The places where we all performed both bars and dance halls were important for playing and getting paid; bars you could play 6 days a week one week at a time and sometimes years. Dance hall engagements were one nighters. For me and most early Toronto Rock and Roll players one nighters was how we got started, where we got used to performing before teenage audiences in assembly halls like Landsdowne Assembly Hall where we first saw Robbie and his Robots on Landsdowne near Queen. The places we played weren't real dance halls like the rather elaborate and more permanent remnants of the swing era that preceded the Rock and Roll craze. Those places seemed to have existed for swing orchestras and audiences fox trotting, tangoing, waltzing, always with partners touching hands; I was surprised at an old sea breeze photo with signs discouraging jitter bugging. I recall that when playing with "The Consuls" in Long Branch I used to see a man, a hold over from the previous swing era still jitterbugging; all legs, white bucks flying, stretching out like a cartoon image. He and his partner used to take up nearly half the floor as other dancers often stood watching. But overall teenagers, even in the early days of rock and roll, liked to dance close and slow sometimes holding each other arms obout the waist in a variation of the 2 step trot. The real authentic dance halls that I was aware of were near the Lake Ontario waterfront where Sunnyside amusements used to be as though dancing to orchestras was an amusement like riding the merry go round or the big wooden roller coaster. I've always wondered why we never played in places like the Palace Pier built on a platform over the lake, now a condominium high rise, or The Palais Royale further east of the pier closer to Exhibition Park, that used to be called the Paly. I still remember hearing "Are you going to the Paly?" and wondering what it was and what the attraction was - in the Paly. And across the road from the lake near the merry go round, the Sea Breeze with its out door dance floor hidden behind a billowing tent-like tarp enclosure that I could only imagine what might be back of it, if only I could get a fuller view. Then there was the mysterious Club Top Hat that looked like a house rising near that slope that went up to King Street by the roller coaster. I always assumed that it too was a dance place not too far from the Sea Breeze, but I'm still just surmising that it too enclosed a dance floor and stage for club members.
The kinds of halls we Consuls performed in were not designed for bands and dancers the way those old Sunnyside waterfront places seemed to have been. And none had names with the word palace in it like the Palace Pier or The Palais Royale. We used to play in places like Masaryk Hall on Cowan near Queen in Parkdale, the Met in New Toronto above a store, the Polish Hall next to a church a bit north of Lakeshore, and a Club Danceland at an auditorium further west and north of Lakeshore in a residential or abandoned industrial area where you had to know where you were going to find it. The first hall I played in was Playter Hall with "The Consuls" Christmas week of 1957. And the hall where "The Suedes" began to rehearse and come together in during the early summer of 1959 was "The Palladium" not far from Playter Hall at Danforth and Broadview both east of Yonge Street. So Playter and "The Palladium" have come to be sine qua non. The single purpose Sunnyside dance halls were falling out of use with the lessening popularity of swing orchestras and ballroom dancing, and the coming of the Gardiner Expressway which replaced the Sunnyside amusement dance hall area. And now even Playter and "The Palladium" seem to have gotten lost in time.
Today I realize that of all the places I've played I can recollect only a few in detail. The first that comes to mind is my first time drumming on stage at the Gem movie theatre where me Willie and Gibbie, 2 guitars and drums got on stage during Saturday matinee intermisions and were paid something like 2 dollars a man. The next was probably at Playter Hall where "The Consuls" started. "The Consuls"' Oakville Arena performance just after our New York recording session was also memorable maybe because of the ice being still frozen round the stage and the names of recording artists performing with us: Dion and "The Belmonts", the Royal Teens, and Jessie Lee Turner of "Little Space Girl" whose name was applied to me in an Oakville newspaper photo of me singing "Jennie Jennie". I think the next memorable playing event was the Consul's final performance, again in Oakville not too many weeks after the arena show but on the proscenium stage of an auditorium where Scott Cushnie invited himself to play along on a piano on a floor beneath the foot of the stage. As it turned out he would be the piano player in the new group we'd call "The Suedes". The next performance I can recall in some detail was during the summer of 59 when "The Suedes" met Ronnie Hawkins on the stage of a suburban Toronto arena with Robbie Robertson on guitar, Scott Cushnie on an upright piano that needed plenty of time to adjust a contact microphone to so it could be heard as clearly as possibble; then of course Gene MacLellan was our other guitar player and front man who I remember saying he could not go on stage and compete with Ronnie that masterful frontman, a semingly strange expression of insecurity despite Gene's having performed up front as long for as I'd known him. But I'd also learned that Gene was the most humble entertainer I'd ever known, still ironically, one of the most sociable. The next show I recall was "The Suedes"' last performance at Merton Hall in January 1960 with Hawkins and a CHUM DJ on stage with us. After that the many bar room gigs that followed seem to combine in a kind of time laps blur in which week-long club gigs joined one day of performances to the next in a single impression of tumultuous smoke-filled Fridays, Saturday matinees and some week nights that seemed forever. But amidst all that the weekend with Kelly Jay and "The Supremes" is still a visible recollection, especially the Friday performance at the Masonic Temple on the corner of Davenport and Yonge across from Canadian Tire near the first Long an McQuade music instrument store where I started taking lessons with Ray Reilly. Though I played the Derby, Bermuda, Brass Rail, Le Coq d'Or, and the Blue Note after hours club for some extended periods for about ten years,a few U.S performances linger in memory especially Harold's Club in Peoria Illinois about mid-winter of 63 with the self- invited screamin' C on stage from Aurora, and our shows with Max Falcon, Bobby Lenthal, Pete Michaut, Grant Wilson and Tweedy in a club in Flint Michigan in the late summer of 63. And I guess I should mention our "Crew Cuts" revival show with Roger Vekeman, Valaree Royce, Rudi Valentine, and Eric MacFarlane, at Diamond Jim's in Hamilton, Ontario that ice cold early January of 64/65. And the more I ponder,the more places come to mind like the Northern circuit of Quebec and Ontario: Kapuskasing Timmins, Sudbury, Smiths Falls, Sue Saint Marie and Kirkland Lake; and in Quebec, Amos and Rouyn-Noranda.
So Whatever Happened To Playter Hall?
Well today you might answer: Who knows or Who cares even? Well I care. Maybe because of the reasons that I thought of writing about "Toronto's Secret", the forgotten Canadians performing in Toronto's first Rock and Roll bands during the 1950's and 1960's playing wherever they could find a place that would acomodate them. Like the time back from our session in New York we played in the Oakville arena in January with the superstars of 1958 to an audience slipp'n' an' slid'n' on the hockey rink under our last minute makeshift stand. And when I say Canadians, I am referring to the many talented performers born in Toronto, and Canadians from New Brunswick, Quebec, BC., Manitoba, London, Orillia, Stratford, Hamilton, and Harriston Ontario, and even Canadians from Great Britain: people I knew personally like old friends, Robbie Robertson, Kelly Jay, Gene MacLellan, Max Falcon, John Till, Pete Michaud, Scott Cushnie,Terry Roberts, Ronny Russell, Bobby Dean, Joe King, Tommy Danton, Kenny Kunz, Bob Bouchard, Pete Traynor, Bruce Morsehead, Buddy Burke and so many others I can't recall. It was they that made Toronto and Yonge Street exciting until Americans attracted like bees to honey began taking root here and fashioning Canada's willing performers in their own image. And like Playters Hall at Broadview and Danforth, the existence of these Canadians has been overwhelmed by time and the "global village".
Who were these Toronto based Canadian performers whose early playing mirrored the early days of Rock and Roll in Toronto? There was the guitarist Gene MacLellan, who though he didn't play Yonge Street was important to the development of the Toronto Rock and Roll scene as a founding member of "The Consuls" in 1957. After leaving "The Consuls" in 1959 he became known for his song writing, especially his "Snow Bird" made popular by Ann Murray. And there was Robbie Robertson who became a "Consul" for a few spring time months of 1959 and came to be known as the first Canadian string-bending Telecaster guitarist, a rock-a-billy-blues style he picked up from the Hawkins Hawks in late 1959 and early 1960, about when he began showing his song writing talents that made him famous with "The Band" in the 1970's. But what few are aware of is Robbie's almost devout interest in progressive jazz; whenever he and the Hawks came back to Toronto I remember his invitation: Bear, let's go listen to some jazz or words to that effect, and we'd head off to the First Floor Club near Asquith and Yonge and silently absorb the scattered sounds of the latest jazz inventions. Peter Michaud was another guitarist that I played drums with in the early 60's. His style was more traditional than Robbie's; instead of bending strings he would often make his acoustic electric guitar sound like a steel guitar, a technique that I have always believed showed his inate country talent that led to his work on The Grand Ole Opry, and his playing on many of Ernest Tubbs' 1970 records. The last time I can remember seeing him in person was in Flint Michigan in 1963 when we were playing with Max Falcon. I must have seen him since then because I remember he called me from Nashville in 1967 about playing with Ernest Tubb on the Grand Ole Opry. Another guitarist, John Till of Stratford Ontario, played with me on Yonge Street in a number of Toronto based bands in the 1960's and with Ronnie Hawkins, then Janice Joplin in the late 1960's/early 1970's. A few years ago I saw him playing guitar with Janice Joplin and narrating a film, "Festival Express", about Candian musicians travelling across Canada.
But Playter Hall like much that we experience arrives without invitation or plan and maintains a sort of invisible existence until rekindled by a chance circumstance like the one I found myself in just this recent June 26, 2014 morning on West Yonge Street just North of the old CHUM studio location where Kelly Jay and the Jamies, and Johnny Rhythm of "The Suedes" used to record. There in my barber's studio I was personally introduced to Tommy Ambrose, a local recording star back then who though I'd rehearsed with his group and him on the same stage in a hall east of Yonge in the early days of "The Suedes" with Robbie, Pete, and Scott; what brought me into his memory was the name of that hall, Playter Hall, at Broadview and Danforth near the flat on Broadview that Robbie and I shared; Plater Hall where"Tthe Consuls" were born, where "The Suedes" matured as a unit by rehearsing and performing there; Playter Hall a hall that Tommy had to give that name to when even today I still imagine that there were two halls in the east end where "The Consuls" and "The Suedes" performed, one where "The Consuls" were born Christmas week of 57, probably Playter Hall and the one that Tommy recalled where the weeks-old Suedes developed. Perhaps the stage set up, and our entering day and night through a back alley entrance as Suedes in the summer made that place seem different from the hall I first entered by the entrance door in winter to set up my drums on stage as those non-stop performing musicians and I became "The Consuls". But despite my confusion recalling names Tommy's emphatic response as his memory focused that we, his group and "The Suedes", used to rehearse in the hall at Broadview and Danforth - Playter Hall. Some time after meeting Tommy I saw an October 1960 photo of "The Palladium" at 393 Gerrard St. East and Broadview that I believe jarred my memory more accurately. Now I'm convinced that "The Palladium" and not Playters, the Consul's birthplace, was where "The Suedes" and Tommy's band used to rehearse in the summer of 59 just before Robbie, Pete/ Thumper, Scott, Gene and me met Johnny and began our Yonge Street story at Lou Arnold's Brown Derby. Here is the Toronto archive photo that brought my ambiguous recollections into focus; the two different halls where I'd played in the east end near Broadview, Playter's where "The Consuls" came to be in late 57 and "The Palladium" where "The Suedes" rehearsed and came together in early 59. In this October 1960 photo,
"The Palladium" at 393 Gerrard East is at the top right corner.
Most of what I've written about Playters and The Palladium has been online for years, but recent enquiries about when "The Suedes" met "The Hawks" made me realize that of all the places I'd played only a few are memorable. The onstage meeting of "The Suedes" and "The Hawks" at Scarborough Arena in the early summer of 1959 may be the most vivid, with memorable sensory detail. I recall that the stage seemed unusually high, and expansive enough to make the acoustic piano seem small. I don't remember anything about the audience. We were in Scarborough Arena but for me the stage was the place where things happened.
The places that are easiest to recall and justify writing about are the places where we all performed and enjoyed the stage performances of others. But the stage sometimes extended beyond the places where we played our instruments. Tops restaurant two doors up from the Brown Derby was one of those places that sometimes seemed to broaden the stage to include all the places where we had been performing.
Tops all night 24/ 7 restaurant was where almost every evening after the bars closed you could run into entertainers and ladies of the night enjoying a" hot dog surprise" or "schmaltz Herring" or some other menu item that only Tops seemed to offer . Conversation often centered on where various performers were working, the groups they were with, who'd just got back in town after a road tour and where they might be heading. In a sense Tops was where entertainers, entertained each other with their memories: anecdotes about the places they'd been, the clubs they'd played and most of all the fascinating people they'd met and got to know both in the audience and on stage. Tops to compliment its unique menu had a juke box at each booth where for an inserted coin one could listen to the latest top hits, and it was on this system that I first heard Max Falcon's singing "I thought I heard you calling my name" which eventually led to his performance at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City.
And for me since I originated in west Toronto, Parkdale where I lived throughout my Yonge Street career, whence came my pop music heritage and the drumming impulse, The Green Dolphin restaurant like Tops on the strip was a place that brought the stage to street level. But unlike Tops, The Dolphin seemed to make performers of its patrons, though only one ever got on stage. Sometimes I think that it was Robbie's presence in The Dolphin and his eventually becoming a Hawk that was instrumental in getting Gerry from the boxing ring onto the stage. In fact Robbie's accompanying me, those few times, to The Dolphin, led some chauvinistic Parkdalites to say that Robbie Robertson of First Avenue in the city's east end originated in Parkdale of Toronto's west end. Though through some trick of fate the Dolphin was not far from the Lansdowne Assembly Hall where I first became aware of Robbie and his buddy Pete Traynor from the other end of the city, some months before I'd ever seen him near the Green Dolphin. next: My Yonge Street Stories