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A year ago, things looked bleak for the Cameron House. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the bar, music and theatre venue - and artists' rooming house - was up for sale. Spurred by management change, the four-storey building, just west of Spadina on Queen, was listed for $2.6-million. Flanked by luxe storefronts to the east and booming development to the west, its fate was sealed, judging by all precedents: condo or grande latte. Gentrify or die.

At least, it seemed that way. But the bar bucked the trend.

"We put it on the market just to establish a fair price so we could buy it out," says Cosmo Ferraro, bar manager and son of owner Ann Marie Ferraro. "Nobody wanted it to turn into a Starbucks. So long as it was breaking even, everybody was happy to see it continue."

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A recent graduate of the University of Guelph, Mr. Ferraro, who took over running the bar eight months ago, had big plans. "It had grown a bit stagnant," says Mr. Ferraro, 23. Working alongside high-school friend and now business partner Michael McKeown, they're not only revitalizing the place and bringing in a younger crowd, they're also starting a label: Cameron House Records.

"It's a perfect fit," says Mr. McKeown, also 23. "There are probably 20 acts a week that come here to play. We both live here, we both tend bar so we know what type of crowd a band will draw. Our A&R [artists and repertoire]is pretty much taken care of."

More of a licensing and promoting venture than a publisher of new music, Cameron House Records, which launches this weekend with a bash at the Great Hall, will feature rootsy rock from Toronto's David Baxter, Jack Marks, Jadea Kelly and Run With the Kittens, among other Cameron regulars. Eventually, they plan to turn the label into a full-scale music company, handling everything from booking and management to merchandise and publishing new music.

It just might work. After all, stranger things have happened here. "Being at the Cameron is like being in Wonderland," says Deanne Taylor, artistic director of theatre ensemble VideoCaberet, which has offices on the fourth floor. Ms. Taylor and her partner, playwright Michael Hollingsworth, have lived and worked here since 1982, the year she ran for mayor.

"[Former Toronto mayor]Art Eggleton was running and there was nobody opposing him, so the Hummer Sisters [Ms. Taylor's then-running theatre project]cooked up the idea to run against him - Art v. Art," says Ms. Taylor. On the ballot as A. Hummer and running on a campaign promising "24-hour mayoral services," she garnered more than 12,000 votes, nearly 12 per cent of voters.

This was Queen West circa '82, a year after siblings Paul and Ann Marie Sannella and friend Herb Tookie transformed 408 Queen St. W. from a war-pensioners drinking hole and flophouse into an artists' clubhouse. "It was then considered a grimy part of town," says Ms. Taylor. "Then the Cameron opened and within a year or two you had the Rivoli, the Bamboo, restaurants like Peter Pan, and of course Pages, which predated the Cameron by a year or two."

"The Cameron House was the seed that germinated Queen Street," says Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo. "By the late '70s there was nothing going on. All the good bars had closed, The Horseshoe had the most random programming. Greg [Keelor]and I took off to New York for four years and then we return and suddenly there's this artists' hotel."

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Soon enough, Blue Rodeo, like other now-famous Queen Street alumni Molly Johnson, Holly Cole, Gordie Johnson, and many others, had a residency at the Cameron. "It really was Command Central for Toronto musicians," says Mr. Cuddy. "Playing the Horseshoe was about the audience, whereas the Cameron, which only sat 60 people in each room, was about playing for other musicians. It felt like an audition for the scene. If you were liked in the Cameron, you could go out onto Queen or the rest of Toronto with confidence."

Even the building itself became a piece of art, with its Sistine Chapel-like ceiling, painted by artist and former waitress Sybil Goldstein, and the hand-painted "This Is Paradise" sign hanging behind the coral-reef-themed bar. "My uncle never wanted any advertisements inside, not even on the pint glasses," says Mr. Ferraro. "That's why there's art hanging everywhere, to take the place of beer advertisements."

The biggest draw in the Cameron's early history was rockabilly legend Handsome Ned. "The Cameron was our clubhouse and Ned was our mascot," says Erella Ganon, who worked as a waitress at the Cameron from 1983 through 1987. Sporting a large Stetson, cowboy duds and grinning his gap-toothed smile, Ned, born Robin Masyk, was the antithesis of convention - a walking embodiment of the neighbourhood itself.

"We used to play every Saturday, which meant going on after Ned's weekly matinee," says Mr. Cuddy. "He was supposed to start at two or three in the afternoon, but what would happen is we'd get there around nine o'clock to set up, and he wouldn't have even come downstairs from his room. He wouldn't have even started."

On Jan. 10, 1987, Handsome Ned was about to celebrate a CD release and six years of residency at the Cameron. "It was a full house," recalls Ms. Ganon. "I was waitressing and Herb was behind the bar. Everyone was asking, 'Where's Ned?' and I knew he wasn't upstairs. Then a policeman came in and took Herb aside, telling him that he'd heard over the wire Ned's body had been found. He'd overdosed on heroin. It was a real shock, really sad, because this just wasn't what Ned was all about. He wasn't a junkie."

So ended the first era of the Cameron. By then, Queen Street West had become the cultural centre of town. New artists, including Ron Sexsmith and Kevin Quain and the Mad Bastards, had residencies, followed by new groups and theatre troupes. Now, Mr. Ferraro and Mr. McKeown have moved in.

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"We were always worried a zillionaire would come along and make everyone's eyes go screwy," says Ms. Taylor. "As people age, they no longer want to be behind the bar any more. I remember once, years ago, we were all feeling a bit worried about things. We were looking at Cosmo hard. He was 12 and we were thinking, 'Grow a little faster, Cosmo! Can't you see the grown-ups are tired?'"

Special to The Globe and Mail

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