||The Embassy Returns
by Keith Nickson
THERE`S SOMETHING very innocent about Toronto`s resurrected coffee-house, the Bohemian Embassy. On a recent Thursday night, the owner, Don Cullen, sat near the door collecting admissions with a dog called Spirit lounging at his feet. Over at the refreshment counter, people bought juice, coffee, and perhaps some pastries before returning to the large back room where folk singers were warming up the 30-odd patrons. There`s no smoky haze, no smell of alcohol. There`s nothing dangerous here.
At 58, Cullen is happy to reminisce about the Embassy`s beginnings in 1960, when Toronto was a "small Presbyterian town." Cullen was one of five CBC-television staff who chipped in $100 each to launch an alternative to Toronto`s "celebrity" clubs. By then the Beat poets were well established in the United States and "there was a bit of noise in Montreal because of Layton and Cohen," says Cullen. Toronto was mostly noiseless; "the Beat generation took a long time to get to Toronto," he observes. For six sometimes crazy years, the Embassy became a Beat headquarters for the city.
Tuesday night was reserved for poets - all kinds of them. "There was a bald guy who wore window drapes and sat in the lotus position with his back to the audience;" recalls Cullen. "He shouted out his poems. He would start, `Society sucks, society sucks...` and the last line was, `I`m going to Israel."` But lots of genuine talent tentatively took the stage as well. Margaret Atwood, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, James Reaney, Eli Mandel, and Raymond Souster all read there, some for the first time in their careers. With fondness, Cullen remembers Gwendolyn MacEwen`s debut at the Embassy: "She was 17 years old, a scared-rabbit person, with chubby cheeks and sad eyes. She sort of scurried in -she was really inept socially. I saw her grow not just as a writer, but as a social person:" MacEwen also impressed Raymond Souster. "I cant stand most poetry readings, but hers I liked," says the 70-year-old poet. "At Gwen`s reading the roof was leaking so we had a bucket to catch the leaks. She had quite a presence:" Souster published a poem in 1965, "Gwendolyn MacEwen at the Bohemian Embassy;" which reads in part:
you stand calmly there reading poems of Jerusalem,
while the water sucks over us with a greedy, drinking sound.
John Robert Colombo became "cultural attaché" a year or so after the Embassy opened. While Cullen booked musicians and staged political revues, Colombo looked after the Tuesday night readings. He remembers a 1961 version of Toronto that was culturally barren. "There were only one or two stores where you could pick up offbeat literary books;" Colombo says. The Embassy was located in a loft at 7 St. Nicholas Street, a laneway that runs parallel to nearby Yonge Street.
Surrounded by innocence, the Embassy was just a little dangerous. A thick haze of cigarette smoke - de rigueur in a `60s coffee-house - was pumped out by aspiring artists and intellectual poseurs dressed in turtlenecks and tight, narrow jeans. The coffee, potent with caffeine, was also enjoyed by a good number of "odds and sods;" in Colombo`s phrase. The Embassy served a non-alcoholic drink called mulled cider ...without a licence. "So the police always came;" says Colombo. "The city was always trying to close us down:"
Toronto couldn`t boast a Kerouac, a Ginsberg, or a Ferlinghetti, but the Embassy had its own resident Beat poet - Milton Acorn. Colombo says he originally got involved with the Embassy to find an audience for Acorn. "In 1960-61, he always needed ears to listen and money for his pockets. He was our beatnik:" Acorn`s image was striking, if a little grotesque. "He was the least sightly of the poets. Milton looked like a P.E.I. potato," says Colombo. "When he met Gwen MacEwen, it was like beauty and the beast."
By mid-1966, the hippie explosion in Yorkville made the Embassy suddenly look tame. Cullen closed it in June of that year, owing money to no one. "By 1966, you didn`t have to go up a laneway to see a circus," Cullen says. "You could go to Yorkville. " Cullen, who booked folk and jazz musicians into the Embassy, says he didn`t recognize the creative power of
rock music. "It was easy to dismiss Elvis, but not the Beatles o Dylan when he went electric ...In that one summer, times started to pass me by." Cullen was tired too, from writing TV
and radio scripts during the day and running the Embassy at night.
The Embassy was initially reopened at Toronto`s Harbourfront, and lasted from 1974 to 1976. Greg Gatenby, now artistic director of Harbourfront`s reading series and the International Festival of Authors, was hired by Cullen. "I had a lot of misgivings about hiring Gatenby to take over the Harbourfront readings ...he was cold and distant on stage, not warm and cuddly. But what he`s done there since is wonderful: Cullen isn`t exactly sure why he reopened the Embassy again last June. Mostly, he wants to have the kind of crazy fun that marked those years of his youth. "It was the most fun I ever had. It was wonderful."
The new Embassy is right in the heart of trendy Queen Street West, next door to the Bamboo Club. The hippies are long gone; Queen St. is now home to the stylish ones in black jeans or Hugo Boss sports jackets. In its rush to become "work class," Toronto has long since shed its innocence. Which raise the question: why would anyone visit an alcohol-free spot like the Embassy in 1991? Anita Keller, who now organizes the Thursday-night readings, says patrons treat the coffee-house as a refuge. "People bring books and magazines and relax with a cup of coffee ...Women don`t have to worry about it being a meat market... it`s very homey." With the avuncular Cullen in leisurely command at the door, the Embassy offers a kind of family warmth. "People get emotionally attached to coffeehouses," says Keller. "People have offered to come in and help fix up the place."
Keller tries to have a "name" writer appear about once a month - Margaret Atwood, Rosemary Sullivan, and Daniel Richler have appeared of late. Mostly, though, Keller is out to nurture new talent, as the Embassy did in the old days. She seems happiest talking about small breakthroughs, like "one woman, 30 or 32 years old, who had written for 10 years and never been in front of the public before. Her legs were shaking. She read three poems and got a big round of applause."