From Portuguese Club to Winnipeg Music Mecca: A History of the West End Cultural Centre
May 06, 2019
West End Cultural Centre c.1995. Credit: Ava Kobrinsky. Mural By: Larry Spittle.
By: David McPherson
Luke Doucet and his girlfriend got caught with their pants down in the boiler room here one New Year’s Eve when he was 17. A teenage Romi Mayes drank Gowan’s beer in the green room here, while the JUNO-award winning artist covered “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The common thread: one of Winnipeg’s most treasured venues: the West End Cultural Centre (WECC).
For more than three decades, the WECC has been a warm-sounding room and a place to foster the Winnipeg music scene. Many local artists—from Mayes and Doucet to bands like The Watchmen and The Weakerthans—got their start at the all ages venue. Mayes credits the WECC for the early opportunities she had to share her songs with a wider audience.
“The first time I was on stage at the West End Cultural Centre I was 15-years-old,” recalls Mayes. “Mitch [Podolak] was in charge and there were commonly big folk artists from across the globe sharing that stage. I remember being nervous to join the roster of the talent that was performing there all the time.”
Since her teenage debut, Mayes has shared the WECC stage many times with renowned acts, as well as enjoyed many memorable shows there as a fan. Heck, she even had her wedding social there. The singer-songwriter can’t say enough good words about this hometown hotspot.
“Not only is it a music venue, but it’s also a team of creative curators being inventive with themes and show ideas to celebrate our local music scene,” Mayes comments. “In recent years, with the artful artistic direction of Jason Hooper and its hard working staff and volunteers, the West End Cultural Centre has become a pinnacle in nurturing and hosting community projects to help the area and improve the neighbourhood and develop productivity for its area residents.”
Adds fellow Winnipeg songwriter Scott Nolan: “It’s our Mother Church. It may not be as grand as the Grand Ole Opry, but it’s fitting for our town.”
Flash back to 1987. That’s when this musical shrine was born. An eye for spotting talent and for supporting artists is Mitch Podolak’s raison d’être. While running the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the 1970s, the champion of the arts and his wife Ava Kobrinsky frequently drove by the West End neighbourhood where the Portuguese Cultural Centre [and previously a series of churches] was located at Sherbrook Street and Ellice Avenue. The talk, during these drives, often turned to the buildings’ potential.
“I thought it would make a great combo of what is now The Cultch (formally the Vancouver East Cultural Centre) and the Cotabi Cabaret in Sonoma, California,” says Podolak, 71, who is still active in the folk community running Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous, a not-for-profit arts organization that creates new performance opportunities for French and English speaking musicians and audiences in rural, remote and urban, communities across Canada.
Following Podolak’s departure from the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the music lover and his life partner made a pit stop in Vancouver. While there, a friend in the know back in Manitoba tipped them off that the Portuguese club was selling its building and the prospective buyer was going to turn it into a furniture warehouse. That was all the fuel Mitch needed. He picked up the phone, made a call, and offered to buy the building. The rest, as they say — thankfully for the Winnipeg arts community — is musical history as the WECC was born.
Spirit of the West was the first headlining act at the WECC. The Vancouver band played a pair of sold-out shows in October 1987. The following month, the venue hosted 30 events, including a gig by legendary blues singer Taj Mahal. While primarily a music venue, the WECC is a non-profit, charitable organization that promotes local, national, and international artists by fostering artistic development.
Thirty years on, everyone from Odetta, John Prine, and Stan Rogers to Jann Arden and Lyle Lovett have stepped on the West End Cultural Centre’s stage, making a lasting connection with Winnipeg audiences. Not only is the venue an incubator for local talent in the Peg, and an intimate venue for international touring acts – from folk to alt-country and punk to indie rock, it’s also a place for young minds, who might not otherwise have a chance, to create. The WECC offers free drop in music lessons on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons where local artists mentor and teach neighbourhood kids as part of a successful drop-in program.
“We are a charity so that is what we do – foster that creativity in people,” says Executive Director Jason Hooper, who started out as WECC’s bar manager 10 years ago. “The West End Cultural Centre also hosts a street festival every June and free concerts for schools in the neighbourhood. That makes us a special place. Not a lot of venues have that time or resources to do that, but being a charity makes that possible.”
The WECC’s founding statement speaks to this community commitment to “make sure people will get involved, not in some peripheral way but with their hearts and guts and brains.” Hooper has been at the helm of the not-for-profit for the past decade. Some of his favourite shows at the WECC, which he attended as a teen newly arrived in the city in the 90s, were the punk-rock matinees on Saturdays. “For five-dollars, you could come down and see five bands,” he recalls. “I saw bands like Guy Smiley, Propagandhi, and meatrack. The venue was a really important part of the local punk scene.”
When Hooper started working at the WECC in 2009 the venue had just undergone an extensive renovation and reconstruction, thanks to a $4 million capital campaign; several neighbourhood houses were bought and razed to expand the Hall. Hawksley Workman, whose new record (Median Age Wasteland) was released this past February, was lucky enough to be the artist who reopened the new WECC. The songwriter says just like a best friend, it’s a place you can always count on.
“The venue always treats people right,” Workman concludes. “You play across this country long enough and you make a mental list of the places you can really rely on and the WECC is one of those. Live music is at its core. It has a theatre feel versus a club feel; it’s the perfect hybrid and people come to shows there with their hearts open.”
The West End Cultural Centre has won the Western Canadian Music Award for Venue of the Year six times since 2002. To view a list of past performers visit: https://www.wecc.ca/past-performers