Toronto says goodbye to legendary gay bar Zipperz
Imagine walking into a dimly lit downtown cabaret bar. There's a man at a piano belting out show tunes while several others sit around him staring up into the night. You grab a drink and every single person in the room is quietly checking you out. You've just walked into their Cheers, their home away from home and you're totally welcome, but who the hell are you?
Trying to find something to stare at other than your glass, you spot a thick, red velvet curtain in the back corner of the room.
Walking over to it you start to hear a distant thumping, but it's when you pull back that impossibly heavy curtain, that a scene from an '80s gay cruising flick reveals itself.
Flashing lights, stainless steel dancefloor, and a crowd of gay men and women with their hands and cares in the air. This is Zipperz, there is nothing like it in Toronto, and it's now closed because of yet another condo development.
The Church and Carlton bar opened as Buttons in 1998 by a couple friends of current manager Harry Singh. Singh, a ball of endless energy who talks a mile a minute, filled with village histories and late-night tales, worked with them, but eventually took over the bar in 2000 when the original owners were running the place into the ground.
Despite the sign outside showing a man's crotch with a button fly on it, Singh changed the name of the bar to Zipperz. A bar he then ran for 16 years.
"From what I see on Facebook, people feel lost, like gay refugees," Singh laughingly says. "They're missing the retro night and that regular watering hole feeling. I had very loyal customers here from day one and it was them, the daytime crowd, who kept me in business."
A campy cabaret bar during the day and into the evening with piano men James Quigley or Kevin Wong, Greg Beer or Miss Goodwill, Zipperz attracted an older crowd.
Before the days of hookup apps and Netflix, it was a spot for older (mostly) men and women to hang out and chat with each other, watch a classic drag queen and flirt with the odd straggler who would stumble in from somewhere on Church.
When Singh tookover, he transformed the back room into what is now known as Cellblock, the dark, chain-walled dance area where the village-famous retro nights with DJ Alain. (Sidenote, the big black thrown in the backroom was a set prop from The Last Emperor that Sing snagged in a movie set sale years back.)
"The retro nights were a big thing because Boots [old gay bar on Sherbourne Street] had just closed their retro nights when I tookover when I saw there was a niche for a more mature crowd and market," Singh says.
"I would go to certain bars and I felt like somebody's grandmother, and everyone was waiting for the mothership to come in. I wanted to go to a place to go where I recognized the music and felt comfortable, where the older crowd felt welcome. It was their own age group, there was no attitude, the bartenders would talk with them."
Singh adapted to the times and had nights for Drag Kings, Queens, industry nights, TICOT evenings, Miss Gay Toronto and legendary Pride parking lot parties in the back of the bar.
Otherwise known as The Yard, the back area had a wading pool, which Singh called his tropical oasis. The place also stood out as a rare downtown space with a big dancefloor that could handle over 100 people.
After 16 years Singh ran a bar that became a second home to many. It was campy, carpeted and comfortable and was often forgotten on The Village strip because of that.
"It's a good feeling to leave, it's also bittersweet," Singh says. "You nursed something for 16 years and then are forced to let it go ... you have no choice. It's not like it was a decision I made. I will miss the village, I've lived there for the last 30 years. But I'll be coming back."
Singh hasn't lost the drive to create cool, much needed spaces for the LGBT community. He's looking into new spaces.
"The landlords are not the same as they were 20 years ago, and people are not going out the same way they used to because of social media," he says.
"Especially gay men don't need to go out to gay bars anymore to meet people. You can meet them all over the place. Back in the day gay bars were the only places you could go meet people. things have changed, you have to go with the times."
Photo of Zipperz by Greg's Southern Ontario via the blogTO Flickr pool.
Join the conversation Load comments