The Show

This idea of the show was to me the basis of the Brown Derby's significance the first bar that I played drums in with its all day entertainment and performers both on the main floor and downstairs. At the Derby when someone on stage pitched the old show biz line: we have "a surprise" coming up you might almost have believed them. And based on my limited experience I still think that the Brown Derby with Joe King and the Zaniaks who regularly performed in Las Vegas did much to keep those old showbiz illusions alive. And the audiences performed their part as well especially on weekends sitting and anxiously awaiting the Zaniak' on stage arrival with their perpetual shuffle: bass, piano sound a kind of traveling rhythm as Joe signed on and everyone wondered who would be the first to get it with a big cymbal crash to highlight one of Joe's comedic antics.

PHOTO: Joe King up center stage, comedians Nicky Nichols center left & Whitey center right to viewer

The Brown Derby Tavern

And that bar, The Brown Derby Tavern on the north east corner of Dundas and Yonge now part of Dundas Square with the Eaton's center on the south west corner still is for me the emblem of the Toronto club scene; when it declined so did Yonge Street as the hub of everything that made downtown Toronto exciting.

I still see those gigantic photos of show bands that lined the length of the Derby's Dundas Street exterior from the ground to the roof, and that sign Ernie Bies reminded me of selling all the spaghetti you could eat for just a dollar; the nattily suited bouncers greeting customers entering the dual entranceway, one for men, the other for ladies with escorts; and the single men standing on the corner waiting for a lady they might know to escort them; and visits by the impeccably attired Lou Arnold, the Derby's owner.

The bar starting near the entrance separated the men's bar room and ladies' lounge almost to the back wall. The stage was above the midpoint of the bar where the entertainers positioned themselves to face audience on either side.

An image which is a close second to my memory of the show band photos outside is of Frank Russeau on stage facing the men's entranceway, strapped into his accordion, above a bass drum singing an endless variety of requests including Danny Boy & You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You, every afternoon until dinner time.

As Frank signed off and Joe King's Zaniacs took over, the daytime regulars on the bar side were met by increasing numbers of evening patrons moving into the ladies' lounge to enjoy Joe's Don Rickles-like antics and his group's Louis Prima-like show-band shuffle. That two bar shuffle rhythm carried by drums and bass seemed incessant once Joe hit the stage and continued through his introducing the group, song titles and signing off each set, almost as if each 45 minute set presented one none-stop shuffle.

The Zaniacs

Joe on sax facing brothers Nat on bass, & Harry on sax *

Recently I heard the theory that Joe King's outrageous comedic antics influenced Don Rickles, and not the other way around as I had assumed. I've come to understand that when I was introduced to Joe King in the late 1950's, I did not know there was a Don Rickles. Rickles, however, might have seen Joe in Las Vegas where Joe used to perform between engagements at the Brown Derby during the 50's and 60's. Who Knows?

I've also learned the reality behind one of Joe's favorite jibes at hecklers: "I don't bother you when working at the fish market. Why are you bothering me while I'm working?" As I had always suspected Joe himself had once worked in a fish market. But Joe's fans did not attend his performances at the Derby to heckle; they came to enjoy his making fools of others even at risk of themselves becoming targets of his comic abuse.

Almost nightly, Joe would call up to the stage, one of the Derby regulars, a dwarf with a grand baritone voice (like the 17 lb 2 foot dwarf, Lycius, with the tremendous voice, on stage during the reign of Caesar Augustus): when he arrived on stage Joe would shout, Hey! I asked for the quarterback, and "they sent me the ball". The little man with the big voice would then sing "Oklahoma", and each time he sang the crescendo-ing o-O-Oklahoma lyric someone would goose him from behind with a microphone stand as if to raise him off the floor.

The audience never tired of this zany routine, and the dwarf whose name I can't recall loved the attention and Joe.

But Joe did not pick on just the little guys. I remember the night that he displayed the kind of provocative insulting that intermittently sent him back to work the following evening with a black eye.

Bull Dog Brower, a Canadian wrestler, famous during the 1960's was in the audience. Joe began informing the crowd that there was a famous gentleman in the house. As Brower began rising to acknowledge the anticipated applause, Joe continued, a great man, ladies and gentlemen, "Porky The Pig." Joe then began to apologize with feigned nervousness, but as though his urge to insult overwhelmed his fear of reprisal, he blurted out "Sorry- - ugh -err-Porky"! The audience roared.

He again seemed about to apologize, but once more after an agonizingly long pause of feigned nervous stammering, out came "Sorry- Porky."

As the stammering and the pause between sorry and Porky grew longer the audience hung on each sorry in a kind of frenzied anticipation of the next "Porky" which crescendo-ed in a gleeful roar of laughter as Joe for the umpteenth time blurted "Porky " in place of the apology that he seemed to promise but never gave.

* This photo was sent to me by Jeff Albert, Joe's son in law. It shows Joe and the Zaniacs performing in the Brown Derby. To the left behind the bassist are the doors to the north east corner of Yonge Street leading to the bar on the men's side opposite the stage placed between the bar and the ladies lounge from where this photo seems to have been taken. After examining the Louis Prima video link I've discovered that the Zaniacs not only resemble the musical style of Prima's group but also their numerical proportions and staging. Each group has 7 musicians; both Joe and Prima perform up front in a 3 + 1 arrangement. The bass, and drums are visible in both groups; although the Zaniac's pianist is not visible, I recall that in a sense the Zaniac's pianist was the most conspicuous player to anyone listening in the audience: he seemed to be playing an incessant up tempo boogie shuffle (ba doom ba doom ba doom ba doom ba) from the beginning to the end of each set, sounding like Prima's pianist appears to be playing in the video link above.

My own attraction to this club that I'd always believed to be a quaint survivor of an era before rock and roll came to attract teenagers and eventually even people of their parents' generation, the kind of music that Ronnie Hawkins a few doors up was calling "racket" as he introduced each of his and his Hawks' arrivals on stage by drawling that it was "racket time". The music that Ronnie and his band performed' in tone and rhythm seemed inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis' rockabilly antics which in those early days were simply part of the blend of styles making the rock and roll puzzle that included both rockabilly's staccato, eighth note rhythm and the swinging dotted eighth and sixteenth jazz blues rhythms that you can hear in some early Elvis recordings like "Heart Break Hotel" and the country swing of Bill Haley. And there was that other style with neither conspicuous rockabilly nor swing elements performed by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and folk- like troubadour Bo Diddley whose "Hey Bo Diddly" and Chuck Berry's "Forty Days" became Ronnie's hallmark climaxing his shows.

But the kind of tunes one might hear in the Derby at any time between noon and midnight sounded nothing like the southern drawling Hawks' fevered rockabilly style, Elvis' early softly swinging tunes or Bo Diddley's haunting imagery. Songs such as "Your Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" or "When You're Smile'n" tunes the Zaniacs performed in an old fashioned hip Louis Prima-like swinging shuffle seemed left overs from an earlier era, tunes that might have been been orchestrated and performed in dance halls for "jitter bugs" as popular music during the swinging era of the big bands when jazz and popular music seemed to intersect.

Wikipedia image:
Zanni as portrayed by Perdolini
The name Zaniacs likely goes back to a clown in the old Comedia De'll Arte named Zanni in renaissance Italy whose associate clowns Harlequin et al likely inspired the Marx Brothers; even Louis Prima produced a bit of that clownish miming himself, with Keely Smith conveying the spirit of the silent pantomime whose poignant gestures Chaplin made popular in 20th century silent movies, for the pantomime in ancient Rome was as popular among Romans as our Hollywood stars once were to us movie watchers; and in Rome theatre sometimes seems second in interest to only the political theatre of the Forum. We are told that Julius Caesar, the most notorious politician of the ancient world used to answer his letters in the theatre; and according to one ancient historian had his own theatrical sets. And that famed emperor, Nero, used to see himself more as a gifted musician than Emperor singing and playing the Lyre throughout Greece to be among the only people he believed truly appreciated his art.

And Yonge Street from Queen north to Gould on the east side of Yonge in a moment of forever came alive with that mysterious old concentration of flash and mindless enthusiasm that has lurked in the corners of the human psyche since the days when gods visited the earth to be celebrated in temples and theatrical displays that as if on cue magically vanished with the rise of the Eaton's shopping centre between Dundas and Queen on the West side of Yonge leaving only one last ember in the Zanzibar's anachronistic posters selling that most magical curiosity: naked women, remnants of the old burlesque, where real people performed our fantasies in theatres like the Casino on Queen near Bay across from city hall where Gene Vincent and Screamin' Jay performed, and like the Gem Theatre on Dundas where I first tried out my drums, or like the men pushing the latest kitchen gadgets in store fronts up and down the east side of Yonge Street with a pitch resembling a carnival barker, beckoning young and old to come on in without regard to taste or scruples.

The Eaton's Center changed the face of Yonge Street from Dundas, south to Queen Street and led to the demise of Eaton's of Canada's Queen Street store and soon the new Eatons Canada at Dundas became Sears Canada, of the U.S.A.. The elaborately designed Imperial movie theatre across the road from the Eaton's Center's concreted parking areas unceremoniously disappeared.The less ornate Downtown theatre 1948-1971 just north of the Imperial also vanished; the Heintzeman piano store south of the Imperial closed as Canada's Heintzeman Co. relocated in Hanover, Ont. in 1978, then China shortly after. Diana Sweets, a quaint restaurant and beverage room near the Heintzeman store, vanished with the Colonial Tavern. But close by on the east side of Yonge near Queen Street right across the corner from where the old Woolworths store containing its eat at the bar counter beside the old Eatons store, The Elgin vaudeville theatre whose entertainment preceded the talking pictures of the Imperial, the Downtown movie theatre and the rise and fall of The Brown Derby Tavern, and The Silver Rail Tavern (at Yonge & Shuter from 1947 to 1997), still stands, as does The Zanzibar tavern on the east side of Yonge north of Dundas and Gould, though the Derby, Tops 24 hour restaurant, Le Coq D'Or tavern, the Edison Hotel at Yonge and Gould, Steeles Tavern and Bassells Restaurant in the same east side block of Yonge Street as the Zanzibar are also gone.

A clue perhaps to the Zanzibar's survival might have been its attempt to stay current with its multi media transformation and changing its name "Zanzibar" to the "Zanzibar Circus" around the mid 1960's, which I believed was inspired by the club owner's visit to the "Circus Circus" in Las Vegas. If you had experienced the transition of that club whose audience customarily focused ahead on the band, & then saw images of themselves, the band and then the gogo dancers on closed circuit television and slide screens above & throughout the darkness & to the back of the club in places where pre Circus audiences were unaccustomed to look for entertainment, you might have thought this club with its band, its go-go dancers up on separate tubs on either side of the stage, the slide and closed circuit screens above and to the back, and the flashing lights was really like a 3 ring circus. But however you might characterize this startling change it was the result of an effort to maintain the kind of show that left with the arrival of the talkies and the end of vaudeville and burlesque, shows that seemed always available to anyone strolling downtown streets which then were Yonge Street and intersecting corners like Queen where every few steps you might be tempted to enter a movie theatre with its oversized posters of the stars playing inside with flashing lights framing the movie images and broadcasting the theatre's name.

And there was the retail show to the west of Yonge near Bathurst where you could shop for bargains at Honest Ed's on floors sloped like a midway fun house whose exterior was plastered with Ed's garish self deprecating proverb-like marketing pitches. But in the early days of his bargain store no one foresaw that Honest Ed was really Ed Mirvish whose real calling was not bargains but theatre and introducing theatre performances from around the world. And when I was introduced to him in a movie theatre some years before he took over the Royal Alexander theatre on King West of Yonge, I was introduced to "Honest Ed" not Ed Mirvish, for I don't think the public could yet imagine that Honest Ed the man behind the gaudy ads blaring like lines out of a Comic book, and the discounted items on sale inside his Bathurst Street store on sloping floors was really the theatre impresario Mr. Ed Mirvish.

And not far west of Bathurst on College St. east of Grace was another store, one that sold things to eat, Johnny Lombardy's grocery store where as a child my father introduced me to Johnny Lombardy, the man who years later would become the multi-cultural broadcaster on radio station Early Toronto Performers

back to Why I played Drums

The Brown Derby on the corner of Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, Ontario

Harold's Club in Peoria Illinois

Yonge Street's Clubs & Performers


(*)The Zaniacs were an instrumental "show band" yet in this photo they adopt the pose of an acapela vocal group like the Crew Cuts, Four Lads or Diamonds behind comics Whitey and Nicky Nichols charging forward at centre stage.
Peter De Remigis