2006-01-15 16:33:14 UTC
Catherine Dunphy, Toronto Star
January 9, 2006 Monday
There are so many stories about John Barry that you think
they all can't be true. And maybe they aren't, but they
could be - and that, in the end, is the whole point of
knowing somebody like him.
His life was the stuff of movies - the slick,
finger-snapping movies of the past, where the drinks flowed
and the smoke from the ever-present cigarettes rose, Bogey
style, in smooth concentric circles from the corner of the
mouth. The women were broads, showpieces in tight skirts and
tighter angora sweaters; the men sat at their regular
tables, doing deals, not all of them legal, as the sax
But this was no celluloid romp with Frank Sinatra, Dean
Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the rest of the rat-pack
reprobates. This was all happening in Toronto, at John
Duck's Tavern, an Etobicoke watering hole by the lake since
1866, when ex-British soldier John Duck opened an inn for
After Barry bought the place in 1963, it became a clubhouse
for men who, like Barry, preferred to sit with their backs
to the wall. Bikers came there; so did off-duty cops. There
were days the parking lot was filled with cars bearing
Michigan licence plates, belonging to the men in
thousand-dollar suits up from Detroit for business meetings
in Barry's upstairs office.
Aulden Geldart was the John Duck bouncer and club manager
for 16 years. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he had the bulk
and chops to be able to evict a whole posse of Vagabond
bikers from the place. But he said he hated that his boss
often packed a gun. "John always carried a semi-automatic,
always in the back of his belt, and when he went to bed at
night it was under his pillow," he said.
For safety, Barry had underground parking for his Caddy; he
also had a pair of dogs - variously described as Doberman,
American bull terrier or Bouvier, but big dogs, at least 150
pounds each, Geldart said - that cost him $1,200 each. Most
remember one called Boomer.
There were always whispers Barry might have been a made man,
a wise guy, even a hit man. Geldart said there were plenty
of Toronto cops "after" Barry, but his ex-boss was too smart
for them. Former police chief William McCormack was a
homicide investigator in those days and he said he'd
remember if Barry were involved in anything illegal. He
doesn't, so it's likely Barry wasn't.
"I always thought that talk was a lot of bulls---," said
Rory Robertson, who tended bar between 1969 and 1972. "But
John knew a lot of people and I used to think some of them
The only thing that most of his friends and customers cared
about was that Barry - who died Nov. 12 at the age of 74 -
was a charming guy, a fun guy, the ultimate party guy.
He was a regular at Bardi's Steak House downtown. After
hours, he and his boys would take over a private room at
Gatsby's on Church St. Every night, it was red wine, and rum
and Coke. Every night, it was steak, rare, with a side order
of mushrooms. Every night, no one else ever got to pick up
the cheque. Maybe that's why someone dubbed him "the old
guy," but he liked it and the moniker stuck, even though he
was only seven years older than Robertson.
With his wife May and three children safely stashed away in
Brampton, Barry lived upstairs at John Duck's, also the
scene of many a party.
"It was a typical bachelor pad," said his daughter Shandra
Barry. "Black leather. Red carpet. Party Central. It was his
private club. The joke was that if the apartment door was
locked, you don't knock, you don't interrupt the party going
Women loved him - not just because he was movie-star
handsome and charming and had that glint in his eye, but
also because he was a lover who listened as if they were the
only person in the world.
The man was charismatic, a great host who transformed the
Humber House - the name of the tavern when Barry bought it -
into a modern-day legend, the watering hole of celebrities,
including CFRB's long-time morning man, Wally Crouter,
country musician Gordie Tapp and the star athletes of the
day. The Argos were regulars; so was coach Leo Cahill and
three Miami Dolphins players he lured north to a new
football league he tried to start, a couple of boxing champs
and some Leafs.
The place was known for its Saturday jazz. "If you weren't
inside by noon, you couldn't get a seat," Robertson said.
The late and hard-living Toronto Sun columnist, Paul
Rimstead, often sat at the drums; Diamond Lil from the
Skyline Hotel would belt out the songs.
One day Robertson noticed three guys coming in the door who
turned out to be members of The Drifters, of Under the
Boardwalk fame, and they did a turn at the mike.
"I don't know how much John knew about music, but he liked
the way we talked, acted and the atmosphere we created. He
liked fun. He wanted to be around, laughing and scratching,
baby," said Bruce James, who used to play the sax on those
Barry was born into one of the leading families of Sudbury;
his father was in real estate and politics, made and lost
three fortunes and died a very wealthy man, according to
Jonquil Furse, Barry's sister. When Barry was about 10 years
old, he decided he didn't like attending Scollard Hall, a
private school in North Bay, so he hired a taxi to take him
home to Sudbury. His father paid the bill.
"John was very electric," Furse said. "He was a chameleon,
into everything, then off."
He was also her favourite brother, who took her fiance,
George Furse, aside the day they were to be married in a
very haute Westmount ceremony and told the astonished groom
that if he ever laid a hand on his favourite baby sister,
he'd "bust me up bad."
"He was very Runyonesque," George Furse said, recalling how
Barry then pulled out a massive roll of money - "I'd never
seen that before except in the movies" - and counted out
four $100 bills from the top. "This oughta help you on the
honeymoon," he barked.
"He was playing the part," his sister insisted.
After short stints in Sudbury as a miner and owner-operator
of a gas station, Barry hit the States, where his family
believes he worked as a boxing promoter and a front man
booking gigs for black singers and groups.
Later he owned a Mimico film studio, a limousine company and
the company that booked all of the big acts into the
Canadian National Exhibition's Grandstand shows.
His daughter Shandra said she remembers being driven in one
of her father's limos to meet The Monkees backstage; other
acts he brought to Toronto included Sonny & Cher, Red
Skelton, Bob Hope, The Jackson Five, The Osmonds and Johnny
Barry never stopped making deals. For awhile he owned a gold
mine in British Columbia and a company called Iomech Ltd.,
and held patents for various water purification systems.
Every Sunday, when he would drive to Brampton to see his
family, he'd take them out for a drive to look at the latest
country estate or property he was going to move them to.
"My mother just laughed. Every week it was a new place, a
new deal," Shandra said. "He was the wildest ride in the
All three children came to work at John Duck's after their
mother died in 1979, and Shandra and her brother Jon were
there March 5, 1988, when the party ended and Barry closed
the doors for the last time.
"He had it for 25 years; it was a huge part of his life,"
she said. "It was like a death in the family."
Barry subsequently lived in several lofts around town,
cutting out smoking and cutting down his drinking in later
years, but he was diagnosed with esophagal cancer about a
year ago. He didn't want people to know he was sick, and
when he was hospitalized he didn't want people to visit him.
Many did anyway.
His family is erecting a gravestone with the words "The Old
Guy" and his favourite saying: "When I was here, I was
cdunphy @ thestar.ca
GRAPHIC: John Barry, seen in this undated photo, owned John
Duck's Tavern on the Etobicoke lakefront for 25 years. The
legendary bar attracted everyone from bikers and off-duty
cops to athletes and celebrities.