Features Articles Making New History at the El Mocambo

Making New History at the El Mocambo

El Mocambo revival photo gallery
Article by: Amanda Macchia

If you’ve spent any time in Toronto, you’ve probably come across a generously-sized neon palm tree blaring its glow across Chinatown.

And that can be said about your parents’ generation. And maybe even their parents’.

If you were an A-list Hollywood movie star in the ‘50s, and even if you were an African American escaping slavery in the 1800s, you’re probably also familiar with the El Mocambo. That’s how deep these roots go.

The El Mocambo was first built and opened as a music venue in the 1850. It was originally part of the Underground Railroad, acting as a safe haven for escaped slaves. Almost a hundred years later, it became one of the first establishments in Ontario to gain a liquor license, attracting the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

But its heyday is what people really remember, when the club was at the forefront of local and international rock and roll and blues from the 1960s to the early 1980s at a time when discos and DJs were making it difficult, and even impossible, for venues offering live music to stay afloat. In that course of time, the venue hosted everyone from American blues legends Fats Domino and Muddy Waters to local acts like Downchild Blues Band and Ronnie Hawkins to international rock and roll stars including Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Costello, Blondie, U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and The Ramones. And, as everyone will always remind you, The Stones played there twice - once while the Prime Minister’s wife, Margaret Trudeau, infamously kept one Stone on each arm at a gig in 1977.

And then what happened?

The new Ryerson-produced documentary, “Under the Neon Palms” asks just that.

The short film traces this history until its richness approached a dead end in 2001. New ownership had the venue neglected physically and culturally, and even the most in-tune musicians were unsure if the El Mocambo was still open (at least as a music venue). But then, last year, Cadillac Lounge owner Sam Grosso and Sudbury 99’s Marco Petrucci bought the legendary club for 3 million dollars with hopes of revitalizing the building and getting the bands back on the legendary upstairs stage where they belong.

As part of an El Mocambo revival party, this doc will be screened privately on Thursday February 28 at the El Mocambo. The screening will be followed by an early performance from Toronto bluesman Danny Marks (of Edward Bear) and will feature a packed bill of young Toronto bands that represent the rock and roll spirit that has been lost at the venue in previous years: Modern Superstitions, Michael Rault, Actual Water, The Costanzas, and After the Empire.

The new history-making begins at eight o’clock and cover charge is seven dollars (for any screening inquiries, contact kailah.bharath@gmail.com). Until then, take a look at the gallery below featuring the El Mocambo at its current best and during its recent renovations.