The Horseshoe Tavern, also known as the Shoe, is a bar/music venue located at 370 Queen Street West. In November 1947, Jack Starr purchased the building at 368-370 Queen Street West. The venue was initially opened as a “restaurant-tavern”, offering roast beef and some live music on the side.
The building was established in 1861. According to the Toronto Directory found in the Toronto Reference Library, the building is registered as 368 Queen Street West. At that time, the property housed an Engineer, a Blacksmith, and two Butchers. Ownership of the building leading up to 1947 frequently changed. Beginning in 1862-1863, a grocer, a machinist, and a butcher occupied 368-370. The following year, a cabinetmaker and a civil engineer photographer took over 368, and the Grocer and Butcher remained in 370. In 1866, the same grocer and butcher remained, however one took over 368 and the other, 370 Queen St West. The building continued to change its owners until 1929 when it was vacant for a year. In 1933, the building was converted into Frank’s Clothing and Footwear for several years. In 1940, Warren Drug Co LTD acquired the building at 370 until 1947, when Jack Starr took ownership. According to The Horseshoe Tavern’s official website, the new provincial liquor license laws (circa 1947), permitted Starr to convert the commercial property to an “eatery-tavern” and start serving alcohol. The Shoe had a legal capacity of 87 seats. In the Weekend Magazine, Dick Brown states that the venue grew to seat 400. Currently, the venue’s capacity tops off at 490.
Moreover, Brown indicates that The Shoe offered a wide array of music, however once Jack Starr realized that country music drew in the most crowds, he focused on that genre (Weekend Magazine, 33). The first act was ‘Marvin Rainwater’ and the first country performer was a man by the name of Shorty Warren. Starr also notes that country music was not a socially accepted genre at the time, so the tavern provided an escape for the country music lovers.
Nicholas Jennings claims that in the first few years, the tavern had a bad reputation because Edwin Alonzo Boyd, a legendary bank robber, was a regular customer (Punks Against Police at the Horseshoe Tavern, 1). As a result, the media did not focus on the bar’s music. Their reputation eventually changed in the mid 50s when Starr converted the bar into a live music venue seating almost 500 people (Shoe website). In the following 25 years, the Shoe housed numerous country acts including Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, and Ian & Sylvia Tyson etc (Jennings, 1). Although American country legends such as Stompin’ Tom Connors brought fame to the place, Starr began promoting Canadian talent in the 1960s (which remains the Horseshoe’s goal). Jennings states that In 1976, Jack retired and sold the business to promoters Gary Cormier and Gary Topp, also known as ‘The Garys”. With these new owners came new waves of music, rock and punk. In 1978, the Garys hosted a punk show called “the last punk show in Toronto”, which featured Teenage Head, the Vilestones, Cardboard Brains and other bands. According to Alan Carter et al., the party reached its maximum capacity and started to get out of hand. When the police tried to shut down the show, a riot broke out causing major damage to the building (The Shoe, Global News). Jennings states that “the destruction that ensued left the club’s tables and chairs shattered, all of it captured on film which was turned into a documentary called The Last Pogo”(“Punks Against Police at the Horseshoe Tavern”).
The horseshoetavern website states that after the riot, the bar encountered major financial problems. In addition, the Garys introduced Indie music to try and liven the bar again, however the building remained empty. The bar was divided into three retail spaces and The Shoe changed their name to Stagger Lee’s. Due to continued financial difficulties, the bar turned into a strip club for a couple of months (horseshoetavernistory.com).
In 1982, Jack Starr came out of retirement and employed X-Ray Macrae, Dan Akroyd, and Richard Crook, to run the business for him. The collaboration of these three men changed the reputation of the Shoe and turned it into a legendary tavern. Ken Sprackman joined the threesome in 1983. He became a key addition as he changed the layout of the venue by moving the stage from the center to the back of the bar, splitting the space into two sections. The live music space became a quarter of its original size, thus creating a small lie music venue. Also, the new leaders focused on Starr’s initial motives, to promote up and coming local talent. In doing so, the Shoe embraced a wider variety of music by housing local performers such as Handsome Ned, The Bopcats, Prairie Oyster, and other bands. The renovations as well as the wide variety music including country, blues, alternative, and punk is what shaped The Show to be a renown tavern (horseshoetavern.com).
The Horseshoe Tavern’s décor is unpolished and old-fashioned with marked flooring and memorabilia covering the walls. The east wall is decorated with newspaper clippings, pictures of past performers as well as past owners of the venue. Being one of the oldest live music venues in Toronto, these elements add the tavern’s authenticity. The staff at Horseshoe is another part of its attraction. Both Duncan and Will, two regular patrons I interviewed, frequent the tavern to socialize with others, but more significantly, to be a part of the tavern’s “extended family”. Duncan spends his time at The Shoe shooting pool, socializing with other regulars, drinking, and enjoying the music. He mainly stays at the front bar to do these activities, as they are conducive to the environment. In other words, the front bar is the space primarily used to socialize whereas the back bar, where the stage is set up, is mainly used to listen to the performers. Duncan indicated that the music is loud enough in the back that he can socialize in the front and still enjoy the performance. He also stated that when a band is performing, it creates a different atmosphere; a flow of people walk through the front bar to reach the back, the space becomes more intimate due to the larger volume of people, and the opportunity to eaves drop on people’s identities becomes a privilege and a source of entertainment as Duncan put it.