Electric Avenue: An Infamous Chapter in Calgary’s Partying History

Calgary’s notorious nightlife district is long gone, but it’s definitely not forgotten.

Illustration by Karen Klassen

Longtime Calgarians of a certain age tend to chuckle whenever they pass by the daycare on the north side of 11th Avenue S.W., between 5th and 6th streets. They’re the ones who remember when the childcare centre was Coconut Joe’s – one of the hottest bars on Electric Avenue, the epicentre of Calgary’s nightlife in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

The irony of having a daycare occupy the same spot where once drunken behaviour was often more immature than that displayed by actual kids is not lost on them, the way it might be lost on the twentysomethings of today who frequent the Saturday hip-hop nights at Broken City, the nightclub across the street from the former Coconut Joe’s. This new generation of legal drinkers was just being born when Electric Avenue was already past its peak and well in decline. They were still in diapers during the years when area residents, business owners and sympathetic politicians, fed up by closing-time rowdiness and crime, were campaigning to shut the whole thing down.

If you weren’t around back when 11th Avenue was “Electric,” it’s difficult to imagine that the fairly innocuous strip of upscale nail salons, furniture boutiques and galleries you see now was once the pulsating heart of the action – two-dozen bars packed into four blocks. It’s hard to see it as the site of some of the city’s most legendary impromptu street celebrations, and the buzzing party central for the multinational 1988 Olympic throngs. It’s hard to see what all the trouble was about and why, today, it’s often invoked as a warning whenever a bar fight is big enough or mean enough to make the evening news.

For those who weren’t there, it’s become a buzzword, a warning for how wrong things can go. But, for those who were there (whether they remember it or not), it was much, much more.

Electric beginnings

Electric Avenue kind of snuck up on everyone, even those who were right in the middle of it all, like Al Thompson. A helicopter pilot from Winnipeg, Thompson moved to Calgary in 1981 and turned to bartending when the bust economy at the time dried up work opportunities in the air. He found work with the Claudio’s Group, owners of an eponymous restaurant on the south side of 11th Avenue between 5th and 6th streets, a strip that was primarily comprised of low-density office developments. Claudio’s eventually placed “Big Al,” as he became known, behind the bar at Bandito’s, its Mexican-themed restaurant and bar across the street.

Thompson recalls something of a snowball effect. “All of a sudden, across the road, the Manhattan Club went up,” he says. “Next door was Coconut Joe’s, then we had the King’s Horse open up across the street. Three Cheers was a couple of doors down and then we had the Keg at the corner.”

For a garrulous, popular bartender, being in the heart of the action was akin to being a rock star.

“In about three-to-four blocks, there were 20-some bars. It was just the cat’s ass,” Thompson says.

The nightlife industry can be notoriously fickle; just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. But Electric Avenue’s rise was buoyed by luck and timing. Momentum plus serendipity equals phenomenon – Electric Avenue was born at the right time, peaking when the city had multiple reasons to celebrate en masse.

The bars were packed when the Calgary Flames won their unprecedented playoff victory against rival Edmonton Oilers in 1986, and the impromptu street party led to the police cordoning off the block.

“It was ridiculous after we beat the Oilers. I remember a guy hanging off the roof of Bandito’s burning a Wayne Gretzky effigy,” says Jason Stang, who was hired to DJ at The Rave, a predecessor to Coconut Joe’s, when he was only 16. But, for all the drunken revelry that evening, Stang also recalls things seemed (relatively) under control. “The police got smart, shut down the block, dumped everybody’s booze and nothing too bad happened. It was contained chaos,” he says.

The party continued to rage through the late 1980s, buoyed by the ’88 Winter Olympics, which flooded the city with party-seeking tourists and celebrity athletes.

A dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thompson experienced his most memorable celebrity encounter during this time, when legendary Steeler Lynn Swann, in town doing Olympic commentary for ABC Sports, waltzed into Bandito’s while he was bartending. “I felt like I was 12 years old,” he says. “We had a drink together and I got one of those old credit card slips that they don’t even use anymore and got an autograph, and framed it. I was just in heaven,” Thompson says.

The following year saw the Flames’ history-making Stanley Cup victory; in the minds of many, the aftermath set the high water mark for good times on the Avenue.

“I was bartending the night the Flames won the Stanley Cup,” says Jon Truch, owner/proprietor of 17th Avenue hot-dog joint Tubby Dog, who was also in high school when he began working as a busboy on the Avenue. “It was crazy. People were just throwing money around. They’d say, ‘Give me a beer!’ and you’d ask, ‘What kind?’ and they’d say, ‘I don’t care,’ and they’d throw you a $20 bill.”

Let the good times roll

The good times didn’t just revolve around major sporting events. The strip sustained a never-ending party, pretty much any night of the week, with patrons hopping between spots on a whim. Coconut Joe’s was known to have the most attractive girls, says Truch, though other places certainly had their charms, as well.

“A normal night was really busy because of the concentration of bars,” says Steve Chapman, a former Calgary Police Service officer who spent time on the Electric Avenue beat. “There was a lot of movement. I could have balanced the city budget just by writing people up on jaywalking.”

For the most part, the officers working the Avenue during the late ’80s took a less-antagonistic approach. “You’d get people carrying open liquor, which, for the most part, you ignored, because it wasn’t worth it – unless the guy was an idiot, in which case you poured it out and sent him on his way,” says Chapman.

It’s an approach that endeared the police to the bar staff, says Truch.

“We dealt with some great cops,” he says. “We never really had problems because, when we needed their help, they were there for us. The presence wasn’t too heavy. They weren’t hassling the bars, they would just hang out and talk to the doormen, or they’d make friends with the management and just come in and say ‘Hi’ and hang out. They didn’t abuse their power.”

A sense of camaraderie existed between the bars, as well. “Everybody knew everybody, so you could go over across the street and borrow beer if you were short on Corona or something and sell it at your place and then just replenish it later on,” says Trevor Leigh, who worked in a variety of Electric Avenue establishments as both a DJ and as a busboy. “That kind of stuff happened all the time, so, although it was competitive, it was like we were all in it together.”

Policing Electric Avenue

That said, the heart of the matter was that the bars were businesses, in direct competition, often resorting to extreme drink promotions to lure in a nightly clientele. “It became too competitive and drink prices started to get really stupid,” Leigh recalls. “People would do 10-cent drinks and that sort of thing, and then it just got out of control.”

Chapman describes the scene as having “a wild-west atmosphere.” The rules were there, but they were loosely played, he says. “There were so many people and so much moving around and no real restriction in terms of how much people drank.

“Violence was a big issue.”

In the ’80s, the violence mostly took the form of fistfights. The high concentration of bars, mixed with the density of drunken patrons, made nightly altercations ubiquitous on the Avenue. Fistfighting was the strip’s official sport, and dustups were just as likely to involve door staff.

“There were actually a lot of wrestlers [working as bouncers] back when Stampede Wrestling was going on,” says Truch. “They were nice guys, but they had attitude, and, if people pushed them the wrong way, there were no constraints. If they wanted to hit someone, they hit someone.”

Truch also remembers a lot of Stampeders football players working the doors in the off-season, as well as a contingent of guys from small towns. “They weren’t necessarily the biggest guys, but they were tough as nails,” he says.

Pro wrestlers were also regular patrons on the Avenue. Truch recalls a night at Bandito’s when a visit from Stampede Wrestling legend Makhan Singh played out like a scene from the ring – someone tossed a pitcher of water at another intended target and hit Singh by mistake, resulting in an impromptu main event between the wrestler and Bandito’s manager, “Big Jim,” a football-playing farm boy bold enough (and burly enough) to take on a wrestling legend.

Violent undertones

As the 1990s dawned, however, a different brand of trouble was brewing on Electric Avenue. The district continued to be a draw, but rowdiness and rising crime in the area were cause for increasing concern. The Calgary Herald reported in June 1991 that, on a busy night, upwards of 10,000 people were flooding the streets at closing time and that robberies in the area were up 90 per cent that year, according to the Calgary Police Service. Though bar owners had already been asked to curtail the number of drinks served at last call, the feeling was that “more formal and restrictive means,” were required in this case, such as special closing hours mandated by business licensing.

The nature of the violence in the area was also becoming darker. It was on Electric Avenue that Kent Hehr, future MLA for Calgary-Buffalo, was the victim of a drive-by shooting in October 1991. A member of the Mount Royal College Cougars hockey team at the time, Hehr was left a quadriplegic.

“Because I got shot, do I wish I had never gone down to Electric Avenue that night? Life doesn’t work that way,” says Hehr. “Bad things happen sometimes, and it’s beyond your control … Shutting yourself in your home or shutting yourself off from the world to hopefully guard against these things, in my view, is no way to live.

“Electric Avenue is one of those things that’s embedded in the collective consciousness of people I grew up with. Kids from the suburbs and all over town would congregate down there.”

The City’s best attempt to fix things was the Electric Avenue Mini-Plan, commissioned on June 18, 1991, on a motion by Alderman Barb Scott. The plan was formulated in consultation with the Planning Advisory Committee for the area, involving representatives of a variety of interest groups, including the Connaught Community Association (at that time in the process of being formed), as well as residents, other businesses and the Calgary Police Service.

Presented to council on July 22, 1992, the mini-plan described the 19-restaurant/bar count between 4th and 6th streets, with a capacity of approximately 4,000 persons, to be “the highest concentration of such establishments in Calgary and in Canadian cities surveyed [those cities surveyed being primarily Toronto and Vancouver].” Among the recommendations and findings, it was reported that any proposed new restaurants and bars greater than 1,500 sq. ft. should not be allowed in the area (namely on 11th and 12th avenues, between 4th and 8th streets).

Even the area’s moniker was identified as a problem. “The name ‘Electric Avenue’ adds to the ‘free-for-all’ atmosphere which exists on the Avenue,” the report stated. “Consideration should be given to the possibility of changing this name to one which better reflects this new image. The overall image of 11 Avenue as a ‘bar strip’ needs to be changed.”

But the best intentions couldn’t do much for an area that was already out of control. Non-bar businesses were wary of moving into the area on account of increasing violence and vandalism. In October 1995, two local couples, accompanied by a pair of visitors from Toronto, were attacked by a swarm of 20 youths at the corner of 11th Avenue and 5th Street, prompting police to warn people to stay away from Electric Avenue entirely.

The Herald reported that the visitors had “expressed an interest in seeing the notorious strip.” In the article, Insp. Marv Harwood of the CPS described incidents of random violence on the Avenue at that time as “almost the norm.”

“It reaches a point where you’ve just had enough,” he said. “You can pick up the aftermath and you can charge the people involved, but it’s like trying to stop Niagara Falls in a teacup.”

The incident also proved to be the breaking point for Scott. In an accompanying Herald article, she declared Electric Avenue to be a “cesspool” and, essentially, beyond remediation.

“Maybe the best thing is to let Electric Avenue die a normal death,” she said.

Its bad reputation might have gotten the best of Electric Avenue in the end, or it might have been a matter of the clientele gravitating toward the next big thing – the equally notorious Cowboys nightclub and other mega-bars like it that began popping up in the mid-1990s. Whatever the reason, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Electric Avenue flickered and, eventually, sparked out. The more-stringent City zoning regulations put in place in response to the problems caused by having too many bars in too little space would prevent another nightlife district from ever rising from the ashes. Once a bar closed, the City wouldn’t re-license the property as a bar space.

“One by one, slowly, a place would go and you’d know that was it,” says Thompson, who moved on from Electric Avenue in the early 1990s. “The bars on the ends [of the Avenue] went first and it just kind of shrunk into the middle. It was like a big bubble that was slowly shrinking and then, all of a sudden, it just popped and there was nothing there.”

Electric Avenue 2.0

These days, the area has been rechristened “SoDo” (a kicky take on “South Downtown”), and is being marketed as a more refined gallery-gazing and boutique-shopping experience – daytime hours only. Broken City, a live-music venue on the south side of 11th Avenue S.W., and the neighbouring Rhino Pub, are pretty much the only signs of nightlife on the once-notorious strip.

In hindsight, Electric Avenue is often considered a benchmark for what not to do when it comes to planning an entertainment district. But, even though things did, undeniably, get out of hand, that’s not to say the idea of clustering bars is necessarily a bad thing. If it’s properly managed and policed, a condensed entertainment district is preferable to several scattered pockets, says Chapman. “I’m a big fan of keeping drunks pedestrian, if you can, and keeping them in one area,” he says.

Calgary’s entertainment hot spot du jour is 17th Avenue S.W., a.k.a. “The Red Mile,” a nickname it picked up during the Flames’ Stanley Cup run in 2004, when Calgarians packed the bars and partied in the street – just like they used to do on Electric Avenue. The obvious parallels have led many to worry that the strip could become “another Electric Avenue” in the negative sense, as well.

That’s unlikely, says CPS Insp. Kathy Grant, Commander of District 1, which encompasses 17th Avenue, and a former beat cop on Electric Avenue during the 1990s.

“Right now, [17th Avenue] is nowhere close to being like Electric Avenue,” Grant says. “You can’t even compare them, as far as violent incidents and the number of calls for service go. “Right now, it’s manageable, from a policing perspective.”

Grant says a key factor in keeping things manageable on 17th Avenue is to have a healthy “daytime economy” to balance the healthy “nighttime economy” – something that Electric Avenue didn’t have. That, coupled with licensing restrictions that limit the proximity of drinking establishments, should prevent history from repeating itself.

“We learn as we go along and I think we’ve learned from that,” Grant says. “I think plans for the future of 17th Avenue will work out and that it will maintain its manageability if you get the right mixture in there. That way, you won’t have to close everything down after five or six years.”

That Electric Avenue has become synonymous with things going bad tends to overshadow the good. Violence and bad behaviour weren’t all that happened on the Avenue, even in the later years, well after the strip had lost its ’80s sheen.

“When I think about Electric Avenue, I always think about the good things, to be honest,” says Dan Northfield, a manager with the Concorde Entertainment Group, who began his career in the bar industry on Electric Avenue in the 1990s. “There were a few fights and a few situations, but there were the times like when they blocked off the street and dumped off a bunch of sand and the entire block turned into a beach volleyball court. Or the time during Stampede Week where they blocked off the street and it became a block party. The times when it was Bermuda Shorts Day at the university and, all these people came down afterwards, or when the Blue Jays won the World Series and everybody piled into the streets.

“The media remembers things like vans being turned over and parking meters getting ripped out, but I just remember this big party with everyone so excited,” he says. “There are a lot of crappy things that happened down there, and I’m sure, if I think hard enough, I could come up with a bunch, but maybe I’ve blocked those out.”

It’s only in looking back that Stang, now a successful commercial photographer, can appreciate the scope of Electric Avenue during its heyday. “You knew it was big, but you didn’t know anything else,” he says. “You didn’t know that this didn’t happen in every city.”

Says Thompson: “I’d do it all again. I wouldn’t sell it for $10 million, that experience.”

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