In this edition of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson tells the story of how a ‘60s-retro dance night spawned a world-class concert and DJ venue, transforming College Street in the process.
Club: Mod Club Theatre, 722 College
Years in operation: 2002-present
History: To share the history of how The Mod Club Theatre came to be, one must first trace College Street’s evolution as a nightlife destination. The stretch of College running west of Bathurst to Dovercourt has, of course, long been a hub for Italian, Portuguese and Latino communities. Restaurants and cafés have dotted the strip for decades—with Café Diplomatico at College and Clinton serving as a landmark spot for over 40 years—but it wasn’t until the 1990s that people began to open a broader array of venues that would entertain into the wee hours.
El Convento Rico—originally a haven for Latin gays, lesbians and transgendered people—opened in 1992, bringing dancing and drag shows to College and Crawford. The early-to-mid ’90s also saw the opening of spots including Souz Dal, College Street Bar, Ted’s Collision, and Alex Lifeson’s live music venue The Orbit Room. Intimate café 52 Inc. fed, entertained and politicized on the other side of Bathurst from 1995-2000, while Bar Italia opened on College in 1996 and Ted Footman launched Ted’s Wrecking Yard and Barcode—two floors of live music in one building—in 1997.
Musician Dan Kurtz—formerly of The New Deal and currently of Dragonette—knows the area well.
“When I moved to Canada as a little kid, I lived at College and Bathurst, and spent most of my childhood in the neighborhood,” he says. “As an adult, I bought a house on Beatrice and renovated it, just a year or two before things really began to heat up on the strip. I did that a couple more times with houses in the neighborhood before I moved out and, during that time, College Street became the hottest place to hang out. It was a great mix of a really authentic, old-school and virtually unchanged Italian and Portuguese neighbourhood by day, and an increasingly broad mix of great and cheesy bars and restaurants at night.
“My friends, my band, and most of my family lived in the neighborhood at that time, and it was probably one of the best times of my life,” he adds. In the late ’90s, Kurtz performed at venues like Ted’s, Bar Italia, and Orbit Room while a member of bands including Que Vida.
“At the time, almost every show I played was memorable, since my bands were just coming up,” says Kurtz. “Getting a good gig on College was some measure of legitimacy.”
Lava Lounge, at 507 College just west of Palmerston, added much to the strip. Opened in September 1997 by former Rivoli staffers Greg Bottrell and Rob Eklove (with support from The Rivoli and Queen Mother Café owners Andre Rosenbaum and David Stearn), Lava Lounge was located in the former home of Portuguese family restaurant Cheers. Bottrell and crew transformed it into a resto-lounge, club, and patio licensed for 270 people, making Lava one of the largest spots on College at that time.
“College seemed like a cool up-and-coming area,” recalls Bottrell. “But when we first opened, there was not that much happening on the street. It hadn’t blossomed yet.”
Their timing was good, as the area soon exploded. Hip new spots dotted the landscape, with venues ranging from the super cool (Ciao Edie) to student-centric (Midtown) to pool halls (Clear Spot, later Andy Poolhall), all featuring DJs.
“The late 1990s to 2005 was College Street’s heyday,” says Bottrell, who also opened Asian fusion restaurant Tempo at College and Clinton in 2000. “It was the hip and happening restaurant, patio, and bar area in those years—along with a few clubs, Lava Lounge being one of them.”
Lava featured both live music and DJs from its start. Resident DJs included the likes of Fish Fry, Mike Tull and Tony Lanz, Shawn MacDonald, and John Kong, while Tuesdays were known for the live soul-jazz of Thomas Reynolds and Shugga, often accompanied by vocalist Divine Earth Essence (now Divine Brown).
Bobbi Guy and Mark Holmes, circa 1999. Photo: Trevor Roberts.
In October of 1999, a new Wednesday weekly dubbed Mod Club launched at Lava Lounge. Helmed by friends and British expats Mark Holmes (also known as the vocalist in Platinum Blonde) and Bobbi Guy, the Mod Club nights were inspired by shared obsessions and, partly, the success of Davy Love’s Blow Up Saturdays, then held at The El Mocambo.
“I went to the U.K. with my friend Bobbi in 1999 and, on our way back to Toronto, we hatched this plan for something totally different than Blow Up,” says Holmes, at the beginning of a lengthy phone interview.
“So many bands, like Blur and Oasis, were talking about the influence of all these ’60s bands, and I thought that if people were interested in those bands, they might be interested in where the music came from. I was an absolute 1960s fanatic; I had VHS tapes of The Prisoner, The Avengers, The Saint, and I was crazy about the music, the clothing, everything. I just wished so heavily that I could transport myself back into that time.”
They did the next best thing. Guy designed the Mod Club logo, the pair promoted around town, and soon they were projecting 1960s British imagery while spinning deep collections of Motown, soul, R&B and mod bands in the similarly styled Lava Lounge.
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Holmes.
“Basically, you were in a time capsule the moment you walked in,” says Holmes. “I loved every last magical minute of it.
“Everybody came out dressed like the ’60s; all the guys had suits, all the girls had Vidal Sassoon haircuts. And then it just exploded. After a few Wednesdays, the lineup was down the street. I got my wish: every Wednesday, I got to go back into the ’60s.”
“That night was just a great scene,” agrees Bottrell. “People looked the part. They had scooters, Fred Perry, Ben Sherman. It was a good-looking, young, and—because it was mid-week—downtown crowd. The music with Mark and Bobbi was wicked. People danced their asses off.”
The scene inside Mod Club Wednesdays at Lava Lounge. Photo: Courtesy of Mark Holmes.
Mod Club packed Lava every Wednesday until the club was forced to close in spring of 2004. The building it was in would be torn down to make way for the huge Europa condo building of today.
“We’d signed a regular corporation lease, which had a ‘demolition clause’ in it,” Bottrell explains. “Back then, no one would have predicted that such a condo boom was on the horizon. Also, no one would have guessed that people would demolish a more than one-hundred-year-old building that took up most of a city block to build a bigger and brand new condo.”
By fall of 2004, Bottrell opened Supermarket in Kensington Market. Guy and Holmes continued there for many months of soul-soaked Mod Club Wednesdays.
“I remember one night at Supermarket, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were in and requested some slow music,” begins Guy. “We obliged, and the whole bar looked on as they re-enacted The Notebook on the dancefloor. We played about six slow songs while they just made out, without a care in the world. Another night there, a guy came into the booth with a weird accent and complimented me on my Hammond groove set, then looked through my CDs. I gave him some tickets to go get us drinks, and watched as he lined up for 10 minutes at the bar. He returned, and then introduced himself as Tiesto. Nice bloke.”
But the Mod Club story also takes us back to College Street, and mirrors its growth. In November 2001, while still holding down Wednesdays at Lava, Guy and Holmes also launched a Saturday Mod Club weekly at newly opened Revival Bar.
Opened by Domenic Tedesco and chef-turned-restaurateur Joe Saturnino, Revival is housed in a beautiful building at the corner of College and Shaw that was once a Baptist church, and later a Polish legion hall. Having been a partner in Italian fine-dining restaurant Veni, Vidi, Vici, which also attracted a later night crowd, Saturnino saw the writing on the wall.
“College Street had always been vibrant,” he says. “But Revival opened at a time when a new adult crowd was taking over. It was a young professional crowd looking for new places to go to.”
Revival gave that crowd food, DJs, and live music. Mod Club Saturdays attracted thousands to College Street and packed Revival for three years.
The first Mod Club go-go dancers at Revival. Photo: Trevor Roberts.
Holmes and Guy spent Saturday afternoons putting up banners, sorting décor, and tweaking sound in anticipation of their capacity crowds. There were mod go-go dancers, confetti cannons, and big lighting effects.
“We made it into a massive rock show,” says Holmes, who DJed alongside Guy and a cast of characters including Boozecan Bob, Taylor & Gedge, Benny K, DJ Da Silva, and Jesse F. Keeler.
“Upstairs on Saturdays, there was a more modern sound comprised of Britpop, and the newly emerging electro sounds coming out of the U.K.,” recalls Guy, who maintained strong links with British DJs. “For the diehards, there was ’60s soul and Hammond groove in the basement.”
Guy and Holmes at Revival. Photo: Trevor Roberts.
“I think in Mark and Bobbi’s minds, the basement was going to be the part that was more like the Wednesdays, and I know I certainly broke that rule, but within context,” chuckles Jesse F. Keeler during a phone chat. “I’d start playing ska, dub, and old reggae in the last hour.
“People wanted to be challenged,” adds Keeler, who’d also been a regular attendee at the Mod Club Wednesdays. “I had a lot of people come up and say, ‘I had no idea that that rap song was a sample until you played that song.’ It was a fun sample school to run for people.”
Keeler was a resident until the band he was most heavily involved in at the time—Death From Above 1979—began to tour regularly and he missed a month of Saturdays. “I walked in one night, ready to go, and there were new guys I’d never seen before in the basement.”
By this time, the Mod Club weeklies were a phenomenon that would soon spawn a now internationally recognized club and concert venue.
Guy and Holmes DJ the opening night of the Mod Club Theatre, November 2002. Photo: Trevor Roberts.
The birth of the Mod Club Theatre: In early 2002, Revival was closed for two weeks because of a liquor-licence infraction.
“We took our scheduled shows across the street, to Corner Pocket,” says Revival’s Saturnino of the pool hall that operated out of 722 College at the time. “Dom and I showed Bruno Sinopoli how to transform his place into a club.”
“It had been a club, and before that it had been some kind of theatre, with the stage and everything,” says Holmes of the space. “I walked around upstairs and thought it was amazing, like in that scene from Quadrophenia when the guy jumped off the balcony into the crowd. It was a beautiful place, but just so gross inside at the time.”
The Mod Club nights would go on to pack both venues on Saturdays for years, with DJs and dancers darting back-and-forth across the street from Corner Pocket to Revival.
Early into their run at both venues, Holmes was inspired.
“I got to thinking that the reason people were going to Lava on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Revival was for Mod Club so I said, ‘What would it be like if I had a place that is The Mod Club? What would it take?’
“A little while later, I made a deal with [Corner Pocket owner] Bruno, put all my money in, and designed the whole place on my laptop. I gave that to the builders, and we built The Mod Club Theatre. People were worried that it would be such a gamble, but I felt I had to keep moving forward.”
Bobbi Guy, Lennox Lewis, and Mark Holmes on opening night. Photo: Trevor Roberts.
The Mod Club Theatre officially opened doors in November 2002. Bobbi Guy recalls a fave moment from the first night.
“[British-Canadian world heavyweight boxing champion] Lennox Lewis had been invited, and came with his entourage of large humans. I knew he was a West Ham United fan so we started talking about some old faces we both knew back in London. We ended up singing West Ham songs arm in arm, much to the bemusement of his troops.”
Next Page: How the Mod Club Theatre became “the Cadillac of gigs on the College strip”—for rock and electro acts alike