Stan, uh, Freeman has brought the ultimate in discothèques to Canada. It’s The Electric Circus — you know, uh, uh, participation . . .

JON RUDDY April 1 1969


Stan, uh, Freeman has brought the ultimate in discothèques to Canada. It’s The Electric Circus — you know, uh, uh, participation . . .

JON RUDDY April 1 1969

“UH, UH, UH, I, UH, you know, don’t want to be a drag or anything, but, uh.” This was Charley Chin, leader of a New York rock group called Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys, and what he was trying to convey was some such thought as, here am I, Charley Chin, a very cool guy with a Zapata moustache, lapsing into a practically extinct communications medium, namely speech, because nobody is dancing. And Charley Chin distorted his face into a hideous exaggeration of Good Will and went on: “You know, uh, uh, participationT’ But this plea, amplified to the point where every “uh” sounded like an 88-mm shell lobbed at the Allies in The Longest Day, was another kind of freak-out. The people in the Ballroom at The Electric Circus just stood there, slack-jawed, dissociated. It was January .24, opening night for the public at Toronto’s newest affront to Rotarian sensibilities. The Electric Circus had emerged on the site of a derelict chocolate factory at 99 Queen


Stan, uh, Freeman has brought the ultimate in discothèques to Canada. It’s The Electric Circus — you know, uh, uh, participation . . .


Street East — not to be confused with 999 Queen Street West, which is a mental hospital. Everybody was here: girls of 17 who had made their mothers wash their new bellbottoms three times so they’d fit; boys in buckskin outfits and pale young men who had had suede jerkins made to measure at The Leatherman; 43-year-old women in fuchsia elephant pants; incredibly scruffy fellows with Kalahari-Bushman hairdos and medallions inscribed, “Sir Lancelot.” And all of them slouching around with their eyeballs glazed like candy apples.

The Ballroom at The Electric Circus is a ballroom in the same sense that an electric chair is a chair. The architecture is sort of Delirium Tremens Curvilinear. It may be like being inside an eviscerated whale, up near the head. Practically the whole wall-ceiling surface — 10,000 square feet of seamless vinyl — is a screen for a light show that uses 48 projectors, 4,000 sequentially clicking slides every six hours and enough kilowatts

to send a Queen-Humber streetcar to Disneyland. Chaos on this scale must be organized; programmed cassettes fed into a digital computer are supposed to sync the music with the changing, pulsing, fading, focussing, blurring images.

Naturally, the system fell apart on opening night and, naturally, nobody could tell the difference. Up on a cantilevered fright deck over two 12foot-long luminescent butterflies on the dance floor, consulting engineer Don Buchla was trying to tell Maclean’s photographer Horst Ehricht that the sound system was only working at half-volume, but it is doubtful if Ehricht could have heard him even if he had removed his rubber ear plugs.

By this time all sorts of incredible people, some of the 35 hirsute employees of the Circus, were hunched over panels of esoteric lighting equipment, twiddling dials like mad while their hair got in each other’s eyes, the tubes protested with electronic crack-

les and wheeps, and the montages, collages, supérimpositions and strobe flashes got wilder and wilder until it began to look as though either a monster was going to be born or the whole place was going to come down like The House of Usher in some historic, cataclysmic freak-out.

An electric scientist stirred a formula of aniline dyes, alcohol and mineral oil in what turned out to be a grandfather’s clock-face and jiggled it over a liquid projector and then — the end! A fire-eater was lighting up down in the Ballroom. Over his head appeared a great, sickening splotch of amoebic grotesques in electrochemical

colors. Writhing on the vinyl to a beat so elemental, so numbing, so exquisitely loud, that it was beyond music, beyond dance, beyond art, beyond spectacle, beyond teenage world-weary, away off in some horrific new dimension that first materialized, by God, in Toronto, January 24, 1969.

The Circus opened, actually, on December 20, but that was for one night only and pretty much of a disaster. Prime Minister Trudeau was supposed to turn up in his greenleather overcoat and didn’t. Those who did — a pulpy squash of over-3 Os culled from what PR girl Gloria Collinson described as “with-it mailing lists” — paid $25 a couple to stumble around a construction site, drinking Scotch from plastic cups and conspiring to pretend that, honestly, exposed wires and no sound system are where it’s at. The Beautiful People patronized the plasterers and left early to wonder, over a nightcap at Stop 33, how you remove Day-Glo stains from the derrière of a Poupée Rouge pantsuit.

As late as two days before the public opening the place still looked like the site of a train wreck and you had to wear a hard hat to get past the security guard, who said he didn’t know any Stan Freeman, who was he? Stan Freeman is merely the creator, the co-owner, the Baron von Frankenstein of The Electric Circus. He was up there, all right, past a gloriously bored secretary with her feet on a desk. He is 34, a good-looking guy who chain-smokes subordinates’ cigarettes. He is very articulate, although his descripton of the Circus runs to the word “beautiful.” The security guard probably didn’t know who he was because he has a foot in both generations. For example, although he recently sold a chunk of the action to one of the oldest investment banking firms in the U.S., his hair is almost exactly like William Shakespeare’s as depicted in the best-authenticated portrait, the one that was owned by the Duke of Chandos. He wears boots, turtlenecks, tight pants like a unifçrm.

The first thing ,1 asked him wgs why the main part of the Circus was called the Ballroom. He said he hadn’t been able to think of anything better — the existing showbiz lexicon was hopeless — and, anyway, the word has a salacious context among teenagers.

But of course — the point being that, in the late ’60s, wherever teenagers go the cigar-smoking fatties can’t be far behind. “The place is for children of all ages,” Freeman said. “We don’t have anything to offer the rest.” Once inside, you can’t buy anything more stimulating than a foot-

long hotdog. Admission is another big bite: four dollars, although accredited students can save a buck Tuesdays through Thursdays.

In New York’s East Village, where Freeman and his partner, Jerry Brandt, opened a first, smaller Circus about two years ago, admission is $4.50, going up to five. The New York Circus is a smash. Celebrities and tourists are haunch to paunch through the week and the kids squeeze them out on the weekends. Half a million people had been there up to February, by which time the place had got tatty and was closed for a $100,000 renovation. It had already made Freeman a millionaire.

The Toronto Circus was budgeted at $600,000. “We’re only a quartermillion over,” Freeman said. “This one has got New York beat all to hell.” He said it proudly, and the fact that he is a native Torontonian — rather than any swinging proclivities of the local burghers — probably explains why Toronto happens to be, at this moment in time, the home of the ultimate in jumped-up psychedelia.

Some of the local burghers have, in fact, given Freeman a lot of trouble. The city couldn’t quite grasp what he was up to. What did one do in all those unusual rooms, such as the Womb Room or the Great Expectations Room or whatever? It was all very hep, no doubt, but officials would trudge into a cubicle and sink up to the tops of their Oxfords in four inches of foam rubber covered with canvas. Freeman would say that the idea was to lie down on the floor and groove, and the officials would stand there nodding, fingering their ties. Freeman’s hair hung down over his shoulders and he was having not-allthat-abstract symbols painted on the washroom doors. There was a room where people were supposed to crawl into all these tubes, there was something called the Playpen . . .

The Metro Morality Squad gave six Circus security guards a lesson in the art of sniffing marijuana, burning a confiscated sample of the stuff. Police made plans to do some concerted sniffing and prowling themselves in York ville ljippie disguises. The building department insisted on $10,000 worth of emergency lighting, fussed over the combustibility of plexiglass, vetoed the use of a fourth and fifth floor and at the last minute closed the Graffiti Room — where you were supposed to sublimate frustrations on the walls with grease pencils — because the stairs going up there were too steep. Freeman says the Circus is now the safest building in the history of the world.

Freeman went to Forest Hill Colle-

giate at a time when, he says, “the most exciting thing that happened at a high-school dance was the fight.” He recalls himself as an antisocial youth hung up on classical music. Later he took economics at Olivet College in Michigan and married a Detroit girl who plugged him into pop, rock, the flaming-youth scene. He started to manage a Toronto group called The Sparrow.

One day at the William Morris Agency in New York a wig salesman from Los Angeles told Freeman about his dream, which was to organize a caravan of rock bands, hippies, mimes, palm readers and so forth — a multimedia show! — and take it across the U.S. The wig salesman could visualize San Francisco flower children throwing love beads out among the people; it was a beautiful thought. Freeman got very excited. He would do it,, only his would be a stationary caravan, and without the wig salesman. He found a partner, made up 300 presentations, went out and sold “points” — one percent of the projected net profits for $5,000. (The last market price per point was $80,000.) He doesn’t know how he did it: “It was just cold turkey. I was flat broke.” He sold the president of Doubleday, the president of Eagle Clothes, a rug cleaner who had sold out his business to Lever Brothers, a lot of other people.

Freeman and his partner so far have managed to retain 70 percent of The Electric Circus Co. Ltd. for themselves. They have bought property in Boston and Atlanta for new Circuses and will build another on a 30-acre site at Universal City in Los Angeles. They have bought a couple of U.S. radio stations. There is a deal in the works for them to install a Circus in the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 70. The Freemans live with their two young daughters in a four-bedroom apartment on East 62nd Street in Manhattan. Sometimes they fly to Spain for the weekend.

The dancing never really got started opening night at the Toronto Circus. Freeman, who has not been accused of excessive modesty, said it was all too beautiful and groovy. “They are blowing their minds,” he said. “They can’t believe the Circus is theirs, built for them." Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys started another set, and the level of impressions took a quantum jump. Bah-bee, be-ah-oo-ful ay-ya wah-nuh yeah be-wunggh be-wunggh. Under splotches of wriggling amoebae, mimes in white-face pranced. A blonde in city pants lay down on her back on top of one of the luminescent butterflies, threw her arms out and looked straight up at heaven. □