The End of An Era
The year is 1977-78 and I was dating this young lady who took me to this place at 1332 Huron St. in London to have some drinks and hear karaoke. The place was a modest size and had cafeteria like chairs and tables and the karaoke singers stood on the floor at the back of the room to get up and sing.
The owners at the time were Nick & Cathy and the place was called “Norma Jeans”. We went there a few more times; I was playing in bands, so the karaoke thing wasn’t a draw for me, but she liked the place and they sold cold beer, so it was an inexpensive date for the night.
Fast forward to the early Eighties, the years that Don Johnson and Miami Vice ruled the fashion and TV world. Norma Jeans is now at this point in time, a much glitzier place, officially a live music venue that has been enlarged from the original small space in the seventies to one that has loveseats and high back fabric chairs in Miami Vice pastels with a stage on the east wall that has a wrought-iron railing and large sound system.
For those of us who went there all the time, little did we know that this was the beginning of a legacy for live music venues. It was during the glory days of venues in London with Fryfogles, City Hall, The Wellington, The Embassy, the Abby, Campbells, Kiplings, Mingles, Riptides, The Ridout (the original rock venue), The Barn and many more through the city.
Bars were open from 9-1am but everyone showed up at 8pm to get a table, drinks were A LOT cheaper, bands did 3 or 6 night stints in clubs and most were bands “touring” the many circuits. It was a time of great music and the city had every flavor from rock to blues to jazz coursing through its veins in the city.
Norma’s took on a special place as the venue just had a different air to it and while it had competition from places like The Barn and Riptides in London east – there will still more than enough customers to go around to keep all three venues moving along.
3M Canada, Westinghouse, GM were the big employment factories in London’s east end, Ford in Talbotville was making the Pinto and Fairmont, and GSW on Adelaide Street was a massive building that was another economic driver in the city in the late Seventies. In 1980 a bottle of domestic beer was $1.42, gas was $1.19 per gallon, average wage was $16,135.07 in 1984 and people worked 5 days a week with weekends off.
The economy was bustling up until the big real estate bust of the early 1980’s when mortgage rates were 20 per cent plus and people were literally walking away from their homes, but that was the proof of an old adage. When things in the economy are bad, people will still go out for dinner and go to movies and bars – strange but true.
As the economy twisted and turned, Norma’s held their own along with the other venues in town bringing in hot bands and packing the venue along with The Barn just a block away – it was heady times for the music scene.
Fast forward to 1997 when Nick decided to sell the bar and after a few years on the market and different list prices, in 2002 it is sold to a new owner named Jonathan Maurice.
Jonathan upped the ante taking the club up a notch in terms of adding more and bigger events with bigger touring/recording acts. Acts like April Wine, David Wilcox, Airbourne, Rival Sons were just a few of the names that graced their stage over the years. It also became “thee” venue in town for local bands to aspire to play at, if you played Norma’s you were accepted as being an above-average bar band -but the trick was getting in the door.
The venue also facilitated many community benefits for every cause from cancer patients, to Stag & Does, raising money for sick or injured musicians, the homeless community, wayward teens and many more worthy causes where musicians and the public came together to help someone in need.
In the last 7 years of owning the business, owner Maurice went public over the regulations and unfair governance that inhibited the cost of doing business of a live music venue. Whether it is the regulations unfairly targeting the venues by the LCBO, The Beer Store, insurance premiums, the catastrophic non-smoking on patios that was the final nail in the coffin for many venues, the increase of the minimum wage, lack of tax breaks given a billion dollar industry that other companies in different industries were allowed – the list goes on and Maurice was very vocal about it.
On top of all of that headache I vividly remember Jonathan telling me the lease for the bar was $10,000.00 per month – pretty staggering to pay your staff, buy supplies, pay rent & hydro, pay your taxes, pay for live entertainment, pay insurance, pay for any equipment breakdowns and still have something in your pocket to pay your own bills at home.
Finally, in 2017 Jonathan opted to get out of the venue business and a new owner named Theo Karaouzas took the venue over – it appeared that the “Home of Live Music” would continue on with the continuation of London’s esteemed live music venue – it was not to be.
Aside from the cost of running the business as an owner, the economic times have been tough on patrons as well as “going out” now is a chosen night for many of the live music fans. Between transportation to and from a venue, drinks, some snacks – what once was an inexpensive night is now an investment of $50-$100.00 for a night out. Those like me that went to Norma’s in the early Eighties are now in our late Fifties or early Sixties – so mixed with the 10pm as opposed to 9pm starts – it has strongly affected patrons from attending as many shows or staying out to the end of one.
When a venue collapses it sets off a domino effect of an entire workforce suddenly shaken to its foundation. The venue owner has taken a huge financial hit in the loss of his business and no, selling it does not recoup all the time and expense he has put into it – it always results in a loss on the ledger sheet of life. The closing of a venue now means that security staff (if applicable), cooks, servers, a soundman (if applicable) are now out of a job which is what they depend on for paying for their rent, putting food on the table, clothing their kids. The bands/musicians who regularly played a specific venue are suddenly left with one less place to play with a similar economic hit to their lifestyle – and the community that the regulars who attended that bar now find that seeing their friends at that one place that they all convened at, is now gone resulting in a shattering of that social bonding that had become an important part of their life.
In London, the closing of Norma Jeans will be felt for some time long after the recent shuttering of the doors. Bands don’t have that many venues in London to play to start with and with one less, it means that bar owners understandably will weed out the bands that are ticket draws now more than ever. The bands that draw and put the effort into staging an entertaining show and get their fans, friends and family to attend and spend money are the bands that will get the lions share of work – the bands who don’t put any effort into having their people come out and don’t try to make their show entertaining, are going to find themselves on the outside looking in – which personally I don’t think is a bad thing at all.
For those that think that local bar owners are happy about Norma Jeans closing, I can assure you they are not. It for them is one more reminder that one of their colleagues has gone down and is a heady reminder that it could be them next. There has been in London many, many venues that were highly successful and are now entirely gone – they didn’t close because they were tired of making money, that I can assure you.
Norma’s is yet another glaring example of an industry that is in pain and across North America the closing of venues is no longer an isolated thing – it’s becoming the norm and that is scary.
In the meantime all I can say personally is that all of the staff that worked there I’m going to miss the handshakes, hugs and smiles every time we walked in there. I’m going to miss the killer bands performing and the great sound that over the years Trevor, Guy, Gavin and Dave provided for us. The food was to die for, and Barb and I had a helluva lot of friends in there that were patrons. No longer will I see Bernice there selling her roses, all the door men who were the coolest guys on the planet. And going into the kitchen and chatting with Theo as he whipped around getting food out to customers working his ass off all the time and still taking the time to chat with me.
Little did I know that this little place I went to on a date with karaoke and cafeteria tables and chairs in 1977, would go on to become what it did.
So many memories that should not have come to an end.