While NOW celebrates its 25th birthday in style, another Toronto arts institution marked its 25th anniversary with a little less fanfare.
"We had a huge party for our 20th five years ago," says the Cameron House's Cindy Matthews. "But this year we wanted to keep it a little low-key, just for friends and family."
The Cameron House has always been a family affair. Launched by Paul Sannella, his sister Anne Marie Ferraro and their best friend, Herb Tookey, in the fall of 81, the beloved Queen West watering hole almost didn't happen.
"Herbie and I had been checking out raw warehouse spaces to buy out at Sorauren and Dundas," recalls Sannella. "I was flipping through our real estate agent's book of listings and saw that the Cameron was available. We were nearby, so we went over and sat down with all the old timers staring into their draft and thought, "This is a no-brainer!'"
The owners of the nearby Spadina Hotel had just killed its arty Cabana Room (seems punk bands from the suburbs sold more beer), and the local demimonde of painters, performance artists and gallery types needed a new hangout. The Rivoli was also about to launch a block away. The timing was perfect.
The Cameron quickly became an incubator of the multidisciplinary arts. Musicians and artists mingled with fashion photographers and the theatre crowd in a scene that was equal parts New York's Chelsea Hotel and CBGB's.
Long before Queen and Spadina was a fashionable condo address, artists could live, create and work there. Video Cabaret and the Hummer Sisters' Deanne Taylor (who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor against Art Eggleton in 82 from the three-storey saloon) and partner and History Of The Village Of The Small Huts playwright Michael Hollingsworth have been residents since day one.
Residencies of another sort have been a factor in the Cameron's considerable success. Iconic cow-punker Handsome Ned was the first to do a weekly Saturday matinee in the boozer's cozy back room. Molly Johnson followed with Blue Monday's cocktail hour of torch songs. The Leslie Spit Trio, Blue Rodeo, Gordie Johnson and Jane Siberry all got their start there playing regular gigs.
"Jane gave you a card that she stamped every time you paid the cover," recalls Sannella. "Pay three and your fourth time was free. That's how she developed the loyal fan club who followed her everywhere."
The residencies continue today. Cindy Matthews first performed at the Cameron in 83, and soon after got a job there slinging suds. After a few years as manager, she became a partner in 89 when Tookey left. Her country combo the Cameron Family Singers have been performing in the front room every Saturday afternoon for the past 10 years.
"There isn't a stage, so there's no separation between the band and the audience," says Matthews. "It's like playing in somebody's living room."
Technically, it is their living room, since both Matthews and fellow band members husband Jack Nicholsen and Mad Bastard Kevin Quain all live upstairs. Bassist Sam Ferrara exhibits his sculpture in the space.
The Cameron itself has become a work of art. When city bylaw inspectors declared the former flophouse an illegal building and tried to evict everyone in 84, Sannella commissioned Fastwürms' Napoleon Brousseau to fix 10 giant ants (ten-ants, get it?) to the building's exterior in protest. That same year, the Cameron's facade was painted blue and gold in honour of a visiting Pope John Paul II, whose motorcade was to drive past the gin joint on its way to City Hall.
"I wrote to the local archdiocese and asked if the Pope would bless the Cameron since he was going by anyway," laughs Sannella. "They sent me back a really indignant letter saying this was the most outlandish request they'd ever received. However, years later, someone visiting the Vatican bought us an official papal blessing in a tacky gift shop, so we got one eventually."
And after 25 years, here's ours, too: God bless the Cameron.