Saturday December 13th 2014 and 410 Sherbourne Street Toronto is rocking. Now known as the Phoenix Concert Theatre and formerly known as the Diamond Club during the venue’s heyday from 1984 until 1991, one of this city’s few surviving rock music venues is packing them in as Moe Berg reunites Pursuit Of Happiness and is joined on a bill with Hamilton’s Teenage Head and Burlington’s The Kings to mark the finale of Q-107 Radio’s Jingle Ball 13 Days of Christmas promotion.
Yes, Toronto’s major classic rock radio station has excessively promoted this festive event to cap John Derringer’s annual pre-Christmas fund-raiser but it’s exactly the type of promotion new venue owners Lisa Zbitnew, Zeke Myers and Tony Grossi expect to execute moving forward as they plan to revive the Phoenix and inject new life back into this storied facility.
“Let’s face it, if we booked Teenage Head and The Kings into the Phoenix we might be able to pull a couple of hundred people at best,” noted Zbitnew who along with venue manager and booking agent, Randy Charlton met with Music Express over lunch to discuss her ambitious plans for the venue. “But to have Pursuit of Happiness reunite, tie in a radio promotion and we can make a special event out of the concert to attract a decent crowd.”
Zbitnew, whose impressive music industry resume includes functioning as VP of Marketing for Sony Music and Capitol-EMI, later President of Sony/BMG; has worked as manager of both Leonard Cohen and Cyndi Lauper, functioned as Canadian President of the War Child charity organization and as a former part-owner of the Sound Academy venue, decided to take over the Phoenix lease from the Liberty Group in October 2014.
“You know that commercial, he liked the product so he bought the whole company,” noted Zbitnew. “That’s how I felt about taking over The Phoenix. The former Diamond Club was always one of my favourite clubs and it is great that I can help restore the venue’s former lustre.”
Knowing that Sound Academy was due to suspend operations to undergo major renovations and that other prime Toronto locations such as The Guvernment/Koolhaus and Scarborough’s Rockpile East have all ceased to operate, Zibnew was on the look out to re-invest in a suitable, previously-established location.
“We looked into the Sonic Temple but their 888 Yonge Street address supposedly has some lucky connotation in the Chinese language so the IT company that runs the place, won’t sell,” explained Zbitnew. “It was important culturally to maintain these venues. I was looking for a place that had some historical significance and you couldn’t find any place that had more historical significance than the old Diamond Club.”
Charlton, who had been brought in from his old gig managing The CN Tower Sparkles disco, to operate The Diamond Club in 1984, has fond memories of the former venue and is looking forward to help restore the club’s reputation as a launching pad for new talent plus a venue that will give established bands a showcase as well as draw major touring attractions.
“The way things are these days, bands can’t rely on record sales to earn a living, they have to play live but there isn’t much of a club scene for them to sell tickets,” acknowledged Charlton. “We want to work with these bands but create special events that will allow them to play before a well-promoted turn-out.” Part of these plans include special Diamond Days attractions that will feature bands that have previously played the venue as well as other forms of music including “Legends of Punk” and “Legends of Hip Hop” that again will be executed as special events with a strong promotional backing.
Formerly a German Cultural Centre, the 410 Sherbourne Street location had a short life as the Village Gate Dinner Theatre when new owner Pat Kenny tried to emulate the success of his New York City entertainment spots, The Cat Club, The Bitter End and Kenny’s Castaway venues. The renamed Diamond Club became one of Toronto’s hottest dance clubs and once Charlton took charge, the venue became a hot spot for developing new talent.
Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip both found The Diamond Club to be pivotal venues for their career start-ups. “Blue Rodeo used to open for Kris Kristofferson and he used to tease them that they’d better have a record deal by the time he returned – and they did,” informed Charlton. “And the Hip drove in from Kingston just to play for gas money.”
A wide variety of bands and artists graced the Diamond Club stage of various musical persuasions be it dance, pop, blues, rock, punk or country. If Charlton thought you deserved a shot, he’d give it to you.
“I remember Steve Earle being on my radar,” reflected Charlton. “The general feeling was his “Guitar Town” record was too Country for rock radio but I booked him to play the club, I was able to get Q-107 to give him airplay and his record company rewarded me by giving me a gold record.
Charlton’s biggest coup occurred March 17th 1987 when David Bowie chose the Diamond Club as the first of 10 world club venues (others included New York City, London, Paris, Rome and Sydney Australia) to promote his upcoming Glass Spider global concert tour later that year. With a band that included guitarist Peter Frampton, guitarist Carlos Alomar and bassist Carmine Rojas, Bowie performed a short live set at the Diamond Club that was transmitted by Much Music around the planet.
“The response to that performance was unbelievable,” enthused Charlton. “I received postcards from band members from all over the world, saying they caught the performance on television. No type of partnership or promotional deal was in place with Concert Productions International. But after the Bowie performance, CPI’s Arthur Fogel decided he did want to work with us and we established a mutually-viable relationship”.
Duran Duran must have gotten wind of Bowie’s set because they included the Diamond Club in their club itinerary, performing at the venue October 31st 1988 as part of their Secret Carnival Club tour, a bootleg album of their set was recorded for posterity.
Music Express Magazine even utilized the venue for their 1987 and 1988 Awards events, featuring the likes of Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, The Jeff Healey Band, Platinum Blonde and Robert Palmer but the venue eventually ran out of steam and lease problems eventually led to the venue closing its doors in 1991 only to be redesigned and reopened later that year as the Phoenix Concert Theatre.
“The Danforth Theatre is bigger (1,500 seats) but their hours of performance are dictated by residential noise restrictions, they can’t go past 11 pm.,” noted Zbitnew. “This is an on-going problem with any potential new venues. It caused serious problems for us at the Sound Academy with people on Toronto Islands constantly complaining about the noise”.
By refreshing the Phoenix and bringing in a variety of corporate sponsors, Zbitnew is excited about the potential to break new talent as well as provide a venue for existing artists. “There’s a lot of great, new talent out there, it’s just that more difficult for people to find out about them,” she noted. “It is our goal to package together shows that allow these bands to attract an audience, create the exposure and then progress to become either an opening act on a major show or come back as headliners.”
Zbitnew also envisions The Phoenix being utilized as a live recording facility for new artists and is in the process of working with famed record producer/artist Daniel Lanois to launch Uprise FM, a live music streaming service for indie recording artists.
Ever the philanthropist, Zbitnew is also spearheading the Unison Benevolent Fund, retailing bracelets made from guitar strings for $20 to raise funds for an emergency relief foundation that provides much needed revenue for stressed-out members of the music community. “We are trying to raise over $1 million dollars to create a fund that helps out members of the music community who don’t have full health coverage or in other ways find themselves in financial distress,” noted Zbitnew. “It’s a sad fact of life that a lot of former musicians don’t have adequate pension funds and many are in dire need of help.”
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