Lee’s Palace: 37 years as Bloor’s live music ‘crown jewel’

Lee's Palace has served as Bloor's live music "crown jewel" for 37 years. Brandon Choghri takes us inside the iconic venue, and shares the story of Nirvana's infamous Toronto debut in 1990.

By Brandon Choghri

For nearly 40 years, Lee’s Palace in Harbord Village has been buzzing with energy.

You’ll spot band members carrying guitar cases across Bloor Street, or fans lining the sidewalk for a sold-out show.

“Even just walking by on a Saturday or a Friday night, you can really tell that this is the place in the neighbourhood that’s got something going on,” said assistant bar manager John Pitts. “It’s really a cultural hub for all types of people.”

Lee’s Palace has been a staple of Toronto’s live music scene since 1985, with early shows headlined by local icons Blue Rodeo and Goddo, and an appearance from the Tragically Hip before they had released their first album.

“Everybody loves Lee’s…it’s just a phenomenal place,” said Daniel Tate, co-author of The Flyer Vault.

The book documents Toronto’s concert history through posters and flyers from venues across the city. Tate also curates their Instagram account, sharing an even deeper dive into the archives with more than 19,000 followers.

“Anytime I post a Lee’s Palace flyer, lose yourself in the comments. People are always talking about meeting their future wife there, or being in a mosh pit there getting their butt kicked, but they loved it…everybody who loves music in Toronto must have a Lee’s Palace story.”

Many of those stories involve seeing some of the biggest bands in the world with just a few hundred people. Through the 1980s and 90s, Lee’s Palace gained a reputation as a springboard for rock royalty, with bands hitting the tiny stage on the cusp of a meteoric rise.

“A lot of artists were no-names and then played Lee’s and after that, really took off,” Tate said.

“The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they played their first Toronto show at Lee’s Palace in 1986. Alanis Morisette, one of her early shows was at Lee’s. So, Lee’s has always been one of those sort of mythical venues where if you play it, it’s almost like a right of passage to take you to the next level, and not many venues can claim that,” he added.

One of the most revered Lee’s Palace shows was Nirvana’s Toronto debut in 1990, five months before the release of their album Nevermind. By most accounts, the show was poorly attended, with only about 100 people coming through the door. A frustrated Kurt Cobain started tossing bottles at his own drummer, and then into the crowd.

“The crowd kind of took his lead, picked up their bottles and started throwing them at the stage,” Tate explained.

“That show is recorded, you can listen to it on YouTube and near the end, you hear just all this glass shattering and then Kurt goes on the mic and says ‘I hope you guys recycle these after.'”

Outside of Lee’s Palace you’ll often spot people stopping to take pictures of the iconic mural, or pausing to reminisce on a past show.

“Lee’s Palace reminds me of when I was playing about 20 years ago…you used to see the greatest bands come in here,” said one local resident walking along Bloor.

“This is probably a huge cultural experience for anybody who wants to experience something that comes from rock roots… it’s a small space, but it’s wonderful.”

For some, the venue’s greatest claim to fame isn’t actually a concert, but a connection to a Toronto-based cult classic.

“I’m stoked to be here because there’s a cool history with Lee’s Palace in terms of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” said one fan lining up for a show. The 2010 Edgar Wright film featured one of its signature fight scenes inside Lee’s.

After 37 years on Bloor Street, Lee’s Palace has solidified itself as an icon in Harbord Village.

“Now that Honest Ed’s is no more, to me Lee’s is the anchor, the crown jewel,” Tate said. “We need to make sure that Lee’s is given all the protection, tax breaks, and any other benefits or advantages that the city can give them to keep them operating.”

For venue staff, the focus remains the same: bringing people the best concert experience possible.

“It really is special to see people smiling and excited to be here,” said Pitts. “There’s a little bit of magic when you enter the door.”

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