We all know that major renovations take time and money, but I’m not sure that $30 million over six years is what Canadian entrepreneur Michael Wekerle had in mind when he decided to buy the historic El Mocambo.
The former Dragon’s Den star purchased the nightclub in November of 2014 for $3.8 million, the night before it was set to close for good. Wekerle says he initially just wanted to acquire the iconic neon palm tree sign, but was talked into taking the attached building as well.
Wekerle told me he, “figured it would take a few million dollars to fix it up.” However, when you’re dealing with a 110-year-old structure that would house hundreds of rowdy party people on any given night, that “few million” ended up being a low estimate.
While all of the upgrades, from structural to sumptuous, are impressive, they kept the doors from opening for some time. When it came time to finally show off the new and improved (and expensive) El Mocambo, the pandemic hit.
This has meant that Wekerle and his team have had to get (even more) creative when it comes to putting on shows, and supporting the artists. Wekerle also says he is very interested in helping other local clubs that have been impacted by the ongoing lockdown.
“Anything I can do to help out a Toronto venue that might open the doors for some business themselves,” he continues, “our facility is brand new […] so we don’t have any maintenance issues, we don’t have any technology issues, and I believe we have the best sound that exists in North America.”
The El Mocambo has been bringing in drips of cash through live-streaming rock and comedy shows, using the space for film and TV shoots, partnering with drive-ins, and food delivery apps, but Wekerle admits that they are just “managing.”
There have also been talks about booking some big name guests, other than the Rolling Stones.
“We’re talking to people who are Toronto legends.” Wekerle says, “we’d like to see the likes of Drake there […] I have approached him, and talked to him and hopefully he has a chance.”
While there is no telling when concerts, in all of their glory, will be able to resume as normal, the El Mocambo will be hosting a virtual double-header with Toronto alt rockers, the MONOWHALES in November.
And here’s an idea, maybe Wekerle should invest in some El Mocambo inflateables like the ones used by The Flaming Lips at a show in Oklahoma City this week.
After spending upwards of $30 million, what’s a few hundred bubbles going to cost you?
Listen to Season 2, Episode 5 of the blogTO podcast
Michael Wekerle talks about growing up near Yonge and Finch in Toronto, working on Bay Street, and going to the El Mocambo in the late 70s, 80s and 90s.
We discuss the long and expensive process of getting the El Mo back in fighting shape. Plus, they found some cool stuff while digging out the basement, and somehow, we end up talking about Ronnie Hawkin’s old deck chairs.
Guide to this podcast
- 1:30 A brief history of the El Mocambo
- 3:00 What was Michael Wekerle like as a kid?
- 4:03 Working with the Toronto Stock Exchange
- 5:00 The importance of a good team
- 6:00 Going to the El Mo in the late 70s and 80s
- 6:18 The first act that Wekerle saw at the El Mocambo
- 7:14 The Rolling Stones secret live show in 1977
- 7:50 Ronnie Hawkins’ chairs
- 8:41 The purchase of the venue was an “impulse buy”
- 9:10 Parks along the Scarborough shoreline
- 9:40 Technological features and soundproofing
- 11:00 The Starlight Room
- 11:30 What was uncovered while digging out the basement
- 13:37 Helping artists, and managing during the pandemic
- 14:30 Reinventing a new streaming and business model
- 15:35 Keeping the El Mocambo open
- 16:16 Toronto music venues that have closed
- 17:10 Supporting other Toronto venues
- 18:00 In talks with Blondie, Billy Idol, The Rolling Stones
- 19:00 Reaching out to Drake to play the El Mocambo
- 21:01 Potential for film and TV shoots
- 22:16 Has Wekerle ever rocked out on the El Mo stage?
- 23:00 Smoking a joint in honour of Ronnie Hawkins