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Toronto’s immaturity costs us the magic of the Matador | The Star

You can’t put your arms around a memory, the song tells us, and this is true.

It’s still nice to have a keepsake in your possession, however. Something physical, something concrete. Something you can touch. A memento. The box in which those memories were gifted, as it were.

The Matador was — is, I should say, since it seems premature to pronounce the 103-year-old ballroom at 466 Dovercourt Rd. completely dead just yet — a catalytic “container” for the memories of countless Torontonians. Hazy memories, a lot of them, to be sure. But memories nonetheless. And those memories have value.

When it became common knowledge this past week that the Matador was sold last Saturday to a “private buyer” with connections to a prominent local condo-development company after a heroic, nine-year effort on the part of former owner Paul McCaughey to reopen the one-time Dovercourt Assembly Hall and First World War-era dance hall as a public venue of some sort, a lot of those Torontonians with fond memories of the place were understandably baffled, saddened and worried for its ultimate fate. We know what happens to sacred spaces in this city when they’re sold: they become condominiums or a drugstore. Or both.

Maybe the Matador will be fine. Maybe the new owner is a dreamer, too. I’d love to talk to him about his plans. But I know for a fact there’s an offer already in from someone on at least one other property along the adjacent block to the immediate south on College St., and when one takes into account the amount of real estate the Matador “footprint” occupies behind that strip — kitty-corner to the busy West End YMCA — it’s easy to make assumptions. And if it goes the way everyone assumes it will and the Matador and everything around it are subsumed two or three or four years from now into a stylish and shapely new four- or five-storey luxury condo, that’ll be a bummer. That’ll be the city of Toronto’s failure.

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Not the City of Toronto’s failure, to be clear, although the City of Toronto’s ceaseless bureaucratic stalling and dithering at various levels without a doubt contributed to a substantial measure of the “death by 1,000 cuts” that eventually sank McCaughey’s bid to get the Matador up and running again. After purchasing the property in 2010 with his brother, former CIBC president Gerry McCaughey, from the late Ann Dunn — who, bless her fiery heart, owned the club from 1964 until 2007 while raising five children in an apartment upstairs and somehow managed to keep the place afloat for years as the city’s most infamous after-hours boozecan exactly two blocks north of the Toronto Police Service’s 14 Division headquarters — it took six years for McCaughey to procure an actual, legitimate liquor licence for the property in February of 2016 and then another two-and-a-half to win a zoning certificate in September of 2018 that would finally permit him to operate the optimistically rechristened Matador Ballroom as a “place of assembly” with a small “eating establishment” open onto Dovercourt at the front, and a “custom workshop” that he hoped might be used as a recording studio or screening room downstairs toward the back.

He had given up on the live-venue dream sometime before after reducing the proposed capacity for the room from nearly 900 to 650, soundproofing the hell out of it, pledging strict 11-p.m. closing times for “school nights” and midnight shutdowns on Friday and Saturday and eventually hiring a crowd-control engineer to formulate a plan that would get 650 patrons in and out of the front and rear exits within 45 minutes when events were held and still getting nowhere — nowhere — with the handful of NIMBYs in the vicinity drumming up fear and loathing in the neighbourhood through dubious “residents’ associations” fretting about a dearth of on-street parking spaces and predicting schoolyards and front lawns strewn with discarded condoms and syringes.

Still, you dared to dream. The light at the end of the tunnel was in sight. It was, as I often put it to McCaughey, a “no-brainer” that this historic venue would eventually come alive again. He heard that from a lot of people. Surely this place where the troops of the 182nd Battalion came to party on the sprung dance floor before being shipped overseas to fight in France in 1917, where Stompin’ Tom Connors and Loretta Lynn and Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang and Blue Rodeo and the Sadies would come to play over the years, where Johnny Cash once drank the night away, where Leonard Cohen shot the video for “Closing Time” — this place where so many memories were made — was worth preserving.

Nine years in limbo is a long time for any investor, even a family member, though. So while it was disheartening to learn just a couple of weeks after it looked like all would finally be right with the Matador that McCaughey’s brother wanted to sell rather than wait another four or five years to recoup the millions already sunk into the building and the battle to open its doors again, it was understandable as a business decision. There was even a flicker of hope when potential buyers with ties to another prominent live venue in town came knocking but … no. That’s not the way things work out in Toronto, a city that’s scared to be a city.

Toronto, you need to realize you’re a city. You wanted to be a city forever and now that you are an actual big city, you’re paralyzed at every turn. Your fear of being a city killed the Matador. The City of Toronto’s kowtowing to a few residents unable to admit that they live downtown in a big-city neighbourhood — my neighbourhood, by the way, so don’t start hitting me with letters again about how I wouldn’t want the Matador down the block if I lived in the neighbourhood — killed the Matador. Your immaturity killed the Matador.

Again, maybe it’s not dead. The familiar Matador sign, shaped like a bowling pin from the building’s time as a bowling alley, and the famous “wall of signatures” from the old backstage dressing room and the battered upright piano Dunn once bequeathed to McCaughey’s daughter were all part of the deal to buy the place, so the new owner would appear to be intent on preserving at least some parts of the hall’s history. But as the totally rebuilt El Mocambo — which missed yet another promised reopening date this past Canadian Music Week — and the hole in the ground that is to be the new “old” Silver Dollar have demonstrated, “preservation” can take on strange forms in this city. The Matador likely won’t be the Matador.

One of the nice outgrowths to this saga, at least, is that in covering this story for the past few years I’ve made a friend in Paul McCaughey. I knew the Matador was to be sold a few days before most people and got to take a last, lingering walk through the venue the Thursday before the axe fell.

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The Matador’s famed sign in 2002.Ben Rayner's daughter, Polly, plays around with Ann Dunn's upright piano at the now-doomed Matador Ballroom.

I brought my daughter, just 2 1/2 years old, along because it was important to me to show her a piece of her neighbourhood’s history in its historic form so that someday I can point to the Matador sign hanging next to a glass block of condos or whatever it becomes and say “You know, when you were very little we took you into the old Matador …” and tell her some stories about the place that she can maybe tell her own kids when they’re walking through the neighbourhood years from now. Polly was fascinated with the place and didn’t want to leave — we had to drag her away from the Dunn’s old piano — and, frankly, I didn’t want to leave, either.

I understand that city streets are, by nature, impermanent landscapes, but there’s a magic to a space like the Matador that has survived amidst that impermanence for more than a century. McCaughey certainly felt that magic or he wouldn’t have given nine years of his life to the Matador. I’ve felt that magic whenever I’ve walked in there in recent years. My little girl felt it when she walked in there two weeks ago. If we lose that magic, our city becomes even less magical.

Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner

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