6 min

Maverick & innovator

Naglic's life can't be summed up by final day

DEFIANT. Janko Naglic didn't sit quietly when he felt he was being picked on. Credit: Jan Becker

A lit candle protruding from an opened can of Budweiser beer was all that was in front of the locked main door of the Barn on the night of Oct 28. It served as an eloquent testimonial to the sudden and tragic death of Barn founder and owner Janko Naglic. He was 58.

Many in the gay community were shocked and saddened by the brutal murder of one of the community’s iconic figures. Naglic’s life, right up until his stressful and eventful final days, was coloured by his flamboyant style.

Born in the sleepy village of Ribnica na Pohorju, Slovania in the former Yugoslavia, 22-year-old Naglic arrived in Toronto on a plane from Vienna on May 14, 1968 with $50 in his pocket. With virtually no education – he had for a time lived in a monastery, planning to enter the priesthood – Naglic became a very wealthy man in a very short time, a real rags to riches tale.

While he was not a traditional gay activist organizing demonstrations or forming committees, Naglic was a defender of the downtrodden. An ambitious innovator, his Barn offered a place for many to dance, party, cruise and to be themselves in a funky but safe environment.

A hands-on owner, Naglic ran the Barn from his perch at the second-floor cash register where he tended bar, counted money, chatted with customers and friends while selling beer and watching the room like a hawk. This is the image that many in the gay community have of him. He was a big man with a large moustache and many colourful tattoos on his arm. The Barn was his self-proclaimed “life’s passion.”

As well as being central to community life, Naglic had the trappings of a very successful businessman. Friends say he owned two yachts, two condos in Florida and a large home in Toronto which featured large naked roman statues on the front lawn, a hot-tub, velvet banisters and an eclectic art collection.

Naglic started out in the Toronto gay world in 1970 as a waiter at The Quest, a gay piano bar and restaurant on Yonge St. Naglic was a charming, tall, handsome waiter and bartender. Naglic also helped owner Bob Grimson with the accounting and the books.

In 1975, along with associate Frieda Groves, and financial help and guidance from Grimson, Naglic opened a bar called Jo-Jo’s (later called the Barn) on the second floor of a large old house at 418 Church St. On the first floor, he opened up a restaurant, Les Cavaliers.

Performer Greg Beer, who now sings at Zipperz, worked for Naglic for 14 years in the ’70s and ’80s. Beer recalls that Naglic knew exactly what he was doing in having a piano bar in the same complex as a cruisy dance bar.

“It was pushing the envelope at the time, and an integration of different gay lifestyles,” says Beer. “Often people would sing and socialize at Cavaliers and then go upstairs to the Barn to cruise and dance.”

The restaurant became popular and amongst its many luncheon customer were former police chief Jack Ackroyd, MPPs and famous hockey players (“Until they found out what was upstairs,” one waitress quipped). Eventually Naglic ditched the restaurant. Today the Barn employs as many as 30 staff.

In the ’80s, Naglic also opened a restaurant and lesbian bar at 457 Church St, known at various times as Tanks, Together and the Bulldog, where Naglic also worked.

For a time in the ’80s and early ’90s, there was sex in dark backroom sections of the Barn until police clamped down. Police were always a problem that Naglic had to contend with. In 2000, police charged Naglic for permitting disorderly conduct on the premises because he hosted nude dances; he fought the charges and won.

Over the years, he was also accused of various Liquor Licence Act violations. At the time of his death, Naglic was awaiting an Alcohol And Gaming Commission Of Ontario hearing that would have revoked his liquor licence. Naglic claimed to have received a call in 2004 saying that his problems with the police would go away if he paid $40,000 up front and $2,000 a week. Naglic told Xtra in April he did not know who the person was nor whether it was a police officer or not.

Ever the maverick, Naglic went public with the allegation of extortion right in the middle of the 52 division corruption scandal involving plainclothes detectives, where other bar owners had claimed they had paid protection money.

After going public, Naglic told friends he feared further police harassment, but he continued to do business his own way.

“Janko gave us a home,” says Bert Bik, one of Naglic’s friends and an organizer of Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity (TNT MEN).

Affectionately known as Zsa Zsa (after the much-married and wealthy Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor), Naglic was extremely generous and loyal to his employees over the last three decades and many of them who started with him 20 or more years ago are still at the Barn.

He met partner Ivan Mendes (Romero), a tall tattooed Cuban 20 years his junior, while on vacation in Havana in the early ’90s. With same-sex sponsorship unavailable as an option at the time, friends say Naglic arranged a marriage that helped Mendes gain entry to Canada. Mendes worked at the Barn in a variety of jobs from bartender to manager. Friends say Mendes got married again in March 2004 and divided his time between his new wife’s place and Naglic’s. In the past year many of Naglic’s friends say that their relationship was in flux, with a lot of discussion about changing their living and business relationship. For the memorial viewing Mendes sent a large beautiful arrangement of flowers with a banner reading, “We Miss You – Ivan and Picho.” Picho III was Naglic’s pet Chihuahua. Mendes didn’t return Xtra’s calls by press time.

For a sharp and astute businessman, Naglic had a sentimental and altruistic side. He often gave staff money for medicine. He was also generous in a quiet way to local gay charities. For example, Naglic helped the Mississauga Convention Centre Foundation’s Rainbow Ball raise more than a million dollars for AIDS causes. To Kathy Drury, the founder and chair, Naglic was a contradiction.

“He was flamboyant in his appearance and style, but very private in his giving, for he didn’t want credit for his philanthropy,” Drury says. “He came to Canada with $50 in his pocket and his generosity, his helping of others made him feel good inside.”

Naglic’s Davisville neighbours describe him as a generous man, delightfully eccentric and kindly.

On the last day of his life, witnesses say Naglic was off from Barn work, having arranged to take two days off, according to his long-time manager, 72-year-old Teresa McCauley. McCauley says Naglic told her he needed time to think out some of his problems and financial arrangements. Several close friends say he told them he had considered selling the Barn and retiring within the year.

He spent part of the day at his usual Tuesday ski club meeting at the Old Mill Inn And Spa, where he lunched with Drury. He later went to the home of friend Bob Grimson. Grimson, 88, had long been something of a consigliere for Naglic.

“He was in bad shape,” says Grimson, who described Naglic as usually upbeat. But on that last evening he was upset, “frightened” and troubled about pressing personal problems. Grinson says they talked for several hours and as Naglic was leaving in the hallway said prophetically, “This must stop or I will die. My life is in danger.” Grimson says Naglic left at about 6pm and was never seen alive again.

Mendes found the body in the morning of Oct 27 and ran to neighbours in a distraught state to call the police. Homicide officers Det-Sgt Al Comeau and Det Wayne Banks were at the scene within an hour. Later a clearly upset Mendes was taken for a police debriefing. The forensic identification truck stayed outside the sealed-off house for about 10 days as forensic scientists and detectives searched for the smallest of clues.

Joseph Zemljak, Naglic’s close friend who had arrived with him on the same plane in 1968 and who now works at Pegasus, identified the body at the morgue. There was no sign of bruises on the body, says Zemljak. Naglic’s mouth had been taped shut and there had been a bag put over his head; his legs and feet were tied.

According to police the murder took place in his home. The next day’s autopsy confirmed that he was murdered by asphyxiation.

Naglic’s remains were cremated on Nov 6 after the family received about 200 friends, neighbours and acquaintances at the Humphrey Funeral Home. His ashes have gone back for internment to his native Slovania in a bright silver urn.

* A celebration of Janko Naglic’s life will be held at the Barn on Sun, Nov 21, starting at 7pm. Naglic would have turned 59 on Nov 22.