Ontario Venues with Historic Charm: The ghosts of music past
Updated: May 29, 2021
Scattered across Ontario like little islands on a lake, a number of historic music venues pack the punch. Nestled in beach towns, big cities and gritty side streets, these venues might not be the ones you think of when I say historic (you won't find Massey Hall on this list) but I assure they're worth your attention. Still in operation, these venues are steeped in Canada's musical story.
1. The Kee to Bala
Where: Bala, Ontario (Township of Muskoka Lakes)
Picture this: a quiet, peaceful weekend in the heart of Ontario's cottage country fused with loud, wild rock n' roll. That's what The Kee to Bala has been serving up since the 1930s when it was changed from a drug store and ice cream parlour to a dance hall called Dunn's Pavillion. Okay, maybe it wasn't always rock music but you get the picture. In 1942, Dunn's Pavillion was torn down in favour of building a slightly bigger venue, The Kee to Bala.
Save for a few sponsorships on the exterior of the building, the venue still has all the cottage country charm it did in the 1940s (don't be fooled, you may think you've stepped onto the set of Dirty Dancing). Boat up or drive up, it's your choice. Settled right on Lake Muskoka, there truly is nothing more Canadian.
The history of "The Kee" as it's commonly referred to didn't stop with big band music though. Everyone from The Ramones and Teenage Head to Louis Armstrong and of course, The Tragically Hip have played the venue. Want to know more? Check out this post!
2. Lee's Palace
Where: Toronto, Ontario
Lee's Palace holds all the nostalgia of your favourite dive bar with the historic cahonas to back it up. Originally a shoemaker's shop, Lee's Palace has had many occupants that have called it home since its inception.
In 1919, Detroit's Howard Crane helped to design Allen's Bloor Theatre to go where the shoe shop once stood. Designed in ornate fashion, the theatre remained a place to watch movies until 1957 when the building was left empty for almost ten years. From there it was converted into The Blue Orchid, an all-male-cast cabaret and speak easy known for serving up amazing entertainment.
Then came a man by the name of Chong Su Lee. Chong Su would change the face of Lee's both literally and figuratively. Renamed to Lee's Palace, Chong Su had muralist Al Runt paint the outside of the building in all its quirky glory (Runt has repainted twice since his original mural, adding more detail each time). He then began bringing in a hugely impressive array of bands who used the venue as a jumping off point. We're talking Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis and more. They've all played at Lee's.
Chong Su Lee passed away in 2010 but the legacy of Lee's Palace continues to live on as a rock n' roll landmark today.
3. The Horseshoe Tavern
Where: Toronto, Ontario
The Horseshoe Tavern and its checkerboard floors famously mentioned in The Tragically Hip's Bobcaygeon have been a Canadian landmark since the early 1940s when Jack Starr bought the joint but its history dates back in time as a shoe shop, blacksmith shop and a few other things. Thousands of people have performed on the stage- The Tragically Hip, The Rolling Stones and event a famous 25-night run of back to back Stompin' Tom Connors shows. Housing one of Ontario's first liquor licences, people may have come for the booze at first but they stayed for the music that poured into that joint.
70 years of life haven't slowed this Toronto hotspot down. The Horseshoe Tavern still looks like a grungy bar and still books incredible bands. Step inside and you wouldn't think it was anything too special but pay attention because this place definitely has something magical in air. Want ot know more? Check out David McPherson's book all about the historic venue.
4. Call the Office
Where: London, Ontario
When it comes to Call the Office not much has been written (challenge accepted, stay tuned) but a few key facts are worth noting. Built in the 1870s, Call the Office was most famous as the location for the former York Hotel which brought life to the city in the 1960s.
The building has been a historic rock venue for a short thirty years but in that time, it has managed to make a real splash on the scene. Known for a great sound set up, true down and dirty feel and beer that's always flowing, CTA has managed to attract some great bands over the years including Radiohead in 1995, The Tragically Hip, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Ramones and many more.
5. The Historic Red Dog Tavern
Where: Peterborough, Ontario
When I was in university in Peterborough, The Red Dog was always a great place to catch a show. The beer was cheap, the sound was tight and the bands were always on. I still remember a great set from Flash Lightinin'.
Red Dog was around long before my time though. Originally built as the Clancy Hotel, the Red Dog has changed hands many times over the years but since becoming a venue for music, it's always been a happenin' place. The likes of Neil Young, Tokyo Police Club and The Tragically Hip have all graced the stage (just to name a few). With a capacity of only 350 people, why not grab a pint (or 2 or 3...) and cozy up to enjoy a show?
6. The Merchant Tap House
Where: Kingston, Ontario
A city rich with musical gravitas both past and present, Kingston is home to some spectacular buildings. The city was Canada's first capital after all! It's no surprise then that The Merchant Tap House occupies a historic limestone building. With not much info on the history of said building available, we do know that it was built in 1836 and sits along the water's edge to this day. Built as one of the city's first ports where grains and other goods would be brought by ship, the Merchant's other tenants have included everything from a theatre to an antique shop along the way. With live music every Thursday-Saturday night, The Merchant Tap House is a great place to catch Kingston's up and comers (including The Glorious Sons back in the day and just last year).
Where are your fav venues in Ontario to catch bands? Let me know in the comments below.
Peace, love & history.