Toronto Then & Now: The Colonial Tavern to The Massey Tower

Plaque for the Colonial Tavern music venue on Yonge Street in Toronto

In the 1940s and 1950s, Yonge Street was the city’s hotspot for nightlife and entertainment wits jazz venues like the Brown Derby, Friar’s Tavern, Le Coq d’Or and the Colonial Tavern. Opened in 1947 at 201-203 Yonge Street between Queen and Shuter, the Colonial was nestled between two historic bank buildings across from what is now the Eaton Centre (built in 1977.)

Colonial Tavern, 1978. Photo: Combs, Erin. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Just a few of the legendary musicians who performed at the Colonial Tavern include Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman at the Colonial Tavern in 1973. Photo: Beaty, Keith. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

During the 1950s, the Colonial was a massive music hotspot. However, a fire on July 24, 1960 led to a two-year rebuilding effort. When it reopened in 1961, it was a smaller two-storey structure. By the mid-1970s, it transitioned into a discotheque and later rented its basement to punk bands in the late 1970s.

The Colonial was sold in the late 1970s and began featuring a different sound with more rock performances, and a different vibe with exotic dancers. The surrounding Yonge Street strip started to decline during these years, with many clubs and bars closing.

Gino Vannelli at the Colonial Tavern in 1975. Photo: Darrell, Dick. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The murder of a shoeshine boy in 1977 prompted efforts to clean up the street, but the vibrancy of the past decades didn’t return.

The Colonial eventually closed in 1987. The City had purchased the property with intentions to create a theatre complex connecting Massey Hall and the Elgin Theatre. However, due to funding issues, the City Council voted to demolish the Colonial in 1987 and create a parkette, which was never built.

Today, the site is occupied by The Massey Tower complex with residences and retail and office space. It provides extra backstage space for historic Massey Hall on its northeast corner.

This black stone plaque shaped like a record in front of the tower is inscribed with 125 legendary musicians who performed at the Colonial. Originally installed in 1996, it was temporarily removed a few years later. In 2020 it was successfully recovered and is now back on display serving as a reminder and celebration of Toronto’s enduring musical legacy. 201-203 Yonge Street, Toronto.

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