Underneath the El Mocambo’s newly recreated palm tree sign Michael Wekerle hopes to conjure up a spell of rock star magic.
Four years after the former “Dragon’s Den” star bought the famed concert venue for $3.8 million, he is turning on the lights outside the building that once hosted the Rolling Stones, Blondie and Queens of the Stone Age.
But there’s still plenty of work left before major renovations, which gutted the 70-year-old building, are finished and the doors are thrown open for the public. He says the El Mocambo, which sits at the corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street, will reopen next spring, though he won’t promise a specific date quite yet.
“If I had known everything I would’ve went through, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Wekerle said Thursday as he explained the challenges of bringing the El Mocambo back to life.
Got distracted by the food. It’s on! Soon we will have an El Mocambo again. pic.twitter.com/SH6K6280yY
— Benjamin Rayner (@IhateBenRayner) November 16, 2018
The two-floor venue — affectionately known as the “El Mo” to concertgoers — stands among Canada’s most iconic small concert spaces. It’s where the Stones taped part of their “Love You Live” album in 1977 and U2 played its second North American concert in 1980.
Canadian acts the Tragically Hip, the Guess Who and Tom Cochrane also graced its stages over the years.
But the club struggled financially throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, closing and re-opening under a number of owners before it finally shuttered. Another local club owner bought the space in 2012 in a failed attempt to restore the space to its former glory.
Wekerle says when he heard the El Mocambo was up for sale he thought only the quirky neon sign was available. He called owner Sam Grosso and made an offer, only to learn it was a package deal.
“He said, ‘I’ll give it to you for free, but you’ve got to buy the building,”’ Wekerle remembers.
Wekerle closed the deal and started laying plans to rescue the building from itself.
He says it wasn’t long before he discovered how much work the structure needed.
Walls that were haphazardly fixed after past fires in the building were in terrible shape and bathroom plumbing was hooked into the storm sewers, which could leave the space open to flooding.
“It was a disaster,” he says. “For 70 years, these things had been MacGyver-ed all the way.”
Wekerle says he was encouraged by the building’s potential and the reputation the El Mocambo still carries, even years after the venue closed its doors.
“The El Mocambo’s a brand, (like) Coca-Cola,” he says.
At a frigid ceremony, the new palm tree El Mocambo sign was just electrified, after a countdown led by Mayor Tory. pic.twitter.com/EeB13RT4Pl
— Brad Wheeler (@BWheelerglobe) November 16, 2018
“It’s a 70-year brand that people are well aware of, not just on a Toronto basis, or a Canadian basis, but on a North American or global basis.”
He points to companies overseas that sell guitar pedals and amps branded with the name “El Mocambo.”
“We’ve told them to cease and desist,” he added. “If they’re a big company, they can afford to pay the royalties.”
Wekerle is also bringing back the El Mocambo with a little help from his friends in the business community.
He’s secured cannabis producer Tweed as the sponsor of the building’s upstairs stage, while Bell Media is expected to sign a deal to support the venue.
Imax, the giant-screen movie company, is also looking at beaming live concerts from the venue into theatres, he says.
— Linda Ward (@LindaWardCBC) November 12, 2018
Wekerle talks about possibly convincing Drake to perform there, too. He lives down the street from the rapper’s new mansion in the Bridle Path neighbourhood.
“When the time comes and I know the dates, I’ll walk over and ask him,” he says.
Even though the El Mocambo doesn’t have an opening date, Wekerle promises that several generations of marquee names have already committed to playing the venue, including Ronnie Hawkins and Justin Bieber.
“I had Gene Simmons opening for New Years Eve, but I couldn’t open it that quick,” he says.
“But Kiss will be playing there.”