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The fences went up quietly, sneaking around the edges of the space like an orange warning snake.
Whatever happens next, it sure looks as if the Osborne Village Motor Inn is going away.
Or at least, the shell of it may be. The heart of the iconic Winnipeg dive hotel has already been cut away: not too long after news trickled out that it had been bought, its stages fell forever silent.
Meanwhile, its quirky café relocated to St. Boniface. It became known as The Nicolett Café, because why mess with a straightforward naming tradition? If you happen to visit for brunch, do try their omelettes – we recommend The Hipster, but the vegan poutine is also delish – if you can manage to finish it.
Anyway. The old hotel’s beer vendor remains open, because there’s money to be made in wordlessly shoving cases of Lucky over a sticky counter. But the fences around the hotel went up and the windows went dark, and now all that’s left is a hulk of souring rock ’n’ roll nostalgia. (Speaking of which, please do not steal the phrase “souring rock ’n’ roll nostalgia.” I intend to have it inscribed on my tombstone.)
There’s still no formal word about what will become of the space. A boutique hotel? A mixed-use retail corner? Condos? (Personally, I would not bet $5 of someone else’s money against it becoming condos.) All that matters is that it’s dead, it’s gone, and it’s best to buckle up for what happens to the corpse.
With that in mind, we once again pay tribute to some of Winnipeg’s deceased venues, in this case…
Though "sober" is not a word often associated with The Zoo, the legendary L-shaped bar that wrapped around the Osborne Village Inn’s southwestern corner, its loss brings up one very sobering thought: it’s entirely possible there may never be a venue like The Zoo ever again.
To put it short, The Zoo rocked. It even boasted exactly that on the retro oval sign that hung on its outside wall: "THE ZOO ROCKS." That was its motto. If there was one thing The Zoo did, it was rock. If there was one thing you were required to do there, it was rock. If you were in search of something that rocked, as many Winnipeggers were from the 1980s through the aughts, you went to The Zoo.
It wasn’t the prettiest venue. Which is to say, it really wasn’t pretty. It was dark and hot and heavy, and even after the indoor smoking ban took effect in Winnipeg in 2003, the air inside had a certain musty thickness. If it was a jam-packed show, the heat of 300 sweaty bodies would hang in the air like mist.
What The Zoo didn’t have in looks, it made up for in gritty and historic charm. The place had stories, you know. Virtually every rock band that passed through Manitoba for 30 years played there at least once, many of them leaving signed 8x10 photos that hung on the walls. Over time, those walls became a veritable museum of hair-metal mullets, a historic guide to fringed leather jackets through the ages.
See, bands loved playing at The Zoo, because the Zoo loved its bands. For the last 37 years of its life, The Osborne Village Inn was owned by the Green family, including colourful "Zoo keeper" Chuck Green. Under their guidance, the venue earned a solid reputation for a venue where musicians could expect good sound, good treatment and a raggedy good time.
When Green died in 2011, musicians from across the world mourned his passing. If he was still with us, he would probably be able to write this passage far better than we could. He summed it up in 2007, when he told Free Press writer Dave Sanderson that he felt more like a caretaker of a history than a hotelier.
"Name a band that’s come up through the Canadian music industry, and chances are they’ve played here," Green said. "I mean, everybody from Mick Jagger to Neil Young has walked through these doors. Ace Frehley? Hell, we couldn’t get rid of him. He spent two weeks upstairs, hammered out of his mind."
(Speaking of Ace Frehley, your humble narrator also ran into him at The Zoo one night, which I recounted in my obituary for the venue last year.)
The Zoo was never in the least bit uncomfortable with its own reputation as a rough ’n’ tumble spot, which is perhaps what made it so appealing. From its ownership to its patrons – who, yes, included some bikers – everyone understood they were there for the same thing: a pitcher of beer, some blasts of music that could bust your eardrums, and a good time.
One thing we ought not to forget: if The Zoo was the pressure cooker of Winnipeg venues in its era, then Ozzy’s was the skillet. (We have no idea what that’s supposed to mean either. Just go with it.) In some ways, the creaky basement venue was even more hard-working than its upstairs sibling.
Over the years, Ozzy’s cycled through many eclectic uses: an all-ages punk venue, a stripper bar, a bondage meet-up dungeon, a VLT purgatory and a hipster danceteria. It was, in short, a fine repository for all manner of bodily fluids, mixed with the sticky drippings of a hundred thousand rum’n’cokes.
Well, it’s all over now. That’s a wrap, for us souring rock ’n’ roll nostalgics. If one question keeps me up at night regarding The Zoo, it’s this: What happened to all of those signed 8x10 photos of black leather and magnificent mullets?
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