As I mentioned before, I wanted Le Hibou to be more than a coffee house featuring out of town performers with a sprinkling of occasional folk singers and chansonniers. I wanted it to be a small mecca of different forms of art. Hence, I had theatre (French and English), children’s theatre, films, even painting and sculpture exhibits, fashion shows, and dance performances. The selection of plays were eclectic, from London and Paris and Off-Broadway, such as Entertaining Mr Sloane, The Knack, The day the whores came out to play tennis, or classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, and even original local authors, including Vision of an Unseemly Youth by John Palmer.
I was quite fortunate to attract young and not-so-young innovative directors such as Tim Bond, John Palmer, Gilles Provost (who directed plays in French or English), Jean Herbiet, who was head of the French theatre at the University of Ottawa and then became head of French theatre at the NAC. I also managed to direct a few plays in the new venue. I had already directed Victims of Duty by Eugene Ionesco and The Maids by Jean Genet as well as others on Bank Street.
There was an amusing incident when I directed The day the whores came out to play tennis. We had posters all over Ottawa—with a provocative design by Doug Peaker—and, of course, ads in the newspaper. Somehow the advertising caught the eye of Ottawa Police morality detectives. They came and stood in the back of Le Hibou for the duration of the play, waiting for something scandalous—I don’t know what, since there were no scandalous scenes. At the conclusion of the play, the detectives sheepishly said that the play was okay, but some words—the abominable swear words—should be cleaned up. I thanked them for the approval and comments, and they left. One actress was terrified—”What if they come back and arrest us?” I tried to reassure her, stating that they would not do that, even though I secretly relished the thought of such an incident occurring. It would have been great publicity! I advised her that if she didn’t feel comfortable with the words, she could just change them, which she did the following night. And of course the police never did show up—to the great dismay of a film crew who waited all evening.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau came to Le Hibou once. I had booked Michel Choquette many times before as a solo artist. He did a lot of satirical and humorous songs and was quite unique in this genre. When Le Hibou moved to Sussex Drive, he called to say he was back from a tour in the United States He was a duo now and they called themselves “Times Square Two.” They had travelled the States in an old black hearse. When they arrived at their next engagement they would call the press and invite them to the municipal hall. There, they would show up with their hearse, dressed impeccably in tuxedos, perform a bit of their repertoire, and then present the surprised mayor with a card inviting him to their show. Unfortunately, they didn’t do this in Ottawa.
But they did do up a poster with their photo and name Times Square Two with the caption: Two Heads are Better than One. Michel said he knew Trudeau and invited him for the show. All week long Trudeau didn’t show up and given that an election call was in the air, I didn’t think he would. But then on Sunday, after Times Square Two had done their last set, in came Trudeau and his RCMP guard and chauffeur. He excused himself profusely to Michel for missing his show, stated that it was a busy time, and asked Michel if he was still doing judo. (Michel belonged to the same judo club as Pierre in Montreal). Michel asked him to sign a poster, which Trudeau did . And as fast as he came, he waved goodbye to everyone and was off. I often think about that episode being so casual, compared to today where the PM requests the protection of an American president, with sniffer dogs four hours before the meeting, a thorough search of the building and its surroundings, and an army of heavily armed guards blanketing the PM bullet proof vehicle.
One time I called Bernie Fiedler of The Riverboat in Toronto to try to arrange a coordination of bookings amongst Le Hibou, The Riverboat and the New Penelope in Montreal. In doing so, it would have permitted us to have a better deal and the performers would have three consecutive dates in Canada. However, Bernie Fiedler was not at all interested. He preferred to go it alone. He liked to tell how clever he was to book Simon and Garfunkel for three different dates in the coming year. And of course, as they became more and more popular the club greatly benefited. However, I did manage to interest the New Penelope and we arranged joint bookings. The strategy worked for a while, but it was cumbersome, so finally we dropped it.
Harvey Glatt did the folk bookings at the beginning. These were done mostly through William Morris Agency in New York. Just about any artist could be booked through them. As time went on, I started to do more and more of the bookings and in the last few years I did just about all of the bookings as Harvey became less interested.
In June, l967, an agent from Detroit called me and proposed Joni Mitchell for the coffee house. Joni was growing in reputation and popularity and her agent was anxious to have her play at Le Hibou. Apparently, performing at Le Hibou was good for reputations. The arrangement was for a three week booking. I assumed that word would spread and that it would prove profitable for the coffee house. I also arranged through Peter Shaw, a music producer with CBC Radio to have her featured at an outdoor concert. This also provided Joni with extra revenue. I had hoped that all that exposure would bring large crowds, but that didn’t materialize. What did materialize was a friendship with Bill Stevenson. Joni loved antiques and Bill shepherded her from one antique store to another. I was told that she did gain some prized pieces, which she took back to Dearborn, where she was living at the time.
At a later date I booked Joni again for Le Hibou, and at the same time Harvey brought Jimi Hendrix to the Capitol Theatre. If I had not had Joni for that same week, and Harvey had not booked Jimi for a concert, the two might never have met. Joni did come back, many more times, to Le Hibou, to ever growing crowds, until only larger venues would cover her fee. She also suggested that I book her husband, Chuck Mitchell, which I did the following year. He was a competent performer but not quite as talented as Joni.
One of the ongoing problems for any coffee house is the constant ploy of some individuals to gain free access to club. The most popular one was “I’m a guest of the performer.” “Sorry but your name is not on the list.” In fact there were very few performers who would ask for guests privileges. Another was “I am the guest of Denis Faulkner.” Once I was working the door and some young lad brazenly walked in claiming to be “Guest of Denis Faulkner.” When I told him I was Denis Faulkner and that I didn’t know him, he blanched, then reddened and quickly turned and walked out. Another time someone arrived with a small piece of electronic equipment and wires claiming it was for the performer. There were also stories of guys smooching the female door attendants, decrying their poverty, and their intense desire to see the performer.
One group had found an imaginative way to get in. One of them would pay to get in, walk upstairs, go through the unlocked door leading to the rehearsal room and the storage room for the theatre group, open the side fire door and let the gang in. The following night I put some talcum powder on the steel fire stairs, followed the traces and promptly caught the culprits, white footed. I subsequently solved the problem by putting a large lock on the upstairs door.
From February 4-7, 1965 Carol Robinson and Amos Garrett were the first performers to play at the new Le Hibou. The week before they also performed at the old Le Hibou on Bank Street, so they closed one venue and opened up another. The following two weeks featured theatre: “Victims of Duty” by Eugene Ionesco. Cast included Gerard Gravelle, Taunia Gravelle, Robert Whelan, Noel Almay, Elizabeth Langley, and Jean Honeywell. I handled the direction. In retrospect I really don’t know how I managed to rehearse the play, manage the move and the coffee house, and carry a full-time job at the CBC. I suppose that in those days one didn’t think about it, it had to be done, and we did it.
Generally speaking I had a very good relationship with the performers. Most were very professional, although some lingered a little too long at the Chateau Lafayette pub around the corner, and we had to remind them occasionally that a crowd was waiting for their second set. But that was the exception. Some were cantankerous. Gord Lightfoot, who always drew a large crowd, would fuss for a long time in the adjustments of the sound system. Then in the middle of the first song, he would stop and snipe about the sound levels being all wrong. I happened to be at the sound one evening and it happened to me. Maybe he didn’t realize that the sound would be different with a room full of people. Maybe it was just his perfectionist bent, or maybe it was a way to defuse his nervousness. Despite this small idiosyncrasy he was a wonderful singer song writer.
I also recall the first time Bruce Cockburn performed at Le Hibou. The arrangement, as usual, was a base amount versus a percentage of the gate. To my surprise, on his first night his brother was at the door counting every paying customers as though our staff was not competent or was intent on cheating. I was outraged at the time, I had no idea who instituted it, but I quickly put a stop to it. Other than that small episode, everything was smooth after that. Bruce subsequently became a regular performer at Le Hibou as a single, or in with The Children, Flying Circus, Olivus and 3’s a Crowd. He continued to perform while Le Hibou was managed by John Russow, and then Pierre-Paul Lafreniere. Then there was Peter Hodgson, always brimming with enthusiasm and joy, who played as a single, with Neville Wells as Nev and Pete, as Sneezy Waters, as A Rosewood Daydream and as Sneezy Waters and his Excellent Band.
Other Ottawa performers also played extensively at the club—Bill Stevenson, solo or with bands or his jazz quartet; Bill Hawkins with Heavenly Blue, The Children and other interfusions. Whenever I was stuck with a cancellation, one of the two Bills would always be able to fill in.
In the new place we had a mezzanine above the kitchen. The previous owner, Hobby House, had used it as a small office. It had a large opening which overlooked the whole room. I presume that might also have been part of his anti-theft strategy as there were no anti-theft cameras then. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were happy to use the room to relax and meet people. I had put in a sofa and an arm chair which were much more comfortable than the hard chairs in the main room. I would go and chat with them and sometimes they would complain about the industry, how the young rock bands would use their material without giving them credit. They would also complain that they had been playing for years making little money and these bands using their material would make ten times more, which they found quite unfair, and I quite agreed. (I would hear the same complaint from some of the blues bands.)
Sometimes Sonny and Brownie would tear at one another very much like a long time old couple. I recall on an early summer evening, Penny and I went up for a chat. It was hot and Penny had a leather coat. Brownie queried “Why wear a leather coat on such a hot day?” To this Penny laughingly answered. “Oh but I am not hot, I am nude underneath the coat.” Sonny, who is blind, interjected, “Oh, oh, oh, come here, come closer,” as he extended his arms, hoping to grasp Penny as she deftly pirouetted away. Everybody had a great laugh and the loudest laugh came from Brownie. I always enjoyed having them at the coffee house. They were quite down to earth, most professional, always gave a strong performance and were very amiable and drew consistent crowds. Their closing song “Walk on” has always impressed me—even though I’ve seen it many times. I was always touched seeing Brownie playing his guitar followed by Sonny, his hand on Brownie’s left shoulder, as they walked through the crowd towards the back of the room singing away. With any other artists it would be close to melodramatic, but with them it was always authentic and touching.
At one time I went to the airport to pick up Jerry Jeff Walker (Mr Bojangles) and when we arrived in Centretown, I told him that we were in the centre of Ottawa. He was astonished. “But where are all the tall buildings?” he exclaimed. I had to explain that, this being the capital of Canada, there was a by law prohibiting any building in the vicinity of Parliament Hill to be any higher than the Peace Tower.
1965 happened to feature aboriginal singers. Donald K Donald Agency of Montreal, with whom I dealt for Montreal performers, suggested that I hire this new Aboriginal singer Willie Dunn. Willie was the first aboriginal performer to broach aboriginal issues, and he did so in a very forceful voice. Later, Buffy Ste Marie came along with equally great passion, but her songs which she wrote and her poignant delivery was much more powerful. With her high cheek bones, long flowing black hair, vibrant eyes, and strong personality augmented by her aboriginal accoutrement, she commanded attention. Buffy demonstrated passion, sometimes anger in her songs about Aboriginal issues and history, but off stage she had a very gentle personality. Budge Crawley, of Crawley Films in Ottawa, ironically was in the process of doing a documentary film extolling the virtues of Saskatchewan for the government of that province. Buffy was born there and he jumped at the chance to film her at Le Hibou. I agreed and she performed in the afternoon in front of our brick wall. Odetta was also another politically engaged singer who had a powerful voice, and was also a powerful preacher. Sometimes she preached even more than she sang.
Le Hibou never had a liquor licence, though occasionally I got a banquet licence to serve alcohol on occasions—once for New Year’s Eve. So we had to rely on other means to supplement income, since we were now open all day, I decided to offer lunch at noon for the civil servants and business people who worked nearby. At first we offered mainly sandwiches and salad. Our rye bread came daily from Rideau Bakery. Tatra Bakery at 25 St Etienne, in Hull, provided delicious buns for our ham and cheese or tomato and cheese sandwiches. We could not get our cakes from Augustine on Bank Street anymore since he didn’t deliver. Fortunately, the new young owners, Armin and Rheinholt, of Bronson Bakery, a German bakery, were only to happy to do delivery. Another advantage of being in the market area was that I was able to shop daily at Continental Deli and Saslove Meats, and choose my fresh produce from the stalls for the vegetables. On nearby George Street there was a Loeb warehouse for stores and restaurants, a good place for dry goods and canned products.
Later, I thought of running the place like a French bistro offering a choice of two hot dishes, which would vary from day to day. This proved quite popular, and we attracted a good clientele. The menu was quite varied, including beef strogonoff, chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, veal scallopine etc. It was a hectic time for me as some of time I had to do the cooking, but I loved the rush of the action and the occasional kudos from the customers. Eventually I was able to hire a full-time chef and Georges Tremblay, the actor, part of the Le Hibou theatre group did a wonderful job. More on him later.
There was also a CIBC bank at the corner of Rideau and Sussex and as it was the closest, it became our bank. I arranged with the bank the possibility of night drop off . I was given a pouch and deposit slips. I advised the staff to vary the hours of drop off since it was always late in the evening, and I didn’t want an incident. But quite often I would do it. I had a little routine: I would drive up with the VW van, check everywhere, jump out, key in hand, open the door, slam the pouch in and take off. If I walked, I always did it with another person. Luckily, we never had an incident but that was those days. I don’t know if it would be as easy and as safe today.
The move also required printing up a new card with the owl logo and the new address. The life time membership cost a dollar. Harvey wanted to scrap it altogether, but I refused as this to me was part of Le Hibou identity. I felt that people were proud to have a Le Hibou membership card in their wallet, and they expressed it to us many times. So it was kept.
At first I set the stage on the large platform in the bay window on the left. I had moved the front door to the right where the second large bay window was located. Thus we had a more discreet way for the public to come in, and we also had better control. Having the stage on the platform made more space for seating but also it created a long room. As before, for the background we used discarded CBC black curtains (limbos) and thus blocked any peering eyes from the street. But sometimes there was a small space in between the curtain and we would see happy faces taking in the free performances.
The performer was also at a small disadvantage since he or she had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage. And since the front door was close to the stage, it created a distraction when somebody wanted to come in during the set. So, I decided to put the stage along the brick wall right in the centre of the room to solve all these problems. With that beautiful wall we required no background curtain whatsoever and we also instantly created a proximity between the artist and the public and enhanced the intimacy. That proved to be quite so as everybody would rave about the closeness to the performers, be it folksingers, jazz, blues, or actors.
Chac Mool / Potbelly Boutique
Penny also moved her Chac Mool Boutique to the new space. She had two large vertical display panels built on wheels which would be opened in the day time and closed and locked for the evening—it was like a large steamship trunk set vertically. As we stored it in the corner, it didn’t take much space. Since Penny had started on Bank Street, she had evolved more and more into designing dresses and developing a good clientele.
Later when her brother, Alan Knight, who worked at Le Hibou, received a scholarship for his Masters at Columbia University, we would take the Volkswagen van down to New York. There, we stayed at his flat on Orchard Street, where all the textiles remnants shop were located. Most of the shop owners were Jewish and connected with the New York textile industry. They had plenty of fantastic ends of lines at great prices. We had heard (urban myth?) that they were quite superstitious: If they didn’t sell to their first customer, the day would be lousy. So Penny was always there as soon as they opened and, whether it was due to superstition or something else, always ended up with excellent bargains.
Of course now that we had moved to larger premises, I received visits from many municipal officials. The first was the health inspector. We needed an extra bathroom and three sinks in the kitchen, which we provided. The Fire Regulations inspectors required t an alarm system and an emergency light on the premises. That was the wording in the “Regulations,” with no particular details. So when the inspectors arrived the following week to verify the changes and asked about my alarm system, I hauled a large school bell from under the counter and rang it vigorously. They looked at one another, astonished, for a moment and then murmured slowly, “Well I guess that’s okay. Everybody will hear that.” When asked about the emergency light, I reached again under the counter and produced a large square powerful flashlight. Again the same look of surprise, but they said that’s what the regulation stated: You needed an emergency light, you have it, and it is okay. The fire inspectors had also required a fireproof enclosure for the oil furnace as well as a fire door in the back with “panic hardware.” Luckily for us, the National Capital Commission agreed to pay for it as it was considered a property improvement. A few years later, the fire inspectors came back with new and more explicit regulations, and I had to add a battery operated lighting system which would go on when the electrical system failed. But the warning bell was OK.
On another visit, health inspectors had other issues. When they spotted the Italian espresso making machine they examined it as if they had just seen an alien. “Is this machine safe? Where was it made? Italy, you say? Is it going to blow up in your face? Who approved it?” So I made them a few cappuccinos, which they grateful accepted. One inspector noticed on the side a little Canadian Standards Association (CSA) approved stamp, and then the tone got even better. “Well , if the CSA approved it, it must be alright.” But then as though they were determined to find fault, one inspector queried about the hairy cedar planks on the wall. The hairy cedar planks? What if a small sliver of wood fell off onto a client’s food, does that not cause a hazard? I said that I didn’t think so, after all, we use toothpicks all the time, do we not? He agreed. So we passed the health inspection.
A few weeks before we finalized the rental of the space from the National Capital Commission (NCC), John Leaning, the NCC chief architect, John McClelland, the NCC property manager, Harvey Glatt, and I met at 521 Sussex Drive to view the premises and to finalize the rent. As we surveyed the premises, on one wall, which was covered by peg board, I noticed a tear. As I yanked the peg board back, a beautiful old brick wall was revealed underneath. Once we became tenants, Alan Knight, my brother-in-law, and I took the peg board down and scraped off a large patch of whitewash with a wire brush on one small section of the wall. And there we had it—a beautiful brick south wall running the length of the coffee house. Much later Crawley Films used the wall as a background to film one of Buffy Ste Marie’s songs, which was included in a film on Saskatchewan.
Matt Stankiewicz, an architect whom I had met at a Exhibition Canada graphic designers parties, and who later backed me up on my crusade against the University of Ottawa’s new campus design, offered to draw up a plan for the new Le Hibou. I was delighted, but had one requirement: I wanted a counter to display our Italian espresso machine and our wonderful European cakes from Bronson Bakery—cakes made with real butter in those days; they also had a great mocha cake and a fabulous Black Forest cake. I also wanted to display the great varieties of tea that we offered, Darjeeling, Lapsang, Souchon, Earl Grey, English Breakfast tea, Green tea, Asssam and many more. While this range of coffee, tea, and desserts is more common today, it certainly wasn’t in the 1960s when even the kiwi fruit had not yet been introduced.
Not only did Matt organise a beautiful, functioning kitchen, which we never had on Bank Street, but he also incorporated an open window space between the kitchen and the front counter so we could pass orders through. On top of the outside counter where we had the espresso and the cakes displayed, he added a sloped roof with cedar singles. This created a focal point in the room while also harmonizing the seventeen-foot vertical scalloped “hairy” B.C. cedar board Matt specially ordered and had installed on the north wall.
We required a sign for the front of the building. Doug Peaker, a graphic designer from the C.B.C., came up with an inexpensive and ingenious idea. He designed large cut-out plywood letters that he had cut at the CBC carpentry shop. It read “Café Le Hibou Coffee House”. We painted them white. He also made two large blow-up of our signature owls, which were to be placed on each side of the letters. The owls and letters covered the top front of our building and made it hard to miss. I brought in a ladder, and with a lot of directions and expletives from below and above, we were able to screw everything in and reasonably in line.
We were about ready to open, but then we needed more chairs and tables. Al’s Used Furniture on the market our main provider and other used furniture stores were our sources, but prices had gone up from. 50 cents to a $1, even to $2 for less wobbly chairs. Tables had shot up from $3 to $5. Somehow we managed to get everything together including better lighting and an upgrade in the sound system. Again I was fortunate to have CBC sound and lighting technicians advise.
At the time (1965), the National Capital Commission was planning to create a Mile of History on Sussex Drive and they started to acquire all the buildings and to restore them. They planned to rent the ground floor premises to stores and restaurants. Le Hibou became their first coffee house tenant.
The new site was at 521 Sussex Drive, a block and a half from Rideau Street and a block from the market. It was a heritage building with large glass windows and a massive, ornate wooden door. The place was a dream come true. It was almost three times the size of 248 Bank Street, with a 15-foot high ceiling that still had the original stamped tin tile. There were two steel posts in the large main room, but nothing to hinder the view of the stage. Almost predestined for Le Hibou there were large H’s inscribed on the tile floor. (It had been the home of the Hobby House.) In the back there was a good size room, ideal for a kitchen with steep stairs leading to a mezzanine above, which in turn divided into two spaces, one ideal for a performers’ room, and the other for the film projector and the stage lighting control.
There were drawbacks for us since the market at the time had quite a sordid reputation with prostitutes and their clients, and I wondered if that would be a deterrent. The rent certainly was not, however. At $275 a month, it was most reasonable, with the understanding that all costs for renovation on the inside had to be borne by Le Hibou. And of course Le Hibou was quite prepared to do that.