The Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience of The Electric Circus (and the story of 99 Queen East)

Originally published on Torontoist on February 18, 2015.

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The Telegram, December 21, 1968.

For Torontonians of a certain age, the phrase “Electric Circus” conjures up the 1990s dance show on Citytv and MuchMusic. Its name paid homage to the dance club that Citytv replaced at 99 Queen Street East when the station launched in 1972. The original Electric Circus arrived in town with great hype, and ended as a newspaper auction ad.

“I believe in Toronto,” Stan Freeman, Electric Circus co-owner, declared when he announced the club in May 1968. “It’s one of the grooviest cities in the world for rock, and I’m investing $300,000 in that belief.” Along with business partner Jerry Brandt, Freeman, a Torontonian who once worked for Clairtone, promised a venue over twice the size of his flagship club in New York City’s East Village. The original’s mix of circus performers, electronic music, experimental theatre, light shows, and live bands would be imported, all for a then-stiff $4 cover charge.

The site, whose past tenants ranged from an ornamental ironworks to a Simpsons used-furniture depot, would see its 38,000 square feet of floor space reimagined into a realm designed for the groovy hipsters. Split into seven rooms, it included a strobe-lit dance hall, chambers lined with foam rubber, a boutique, and a restaurant. Unlike the NYC location, the light shows would be programmed via computer.

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Left: Toronto Star, January 25, 1969. Right: Toronto Life, April 1969.

Trouble plagued the project from the start. Construction costs doubled as the concept evolved and the city demanded numerous safeguards. The opening date, intended for July, was delayed for months. When the Electric Circus finally opened for a VIP-only fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund on December 20, 1968, it was far from complete. Despite staff putting in 24-hour shifts, little was truly ready for guests like John Craig Eaton, Peter Munk, and Marshall McLuhan to enjoy the full freak-out experience. Plaster dripped and wires were exposed. Carpenters hammered away. Welders sprayed sparks onto the floor. Drinks were served in paper cups because the bar glasses had been stolen. The light show was still in test mode. Amid the chaos, floor staff ran around in lab coats and sweatshirts with “HELP!” written on the back. “C’mon, honey,” one tuxedo-clad guest told his wife. “This is terrible! They can’t have a party in here!” Perhaps prime minister Pierre Trudeau was relieved when he declined his invitation.

The press found reasons for optimism. “If you’ve been mouthing McLuhanisms for the past couple of years without really knowing what things like ‘media barrage’ and ‘total environment’ mean,” the Globe and Mail observed, “you can experience them in their most intense form at the Electric Circus.” The Star’s Jack Batten predicted it would be a “groovy experience” when properly running.

The club closed for a month to complete renovations. Over 2,000 people, many armed with free passes from CKFH radio, lined up when it reopened on January 23, 1969. While the pulsating liquid patterns and strobe lights impressed patrons, many wondered what the hype was about. As one partier observed, “everything else you can do at home.”

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Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

What you actually could do at the Electric Circus, according to Star art columnist Gail Dexter, boiled down to four things: dance, eat, go nude (a practice encouraged among female patrons), and hide in a “womb room” outfitted with flashing lights. It was also utilized by the Ontario College of Art for its annual Beaux Art Ball—in the spirit of the era, its 1969 edition was named after a catchphrase from the TV series Laugh-In (“Look it up in your Funk and Wagnall”).

As 1969 wore on, the club’s troubles mounted. A Sunday night live concert series was discontinued due to performers being late or, in the case of Ten Years After, failing to show up at all. Crowds dwindled to 80 people on weeknights. Tradesmen registered liens as they waited for payment. Creditors were offered shares in the New York club. By 1970, new management contemplated providing an atmosphere that was less plastic and more conducive to young people enjoying live music. “They shouldn’t go to Massey Hall,” manager Bob Cohen told the Globe and Mail in May 1970. “I’ll make them feel at home. I’ll give them a community. I’ve got rid of most of the environmental junk we had, and I’m trying to make the Circus a place just to relax and listen to the music and groove with the other freaks.”

Pandering to draw “freaks” failed, and the Electric Circus’s groovy goods were auctioned off. Less than two years later, over $1 million of renovations transformed the site into Citytv’s first home. The station took advantage of the wiring system the club left behind, while the light-show gondola became Moses Znaimer’s office. The old club’s address is currently occupied by The Carbon Bar.

Additional material from the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969, November 6, 1969, and May 16, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 27, 1968, October 19, 1968, December 20, 1968, December 21, 1968, March 1, 1969, March 11, 1969, and April 26, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I wrote about the history of 99 Queen East in the following article for The Grid’s Ghost City series, which was originally published in April 2013.

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The Globe, October 28, 1922.

Anyone purchasing their heating needs at the Nipissing Coal and Wood Yard in the mid-1870s never imagined that a century later 99 Queen Street East would fuel people’s quest for controversy and entertainment. By the end of the Victorian era the yard was cleared away and replaced by a building which would house a series of industrial business ranging from wrought iron fencing to laundry machines.

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Toronto Star, November 14, 1935.

When Star Electric Fixtures moved in during the winter of 1934, it promised consumers the “most up-to-date showrooms in the Dominion of Canada.” They weren’t at the forefront for long, as a two-alarm blaze destroyed the business on Boxing Day 1935. Though a feared building collapse was avoided, firefighters contended with dense smoke and freezing temperatures which turned their streams into sheets of ice. A year of legal sparring between Star Electric and its insurers saw the company’s president refuse to answer certain questions about the incident.

After the damage was cleared, Simpson’s moved in to run a “trade-in” store specializing in used furniture. Following the department store giant’s departure in 1944, other furniture businesses occupied the premises before it was vacated during the mid-1960s.

In early 1968 Jerry Brandt and Stan Freeman, owners of the hip Electric Circus disco in New York City, announced Toronto would host the second in a planned series venues across North America designed to attract an audience in the 14-to-25 demographic. For a stiff $4 cover charge, patrons would be dazzled by a 1,500 capacity main dance floor with live and recorded music, circus acts, and light show, while side rooms offered dining, shopping, and foam rubber walls. Freeman chose 99 Queen Street East because he “liked the sound of the address.” The venue, which was intended to be alcohol- and drug-free, was billed as the “Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience.”

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Toronto Star, December 21, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

The Electric Circus was immediately plagued with problems. Renovation issues delayed opening by six months. Constant design changes and safeguards demanded by the city caused the cost to balloon to over $500,000. When it finally opened for a Save the Children Fund benefit on December 20, 1968, attendees were underwhelmed by the unfinished space—one complained to the Globe and Mail that “they should pay us to come in here.” When the Star’s Jack Batten arrived at 10 p.m., he found “several hundred beautifully dressed people” looking “desperate and mad” as the space was “a shambles of exposed wired, dripping plaster, rough wood floors and a dozen hammering carpenters.” Light show technicians were still in test mode, while welders provided their own sparkling display. Drinks were served in paper cups after the bar glasses were stolen. Despite the hiccups Batten predicted the Electric Circus would “be a groovy experience” once it was properly running.

Finishing work closed the Electric Circus for a month. When it reopened on January 23, 1969, 2,000 people lined up. Only the strobe lights and pulsating liquid patterns impressed the crowd, many of whom had received free passes from radio station CKFH. Otherwise, as one patron put it, “everything else you can do at home.” A Sunday night concert series featuring headliners like Procol Harum and Sam and Dave was quickly curtailed, though local acts and groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Alice Cooper continued to grace its stage. Weeknights drew as few as 80 bodies. Construction workers registered liens against the club. While attempts were made to make the club seem less soulless, and events like the Ontario College of Art’s Beaux Arts Ball were held there, by August 1970 its items were up for auction.

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The full article on the OCA’s Beaux Arts Ball, Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

In March 1972, over $1 million of renovations began to transform the space into Toronto’s newest television station. Managing director Moses Znaimer claimed the light show gondola as his office. The heavy duty wiring system the Electric Circus left behind was a blessing for the tightly-budgeted station “Somebody up there likes us,” Znaimer told the Star.

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Toronto Star, June 10, 1972.

When Citytv debuted at 7:30 p.m. on September 28, 1972, a large cardboard poster on Znaimer’s office wall beaming “SEXY TELEVISION BEGINS SEPT. 28” crashed to the ground. “Was the Great Producer in the Sky trying to tell Znaimer that he disapproved of City’s raunchy programming policies?” joked Star columnist Alexander Ross. Sex that fueled the station’s early success thanks to the Friday night Baby Blue Movie. Despite frequent police morality squad visits regarding the airing of soft core flicks, mail praising the show flowed in. Several letters claimed the techniques demonstrated onscreen saved their marriages. By March 1973, the show drew 60 percent of the midnight audience.

Besides Citytv, the building housed one of the station’s first spinoffs, MuchMusic. Both stations honoured 99 Queen East’s heritage when, a year after they moved to 299 Queen West, a new dance show launched in 1988 bore the name Electric Circus.

Meanwhile, the old building became a mixed-use space which lost its historic address when it was integrated into the Queen Richmond Centre at 111 Queen Street East. Disney used the studio to train dancers for its cruise ships. The Grid looked into the space while it was up for rent in September 2011, noting that the location would soon be in high demand due to imminent construction in the parking lot across the street. The parking lot is still there. While the exterior offers no hint of the current tenant, a peak through the window reveals plenty of scaffolding inside.

Additional material from the December 27, 1935 edition of the Globe, the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969 of the Globe and Mail, the September 30, 2011 edition of The Grid, the December 27, 1935 edition of the Mail and Empire, and the January 30, 1934, July 27, 1968, December 21, 1968, April 26, 1969, March 18, 1972, September 29, 1972, March 20, 1973, and May 3, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.

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