This week, a drink with John McHugh, who owned the Half Beat and Penny Farthing coffee houses in Yorkville in the 1960s. It was at the Penny Farthing where Joni Mitchell got her start, where Leonard Cohen's songs were first performed by the Stormy Clovers, and where McHugh - with the help of Pierre Berton - fought city bylaws to help create Toronto's sidewalk cafe culture. A plaque commemorating the Penny Farthing is in the works, according to Heritage Toronto.
We ventured to Yorkville Ave., where McHugh, 80, gave me a quick tour of his old stomping grounds. We settled for lunch at the Oxley Public House, across from the Penny's old location at 110-112 Yorkville.
The drinks: McHugh, who now lives in Jordan, Ontario, had a pint of Fuller's beer, while I ordered the Make It So, a Dillon's gin and amaro-based cocktail with an earthy earl-grey and citrus-infused syrup ($14).
Where did you settle in Toronto when you moved here from England in the 1950s?
We rented a place at King and Dufferin. A furnished three-bedroom that cost $15 a week. That's what we paid. It included all your meals, telephone, television, and once a month we would get a beer delivery. Then I moved north to Summerhill. I thought it was rough down on King.
It was pretty industrial back then.
Absolutely. Massey-Ferguson was there, and all those factories.
You opened the Penny Farthing in 1963, where you were then joined by competitors like the River Boat. What led to you closing the business?
It was late 1968, if I remember correctly. A friend who was in England phoned and asked if I was interested in the Beatles. The White Album was just coming out, so he brought it in and I put it on the turntable at the Penny. By this time, Yorkville was going through a rough - it was crumbling, frankly. So I put this record on and everyone was just amazed. CHUM was then announcing there was a place on Yorkville playing the new record. We were ahead five days before it appeared in Canada. The place was swamped. Somebody saw it was busy and offered to buy the place. I accepted, said thank you very much, and that was it.
I'm surprised to learn that one of the men responsible for the folk boom of the 1960s wasn't a big fan of the music.
Honestly, living with a folk musician (Ian Tyson) for a couple years will do that to you. We had an understanding: He would play folk music on his turntable through his guitar amplifier. But I had a beautiful Harmon Kardon stereo - I built the speakers myself - but it was jazz only. Nothing else.
Did many jazz greats visit the Penny?
Oh, many. Oscar Peterson came to the Penny because we shared the same piano tuner. I had a baby Heintzman and he asked if he could play. He sat down and played about 20 minutes to an audience of five, a couple of waitresses, and the guy running the espresso machine. It was simply fantastic.
Where does your love of jazz stem from?
I was raised in the swing era. I used to listen to the Glen Miller Band because they were playing live concerts in Britain. Apparently I was at a performance of Louis Armstrong's, but it was a prenatal visit. My mother went to see Armstrong while pregnant with me in England.
That'll do it.
I think it did. That's why I played Armstrong for my boys when their mother was pregnant with them. Especially the younger one, he's such a jazz fan.
Eric Veillette tweets about spirits, cocktails and the city @VeilletteTO
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