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The coffee bar at the Bohemian Embassy, 7 St. Nicholas St., 1965. Image courtesy of York University Archives.

Poet Gwendolyn MacEwen onstage, The Bohemian Embassy, 7 St. Nicholas St., 1962. Image courtesy of York University Archives.

A glimpse into the Happening, The Bohemian Embassy, 7 St. Nicholas St., 1963. Image courtesy of York University Archives.

The former Embassy under construction, 7 St. Nicholas St., 2023. Image by Thomas Sayers.

  • The Bohemian Embassy

     From Atwood to Saturday Night Live

    At the time, coffee houses were places for young people to  share political and artistic ideas and hear music and poetry about themselves. The Bohemian Embassy was well known as the only place in Toronto where poetry was read every night.

    Margaret Atwood describes what it was like to be in the smoke filled, dimly lit room. After climbing a “treacherous flight of wooden stairs with no bannister,” poets might be subjected, mid-reading, to the gurgling sound of the espresso machine. Atwood performed her first poetry reading here and experimented with her performance voice.

    Alongside Atwood, the Bohemian Embassy hosted Canadian cultural icons like pianist Glenn Gould, opera singer Maureen Forrester, writer Michael Ondaatje, folk singers Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, and poet Gwendolyn MacEwan.

    As for theatre, the Bohemian Embassy premiered 30 theatre productions over six years, including The Village Revue. The Revue was directed by a young Lorne Michaels, who lampooned Toronto before founding Saturday Night Live in New York City in 1975.

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  • The Bohemian Embassy

    How Toronto’s First Happening Happened

    According to the CBC, Canada’s first “happening” took place at the Bohemian Embassy in February of 1963. Happenings were messy, mixed-media performance spectacles that were inspired by the Dada art movement. Everyone present was invited to take part and transform often-cramped spaces like coffee houses and lofts into sites of temporary performance.

    The Beat generation loved the sense of play that arose in happenings. CBC coverage from the time showed Embassy denizens acting out Hamlet, interspersed with utterings of “Gee Gee, Gee Gee, Gee Gee,” and other nonsense. Don Cullen noted, however, that nobody present had really seen a happening before, and so the result was more amateur than a more traditional, serious happening like one might see in New York.

    Like many Yorkville coffee houses, the Embassy’s life was short. It closed in 1966, but was revived twice in other locations. Its most stalwart advocate, Don Cullen passed away in 2022. 

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  • The Bohemian Embassy

    Additional Resources:

    Beaven, Kirstie. ‘Performance Art: The Happening’. Tate Modern.  Accessed 15 Aug. 2023.

    Beatniks: The Hippie Forefathers.’ Close Up, CBC Television, 17 Feb. 1963,

    Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. ECW Press, 1998.

    Cullen, Don. The Bohemian Embassy: Memories and Poems. Wolsak & Wynn, 2007.

    Duff, Morris. ‘A Funny Thing Didn’t Happen Last Night’. Toronto Star, 11 Jan. 1962.Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive.

    Hale, Amanda. ‘A Dialectical Drama of Facts and Fictions on the Feminist Fringe.’ Theatre and Performance in Toronto, edited by Laura Levin, Canada Playwrights Press, 2011, pp. 40-54.

    Henderson, Stuart. ‘Getting to Yorkville.’ Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, University of Toronto Press, 2011, pp. 31-72.Johnston, Denis W. ‘The Off-Yonge Street Theatres.’ Up the Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto’s Alternative Theatres, 1968-1975, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 197-217.

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