The front entrance of Lee’s Palace, which was once adorned with various posters illustrating the venue’s history, is now home to Big Fat Burrito. Though initially appalled that a piece of Toronto history would be altered in such a manner, after a night at the Dance Cave, my moral quandaries were quickly dispelled by my pragmatic stomach. After all, if America’s manifest destiny is to come north and steal our water, then Mexico’s is filling our pacifist bellies with tortillas and guacamole.
I stood in line with a friend of mine, discussing the merits of the remodelling.“At least Lee’s Palace isn’t closing down like the Big Bop,” he noted. “The mallification of Queen Street continues.”“You know I used to work there,” chimed in the guy manning the counter at Big Fat Burrito.“I wonder what they’re building there,” my friend remarked. “I’ll bet another condo.”“Nah, they can’t build anything on the land. The building is directly over a river.”
As much as I wanted to believe the Big Fat Burrito guy, I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of his story. It was the first thing I wanted to know when I met up with Domenic Tassielli, the owner of the Big Bop, to speak about the fact that his venue will host its last show ever at the end of this week.“No, there is no truth to that at all,” Tassielli says, “although it is true that you can’t knock the walls down. This building has been around for over 100 years—it’s a historical landmark at this point.”The original Big Bop, which began as a dance club in the 1980s, closed down in 1994 and was subsequently left vacant for two years. At the time, Queen and Bathurst wasn’t exactly a hot area for real estate. The price was right, however, for Tassielli to purchase it in 1996. His vision was to create an all-ages venue that would be distinctly open in character.“I was more of a live band kind of guy,” he explains. “I didn’t want to keep it as a dance club. I found that there was a market for this kind of thing, and I knew I wanted to have an environment where everyone could come in and get a chance to play.”Some have argued that such open venues create the opportunity for promoters to profit off the music scene. Tassielli, though, takes genuine pride in the role that Big Bop has played as a breeding ground for the Southern Ontario music scene since he took over the place.“Many bands got their start here,” he recalls, easily able to list them off: “Billy Talent. Alexisonfire. Down With Webster—they were even telling me they first got the idea to play at our venue after riding by on the Queen streetcar. They came in one day and said, ‘Hey, can we play here?’ And I said ‘Sure!’”What does Tassielli think Toronto will lose when the Big Bop closes? “I don’t think a band like [Down With Webster] could start right away at The Horseshoe, what with their unique sound. Venues like that usually make you jump through hoops to get a show.”Newer bands looking for a place to get started are already feeling the pinch. Ask Marc Sautter, drummer for Home For The Headlines. “It seems like promoting and getting shows in Toronto keeps getting harder and harder. You could always count on getting shows at The Big Bop.” His band is fresh out of high school, and his friends wouldn’t be able to attend the band’s shows in the largely 19+ Toronto scene.Local music fans of all ages, though, have expressed concern. Jennifer Kuhn, who estimates that she attends 50 live shows a year, is worried about where her favourite bands will play. “Not every band in the scene can justify playing The Mod Club,” she says.Tassielli is planning to start another venue, but the problem so far has been finding an affordable space. “We were looking at places downtown,” he says, “and you can just forget it with the increasing rent costs.”Still, his business model has been profitable, and he wants to continue hosting all-ages concerts. Tassielli recently found a workable (though far west) location at Dundas and Kipling, which he plans on calling The Rock Pile. The all-ages crowd can still get there easily enough by subway, but one thing is clear: the venue won’t be a part of what is supposed to be a vibrant downtown arts scene.“I think half the fun of going to a show when you’re 14, 15 years old is the fact you get to go downtown,” explains Cindy Parreira, The Big Bop’s head booker.Tassielli doesn’t seem as concerned with the placement of the venue: “I like to believe that if you build it, they will come.”Tassielli is clearly optimistic, hoping his new venue will help remind us of the good ol’ days—before gentrification reared its ugly head on Queen Street West.The Big Bop hosts its final series of concerts this week, ending with The Last Kathedral Show Ever
on Sat. Jan. 30 beginning at 2 p.m.For more information, visit www.thebigbop.com