Special to the Star
While Hugh’s Room Live is being forced to shutter its doors at the end of the month, the venue’s Board of Directors has vowed to find it a new home and continue operations.
Considered by many to be Toronto’s premier music listening room, the club that has hosted such folk legends as Gordon Lightfoot, Pete Seeger, Tom Rush and Odetta will vacate its present Dundas Street West location on March 31 after the Board reached an impasse with the building’s owners regarding a proposed rent increase that it says it can’t provide.
“We’ve been trying, if you can believe it, since September 2018, to extract a new lease from the landlord,” Brian Iler, Chair of the Board, told the Star Thursday night. “And it’s just been the most difficult, excruciating process. We finally came down to getting an offer from him this week that was way higher than we could afford.
“We’re currently paying $9500 a month plus taxes, and they wanted to take that up to $11,000,” he explained. “We could go to $10K.”
While that may not seem like much of an increase for a business, Hugh’s Room Live has a capacity of 200 – not exactly the hugest of venues.
“In some ways, it wasn’t that far apart, but rent was really difficult for us. We feel as though we’re at the edge of what people will pay us for a bottle of beer and for a nice meal. And to find a way to make more from that, we thought – and think – it’s very difficult.
“We do sell out regularly, but a lot of shows are not at that 150-170 range and it’s pretty hard to make a go of it.“
Iler says that once negotiations seemed to be at a stalemate, the Board quietly began looking for a new space last month.
“Part of the problem going out and talking to the venues is that it puts the word out on the street that we’re looking, and you don’t want to do that unless you have to,” he notes.
Two of the candidates were the Tranzac Club and the recently closed Clinton’s.
“We did look at Clinton’s – and it wouldn’t work for us, so we said no to that,” said Iler. “And we talked to the Tranzac and they’re pretty much booked up until the end of June. They’re certainly friendly and like us and want to help out. And a lot of venues want to help out.”
Iler said the Board also approached developers who were happy to incorporate Hugh’s Room Live into their construction plans.
“We talked to developers who were prepared to include us in a new development and sell us the portion of the building that we would be in, so we’d get to design something that was to our liking,” Iler said. “But those kinds of developments are four-to-six years out and that’s not going to help us out now.
“So, we’re going to probably have to compromise a bit in terms of what we’ve been able to offer, but we don’t know yet.”
He said he was hoping to have an announcement “within a couple of weeks” but at the moment, it’s business as usual in terms of the venue’s remaining shows in March.
As for the 42 concerts booked after April – dates that include blues artists Tinsley Ellis, Marcia Ball, jazz legend Benny Golson, singer-songwriter Willie Nile and The Bad Plus among the highlights – Iler says the intention is to honour the shows.
“Our commitment is to ensure the shows will be presented. If we have to cancel, they will be refunded in full – there’s no question about that.
“We’re looking for a place where we could continue to present – like Massey Hall, presenting shows here, there and everywhere. We’re looking to take our shows to where they fit and where they fit our model.
“So, we’ve talked to a number of different venues over the past month. And we should have something to announce in the next week or two.”
He says the first upcoming relocation will be temporary – at least buying them time to secure a proper venue.
“It won’t be permanent. We don’t think we can do that, but it will be something we can secure for six months or a year or two years, until we do find that permanent home.”
Unlike the closure of the original Hugh’s Room in January 2017, Iler says Hugh’s Room Live – which was resurrected in April 2017 as now operates as a registered charity, is in good financial shape.
“This situation is really different from the last time around,” he explains. “Richard Carson owned it and did a really great job of building it up over the 16 years he was there, but he had serious financial trouble – and it was financial trouble that caused him to say, ‘that’s it – I have to close.’
“We’re not in that position. We have finances we need to continue to operate, but we’re not going to pay rent above what we think we can afford.”
Mary Stewart, general manager of the venue since 2017, said she was sad, but hopeful.
“It’s not just the room, although it had amazing acoustics and incredible sightlines: Hugh’s Room Live is also the staff, it’s the musicians, it’s the community. The room holds a lot of memories, but I’m hopeful that what we find is something that could be accessible and there could be a lot of positive associated with it, with the move.”
Stewart, who booked the majority of the shows along with Michael Occhipinti, say she plans on sticking around to ensure that all future bookings are honoured even though “this could be an administrative nightmare.”
She is also hopeful that the entire Hugh’s Room Live staff will migrate with the relocation.
“That’s one thing we are really communicating to potential partners – we have a really amazing team right now,” Stewart says. “There were a lot of challenges with the building and the team now have been delivering a really exceptional level of service and we’d really love to keep them on board and be able to offer the same experience.”
Performers also say they will miss the space.
Jully Black, who is performing a Women’s International Day show at Hugh’s Room Live Sunday, recalls performing a concert there in 2013 that reunited her long-estranged parents.
“The atmosphere was so welcoming,” she remembers. “Hugh’s Room was a place where you could fill your joy bank. As an artist, I could be so close to the audience that I felt like they were in my living room.”
Black says it will be an emotional experience when she performs at the venue for the last time.
“I want to , this Sunday, create memories that are going to last. This is what we represent – we build bridges, not walls. That’s what Hugh’s Room represents.”
Brian Iler says the best way Hugh’s Room Live patrons can support the club is by “buying tickets and come out to our shows.”
“It’s by far the most important thing to be done. We’re so dependent on getting people out to come and enjoy the music. If we don’t get turnout, we don’t survive. It’s as simple as that.
“It’s been such a great place for us. So many people have enjoyed great concerts there – and there’s a mix of emotions.
“We’re certainly sad that this didn’t work out, but there’s a release that we’ve come to the end of a clear direction that takes us to a secure and hopefully permanent affordable home – and that’s what we’re focused on.”