The Brown Derby Tavern was located at 311-313 Yonge St (at Dundas St E on the northeast corner) in downtown Toronto.
Its Early Days
Opening in 1949, the swank Brown Derby was a popular tavern that featured live jazz and swing entertainment and a small restaurant. A revolving stage in the centre of the main floor bar ensured everyone in the audience had a great seat. In 1950, the tavern opened its dining lounge in the basement called Tin Pan Alley.
A local newspaper mentioned in an article – the quartet’s “clamorous routine ending triumphantly we suppose, with a rendition of Choo, Choo Choo-boogie with the pianist playing with his hands, feet, nose and (so help us) his seat.”
The Derby’s Transition
Amongst the other popular venues on the Yonge Street Strip, the Brown Derby adapted to keep up with the times. Dubbed the “world’s fair of entertainment” the tavern had rooms that specialized in different genres including rock ’n roll, country, jazz and more.
One of The Derby’s longtime entertainers was Joe King and the Zaniaks. They packed the rough-around-the-edges main barroom with their musical madcap (and crude) comedy routine.
From 1959 to 1967, the lounge in the basement was the Gay Nineties Room (that’s the 1890s). Attracting the quieter crowd, it was an old-time, sing-a-long room with a “straw hat and striped blazer atmosphere.” A separate entrance was added so its patrons didn’t need to mix with the raucous main floor crowd. One of its mainstay acts was Georgina Rogers and Jimmy White who performed ragtime and honky-tonk songs.
A New Facade
In the summer of 1969, The Derby underwent $100,000 in alterations. The exterior had a whole new look, adding a bit of fun to the already lively intersection. Above the barn-board siding were huge signs featuring Ben Turpin, Laurel & Hardy, Toulouse-Lautrec, Roscoe Arbuckle (possibly) and Charlie Chaplin all wearing derbies. The signs made the Brown Derby Tavern a definite landmark.
The Brown Derby Hangs Up Its Hat
In 1974, The Derby closed. After 25 years in business, rising costs and the changing character of hardened Yonge St forced the boisterous watering hole to turn off the taps. The property sold for $1.5 million and became home to Mr Submarine along with other restaurants and retail shops. In the late 1990s, the building was demolished.
The Site Today
In 2007, the present-day building, grey and adorned with advertising, was completed. It was originally called Toronto Life Square (this building is not to be confused with Yonge-Dundas Square). Called 10 Dundas East, it’s home to Winners, Cineplex and Adidas plus over 25 more stores and restaurants. Now mainly a tourist spot, the intersection is one of the busiest in Canada.
Did You Know?
- Other musicians that performed at the famous tavern included the Rhythm Rascals, Jimmy Cavello and his House Rocker Quintet, Lou Snider, Paula Watson and many more.
- The Brown Derby was said to have Canada’s longest bar with 114 seats.
- Music and comedy started at 2 pm daily, the earliest in town. By the mid-1960s, go-go girls were added to the entertainment line-up.
- In 1969, once the updates to The Derby were completed, the drinkery debuted folk-blues entertainment. The rowdy crowd ruined the opening night.
- The Brown Derby was in the heart of the Yonge Street Strip amongst other famous long-gone taverns including The Colonial, Steele’s, Le Coq d’Or, Club Bluenote, Friar’s, Bermuda and the Town.
- The term Tin Pan Alley is a genre of music that originated in a New York City neighbourhood with that nickname. It refers to the sound of pianos being feverishly played by those who were introducing songs to publishers.
- Prior to becoming the Brown Derby Tavern, the building had been home to offices, a drug store and clothing shops. Completed in the late 1920s at a cost of $60,000, the long and narrow building was designed by Toronto’s renown theatre architects, Kaplan and Sprachman.
Brown Derby Tavern Photos
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jan 14, 1928, pg 16
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Dec 2, 1949, pg 24
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 14, 1950, pg 8
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 20, 1950, pg 19
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 8 1957, pg 24
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 24, 1967, pg 10
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 3, 1968, pg 23
- Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 9, 1969, pg 37
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 2 1969, pg 15
- The Windsor Star Archives: Feb 12, 1974, pg 7
- Heritage Toronto: The Heart of Music City: Brown Derby & Friar’s Tavern
- Britannica: Tin Pan Alley musical history
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Peter MacCallum