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12/20/2011

At Leslie: The Duke

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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

 

Antonia Zerbisias Feature Writer

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.

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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

 

12/19/2011

At Kingston: Greenwood Off Track Wagering

Oakland Ross Feature Writer

They race horses, don't they?

As a matter of fact, they do. Just not here — or not anymore.

Here is a hulking, brick-walled edifice that still dominates the corner of Queen St. East and Kingston Rd., overlooking a prosperous residential development where there used to be a racetrack.

For more than 100 years, until it closed down in the mid-1990s, this was the site of one of Canada's premier testing grounds for equine velocity, latterly known as Greenwood Raceway.

A portion of the old grandstand remains, and it now contains (a) a gymnasium, (b) a multi-screen cinema, and (c) what now goes by the name of Greenwood Off Track Wagering.

A racetrack it is not. Still, it's a place that allows people to have fun and lose money, both at the same time, which is pretty much what a racetrack does.

"Sometimes I come with $200," says Ronald Coley, 71, a retired bulldozer operator originally from Jamaica. "I don't go home with nothing."

Not that he seems to mind.

"I come to gamble," he explains.

Losing money is just part of the deal.

"We see horse racing as an entertainment product," says Jane Holmes, a spokesperson for Woodbine Entertainment Group, which owns the Greenwood facility along with several other related properties in and around Toronto, including the Woodbine and Mohawk Racetracks — places where parimutuel betting involves the presence of real live horses.

At Greenwood, you get television screens, more than 400 of them, arrayed in rows around a massive indoor arena that could almost be mistaken for the world's largest airport departure lounge — with seating for 1,000 and a total capacity of 2,500 — except that no one seems to be departing.

Besides, the carpeted floors of an airport departure lounge are not littered with hundreds of discarded white ticket stubs, all tossed away by horse-racing enthusiasts after they got another bet wrong.

There are many ways to make bets here — wagers to win, place or show, as well as more complicated affairs known as daily doubles, exactors and triactors, to name just a few of the many ways to risk money on horses.

And not just Canadian horses, either.

In addition to local racecourses, the Greenwood facility receives video feeds from tracks across North America, not to mention Australia, South Africa, and Dubai.

For serious handicappers — those who crave complete quiet as they pore over copies of the Daily Racing Form, diligently comparing the records of jockeys, horses, trainers — Greenwood has a special area set aside with private desks, each equipped with its own miniature TV screen.

Other bettors favour less formal ways of dropping a bundle.

"We have people who bet on a horse because they like the name," says Holmes. "I don't know how well they do."

Take a guess.

Most of the patrons at Greenwood on a chilly autumn Sunday afternoon are male, most closer to retirement age than to the age of majority.

Usually the place is curiously hushed, but that can change very quickly when the hard-charging field in an important race rounds into the homestretch on TV.

Suddenly, at least some of the bettors are up on their feet, some beating their legs with rolled up copies of the Racing Form, almost as if they were jockeys themselves, flashing their whips during the frantic free-for-all to the finish line, where the mounting excitement suddenly dissipates into a long sigh of collective disappointment, mixed with groans and the odd discreet profanity.

But soon it's on to the next race, and the next chance to win. Or lose.

"I probably be down," says Coley, the former bulldozer operator, estimating his fortunes on the day so far.

But he isn't here to get rich. He's here to gamble.

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For more than 100 years, until it closed down in the mid-1990s, this was the site of Greenwood Raceway. The racetrack is gone, but it's still a place that allows people to have fun and lose money.

OAKLAND ROSS PHOTO

 

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At Greenwood Off Track Wagering, more than 400 television screens are arrayed in rows around a massive indoor arena.

OAKLAND ROSS PHOTO

 

11/17/2011

At Spadina: The Horseshoe Tavern

Niamh Scallan Staff Reporter

It's 10 p.m. on a weeknight, and Milo & the Bad Lads are on stage at the Horseshoe Tavern, tuned up and ready to go.

"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the legendary Horseshoe Tavern," lead singer Milo McMahon, 24, bellows into the microphone before the smattering of people in the dark room at the back of the bar.

Above the garage-band trio hangs the age-old, red-and-gold "Horseshoe Tavern" sign. Around them, epic rock 'n' roll nights past take shape in photographs, set lists and yellowing newspaper clippings plastered on the walls.

Blue Rodeo lead singer Jim Cuddy calls the Horseshoe Tavern "the Mecca for music," housing the "embryonic Canadian roots scene."

On a street that continues to be home to numerous rock 'n' roll landmarks — including The Rivoli and The Cameron in the west and the Opera House in the east — the 'Shoe is the most storied.

It's the second Horseshoe gig for Milo & the Bad Lads, a feat the emerging band take in stride as they strike the first chord of "Feel Alive" on the same stage once graced by The Rolling Stones, The Police, the Tragically Hip and countless others.

"I try not to think about it too much or I'll forget the chords," McMahon says, admitting the pressure his band — which includes Chris Canton on bass and James Miller on drums — feels when taking the stage.

From the sidewalk, the 'Shoe is a reminder of Queen St. W. past. Once attracting artists and students with cheap rents and cheaper beer, the stretch has become a hub of chic boutiques, chain stores and upscale coffee shops.

Flanked on either side by a cellphone store and a closed-down lounge, the Horseshoe Tavern — near the corner of Queen and Spadina — is as unassuming as it is iconic.

"This is a bar with floorboards soaked with beer and walls held together by gig posters," says Alan Cross, a Toronto-based music writer and former host of 102.1 The Edge's "Ongoing History of New Music."

It's all part of the charm, 64 years in the making.

Toronto entrepreneur Jack Starr bought space in the building at 368-370 Queen W. in 1947. He turned it into an 87-seat tavern and called it Jack Starr's Country Roots 'n' Rockabilly Tavern, serving food and occasionally hosting live music.

In the mid-1950s, Starr converted the original bar into a 500-seat live music club featuring appearances by country sensations Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Loretta. The music on offer at the venue evolved from blues and folk in the 1960s to rock and punk in the 1970s.

The punk-rock phase proved near disastrous, and the owners were forced to shut down the establishment in 1978.

Before closing the doors, promoters Gary Cormier and Garry Topp threw a now-infamous goodbye party dubbed "The Last Pogo," a punk-rock showcase featuring The Scenics, The Cardboard Brains, The Viletones, Teenage Head and others that ended in a riot when police tried to shut down the show.

Ron Sexsmith:


Kenny Sprackman:


Joel Plaskett:


Jim Cuddy:


Starr, who retired in 1976, returned in 1983 to encourage Toronto businessman Kenny Sprackman and three others —including Dan Aykroyd — to buy the club.

The once-thriving music club was resurrected — and so began the "modern era" of the Horseshoe Tavern.

Under the direction of Jeff Cohen and Craig Laskey, the place brought in local, emerging talent. Teaming up with 102.1 The Edge radio host Dave Bookman for "Nu Music Nites," the club provided newer bands the chance to perform early in the week. Weekends were reserved for bigger acts.

"It's a room that gives young bands a chance," says Joel Plaskett, who has played the 'Shoe with former band Thrush Hermit and more recently, Joel Plaskett Emergency. "It's a really incredible place and an important place in

Cuddy remembers Blue Rodeo's first few gigs at the tavern in the 1980s.

"People pay attention to the Horseshoe . . . it's a tastemaker," he says. "It was the first evidence that Canadians really loved their own music."

For now semi-retired co-owner Kenny Sprackman, it's all about those "magic moments."

"You never know what's going to happen there," he says.

Asked about a favourite memory, Sprackman describes the time in 1989 when The Band was playing on stage and Robbie Robertson —who had not played with the group for several years — walked in the back door and got on stage.

As for Milo & the Bad Lads, even a second gig at the Horseshoe is thrilling.

Says McMahon: "This is the most standout, epic place we've played."



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'Milo and The Bad Lads' members Milo McMahon, left, Chris Canton, right, and James Miller, It’s the second Horseshoe gig for the band, on the same stage once graced by The Rolling Stones, The Police, the Tragically Hip and countless others..

AARON HARRIS/TORONTO STAR

10/28/2011

At Ossington: Wicked Club

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For Club Wicked owners Shlomo and Aurora Benzion, the club is an extension of the "open-minded relationship" they've long shared.

CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR

Sandro Contenta Feature Writer

The hedonistic Wicked Club is, of course, all about sex.

On the club's top two floors, where the "playing" goes on, couples can balance on a swing or tie their partner to a cross. They can have sex in a room with a two-way mirror. More discreet action can be had at the "glory hole" booth, or in private rooms, while those in an expansive mood can frolic on six big mattresses lined up side by side.

For owners Aurora Benzion and her husband, Shlomo, the club is an extension of the "open-minded relationship" they've long shared. It has also given them a window on evolving sexual mores.

"Before, it was very rare to see single ladies coming," Shlomo says. "Today, I'll have groups of 10 girls coming for dinner or to celebrate a divorce. Some of the girls are under 25, and you didn't see that years ago."

"Women are a little bit more mature sexually and more self-confident," Aurora says. "They're going to go to a club like this to explore their own sexuality without having to compromise with a male partner. They can just do it on their terms."

Shlomo and Aurora came to Toronto from England in 2000 and opened a lingerie store. They found the club scene a tad boring, so they started throwing invitation-only sex parties at the back of their shop. As the flesh fests became popular, the couple first moved them to a farmhouse in Woodbridge, before opening a club on Richmond St. in 2004, and moving it to the corner of Queen and Brookfield, just steps from Ossington, in 2006.

The main floor is a cabaret and dining area with much titillation but no nudity. For a $60 fee, couples can move to the play areas upstairs. (Men without a female partner are not allowed upstairs on Saturdays, unless they are a couple's "boy toy.")

The Benzions say most customers are between 25 and 35. About 40 per cent are from the GTA, and the rest from the United States or other parts of Ontario.

Some come to swap partners, some for one-night-stands, some for a threesome, some just to watch and others to simply wear sexy outfits.

"There's a couple that likes to come and find a single guy," Aurora says. "But afterwards, they don't want to have anything to do with him. They just want to go home, and I assume that during the week they have their normal ma and pa life, and this is their secret indulgence on the weekend."

For couples in good relationships, the upper floors add a little spice.

"Then you have the ones where one partner is doing it for the other, to keep him or her faithful," Aurora says. "And there are those on the brink of a divorce who think it's going to fix their marriage."

In those cases, she adds, the upper floors are rarely a good idea. "This will just send (a bad relationship) faster towards its death.

"We could be marriage counsellors. People ask us for advice all the time."

"What we learned about relationships is that it's all about communication," Shlomo says.

That can especially be important on the upper floors.

"Sometimes the problem is between the couple — one continues to play and the other one's had enough and they don't know how to communicate, they don't have their little signals in place, and then they're arguing — ‘Oh, how come you didn't stop when I stopped?' " Aurora says.

The club has simple rules: no means no, and no touching without permission. Aurora says some couples add one more: "Whatever happens at Wicked stays at Wicked."

For their part, the Benzions stay out of the games.

"I run everything professionally," Shlomo says. "I can't be thinking of whether people are having a good time and everything is going well, and at the same time I have my pants down."

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The club has simple rules: no means no, and no touching without permission. Aurora says some couples add one more: "Whatever happens at Wicked stays at Wicked."

CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR

Queen 501 streetcar: the longest, wildest ride

Jim Rankin Staff Reporter

The 501 Queen car courses from the Long Branch Loop in the west to the Neville Park Loop in the east — and back again — 24 hours a day, picking up and dropping off the city's lifeblood.

People shuttling from hundred-year-old homes to downtown jobs in gleaming towers. From homeless shelters to soup kitchens. From art studios and galleries and clubs to cafés and bistros and late-night poutine. From a detox centre to a fresh start.

On the Toronto Transit Commission's 501 Queen route, life can begin and end.

One can enter this world at St. Michael's Hospital or St. Joseph's Health Centre, or die at either facility and be mourned at one of a number of funeral homes along the line — or in a seedy bar where the beer comes cold, served in pitchers, before noon..

Life, like the streetcar, comes and goes. And it carries on.

The Queen route, which extends from just short of the eastern border of Mississauga to near the western extremity of Scarborough, can be infuriating. The press of too many passengers. The short turns. Unmannerly cellphone users. Occasional driver-rider spats.

The car, on a bitterly cold or rainy day, that seems to never come.

But with its 501 Queen streetcar project, the Star celebrates the 25-kilometre line — not just one of the longest streetcar routes in North America, but arguably the coolest public-transit ride on the continent.

The series is not so much about the ride as the areas it serves. The people who live and work along it. The history. The issues.

The route, though it ducks south where Queen ends in the west and hugs the Queensway and Lake Shore Blvd., is known by many simply as the Queen car. By some, the ultimate Red Rocket route. By others, the Vomit Comet.

However it's perceived, the 501 Queen streetcar showcases an amazingly varied urban landscape. Hop aboard.

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The 501 Queen car courses from the Long Branch Loop in the west to the Neville Park Loop in the east — and back again — 24 hours a day

ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR