. The manager is a fat guy in an orange shirt and his cigar stinks. “No, we don’t have any trouble here, except when a guy will come out of the Don [Jail] and try to start something.” He points at the couples dancing, their arms draped around each other, and says: “They may look like sissies but they work out at the Y, I want to tell you.”

View of stores, including the Parkside and St. Charles Taverns, on Yonge Street south of Wellesley, June 10, 1971. Photo by Harvey Naylor. City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 1526, File 2, Item 68.

View of stores, including the Parkside and St. Charles Taverns, on Yonge Street south of Wellesley, June 10, 1971. Photo by Harvey Naylor. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 2, Item 68.

While patrons were still urged to meet under the clock, nobody kept time by it. The city had maintained its time until 1969, when it deemed the annual $700 upkeep bill too much for taxpayers to pay. The bar’s owners felt overdue repairs were too expensive to carry out. It wouldn’t be fixed until the 21st century.

Though police frequently harassed patrons, they also dealt with some unusual incidents. In February 1969, a 14-year-old boy was charged with two break-ins. He scaled the clock tower, snuck into the bar, and stole cigarettes and seven bottles of liquor. Found drunk, the unnamed lawbreaker told police he returned later to steal more booze.

As the 1970s wore on, patrons entered via the back door to avoid being seen. The Halloween assemblies of drag queens attracted an increasingly hostile reaction from gawkers who felt it was perfectly fine to hurl eggs and slurs at bar patrons (a tradition we covered in a previous installment of Historicist). Prejudices related to the St. Charles even extended to schoolyards, where, according to a Toronto Life article, kids were taunted with limp-wristed greetings of “meet me at the St. Charles.” The efforts of gay community leaders and the police curbed most of the ugliness by 1980, though a few yahoos and the Toronto Sun continued to hurl insults. Gradually, the Halloween festivities shifted east to Church Street.

Though it ranked among the top 10 sellers of draught beer in the city in the early 1980s, the St. Charles Tavern closed in late 1987. The upper level operated as a succession of clubs, notably Empire Dancebar between 1988 and 1992. A succession of businesses have occupied the St. Charles Tavern space, while a condo proposal retaining the clock tower was released in 2015.

Additional material from the April 1980 edition of The Body Politic; the January 4, 1940, May 24, 1943, August 10, 1950, January 26, 1952, August 30, 1960, January 5, 1961, January 17. 1961, July 13, 1971, and March 16, 1972 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 1998 edition of Toronto Life; and the March 26, 1952, January 18, 1961, January 26, 1966, February 4, 1969, and October 31, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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