Skip to main content

New El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle is also a tattooed guitarist who joked he had to buy the club to play on its stage.Mark Blinch

He came for the sign, but ended up buying the whole club.

On the eve of its closing, Dragons' Den star and entrepreneur Michael Wekerle announced that he has bought the landmark El Mocambo rock club and will preserve it as a live music venue.

For months, owner Sam Grosso had been looking for a way to keep open the historic building with its trademark green and yellow palm tree sign, which he could no longer afford to keep afloat. "I knocked on a lot of doors … and the doors kept shutting," he said.

But when he put the famous neon sign up for sale, Mr. Wekerle, the 50-year-old CEO of Difference Capital took notice.

"I heard that the sign was up for sale, so I drove by and saw the building was for sale," Mr. Wekerle said. In a deal finalized on Wednesday, he bought the club for $3.7-million.

The heavily-tattooed CEO, who likes to describe himself as "Mick Jagger meets Warren Buffett," said he made the purchase because of his love of music, as well as the importance El Mocambo has played throughout Toronto's music history.

Since opening in 1946, the venue known to music fans simply as the "Elmo" has hosted such acts as Blondie, the Ramones and Lou Reed. It's also where Margaret Trudeau danced along at a Rolling Stones show in 1977.

"It's not just my place, it's not Sam's place, it's really Toronto's place," Mr. Wekerle said. "The El Mocambo is really a venue where – you call it the Stanley Cup for Canadian artists."

The flamboyant Mr. Wekerle launched an investment banking business, GMP Securities, at age 30. He now oversees a diverse portfolio of businesses, including a video game company, and is a backer of actor Mark Wahlberg's recently opened Wahlburgers restaurant in Toronto.

Mr. Wekerle, who grew up listening to the Rolling Stones, sings and plays guitar. On Thursday night – at a fundraiser that was supposed to be El Mocambo's final show before shutting down for good on Friday – Mr. Wekerle himself took the stage, where he not only received the keys to the building, but played a set with his band.

"I had to buy the place to play," he joked. "That's awkward."

In the coming months, Mr. Wekerle will close the space briefly to complete some minor renovations, although he would like to keep as much of the original brick building intact as possible.

He said he may look into building a rooftop venue for summer shows.

But musically, he said, "it's not going to be any different than it was before."

When asked what bands should play the club first, he said he would like to see a Canadian group take the stage. "Someone like 54-40, or Nickelback, Sam Roberts. Maybe Max Webster," he said.

Mr. Grosso, meanwhile, has taken to calling Mr. Wekerle his "white knight who slays dragons" – a reference to the new owner's part on the CBC television series.

"Venues like this are disappearing all over North America, and we need to keep places like this alive," Mr. Grosso said. He will stay on at the El Mocambo to help with the transition in some "small capacity," he said.

"We're going to pay off the mortgage and keep rocking," he said. "We're booking right now. The word is out."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe