The New Dragon’s Den

On Dragon's Den, Michael Wekerle did everything large—big responses, big laughs, big investments. The larger-than-life Canadian business mogul has been involved with everything from film studios to investment banks and everything in between, including the Canadian franchises with Mark Wahlberg of his Wahlbergers chain. Setting his signs on the iconic Canadian rock club El Mocambo last March, Wekerle aims to restore live music royalty, even as he battles social distancing and the second wave of COVID-19. We caught up with Wekerle the morning after Big Wreck soft-launched the club in September. We could still hear the ringing in his ears.
  • kind: The El Mo first opened in 1948 and has hosted everyone from The Rolling Stones to Stevie Ray Vaughan. How do you think last night compared?

    MW: It felt like a real show and let me tell you, being COVID-compliant and these harrowing times? Big Wreck sounded amazing and it felt like everyone needed a really great night.

  • kind: Can you talk a bit about the history of the space?

    MW: It was the second or third liquor license in the city of Toronto and Joe Brown wanted to create a Latino vibe for ballroom dancing. In the early days, it was very interesting and then Ronnie Hopkins came in and it became very famous for rock ‘n’ roll—it was the place for rockabilly in the late 50’s, early 60’s.

  • kind: It’s wild how such a little place took up so much historic real estate.

    MW: The British Invasion came right through here. The Rolling Stones in 1977. U2 played their first show ever in North America, March 1980—the El Mocambo. I can go on and on.

  • kind: Billy Idol.

    MW: Stevie Ray Vaughan.

  • kind: Blondie.

    MW: The Cars. Listen, we can do this all day. I love it.

  • kind: Why this place on Spadina Avenue? What made it so great?

    MW: I would say between 1965 to 1985, those 20 years, it was just unparalleled in terms of its excellence, and we wanted to keep as much of it as we could. But of course it was a lot smaller in those days, the ceiling was lower and it was just impossible to get into. And I know this because I tried!

  • kind: You’re kidding me.

    MW: I’m not. I tried numerous times before finally making it in 1979. I had to sneak in, but as a young kid growing up and loving music, it was always the holy grail. Can you imagine, getting up onstage at the El Mocambo and playing guitar?

  • kind: That was the dream?

    MW: Yeah, and I wasn’t good enough to play the El Mocambo. I had to buy it instead.

  • kind: After the deed was done, did you get up onstage?

    MW: After I closed the deal I actually brought my mother with me and I did it—I played a few covers of The Rolling Stones.

  • kind: Let’s talk about the Stones. Let’s talk about the 70’s.

    MW: I remember going there to see Foghat in 1981. I was 18-years-old and working in a restaurant and it was just like, ‘I love this.’ It was the best place in the world.

  • kind: Of course the big act tied to the venue is headlined by Mick and Keith.

    MW: They came out as The Cockroaches. It was a surprise show and back in those days, you could smoke in the theatres. Of course as soon as the lights went down, the puffs of smoke came out, which is funny, because now that we’re opening, cannabis is finally legal. Plenty of people will be walking around outside for a smoke.

  • kind: So you’re good with the cannabis legalization?

    MW: Pot is just the same as drinking. As long as you have a responsible way of getting home after the show, cannabis legalization is excellent, yeah.

  • kind: I can’t believe you successfully pulled off a show last night during the pandemic.

    MW: This is a big part of what we’re doing, bringing the live party back to your house.

  • kind: The industry is being decimated and it’s so sad to see.

    MW: The thing about us is we have incredible technology so we can also do amazing live streams. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic, but we were wiring for livestreams before COVID. And last night, if you streamed it, it was epic.

  • kind: Does it feel like you have big platform shoes to fill?

    MW: We’ve created a new model for the industry. I think there’s even some things from the past—sound, technology, sightlines—that we can improve. Besides, when Mick Jagger took the stage at the El Mo, he said, “This ain’t no dress rehearsal. This is the real deal here. We’re at El Mocambo!” We have to honour the words of Mick.

  • kind: Let’s honour them. What more can you tell me about their ‘77 show?

    MW: They were the biggest band in rock ’n’ roll at the time and this concert came in unannounced. April Wine opened up and the Stones were so impressed with their performance that they released it as a live album. Live at the El Mocambo was the original title of their live record, and the guy working the sound that night is still working with us today.

  • kind: I understand Margaret Trudeau was at the show.

    MW: I heard that the green room was more than green—it was a gong show in there.

  • kind: Man, to be a fly on the wall.

    MW: They were staying at the Royal York and took a whole floor. Overall it was a cool 1970s experience. You have to remember that in 1977, oil prices were up and we’d come through Watergate. This show was the Stones creating this vibe that was love.

  • kind: Obviously that’s a vibe that you want to keep up today.

    MW: No way you take on something like the El Mocambo and do the vibe any other way.