Picture it: Church Street, 1989. Queens in fake Chanel T-shirts with huge shoulder pads, sipping Second Cup coffee pack “The Steps,” discussing last night’s Golden Girls (the “Lebanese” episode), when a cab pulls up and drag superstar of the day Bitch Diva stumbles out and almost falls over The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson — who, by the way, is dishing with playwright Sky Gilbert about the huge cock he claims to have had last night. That particular evening also saw the opening of Woody’s, which, at the time, was only a small publike bar that you passed on your way to the poppers boutique at The Barn to get your weekend supply.
In 1989, Church Street was considered the gay suburbs to the longtime gay drag of Yonge Street, which had been the main gay area up until the mid-1980s because of iconic gay businesses like Glad Day Bookshop (the world’s oldest gay bookstore — and still open today) and Canada’s most legendary gay bar of the 1960s to ’80s, the St Charles Tavern.
But that corner of Church and Wellesley (aka The Steps) had now become the hot evening hangout where everyone discussed both last night’s conquests and where to go that night. As the St Charles faded, Woody’s took the mantel. After some expansion, it became one of the most successful bars in the country. Its success is due in part to straight owner Alex Korn, a relaxed and generous man, who hired upstart twink Dean Odorico to manage it. Odorico is a generous, kindhearted guy with a quiet, yet strong presence, who then expanded Korn’s business vision of supporting the community.
I first met Odorico back in 1992 when I was at Ryerson University’s CKLN 88.1 FM. I had a radio show called Queer Noises just before I began writing a scene and gossip column for Xtra called Cocktail Confessions. CKLN wanted to broadcast the fairly new gay pride parade, and I was tasked with getting gay businesses to sponsor it. Everyone said no until I met Dean. Once Woody’s came on board, most of the nays turned to yeas. I saw the power of Woody’s early on.
No other gay bar has donated as much money and bar resources to the community as Woody’s. Proceeds from that drink you bought last month have gone to support a variety of groups, from AIDS support groups, arts organizations and queer ethnic associations to a number of gay non-profit media, like Xtra. I’ve had countless encounters with Woody’s over the years in my capacity as a longtime PR agency owner (dpPR), former club promoter/DJ (“Sissy”), volunteer and board member for numerous gay organizations, such as The Appeal (now known as Community One Foundation, which has had its offices on the second floor of Woody’s for more than two decades).
When I launched Sissy club night at Buddies in the mid-1990s, Woody’s became a sponsor, even though it was a club night that directly competed with them. They still sent us hundreds of dollars’ worth of catering for the opening night. Talk about friendly competition. Oh, how I miss the Woody’s lunch counter and the famously packed Sunday brunch. And that fierce lesbian chef they used to have!
The bar is renowned for its support of drag artists, but it supported lesbians as well. Twenty years ago I was PRing The Greater Toronto Drag King Society (dk), a group of talented lesbians who were causing quite the stir across the continent when Woody’s sponsored their Opera House concert; they were even asked to perform at the bar. It was hilarious seeing so many gay men turned on by these drag kings. One of them, Joy Lachica, won a Mr Woody’s contest that year.
Without a doubt, in my experience, Woody’s has become our ultimate community builder and our inclusive community centre.
From the legendary St Charles Tavern to Woody’s, our gay bars have always been an instrumentally important aspect of queer culture, history and our identity.
Happy 25th anniversary to Woody’s, and as Dorothy Zbornak and her golden friends once said, thank you for being our friend!