By Keri Schram
In Ye Olde Brunswick House, the only thing that overpowers the dank smell is the noise.
The popular bar (located at Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue) is packed with college and university students who sit at long wooden picnic tables, huddled around pitchers of beer. Students drink, smoke and try to chat with their friends over the loud rock music. Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blares out of the bar’s sound system but the song is interrupted when a thin blond woman, old enough to be the grandma of any of the bar’s student patrons, takes the stage.
She is wearing a long black dress, a chunky gold necklace and she carries a tambourine. Her keyboardist, a crotchety old man called Nate the Great waits patiently for his cue, his bored expression never changing. Some students look confused by the sudden change in atmosphere, while others start banging on the tables and cheering as the woman and her keyboardist rock into their set of old show tunes and sexy bar anthems.
“This is one of the oddest things I have ever seen,” says first-time Brunny visitor Nick Shipley from Ottawa.
“The first time I saw the show I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ Then I thought, ‘This woman is amazing!’” says Jane Cole, a 21-year-old radio and television arts student from Ryerson.
Irene La Violette, who will only admit she is in her “late, late fifties,” has been singing at the popular student hangout for 27 years. Rockin’ Irene, as she is known to her fans, has become an important tradition at one of Toronto’s oldest bars. Next week is one of Irene’s last gigs. She’s going to Alberta to take a break and spend some time with her family. Although she plans to check out the campus bar scene at in Alberta and play a show or two, Irene will still promote the Brunny and plans to come back to Toronto in the spring.
“I helped build this place,” she says with a nostalgic look. “The Brunny is like family to me.”
Irene moved from her hometown of Ottawa to Toronto in the 1970s. During the day, Irene was working as a social worker, but by night she was involved in plays, musicals, movies and commercials as well as singing in airport lounges.
“My love was always the theatre,” she says. “I couldn’t get that out of my system, so I had to do it.”
Irene and her theatre group often went to the Brunswuick House after rehearsal for drinks. One night the former owner of the bar, Albert Nightingale, recognized her from her performance as the Belle of the Silver Nugget Saloon and asked Irene if she would like to sing at the bar. “I was only supposed to be here for two weeks, but almost thirty years later, I am still here!” she says, laughing.
Back in the 1970s the annex was a very different place. There were no student hangouts, or cute coffee shop and pubs. It was mostly a Hungarian community and the crowd that frequented the Brunny was an older, rougher one. “The crowd was old. I mean old — if they went to the washroom they could drop dead in there,” Irene remembers.
There was a lot of fights, she recalls, and the bouncers were untrained thugs who hit first and asked questions later. “I had to control the room when I was [on stage]. It was like there was no rules, the crowd was just wild.”
When the annex changed from an immigrant community to a student ghetto, the owners realized the crowd at the Brunny would have to change too. That’s when Irene decided to take her show on the road.
“I started going around to all of the different universities around Ontario. I would bring my show there and advertise the Brunswick House,” Irene says.
Out-of-town students often came into the bar in overcrowded cars. It became dangerous, so Irene suggested to management that they employ shuttle buses to take the students back to their campuses. The idea brought in even more business and guaranteed that students would drink lots, have a great time and get home safe.
Irene is an unusual candidate to advertise an old bar, but she has managed to pull it off. Shawn Hubert, 29, is at the Brunny with his friends tonight for a Ryerson alumni reunion party. Hubert and other former Ryerson students are chatting with Irene like they are old friends. “I like her openheartedness and her willingness to be a part of the young generation, she is a great person,” she says.
Rockin’ Irene opens her show with a song from the musical Cabaret, then she gets everyone to sing along to “Doe a Deer” from The Sound of Music. Drunken football players and girls in low-cut shirts sing loudly and sway with their arms around one another. Irene closes her show with the drinking song, “Roll Me Over”, breaking between verses to play on the sexual innuendo of the song and to get guys to come up and dance on stage with her.
“This is number 9 … I prefer 69s!” Irene sings. The crowd erupts in to laughing and cheering. “That’s because I am cougar you know. Oh roll me over lay me down and do it again!”
Irene is mystified by her appeal to the Brunny’s hard-drinking youth crowd. “I have no idea what they think and I am afraid to ask. No one else does anything like what I do. It’s different, but the Brunswick House is different anyway. I am not one to follow other people.”
When resident DJ, Heavy D, announced that Irene would only be doing one more Saturday night show, the crowd booed. It is clear that she will be missed. “The manager asked me ‘Irene why are you leaving, is it because of all of the changes?’ and I said ‘No this is how I always wanted to see it,’ The Brunny doesn’t get older, it just keeps growing like me. The Brunny and I have a lot in common.”
Irene may be taking a break, but she definitely isn’t retiring. Although she feels her work at the Brunny is done, Irene is interested in teaching drama and staying involved with the Toronto community, especially with young people. She also has new projects in mind. “I have always wanted my own talk show. It’s not too late for that.”