Toronto has a well-founded reputation as a city where dollars often trump history, so the story of The Rivoli provides a happy exception to that. When the owners of the famed music venue, bar and restaurant decided to move on from the place a couple of years ago (it started in 1982), they could almost certainly have made more money by selling to a restaurant or retail chain. Instead, they sold it to a trio of young female entrepreneurs, Jenna Wood, Sarah Henning, and Jessica McHardy, who pledged to keep it operating, respecting its rich history while adding fresh touches.
On June 14, the trio are re-launching the Rivoli with what a press release terms “a new positive energy." That gives us the opportunity to both reflect upon The Rivoli’s rich musical and cultural heritage and look into the changes the new ownership is bringing.
We recently interviewed Andre Rosenbaum, one of the original owners, new owner Jenna Wood, and Serge Sargento, The Rivoli’s new music booker.
Speaking on behalf of the earlier ownership group (David Stearn, Rosenbaum, Kelly St. John, and Jeffrey Strasburg), Andre Rosenbaum explains the transition. “We retained commercial real estate agents to find a purchaser for The Rivoli. We made it clear from the start that we were looking for an operator who would keep the Rivoli name and continue our legacy of eclectic local independent programming. We also wanted as much of our staff as possible to be rehired by the new owner.
“We made it clear to the agent that we were ready to make serious financial concessions if these conditions could be met. We did get some interest, but the would-be buyers seemed more interested in getting our location for their own concepts than taking over the Rivoli itself.
“Our next step was to reach out to some key staff to see if individually or as a group they would be interested in the opportunity. We made it clear that we would be prepared to make the transaction simple and attractive financially if they were prepared to step up. Sarah was the only one who jumped at the chance and she recruited Jenna and Jessica to join her.
"We felt that Sarah was an excellent candidate to steer the Rivoli into the future. She was a general manager who had worked with us on almost every aspect of the enterprise. Further she has the right personality to be in the hospitality business. She and her partners brought a similar youthful energy and inspiration to the business as we had when we had started it at their age.”
Formerly a web entrepreneur, Jenna Wood jokes that she “weaseled my way” into the new ownership group once she connected with Henning and McHardy (an experienced chef now in charge of The Rivoli’s much-lauded kitchen). “Sarah and Jessica were friends from high school in London, and I got to know Jessica through my sister."
Wood praises the previous owners as “just so helpful and fantastic with the transition. We even shared the office for the first three months, and for anything we needed they were there. Plus we have a manager here, Stephen Hobson, who has been here since it first opened.”
Also easing the transition was the landlord of the building, the Modelich family. Rosenbaum terms them “a critical and central player in the sale. They have been keen supporters of our vision over the years. They understood our predicament of being seniors and trying to keep such a cutting edge operation current and relevant. They were amazing in facilitating the handover and have been very encouraging to the new owners. I cannot overstate the importance and good fortune of having such a fair minded and socially and culturally conscious landlord in your corner at a time like this.”
The new ownership trio has already put plenty of sweat equity into the Rivoli, Wood explains. “Along with our parents, we spent 30 hours painting the whole building, plus three days of cleaning the entire building. Such fun!”
Expect a facelift of the venue’s popular patio on Queen Street West to be revealed on June 14. Wood and Sargento also told us of improvements to be made to The Rivoli’s back room, a performance space with a very rich musical history.
Since The Rivoli opened back in 1982, this room has played a crucial role in Toronto’s (and Canada’s) live music (and comedy) scene, hosting both Canadian and international superstars and new artists who went on to become major stars.
Sargento and Wood acknowledge that its stature as a venue had faded somewhat in recent years, and they pledge to rectify that. “It is a great room, and I do feel it should be what it was back in the day,” Sargento declares. “We all agree that the sound is still amazing, and the sightlines are great.”
“We’ll give the stage a bit of a refresh by redoing the floor on the stage, while Jenna redesigned the back wall. We’ll put in curtains and eventually we’ll switch to LED lights on the stage, so the poor drummers don’t fry as much.”
One thing that won’t be changed, thankfully, is the analog sound board. “Not many venues have an analog board anymore,” notes Wood. “The bands love it, so if it aint broke don’t fix it!”
Also intact is the signature Rivoli sign, designed by Queen Street West heroine Mary Margaret O’Hara.
Licensed for 240, the intimate space was long favoured by record labels for showcase events, while Sargento is now keen to attract more bookings from outside promoters. “I feel there is scope for a rebuilding of relationships with the local promoters, the big guys like Live Nation, Collective Concerts and Embrace. It is a matter of winning them back, letting them know the Rivoli’s still here and bringing it back to its former glories. Sofar that has been good.”
With Sargento on board, Jenna notes “I am more hands on with the music than before, but I do trust his taste in music. Serge has the final say, as it is his room. He’s there to run the shows and schmooze the bands, and it’s a really good vibe.”
Sargento brings a diversity of experience on the Canadian music scene to his Rivoli role. With his brother he ran a Brampton-based indie label and booking agency, Sunday League Records, from 2004 to 2007, then worked at Dine Alone/Bedlam and Linus, went on the road doing tour management and tech with such bands as Arkells, Bedouin Soundclash, and Billy Talent, and worked on festival production for the likes of Osheaga, Luminato and Nuit Blanche. He also drums in rock band The Reason.
He met Wood and Henning at a Rivoli show he was working (White Buffalo) last year, and took charge of the club’s bookings in January. He pledges to maintain the room’s reputation for variety, as it hosts regular comedy, burlesque and dance party nights, as well as artists from a wide range of musical genres.
If the Rivoli walls could talk, or sing, it’d be quite the performance. This scribe has been a regular concertgoer at The Riv since it opened. Three of many shows that stick out were by Norah Jones, early-era Flaming Lips, and a label-backed Iggy Pop showcase, featuring Dave Grohl on drums (Wood is desperately keen to find photos of that legendary latter gig). Also memorable a decade or so ago was the Maple Lounge series, held upstairs. This singer/songwriter series, curated by Carolyn V. Mill, featured solo sets from the likes of Great Lake Swimmers and Ron Sexsmith.
Sargento recalls seeing Medeski Martin and Wood here in the early ‘90s, while Wood’s first Rivoli show was a secret Feist gig (“an amazing show where everybody thought about their lives or shed a tear”).
Current major stars who played their first T.O. show at The Riv include Adele, Mumford and Sons, and Hozier, while the likes of Hole, Beck, and Fugazi have all graced the stage.
We asked Andre Rosenbaum to single out some highlight performers of his three decades plus there, and he delivered a long and impressive list.
The local and Canadian artists he cited include Jane Siberry, Handsome Ned, Parachute Club, The Satallites, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, Reid Jamieson, Feist, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, Matthew and Jill Barber, Sam Roberts, Sarah Harmer, Sloan, Katherine Edwards, Arcade Fire and Chilli Gonzalez.
Internationally, there’s Iggy Pop, Norah Jones, Adele, John Mayer, Indigo Girls, 10,000 Maniacs, Stone Temple Pilots, Fab Five Freddy, Eric Bogosian, Beck, and Patti Smith.
Long a crucial venue on the Toronto comedy scene, The Rivoli was the place where Kids In The Hall got started (Mike Myers and Sean Majumber have appeared there too, and we found a grainy YouTube clip of Drake in an improv sketch).
On the cultural side, Rosenbaum singles out “Jack Layton's book launch, Culture Lab, and Wild Culture, plus video and movie screenings, dances for a small stage, poetry sweatshops, and many book launches.”
The Rivoli has long been a favourite place for A-list celebrities to hang out, especially in the upstairs bar/pool room area. Rosenbaum’s list includes “Robin Williams, Nicolas Cage, Grace Jones, Kiefer Sutherland, Buffy St. Marie, Uma Thurman, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Quentin Tarantino, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Seinfeld, Gordon Lightfoot, Ute Lemper, and Debbie Harry.”
Rosenbaum recalls the earlier history of The Rivoli with immense affection. “When David Stearn, my sister Anique Rosenbaum and I opened The Rivoli, we lived on Sullivan St just north of Queen. We had already been operating the queen mum [The Queen Mother Café] on the street for a few years [he and St. John still run it]. The neighbourhood was overflowing with talent, via cheap rents and the presence of OCA [Ontario College of Art].
“We wanted to create a combination meeting place, watering hole and performance space for the artists on the strip. We were in good company with the Horseshoe, the Cameron House and The Bamboo, the latter two all having opened around the same time. The 80s and 90s created a cultural hub out of Queen St West.
“We were successful beyond our expectations and as a result The Rivoli is rich in history both in terms of the local talent that it helped launch and some famous international performers who showcased on our stage.”
We’ll give Andre Rosenbaum the final word. “We feel the story around The Rivoli is a charmed tale and there is nothing more special than the way the legacy was handed over. Wonderful karma. We hope the relaunch will focus attention on this important Toronto institution and reignite the special relationship it has built up with Toronto artists and audiences and make it an enduring legacy.”