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Elegy to Club Toronto

After 37 years, one of the city's oldest bathhouses passes into history

Peter Maloney in 1985.

On April Fool’s Day, a hand-written note appeared on the red door of Club Toronto reading simply, “Closed forever.” It was no joke. After 37 years as a bathhouse, the large brick house at Mutual and Carlton streets is being gutted to make way, according to the landlord, for an upscale swingers’ club.

When it opened in the summer of 1973 as the Club Baths, it offered a unique blend of sexual and social interaction for gay men.

“It was a great place to be in the 1970s and ’80s,” says former regular Freddy Strickland, a retired meat inspector. “It was my home away from home — movies, saunas, meeting interesting people and relaxing in the whirlpool. It was one of the most important places for me then.”

“What many people don’t realize was that for many closeted gay men, Club Toronto was as much social-psychological refuge as it was a place to get off,” says Rick Stenhouse, who worked at Club Toronto in 1973.

The founding genius behind the place was gay activist lawyer Peter Maloney, who at 27 had already worked at the Toronto Stock Exchange. He also ran as an openly gay MPP in 1971. In the early ’70s, he helped run the dances at the Community Homophile Association of Toronto.

Maloney raised the money to open the Club from US Club steam bath owners Jack Campbell and Ray Diemer. The two put up $40,000 and gave the place the name “Club.” But it was Maloney’s unique idea to offer a social outlet — an area where people could sit, have coffee and talk. It was a simple but revolutionary concept.

“Neither Peter Maloney nor I knew much about running a steam bath before 1973,” says Peter Bochove, who got his start at Club Toronto that year and now runs Spa Excess. “What confounded me was how to make money. That’s what Peter taught me: people go to bathhouses for two reasons — first because they are lonely, second because they are horny, in that order.”

Maloney says it was a completely different world when the Club opened.

“It was before AIDS, and it was a freer and easier age,” he says. “We could be sexual — it was a period of awakening. The bathhouse was one of the places where it was at then.”

The Club attracted many celebrities in its heyday. One was internationally famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who Maloney says had a fun time during one hectic visit in the mid ’70s.

“Nureyev entered with a flourish in his fur hat and long fur coat and high leather boots,” he recalls. “He did a whirlwind tour of the fourth floor common area [the large, crowded orgy room for random sex] and then took a roomette and bedded Rodney, our most attractive staff member.”

On Feb 5, 1981, more than 300 men were arrested when police raided five Toronto bathhouses. More than 60 of them were pinched at the Club, including owners George Hislop, Maloney, Stenhouse, Campbell and Diemer. All were charged with conspiracy to aid and abet prostitution, but those charges were later dropped. Other less serious charges remained to be fought. Stenhouse is still mad about what happened next.

“Jack Campbell totally screwed up our defence by secretly flying into the city, pleading guilty to all charges, paying a fine and flying out the same day, never to be heard from again.”

“Aside from the trauma of incredible physical damage inflicted by the out-of-control police during that set of raids — official thugs who literally used fire axes to smash in flimsy room doors — there were other scams like the disappearance of about $8,000 in cash,” says Stenhouse. “The money was never returned by police.”

Club Toronto was raided at least once more, in 2000, when cops crashed a Pussy Palace women’s event there. There were no arrests but police, acting under the excuse of a liquor inspection, pounded on doors and took names.

The cops were determined to finish off Toronto’s steam baths by any means necessary. Fortunately they failed. But now, with more modern steam baths like Spa Excess and Steamworks, Club Toronto has outlived its uniqueness. Its demise gives us pause to reflect on its history and the significant role it played in gay liberation and activism in Toronto, from its innovations of the ’70s through the bathhouse raids of 1981.

Maloney has not been involved in the Club since the ’80s. In recent years, the place has been known primarily for its outside pool and the occasional Pussy Palace event. Clientele has dwindled, even on weekends.

But Club Toronto will forever remain in our collective memory for its many innovations and achievements, not least of which was successfully fighting the cops after decades of harassment and prosecution.