Monday, January 30, 2023

Signs 2

Amid the modern luxury condominiums and trendy shops that have come to shape contemporary Yorkville, remnants of the neighbourhood's rich musical history lie embedded in the streetscape. Some of the buildings which housed the over 40 clubs and coffee houses that featured nightly performances in the 1960s and 1970s survived Yorkville's transition from a bohemian counterculture community into a hub of high-end retail.

Beginning in the early 1960s, old Victorian rooming houses in Yorkville were converted into "coffee houses" where patrons chatted, sipped on cappuccinos and espressos, ate snacks like apple strudel and bowls of chili or soup, inhaled both legal and illegal kinds of smoke and enjoyed the most popular offerings of Canadian folk singer-songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia and the early offerings of Neil Young.
The coffee houses did not have a liquor license. They were permitted to stay open well into the night and served a mixed clientele from locals to late night arrivals of people stumbling out of bars to the "weekenders" who came from the suburbs to be a part of the scene and see for themselves what the hippies were all about.

The Riverboat was perhaps the most notable of the Yorkville coffee houses. The Riverboat was opened by former coffee wholesaler Bernie Fielder and his wife, Patty in December 1964. At the beginning of Yorkville's folk scene, Bernie and his wife worked at a coffee house called The Mousehole, which was described as "charming and decidedly hip" but too small to suit this emerging scene, seating only 60 patrons. The Fielders realized the need for a larger venue and they spent 10,000$ in renovations to transform an old Victorian rowhouse into a premiere folk venue. It sat 120 people and which would go on to be hailed as "the Cadillac of coffee houses" by Canadian folk musician Murray McLaughlin.


The Penny Farthing, which opened in 1963 and served as a stomping ground for Joni Mitchell. Leonard Cohen's roots can be traced back to this venue as well, where his songs were debuted by the band The Stormy Clovers in 1966. The coffee house at 112 Yorkville featured a backyard patio complete with a swimming pool and bikini-clad waitresses. The Penny Farthing opened in late 1963 and closed in late 1968. It was run by husband and wife John and Marilyn McHugh, who arrived in Toronto from England in the 1950s. They previously ran the smaller coffee house called The Half-Beat but like the Fielders, opted for a larger property to capitalize on the popularity of the coffee house in Yorkville. The namesake of the venue was influenced by its former status as a grand old Victorian house, with the penny farthing bicycle serving as a symbol of the Victorian era. Nevertheless, not many people grasped this concept as the coffee shop received many letters addressed to a "Ms. Penny Farthing".

Folk singers on the steps of the Penny Farthing Coffehouse
Image of seven musicians posing on the stoop of the Penny Farthing coffee house in Yorkville. The frontmost man holds onto a guitar case.
Source: Toronto Telegram

The Purple Onion, opened in 1960, proved to be one of Yorkville's most successful folk music coffee houses. The venue hosted acts from comedian Rich Little, Carly Simon, and The Travellers. Local favourites Luke & The Apostles, and Gordon Lightfoot frequently played at The Purple Onion.

Purple Onion Coffee House
Image of the exterior of the Purple Onion coffee house in Yorkville, Toronto. A poster indicates Val Pringle is performing.
Source: Toronto Telegram

Founded in 1959, Eastern Sound was a renowned Yorkville recording studio that attracted many prominent Canadian and international musicians at a time when the neighbourhood was the heart of Toronto's counter-culture movement.

Located on this site in two Victorian bay-and-gable homes, Eastern Sound recorded the music of performers such as Cat Stevens, Isaac Hayes, Anne Murray, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLaughlin, and Ian Thomas, as well as Micky Erbe and Maribeth Solomon at the height of their fame in the 1960s and 1970s.

Toronto holding company Manoir Industries purchased the studio in 1969 and invested in the latest equipment. Eastern Sound became one of the first studios in Canada to have a console capable of recording up to 48 tracks at a time. Elton John recorded his album Blue Moves here in 1976.

After changing owners several times, Eastern Sound studio merged with Manta Sound, forming Manta Eastern Sound. The studio here closed in 1991 and the buildings were later demolished.


  1. This group of signs brought back many great memories for me. Thanks.

  2. Nice post, loved these very nostalgic too :-)

    Have a signtastic week Jackie 👍

  3. Thanks for bringing us along with you on your tour, and for sharing at

  4. ...Yorkville has an amazing musical history.

  5. These are so good.


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