I’ve finally mustered up the courage, polished off my proverbial tin cup and launched an Indiegogo initiative for my film Back To The Zone. If you haven’t yet heard of it, the film is the culmination of many years of research into the history of music culture in Toronto.
The result is a feature length documentary about one of North America’s most significant contributions in the dance culture world; the Twilight Zone. After years of speaking with dozens of djs, writers, producers, musicians, club owners and club goers and with the recent naming of a public laneway in honour of the Twilight Zone, I’m seeking money to help pay for the final editing process. The good news is that we’re nearly there; I have a feature length working copy of the film; I just need that extra push to get the music we want for it, which is a vital aspect of the film and pay for other things needed during the post production process, like promotional funds, insurance and the like.
So check out our new video below and our Indiegogo campaign page and official site for more. There are tons of cool perks, no matter what your budget is. These types of projects thrive on public support and interest, so thank you to everyone for your help so far.
June 10, 2016
PRESS – THEN & NOW
Our film Back To The Zone gets a mention in Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History by Denise Benson. There is also extensive writing and rare photographs from many other outstanding venues over several decades. A must have for any music fan, this book is the essential mix tape in book form for Toronto’s rapidly disappearing underground cultural history. Pick yours up today and add it to your summer reading list. http://bit.ly/1OaexFN
The Twilight Zone poster, image courtesy of Norbert Ricafort
Toronto city council’s relationship with nightlife has been historically antagonistic, but they recently broke from that tradition this year by approving a motion torename a small lane in the entertainment district, after late club the Twilight Zone.
Running from 1981 to 1989 at 185 Richmond Street West, the legendary afterhours institution was Toronto’s answer to the Paradise Garage, and is the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Colm Hogan called Back To The Zone. Run by brothers Tony, Albert, David, and Michael Assoon, the Zone took direct inspiration from the Garage, right down to the state-of-the-artRichard Long soundsystem. It was the city’s first real taste of a New York-style underground club.
The former garment district where the Assoons opened the club was mostly empty warehouses at the time, but years later would become home to dozens of shiny nightclubs, which have since been largely replaced by even shinier condos. In contrast, the Zone was a gritty, raw space, with walls covered in graffiti, including some left behind by the Beastie Boys when they were in town opening for Madonna.
Unlike the scenes in New York, Chicago, and Detroit, not many Toronto DJs made the move into production during that original era, which means traces of that period remain mostly in the memories of those who were part of it. THUMP tracked down some of the people who were there from the earliest days to set the record straight on the beginnings of the city’s house scene at the Twilight Zone.
Richard Long and Robert Goodman installing the Twilight Zone soundsystem, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon
Mitch Winthrop [DJ, producer]: People talk about the Paradise Garage, and everything they say about the Paradise Garage is everything we say about the Twilight Zone.
Curtis Smith [DJ, producer]: It was a place where you could come and be yourself. As long as you had your cover, you were in. You’d see people who were black, white, straight, gay, whatever. You’d see people from the medical profession showing up still in their scrubs after their shifts. I remember this one dude who worked at Mr, Submarine, and would show up there in uniform. Every week he’d be there in the same spot by the speakers in his uniform.
Mark Oliver [DJ, producer]: I would go there after I finished DJing at the Tasmanian Ballroom, and I would be one of the only white guys there most of the time. I think there’s more segregation now though, in some ways. That was the only place to go on a Saturday night to hear house music all night long, so anyone who was into that sound was there. Even the gay clubs weren’t really playing house back then, it was more Hi-NRG.
Nick Holder [DJ, producer, owner of DNH Records]: The soundsystem was just mindblowing. Up to this day I’ve never heard a sound system in Toronto that sounded that good.
Albert Assoon [DJ, co-owner of the Twilight Zone]: I think we got lucky, in the sense that Richard Long wanted to try out some new technology. He charged us a lot for our system, but he gave us the best that was available at the time. He would send his customers from all over the world to Toronto to hear the sound.
Fashion show at the Twilight Zone, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon
The Twilight Zone stood out because it had no liquor license, stayed open until after dawn, and attracted a broader mixture of cultures and sexualities than was common at the time. It was also the first club outside of the US where DJs like Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles and New York’s David Morales would travel to play.
Assoon: DJs didn’t really travel back then. We started it off with Kenny Carpenter, then we started booking David Morales after that, and then Frankie Knuckles, and then it became a regular thing. We also brought up David Delvalle, who made a really big impression in Toronto. He used to do things like turn around backwards and scratch with his elbows, and do crazy shit like that. Derrick May and Alton Miller used to come visit from Detroit to party at the Zone, and they’d bring their records, so we let them play one night too.
Michael Griffiths (left) with the Assoon brothers, photo by Charmaine Gooden
The music in the early years was a mix of genres including disco, new wave, hip-hop, calypso, and more. When house first started creeping into Tony and Albert Assoon’s sets in the mid-80s, it was the first taste most people in Toronto had of the new sound coming out of Chicago.
Holder: I think the first time I heard house was around Grade 8. I went to school with the younger sister of the Assoon brothers, and she gave me a cassette of them DJing. I remember freaking out when I heard it.
Dave Campbell [DJ]: I remember thinking, what is that? In the very early days, you could only hear it at the Zone. You couldn’t hear it anywhere else on a system like that. It could regulate your heartbeat.
Winthrop: House music was here in Toronto the same moment it was in New York. That was especially because of the Assoons. They were getting the same records that Frankie Knuckles and David Morales and all the big New York DJs were getting.
Barry Harris [DJ, producer]: The Assoon brothers were ahead of everyone, even the record stores. That was very key, and that’s what made them leaders. Even myself, working at a record store, I couldn’t get the test pressings they got.
Assoon: We started getting house tracks really early at the Twilight Zone, because we belonged to Judy Weinstein’s New York record pool For The Record. We were privy to new releases that weren’t going to come out publicly for sometimes up to a year and a half later.
Following the increased availability of house records in stores, the genre quickly spread to other Toronto clubs, with a handful of nights dedicated to house.
Oliver: There was the Diamond on Wednesday nights, with Jason “Deko” Steele, and then Sundays at the Copa, where Barry Harris played. Those nights and the Twilight Zone on Saturdays were the staples, and you’d pretty much have the same downtown crowd at those nights every week.
Winthrop: Barry Harris was playing house, but he was mixing it with like Run DMC and the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.”
Harris: I ended up at the Copa in March 1986, replacing Chris Sheppard on Sundays, who’d moved over to RPM. At first to smooth the transition, I was playing more of his kind of alternative music, but within about two or three months I’d morphed into playing a different kind of alternative, which then morphed into house. I remember at 11:30PM each week, we had to stop the music so they could clear away all the drinks for last call, and then at 11:45PM, boom, I’d go into house.
House music began to make its way onto the airwaves, both on college radio and on live-to-air club broadcasts on influential Toronto station CFNY. Those shows helped spread the sound beyond the downtown core, and became an essential part of nightlife culture.
Harris: It was harder and less accessible to get this music back then. [Ryerson University station] CKLN was very instrumental in that scene, and in particular, Dave Ahmad’s Sunday afternoon show “Dave’s Dance Music.” At the time, freestyle wasn’t a dirty word. It didn’t become really stupid until the late 80s, but in the beginning was kind of cool. He played a lot of that stuff and a lot of the 110 BPM R&B songs, so eventually as the house scene came up, that became part of his show as well.
Winthrop: I started doing my show on [York University’s] CHRY by 1987, and right around the same time, [University of Toronto’s] CIUT had a show with Barry Harris and Julie Levine. Julie and Barry had a very talk-heavy show, they were very academic about what they were playing. With my show, I wanted people to feel like they were eavesdropping on a party. So I would invite my friends down, and every time I decided to say something, I would switch on all the microphones in the studio.
Campbell: Malik X was bringing that whole pirate radio thing over with Radio London on CKLN. He took exactly what they were doing in London, and brought it here.
Hedley Jones [DJ]: We started doing the club broadcasts on CFNY from the Lizard Lounge, where I played from one until four in the morning. That caught the attention of Club Max, who wanted something edgy, so we moved there. [Record stores] Carnival and Play De Record would supply me with all the white labels, because they knew that every time I played one of those tracks, the next day they would sell out of it. It was a great thing that I kind of fell into.
At Club Max, I used to have Mark Oliver start off the first hour or so, and I’d play after him until six. After the bar was closed around three, the people who wanted to stay had the option, but nobody else could come in. You’d have 50 to 100 people in there, partying until six because they didn’t want to leave and there was good music.
The Twilight Zone Halloween crowd, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon
By the time the Zone closed in 1989, house music was well established in Toronto, and that pent-up energy had to go somewhere. Alongside the new clubs that were starting to cater to that crowd, there was a busy warehouse party scene, with many events operating as illegal “booze cans” (Toronto slang for unlicensed after hours bars).
Winthrop: There were a lot of people who mourned the Twilight Zone like the death of a best friend. I know some girls who went down there and took pieces of the bricks to have as a memory.
Oliver: I was there closing night, right until the end. I ripped a piece of fabric off one of the couches as a memento. There were a lot of tears that night. Much of the Twilight Zone crowd ended up at Kola, at 457 Richmond, and that was a fantastic place. I remember playing an 18 hour set there, with the windows open in the loft on a summer morning, and the breeze coming in.
The only problem there was that it was an illegal booze can upstairs and a dance club downstairs, and they’d get noise complaints. I remember it got raided one night when I was playing there, and I got five tickets that night.
Smith: After the Zone closed there was a void that had to be filled, and we basically did whatever we could to fill that. This was also during a recession and the money wasn’t necessarily flowing, so if you wanted to do something, you found a way. For some people, that meant actually kicking in doors and throwing parties. There were definitely a couple of times that I played spots where I know there was no way in hell the promoters had the keys to the place.
Around then, I started playing out at this place called the Actor’s Lab at 8 Britain Street. We had a catering license, so every week they’d have to get a license so we could serve booze. Some weeks they couldn’t get one, and we’d serve anyway. We had people up at the front who’d run to tell us to clear everything away if the cops came. There were no windows, so it really was a sweat box. But it meant that once the place filled up, you could really crank the system and not get any noise complaints. We actually brought Frankie Knuckles to play there.
Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Mitch Winthrop at the Masonic Temple, photo courtesy of Mitch Winthrop
Assoon: I opened up a place called Boombamakii, and I tried to keep the Twilight Zone feeling going there, but I got into problems with that. I guess the booze cans were a little bit too much competition. At the Twilight Zone, we didn’t have to sell any alcohol, because we had a very strong following of people that came to just dance and listen to the music.
By 1990, a lot of booze cans started cropping up, and I think people got used to going to after hours parties and drinking. I had a great opening night, but the fact that I didn’t sell booze cut my clientele down by half by the second week, and by the third week it was cut in half again. I reacted by trying to provide some alcohol to some patrons, which wound up getting me in trouble.
Campbell: The warehouse parties were hit and miss, and then the whole drug culture got involved, and then of course the police started busting them. It never really filled that void. Tom Davis was a big Zone-goer, and he started running the Wednesdays nights at the Cameron House, which was an off-night of the week, but they played great music. It was a phenomenal night.
Carlos Mondesir [promoter]: What really always gets missed in my view are some of the gems that played house mixed with other stuff. The smaller club offshoots of the original warehouse scene, like the Caribou, the original Octopus, SOS, and the acid jazz Wednesdays nights at the Cameron House.
Lineup outside Copa, photo courtesy of Barry Harris
There was almost no crossover between the original house music community and the early rave scene that started exploding in Toronto around 1992. It wasn’t until the second half of the 90s, that the lines between the two would start to blur, when the first generation of ravers outgrew their phat pants and discovered house.
Oliver: We started the first Exodus parties at the end of 1991 at 318 Richmond, and within a short time, raves became this young, hardcore, drug-fueled, music-fueled scene. There was some crossover, because a lot of people are open-minded, but it was very different. I hate to put it this way, but the Twilight Zone was more of a black crowd, and the rave scene was much more white.
Mondesir: We were already seasoned clubbers, and the thought of partying with tweaked kids with glowsticks was as ridiculous then to us as it would be today.
Winthrop: The house scene wanted nothing to do with it. We were snobs. We didn’t want anything to do with glowsticks, phat pants, or stuffed animal backpacks. It became very segregated between those scenes.
Campbell: At that point, you had all that house coming out of New Jersey, which was all based in gospel and very soulful. We just couldn’t get into the farting sounds of techno.
Smith: We wouldn’t interact with them, at all. It probably wasn’t until 96 or 97 that you started to see those two worlds begin to collide at all.
Holder: I played one or two raves, but it didn’t really interest me. I don’t think there were many people who graduated from house into rave. It went more the other way around, many years down the road, when ravers started getting into house music.
The media hysteria over the exploding Toronto rave community made it seem like after 1992 there were no other afterhours parties, but the original house scene didn’t shrivel up and disappear. Warehouse veterans like Nick Holder, Dino and Terry, Peter and Tyrone, and Art Department’s Kenny Glasgow all began to make their marks as producers by the middle of the decade, and the opening of Industry Nightclub in 1996 finally brought the rave and house scenes together under one roof. Roxy Blu opened in 1998, which helped spark a major revival of soulful house in the city. Even today, if you follow throbbing bass down the right alley in Toronto, you might still stumble into sweaty loft full of dancers trying to recapture the magic of the Twilight Zone era.
All interviews conducted separately and edited for clarity.
Legendary Toronto nightclub the Twilight Zone is about to get a laneway named after it.
A petition to rename a small laneway in the Entertainment District after the groundbreaking 80s nightclub has been successful. The Zone ran from 1981 to 1989 at 185 Richmond West and was hugely influential on Toronto nightlife. Not only did it help establish what would become the Entertainment District, it also transformed the downtown cultural scene.
Run by the Assoon brothers (with help from their parents), the club attracted a diverse crowd and featured a similarly eclectic range of music. You could hear everything from hip-hop to new wave to house music in a gay-positive multicultural space that was unique for the time (and still rare today).
“It helped to solidify and reflect what Toronto has eventually come to be,” explained Ward 20 city councillor Joe Cressy at the Tuesday, May 10th hearing about the name change.
The petition was put together by filmmaker Colm Hogan, who’s working on a documentary,Back To The Zone, about the club. He was too young to have experienced the place first-hand, but the impact the underground venue had on the city was so big that he felt it deserved to be better recognized.
“The Twilight Zone really acted as a catalyst for the city,” Hogan tells NOW. “So many club owners and promoters followed, trying to copy directly from the original template that was the Twilight Zone. I felt some recognition was long overdue, and [getting the laneway named after it would] bring closure both to the Assoons and all the Twilight Zoners, and the film would get an ending.”
The laneway is just west of Simcoe, extending south of Richmond West, near where the club had been. Celebrations are currently being planned for the lane way commemoration. As you’d expect, music and dancing will play a big role at the official party.
Our application to commemorate the legendary Twilight Zone nightclub has been approved! On May 10, 2016, Toronto City Council passed the motion to name a lane “Twilight Lane”, in honour of the Twilight Zone. The committee heard from former Twilight Zone patron and Back To The Zone’s Executive Producer, Michael Griffiths. You can watch the raw video below of the entire proceeding. Thanks to everyone that signed the petition, along with Councillor Joe Cressy and everyone else that helped make this happen. Stay tuned for the laneway opening ceremony details. Hope to see you all there!
February 13, 2016
From The Living Room To Club Night – ART SHOW
We’re very honoured to be participating in “From The Living Room To Club Night” exhibition courtesy of BAND and TD Bank. Check out rare & exclusive footage from Back To The Zone, along with several other thought provoking exhibits. This show runs till March 6th at the BAND gallery. 1 Lansdowne Ave. in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood. Check out the Black Artists in Dialogue’s Facebook page for more info.
Filmmaker Colm Hogan (center), with TZ dancers, opening night, Feb.11/16
September 5, 2015
Back To The Zone is a feature length documentary that profiles the landmark nightspot; The Twilight Zone and the roots of dance culture in North America. The film tells the story of how four brothers born in Trinidad and raised in Brooklyn, helped shape a city’s nightlife though music, culture, fashion and diversity. Featuring interviews with the club’s original owners alongside superstar djs, media personalities and twilight zoners all over top a landscape of treasured, exclusive archival footage. This film transports the viewer beyond the present and Back To The Zone.
The Twilight Zone first opened it’s doors in 1980 in the nearly empty, factory filled, garment district of Toronto’s downtown. Years later, it would become re-zoned as the city’s Entertainment District, largely due to the Twilight Zone’s legacy. During it’s incredible nine year run, the Zone became a mecca for a dedicated, eclectic clientele that included a solid mix of straight and gay. The “Zoner” movement quickly morphed into a multi-cultural community where only the music mattered. In the traditional, staunchly conservative city of Toronto, this phenomena was unprecedented. The Zone was not only the first large scale, alcohol free, all night club in the city – it was also one of precious few spaces to regularly feature international guest DJs, including Frankie Knuckles and David Morales.
The film features previously unseen and extremely rare archival footage shot during the last night of the Zone in 1989 (dir. Marla Rotenberg), along with footage taken the last night of New York City’s Paradise Garage – the original inspiration for the Zone, and the template for it’s iconic sound system, designed by world renowned sound designer Richard Long.
During the journey of Back To The Zone, we discover where dance music was created, how the Twilight Zone shaped the future of Toronto’s nightlife scene for years to come, and why it all mattered.
Digitized Graffiti presentsa Sketched Out Production pictureThe Assoon BrothersFrankie KnucklesDavid MoralesDave CampbellMitch WinthropDino & Terrydirector of photography Jim Morrisoncamera Chris Wardleedited by Colm Hoganexecutive producer Michael Griffithsproduced by Colm Hogandirected by Colm Hogan