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pogo2posterFINAL2The Last Pogo Jumps Again studies the evolution of Toronto from small town to big city and it’s pop/counter-culture lifestyle during the early and mid-70s.  It centers around the first wave of Toronto punk rock and new-wave music, from the Ramones playing the New Yorker Theatre in ’76 through the police shutting down Teenage Head and causing a riot at the Horseshoe Tavern’s infamous “The Last Pogo” concert in December 1978.

London had the Sex Pistols, New York had the Ramones, but Toronto had a punk movement all it’s own.  The Toronto landscape by the late ’70s was forever changed with the infusion of the DIY/Punk/Alternative Culture(s) movement.  Six years in the making, The Last Pogo Jumps Again successfully explores the whys and wherefores of what was arguably one of the most exciting but misunderstood movements in Toronto’s history.

The DVD contains the 204 minute documentary, plus over a 100 minutes of added material, and a snazzy 24-page booklet.  Check the Shop for details on where you can purchase it.

The Last Pogo (1978) is the documentary that chronicled the last punk rock show at the Horseshoe Tavern when it was run by legendary Toronto promoters The Garys (Topp and Cormier) featuring The Scenics, Cardboard Brains, The Secrets, The Mods, The Ugly, The Viletones and Teenage Head. The Last Pogo was released on DVD in 2008 to great reviews.  Available at the Shop.

The Original 99 Cent Roxy Theatre: a brief history

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In our feature documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again, we trace the origins and history of the first wave of punk and new-wave music in Toronto (and Hamilton and London) circa 1976 to 1978.  There was no better place to start than at an extremely smokey theatre in the east end of Toronto. The Original 99 Cent Roxy was a repertory movie theatre (akin to the Bleeker Street Cinema in NYC) that was programmed by Gary Topp, who, among other things, introduced the concept of midnight movies to Toronto. The Original 99 Cent Roxy existed from 1972 to 1976.

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Topp convinced the underground movie theatre CineCity that it would be a good idea to show movies at midnight. They didn’t believe it would work but they gave it a shot. The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine ran for months. The psychedelic animation of Yellow Submarine was a perfect fit for a stoned 1971 audience.

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It would be followed by midnight screenings of Night of the Living Dead, El Topo, Gimme Shelter, and more. Topp had his finger on the pulse of pop culture (and still does.)

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The first film that Gary booked for the Roxy was the concert film Hendrix at Berkeley. Because it wasn’t a full length feature (the 1970 film’s running time is only 55 minutes) Gary (and partner Jeff Silverman) only charged ninety-nine cents. He knew he was onto something: he named his theatre “The Original” 99 Cent Roxy, knowing that there were sure to be pretenders to follow. The Bloor Street Cinema and the Kingsway even stole some of the double-bill ideas. The ninety-nine cent price stuck, and the Roxy began to get popular.

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Edie The Egg Lady from the John Waters film Pink Flamingos would perform at the Horseshoe Tavern, backed by the Viletones, in 1978.

When Topp booked the 1930’s cult anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness, the Roxy started to have sell-out crowds.  When he booked John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, the crowds continued, and it sealed the theatre’s rep as the hippest joint in town. The staff of the Roxy were able to see a version of the film before it was sent to the repressive Ontario Censor Board; it was outrageous and hilarious, but to keep the Ontario viewers’ morals in check, they demanded so many cuts that one local reviewer said “They cut out the sex, and kept in the shit,” referring to the infamous closing scene where Divine tracks a dog, waits for it to poop then swallows it in a gulp and smiles, the epitome of a shit-eating grin. John Waters would call Gary on Sunday mornings to see how the film did the night before. Apart from showing Pink Flamingos, the Roxy also screened John Waters’ earlier films: Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho, The Diane Linkletter Story, and Eat Your Makeup, among others.

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When it was the Allenby, in 1936. Courtesy Toronto Archives.

Apart from an eclectic line-up of films – Truffaut, Fellini, Roger Corman, rarely screened Andy Warhol, Bunuel, all-night themed marathons – it was also infamous for being the movie theatre in Toronto where it was not only okay to smoke pot, it was encouraged.

Free matchbooks were handed out, and for a while, the Zig-Zag corporation even allowed the Roxy to stick their logo on packs of rolling papers that were handed out as well. The policy at the Roxy was that smoking dope was fine, but drinking and dealing were not.  The local police were fine with the self-policing of self-medication, and there were only a handful of arrests, one of them being Larry H, when he generously but unwittingly passed a joint to a narc.

There would be a monstrous cloud of smoke hanging in the theatre, especially on weekends when it was almost always sold out, and extra ushers would be hired to guard the rear exits, which were opened to try and let some fresh air in.  It didn’t always work out: Larry H dropped acid one night, and spent a half-hour babbling with the usher at the other exit, while a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood snuck in the door he should have been guarding.

There was one sixteen-year-old kid who got caught sneaking in so many times he was finally told, fuck it, come by anytime you like. He didn’t have any money; he was from the public housing units at Blake Street and Boulpead Avenue. He’d eventually become one of the Blake Street Boys, the dozen or so violent thugs who infiltrated the punk scene in ’76 by hanging out with The Viletones and picking fights randomly. If they couldn’t find someone to beat up, they’d beat themselves up.

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When it was the Allenby Theatre, in 1936.

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Free matches for the pot smokers.

The Roxy was the best place in the city to get an education in not just all things counter-culture and cutting edge, but to learn about good old show business as well, because the show at the Roxy started as soon as you arrived. Lance Charles might try and entertain the crowd by doing an impersonation of Groucho Marx, and depending on your mood, was either awesome or awful or both.

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Nash the Slash, opening night, Pink Flamingos

For the premiere of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Nash the Slash was stationed on the sidewalk, opening car doors and greeting people showing up for opening night. He only got pissed off once that night when Roxy regular Paul Graham pulled up in his shitbox, parked, jumped out, tossed his car keys to Nash, and sauntered into the theatre, forcing Nash to act as a valet and park his car.

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If you can guess who this is, you get in free!

When you got into the lobby, even the walls were entertaining: every square inch was covered with posters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and half of a twenty dollar bill tucked behind a poster as a joke.  The music would be blasting, and you’d hear bands you’d never heard before: Roxy Music, Be-Bop Deluxe, AC/DC, Little Feat.

Gary Topp stood at the front door showing off a picture of Bryan Ferry, promising free admission to anyone who could guess who he was, but no one could. The Roxy ushers were the best: shuffling people over to make room; quietening people talking too loud and sometimes talking them into leaving; and once, having to sit on the chest of a muscular guy violently wired on PCP who seemed intent on bloody murder, and who might have pulled it off were it not for Ducky and Spike running over from the pool hall across the street to pull him off. Ducky and Spike and their friends in Greektown were relied on as the muscle for such occasions.

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All-night shows would run until the wee hours of the morning.  One night the theme was comedy. Jeff Silverman had a friend who was a doctor, and they asked him what kind of pill they could hand out as “laughing pills,” something that had zero side effects. “Milk sugar,” he said, and as the people came in, each one was handed a “laughing pill.”  Half of them insisted they needed “two to get off,” even though they had no idea what was in them. At three in the morning, two guys stumbled into the lobby, crying laughing, tears streaming down their cheeks, raving about how incredible the laughing pills were. They were as sober as judges.

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At the end of an all-nighter, the ushers who were left to close up would carefully go up and down the rows of seats, waking up dead-beats and snagging lost and forgotten bottles of cheap wine, bags of pot, and once, incredibly, a tiny tab of blotter acid.

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The best thing about The Original 99 Cent Roxy, though, wasn’t the smoky atmosphere, but the movies. Topp’s taste and knowledge turned audiences onto filmmakers both known and obscure, and he had an uncanny knack for spotting talent years years ahead of the mainstream. Caged Heat was a 1974 B-movie directed by Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs) with a score by John Cale of Velvet Underground fame.

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Who’s That Knocking At My Door was the 1967 feature film debut by Martin Scorcese, years before he’d get attention for Mean Streets, another film on regular Roxy rotation.

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Whether it was the films that were shown, the music that was played as the audience filed in, or the eccentric cast of characters who worked there or who were regulars, the Roxy was a breeding ground for people in Toronto who got turned onto the punk scene in and around 1976. There will never be another place like it.

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Late great musician Jeff Plewman’s band Breathless played there, and Jeff would debut his “Nash the Slash” persona by performing a live soundtrack to the Dali/Bunuel short film Un Chien Andalou, with then unheard of tape-loops, a top hat, unmasked, and a candelabra at his side. He later moved into the flat above the lobby, Toronto’s very own Phantom of the Opera.

The Last Pogo Jumps Again co-director/producer Colin Brunton started working there as an usher when he was seventeen. He met his future wife Joanie there, and would seal the deal years later when he cast her as Joey Ramone’s girlfriend in the first feature he would produce, the cult classic Roadkill. He currently produces the TV series Schitt’s Creek, with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

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Filmmaker and distributor Ron Mann was there at least a few nights a week, and currently has a number of award-winning documentaries under his belt including Grass, Comic Book Confidential, and Altman, and runs his distribution company FilmsWeLike.

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Famed disc jockey David “Mars Bar” Marsden was a regular. If he thought he was going to be late coming back from a shift at CHUM-FM, he’d give Gary a call, and the film would be delayed until he got arrived.

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Kevan Staples and Carole Pope’s band The Bullwhip Brothers performed their first gig there. They would later evolve into the ground breaking R & B band Rough Trade.

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Michael Hirsch produced, wrote, and directed the 1972 indie film Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec God? starring The Fugs’ Tuli Kupferberg, and when it bombed — people started walking out mere minutes into the movie – he sat slumped on the couch in the lobby, mumbling that he was going to travel across Canada “to think about some things.” He would eventually create the mega-production company Nelvana.

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Runt in front of Lee’s Palace.

A twelve-year-old Alex Currie would come at least once a week and see movies accompanied by his mom. Years later he would start calling himself Runt, and create vivid and colourful murals across Toronto. In 2015 he was selected to design the TTC rider guide, and a documentary about him was completed the same year.

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Jeff Silverman would eventually drop out of his partnership to work with Mark Breslin, and became vice-president of the Yuk Yuks comedy chaing.

The building was owned by a landlord who kept raising the rent the more popular the theatre became, and by 1976 Topp had had enough, and began focusing on running his other theatre, The New Yorker, on a Yonge Street strip crowded with strip bars and massage parlours, fifty yards south of where Cinecity used to be.

The new owners renamed The Original 99 Cent Roxy simply The Roxy, and rode the coattails of the integrity and reputation Topp had carefully nurtured, and showed absolutely no imagination, cashing in by endlessly screening The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Song Remains the Same. (It didn’t.)

Today it’s a Tim Horton’s Donut Shop.

Did YOU go to the Original 99 Cent Roxy?  Tell us about it in the comments.

Buy The Last Pogo Jumps Again here.

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