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Historic Venue Spotlight: The Horseshoe Tavern

From a blacksmith, to a chef, to a live music aficionado, The Horseshoe Tavern has seen a lot of owners and even more stories.

The recent addition of the word “Legendary” to its name hasn’t done much to deter Torontonians from calling it what it is: The Shoe. The Horseshoe Tavern might have a long and storied history, but it’s the banality of the venue throughout its 67 year lifespan that’s made it such a local treasure and enduring institution.

Prior to becoming the tavern we all know and love, the plot of land at 368 Queen Street West changed hands constantly. The building first housed a blacksmith in 1861, who shared the space with an engineer and two butchers. Over time, machinists, green grocers and many other commercial endeavours would call it home, though nothing ever really stuck.

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In 1947 Jack Starr purchased the space from Warren Drug Co. Ltd, repurposing it with live music and food in mind. He named the place The Horseshoe Tavern, and started to book country music acts to perform there nightly.

The food angle never really caught on, and so Starr took the kitchen out completely, making more room for tables and patrons, placing the focus of the Horseshoe solely on live music. It was after this period that the Shoe hit its stride as a live country music venue; up until the mid-sixties, Starr booked a wealth of great country performers, including Willie Nelson, The Carter Family, and Stompin’ Tom Connors.

The building went through another substantial renovation, albeit an involuntary one, in the late seventies when a bunch of angry punks tore the place apart. The police had tried to shut down the last event concert promoters “The Garys” were to throw there, dubbed “The Last Pogo,” and were met with some resistance by the exuberant and over-capacity crowd. Had the venue been as revered then as it is now, it’s unlikely that riot would’ve ever taken place, or even that the owners would’ve taken a chance on the Garys, allowing them to book a string of punk shows there.

The Garys were just some of a number of promoters who were brought in to try and fill the void Starr had left after selling the business (though he and his family have maintained ownership of the building ever since). Following Starr’s departure, the Horseshoe had a bit of an identity crisis, which led to the Garys short tenure booking local punk acts as well as a renaming of the venue following their Last Pogo riot. For a period of three years, The Horseshoe changed its name to Stagger Lee’s, and even moonlit as a strip club.

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Enter Kenny Sprackman, who along with X-Ray Macrae, Dan Akroyd, and Richard Crook can be credited with shifting the venue’s focus to booking primarily local and independent rock bands, as well as the tavern’s current layout, which divides the space into a front and back bar. Some relics of the Stagger Lee days remain, like the black and white checkered floors (made famous in Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon”) and the ceiling covered with what appears to be a recycled banner for the film Bye Bye Birdie, but the division of the tavern into two separate spaces had an immediate effect on how the bar functioned.

In his book How Music Works, David Byrne describes what made CBGBs such a hub for punk musicians in late seventies New York, arguing that what drew musicians to the venue was the fact that they could hang out there even when music wasn’t being performed. Most venues don’t double as hangouts: you go there when a show is booked, stay for the music, then settle up with the bartender once the bands have finished. Byrne explains “no ones hangs out in these places, there is no community of musicians, and a scene can’t begin to develop.”

In retrospect, the renovations the Horseshoe went through in the early eighties seem truly inspired, and were likely responsible for the cultivation of a much stronger local scene that followed. Had the tavern been “legendary” at this time, it’s doubtful this renovation would’ve happened. In fact, it was a business that needed saving, so dividing Horseshoe into a hangout and venue was the change it needed in order to be resuscitated from stifling debt.

It is, by no stretch of the imagination, one of the most boring and nondescript looking venues in the city. The building’s unremarkable exterior makes it easy to miss, unlike the gorgeous architecture of Massey Hall or the surreal mural adorning Lee’s Palace. That it’s managed to exist this long without being torn down is both a mystery and miracle. Toronto does not take kindly to letting historical buildings last for too long, especially when a tall shiny condo can be put in its place. So there were likely many sighs of relief when it finally attained Heritage Status in 2007.

But it’s that unpretentious appearance, both inside and out, that has shaped the venue over time and allowed it to keep up with the constantly in-flux Queen Street strip (a tremendous feat in and of itself). It’s easy to romanticise a place that has seen such great talent grace its stage over the years, but the only reason the Horseshoe remains such a legend today is because of the building’s ability to change with the times.

Michael Rancic is a freelance writer living in Toronto - @therewasnosound