So, it all started about a month ago. One of our main clients, a large and successful design firm, was planning a big party to celebrate 20 years of being in business. My boss, Naomi, having been friends with the principals for almost as long as the firm has existed, wanted to contribute something: a surprise. Something big, splashy, memorable, and totally unexpected.
“I… don’t think you can set off fireworks at the Palace Arms Hotel. And anyway you’d need a permit, and those take months to get.”
“Okay. How about a plane towing a banner over the party?”
I Googled “sky banner” and found a company whose info page started with: “Are you looking for the most reputable company in the industry to help you send a message to a loved one via a sky message? Or are you angry at someone or a company for doing you wrong?” It was expensive, though, and we weren’t sure it would be visible at night, and people might be inside and unable to see it.
“Wait — I’ve got it!” said Naomi, clapping. “MORRIS DANCERS.”
“Look them up! Get them on the phone! Find out what their rates are!”
“I… don’t think they have rates, exactly? I mean, I think they just do community events and —”
“Nadia! Why are you pushing back on this? Call the Morris dancers and get a quote!”
There was no phone number, but I found a contact e-mail for the Toronto Morris Men. The head Morris Man, Stefan, wrote back promptly; he consulted with the group, and they agreed to dance at the party for $200 and beer.
The Palace Arms Hotel is a study in gentrification: A swanky place to stay at the end of the 19th century, it fell into disrepair and became a rooming house for economically marginalized men, most of whom have left now, as there’s a plan to gut the building, restore the facade, and plop an exceptionally fatuous-looking condo tower on top of it. (Around 14 men still live there, and Mike Layton is working on ensuring the developers rehouse them.) It’s a fascinating building, and most of it’s sitting empty right now, so, why not throw a party there, I guess? How they got it up to code for 500+ people, I have no idea.
Outside, there were already a good 100 people there by 6:00, mostly out in the parking lot with the food stations and one of the many bars, eating barbecued ribs and vegan channa masala and drinking flavoured waters and beer in cans specially printed for the party. My first concern was to make sure the security guys at the door understood that when several strange men who were not on the guest list showed up bearing large wooden clubs, they needed to be let in. Once that was sorted, my second concern was that I wouldn’t recognize the Morris Men when they showed up, but it turned out that a baker’s dozen 60something fellows in workshirts, many with thick North Country accents, were really easy to pick out of a crowd of mostly interior designers and restaurateurs.
Inside, the building was a maze of corridors branching off once-opulent dance halls and dining rooms, with high tin ceilings and crumbling plasterwork, all of which had been hosed down and splashed with a coat of white paint. I led the Morris Men to the small office they could use as their changeroom, and they got into costume.
I conferred with Stefan, and we agreed that two dances would likely be about the limit of what the crowd’s attention span would bear. There was some concern that the crowd might be a bit “too cool” for Morris dancing. “I am, in fact, very cool indeed!” declared one of the dancers, a 70-plus, Scottish-sounding fellow a good head shorter than me. “Tremendously cool!”
“I agree!” I said. “You’re the coolest ones here, if you ask me.”
At the appointed time, we got the DJ to cut the music, and the Toronto Morris Men marched in a procession from the office through the maze of corridors and out into the lot, to the amazement of everyone but me and my co-workers. Stefan hollered for everyone’s attention and the men began their elaborate, accordion-accompanied dance, leaping about and waving wooden cudgels. Among the guests there were many confused expressions, some laughter and a lot of Instagramming.
After it was over and the DJ had started spinning records again, one of the fellows looked at the multiple fire escapes leading up from the parking lot and asked, “Do you think we could get up there and dance on the roof?” Somehow a property manager was located and he agreed to take the Morris Man (whose name I didn’t get) and I up for a scouting mission. There were several roofs, at different levels, with doors leading off them in different directions, in a ramshackle Gormenghast-esque way. We climbed up to second-floor one, and then a slightly higher one, but they were covered with tar paper and looked flimsy, and we agreed that 13 grown men energetically jumping up and down on them seemed like a bad idea. But anyhow that is how I wound up on the roof of the Palace Arms Hotel in a party dress with a Morris dancer.
The sun was setting, and the indoor party rooms were filling up. I told the Morris Men that they were welcome to stay and mingle and enjoy the free bar, in costume or civilian clothes, but they said they had to move on. “You have another event tonight?” I asked.
Stefan said, “No, but we’re probably going to go to Trinity Bellwoods Park and dance some more. We like to dance.”