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The story behind Owl’s Club, a veterans’ hall with legendary karaoke Saturdays

“We don’t want to become a nightclub. We want to stay true to the origins”

By Nick Zarzycki| Photography by Ryan Nangreaves
The exterior of Owl's Club Unit 306, housed in an old church in Toronto

Walking down the stairs and into the basement clubhouse of Owl’s Unit 306, an army, navy and air force veterans’ hall, feels like a reprieve from the city—and the 21st century. Christmas lights hang from an old-fashioned drop ceiling, military memorabilia and kitschy knick-knacks covered in a decades-old patina of nostalgia line walls and tables, and the ghost of past cigarettes lingers despite the fact that no one has lit up here in years.

While the club is closed to the public most days, for almost 20 years it has opened its doors every Saturday for karaoke. It now has a dedicated following for the weekly singalong. Bartender Joel Sundarsingh says a busload of tourists once pulled up claiming they had heard about Owl’s legendary karaoke nights all the way out in Calgary.

Stairs descending to Owl's Club Unit 306, an Army Navy hall in Toronto
A cork board displays old newspaper clippings, photos and keys

On a slow night, Unit 306 looks like any other sleepy veterans’ hall. Twenty- and 30-somethings play pool, shoot darts, and line up at a menu-less bar to buy $5.50 bottles of Molson Export. Meanwhile, the table and two stools closest to the bar are usually occupied by a more mature and distinguished group of regulars. Spend some time here, however, and you begin to appreciate how deeply ingrained Owl’s has become in the lives of locals, who have turned it into a kind of communal living room.

On any given week, it might host a live experimental drone recording, a music video shoot, a birthday party, a reggae night, an album release or a movie screening. Tuesdays are for darts, and there’s a cribbage tournament every Wednesday, where they’ll teach anyone who isn’t familiar with the game how to play. All the club asks of visitors is that they respect the space, keep their voices down when they go outside to smoke and take their hats off when they enter (and keep them off until they exit). Oh, and whatever you do, don’t call it a Legion hall.

“The first time I did Saddle Up! at Owl’s, I wrote on the posters that it was ‘Toronto’s classic country Legion hall dance party,’” recalls Andrew Ennals, a marketing copywriter who organizes the popular monthly event. “After I put them up, someone went around and crossed out the words ‘Legion hall’ on each of them and hand wrote ‘Army Navy Hall’ in their place. They are not a Legion.”

A wall of framed photographs
People sit at tables drinking beer at the Owl's Club, an Army Navy hall in Toronto

Owl’s is in fact part of Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (also referred to as the Army Navy Veterans, ANAVETS or simply ANAF), which has no known founding date, although it claims ancestry in the British veteran clubs that formed after the conquest of New France and the War of 1812, which would make the club more than a century older than the Royal Canadian Legion and one of the oldest organizations in the country.

“Owl’s” is the official nickname of Unit 306 of ANAVETS, chartered in 1950 and initially based in another clubhouse on Beverley Street. In 1965, Second World War veterans and members Ben and Dorothy Phoenix helped purchase the current building from another veterans’ club. Their son Brian—a retired coast guard engineer, former national president of ANAVETS and lifelong veterans’ advocate—grew up with Owl’s and still plays darts there on Tuesdays.

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“Some veterans came back from the war and didn’t want to do anything. I guess you’d call it post-traumatic stress disorder: they’d just come in and drink with their buddies. My dad wanted to give these guys activities to do. He wanted to give them a life,” says Phoenix, who remembers how his parents helped turn Owl’s into a hub of veteran family life in Toronto.

A bar and fridges full of beer cans and bottles
A bartender stands behind the bar and in front of fridges full of beer

During the club’s golden years in the 1960s and ’70s, cribbage, euchre and darts tournaments as well as picnics, bake sales and dinners filled out the social calendar, all chronicled in the Owler, the club newspaper run by Dorothy. On Saturdays, hundreds packed the club for dances featuring an MC and a live band, which some club members would join onstage to belt out renditions of “Yellow Bird” and “New York, New York.”

“When I first started coming here, you couldn’t get in, it was so busy. There were no jeans allowed, and you had to wear a shirt and a tie,” says veteran and Owl’s member Frank Lay. Earlier this month, I joined him and the Owl’s Cribbage League for their weekly Wednesday tournament, which is open to all skill levels and costs $5 to enter.

There were eight of us that night, enough for four teams of two, with the winners switching tables after every game. Despite everyone’s gracious and constant offers to help, I was blown out of the water in all six games I played. “Don’t write anything bad about me,” said Lay.

A shelf filled with owl mugs and board games
Books of songs for karaoke

Current club president Wayne Morrison, who frequented the club in his 20s and 30s, is an affable man with a grey beard—and is often mistaken for a veteran himself. Morrison says young people are usually surprised to learn that he and much of the club’s current leadership are actually the children of veterans.

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That’s because, at some point in the ’90s, when Canada’s Second World War and Korean War veterans began to pass away, veterans of newer wars stopped showing up at Canada’s Legion and Army Navy halls. Some blame this on the demise of mess culture, once the primary organizing unit of military social life. Morrison also suspects that the decline of alcohol as the analgesic of choice has contributed to the generational disconnect.

People playing pool and darts
A man plays shuffleboard

Most of the club’s new members today are locals like Stacey Moreno, a woman who has never served in the military and who learned about the club through the Bloor Street Darts League. She’s now the club’s secretary treasurer. The week that I visited in November, Moreno and a few other volunteers had just finished delivering care packages to Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre, which provides long-term care to many of Toronto’s remaining Second World War and Korean War veterans.

“We don’t want to become a nightclub. We want to stay true to the origins,” says Gare Black, a musician who went to Owl’s for the first time when he played a gig there. As the son of a veteran, the club’s entertainment officer and the frontman for a local band called Zombie Karaoke Santa, he’s keen to make Owl’s a welcoming place for artists while maintaining the club’s connection to the veteran community. That delicate balancing act has turned Owl’s into one of the few intergenerational meeting places in Toronto, a real treasure in a city starved for community spaces.

A man plays darts
A karaoke host sitting in front of a computer speaks into a microphone

“Become a member, attend meetings, give your input and volunteer,” says Phoenix when asked how people can help. Annual memberships can be purchased at the bar for $50, and funds go toward operating the club, putting together care packages for veterans and the annual ANAVETS conference.

For anyone content to simply come in on the occasional Saturday for karaoke, that’s fine too. It’s surprising how much fun can be had in a windowless basement with shoddy cell reception. “You do stuff here,” says Morrison. “I heard a girl say that to her boyfriend once: ‘You know why I like coming here? You do stuff!’”

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And although no one is precisely sure of how the club got its avian nickname, the consensus is that around the time Unit 306 was chartered, there was a group of veterans associated with the club who had a reputation for being night owls—they called themselves the Hooters.

A man sings into a microphone
People sit at tables drinking beer and watching a man sing karaoke
A woman sings karaoke and points at the camera

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