Denise Benson revisits the legendary club that served as an island oasis amid a rapidly transforming Queen West strip.
Club: Bamboo, 312 Queen St. W.
Years in operation: 1983-2002
History: Like the best of clubs, Toronto’s BamBoo was produced out of friendships, late-night revelry, and the desire to create a unique experience for a core community. The path that co-owners Richard O’Brien and Patti Habib took to get there was filled with fateful turns.
Both were in media and loved the nightlife: O’Brien had been a freelance journalist and live-music booker in California before returning to Toronto where he worked for TVOntario and later CBC, while Habib was a story producer for CBC Radio’s As It Happens. In the late 1970s, O’Brien, also known to friends as Ricci Moderne, partnered with infamous bon vivant Marcus O’Hara to produce annual St. Patrick’s Day parties, dubbed the Martian Awareness Ball (2013 marked its 35th anniversary), with Habib joining them a few years in.
Not long after, the trio—along with a group of friends that also included Dan Aykroyd, publicist Joanne Smale, John Ball, and Roots co-founder Michael Budman—put together an extensive business proposal to re-open The Embassy Tavern, a 1960s Yorkville bar and live-music venue. The plans did not come to fruition. Instead, in 1980, O’Brien and Habib launched the MBC boozecan in what had been her third-floor loft at the corner of Liberty and Atlantic.
“I had to move out,” laughs Habib during a lengthy phone chat. “Richard brought in all his records, and it became an after-hours club opened Mondays—a theatre night—and Thursdays only.”
For two years, the duo drew crowds to this largely deserted part of town we now know as Liberty Village. They booked bands that ranged from reggae to Rough Trade, from a newly formed Parachute Club to soul man Junior Walker. Jamaican patties were the only food served. Income earned at the door was hidden in record covers, and put aside with larger goals in mind.
Habib and O’Brien were also regulars at influential upstairs Queen West boozecan-cum-nightly-artist-hangout The Paper Door. As luck would have it, on an evening spent sitting on the venue’s back balcony, O’Brien looked down and spotted Wicker World, a shop at 312 Queen St. W. set back from the street. The location had been a laundry for years before, looked industrial, and piqued O’Brien’s curiosity. Not long after, he spotted a “For Lease” sign at the address, put down a deposit, and was given three months’ free rent in order to build his business.
“That was a joke—it took three months just to get rid of all the junk in it,” says Habib. “There was broken pottery and wicker, wicker, wicker everywhere. That’s why we called the club the BamBoo.
“The place was a mess. There was one leaky toilet, and barely any lights. There was still a lot of heavy equipment in there from the laundromat. The plumbing was just awful, so the cement floors had to be drilled and dug up.”
312 Queen St W., pre-BamBoo. Photo: Courtesy of Patti Habib.
Many friends pitched in to clean and renovate the space. When the cold months came and the existing wood stove no longer did the trick, Habib lent O’Brien $10,000 for construction heaters.
“That’s how I got involved,” she says. “I could see that without somebody organizing the whole thing and being the boss, I was never going to get my money back. Investors weren’t exactly rushing in. In the end, the place was renovated for $85,000, and then we had to borrow $100,000 to actually buy stock, pay salaries, and open it. The banks wouldn’t lend to us, so we borrowed from a consortium. We had to pay 100 per cent interest; the investors never thought we’d pay it, and likely thought they’d get the space.”
O’Brien and Habib ran around the city to scope free furniture and other items from restaurants and clubs that went out of business. Big green iron gates were scored from the original Drake Hotel, while banquettes came out of a bowling alley. One-and-a-half years after signing the original lease, they were almost ready to open their nightclub and restaurant.
In July of 1983, with no liquor permit or running water in place, the BamBoo kept a commitment to host the release party for Parachute Club’s debut album for Current/RCA.
“On the day of the show, I went in there with Patti to clean the bathrooms, and get it all ready,” recalls Parachute Club co-founder and vocalist Lorraine Segato. ”All the friends of the BamBoo, who had been following Richard and Patti through the MBC and all the parties they held, were really quite excited, so it was a great night and party.”
With the aim of creating a “casual place to gather with good food and good live music,” according to Habib, the BamBoo opened officially on August 26, 1983. American funk act Prince Charles and the City Beat Band performed.
Poster: Courtesy of Lorraine Segato.
Why it was important: “In the early ’80s, you still couldn’t drink on Sundays unless you were eating—restaurants would close at 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. on Saturdays, and gigs would end by 11 p.m.,” says Segato, also writer/director of 2001 documentary The Rebel Zone, an exploration of Queen West cultural history.
“So in many ways, the boozecans fostered an opportunity for different kinds of music and nightlife to emerge. What Richard and Patti did was take the vibe of the boozecan—a thriving, pulsating, really happening community feeling—and brought that to the BamBoo.”
At the time, Queen West itself was home to a flourishing arts community. The early ’80s recession had hit hard, so rents were relatively low, chain stores had not yet swooped in, and Queen west of University was filled with unique independent retailers, art galleries, new restaurants, and social spots.
“Queen Street was where the ‘new music’ was going to happen,” explains artist Barbara Klunder, an illustrator who drew the MBC’s invites, and went on to help define the BamBoo’s visual identity.
“Before that, it was folk on Yorkville, or blues and jazz clubs on old Yonge Street. The Rivoli also opened up on Queen Street around the same time [as the BamBoo], while Peter Pan had changed hands and become a cool place to eat. There was also the Parrot restaurant, with Greg Couillard as the first [local] celebrity chef. This was the zone of a whole new sensibility of cool international food [writer's note: Le Select Bistro had opened nearby in the late ’70s], with music to match.
“The BamBoo had a mandate of world music and world food—basically the very opposite of European/white culture. The idea was a fun tropical nightclub, in both music and food.”
Poster: Courtesy of Inge Kuuts
Influenced heavily by African art, Klunder had an aesthetic that matched O’Brien’s musical vision. She was at the core of the BamBoo’s marketing, from creating its logo to illustrating ads, menus, posters, t-shirts, giant murals, monthly newsletters (over 200 in total), and much more.
As customers walked in past the two painted palm trees that helped mark 312 Queen St. W., one of Klunder’s large murals adorned the brick wall just inside the BamBoo’s first set of gates. Her cheerful mosaics also greeted people. (Click through the photo gallery at the top of this article for a visual tour.)
“A tropical garden path led you to a sparkly lit enclosed outdoor patio dining room, with bamboo and tropical plants growing amongst the patio tables,” Klunder describes. “The colours were mostly pink and turquoise to get that island feel right away.
“Then there was the double-door entrance over the floor mosaic of the moon, and you arrived inside a huge room divided into red restaurant booths on the left, and a long, long bar on the right, both leading to a stage. If you turned right as you entered, you would end up in the small pink dining room, which was always full. All through the club were corny 1950s lamps with naked ladies and jaguars, African masks, and mid-century tables loaded down with giant tropical floral arrangements. The walls were covered with either big versions of my artwork or changing art shows of local artists.”
Photos: Courtesy of Barbara Klunder
“The aesthetics of the club were interesting,” offers multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Brown, who started bussing tables at the BamBoo in the late ’80s as a high-school summer job, before playing organ and singing on its stage as part of Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.
“The Caribbean accouterments, mid-century furniture and lamps, and Ontario bamboo in the courtyard all conspired to create a Gilligan’s Island feel tucked into an oasis on Queen West.”
Inviting in every possible way, the BamBoo was relaxed, warm, and far from slick. Random parts hinted at an industrial past, including the outdoor fountain built atop the remnants of the building’s original boiler. A narrow metal stairwell led up to the Treetop, a Jamaican style bar ‘n’ BBQ that opened on the club’s rooftop in summer of 1984, expanding the BamBoo’s legal capacity to 500.
“During the summer heat, there was nowhere you wanted to be other than the Treetop Lounge,” says Klunder. “Think rum drinks and burgers at brightly painted barstools or coffee tables under the night sky and the CN Tower.”
“The thing about the BamBoo was that everything was great—the music, the food, the staff, the vibe, the vision,” says Segato. “It was known as much for its mix of food as for the music. You’d walk in and there was the feeling that you could be in Jamaica or Trinidad or some amazing beach bar in Thailand.”
The BamBoo’s menu, in fact, combined all of these cultural reference points, and helped put the nightclub on the map, as well as on best-of lists. Open six days a week from lunch until the wee hours, the BamBoo attracted a large and loyal crowd of food lovers, thanks to original chefs Vera Khan, who handled the West Indian fare, and Wandee Young, Thai-food innovator.
BamBoo menu cover. Photo: Courtesy of Patti Habib.
“Our concept was food from anywhere where there was a gorgeous beach, and so the Thai/Caribbean menu evolved,” explains Inge Kuuts, who worked at the BamBoo for almost all of its history, as a waitress, floor manager, and more.
“There was never a crazier, more stoned kitchen than that one, working way too hard in the constant overwhelming heat, serving more food orders than was possible to keep up with, and yet able to put out the best island-style food available in the city! People would come miles for the Thai noodles, and I have yet to have one better than the dish created by Wandee Young.”
Patti Habib (left) and Inge Kuuts. Photo: Courtesy of Kuuts.
Many Torontonians, in fact, experienced their first Pad Thai thanks to Young, who offered it first during her time at the BamBoo, and then when she opened her own restaurant, Young Thailand.
“I swear, when we started, nobody knew we sold food because everybody was coming for the music,” laughs Habib. “Within a few years, we became a very unusual nightclub in that we sold more food than we did liquor. Often people came for the food, had a seat, and would stay all night.”
The BamBoo’s menu—much of which is shared in the beautiful, best-selling 1997 book, The BamBoo Cooks, with illustrations by Klunder—barely changed an iota over the club’s history.
While Habib’s focus was largely on the menu, kitchen and staffing and O’Brien was the driving force behind bookings, it was their mesh of ideas and personalities that made the ’Boo work.
“Richard was a bit of a grumpy guy—he wasn’t all happy all the time,” offers Segato about O’Brien, widely known to be both contentious and charmingly passionate. “Patti was the one who I think was, in so many ways, the beating heart of the project, whereas Richard saw what it could do and why it was so, so important. Together, they were a formidable team who each took care of different pieces.”
Richard O’Brien (left) on the BamBoo rooftop patio. Photo: Courtesy of Patti Habib.
Both were committed to making the BamBoo a meeting point of culture and communities, with live-music programming that was decidedly different than the rock lean of most downtown clubs. The BamBoo’s world-music policy brought together jazz, reggae, ska, funk, soul, African, and early hip-hop acts, among many others.
“While the BamBoo’s décor was laid back, with tropical lighting and Negril-type furniture, I believe that it was the general vibes from Richard and Patti that [most] celebrated this cultural mix, and made everyone feel like it was ‘home turf,’” proffers writer and Juno-winning dub poet Lillian Allen, who both frequented and performed at the club a great deal.
“The BamBoo created a community of performers and audience,” Allen adds. “It was, especially in the earlier days, a kind of love-in. The business model felt like it was culture first. They were about diversity and substance.
“I was involved with organizations such as A Space, Immican Youth project, and Truths and Rights, so I was part of a developing cross-cultural scene. I was also a member of De Dub Poets, with Clifton Joseph and Devon Haughton. The activities on Queen Street then were so vital and exciting. We were not only welcome, we were sought-after.”
Parachute Club at the BamBoo. Photo: courtesy of Lorraine Segato.
Segato also appreciates the club’s approach to this day.
“I call BamBoo the hub, really,” she tells me. “It was the centrifugal force of any of the world music that was starting to pop along Queen Street. Of course you had The Cameron, The Horseshoe, The Cabana Room and a few other places—Billy [Bryans, Parachute Club co-founder and prolific producer/musician] used to say that he rolled his drum kit up and down the street—but they all kind of serviced different community-oriented projects. One was more performance art, another was art-school bands, you had a more blues-oriented club, and so on. But the BamBoo itself… everything generated circles around there once it opened.
“It was a place for everything that was remotely ‘world’ music—reggae, funk, anything that serviced the immigrant communities that had come to Toronto and were basically holding most of their events outside of Queen Street. If they came downtown, they came to the ‘Boo. I wanted to be at the BamBoo because you could see it was at the forefront of a new era of music in the city.”
“The BamBoo was pivotal in providing a venue where the music of the African diaspora outside of its North American innovations found a downtown place of expression,” agrees David Barnard, former Program Director of influential community radio station CKLN and host of Dr. Feelgood’s Blues Emporium.
“Nobody else was doing that on the scale that the BamBoo did at that time. Because the BamBoo was larger than The Rivoli, Cameron House, and the Beverley Tavern, rather than compete with them, it augmented the street’s musical vibe. It added so much to the existing music scene.”
There were close ties between the BamBoo and CKLN, which launched on the FM dial the same year as the club opened. The station’s jazz programmers—and hosts of shows like Diasporic Music, Socalypso Sounds, Latin Party, and Reggae Showcase—played many of the artists that O’Brien booked. The ’Boo was also a key venue and participant for most years of CKLN’s signature Street Crawl event, which brought 15 bands to five clubs for one admission price. (Full disclosure: as CKLN’s Development and later Program Director, I helped produce the event.)
Perhaps most significantly, the BamBoo sponsored CKLN’s weekly Sounds of Africa show, launched in 1986 by hosts Thad “Thaddy” Ulzen and Sam Mensah, and that relationship continued for many years. Under the production company name Highlife World, Mensah and Ulzen also brought many African artists to perform in Toronto.
“There were hardly any clubs playing African music,” recalls Mensah. “Richard O’Brien was a great fan of Ghanaian highlife music, and soon got us working actively to bring African artists to play at the BamBoo.”
“Ours was a purely collaborative effort to get African music on to the cultural landscape of Toronto, and in Richard and Patti we found an interested and willing pair,” adds Ulzen. “Initially, we had a few Tuesday night acts, which we advertised in the African community to get things started before we were all ready to try bigger acts on weekends.”
As the founding duo behind Afrofest—now in it’s 25th year and long organized under the Music Africa banner—Ulzen and Mensah brought dozens of incredible artists to the BamBoo stage, including an event with legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
“That was a particularly magical night,” writes Ulzen by email. (He is now a psychiatrist who teaches full-time at the University of Alabama, part-time at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, and has just published first novel, Java Hill: An African Journey.)
“The ticket line went halfway around the block, and Sam and I literally had to beg to get in. It was so packed; everybody and their brother had a reason for getting to the head of the line!”
Poster: Courtesy of Barbara Klunder
“In 1989, we reached an agreement with Richard to make the BamBoo the sole venue for Afrofest,” adds Mensah (now an economist who teaches at the University of Ghana, and is founder of the Jazz Society of Ghana). “This was a significant year. Many important African artists played at the BamBoo under Afrofest, including Sonny Okusun from Nigeria, Kanda Bongo Man from Congo, and Native Spirit, Okyerema Asante, and Sankofa, all from Ghana.”
Like many, Habib counts the appearance of Masekela as among her favourite of BamBoo performances, and also mentions highlights including appearances by Fishbone, local pan-African band Siyaka, R&B act Soul Stew, vocal powerhouse Molly Johnson, and Toronto-based reggae artists including Leroy Sibbles, Messenjah, and Sattalites (whose 1987 album, Live Via Sattalites, was recorded at the BamBoo.)
Habib also reminds me that the BamBoo took public stands on social issues, with its owners speaking out against apartheid in South Africa and initiating a Queen Street club crawl in support of pro-choice advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler.
“I made it a point to organize events at the BamBoo to bring out my communities, and consciously supported its fantastic programming,” states Lillian Allen, who launched her second album, Conditions Critical, there.
“It became a hip, dynamic place for all sorts of diverse artist-driven culture. De Dub Poets organized many, many events there, as did Ahdri Zhina Mandiela [with whom Allan brought in British dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah]. Truths and Rights did a lot of gigs there. A lot of experimentations happened, too.”
“Because of the BamBoo, a lot of people worked together who wouldn’t generally have had the chance to,” agrees Segato, citing a shared project between herself, Billy Bryans, Rough Trade bassist Terry Wilkins, and “Truths and Rights’ charismatic front man, Mojah.”
Post-Parachute Club, Segato performed both solo at the club, and with collaborators also including John Oates (of Hall & Oates) and Micah Barnes.
John Oates (left) with Lorraine Segato onstage at the BamBoo. Photo: courtesy of Segato.
“The stage was kind of small, and it was hot and sweaty,” she recalls. “I mostly remember summer nights with people jammed in there, dancing away, totally anything goes. The best gigs I ever did, I have to say, were at the BamBoo because the club was big enough that it had a real vibe if you filled it, but it was still intimate. It was the hottest club.
“In many ways, like the El Mocambo would have been for rock ’n’ roll music in the ’60s and ’70s, the ‘Boo was that in its time; you always had the feeling that something amazing was happening there.”
Not only was Richard O’Brien a strong music programmer, he also had a keen sense of which independent promoters to embrace. Innovators like Elliott Lefko, Lance Ingleton, Jones & Jones, and Jonathan Ramos of REMG all booked in shows.
In 1987, Dark Light Music’s Serge Sloimovits staged a jazz festival, with appearances by acts including Cecil Taylor, World Sax Quartet, and Toronto’s Shuffle Demons. Barnard also recalls seeing The Art Ensemble of Chicago—“I couldn’t sleep that night as a result.”
Like Afrofest, the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival has early roots at the BamBoo. “The first time I worked at the BamBoo was through the DuMaurier Jazz Festival, circa 1988,” says Chris Brown.
“I remember as a busboy watching Brian Murphy kick organ bass with Eugene Amaro and my life was changed by it. I was a major fan of Defunkt, and they had me hang out with them for their stay in Toronto and shows at the BamBoo. It was seminal for me; Joe Bowie became a serious musical mentor, and I ended up working at the club on and off for four years, first as a busboy and eventually waiting tables.”
Shuffle Demons’ charismatic and versatile sax man Richard Underhill recalls the band playing regularly after their jazz fest dates for Sloimovits.
“I was also lucky enough to play with the late Mozambican bass player Jamisse Jamo at his monthly Africa Night jam sessions, which was a joy and a great learning experience.” (Jamo’s band included African music veterans like Quammie Williams and Kobena Aquaa-Harrison.)
He, like nearly everyone I speak with, points out that the BamBoo reflected the change in Toronto’s population. The club was nearly as multicultural as the city itself, and was welcoming to all. According to many, there were zero fights in the club’s long history despite its lack of air conditioning and frequent sauna-like conditions.
“There was a great vibe at the BamBoo that radiated out from the staff, and included the audience,” says Underhill. “It was one of those wonderful places where you felt that the Canadian cultural experiment was really working, where people from all different cultural backgrounds came together and got down with each other.”
“The BamBoo was mix-up, mix-up,” agrees Barnard. “It was a nearly perfect realization of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s concept of a multicultural Canadian society.”
“The BamBoo was and will always be one of a kind,” summarizes reggae artist and founder of The Canadian Reggae Music Awards, Winston Hewitt.
“All of us reggae artists, as well as supporters of the music, just loved to be at the BamBoo. There was so much good talk on the street about the club that, before you went there, you already knew what to expect. Everyone was welcome, no matter what colour or creed.”
The BamBoo staff. Photo: Courtesy of Inge Kuuts.
Who else played/worked there: Artists from near and far wanted gigs at the BamBoo.
“The sound was always great, the beer cold, food good, and you really felt respected as a musician,” explains Underhill. “It was just the right size, with a good vibe and a cool staff. Patti was such a joy to deal with, a real sweetheart.
“And,” he adds, “When you played, you got paid!”
The BamBoo’s size, sound and staging made it a next-level club for local artists on the rise, and a great intimate spot for internationals to connect with their Toronto following.
“Music was always front and centre,” emphasizes Chris Brown. “The Last Poets, Jimmy Witherspoon, The Lounge Lizards, King Sunny Adé, George Clinton, David Byrne, and Slim Gaillard all made stops on that stage. It also nurtured our incredible domestic reggae and ska scene, [booking bands like] 20th Century Rebels, Skatones, and Kali & Dub.”
Before Bourbon Tabernacle Choir started to tour regularly, Brown could often be found five or six nights a week at the BamBoo. When not with tray in hand, he guested on keys with a variety of reggae bands. It’s a little known fact that O’Brien helped him get there.
Chris Brown (far left) with the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, circa 1988.
Photo: Courtesy of Chris Brown.
“When I was working as a busser one summer, Richard pulled me into the office and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you buying a Hammond Organ?’ I told him I intended to when I could afford it. ‘Any 17-year-old who is buying a Hammond is trustworthy,’ he said, and cut me a cheque for $800 on the spot, which I paid off out of my wages.
“Richard was kind of like Fred Flintstone: beneath the gruff was this incredible soul.”
The Bourbons as a whole benefited greatly from their connection with the club.
“The BamBoo was one of the first places we began drawing a crowd, and I believe at least four of us worked there as our day job, too,” says Brown. “It really opened Toronto for us, and got us working at clubs like the Horseshoe and The Diamond. The music we witnessed there nightly, and the artists we met had a massive effect on us. It’s extraordinary; I can’t really think of a parallel.”
From top: Bunny Wailer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Erykah Badu with Patti Habib. Photos: Courtesy of Habib.
“Seeing Buckwheat Zydeco for the first time there stands out,” says Barnard. “An accordion can be funky, ils sont partis! Also, it’s taken for granted now, but the chance to see locally based Leroy Sibbles, Willie Williams, Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph, Jayson, and many more in those early days was very influential on current generations of performers.
Buckwheat Zydeco at the BamBoo. Photo: courtesy of David Barnard.
“I saw Whitenoise, led by vocalist/sax player Bill Grove, on many occasions,” he adds. “NYC may have had James Chance and Defunkt, but we had Whitenoise. I thought Bill’s bands kicked more ass.”
Toronto’s local soul and acid jazz scene represented too, with appearances by bands like Jacksoul and Bass Is Base. By the late ’90s, Soul 4 Real Mondays, with host Wade O. Brown and DJs Christopher Michaels and Everfresh, were the BamBoo’s biggest weekly draw.
Also part of the BamBoo’s programming mix were countless community events, Film Festival parties, City-TV events, book launches, weddings, and more. Canadian celebs, artists and industry people—like Aykroyd, Sibbles, Bruce Cockburn, Buffy St. Marie, Moses Znaimer, Marcus O’Hara and sisters Mary Margaret and Catherine—were often in attendance.
“The BamBoo was the most fun job I ever had,” declares longtime waitress Inge Kuuts. “The staff had a really big spread in ages, everyone was a character in some way, and we got along great. We worked together and partied together. Patti and Ricci were accommodating to their staff, and would always help you out if they could.”
According to Lillian Allen, “The staff and serving personnel had this vibe of peace, love and respect, with a certain kind of sizzle.”
People like Andy Joyce, John Pigani, and PJ Taylor aided in the BamBoo’s initial construction, and went on to contribute in other roles. Boys Brigade band member Billy “Bucko” Brock was an early presence on door. Chef Stash Golas worked alongside Vera Khan in the kitchen for years. (Both now live in Costa Rica, where they each own restaurants.) Other chefs, like Marion Robinson and Joe Davies, were also key. Longtime general manager Jennifer Halpin worked alongside veteran bartenders and servers like Wayne Graham, Parker Ng, Brian Sam, Sandra Coburn, and Karen Young—all very familiar faces to BamBoo regulars.
Habib also credits artist Annie Jaeger, the BamBoo’s bookkeeper for its entire history (“she was so very important; the sanity keeper of the office,”), and speaks fondly of long-serving waiter, Michael Flaxman, now owner of Boo Radley’s on Dupont.
“Michael used to serve the area we called Cambodia, which was usually hot, packed, and hard to get through,” describes Habib. “He would gather up trays of beer and rum and cokes, and somehow walk his way through. He was the nicest, most polite waiter, and sold the most of anyone.”
“For the most part, the staff was like stowaways on a ship,” says Brown. “We came from everywhere, and lifelong bonds were formed. There was a sense of a separate universe about it, and things felt familial. The BamBoo prepped me for life as much as anything did.”
Brown now divides his time between Wolfe Island and NYC where he records and performs with many people he met at the club, including frequent collaborator Kate Fenner.
Kuuts, who now works on the retail side of the restaurant industry at Nella Cucina, speaks of another annual highlight in the BamBoo staff calendar.
“We used to have a float in Caribana, and take mushrooms to get through the day of dancing. Caribana night at the ’Boo was super packed, super fun, and super hot, hot, hot!”
“In the old days, when Caribana ran down University, if you had a good float with good music, you had a huge procession because people were allowed to join in, which is what it’s supposed to be all about,” adds Habib. “It wasn’t just a parade; it was a party on wheels.
“Because the BamBoo had money, we could afford a second generator, refreshments on board, the décor, a big band and sound system. We partnered with Shadowland—theatre artists who live on the Island—and they would always come up with a theme. Jack Layton and Olivia Chow would always come along. At the end, we would turn off and go down Queen Street, and everyone would come out of the shops to wave. Caribana used to be our biggest night of the year; it was just so wild.”
What happened to it: The BamBoo began to falter in 2000, after O’Brien was paralyzed by his first serious stroke. He was mobile in a wheelchair, but spent much of his time accessing rehabilitation, meaning Habib had to take on much of the work. Business remained steady, but Habib found the workload difficult.
When it was announced in July of 2002 that the BamBoo would soon be closing, customers were surprised, and many made assumptions.
“People always seem to think that we sold the business for big money, but we didn’t,” Habib divulges. “We didn’t have the chance to sell it.
“I did a deal with my landlord, because he knew that I was having troubles without Richard there and wanted out. He gave us a new 10-year lease, but with a handshake. [With his knowledge], I met with a listing agent, and we put [the business] up for sale in May. On July 1, the day our lease officially expired, I got a phone call telling me that the landlord had sent a registered letter, giving us 90 days to get out.”
The BamBoo closed with an October 31 bash, dubbed BooHoo. Performers included Sattalites and Billy Bryans.
By then, chain stores including Le Chateau had moved to the strip, rents had skyrocketed, and O’Brien was knee-deep in plans to open Bambu By The Lake on Queens Quay, near Harbourfront. Sadly, his involvement lasted less than a year, and he lost most of his life savings. O’Brien suffered a second massive stroke in 2007, and passed away. His friends paid tribute in many ways, including a blog devoted to Ricci Moderne.
“I miss having Richard around,” says Klunder. “He was notoriously rude, but funny. The club was his brainchild and his child.
“I miss the BamBoo’s particular relaxed-during-the-day cool, and be-there-or-be-square nightclub acts, with line-ups around the block for many gigs. It was our cool, cultural community centre, a place to even bring the kids, a place for our slightly wild, musical, artistic gang. There is nothing like it now.”
Klunder continues to create art. Her current exhibit of “intricate anti-gun papercuts,” dubbed BulletProof Vests, has been held over at the David Kaye Gallery until Aug. 25.
Lorraine Segato—who agrees “there has been nothing like the BamBoo ever since”—also remains very active as a multi-media artist. She’s currently completing her third solo album, expected in fall, and has written a one-woman show, called Get Off My Dress, also set to premiere come autumn.
Habib is semi-retired from the club/restaurant business, but is actively involved in the city’s cultural goings-on.
Award-winning alto saxophonist Richard Underhill is busier than ever, but he too longs for the BamBoo chill.
“I miss the food, the Red Stripes, the downtown Caribbean feel, the cultural meeting point and the way your sphincter relaxed when you walked into the place,” he writes. “The BamBoo was a beacon of tranquility in a crazy city, a home to top-quality music and great people, a place where all were welcome and most were cool.”
Barnard, a consultant in the Department of Canadian Heritage since 2008, concurs, and raises the topic one.
“Places today seem uptight to me,” Barnard offers by way of comparison. “There is also no club like the BamBoo now in terms of its programming. Ironically, it feels like the city could really use a unifying entity like it to help galvanize creative energies again.”
Charles Khabouth and his INK Entertainment opened Ultra Supper Club at 312 Queen St. W. in 2003. It ran for nine years, and was renovated and re-launched as Cube last year.
Thank you to participants Barbara Klunder, Chris Brown, David Barnard, Inge Kuuts, Lillian Allen, Lorraine Segato, Patti Habib, Richard Underhill, Sam Mensah, Thad “Thaddy” Ulzen, Winston Hewitt, and to Keith Holding for permission to include the clip from his Bar Life show.
To date, Then & Now has explored the stories of 40 influential clubs. Read this ongoing series, devoted to Toronto nightlife history, here at The Grid and join the conversation at Denise Benson’s related Facebook page.