In this edition of her Toronto-nightlife history series, Denise Benson revisits the biggest, most ambitious, and most fatally expensive nightclub the city has ever seen.
Club: CiRCA, 126 John St.
Years in operation: 2007-2010
History: The four-storey heritage property at 126 John St. has housed many businesses since its main structure was built in 1886. Originally, it was the site of John Burns Carriage Manufacturers, followed by other industrial-machinery companies.
By the early 2000s, the 53,000-square-foot space was an anchor for play in Toronto’s bustling Entertainment District. Mondo video arcade Playdium gave way to mega-dance club Lucid in 2004. The heavily hyped commercial club lasted only a year; its doors were locked in July 2005 when more than $400,000 in back rent was owed to landlord RioCan. (You just don’t mess with Canada’s largest retail real-estate firm.)
Enter New York City club magnate Peter Gatien. The Cornwall, Ontario native had moved to Toronto in 2003, following deportation from the United States. Gatien is, of course, one of the world’s most famous nightclub impresarios, having owned deeply imaginative and influential N.Y.C. hot spots including Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA, and Palladium during his 30-year career.
The one-time millionaire’s very public fall has been well documented in both print and film. To recap: New York police and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) pursued Gatien relentlessly in a 1996 federal investigation that attempted to directly link him with the sale of street drugs, particularly ecstasy, in his clubs. Gatien was acquitted, and then later arrested on tax-evasion charges, to which he pled guilty.
Once in Toronto, Gatien—later joined by wife Alessandra and their son Xander—was interested in exploring a boutique-hotel concept. He tells me during a recent phone interview that a RioCan representative approached him in a park, during a dog walk, in the fall of 2005, and requested that Gatien pay a visit to 126 John.
“I said I didn’t want to do a club, but agreed to go look at it,” he recounts. “Then I saw the space, knew there was a lot of potential, and got excited. I loved the fact that it was large, had high ceilings, and many rooms. There was the ability to have a number of different spaces and soundsystems, and cater to a real cross-section of society.
“It was the right opportunity,” Gatien summarizes, adding that his interest also lay in the fact that “Toronto has a really large creative community. There’s a lot of art here, a lot of fashion, a lot of music comes out of this city, and you need this to sustain what I like my clubs to be.”
Peter Gatien at CiRCA, still under construction, in 2006. Photo: Charla Jones/Toronto Star.
Gatien’s enthusiasm to develop what would become CiRCA nightclub led to an initial partnership with the men of Hingson Corp, former owners of failed evening spots including Eight Below, Banzai Sushi, and Fez Batik. A 10-year lease commencing April 1, 2006 was signed, with monthly rent averaging over $135,000. Their business relationship fell apart about eight months in. While Hingson made off with the original website URL, Gatien and his team sought investors and worked to build a superclub that promised to be both spectacular and open by summer of 2006.
Litigation lawyer Ari Kulidjian, who’d advised Gatien during his split from Hingson Corp, became Gatien’s equal partner in Arena Entertainment, the new driving force behind CiRCA. Kulidjian became a co-director, shareholder, creditor and Chairman of Arena’s Board of Directors while Gatien served as co-director and president.
The pressure was on, with costs mounting. Although Kulidjian would help secure more than a dozen key investors—including financier Stephan Katmarian, who also become a co-director in Arena Entertainment—the club’s opening was delayed for more than a year. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) was hesitant to grant a liquor licence. It held hearings, deferred the decision and, after finally awarding a license in July of 2007, took the unusual step of appealing its own verdict. (Courts later dismissed the appeal and ordered the ACGO to pay CiRCA damages for legal fees.) It’s thought that the City’s concerns about the Entertainment District—specifically the rowdy throngs that packed nightclubs on weekends—played a role in the hold-up.
“I don’t know if it was even so much directed at us,” ventures Gatien. “I think councillor Adam Vaughan’s plan for the area was to not have clubs and [the City] seemed to feel that if CiRCA was successful, it might keep clubs in the Entertainment District.”
Whatever the reasoning, that process and the resulting year’s delay forced Gatien and company to take out ridiculously expensive bridge financing and other loans—some at rates higher than 30 per cent—to stay afloat.
“They were paying rent and staff for more than a year, without any income,” explains Orin Bristol, a former manager at Toronto’s Limelight (no connection to Gatien’s namesake New York club) and System Soundbar who would be hired as CiRCA’s first general manager in July of 2007. “DJs, bookings, suppliers—everything had to be put on hold. Deposits were lost, and relationships were strained.”
A number of optimistic opening dates came and went, with artists including Gary Numan, DJ Tiesto, and Junior Vasquez all booked for shows that had to be cancelled. Talented staff members, like former Drake Hotel entertainment director Jeff Rogers, left before the club opened because pay wasn’t always available. Hired by Gatien to curate music and art, Rogers did manage to book an exhibit of Bruce LaBruce photos and bring event promoters A.D/D. into the fold before departing for a career in music management and television. (He’s now Music Director at AUX TV.)
Other early CiRCA team members—including New York interior designers AvroKO and Travis Bass, N.Y.C./Toronto designer and art director Kenny Baird, Kidrobot founder Paul Budnitz, event promoters Craig Pettigrew, Mario J, Eve Fiorillo, and Rolyn Chambers, and manager/promoter Steve Ireson—helped ready the club and spread the word around the city.
On Oct. 4, 2007—one-and-a-half years, over $6 million, and a whole lot of anticipation later—thousands packed CiRCA’s opening night, largely oblivious to the mad scramble behind scenes.
“We were literally bringing liquor in the back door as the front door was opening, because we had only gotten our licence, allowing us to purchase liquor, that day,” Gatien recalls. “Seeing it all come together after all of the energy and the effort from so many people was very gratifying.”
Mario J at Randomland. Photo: Eve Fiorillo.
Why it was important: “Peter’s vision brought a certain excitement that only he can bring,” says longtime DJ/producer and former co-owner of Industry Nightclub Mario Jukica, hired to promote Randomland Fridays with A.D/D. production partner Fiorillo.
“Toronto never had such a buzz about any club opening before,” he enthuses. “The climate at the time was completely stale; other clubs in the city had no forward-thinking vision, and that’s why we created such a stir. People were ready for something next-level.”
CiRCA—Gatien’s first Canadian club venture since he left for the U.S. in the late 1970s—was the largest club in the country, both in scope and size. It was also a massively innovative addition to the rapidly changing Entertainment District, by then far more known for fights and public drunkenness than cutting-edge culture.
“The important thing to me in creating a club is to recognize that we’re there for one sole purpose and it’s to create culture, whether through art, music, or fashion,” says Gatien of his impetus. “You want to be an instigator for culture, and you want to have as many creative people as possible in there, exchanging ideas and having a good time.”
At CiRCA, these exchanges took place in seven distinct spaces: the Kidrobot room, Mirror Ballroom, Washroom Bar, Fathom22 Bar, Sensacell Bar, Cinema Lounge, and the massive Main Room. Each was its own wonderland, worthy of exploration and awe. Then there was the brilliant VIP Cube (impossible not to gawk at), the art-filled entranceway, and various connecting corridors, each a trip in their own right. (Details and photos of each room, along with archived event photos and more can still be viewed on CiRCA’s website.)
“The concept was to provide a space for everyone to feel comfortable within a huge space—to build clubs within a club and create an atmosphere for a healthy mix of people to interact with each other, in and out of their comfort zones,” says CiRCA’s artistic director, Kenny Baird. “Entertainment comes from within, from strange and fun experiences, and the exchange of personalities.”
A fellow Cornwall native who grew up near Gatien and would be reacquainted with him in 1980s New York, Baird is a great talent who was largely responsible for what we saw, touched, and snapped photos of at CiRCA.
Baird’s distinctive aesthetic and impressive work history made him an ideal fit for CiRCA. His C.V. ranges from graphic layout for Toronto art collective General Idea’s File magazine to co-designing landmark Manhattan social spaces including Area, Club USA and The Maritime Hotel, and working as production designer or art director in films, commercials, and music videos for the likes of Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Leonard Cohen.
He split his time between the club’s interior-design and art installations, and assembled an in-house art department—complete with its own budget, staff, workshop area, tools, and materials—to cloak the club in regularly updated themes, like “fetish,” “carny sideshow,” and “heroes and villains.”
“The attention to artistic detail and décor within the venue made CiRCA stand out from any other club that I had been to in Toronto,” offers veteran party producer Pat Boogie. He first came to the club as a patron, then worked as a marketing manager from June 2008 to June 2009. “The look of the club was constantly changing, with different themes carried throughout the space, including showcase windows in the front of the venue and in the main entrance hallway—many times complete with live models!”
Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star
“The actual physical space was horrible,” recalls Bristol, who’d initially hesitated to work at CiRCA. “It was cavernous and looked like a shopping centre, with too many floors and winding hallways. But when you took Peter’s vision, added a whole lot of Kenny Baird’s brilliance—his mannequins in the washroom hallways are still the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a nightclub—excellent promotions, and a whole lot of hype and expectation, it became a magical kingdom. CiRCA was a giant departure from the norm.”
Gatien is clear as to why: “I learned at a very young age that it’s not a matter of having miles of neon chrome, spinning wheels, lasers, and that kind of shit. You can make that kind of exciting, but the art component and the installations [at CiRCA] were really museum-quality with the thought that went behind them. On a related note, you may not make a lot of profit from art and fashion events, but you maintain or add to your credibility with the real trendsetters and the creative community in your city.”
Just as important, Gatien recognized that, to fill his 3,000-capacity club and pay the bills, CiRCA would need to host a range of events and communities. A.D/D’s Randomland Fridays were meant to attract an edgy and diverse downtown crowd while Pettigrew and his GEM Events presented Traffic Saturdays, hugely popular with deep-pocketed suburbanites, socialites, and celebrities.
Bristol gives a revealing overview: “Saturdays were your typical hot new club crowd in Toronto. There were 3,500 to 4,000 well=dressed people, mostly 905ers, and a lot of bottle service. Booths went for $1,500 to $5,000 on a regular basis, and we had several high rollers who came through and spent obscene amounts.
“On Fridays it was a totally different story; we only did around 2,000 to 2,500 people maximum on this night, but it was amazing. The crowd was incredibly diverse: young, old, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, bi, trans, hipsters, b-boys, artsy, goths—it was nuts. The music was eclectic, and we had a nightly costume parade where you could see Gumby dancing with Raggedy Andy. The crowd seemed to not notice or care about their differences; they were there to party.”
In 2007, A.D/D was the hottest and hippest underground party-production company in town. Jukica and Fiorillo headed the post-rave electro movement in T.O., and were ready to lead their colourful crowd to a large venue.
“At Randomland, you could show up dressed as an alien or whatever you wanted, and it would be considered normal—just as I think it should be at a proper nightclub, in a healthy nightlife,” says Fiorillo. “We wanted to create a fantasy world, with characters that lived there, and have a random theme every week so that we could play with different ideas and people would always be caught off-guard.”
Along with bouncy castles, regulars who dressed in costumes, and a weekly parade of characters who “would sparkle down the two flights of escalators” in CiRCA’s main room, there was a musical mix of electro, techno, house, hip-hop, disco, and more.
“Randomland was a culmination of the past, present, and future of electronic live acts and DJs,” summarizes Jukica.
Photo: Courtesy of Eve Fiorillo.
Local DJs including Barbi, Andy Ares, Rynecologist, Filthy Gorgeous, and Kid X (a.k.a. the Gatiens’ young son Xander) played regularly in different rooms while then-rising Toronto duos Crystal Castles and Thunderheist both performed live. Most weeks boasted big names in the underground, ranging from Diplo, Cut Copy, Kavinsky, Moderat, and Simian Mobile Disco to Kevin Saunderson, ?uestlove, and DJ Premier.
Randomland also benefited heavily from the sizable gay crowd that Rolyn Chambers, a FAB magazine columnist in addition to his CiRCA duties, and Steve Ireson attracted while collaborating with fellow promoters like Matt Sims and Daniel McBride.
The spacious and sexy Mirror Ballroom came to be seen as “the gay room” as Chambers and Ireson programmed local queer DJs like Mark Falco, Jamal, and Dwayne Minard and performers including Lena Love, Sofonda, and Gia.
Lena Love (right) in the Mirror Ballroom. Photo: Courtesy of Rolyn Chambers.
“I once rented a scissor lift for Lena Love’s performance in the Mirror Ballroom,” recalls Chambers. “She and her 50-foot white skirt were lifted to the roof of the building. Gia’s winter performance in 2007 was also a highlight. I rented a snow machine, which created a blizzard for her show. We left it on all night and watched as people danced under the falling snow.”
“The Mirror Ballroom on Friday nights was a great success,” adds Ireson. “It was always packed, and often ended up pulling adventurous people from the Main Room where Randomland was happening.”
Chambers, in fact, feels this is why he was let go from CiRCA nine months after it opened, claiming that “Eve and Mario wanted to close the Mirror Ballroom because they felt the night was becoming too gay.”
Fiorillo, writing independently of Chambers’ comment, states that A.D/D “wanted our night to be evenly mixed. Our intention wasn’t to segregate the crowd.”
For his part, Jukica most recalls the night’s overall vibe: “In Randomland, we created an intensely excited atmosphere for a generation of kids that will not be forgotten. I have just as many people come up to me to say how that was the most exciting period of their lives for clubbing as I do for Industry. If you were 19-to-25 in Toronto during Randomland, and went there, you know what I mean.”
For Traffic Saturdays, Pettigrew and his GEM team—which also included DJ/promoter Nitin Kalyan, Darren Arcane, Nikita Stanley, and others—had different goals entirely.
“We really wanted to produce a cool house-music vibe that was more like a Pacha Ibiza or LIV Miami, so it was more focussed on tables and booze,” says Pettigrew, who’d come up promoting parties at Toronto clubs including Limelight, System Soundbar, and Turbo.
James Doman (left) and Craig Pettigrew. Photo: John Mitchell Photography.
Pettigrew also DJed at Traffic, along with DJ/producer James Doman. Now based in Los Angeles, Doman broke out as a producer with his duo Doman & Gooding during his time at CiRCA. The video for their 2009 club smash “Runnin’” was filmed primarily in the club’s VIP areas.
Saturdays were all about living large: big crowds dancing to big room sounds, with big-name DJs frequently on deck. Traffic featured huge DJ names, including David Guetta, Tiesto, and Bob Sinclar. Pettigrew recalls two personal favourites.
“Danny Tenaglia played some marathon sets; I wouldn’t leave the club till 3 p.m. the next day! Those nights were really special. The [October 2008] Carl Cox night was insane. I’ll never forget that party because Carl really turned it out, and people were just in the mood to party. The vibe was explosive.”
Who else played/worked there: CiRCA hosted a number of concerts, many of which are talked about to this day. French duo Justice performed to a frantic Thursday-night audience, just two weeks after CiRCA opened. Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, and others all shared the stage in March 2008. Wyclef Jean performed months later. Lady Gaga’s November 2008 show was her first in Toronto.
Crookers, DJ Sneak, and Funkmaster Flex all DJed at CiRCA. Pat Boogie also booked in deeper house DJs including Dennis Ferrer, Martinez Brothers, and FilSonik. Popular local hip-hop, R&B, and Top 40 DJ Baba Kahn held court on Thursday nights for a period (and would later be booked as the main resident at commercial night Reason Fridays, where he was joined by the likes of Pitbull).
The crowd at the October 2007 Justice show. Photo: John Mitchell Photography.
Chambers also proudly recalls high profile arts-based events that he helped co-ordinate.
“Having Greta Constantine’s fashion show at the club was a huge coup for CiRCA. Having the first-ever Kid Robot fashion show was also a major triumph. We were able to work with 20 prominent Canadian fashion designers who designed outfits for the iconic Munny dolls. People were able to bid on them, raising money for War Child Canada.”
Project Munny fashions by Damzels in This Dress. Photo: courtesy of Rolyn Chambers.
Of course, staging productions and running a proper nightclub required a small army of staff, including dozens of bartenders, waiters, bussers, and security people. Technical director Russell Edwards oversaw production details during CiRCA’s first year while Ashley MacIntyre did essential double duty as director of marketing and corporate relations.
“When I came on board eight months after CiRCA opened, it seemed like most of the kinks associated with opening a new venue had been ironed out and the team they’d assembled was working well together,” recalls Pat Boogie. “It was very exciting to be working in Canada’s largest club and among so many talented people.”
In its first year, CiRCA was the place to be. It was even recognized on the global stage—rare for a Toronto club—winning “best new club” honours at the WMC’s 2008 Club World Awards. But the cracks were starting to show.
“When I was working there, we all knew that the club was in major trouble financially,” admits Boogie. “Not only were they behind on paying many of their main in-house staff, they were also behind on paying many outside contractors. It was a very difficult and extremely stressful situation on a daily basis.”
Next page: The real reasons why CiRCA failed