At Leslie: The Duke
At the corner of Queen St. E. and Leslie, Sweet Daddy Siki has several dozen devoted fans belting out Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Blondie and Roy Orbison to his well-stocked karaoke machine.
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR
It's a wet and dreary fall Saturday afternoon at the corner of Queen St. E. and Leslie.
But not inside the Duke of York Tavern, where retired wrestling great Sweet Daddy Siki has several dozen devoted fans belting out Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Blondie and Roy Orbison to his well-stocked karaoke machine.
They are amazingly good, good enough to make you get up and dance.
It's only 3:30, but it's already happy hour in this landmark three-storey red brick Victorian inn, where travellers would rest their horses on the old Kingston Road.
The Duke's been here 141 years, and it hasn't been touched much since it first opened. It's certainly not been gentrified and trendified — like the Drake and Gladstone hotels on Queen W. — despite its location in the hot hood of Leslieville.
On the other side of the expansive bar, watched over by a portrait of Elvis Presley, some folks shoot pool while others try to make their $5 domestic pints last all day.
Upstairs, the inn's 18 rooms are all occupied; some tenants have been here for decades.
In the tiny open kitchen, chef Dimitri Karipidis is preparing the daily special: cabbage rolls, French fries and "nave ben soup" — all for $8.99.
Cassandra, a social work student at York University who has been slinging beer and burgers here for four years, loves it: "I enjoy seeing the regulars. I know everybody on a first-name basis."
Business is back, almost three years after a fatal shooting. New girl in town, Bailey Zaveda, 23, was killed by a stray bullet while standing outside having a smoke. Her (now-convicted) murderer had wildly fired a gun in a fight with other customers inside the bar. Zaveda was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After that tragedy, local city councillor Paula Fletcher got the proprietors to paint over a giant mural of a rifle-toting John "The Duke" Wayne that loomed over Leslie St.
"Oh yeah, business suffered," recalls owner George Politis, whose former partners bailed after the incident. "Rough times. Rough times. But now it's coming back."
That's thanks, in part, to Big Daddy Siki — real name Reginald Siki — who has been deejaying and doing the karaoke gig here every week for 20 years.
"When I first came here," says Politis, "I used to go see him fight. He's a beautiful man."
Almost as beautiful as when he would lift opponents over his head and propel them round in his trademark "airplane spin." They used to line up to see him at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1960s.
Now he sits behind his karaoke machine, speakers stacked up on a table covered, improbably, with an old crocheted granny square afghan, and spins the music.
He still has his shock of white hair.
"I'm 27 years old," he insists when asked his age, launching into an explanation of how he keeps his hold on the ring. He's been working with the recently retired Canadian wrestling superstar Edge (Adam Joseph Copeland) and was one of the featured "legends" on WWE Smackdown two months ago.
But mostly now, it's about the music. He not only plays The Duke, but also tours rest homes for seniors.
"The reason I do that," he explains, "is because those are the same people who used to come and see me in my wrestling days."
But here, the crowd is surprisingly young — or at least younger than you would expect.
Take, for example, the 40-something Ella Peters and Dougie Hughes, who does a credible version of "Folsom Prison Blues."
"We spotted Sweet Daddy Siki at Value Village and then we Googled him," says Hughes. "That's when we started coming here.
"When I was a kid, this guy was huge."
The couple comes every Saturday afternoon to take turns at the mic.
"It's relatively calm now," says Peters. "It's not like late night, when there are a lot of drunken antics."
Asked if they would like to see The Duke get duded up, they insist they would not.
"We love the core group here," they say. "We don't want it to change."
Karaoke with Big Daddy Siki at The Duke, 1225 Queen Street East at Leslie Street, Saturdays 3:30-7:30 p.m. No cover. No minimum.
Sweet Daddy Siki sings karaoke at The Duke. The former wrestler — real name Reginald Siki — has been deejaying and doing the karaoke gig here every week for 20 years.
AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR
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