Signs Of Renewal For El Mocambo Club

Kerry Doole's picture

Next to the now-departed Sam The Record Man sign, the El Mocambo’s neon palm tree sign is the most famous one on Toronto’s music scene. Those passing by the historic live music club at Spadina and College in the last few days may have been perturbed to find the sign missing, but we have found out this will be a temporary absence.

The El Mocambo’s owner, Michael Wekerle (yes, the flamboyant entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den star) explained via Instagram that “The El Mo palm is heading to the shop to be restored. It'll be back soon, better—and greener—than ever. The (new LED) lights will burn bright again at the top of Spadina.”

The sign took a short trip westward, to Cambridge, Ontario, and the Pride Signs facility. We interviewed company spokesperson Matt Auclair about the project, and he explained that “The sign is being thoroughly inspected to determine what will be involved with the restoration. The sign is over 50 years old so it will not be a quick or easy process. It has been restored several times in its lifetime but this time it will go through a total re-haul. It is part of the overall revitalization of the El Mocambo Tavern and the sign needs to thrive into the future.” His company has committed to having the sign restored and reinstalled for the spring.

Auclair notes that “when we first heard that we would be restoring the iconic El Mocambo sign a wave of excitement filled Pride Signs. Many of the employees knew the historical significance of the sign and were eager to take part. The El Mocambo sign restoration is an exciting project for us that we will not take lightly. Torontonians and music lovers alike can sleep easy knowing that their beloved El Mocambo sign is in good hands. We look forward to turning the lights back on.” 

The sign is clearly a high-maintenance type, for previous owners Sam Grosso and Marco Petrucci gave it an expensive restoration job when they purchased the club in 2012. The sign last made news in October 2014, when Grosso put it up for sale on eBay. That grabbed plenty of media attention, and caused local music scribbler and historian Nicholas Jennings to lament (in a CBC Radio interview) that "The idea that it's now just up for grabs on eBay is heartbreaking for anyone who cares about the live music history of Toronto. There isn't a more famous club in Canada. Artists of all genres have played there. People have incredibly deep and rich memories about that club."

The eBay listing drew bids upwards of $10,000, but it was withdrawn from sale when Wekerle stepped in and bought the El Mocambo (for a reported $3.78 million) in December 2014.

The landmark club had seemed destined to close as a live music venue prior to his purchase. It remained shuttered and dark for all of 2015, but a sign recently appeared stating it’ll open in summer 2016. Word is Wekerle is having extensive renovations done.

Over the past decade or so, The El Mocambo has led a rather volatile existence, undergoing several ownership changes, closing briefly in 2001, and slipping in stature as a live music venue after the departure of veteran booker Yvonne Matsell. Grosso and partner Marco Petrucci bought it for $2.95 million from previous owner, Abbas Jahangiri in 2012, only to sell it to Wekerle two years later.

The El Mocambo opened its doors back in 1948, and some major music superstars have graced its stage. The Rolling Stones played two surprise club shows there in 1977, their first club shows in 14 years, and the performance was recorded for inclusion on their hit double live album, Love You Live. A year later an Elvis Costello show produced the Live At The El Mocambo album. That same title was used by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble in 1983.

Other legendary artists to have played The Elmo include Charles Mingus, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Blondie, The Guess Who, Bo Diddley, and The Ramones.

Sources: The Toronto Star, CBC Radio.