Canada's First Beatnik Happening by Adam Bunch

In the late '50s and early '60s, while the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs were making names for themselves south of the border, Toronto's own Beatniks were taking over a swath of our city's core. Their scene was centered around Gerrard Village, at Yonge, and stretched up into Yorkville, transforming old Victorian homes into coffee houses and poetry clubs.

At the heart of it all was the Bohemian Embassy on St. Nicholas Street (that's it in the photo). "The coffee-house was on a little cobbled side-street," Margaret Atwood explains in her short story "Isis In Darkness", "up on the second floor of a disused warehouse. It was reached by a treacherous flight of wooden stairs with no banister; inside, it was dimly lit, smoke-filled, and closed down at intervals by the fire department. The walls had been painted black, and there were small tables with checked cloths and dripping candles."

The venue became a proving ground, providing vital support to the fledgling careers of an impressively long list of Toronto's finest poets, writers, folk musicians and comedians: Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn Macewen, Milton Acorn,  Irving Layton, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia, Michael Ondaatje, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Lorne Michaels. Bob Dylan came to see a reading when he was seventeen. Peter, Paul and Mary would hang out when they came through town. A young Bill Cosby did stand-up, taking a break from his regular gig a few blocks away at the Fifth Peg on Church.

In 1963, the Bohemian Embassy attracted the attention of the CBC when it played host to an absurd, Dadaist free-for-all billed as "Canada's First Beatnik Happening". I'm embedding the YouTube video of the coverage, but it's a shortened version; you should really watch full thing in the CBC archives here. (Seriously. Click it. It's worth it just for the expression on the anchor's face when they cut back to him at the end.)

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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