El Mocambo continues live music legacy in Toronto’s Kensington-Chinatown

The El Mocambo on Spadina Avenue has been catering to music lovers for 75 years. Nick Westoll visited the iconic Toronto live music venue for a tour.

When it comes to institutions in Toronto’s Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood, the El Mocambo is one of the few that can garner emotional reactions among people across the city.

Located on Spadina Avenue, the El Mocambo has been operating at the same spot for 75 years and in recent decades there have been standing room-only concerts with huge names stopping by every so often.

The iconic location had a humble beginning in the late-1940s. It started off by focusing on fine dining food with Mexican influences, ballroom dancing and music. After being sold a couple of times and thanks to a new music booker, the live-venue started hosting artists such as Ronnie Hawkins and Buddy Guy.

However, the establishment catapulted to notoriety in 1977 thanks to an opening act under the pseudonym of The Cockroaches during an April Wine concert.

“Concert-goers lost their mind when The Cockroaches turned out to be the Rolling Stones so our goal is that the Rolling Stones will come back here after their final world tour,” Mike Chalut, the executive director of the El Mocambo, said during a recent tour.

“You never know who’s going to be on the stage and you never know what musical act will maybe go the bathroom beside you because it’s that intimate that you could be standing by Mick Jagger.”

Since the appearances, the list of visiting musicians grew in the following years to include U2, Duran Duran, Blondie, and Gordon Lightfoot. In 1980, Chalut noted U2 played for $500 and tickets that September went for $3.50.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and the building was in need of an overhaul if it was going to stay intact.

“It was known for the smell. It was disgusting. It was raw. There was carpet (and) there was beer stains,” Chalut said.

RELATED: Legendary El Mocambo roars back to life after multi-million-dollar renovation

“You could smoke (cigarette) butts in here, but the music was incredible, right?”

Michael Wekerle, a well-known investor and businessperson, closed a deal in 2015 to buy the El Mocambo.

“There are three legendary signs in this city: There’s Sam the Record Man, Honest Ed’s, and Michael literally took home that El Mocambo sign to his house and then thought, ‘Wait a second, they’re going to rip down the El Mocambo. Why don’t I buy the building as well?'” Chalut said.

Under Wekerle’s direction, the building was stripped down to the studs in an extensive $37-million renovation. During the rebuild, the structure was outfitted with the latest technology including a broadcast control room for recording, a music studio and audio equipment.

“Every chair, every piece of wallpaper, everything is brand new, so nothing in the El Mocambo has been saved except the memories,” Chalut said.

“People that walk in these doors you know when you hear a concert here, you’re not screaming at the person beside you. There’s so much absorption with the way that we have created the venue.”

In the upper main stage space dubbed ‘Under the Neon Palms,’ it can hold 475 people while the first-floor Starlight Room can hold up to 300. The El Mocambo has also pivoted to host weddings, special events and corporate functions with a food menu designed by famous Toronto-based chef Mark McEwan.

“The future of the El Mocambo is extremely bright. We’ve recently signed on with an incredible talent agency that is promising to bring us great concerts here in the fall,” Chalut said, noting Billy Porter and David Foster were the most recent big names to visit the venue.

“We’ve really rolled out the red carpet to everyone, we celebrate diversity here always … being in Kensington Market, there’s always traffic, there’s always people that are celebrated and we continue to welcome the neighborhood, always.”

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