EASTBOUND: On Aug. 3, Hugh’s Room Live held a celebration for invited guests to check out its new space. (Courtesy venue)

Shows Resume at New Spot in Toronto’s East End

Beloved Toronto music club Hugh’s Room Live has found a new home in the city’s east end.

The nonprofit committee that manages Hugh’s Room Live purchased a church property at 296 Broadview Avenue that will allow it to operate for the first time since a 2020 rent hike forced it from its home at 2261 Dundas Street West.

The purchase of the Broadview Faith Temple Church allows a strong musical tradition to continue, with shows expected to resume in September.

Founded in 2001 by Richard Carson in memory of his brother Hugh, a musician who died of cancer, Hugh’s Room has host­ed some of Canada’s most iconic mu­sicians, including Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan, Dan Hill, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The McGarrigles, and Sylvia Tyson, as well as international gi­ants like Al Stewart, Jesse Winchester, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Jeff Daniels, Tom Rush, Albert Lee, Maria Muldaur, David Lindley, Richie Havens, Fairport Convention and countless oth­ers.

The dinner theatre-style Hugh’s Room, which held no more than 200 seated, offered a sophisticated, better-than-bar menu and booked world-class talent.

Around 2015, the high rent at 2261 Dundas made it impossible for Carson to continue, but the venue’s patrons and players wouldn’t let it go. They rallied and helped raise $112,000 to help reopen the venue as Hugh’s Room Live. The new era kicked off April 22, 2017, with a concert by Connie Kaldor. In 2019, it received charitable status.

For the next three years, more than 60,000 music fans came through the doors to see over 615 shows, according the venue’s business plan.

Then, just as COVID hit in 2020, Hugh’s Room lost its home.

Now, with considerable brainstorming, outreach, fundraising and perseverance, it secured a new space on the opposite side of the city in an underserved but growing area that already boasts venues such as Danforth Music Hall, Opera House, History and Redwood Theatre.

The new spot, with around the same capacity as the original, was designed by local architect E.J. Lennox (Old City Hall, Casa Loma) and built in 1894. There is a kitchen on the lower level that needs to be upgraded, a balcony and green room.

On Aug. 3, Hugh’s Room held a celebration for invited guests to check out the space.

VenuesNow spoke with alternate board chair Jim Thomas about the task of finding a home and what was required to achieve and maintain charitable status.

BIG LOVE FOR SMALL ROOM: A performance is staged at Hugh’s Room on Dundas Street in Toronto. (Courtesy Hugh’s Room Live)

VN: Hugh’s Room had a really good thing going since the early 2000s. The venue was unique, a sit-down room with dining service.

Jim Thomas: It was a place that people would just say, “It’s Thursday night, let’s go to Hugh’s Room.” They wouldn’t even have to know what was going on. They would know they would get dinner and a good show. Anything from blues to jazz to singer-songwriter. We filled a niche, a gap that existed in Toronto. The gap was emerging artists wanting to perform in an intimate listening venue, where people would actually not talk and would be up close and personal to the artist. It gave artists a real lift when they knew that they were going to be performing on the same stage as legends like Murray McLaughlan and Judy Collins. For  two decades, up until 2017, as a for-profit organization, Hugh’s Room filled that gap, which is why people wanted to bring it back after Richard Carson was unable to keep it going.

The testament to how much people loved Hugh’s Room is the fact that very shortly thereafter, a group of people decided that they weren’t going to let it die. They were going to find a way to reopen it and keep it going with the same characteristics, the same features that people had come to love in the for-profit Hugh’s Room. They turned it into a not-for-profit organization.

It’s unique to be a to be a music venue anywhere that is nonprofit. What makes it even more unique is that people got it going in 2017, and then they applied for charitable status and got charitable status.

What do you have to offer to get and maintain that status?

We had to demonstrate that we were providing a social good. And the social good was our commitment to putting on excellent shows and providing the arts community in Toronto, the music community in Toronto, with a wonderful venue that would that would put on shows, and, to a great extent, keep promoting the North American canon of music, so that people would get to continue to hear the blues, the jazz, the singer-songwriter, the kinds of music that we did. That’s how we got the registered charitable status. It is very unique to get that and we’re so proud of it.

So then everything’s back rolling, running, and then of course the dreaded pandemic hits. Was vacating that space COVID related?

No. We had a lease at 2261 that was coming due coincidentally, at the end of March 2020, which was exactly the time that COVID hit. We had already started looking around for other venues to rent or perhaps own because we knew that we couldn’t afford the rent. The rent was going up significantly between the rent and the taxes, we were not able to keep this going. And it also taught us a lesson, which is the only secure way to have a music venue is to own it. We closed our COVID. So those two things coincided.

Meanwhile, you were putting on interim programming in venues across the city — 3030 Dundas West, El Mocambo, Revival, Tranzac and The Paradise Theatre. Why?

To keep the name alive and to let people know that we’re coming back.

We went after CERB [Canadian Emergency Response Benefit] and all of the opportunities that government was providing to keep us alive. General manager Mary Stewart, who is responsible for booking shows, we were able to keep her salary reasonably intact through some help from government. And, over the last couple of years, we were able to get a lot of grant money from government to allow us to continue to put on shows, once we were able to reopen doors in 2021, using money from FACTOR and Ontario Creates.  [They also received a federal government loan and small business grant from the Province of Ontario; they received no support from City of Toronto.]

How did you find this new building on Broadview Avenue?

We have a wonderful person on our board, Laura Fernandez, who’s the on-air host of Cafe Latino on Jazz FM, but she’s also an excellent real estate agent.  Laura was doing a lot of the work with us to help us find places, so she connected with the owner and about a year and a quarter ago, we put in an offer to purchase 296 Broadview. It was conditional on being able to find the money.

How much?

It was C$4 million [US$3.22M]. We had thought that we would get about half of that money from Canadian Heritage, from cultural spaces [The Canada Cultural Spaces Fund]. We had worked hard to put an application together that would do that. At the end of the day, they did not give us that money, and so we weren’t able to follow through and purchase the building.

It’s a designated heritage building?

Yes because it was designed by a famous Toronto architect, E.J. Lennox, who also designed Casa Loma and Old City Hall. It’s an amazing building. Unfortunately, it’s painted white. We hope to change that at some point to go back to its original red brick color. But yes, it’s a historic building and that was probably a reason why we were able to keep the conversation going with the owner because it’s not as easy to sell as a non-designated building.

I attended the big media preview of the venue last May with speakers and performance by Julian Taylor. What happened between then and now?

If I recall correctly, the offer was conditional to June 30th of last year. And we couldn’t pull it off. Everybody went away pretty unhappy about that. Then, the owner actually put it on the market and it didn’t sell and it didn’t sell, and we kept holding our breath and I kept making applications to government for money. And we kept going around talking to people about how would we put the money together. We had the idea of getting some friends of Hugh’s Room to purchase long-term bonds. We raised a large amount of money through long-term bonds. We had a fairly successful fundraising campaign that raised over half a million dollars. And we had one person come forward with a significant mortgage, and the vendor, ultimately, agreed to give us a mortgage. And there’s a church group that uses the place now twice a week and has been for a long time, and they gave us a mortgage. So between all of that, we were able to come up with the money to close.

What will you have to do to attract international artists and higher profile Canadian artists to the room?

As a guy who’s been around a lot — I used to be a deputy minister in the Ontario government, and I have a consulting firm — I can say that this is one of the most exciting times that one could ever have in one’s life. It is the one opportunity you have to design something, to have a vision that is only limited by your imagination.

We want to come back as more than just a performance hall. We want to come back as a community hub. We want to be coming back as an organization that provides supports to artists, that maybe has a recording studio in the basement, that has a lot of things that would be make us way more than just a performance hall and would become a focal point for people from across the country, and around the continent, to say, “When you’re in Toronto, don’t miss Hugh’s Room,” because Hugh’s Room has this incredible set of things happening where artists mentor artists and there’s a speakeasy.

And so we want to get ourselves on the circuits where people play in places like Chicago and Boston and New York, and they used to do Hugh’s Room, now they can come back and do Hugh’s Room. They couldn’t do it when we didn’t own the space because we were at the mercy of the people renting us their venues as to which nights we would get. For example, the last year and a half we’ve never gotten a Friday or a Saturday night show. We’ve put everything on on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And so this is huge that we’re able to get ourselves onto the circuit. We’re hoping that one of the things that we may be able to offer to artists is tour booking software that would allow them to plan tours. And the tours could be across the city, across the province, across the country, across the continent. The fact that we’ve got this place we’re going to be fixing it up is a huge addition to the music scene, way beyond Toronto.

Also, we are seeing ourselves as an organization that ultimately is going to be having more than just one location. So, for example, we are entering into a partnership with Rosedale United Church to have it as a satellite place. They’re renovating a room to turn it into a small theatre that we can use and we’re putting on a Gordon Lightfoot tribute there in October because that was his church.

Will you have the money to do all these upgrades?

We’re working very closely with various government departments to come up with grant money to help us do things like basic renovations to make it work. For example, right now it’s not accessible and that’s a serious commitment on our part to make it. So we’re looking for naming rights and things like that that would give us money to help us discharge some of the debt that we have.

The old venue was more “adult,” sophisticated styles of music. Will you expand your booking policy?

I would like to think that we could expand it. I don’t think anyone will want to see Hugh’s Room as a heavy metal place, for example.  I wouldn’t rule out anything that is pleasing to the ear.