NO INSTITUTION is more susceptible to the whims and fads and passing fancies of the fickle public than a coifee house. In London two centuries ago Dr. Johnson’s dyspeptic displeasure (some over-roasted grounds?) was enough to put one of the most famous City meeting places out of business. In Toronto a few weeks ago the same fate befell the grand-daddy of beatnik coffee houses in this country — the Bohemian Embassy.
It was not because the Embassy’s café au lait had turned sour; it wasn’t even because of police interference (which had been more of a problem). It closed simply because people stopped going. In six cyclonic years of evolving coffee-set fashions, the Bohemian Embassy changed from being off-beat and far out to being square and passé. It was conceived in the Kingston Trio era; it began to fade with the dawning of the Beatles. In an age of such in-places as the Mousehole and the Purple Onion, the very adjective “Bohemian” sounds quaint.
The Bohemian Embassy was originally the nickname of a ramshackle, dirt-encrusted Yonge Street apartment that housed a generation of itinerant artists, writers and musicians. By 1960 the apartment had become legendary. The occupants at that time, a quintet of CBC TV newsmen, decided to capitalize on the steady stream of sightseers and uninvited guests. They rented an abandoned hayloft in
a back alley behind the apartment, shoveled out the rubble and covered the walls with the works of Toronto’s then uncelebrated artists. Some surplus Board of Education tables and chairs were disguised with black paint and checkered gingham and a Gaggai espresso machine (the main financial outlay) was leased and installed.
A 25-cent Citizenship Card was the customer’s passport to a cultural bill of fare that included poetry readings, folk music, chamber concerts, original dramatic works by obscure Embassy playwrights and even a chamber opera, Balloon, composed by Henry Pale and Dan Pociernicki.
Here Toronto witnessed the first “Happening” in its history. A painter splashed color on his canvas to the accompaniment of a blue piano and the broken rhythms of beat poetry while poet John Higgins “washed his sins away” in his bathtub-coffin with the remains of an unsuccessful omelette. Only the Embassy would provide the time and place for three mad movie projectionists to bombard an audience with “ciné dada instant collage,” a film presentation with the images of three movie cameras and four slide projectors simultaneously bouncing off curved or folded screens and the white leotards of dancer Susan MacPherson. The Embassy’s attractions also included the free services of a psychiatrist for socially disturbed customers.
The coffee house annoyed the Toronto Police Department, unnerved parents (who would request the proprietors to keep a watchful eye on their restless offspring) and baffled the Bell Telephone Co., which listed the Embassy in the yellow pages under “Consulates and other Foreign Government Representatives.” As a result, the Embassy received correspondence from a Brantford Collegiate teacher requesting “any available information on Bohemia as my students are about to study your country in the near future,” as well as invitations from the Ontario Motor League and Principal Investments Ltd. to show films on “your colorful country.”
Unfortunately, the Toronto Police Department was not so easily deluded by the coffee house’s misleading name plate and proceeded to lay four much-
publicized charges for “operating a public hall without a license.” All charges were successfully defended by volunteer lawyer (and sometime playwright) Larry Stone.
But what the police department failed to achieve, progress has: the Embassy’s stage has folded and the Gaggai has gurgled for the last time. Due to its out-of-the-way location, the Embassy could never rely on the support of the passing crowd and recently has been deserted by the novelty hunters for greener pastures in Yorkville Village.
In addition, the Embassy’s very success led to a drain of artistic talent. Many of the original Bohemians graduated to brighter lights. Barry Baldaro mimicked his way from the Embassy’s successful “Village Revues” to a position as television script writer and Seven Days performer. Here Sylvia Fricker, later of “Ian and Sylvia” renown, learned the art of captivating audiences. Don Cullen, former part owner, resident comedian and host, received a bid from Beyond the Fringe and joined this show on an eight-month North American tour. For these, the Embassy was a training ground. For others, like present owner Peter Churchill, who maintains with a nationalistic fervor that Bohemia is a state of mind only, it is a way of life. Some day, he says, the Bohemian Embassy will raise its flag over new quarters and be “In” again.
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