A brief history of the Silver Dollar Room
The Silver Dollar is one of the few remaining traces of Toronto's early days of rock'n'roll and rhythm & blues. While its future is still up in the air, it may end up being one of the first bars that City Council tries to save rather than close down. City staff are recommending heritage protection, and council have rejected the proposed student housing high rise that was slated to replace it, pushing the matter off to the OMB to decide. Even if it does end up getting demolished, the developers plan on rebuilding some version of the club in its place, which means it's possible that the Silver Dollar could continue hosting blues and rock shows for another 50 years.
The first buildings erected at the site were a few small cottages that were part of a market garden owned by Robert Milligan, which were demolished in 1882 to make way for a three floor YMCA. In 1900, John J. Powell opened the Waverley Hotel (the second "e" would be dropped from the sign in the 80s for unexplained reasons), and for the next 50 years it would be run by his family. Over the years the hotel was expanded a few times, but it wasn't until 1958 that the Silver Dollar was constructed as a lounge for the hotel, which was no longer operated by the Powell family by that point.
Opening on January 1, 1958, the Silver Dollar was also known as the Buck, and originally featured Tommy Danton and the Echoes as the house band. By the mid-sixties, the hotel and bar had become much seedier than the upscale establishment it had started life as. Martin Luther King Jr's killer James Earl Ray is believed to have stayed at the hotel and frequented the bar while on the run from the law, although he later claimed he'd never heard of the place.
Other reports of violence and crime associated with the place litter the newspaper reports of the time, and the Silver Dollar began operating as a strip club. However, live musicians still provided the tunes, and it was a key incubator for the city's emerging jazz and blues musicians. Sax players like Jim Heineman, Bobby Brough, and Glenn McDonald would often socialise and jam there, and performing musicians were given special discounts on rooms.
By the 70s, the cheap rents and downtown location attracted artists and writers, including the "People's Poet" Milton Acorn. Acorn lived at the hotel from 1970 until 1977, and even kept a writing room there until 1981. He is said to have frequently changed rooms while I lived there, as he was paranoid that the RCMP were surveilling him. A plaque commemorating his stay still exists.
The rest of the 70s and 80s saw the hotel and bar continue to struggle through rough times. Authorities raided the place and laid 233 charges in 1978 for selling liquor to intoxicated patrons, and another bust in 1987 led to 16 people arrested for prostitution-related offenses.
The opening paragraph of Elmore Leonard's 1989 novel Killshot immortalized seedy allure of the bar, which was also featured in the movie version:
"Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that goddam Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face, and not be drawn in there."
That iconic sign was briefly covered up in 1992, when new operators changed the name to Jonny Vegas, but that didn't last long. The interior murals were redone in 1994, which is also around the point when Downchild Blues Band bassist Gary Kendall took over-booking. Kendall's talent buying helped the club maintain and solidify its status as a key blues venue in the city, and he continued in that role until parting ways with the club in 2010.
While it's best known for blues, over years the Silver Dollar also began hosting rock, bluegrass and even punk shows. Long-running indie showcase institution Elvis Monday took up residence there for a while, and garage rock bands like the Deadly Snakes played there regularly.
The basement of the hotel was turned into an after hours dance club, which was initially called Buzz, but later turned into the Comfort Zone. The Zone's all-day Sunday parties are infamously debauched, and can feel like a time capsule of the original rave era. In some periods it has also hosted live music, but it's primarily known for DJ music and marathon parties.
The rock'n'roll side of the bar began to be even more of the focus in 2003, when legendarily colourful booker Dan Burke began throwing shows there, mixing his nights in with the bluegrass and blues shows throughout the week. Over the years he's become the primary booker, and has turned the Silver Dollar into key venue for the garage rock scene. For bigger events and festivals, the Comfort Zone is sometimes used as an auxiliary space, and there's a staircase connecting the two venues.
Over the years the Silver Dollar has played host to an impressive range of talent, especially considering how small the room is. Blues legends like Bobby Bland and Curley Bridges have played there (the latter recording a live album), but it was where indie bands like Death From Above 1979 played many of their early shows. International stars like Bob Dylan and Levon Helm have graced its stage, as well as Canadian icons like the Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo.
For at least 15 years the club has been owned by David and Elsa Yarmus, and the building itself has been owned by the Wynn Group since the mid-80s. The Wynn family hopes to demolish both the hotel and the bar to build a 20 floor privately run student housing complex, which has predictably come up against neighbourhood opposition from residents concerned about the height, as well as being worried about the impact of a large concentration of low cost non-permanent housing.
Councillor Adam Vaughan has described the proposed development as "effectively a high-rise rooming house", and Toronto city council agreed, rejecting the proposal. The Wynn's are appealing to the OMB though, so the Silver Dollar and Hotel Waverly may still be facing demolition in the future. In the meantime, attempts are being made to recognize the Silver Dollar's historical importance and designate it for heritage protection.
There does not appear to be any similar concern for the hotel itself though, or for the low income long term tenants that currently call it home. It's also unclear how heritage protection could actually ensure that the Silver Dollar continue to operate as a music venue. Nevertheless, the interest council has shown in saving it indicates that politicians are beginning to appreciate the cultural importance of live music venues, even those that are a little rough around the edges.