It was an innovation in the world of music-and-dance TV, and it brought hardcore electronic dance music to a generation of Canadian kids.
Just the mention of Electric Circus will get any Canadian who danced in the 90s dripping with candy-coloured nostalgia for those asphyxiating vinyl blazers and go-go shorts they hung up long ago. For 15 years the iconic live dance program gyrated its way onto TVs across the country, where viewers eagerly awaited new music videos, exclusive performances, and tried to decipher the lyrics to Jet Fuel's anthemic intro song. "Hey DJ come with a...choon? A broom?"
Though best known for its prime time Friday evening slot, the Citytv show humbly began airing on Saturday afternoons in 1988. In just a few years EC evolved into a rallying point for the emergence of dance culture in Canada, a position that was solidified when it began broadcasting nationally on MuchMusic in 1993. Taking its name from the club that previously tenanted Citytv's original east end location, the show arrived at a time when Eurotrash was still just "European," and when the more zippers you could fit on your pants, the better. Rave hadn't been inducted into the urban dictionary yet, club promoters laboriously hung up posters before the times of Facebook event pages, and dance music was still a genre awaiting mainstream exposure.
The ninety minute program transcended the television experience by becoming a destination unto itself. It wasn't just a show to be watched, but one on which to be seen: volunteer dancers from local clubs graced the show's stage while fans lined the streets outside the CHUM City building. It was a party; it was Canada's premier club; and it endeared itself to generations.
Cancelled in 2003, EC exists as a neatly packaged exhibit of everything that was cool in the 90's, like a hedonistic transmission that cultural historians will one day look back on and say "Whoa! Your mommy and daddy sure had some crazy hair." But more importantly, EC is remembered for turning Toronto's dance scene into a coveted destination for touring DJ's and bringing dance to the remote regions of the country awaiting local scenes of their own. The original producers and hosts have since scattered throughout Canadian media, but they still fondly remember that time when all they wanted to do was dance. This is the history of Electric Circus, in their words.
The first dance
Joel Goldberg (Original Producer): I was producing another show called Toronto Rocks at the time. It was a very important show that I took over and was honoured to produce. It was pre-MTV, pre-MuchMusic, and it was on from 4:00-5:00 PM everyday, and it was huge back in the day because that's where everyone got to see their music videos in Toronto. After MuchMusic came on there wasn't the same exclusivity anymore, so MuchMusic pretty much stole most of the audience from Toronto Rocks. Citytv head Moses Znaimer came up with this idea to do a dance show in the Toronto Rocks time slot. I was very reluctant in the beginning. I didn't know a lot about that scene. It was a very fringe, underground thing at the time.
Monika Deol (Host 1988-1996): I was a real club kid. I loved dancing, music, disco nights, house music: it was just about playing fantastic music really loud and just dancing your face off. I was a club DJ and I had my own band. I took my demo reel to Toronto hoping to get a record deal, and instead I got a job offer to work at Citytv and MuchMusic. I started on the weekend, anchoring entertainment, and that quickly progressed to adding on Electric Circus, City Pulse Entertainment at 10 then at 6, then Ooh La La. So, basically I was doing five shows at the same time. I did Electric Circus from the very beginning. I was part of the founding crew. Moses just wanted to do a dance show and he had the name in place: Electric Circus. He had the idea to do this live to air dance show and he asked me to host it, largely because I was a club DJ and I was very into club culture.
Joel Goldberg: I don't know whether Moses saw something in the States or in Europe, but he thought it would be a good thing to do. He was constantly looking for new and interesting things to put on the air. When Moses approached me I was like "Aww, man, I don't want to do a dance show." It was John Martin, who was running Much at the time, who took me out for a beer and said, "Look we don't have anyone else to do this, you're the guy who can do it." I'm glad he talked me into it though, and I'm very proud of the fact that it ran for about 20 years after that. For a long time, it was one of the top rated show's on MuchMusic. Moses decided it would be 90 minutes long and that he wanted it on during the day so that people would come and watch through the windows at the station. Moses always had this thing about bringing people to us. He didn't want to do it at a dance club, which was one thing that was discussed. He wanted to make the building a place to come to in Toronto. So that was the original concept. Dance, videos, 90 minutes, and people coming to the building.
Monika Deol: The idea was to be interactive and to do it like a club in a club setting. That didn't scare me because I was used to live audiences. When you tour with a rock band across western Canada, you learn how to deal with a live audience. It's very immediate: you have to win them over and you have to feed off energy and connect the dots in a very spontaneous way. I had that experience of walking into crowds cold and trying to make it something just with energy.
Joel Goldberg: The budget of the show was mostly below the line. It was run by internal staff, the directors also worked at MuchMusic, and we had the same production crew. At the beginning it was very tough because people would laugh at us, like, "What's this stupid dance show?" And we'd be out in the streets trying to bring people in. If we saw a good looking couple we'd say, "Wanna come in and dance? We'll give you a t-shirt." It was tough. My job was to really establish the show, establish the formula, and I did that. I think I did it successfully. I worked through a lot of the problems and perceptions that people had of us as a sleazy dance show and then Sharon Kavanaugh took it to the next level.
Sharon Kavanaugh (Associate Producer/Producer): I was working at Citytv at the time. I was working with Joel, and he had started Electric Circus. I was doing camera and shooting field stories for them, but I was really loving the show and really into dance music at the time. Joel and I were friends and still are really good friends, so I was telling him about different tracks I was hearing about and I was helping more and more with the show as Joel was getting busier and busier directing music videos. He started veering in that area, and as I started helping him more with the show he made me associate producer. Eventually Joel left and started his own company and I became producer of the show in 1991.
Monika Deol: When we started, it was an afternoon dance show and, to be very honest, we were sort of the black sheep of the MuchMusic/Citytv family. Most people in the station thought we were a joke and we were a little bit cheesy. We had the budget, technicolor 80's risers—and, I mean, we were a dance show in the middle of the afternoon on Saturdays, which wasn't really ideal. So I kind of figured we'll give it a shot and see what happens and it just kind of built momentum.
Sharon Kavanaugh: The buzz was starting, but it was still pretty small at that point. It was after I started that we really developed the whole street-front thing and put the dancers in the windows and really made it more of a spectacle. We hired a decorator who worked in a club at the time, so we wanted to create that club feeling but still make it unique and accessible through the street front. Even on a day when it was -30, we still had the windows open and people would be standing out there. They used to do a chart on Billboard that was like a video chart, so I used to look on that to see if there were videos we didn't have in our library in Canada. I would try and hunt down the company to see if they would send us a copy. I [ended up getting] some of the cooler videos that were made that we might never have gotten.
Joel Goldberg: The reason Moses, John, and I started it during the day was because we thought the dancers were going to be in the clubs at night. Sharon's tip was we don't want to compete with the dance clubs, but if we do it at night from 7:30-9:00 PM, then we're not going to be competing with dance clubs because no one goes until 10:00 or 11:00 PM. When she moved it to the evening in around '93 is when Electric Circus really took off.
Sharon Kavanaugh: I saw the show going in the direction of true dance music—to really get into the scene of dance music versus playing stuff like AC/DC on the show. It gave it more of a focus. Early on they played a lot of pop and even a lot of rock, and I introduced bringing in DJs. The club scene was so huge and the DJ was such a big celebrity. People that were in the club scene knew that. Electric Circus became a huge stop for the biggest DJs in the world. They would often say to me, "Man, why don't we have something like this in Chicago?" It was a cool stop for them. I ran into Junior Sanchez years later when he was at MuchMusic for something else and he saw me and came running over to say, "Sharon! Oh my god! We all miss Electric Circus so much, it was such an important thing to us as DJs." It gave them a whole different audience that they never had before. [Normally, they] would just play in clubs, but this helped to build their celebrity status as well. It was a good thing for everybody.
Monika Deol: Sharon and I were a very good match, we had a lot of chemistry, we got each other and worked really well together. Our turning point was when we convinced Moses that the show had to go to night time. He was completely convinced it should be a daytime show. We begged and pleaded. I felt it had gone as far as it could go as a daytime show. I thought it had way more potential, as did Sharon. So when Moses was away for two Fridays, we convinced him that, for these days, we would make it a night time show without any interference from him and see what happens. He agreed. So Sharon and I went around to all the clubs during the week and got all the great dancers we could. We told people we were going to night time for these two nights only and the response was huge. Everybody came out, all the fantastic dancers from all the clubs and the rest is history. It was permanently on at night after show that.
Joel Goldberg: With me [the show] was very minimal: I had different performance areas and dance areas, but there wasn't really glitz, it wasn't really art directed. Sharon had that eye; she took a look at it and said, "We could make this much better." After producing the show I left to pursue producing and directing music videos. My next career grew out of Electric Circus: there was a young 18-year-old rap artist called Maestro Fresh Wes. Everybody knows him now, obviously. We put him on the show and he did great. Then we put him on again, during a show with an R&B artist named Stevie D, a Florida-based artist who had a couple of pretty big hits at the time. He saw Wes perform and called his record company in New York and said, "There's this Canadian kid who's awesome." Next thing you know, Wes flew down there and they signed him. Wes and his manager came back to me and were really grateful for showcasing his talents. They knew I was starting to do music videos, so offered to have me produce and direct his first video. That was "Let Your Backbone Slide" in 1989, and released 1990. Fast forward and I ended up doing seven or eight music videos with Wes. We're friends till this day.
Monika Deol: I knew we had something when the producers of Club MTV came up to Toronto and said, "How do you do this live?" Then, a travel show called Rough Cuts came to Toronto and did a special feature on Electric Circus, which ran all over Europe. [One time,] when Will Smith was in town, he called us and said, "I've been watching this show and I wanna come down and hang out.' And we were like, "OK, but you understand it's not a night club? There's no drinks, no food, just people dancing...." So he came down just to hang out on Electric Circus. Shemar Moore, who was on The Young and the Restless at the time, was in Toronto shooting something and again he called us. "Listen," he said, "I really want to come down and hang out on your show." We were like, "Really?!" That's when we realized things were out of control in a really great way, in a really energetic, great way.
Sharon Kavanaugh: The big shows at Canada's Wonderland and Winterlude in Ottawa, I think those were great peaks. We did a show in Ottawa on Parliament Hill and it was cold that day, there was ice on everything, and we were so cold trying to build the set that I thought, Who's going to come out to this? Just a little while before show time we looked out and there were thousands of people out there. I thought, Wow, this is really amazing.
That iconic theme song
Sharon Kavanaugh: That was written by Carl Armstrong (Jet Fuel) he's an amazing guy. He's really into dance music as well and a really musical guy, so he really loved the show. He was working in the creative department for MuchMusic at the time and he just wanted to help out however he could. He went into his little home studio started playing around and created the theme. He was doing some of his own stuff around that time, too. He did the theme, and then we worked on the opening together, he shot the opening that had all the dancers in the window. [That song,] "Hang on Here We Go," was featured on some of the compilations, and on the Much Dance compilation.
Dancing in the spotlight
Joel Goldberg: It became a destination for the dancers before going to the clubs. A lot of them would meet at Electric Circus, maybe go out have a few drinks, and then go to the clubs all night.. [Being on the show] would raise their profile as club dancers.
Sharon Kavanaugh: People would come and stand outside and we'd pull them in. A lot of dancers auditioned or were found in clubs. We went through a few dance co-ordinators that went to clubs and recruited. Some of the dancers that were on the show were go-go dancers in clubs, so they'd bring their friends on, too. It turned into a whole big family thing. Everyone that was there really felt connected and became friends and would all go out to a club afterwards.
Monika Deol: There were times, not often, but it is a live television show, and the audio would just go in the room. So everyones dancing and all of a sudden there's no audio in the room. Which sometimes happens at parties! I would look at the floor director who would say to me, "The music's still up on air," so people watching at home could hear the music. So I'd literally be saying, "Keep dancing, everybody!" And we'd all be dancing away to nothing. This sometimes went on for a minute and a half, but that's what a great sense of spirit there was. There was such camaraderie. We'd all be dancing away as if there was a song on.
Agata Synowiec Green (Dancer 1995-1996): During the show, me and my friend went down to hang out. I was 16 at the time so we didn't have money to do anything else except take the subway downtown. We went out and they were playing a really good song and we started dancing. I was just out on the street dancing by the window. Then the dance coordinator Nadine, she came out and asked if we wanted to come inside. At the end of the show, she asked if we wanted to come back. It was fun, it was live, it was current music. These performers you'd only see at a club, so if you couldn't make it to a club in Toronto you could see them on the show.
Jeremy Ying (Dancer 2001-2003): I was at the mall with some friends (we were all break-dancers) in Scarborough. We were done practice, and weren't up to anything else, that night. One of my friends suggested, "Hey! Let's go down! Let's check out EC!" Friday night, nothing else to do—why not check it out? We joined the screaming crowd near the MuchMusic front entrance. And, of course, having come from breakdance practice, we were still pumped up. We did some dancing, the Electric Circus floor director took notice of us, and invited us back. So we came back the next week. Then again, and for the next three years I was there pretty much every week.
Agata Synowiec Green: I was shy, but when I was dancing I wasn't. I would dance at home. I just loved to dance. [Dancing on the show] paid nothing. It was for the fun of it and the connections. I would be at a club and be approached by people who saw me on the show. It would feel kind of weird. People would want me to get them in. When I tell people I was on the show now they think it's really cool, it brings them back.
Jeremy Ying: Some people were just there to have fun and mingle. Others were really working hard towards become successful performers and wanted exposure, so the more screen time they got, the happier they were! So, for the latter group it was very competitive. EC also showcased a lot of local talent. This is something that I really liked. It gave these up-and-coming artists a chance to showcase themselves and talk to a nationwide audience.
Sharon Kavanaugh: A lot of them became celebrities themselves. They would go to clubs and just walk through the door.
Monika Deol: It was the personification of Moses Znaimer's vision. It was like a mini UN. We had people on that dance floor from everywhere in the world. You could be anybody—if you wanted to come here and be part of this show, you could be, whether you were dancing on a riser or standing outside on the street looking in the windows. People dressed how they wanted, danced how they wanted, and sometimes people weren't even the best dancers. Sometimes people just had an energy or an attitude about them. And that was good, too. It wasn't about being super good looking, it wasn't about the best dressed—more than anything else it was about energy. It was about been spontaneous. There's no point in being super good looking if, when you don't like a song, you turn down the energy volume. The dancers made that show interesting. It wasn't just a video show, it was about these personalities. I think the people on the streets, which we put a huge emphasis on including, that's the sort of stuff you don't get on the internet. You don't get those spontaneous live moments.
What happens on live television...
Monika Deol: We did everything and anything. Our theory was try anything once and if it doesn't work, it's OK, we'll never do it again. Because I was a co-producer, I had the ability to tell the crew downstairs what I think we should do during commercial break. One time we were in a two-minute commercial break and I saw a streetcar coming down Queen West and I looked at the streetlight and said, "By the time that streetcar gets here, that light is going to turn red. We're going to cross the street on camera one for a wide shot, we're gonna pick up camera four on the street, walk onto the streetcar and ask who wants to come dance. We're gonna take them off the streetcar dance across the street and bring them inside." And everyone's going, "Ah Monika! Monika!" And the technician starts counting down, "10, 9, 8....." and were up and we did it! And it worked.
Sharon Kavanaugh: There were so many great moments! When the show was on Saturday afternoons, there was a couple that were just married and had gone into Speaker's Corner. Monika was out on the street and she saw them and dragged them onto the show to do their first dance. Monika was fantastic. She was so good at bringing the show from inside to out, and bringing the people from outside in.
Monika Deol: Another time, there were people that lived across the street in an apartment and they would always kind of hang out their windows and stare at everybody dancing on the street. But they always had this, "Ugh, look at them" look on their face. So one time I went across, opened the door and went up stairs, all on camera. I knocked on the door and said, "Hey! Y'know you guys think your so cool, but if you're so cool what are you doing home on a Friday night watching us?" They were shocked. Sometimes things didn't work, though, like the time I was on the street on Valentine's Day and asking people about their relationships. This young lady starts talking to me about her boyfriend in prison and how she loved him so much and needed to be there for him. I remember kind of going, Ohhh, this took a turn I wasn't expecting... So we kind of had this Oprah moment on Electric Circus. Sometimes things didn't go quite as planned because they were so spontaneous.
The last dance
Sharon Kavanaugh: I wasn't on it right at the end, I'd left to go on a maternity leave. I came back but they were trying to take it in a different direction. They had alternating MuchMusic hosts and were trying different things to make it work. They were experimenting with it, and I took over Much on Demand. Instead of bringing me back and having the idea of how I wanted it, they wanted to take it in a new direction. They were focusing a little less on underground music and were trying to go more mainstream. They were probably trying to bring it back to the way it was originally. It started to go down when dance music took a dip. It kind of went away and everyone was listening to Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy, and stuff like that—people weren't listening to hardcore dance music as much. If you looked at the charts, there wasn't a lot of dance on it. That's when it took its hardest hit and when they ultimately decided to stop the show.
Monika Deol: I was quite sad to hear that they were taking it off the air. No one's done anything like it. I left in 1996 and I left it at the top of the ferris wheel. I made the decision that I was going to step away from work and focus on having a family life for awhile.
Joel Goldberg: It was a product of its time, just like Speaker's Corner. After the internet came in, it took over. Which is cool now because there's completely different ways to do both things. We had Destiny's Child, Pink, Daft Punk, acts that were really amazing for that community at the time. I had Grandmaster Flash on and he's my hero.
Sharon Kavanaugh: I would've wanted the show to change with the time and with what music was doing. I probably would've tried to maintain the relationships with DJs and indie labels in the States and tried to keep the pop side of it connected as well as what was happening in the clubs.
Joel Goldberg: For me, Electric Circus had the perfect timing to go on the air. There was stuff like Soul Train and American Bandstand, stuff that was on before we were born, but there was nobody else promoting dance music on Canadian television. There was a couple radio stations bringing it to life, but with dance music, it's very visual. If you went out to clubs, people were wearing crazy outfits, and the dancing itself was amazing. The timing was perfect for it.
Monika Deol: I see this resurgence with EDM and just how huge these festivals are and it makes me smile because I think for Canadians, Electric Circus was the first show that brought urban music, hardcore dance music, and club music to the forefront. And gave it a venue, it gave it the star treatment. We had Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, every big DJ from Chicago, from New York, from Europe, and local people, Toronto, Vancouver DJs. We gave DJs a spotlight and we gave them sets from four to eight minutes to play as if they were in a club. We made them the stars that we thought they were. They would say to us, "Wow, we can't believe there's nothing like this." We were the first show that really played up DJs and the importance of a fantastic DJ.
Sharon Kavanaugh: It's amazing that of all the things that I've worked on, of all the shows I've done—producing red carpets at MMVAs, live at Much with Katy Perry—whenever I say I used to produce Electric Circus, that's when people go, "Oh my god!" That's what always gets the biggest reaction. I think it was unique. I think the music made people feel good. Watching people dance made people feel good. I think it was a great thing to watch before people went to a party or a club. There was nothing else like it, so I think people really connected with that. It was informative, too. We were giving out information on the hottest club tracks; people were being introduced to DJs that they might not have known; fashion—what people were wearing. One other thing that people really loved about it was there were so many cultural backgrounds in that room and it didn't matter—everybody was just all one thing. That was very unique for Canadian television.
Monika Deol: It was a fantastic moment in my career and my life. What's really nice is all these years later is, not a word of a lie, everyday somebody, a complete stranger says to me, "Oh my god, I used to love that show." All these years later. Everybody says it with a smile on their face. It was a happy time in their life.
Sharon Kavanaugh: They've tried to bring it back a couple of times for one-off specials and it just doesn't feel the same. I would like to hope that it can be recreated because it was such a great thing. They tried to do a special once a month, and if it connected they would start the show up again, But it never quite found what it had. Maybe because it was unique to its time.
Monika Deol: I sure wish someone would do it again. I know my kids would love to watch it. If someone did a one-off reunion show, I would totally do it. It would be fun! Maybe just a cameo....