The Matador will rise again. For real this time.
After spending eight years in a frustrating and costly battle to keep the 102-year-old former dancehall at College St. and Dovercourt Rd. open as a public venue, owner Paul McCaughey has finally received a zoning certificate from the City of Toronto that will allow the rechristened Matador Ballroom to operate as a “place of assembly,” an “eating establishment” and a “custom workshop.” The space’s inaugural event will kick off the venue this weekend.
The Matador Ballroom is seen in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 12. (Cole Burston / Toronto Star)
It’s not quite the out-and-out live-music spot he’d like to have in there, but it’s a start — a start that’s come after numerous false starts in the past, including previous zoning reviews that specifically stated the room could be used as an “entertainment place of assembly” or concert hall before subsequently being rescinded.
The goal is to have the space up and running as an event hall with a small restaurant and wine bar at the front, with windows that open onto Dovercourt, and a small production facility that can function as a studio or a screening room downstairs, by the time the Matador’s long-fought liquor license kicks in March 15.
That will be a bit of a “horse race,” McCaughey concedes, but at least he no longer has to wait on his restoration plans for the historic room with a sprung dancefloor that has played host to countless musical legends over the years, from Johnny Cash and Stompin’ Tom Connors to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
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Paul McCaughey, owner of The Matador Ballroom looks up at the light coming from the skylights of the ballroom. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star)
He’d like to see the doors fully open in time for Canadian Music Week next spring.
Before, I felt like I was staring across this great chasm. Now I feel like I’m leaping forward across that great chasm,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “We pretty much knew from last January on that we’d won this, but we needed to do the zoning certificate to say with absolute certainty that we had it … Finally we have it and this is for sure. We have it now.”
All that stands in the way of the Matador Ballroom’s grand reopening now is getting a stack of building permits approved to complete the construction that all but ground to a halt while the venue’s future was tied up in legal and bureaucratic limbo.
Although it won’t be reborn as a concert hall, per se, McCaughey does hope to host the occasional musical event there under the auspices of a new, not-for-profit arts-and-cultural society to be headquartered at the Matador and known as Revolution West.
What do you think?
“I’ve spent really the better part of eight years with lawyers and with city departments and with politicians trying to get this place open. Now I know a lot more. I could have circumvented the process by about five years with what I know now. I could advise anybody on zoning now,” laughed McCaughey.
“In May of 2017 they said we needed to be rezoned. It was our decision at that point that we would go to court and fight it, that we’d put it in front of a district-court judge because we did not feel we were getting a fair shake from the zoning department. In putting that case together, we really developed an airtight argument, something that could pass in a court of law.”
The Matador Ballroom is seen in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 12. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star)
Opposition to the Matador’s reopening has mostly come from those in the neighbourhood that remember the hall as one of Toronto’s most notorious after-hours boozecans, albeit one that operated relatively unscathed a mere block from a police station under the watchful ownership of the late Ann Dunn — from whom McCaughey and his brother bought the building in 2010 — from 1964 until 2007.
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McCaughey has done everything he can to appease those complaints, completely soundproofing the ballroom — which served as a dancehall for the 182nd Overseas Battalion during World War I — reducing the planned capacity from 800 to 650, and hiring a crowd-control engineer to ensure that lineups will get in and out of the front and rear exits within 45 minutes during events. His diligence eventually won him the cooperation of Ward 18 councillor Ana Bailao, who went from opposing the initial liquor-license application to, as a representative from her office put it on Wednesday, working with McCaughey “to help move the file forward.”
Paul McCaughey, owner of The Matador Ballroom is seen walking around the current stage area of the ballroom in Toronto. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star)
There will be an event at the Matador Ballroom this weekend. The FIVARS festival of “virtual and augmented reality stories” moves in from Sept. 14 to 16 and artistic director Keram Malicki-Sanchez “couldn’t be more thrilled” to bring such futuristic technology into a room with more than a century of living history contained within its walls.
“I come from both a musical and an underground-arts background and I remember that era in Toronto when there were a lot of speakeasies and after-hours parties,” said Malicki-Sanchez, adding that no one in the neighbourhood need worry about being disturbed by his festival.
“The coolest thing about a VR show is everybody sits quietly and is totally absorbed inside of a blindfold, so there’s no noise. It’s quieter than a library.”
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner
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