By Keith Sharp
`Save Hugh’s Room’ has become a mantra as William (Grit) Laskin is rallying a group of supporters intent on resurrecting this venerable Toronto music landmark.
Laskin, a renown guitar maker, co-founder of Borealis Records and instigator of the Canadian Folk Music Awards, had been a constant patron and supporter of this 200-seat Toronto venue which Richard Carson launched in April 2001 in memory of his late brother Hugh Carson.
Set up as a dinner theatre which catered to folk, blues, jazz, roots and other diverse forms of music, Hugh’s Room became an annual port of call for the likes of Ian Thomas, Alfie Zappacosta,Valdy and Rik Emmett, Alan Doyle and Marc Jordan, the venue of choice for a constant stream of artist tribute performances as well as top class artists like Judy Collins, Midge Ure (Ultravox) and Mike Peters (The Alarm).
So when Carson announced January 8th that insolvency was forcing him to close the doors, Laskin felt he needed to launch a movement to save the club.
“I must have launched about 25 of my artists at that club,” noted Laskin following a meeting with lawyer Brian Iler and a group of supporters intent on reviving the club. “Just based on the reaction of artists who are upset with the club closing, we know this club is too important to lose. Richard provided a wonderful venue. It has a solid reputation around the world; in the USA, the UK, Europe, when top performers come over here, Hugh’s Room is where they want to play.”
Laskin reports that the venue is not declaring bankrupcy or is in any form of receivership. “It’s purely a situation of Richard having to carry the full financial weight of the venue on his shoulders. It simply got to a point where he couldn’t take it anymore,”
Having staged it’s initial meeting, the group is assessing future plans knowing that time is of the essence if they hope to re-launch and re-vitalize the venue. “It is premature to talk about timelines for a relauch,” Laskin added. “Everyone involved is doing their homework to proved a few different streams of things that would have to happen to move forward.”
Laskin recognizes that the venue’s washrooms are in need of renovation, the upstairs `Green Room’ is too small and the lack of wheelchair access to the venue needs to be addressed. “The ideal solution would be to own the facility but considering Toronto’s real estate prices, that’s not likely to happen. And moving to another location is not an option considering how much money Richard has already invested in the project.
He also wonders if the venue’s practice of operating as a dinner theatre needs to be re-examined. “The reality is that when you served dinner to 200 people as part of the ticket price, you can only make money on that one person. Even small restaurants have a turn over of two or three people per night. A question we have to ask is, are people coming for the food or the entertainment or both”
Recognizing that it is pointless to throw good money after bad, Laskin and his group are determined to make every effort to see if the club can operate under a different structure. “We obviously want to keep Richard involved but I think we do need to look setting up as a non-profit operation run by a group of people,”
As someone who has manufactured guitars for the likes of Jessie Cook, Tom Cochrane, k.d Lang and the late Stan Rogers (who he also performed with), actively promotes diverse music through his Borealis label and nurtures folk music through his Canadian Folk Music Association, Laskin is committed to making sure Hugh’s Room is resurrected as an on going hive of activity for live music and does not become just a historical footnote like The Gasworks, The Edge, The El Mocambo, Larry’s Hideaway and other great Toronto landmarks long gone.
“There is a need for Hugh’s Room to exist and there is a strong will from us to make it happen and I am confident we will succeed,” noted a confident Laskin.