From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on May 20, 2012.
Entrance of the Mynah Bird, 1971. Photo by Leo Harrison. Toronto Telegram Fonds, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University.
In an August 1967 article, the Globe and Mail’s Blaik Kirby set the scene for anyone curious about entering one of Yorkville’s oddest coffee houses.
The Mynah Bird is a fetid room in a former Victorian home, with a tiny triangular stage behind bars in one corner. There are two other rooms in reserve if needed. You enter through a hallway, passing the piranha and the caged mynah bird after which the place is named. Hanging rushes conceal the high ceiling. The walls are red flecked wallpaper. The lights are low, with candles on each table. One of the two friendly go-go girls ushers you to a seat, and soon reappears on the stage. She is slightly plump, with long dark hair and a pseudo-leopard-skin minidress looking like something out of Tarzan. She is succeeded by a slimmer and slightly more talented girl, dressed in a modest mod outfit, who dances under black light.
Ads for the Mynah Bird from the Toronto Star (April 22, 1966) and the Globe and Mail (July 26, 1967).
The hint of titillation helped the Mynah Bird during its decade-long run at 114 Yorkville Ave., along with the crazy publicity schemes hatched by owner Colin Kerr. Never at a loss for colourful stories, Kerr claimed that he acquired his beloved mynah bird Rajah on a trip to India in 1956, where he was participating in a golf tournament. He was told Rajah had magical good luck powers that could only be used on others for the next 40 years, which sometimes manifested themselves through droppings left on celebrities. When Kerr returned to Toronto, he opened a shop on Bloor Street devoted to selling mynah birds. It wasn’t a surprise when he launched a coffee house in 1964 that it was named after his favourite creature.
While the Mynah Bird initially offered folksingers and go-go dancers as entertainment, Kerr devised an endless series of gimmicks, such as pie-throwing to ring in the year of 1966. He managed the Mynah Birds, a group fronted by singer Ricky Matthews (later known as Rick James). Their first single, “The Mynah Bird Hop,” was written by Kerr’s brother Ben, who later achieved fame as a street busker and perennial mayoral candidate. The group rebelled against Kerr, rejecting ideas like shaving their heads to resemble Rajah, and struck out on their own. Among the members following the group’s involvement with Kerr was a young folkie named Neil Young.
In August 1966 Kerr offered the press and the police morality squad a sneak preview of the topless dancing he planned to introduce. The cops declined the invitation, but the press showed up to see what the hype was about. The show was a disaster; according to the Globe and Mail, reporters “cramped 60-strong in a dark, stuffy 12-by-15 room for half an hour, threatened to walk out before the act went on.” The star attraction, described as a 21-year old girl of Swedish extraction, went on 40 minutes later than scheduled. Housed in a wrought-iron cage in the Jungle Room (a second floor lounge carpeted in grass), the masked dancer was to be presented under a black light, slightly shrouded by a dry ice machine. The equipment spewed out too much smoke, choking the audience and making it impossible to tell if she actually was topless. A minute into her dance, the reporters walked out amid cries of “fake,” “fraud,” and at least one politically incorrect term for “ripoff.” The Globe and Mail advised Kerr to “restrict his exotica to the chocolate-covered ants and bees on his menu at $17.95 a plate.”
Wyche, billed as “the world’s first topless folksinger,” demonstrates her musical talents in front of news photographers, December 1967. Photo by Richard Cole, taken for the Telegram. York University Archives, 1974-002 / 132.
For the next few years, the Mynah Bird tried topless anything. In December 1967 Kerr introduced Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger,” whose guitar covered her from armpits down. The following spring silent nudie movies from the UK were screened in the Jungle Room, which consisted mainly of busty women slipping off their tops and into sudsy tubs. In May 1971, Kerr placed a classified in the Globe and Mail for a “nude chef.” Applicants were interviewed by Kerr’s mother-in-law, who he claimed was a chef and dietician. Apart from wearing a legally-mandated chef’s hat, the cooks served up sandwiches and drinks in the buff. Kerr’s increasing obsession with nudity led Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer to later call him “the Larry Flynt of Yorkville.”
Business was perfectly fine when Kerr sold the building and closed the Mynah Bird in February 1973 to pursue more ambitious plans. A couple of months later, Kerr relaunched his business as a nudist club in a King Street East warehouse. Despite the possibility of titillation, the club offered quaint activities like checkers, darts, and rope skipping—the nude chef wasn’t retained. The business didn’t last long.
But the demise of the Mynah Bird didn’t keep Kerr and his beloved bird out of the headlines. There was a failed attempt to run Rajah as a mayoral candidate in 1978, and a short-lived attempt to win the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1983 (we suspect brother Ben had better odds for landing either position). The pair appeared at pet expos and shopping mall events. Even in the 21st century, Kerr and Rajah toured the world to pass along their good luck.
Sources: Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997), and the August 11, 1966, August 12, 1966, August 3, 1967, December 19, 1967, July 22, 1968, May 26, 1971, and February 5, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail.
In his book Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, Stuart Henderson describes Colin Kerr as “an untamable schemer.” That scheming revolved around grabbing as much publicity as possible, no matter how ridiculous or tawdry it might be. As I rolled through one cheap, cruddy, exploitative incident after another, preparing this reprint became a depressing experience, and I put it aside several times.
Low-grade titillation aimed solely to earn attention gets old fast.
Globe and Mail, August 12, 1966.
In his autobiography Glow, Rick James describes an incident that was among the breaking points the Mynah Birds had with Kerr.
Colin sent us to do a teeny-bopper TV show in Hamilton, Ontario. I was excited. The studio was filled with screaming girls – all hired by Colin – and, as a gimmick, I was supposed to sing to a blind mynah bird. I went along with the program. I let them put the bird my hand as I sang this dumb-ass song. The girls loved it, but I didn’t, especially when the bird started shitting in my hand. When I tried to push him off, he dug his claws into my skin. With shit and blood all over me, I nearly bolted. Somehow I got through the song.
The Telegram, March 26, 1971.
While searching for fresh images, I found several in York University’s Telegram photo collection of a protest held outside the Mynah Bird. Sure enough, there was an accompanying story.
Cynical question: given everything else Kerr did to drum up attention, was this a legitimate protest or, given there was a performance that night, yet another publicity stunt?
The Body Politic #10, 1973.
An ad from the King Street era, pitched to the city’s gay community. Note attempt to make Rajah queer.
Richmond Hill Liberal, May 3, 1978.
Over the rest of the 1970s, plenty of ink was wasted in newspapers across North America over Kerr’s efforts to promote Rajah. The bird was supposed to be married in Las Vegas…then on the Tonight Show…then in Toronto. The bird was a psychic. The bird sold lucky medallions that he personally bit for good luck. The bird recorded records. I gave up tracking these stories, as promised events failed to happen and the tales grew increasingly name-droppy.
Maybe, as some newspaper columnists suggested at the time, Kerr did this to bring a light touch to a dark era. It didn’t have that effect on me.
Ottawa Journal, October 8, 1976.
Colin Kerr and Rajah. Photo by Doug Griffin. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0059584f. This photo accompanied the story below, published in the February 8, 1985 Toronto Star.
Three months later, the Star reported that Rajah found a new mate, also named Rani. According to Kerr, who gave the birds bee pollen he used to boost his own virility, “within an hour they started making love like crazy.”