With a twinkle in his Delft blue eyes, Roel Bramer hands over his embossed business card.
His job title? “International Houseguest.”
Such cheek is to be expected from the man who fought to make Toronto fun.
Bramer, 79, threw the city’s first rave way back in 1966, a psychedelic party in a derelict warehouse. When police raided, Bramer jumped through an upstairs window, landing on the police officer stationed below.
He opened rock-’n’-roll bar Gasworks on Yonge Street in 1971. Until then, men and women couldn’t drink alcohol together in a public house. Bramer battled to make Gasworks the first desegregated bar.
Then he founded the Amsterdam Brewing Co. in 1986, Toronto’s first craft brewery. For this alone, hipsters should be grateful.
The self-published memoir begins in the mid-’60s, when Toronto was “famed the world over for its truly remarkable lack of culture, cuisine or nightlife,” writes the transplanted Dutchman.
Bramer called his adopted city “Boreonto.”
Antiquated liquor laws required public houses to separate men and women. Bramer remembers pubs like the Wheat Sheaf on King Street West as “rough-and-ready dive bars with peanut shells on the floor and the ever-present possibility of a fist fight.” They were not, he found, places you’d want your sister to set foot in.
At the opposite end of Toronto’s nightlife spectrum were stuffy hotel ballrooms such as the Imperial Room in the then-Royal York, with their “tablecloths and finger bowls and the presence of leering old aunties,” Bramer remembers.
He saw the possibility of a middle path. So he opened the Boiler Room on Wellington Street West in 1967. The Star’s entertainment columnist Patrick Scott was appalled by the venue’s informality, hoping “a 20-ton crane will fall on it someday.”
Bramer grew up in eastern Holland, the youngest of five children of the local mayor. He later came to Canada and studied economics and political science at McGill University, then moved to Toronto.
The faintest hint of his native Dutch colours his speech. He has agreed to an interview at the Rebel House pub near his Rosedale home.
Sporting a cashmere scarf and tweed jacket, Bramer explains over sauvignon blanc that he wrote his memoirs for posterity, even though he expects to lose $50,000 to $100,000 doing so.
“I considered it a hobby,” Bramer says, noting he collaborated with writer Leah McLaren.
Much of the book details Bramer’s sometimes fluid approach to liquor licensing. Bribes worked. So did going around the law. When he launched the Coal Bin in 1969, Toronto’s first singles bar, restaurants were allowed to serve booze to men and women together as long as they ordered food. So he charged drinkers 25 cents for roast beef that was never eaten.
“There it sat each night, festering under the heat lamps as the crowds drank and laughed to their hearts content,” he writes.
With the Generator, a music venue he opened in 1972 at Yonge and Eglinton streets, he rigged the cash registers to meet Ontario laws requiring food and liquor sales to be equal.
During Ontario’s 1985 beer strike, which left the province dry for a month, Bramer worked his Dutch connections to get his supply from Dutch-owned Amstel Brewery in Hamilton, Ont., which wasn’t on strike. “I felt like a bootlegger during Prohibition,” writes the grandfather of three.
That strike led to looser rules and Bramer launched Amsterdam Brewery in a derelict building on John Street. The 800-capacity brew pub had polished cement floors and blue-and-white awnings — plus an office sauna Bramer used daily. Little Amsterdam next door came next, followed by the Rotterdam brew pub.
Bramer sold Amsterdam Brewery in 2002, claiming he made more money in real estate than beer.
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The hot spots he built — the Boiler Room (where future mayor Barbara Hall worked), the Coal Bin (ditto Star columnist Rita Zekas), the Gasworks (immortalized in “Wayne’s World”) and the Rotterdam (now the Spoke Club) — are long gone.
Nor is Bramer sure Torontonians today are taking the opportunity to enjoy themselves fully, given the shaky economy.
“You can’t party every night if you want to keep your job,” he says.
But Bremer is still going, entertaining us with his tales.