Roel C.J.P. Bramer, almost 80, has lived an extraordinary life – and it ain’t over yet.
Born into a Dutch Calvinist family just days after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Roel was the fifth and youngest child of a mayor, appointed by the King or Queen, who cleaved to formality at the point of eccentricity. (If the car was out of ‘expensive’ gas, he’d send his chauffeur on a bicycle in full uniform to collect his embarrassed son from the train.) Bramer senior, while in the Dutch resistance, had been known for his emblematic escapes, especially towards the end of WWII, when the Nazis became ruthless. Roel attributes the father’s war survival to his 3 ingenious hiding places and his credo that ‘two is a crowd’.
After the ‘winter hunger’ of 1944/45, Bramer’s family lived through the austerity of the post-war years. Eventually, following a mind-changing trip by ship to North America the previous summer, Bramer arrived in Montreal to attend McGill University. Despite an official refusal awaiting him on arrival b.o. his poor Dutch grammar school marks, he managed, speaking limited English, to talk his way into second year with the Dean of Arts. Subsequently, Bramer got invited into one of the university’s leading fraternities where he met an array of colourful characters, from black sheep ‘second sons’ of English aristocratic seats, to the sons of Canada’s family compact establishment. From the outset, Bramer charmed his new Canadian friends with his archly funny and unrepentantly pleasure-loving European ways.
Having graduated with an Honours degree in Economics & Political Science, he took a ‘straight job’ at DuPont, during which he quickly learned that corporate life was not for him. During one of several six-martini lunches with his Canadian business mentor, Lord Shaughnessy, Bramer declared his ambition to open a bar in Montreal. To which his mentor replied – “Open a bar in Toronto, because there aren’t any.”
Within a year of arriving in the nightlife wasteland of Toronto in the mid 60s, Bramer had quit his day job, found investors and opened The Boiler Room, Toronto’s first hip restaurant at Bay and Wellington. The food was good, the waitresses gorgeous and the opening night party was the toast of the town. There was just one problem: There was nothing to toast. Bramer’s application for a permanent liquor license didn’t come through. After a money-losing first year, he managed to hold on by the skin of his teeth to expand into an adjoining, much bigger basement of the building next door, opening (with a loophole in the law) its sister ‘nightspot’ Coal Bin. Once his license was granted, the booze began flowing out and in came the profits.
By now a bona fide saloon-owner, the young Roel resolved to liberalize fusty old Toronto even if it killed him. He set about dragging the city into the late 20th Century, one quietly-bribed provincial politician, city councillor or inspector at a time. Was he a crook? Heavens, no. Crooked? Perhaps just a bit bent, when it came to rules. Dashing, silver-tongued and criminally funny, the ladies loved him too. The winds of change were blowing Roel’s way. By 1971, he finally succeeded a.o. in his long-fought campaign to ‘de-segregate’ Toronto’s ‘public houses’—some American journalists called to say they did not know we had a racial problem—with separate entrances and rooms for ‘Men’ and ‘Ladies and Escorts’.
Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Bramer’s bars and clubs set the standard for Toronto nightlife, from the legendary ‘swingles’ warehouse parties of the swinging sixties to the historic heavy metal venue Gasworks (as featured in the movie Wayne’s World). Via the grand Generator uptown disco, the Amsterdam Brasserie and Rotterdam brew pub became later the downtown, classic, cosmopolitan, yuppy watering holes of the 80s/90s
Bramer, meanwhile, lived out his life with iconic style and verve. He raced across the Atlantic in a 38 ft sailboat, survived a plane crash at 65, played endless sets of tennis, wore a racoon coat in winter, linen suits in summer and was rarely to be seen without a Dutch gin in one hand and fine Cuban cigar in the other. The quintessential Toronto bachelor, Bramer hosted saucy soirées at his Manu Life Centre penthouse, frequented with blissful blondes the Ontario PC Cabinet sanctum (La Scala’s resto across the street), finally settled down with a much younger Dutch bride in the spring of 1979 and was faithful over the next decade and a half – vive in extremis!
The marriage didn’t last, but fatherhood is forever. As a single Dad living in Rosedale with full charge of his two rambunctious boys, Lawrence and Richard, Bramer learned to step up, take responsibility and, for example, made sure dinner was served every evening – at exactly 7:30 pm. He hired a live-in housekeeper as well to take care of all domestic duties, which included driving the family jeep to shop, do errands and drive the boys around.
The Three Musketeers led a pretty sociable life, encompassing travelling, skiing, tennis and squash. After ensuring his boys got the best education plus European exposure (even when their marks didn’t always merit it, not unlike himself), Bramer capped off his career by becoming one of Ontario’s first microbrewers, founding Amsterdam brewery, a trusted beer brand that lives on to this day. As if to prove his virulence, in his 60s Bramer survived an Air France plane crash at Pearson airport, climbing from the wreck minutes before it burst into flames. The event, he says, filled him with a ‘renewed lust for life’.
Part memoir, part 50 year history of Toronto’s nascent nightlife, Golden Roel is a madcap tale of sex, drugs (not himself) and rock ’n’ roll. Chock full of scandal, secrets, anecdotes and business wisdom, this brain child of the bar and brewery owner bon vivant Roel Bramer is available here, as well as Toronto’s four Book City stores.