It is rare for the Zanzibar marquee to deviate from the business of girls, girls, girls.
“ENJOY NON STOP SEXY DANCERS,” the sign read last weekend, predictably enough. But there was something else. “OUR FOUNDER DAVEY C REST IN PEACE.”
Davey C is David Cooper, who dropped out of high school in the 1950s to make a living, which he eventually did in the windowless cavern of adult entertainment on Yonge St., with its facade of glittering gold, blazing neon and shining stars. Cooper, the owner of the Zanzibar Tavern, died last week. He was 84.
Granddaughter Natalie Cooper, 28, says most people know the flashing lights on Yonge, but nobody really saw the man behind the facade.
“If I ever go to a party, I know I have a story — because my grandfather started the Zanzibar Tavern in 1959, and that’s always going to be the best story at any party,” she says.
David’s story begins in the more sedate world of dry goods. His parents, Harry and Bessie, had a shop in Kensington Market and Cooper dropped out of Harbord Collegiate after Grade 9 because he thought school was a waste of time and he was ready to make money, says his son Allen Cooper.
His mother was a “real humdinger,” who instilled business acumen in her son. When David was 18, he had his own shop on the Danforth. A few years later, he met a girl named Annette at a dance at the Jewish Y, and fell in love. Annette came from an Orthodox family, and there was some concern about whether her family would accept the match.
“It ended up being OK,” Allen says. “They fell in love, they were like Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t care what the families said.”
While his mother’s side was “Rabbis, Rabbis, Rabbis,” Allen says, the Cooper side was “strip clubs, strip clubs, strip clubs.” Around 1959 or 1960, David and an uncle purchased the Zanzibar Tavern. (The city directory of 1958 shows the Zanzibar Tavern was previously run by another man).
Back then, David tried to explain his “crazy idea” to an out-of-town cousin. “There’s no word in Yiddish for Burlesque,” explains Natalie, so his cousin was under the impression that Cooper was going to start a “ballet bar.”
Not exactly. The Zanzibar was more about live music in the beginning, Allen says. The go-go dancers came in the 1960s, the topless dancers in the 1970s, and the strip club was more in the 1980s.
Around the same time he started at the Zanzibar, David’s father Harry opened the Bermuda Tavern, and his brother Irving had the Brass Rail, closer to Bloor St. Allen says there is some debate in the family about exactly who was the first, but they all became purveyors of adult entertainment.
David Cooper believed that you had to run an honest operation to survive in the long-term. “Whatever is permitted, do it, but don’t cross any lines,” his son says.
In 1967, the newspapers called Yonge St. “Psychedelic Avenue,” as bars such as the Friars and Zanzibar engaged in a “war of the watts.” Cooper proudly told the Globe and Mail he was creating a “Twenty-first Century total environment,” with “stroboscopic” lights, mannequins and closed-circuit cameras that would take photos of the dance floor and project them on the wall. He envisioned a futuristic playground with dehydrated foods, staff dressed in “paper costumes,” and smoke machines. Allen says his father was a “Barnum and Bailey type,” who was adept at promotions like the famed circus producers. He was also detail oriented and good at delegating. He could spot dust in a corner or the one light bulb flickering in a room with hundreds.
“We expect this thing will pack the joint every night,” Cooper said of his futuristic vision. The next year, as “toplessness” spread through bars like The Coq-d’Or and the Friars, the Zanzibar had six go-go dancers. “One psychedelic, one regular, and four topless,” Cooper said. (The Globe explained that dancers weren’t technically topless, as they still wore “flesh-coloured pasties” over their breasts.) A couple of years later, the newspaper called the place a “genuinely freaky establishment,” with its “numbing maze of lights,” topless dancers and the “Zanzibar Zulu” — a cocktail of bourbon, gin and creme de menthe that included “transportation to St. Michael’s Hospital.”
Bobby Dean Blackburn, a musician with a storied history in the Toronto scene, remembers Cooper calling him in 1969, on the eve of a beer strike, with a job offer. Cooper had stockpiles of alcohol, and he wanted Blackburn’s trio to play every day from noon to 4:30 p.m. The show was a hit, and the cold beer never ran out. Blackburn played the organ, with a mix of R&B, jazz and blues songs. There were often long solos, and a “a nice group sense of climax,” as Jack Batten wrote in the Globe.
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Blackburn’s mother Estelle cooked an all-you-can-eat buffet of soul food, with collared greens, red beans and rice. “She loved it,” he says. “She was a very hip person.” He remembers the go-go girls would dance on barrels beside the stage, as musicians waited for their turn to jam with the band — locals and people in town for their own shows, such as Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Taj Mahal, and the guys from James Brown’s band.
“I call it my college education as far as music was concerned,” Blackburn says from his home in the Bruce Peninsula.
Cooper left his office door open so he could hear the music. He bought his clothes from tailor Lou Myles, who outfitted Muhammed Ali and made the mohair suits for the Ronnie Hawkins band. “He was a Damon Runyon character,” Blackburn says of Cooper, referring to the Prohibition-era fiction writer. “If a fight broke out he was right in the middle of it, stopping it and kicking the guys out. He wasn’t afraid to scrap.”
Blackburn remembers when The Victory Theatre stopped using pasties for their burlesque dancers at some point in the 1970s. He told Cooper, but then regretted it, since Cooper followed suit. “That was bad, because next thing you know, it became a strip joint and he got rid off the bands,” he says with a laugh.
Cooper was always changing things. He travelled the world, stockpiling ideas in Las Vegas casinos and New York bars. When the Eaton Centre opened in 1977, “it vacuumed the people right off the street,” Cooper later said. “It’s like a blank wall that runs for a whole block.”
Yonge St. was changing. Many bars closed, but he kept going. In 1985, Cooper had Anselmo Art Studio create a 3D mural for the bar. “It was a very interesting project … there was some legs and arms and torsos coming out of the wall,” recalls Attila Anselmo, who says he and his team painted the mural overnight for two months straight. Cooper was a good person to deal with. He paid on time. (Anselmo’s studio was also known for working on a piece for the Queen Mother.)
In 2001, Cooper spent $300,000 on a Yonge St. facelift, covering the front of his building with tiles glazed in 10-karat gold, and an “expanse of neon that flashes day and night,” as the Star’s Christopher Hume noted at the time. Cooper called it a labour of love: “This is the Times Square of Toronto,” he said. Later that year, he and his brother Irving had a contract dispute over the sale of the Bermuda Tavern — the bar their father had owned — and an arrangement to lease it to Remington’s, the all-male strip club (which closed in 2018). Irving said it was a business disagreement with no hard feelings.
“That was tough,” says Allen. “They were two hard-headed stubborn businessmen.”
Cooper loved spending time with his family — his wife, four children and many grandchildren. He was involved in the executive of the Downtown Business Council, the adult entertainment association, and a speaker’s club. When his granddaughter struggled with a speech in Grade 4, he sat with her underlining words in red ink that she should emphasize. When Natalie had her bat mitzvah in 2003, the portion of the Torah she had to recite was about leprosy. She had no idea what she’d talk about, but her Zaidy knew what to do: “Just talk about how the Jews quarantined people like they do now with SARS,” he advised. “He had a solution for everything,” she says.
About 10 years ago, Cooper asked his son Allen, a family lawyer, if he wanted to take over the bar. “He saw the writing on the wall,” Allen says. His family noticed the first signs of dementia about eight years ago, and it got “progressively worse.” Cooper finally stopped coming in about five years ago. “I really missed it, the guidance and the advice I would get from him after he stopped screaming at me after I did something wrong was invaluable,” Allen says.
When his father died on Aug. 22, Allen considered closing the bar, but decided to honour his father on the marquee. Even that felt a bit strange, but he had to do something. At the funeral, there were plenty of family, friends and employees, but there was no mention of the Zanzibar, out of respect for the nature of the service. The cemetery stone will likely follow religious customs, Allen says. No stroboscopic lights, no neon sign, no 10-karat gold.
After a few days, the nod to “Davey C” came down from the marquee of the Zanzibar. On an afternoon this week, a couple of men watched a dancer in sparkling lingerie dance to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” as a bartender told one of them the establishment does not accept nickels and dimes.
Outside, in the rain, the sign was back to normal. “ENJOY NON STOP SEXY DANCERS,” it read. “BACK TO SCHOOL LAPDANCE SPECIAL!”