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A brief history of Lee's Palace

Posted by Benjamin Boles / May 8, 2014

lees palace toronto historyThe colourful mural on the outside of Lee's Palace has been a Toronto live music scene landmark for so long that it's hard to picture what the Annex would feel like without it. The current version actually the third incarnation of the famous cartoon imagery, but the overall concept and feel of the alternative rock venue has changed remarkably little since opening September 5, 1985.

201451-lees-1919.jpgLike the Danforth Music Hall, Lee's Palace was originally a movie theatre built by the Allen cinema chain. However, before the Allen's Bloor Theatre was built in 1919, the property was originally a shoemaker shop, a role that its sister club The Horseshoe Tavern also once played before becoming an entertainment venue.

Also like the Danforth Music Hall, Allen's Bloor Theatre was also designed by Detroit architecture firm Howard Crane, and was originally much more ornate than what you see today. In 1923, Famous Players bought out the Allen chain, and a few years later in 1928 made the first major renovations to the building by building an orchestra pit. It remained an active movie theatre for decades, eventually closing in 1957.

Lees Palace HistoryCity records suggest that it remained vacant for almost ten years, until entrepreneur Ed Silverberg bought it for $129 000 and then spent another $250 000 to convert it into a cabaret called the Blue Orchid. Inspired by drag shows in NYC, the Blue Orchid functioned as a dinner theatre and featured burlesque shows and plays, with all-male casts performing both female and male roles. He also turned the upper balcony level into a second floor speakeasy, which survives today as the Dance Cave.

In 1976, the Blue Orchid was replaced by the Oriental Palace, although it's unclear exactly what kind of venue that was. Legend has it that the building was at one point a bank, but no official record of that appears to have survived.

Lees Palace HistoryWhen Mr. Lee took over the bar in 1985, he also built the multi-level tiers that still exist, giving the club much better sightlines than most similar rooms. He also hired artist Al Runt to paint the famous mural. Runt had previously worked at the venue as a waiter before Lee took over, but was hired more because of his relationship with the proto-hipster scene percolating on Queen West at The Cameron House, which Lee was hoping to capitalize on. Runt later re-painted the mural in 1992, and again in 2010, when the main floor burrito shop was added. While all versions had a similar feel, they were all distinct designs from each other, and featured increasing density of detail with each incarnation.

Lees Palace HistoryThe first bookings at the new alternative club were Handsome Ned and Blue Rodeo, both closely associated with the Queen West scene of the time. That formula of local rock bands and emerging international acts was a hit, and hasn't really changed much since then.

Lees Palace HistoryBookers came and left, but you always knew what to expect when attending a show there, or dancing upstairs at the Dance Cave. The business continued to be owned by Mr Lee until he passed away in 2001, and it is now run by the folks at Collective Concerts (who also run The Horseshoe).

Over the years a huge amount of big names played their Toronto debuts at Lee's Palace, most famously Nirvana's sparsely-attended 1990 gig. Other international bands whose first Toronto appearances were on Lee's stage include Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Verve, Blur and the Magnetic Fields.

Lees Palace Scott PilgrimLee's Palace was featured prominently in the Scott Pilgrim movie, but that's not the only Michael Cera connection. The baby-faced actor also briefly played bass on tour with "doom-wop" indie rock supergroup Mister Heavenly, whose name was directly inspired by the venue.

Lee Palace HistoryLee's Palace has never been a particularly fancy place, and that is likely part of the reason for its success: it's casual and comfortable enough to be a low key spot for emerging local bands, but also boasts a powerful sound system and good sight lines to please touring acts, which gives it a credibility and status that benefits the hometown acts looking to showcase their sounds in a spot more prestigious than the average rock 'n' roll dive.

Lees Palace HistoryAnd of course the Dance Cave upstairs keeps a steady stream of new college students coming through and discovering it each year, keeping the crowds fresh.

Follow Ben Boles on Twitter: @benjaminboles



ear ear / May 8, 2014 at 08:08 am
Loudest show in the history of my eardrums was Lowest of the Low opening for the Hoodoo Gurus back in the foggy drunken 90s at Lee's.
UR OLD replying to a comment from ear ear / May 8, 2014 at 10:00 am
I'm going to say that Bootsauce was loud as all hell too.
A / May 8, 2014 at 10:07 am
You forgot about the Chinese guy at Dance Cave! He is THE BEST!
Truth / May 8, 2014 at 10:07 am
Saw Carcass there years ago & my buddy was so messed up on 'Shrooms he passed out in a chair in the corner of the dance (mosh pit) floor
Cory / May 8, 2014 at 10:09 am
Damn it use to look nice inside. The place looks like a sh1t hole now
blipster / May 8, 2014 at 10:30 am
this is probably my favourite venue in toronto
ear ear / May 8, 2014 at 10:32 am
Lowest of the Low also shot their Motel 30 video there:

We tried our best to get our drunk faces on camera but only managed to get our devil fingers in in the first few shots.
freakscene / May 8, 2014 at 11:53 am
Lee's Palace and The Dance Cave both provided me with some of the best nights of my late-teens and 20s. More recently, I saw Dinosaur Jr. there in 2012, and that was great too. Had the earplugs jammed pretty firmly in that night since they didn't turn the volume down one bit for the smaller space.
Karon / May 8, 2014 at 01:00 pm
Came over from the UK and saw the Headstones play there in June last year.....its was like an oven and one of the best all time gigs I've ever been a Brit I love the place
Teehee / May 8, 2014 at 02:30 pm
Some of the best shows I have ever seen have been at Lee's. The sweaty energy is unparallelled. Plus - great bartenders, great sound system, and toilets that flush.
Mr.A / May 8, 2014 at 02:37 pm
I felt it was a personal milestone when I first played at Lee's. Good times.
TheLee'sKnees / May 8, 2014 at 03:38 pm
Many great memories....Lee's is a legendary venue.
Derek / May 8, 2014 at 03:39 pm
G Love with Ben Harper as an opening act - nuff said!
Daniel / May 8, 2014 at 04:14 pm
Andrew WK, Black Angels, Deer Tick, Fishbone, Bullfrog (with Kid Koala). I love how dingy it is. Never change.
NOT / May 8, 2014 at 05:13 pm
ANTHRAX (with that other singer)
i got to go for free, and couldn't believe i was less then 10 feet away from Scott Ian. totally blown away. not sure if that would be the loudest show i saw there, as Acid Mother's Temple was quite loud.
anon / May 8, 2014 at 06:35 pm
The Oriental Palace was a Chinese restaurant with tradition dancers on stage. Went there for a beer a couple of times when I was at Central Tech. after school with friends.
Much like Cleopatra's on Bloor West was a traditional Arabic restaurant showcase with a live band and belly dancers before it became Long & McQuades.
Cat / May 8, 2014 at 07:47 pm
Pajama Man is a Dance Cave staple!
dan d worldwide / May 8, 2014 at 07:59 pm
Full disclosure - I still do shows there - But the best show ever was 1994 or 95 Yoko Ono & the Plastic Ono Band. I had to burn 30 sticks of incence before Yoko would walk into the club for soundcheck - I'll never forget her shrieking her head off and the band jumping into Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).
Glenda / May 8, 2014 at 09:38 pm
In the late 70's I used to go to the Oriental Palace when it was a dinner dance venue. Linen tablecloths, fine Chinese cuisine served by uniformed waiters - think Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom opening sequence: that's what it looked like. Big stage with giant white sea shell behind the band. Saw acts like the Korean Kittens there. Wow, it was awesome - you'd expect to see Don Draper and Roger Stirling sitting at the bar drinking martinis!!!
Sally / May 9, 2014 at 02:00 am
Opening band Smashing Pumpkins playing to a half-empty house before people started arriving to catch headliners Buffalo Tom. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion... with 10 people in the audience. Keanu Reeves sitting at the bar all by himself when he was in town shooting Johnny Mnemonic, everyone studiously ignoring him/respecting his privacy. Can't remember what band was playing, but it wasn't very crowded... probably a local band, remember thinking it was cool that he opted to go there for a drink and catch some live music instead of some fancy place. Tip of the iceberg of my Lee's Palace memories. Best sightlines in town.
chris emmink / May 9, 2014 at 10:27 pm
Thanks Ben that was great! Playing there with The Sadies and Treblecharger was probably the pinnacle of Grand Planet's short lived existence.
stephen dee / May 10, 2014 at 02:30 pm
Most memorable show at Lees: Cop Shoot Cop
Ed / May 11, 2014 at 08:59 am
So many great shows at the best T.O. venue ever...too many to mention!!! The Sadies...Dr. Dog...Felice Brothers...don't ever change...this old man loves great dingy rock n roll bars!!! ...being able to get right up to the stage along with the college crowd...priceless!
Rob Cazes replying to a comment from Sally / March 10, 2015 at 04:33 pm
God, do I ever remember that night. I was very pleased to meet the Band & have some drinks with them sitting in a booth, specially James & D'Arcy who were very friendly. The drummer was crying at the bar because no one was there... Really, there was no one there...

I used to live practically at Lee's Palace. Played there many many time, with One Free Fall (Pre Rusty) with Zap City, The Remains... I even lived with Creg (manager) for a while on Delaware.

We used to start up the nights at the CAve, then it the booze can (after hour party places).
Sneaky Dee's was pretty hip, while on Bloor / Bathurst 24hrs. We'd fill up the stomach before crashing... early morning.

Best times I ever had living in T.O for sure.

Ann replying to a comment from Cory / July 20, 2015 at 06:42 pm
Yeah... it was very nice inside when I used to go.. from mid 80s to early 90s! Beautiful bar and tables with seating areas everywhere.. but yet very casual and comfortable, and a great stage! I hadn't been there till summer of 2014 to see a friend's band play, and I couldn't believe what they did to the place! It looks like a black hole inside. And the seating on the sides of the walls.. you have to jump up to sit! I was disgusted and very disappointed!
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