Up On The Roof Of The Esquire
Tim Ford Explores This Once Majestic Site in Downtown Brantford.
Suggested listening for today’s journey, Nich Worby's album - Lucy.
Tim Ford, February 23, 2022 // Brantford, Ontario
Brantford's once majestic Esquire Theatre on Colborne at King Street. Staff Photo.
Before we begin, I think the question needs to be asked if there’s a statute of limitations on trespassing in a vacant building? If the statute is 15 years and the building hasn’t been standing in a decade then I think its safe to proceed. Lawyers leave your information in the comments below.
Barring legalities and potential formal charges, the story begins where many of my stories begin, at the corner of King and Colborne Street in Brantford, Ontario. What a view I had from my gorgeous, curved Victorian-molded bedroom window, in the apartment I shared with my partner in crime, CG, two decades ago. This apartment was conveniently located on top of the music venue we helmed, The Ford Plant, located at 1 King.
Former entry into the Esquire Theatre. Staff Photo.
I used to spend the last moments of my day staring out that corner window. I don’t know why, really. To make sure the city was still out there, I suppose. It felt like I was in the crow’s nest on top of a ship. I could see it all. I watched horror movies being filmed from there. I watched guns being pulled and shot. Lovers in the doorway below stealing their first kiss together. I witnessed questionable card games being played in the apartment on the other corner. I had an incredible view of the city imploding in on itself. However, the view I saw those early FP nights looked quite different than one we see today. No lush landscape gleaming around the Grandest of rivers. No spinning youth with their twirly whirls on their wheeliebobs, at the skate park. No full pockets walking into the casino and empty pockets walking out.
They were all obscured by buildings lining the south side of Colborne as far as one could see. Beautiful buildings. Historically significant buildings. Habitable, necessary buildings. They felt like a forcefield or moted castle walls keeping us safe in our little corner of downtown, hidden away from the rest of the city. Looking out from the perch to my right was the iconic “Samurai mural” painted on the upper bricks of a nearby martial arts studio, by local artist Tom Robertson. Two warriors battling in front of a falling sun. A perfect metaphor. Having that sunrise/set to rely on out my window every day was a gift. It was truly mystical.
Gazing left out the widow was the original first try at the Ford Plant, at 71 Colborne St., which served as a reminder of mistakes not to be repeated, literally towering over me. When I stared straight out the window, there was a streetlamp. I think about that streetlamp often. How many times we gathered under it and danced and sang as loud as we could, when shows bled out on to the street from the Ford Plant below. It’s been called a beacon, or a lighthouse light in other stories and I like those images, so I’ll use them for this story as well. Its shine is warm and comforting. It still calms me just thinking about it illuminating through my thrift store curtains. Under that lamp’s glow tilted a sequence of bricks that maybe at some point in its life resembled a building.
In the middle of that tilt, was an art deco Thunderbird-patterned brick entrance way. Stunning masonry. As bright as that streetlight shone though, the Thunderbird always seemed to be in the shadows. For as long as I can remember, it was boarded up and abandoned. Tales whispered of outlaws squatting and devil worshiping goths listening to Bauhaus deep in its bowels. If inanimate objects could be ghosts, this building would be a ghost. Kind of like the Shining hotel but less evil and more pathetic. This bricked up black hole was the old Esquire Theatre. A once grand playhouse, rivalling the Capital Theatre (now Sanderson centre). Erected in 1937 it was immediately a hub of entertainment for both the rich and the lesser, in the swingin’ Telephone City. It engulfed Colborne with music and neon-burnt nightlife. It's not hard to imagine a dignified line of impeccably dressed couples, arms linked. He in his finest pinstriped suit and monocle (I’m assuming you imagine every man from the “olden” days dressed as the Monopoly guy, just as I do), and she in her most luxurious furs and pearls, having one last drag of their weird thin cigarettes before being queued to their seats so the program could begin.
For decades it brought Brantfordians to that corner for no other beautifully simple reason than to enjoy a good show. Then commerce decided to change its already fickle mind and malls, fast food joints and movie theatres began shining their lights in the north end. Bargain Harold’s and WoolCo strategically undercut the downtown shops and charged less for their linens and watches. With Petula Clark playing in the background, the Kun’s and other landlords with grim foresight began buying up unwanted real estate in the quickly disposed of downtown.
Applying simple math, it apparently made more economical sense to let it all rot away and sell off the land only to begin the process again, than to preserve and utilize such an important landmark for not just the city, but the province. As it happened, that forcefield of buildings was the one of the longest and most preserved stretch of commercial buildings in Ontario. It is literally written about in history books. Through bad city planning, a complete disregard for the Haldimand Proclamation, poor real estate development, and classic Brantford short-sightedness, the city left it all to turn to dust.
They seemingly hoped no one would look under the carpet and see everything they swept under it. But we looked under, and we didn’t forget what we saw. As proof that fate has a sense of humour, the Esquire’s grave was located at 63 Colborne, directly beside the old Ford Plant and its upstairs apartment CG and I previously lived in. It shared a roof. So hypothetically speaking, any young urban explorer who wanted to see Brantford’s Grand fuck-up with their own eyes, could very easily squeeze out of their kitchen window and onto the Esquire’s roof. I use the word roof loosely, as there was a house-sized hole in the middle of it, literally like a meteor hit it.
Hypothetically, one could easily climb into this black hole and into a different age of Brantford. I liken it to being hoisted down into a museum exhibit of mid-century, lower-upper-class gaudiness. It was hypothetically lovely to see a different era of what CG and I were essentially trying to bring to that corner as well, giving art and entertainment a stage to grace.
Aside from the 30 years of bird shit and (fingers crossed) animal bones, it was gorgeous. Flaking murals on the walls. Rusted chandeliers hanging by their pinky fingers from the ceiling. The edges of the velvet seats ass-worn by years of excited audience members. I strolled down the aisle as if to take my seat for the show. I vividly remember brailing K13 with my finger on the back of a chair. I waltzed onto the stage ready to quote Mercutio when my foot fell through a stage beam. Oh, the stomps and taps and bad dancing it must have endured throughout the years, only to have my size 12’s being it’s last straw. Little random objects that were left behind always come to mind. Dozens of sets of keys hung in a line on a board in the electrical room. I hypothetically still let one dangle from my keychain as a charm. There was a datebook opened to November 3rd, 1978, on a desk in the manager’s office. Beside the desk laid a space heater I hypothetically restored and used for years later until it lit a Henri Faberge CD on fire beside my bed, forcing me to choose between warmth and arson. Through the backstage curtain that still hung in embarrassed rags there was a room just beyond the shine of my flashlight. It was there where I found a pair of dress shoes, size 9, men’s, politely placed underneath a wooden chair beside boxes of blankets and split sandbags. Maybe their stomps were echoed from my fatal floorboard as well. I left them alone. I didn’t dare disturb their steps.
I hypothetically went there often, the Esquire’s roof. It was the perfect clubhouse/hideout where the gang could go and plot, plan and strategize all our coups and schemes. Hypothetically, it was the place where I wrote the lyrics to the Vermicious Knid album, in that same 1978 datebook, the Esquire gracing itself on the cover art of that record as well. It was even just a simple jump onto the roof to watch the Canada Day celebrations at the amphitheatre. BTO telling us to take care of our business and to work overtime while we do it. Frig off Randy!
For reasons maybe to be told another day, we had to very quickly give up our south side haven and relocate across the street to the Ford Plant at 1 King. This denied us access to our crater of an entrance on the roof, and my perspective of the Esquire. No longer could I caress and dig amongst it. I could only be a witness to its body’s decomposition. It should be stated, however, the Esquire was still very much a part of our lives, its ass-end being the catalyst to some the of most epic wall-ball matches Brantford has ever seen, and its back alley being used for intimate acoustic shows.
We hypothetically even found a way to jimmy a side door to get ourselves in every now and then. It also became the last thing I saw every night. But the old theatre was tired. Its bones were brittle and in that true Brantford spirit, the city forced the Esquire to take its final bow in the year 2010. The curtain was called with a thud of their wrecking ball, like a hook from the side-stage. I watched it happen in real time from my window perch. The next day they tore down the old Ford Plant, our old apartment, and our little hangout up on the roof, as well as the Samurai mural.
They destroyed Zorba’s, the original My Thai, 2for1 Ideal Pizza, Quan 99, the Barber Shop (that hadn’t changed since the 70’s), City Signs and dozens of occupied apartments. On the eve of its demolition, we snuck in there one last time by simply walking through the front door. I guess the city had just put up their hands and stopped caring altogether.
Broken shell of the former Esquire Theatre in Brantford. Staff Photo.
Beyond a crudely placed wood board draped over a broken window, the lobby doors were open for all to step through. You could stroll up to the popcorn counter and feign ordering a snack. You could go to the ticket booth and request “two for Wizard of Oz my good sir” in your best old timey accent. I simply took a few seconds, leaned on the back wall and looked across a blank room, the seats and aisles already diligently ripped away. The stage was using its ragged curtains as a veil to hide the shame in its face. I placed that 1978 datebook full of Knid lyrics under a bit of rubble (a glorious dramatic effect, I must say), gave it the ol’ sailors salute, wiped the flaked mural from my sweater and apologized for not being able to save it. I walked out it’s doors, across the street and into our own little playhouse, where we put on a show.
Not a decade later the city would decide to take the hook to 1 King as well, taking with it my little corner bedroom with that view I still remember so well after all these years. Fate enjoying another joke. I couldn’t help but join in on the laughter, even if it was at my expense.
When I go back and look at old live shots of bands playing at the Ford Plant, I can’t help but be drawn to the eternally shadowed bricks of the Esquire, backdropping so many great performances. I think of the eerie gaze of that Thunderbird staring down into the window, observing our celebrations. This story has us believing in the haunting of inanimate objects. I like to think that maybe the Ford Plant, with all its melodies, stomps and sing-along’s, made the Esquire’s last days a little brighter, by letting it take in a good show every now and then.
Below is a link to a comprehensive tour and documentation of the last days of the south side of Colborne St., including amazing shots of the Esquire, mural and the original Ford Plant. Might I suggest playing a little Nich Worby and take a stroll down the south side once again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.