Once a fire hall, this address is best known as the one-time home of the St. Charles Tavern—one of Toronto’s most popular gay bars from the 1960s through to the late-‘80s and, as such, the target of an ignoble homophobic Hallowe’en tradition.
For a spot later known for fiery confrontations, perhaps it’s fitting that the clock tower above 484-488 Yonge St. originally watched over horse-drawn fire engines emerging from the building below. The structure served as Fire Hall Number Three from the early 1870s until the late 1920s; after the fire department moved around the corner to Grosvenor Street, the old hall was occupied by furniture stores, car dealers, and a cycle shop.
The northwest corner of Yonge and Grenville streets, sometime between 1916 and 1919.
Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1562.
In 1950, the St. Charles Restaurant opened at the site with the slogan “meet me under the clock.” Its colourful owner, Charles Hemstead, worked his way up from a newsboy at the corner of King and Bathurst to a real-estate wheeler-dealer. Though he owned hotels and sold rural properties that turned into developments like Mississauga’s Dixie Plaza, his heart belonged to the racetrack. Described by the Globe and Mail as a guy who wore “finely tailored suits and a diamond horseshoe stickpin and a ring worth $6,000,” Hemstead had corralled a stable of horses that included 1943 King’s Plate (as the Queen’s Plate was then known) victor Paolita.
The St. Charles, circa 1955. Photo: James Salmon/Toronto Public Library, S 2-2312.
Alongside the typical steak-and-seafood menu served by eateries with classy aspirations, the St. Charles offered Chinese dishes in its “Oriental Room.” Within a few years, a second location opened at the Canadian National Exhibition to serve hungry fairgoers. That location was destroyed by a fire in January 1961, one of a series of setbacks whose stresses likely contributed to Hemstead’s fatal heart attack later that month.
During the 1960s, the St. Charles Tavern, as it was then known, developed a reputation as a gay hangout. By 1966, it advertised a “Call Me Miss-Ter Revue” showcase of exotic dancers and female impersonators. Along with nearby bars like the Parkside, the St. Charles became part of a new Yonge Street Hallowe’en tradition of costume balls. Laws outlawing the donning of the opposite gender’s clothes tended to relax on Oct. 31, providing an opportunity for drag queens to strut their stuff. Crowds gathered along Yonge Street between Wellesley and College to watch, as the Star termed it in 1969, “the procession of fabulous female-creatures-who-aren’t.”
From the Nov. 1, 1971, edition of the Toronto Star
Onlookers treated the annual procession as a freak show, an attitude that grew uglier as the 1970s progressed. Those entering the St. Charles in drag on Hallowe’en were pelted with eggs and ink, ruining outfits some had worked on for a year. Chants of “kill the queers” emerged from the crowd. Radio stations encouraged people to head down to Yonge Street to join the mob of up to 5,000 people. Media treated it as a light-hearted event, rarely tackling the hate that spewed out. Police looked the other way when violence broke out.
Fears heightened in 1977 after the sexual assault and murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques increased vitriol against homosexuals. Community groups like the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) urged police to crack down on the Hallowe’en hate mob. When police officials suggested the best course of action was to stay away from the St. Charles, politicians including St. George MPP Margaret Campbell and Mayor David Crombie urged the force to provide adequate protection. GATE and the Metropolitan Community Church launched Operation Jack o’ Lantern to provide escorts for anyone feeling threatened on Hallowe’en night.
At first, police failed to live up to promises to curb the mob, allowing it to form for several more years. Participants at the St. Charles ball entered via the back door. Reports of back alley and side-street bashings increased. The ugly attitude of the gatherings was personified by a 21-year old woman interviewed by the Globe and Mail on Hallowe’en 1979. “It’s great, because everybody’s so friendly, right? Except if you’re a faggot—that’s different.” The woman said she was there to egg anyone she thought was gay; the paper didn’t mention if she was among the 103 people arrested that night.
From the Nov. 1, 1979, edition of the Toronto Star
“The events of October 31 are a civic disgrace, and should be a source of shame to every citizen of the city,” declared an editorial in the gay journal The Body Politic on the eve of Hallowe’en 1980. “Every citizen, every elected official should share every gay person’s dismay at having to face, each year, a night of humiliation and hate. A night that is passed over in silence, that has drawn no criticism, no condemnation, that has not moved one single elected official to say, ‘This is appalling and disgraceful. This must be stopped.’ It is in the interests of the entire city of Toronto that the city lose its reputation, both here and abroad, for allowing a night of anti-gay bigotry unparalleled in any other city in Canada.”
Though police rejected a proposal to block the St. Charles with a convoy of garbage trucks in 1980, they erected metal barriers along Yonge Street’s east sidewalk and prevented anyone from stopping to gawk or jeer. They discouraged media from urging listeners to congregate along Yonge, and asked local merchants to sell eggs to regular customers only. “There were so many officers on Yonge Street,” observed The Body Politic’s Gerald Hannon, “it was beginning to look like a replay of the October Crisis.” Those hoping to lob eggs were disappointed—“this place sucks.”
The peace was maintained the following Hallowe’en, despite jeering attempts from a few yahoos and barbs in the Toronto Sun (“It’s a special night for these homosexuals, the people who dress up every night of the year”). The annual onslaught of hate gradually faded as Hallowe’en celebrations shifted over to Church Street and evolved into a crowded block party where revellers from across Toronto showed off their costumes.
Though it ranked among the top 10 sellers of draught beer in the city in the early 1980s, the St. Charles Tavern closed around Christmas 1987. Various retailers filled the space over the years—current tenants include an electronics store, a music shop, and a sushi joint. The decaying, pigeon poop-clogged clock tower, whose hands were stuck at 12 for years, was renovated after Joseph Bogoroch bought the property in 2002. With a fresh coat of paint, it stands proud above Yonge Street.
Additional material from the December 1977-January 1978, December 1979, October 1980, and December 1980-January 1981 editions of The Body Politic; the January 17, 1961, January 18, 1961, October 28, 1977, and November 1, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 26, 1966, October 31, 1969, November 1, 1979, October 21, 1980, and November 5, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 1, 1981 edition of the Toronto Sun.