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Death and rebirth of the Matador

December 29th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Despite the many offers he has received, Paul McCaughey will be keeping the Matador’s iconic sign at his new community living space. Plans for the building include a live music venue, a restaurant, a fitness centre, and perhaps a Russian steam room. Beth Macdonell/Gleaner News.

Exclusive to the Gleaner
By Beth Macdonell

It has been years since the last mickey of rum was served and the last band performed, yet those who frequented the legendary booze can will never forget the Matador (466 Dovercourt Rd.).

After showcasing more than 40 years of some of Canada’s greatest country and folk music, the venue narrowly escaped the indignity of becoming a parking lot. But with new ownership comes a new lease on life.

Paul McCaughey, 52, founder and master teacher of T’ai Chi at The Rising Sun School of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (908 Bathurst St.) took ownership of the historic venue in March 2010.

Speaking exclusively to the Gleaner about the future of the building, the Annex resident said it is being renovated into a multi-purpose, mixed-use space focused on active community living. “Its mandate is all living arts,” said McCaughey, who has taught T’ai Chi for 30 years. “Fitness, food, music, lifestyle, [and] education.”

Wellspace, the name of the new enterprise, was chosen based on the idea of the well, “a place that can be resourced and draw a deeper sense of living.”

In addition to his T’ai Chi accomplishments, McCaughey is also an expert in Russian Martial Arts where he teaches at Systema Downtown (927 Dupont St.), and is a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

McCaughey said he’s been looking for the right space for his plans for the last decade. “The old Matador is the perfect place.”

Although still a work in progress, McCaughey said Wellspace is set to open by the end of 2011, and will have three main components. There will be an event space in the 4,000 square foot ballroom. It will be equipped with a stage, bar, and a catering kitchen, able to accommodate musical acts and private gatherings. There will also be a restaurant at the front at the mezzanine level and a 1,200 square foot dance studio in the basement, available for classes and workshops—ranging from pilates, to dance, to t’ai chi. “We’re looking at activities that are non-equipment… that really only require using your own body.”

McCaughey said he also has plans for an artist-in-residence type program and would like to one day incorporate a spa and, possibly, Russian steam rooms, where “people can come to the waters.”

In 2007, when the Matador closed its doors, the city tried to expropriate the property, have the building torn down and made into a parking lot. After the community rallied against the move and well-known voices, such as author Michael Ondaatje and members of Blue Rodeo, spoke out against the plans, the decision was defeated in council.

McCaughey said he’s working to preserve the building’s past. Despite many offers, he is keeping the iconic Matador sign. He will also be keeping the signature wall in the ballroom, which carries the signed names of some of North America’s most celebrated country and folk singers who visited the Matador, including Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, K.D. Lang, and Stompin’ Tom Connors. “It’s 45 years of history,” he said, adding that there must be at least a thousand signatures on the wall.

McCaughey is also planning to pay tribute to the building’s original use, a dancehall for soldiers during World War One. Open until 1920, McCaughey said it was likely the last dance soldiers had before going overseas. Recently, he found an old ticket in the crawlspace of the building from one of these dances, which had a chaperon’s name written on it.

Today, the space is still as unique as it is beautiful. “The floor is hundred-year-old sprung hardwood maple. There are two skylights, ceilings are 26 feet high. It’s hard to find a ceiling that high in Toronto that isn’t a church,” he said.

Charmaine Dunn is the daughter of Ann Dunn, the long-time owner and operator of the Matador, who passed away in June at 81. She said the family “couldn’t be happier” about the building’s new prospects. “I definitely think Paul has the creative energy to do something great with that space. I was very pleased that he was the purchaser of the building,” she said.

Ann opened the Matador in 1964 with the desire to create a music venue. Charmaine said her mother fell in love with the building immediately, especially the archways, which reminded her of Spanish architecture, which inspired the venue’s name.

At the time it had been renovated into a bowling alley. When Ann ripped out the lanes, the original hardwood dance floor was revealed.

“She didn’t want to let it [the Matador] go,” said Charmaine, now in her 50’s. “I mean she held on to it into her 80s, that’s almost her entire life … I think she was pretty heartbroken that it was the end of the era. Truly, her whole life was that venue.”

“My mom used to be all dressed up to the nines with glitter,” she continued, reminiscing about the old days. “My favourite act was when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in town doing a show. Tom Petty didn’t come in, but the Heartbreakers sure did.”

Charmaine said her mother’s driving force was her love of music, and she was committed to promoting local acts. Musicians, bartenders and other late-night revellers would come to the after-hours spot and dance the night away.

“The saddest thing about the club is that my mom never really received the recognition she deserved for her contribution to the whole country music scene in this country,” said Charmaine. “She really did promote Canadian country music and that was her whole thing.”

Jason Wydra, 38, a music promoter and Queen and Bathurst resident who used to frequent the venue, said the closing of the Matador was sad. “It had a real party vibe,” said Wydra, remembering his first visit back in 2001. “It was very dark in there and there was a band playing.”

Oddly, he said it was at the Matador where he first heard the song “Sweet Caroline.”  He said the feel of the building was very nostalgic. “You could really relate how people threw down in old days honky-tonk style. It’s not a vibe I’ve experienced anywhere else. I think Toronto has really lost something.”

Despite the loss, Wydra said that Wellspace sounded interesting and is looking forward to seeing it open.

“I’m hoping it’s an example, a model for urban renewal,” said McCaughey. “The greening of a building—a place to study, eat, live, learn, and celebrate, all of these things.”

Tags: News · General

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jake Schabas // Dec 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    What a great story! This whole battle was completely off my radar. From its near death as a parking lot to its reuse as a dance space, restaurant and studio? It doesn’t get much better than that.

  • 2 Beth Macdonell // Jan 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you Mr. Schabas! Wellspace taking over the old Matador is certainly a lot more interesting than a parking lot. I believe it will be very welcome in the community when it opens.

  • 3 What Happened here // Dec 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    I’ve just come across this story and thought, wow, so powerful if it was true. What happened to the master plan of this multi-use building that was supposed to add to the community? Did the city win….are we heading towards more asphalt, pavement and room for the ‘codone’ sufferers to practice their craft/affliction.