Last month the Carlton Performing Arts Hub, a short-lived but intense venue that housed both Victoria’s amateur wrestling league and underground music scene, put on its final evening of kayfabe entertainment.
We went to assess the damage and document the closing of an unlikely home of creative authenticity.
The Carlton Performing Arts hub was established in early summer 2022 as an all-ages venue for 365 Pro Wrestling and live music in the Esquimalt area. The rental venue was run by Damon Roth under his media production company 42ish Media and was originally tied to a two-year lease which would end when the buildings were set for demolition in 2024.
The project was brought to an abrupt halt on Feb. 9 due to a crumbling wall that threatened the building’s structural integrity and the safety of its patrons.
“Earthquakes happen and that wall is no longer earthquake proof,” Roth told the Martlet. “[When] the rats are packing up to leave, you know it’s time to go.”
Having attended the final wrestling show at the Carlton, we can attest to the marvel that is live wrestling, a conflict-keen mix of Cirque du Soleil athleticism and drag show persona.
Reflecting on the Carlton’s life as a wrestling venue, 365 Pro Wrestling owner and wrestler Eddie Osbourne attests to the spaces’ intimacy. “The thing I loved about it was the atmosphere,” Osbourne said.
For Roth, the love for wrestling began when he was just “knee high to a grasshopper.” His great-grandmother was a wrestling enthusiast herself and would drag him to shows. Being able to hold space for the Victoria wrestling community through the Carlton was “beyond magical”.
At the Carlton’s last wrestling event, the crowd mobilized to a chant of “365” as the lights dimmed. Roth says that the audience’s vocal engagement “validated everything [they] did.”
Maxwell Benson, a young local wrestler who started training with 365 at the age of sixteen, owes a portion of his career to the existence of the Carlton. Training on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and the occasional Monday, Benson actually “lived at the school for a little while.”
While the Carlton was a welcome addition to the scene, it did have some flaws. “[The] worst part about it is the limited space,” said Benson. “The rats too.” “One night we had rats fighting the racoons in the parking lot,” added Roth.
But wrestling at the Carlton certainly had its perks. Benson says that he was afforded his own private dressing room at the venue; a rare comfort. Osbourne says the sardines-in-a-can seating made it feel as if wrestlers might land in the laps of audience members at any given moment.
The bond that wrestlers had with the Carlton went beyond its value as a space for shared community — it also formed by way of physical trial. Osbourne and Benson talk about some brutal slams taken in the walls of the Carlton. Benson’s “Chairway to Hell” match with The Faction left him with a permanent facial scar.“[I] bled profusely for the majority of the match.”
In one orthodontist-implicating incident, Bensons tells me his “face bounced off the metal turnbuckle [of the ring]” and he “chipped a tooth and fractured three other teeth.”
Replacing the ring with a mosh pit, a number of notable local musicians graced the stage of the Carlton.
Colin McParland is the singer and rhythm guitarist of ex-cowboy, one of the local scene’s most promising acts and a vibrant force to be reckoned with. Ex-cowboy played their first show at the Carlton in June and remained a centrepiece of the venue’s weekly shows.
McParland’s cousin, Chad, ran sound for a lot of the shows at the Carlton this past year. To Chad, the Carlton has been a staple in Esquimalt since its humble beginnings as a strip club catering to horny sailors living at the nearby navy docks.
A relic of eighties pastiche, the Carlton had everything you could ask of a DIY underground venue. They had a claw machine that would eat your cash, but you could just ask the bouncer to open it up and give you whatever you wanted; they had amateur wrestling playing constantly on multiple TVs around the venue; they had an all-gender washroom; they had $4, sometimes $3 beers. McParland spoke fondly of the authenticity of all these features.
Seeing queer, trans, and female organizers working behind the scenes to facilitate shows further affirmed a prefigurative commitment to an inclusive scene.
Its authenticity was also manifested in its celebratory permissiveness according to McParland.
“Just some of the nights that we played there when the dance floor was just completely full and people were moshing like crazy. Just that energy you got there was unparalleled. We played in Vancouver last weekend — nobody was dancing… [they were] unmovable objects.”
“The Carlton, it was… so non-pretentious that you could approach it as an outsider just asking to do a show there… [People could] do their art and flourish.”
McParland spoke highly of the mutual support between bands in the scene.
“Even if you’re not playing that night, you’ll go to each other’s shows.”
Clayton Ikuta is a member of three bands that exist within the venn diagram of the local alternative and hardcore circles: Queens Park, Jobsite, and Bottomfeeder. Ikuta shares the same sentiment, “[We’re] definitely losing an important venue in a city that is constantly losing venues.”
One of McParland’s favourite memories from the Carlton was attending one of Ikuta’s Jobsite shows.
“Everyone was wearing all the high viz shit and people with pylons on their heads moshing… someone in the mosh pit had a tape measure and they extended the tape measure out into Clayton’s face [while he was playing] and then grabbed it and started whipping it around… everyone’s wearing hard hats and stuff, it was unhinged… Where else would that happen? Nowhere.”
There is a clear parallel between Victoria’s wrestling community and its underground music scene in terms of venue instability. Finding permanent spaces for wrestling shows and underground gigs has been a monkey on the back of both subcultures since before the pandemic. For a short time, the Carlton appeared as a promising interim solution, and the impromptu end of its tenure has both scenes prospectively facing an ambiguous nether of cultural centers and gordon-head basements.
Benson laments the venue’s demise. “There’s so much talent in Victoria but nowhere to showcase it.”
For Roth, politicians and developers are culpable for the slow asphyxiation of sub-culture expression in Victoria. “It is absolutely time for the politicians and development corporations to stand up and put back the venues that they are removing,” he said.
McParland agrees. “I wish that more businesses and bars would see the potential for community building and revenue, less importantly revenue, but still, it’s an incentive for businesses.”
For the underground scene, a lot of the issues come down to independent music acts with guitar amps and drum kits getting passed over by venue stakeholders in exchange for innocuous cover bands and folk sensibilities.
“The infrastructure in a lot of cases is there but they’re just gatekeep-y,” said McParland. “They don’t want rock bands to play because it’s rock music and they want just acoustic fucking open mics.”
For McParland, who saw a similar venue shortage occur in the Halifax music scene, the writing is on the wall (pun intended). In Halifax, venues became pickier about the ‘sound’ of the bands they booked and, as a result, an aesthetic emerged and the scene became a homogenous house of mirrors playing Mac Demarco-esque psych rock.
Another aspect of the problem lies in the fact that the scene is reluctantly underground. If you Google ‘concerts in Victoria,’ it’ll show you concerts for legacy acts or very mainstream artists playing at established venues like the Royal Theater. McParland doubts the Carlton would even be on the radar. The scene is underground, but it’s only underground because there’s simply a lack of promotion.
McParland predicts a forked future for the Victoria music scene.“I feel like there’s three [options]: one, traditional venues open up more; two, house shows open up more; or three, it just kind of stays as it is and it’s just like this crazy supply and demand issue.”
“The demand [and] the supply of bands is there, but the supply of venues is not,” said McParland. “Everyone’s fighting for spots and I feel like that’s harmful… it creates competition where there doesn’t need to be any, and that’s counter to community building.”
The Carlton sat on top of a short strip of businesses: an Indian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a pizzeria, and a karate dojo. This eclectic mosaic of local businesses reflects the cultural pairings that occurred in the venue itself. The Carlton stood above in its mission to be nothing more than what it was: a place to gather and witness.
We would like to recognize some of our favourite bands that played at The Carlton over the past year: ex-cowboy, Jobsite, Maitarra, Hillsboro, Porcelain Horse, Aweful, Low Blow, Queens Park, Divisionaries, and Dastard. Consider going to a show or supporting them in any way you can.
If you want to check out the local wrestling scene, 365 Pro Wrestling has a match scheduled for March 24 at the White Eagle Polish Hall. We highly encourage you to check it out!