The unassuming single-storey storefront at the corner of Ellesmere Avenue and St. Mary's Road in St. Vital, currently home to The Tackle Box, may not look like it now, but in the 1960s it was a swinging hotspot.
Opened in early 1965, The Twilight Zone club at 539 St. Mary's Rd. was a mecca for local teens who came to hear live rock 'n' roll music seven days a week.
Owner Dick Roberts, a retired farmer, was seeking to create a safe haven where teens could hang out all evening. "The kids should have a place they can call their own," he stated in an August 1965 Winnipeg Free Press story. "Restaurants don't welcome kids sitting around for hours over a soft drink. This gets them off the streets and parents know where they are. I like the kids and want to do something for them."
As frequent patron Judy Edwards noted, Roberts "never lets anything get out of hand. We can have fun." Entering the club with its blue walls and red and white checkered tablecloths, teens were issued a time card and charged 20 cents per half hour plus any food or beverages.
"The time clock cards were a unique approach not tried in Winnipeg before," says Glenn MacRae of Twilight Zone favourites The Crescendos. The club was unlicensed but smoking was allowed. During the day it served as a restaurant before transforming in the evenings.
Besides the casual coffeehouse-like ambiance, the real attraction was the bands. The Zone had a particular sound, more of a raucous R 'n' B style, and featured like-minded bands. When Gimli band The Saints (later The Fifth) moved to Winnipeg in 1965, one of their first gigs was at the Twilight Zone.
"We were playing Buddy Holly and Beatles," recalls bass player Richard Gwizdak. "The crowd was yelling for Walking The Dog, I'm Your Kingpin, and Farmer John. So we learned them and returned and went over great." The Zone also became a popular gathering place for musicians on off nights. According to The Quid's Colin Palmer, "We always used to hang out there and see other bands when we weren't playing." Adds Orfans drummer Ken "Dutch" Schultz: "You'd look out and recognize all those familiar faces." "When there was a lull at the club and only a few people," says The Deverons' Bruce Decker, "we could learn a new song, try it out, and have it in our set by the time the crowd picked up."
As Glenn MacRae recalls, "Neil Young was one of the only guys in town playing harmonica, so during breaks at The Zone he gave me harmonica lessons in our Volkswagen van in the back parking lot." Neil's Squires played The Zone on several occasions.
"The music we play was written for this type of audience so, naturally, this is where we enjoy playing it," Neil was quoted in a Winnipeg Tribune article. "My wife would go there with her sisters just to hear Neil sing Farmer John," says Denis Penner.
The Exiled's Bonnie Wallace remembers the night guitar great Lenny Breau paid the club a visit.
"We were well into the evening when in walked Lenny and took a seat at the back of the club. Our guitarist Doug Love's face turned ashen and I could see him start to panic. Doug was fast building a reputation as one of the best guitar players around. Lenny was there to check him out. White-faced with sweat rolling down his forehead, Doug played his solo with his back to the audience. He couldn't look at Lenny. He played the rest of the set that way. Afterwards Lenny came up and talked to him and Doug was pretty pumped after that."
Burton Cummings vividly recalls a memorable 1965 Twilight Zone performance.
"I went down to the Zone to see The Sticks & Stones. Early in the set they went into That's How Strong My Love Is and (singer) Dean Steeves seemed to leave The Zone and go who-knows-where mentally, spiritually, whatever. He writhed on the floor, shrieked face down in the St. Vital dust, twitched and moaned into space, finishing the number by seemingly ravaging the cigarette machine at the side of the stage. It was a staggering performance." Recalling Steeves' antics, Cummings later composed King Of The Twilight Zone.
Even Winnipeg winters couldn't keep teens away. "I dug my Honda 50 motor scooter out of a snowbank in the middle of January and me and Art Houston rode it all the way to The Zone from River Heights to see The Orfans there," laughs Ralph Gammelseter. "Were we nuts or what? What a trip!"
Although The Twilight Zone's tenure was brief, closing by 1967, memories remain strong.
"There was something about that place that symbolized the whole '60s scene," says The Quid's Morley Nickles. Adds Bonnie Wallace, "It was definitely one of the coolest places."
John Einarson hosts My Generation Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon on UMFM 101.5.