The Gatineau Club in Aylmer was among the hottest nightclubs in the Ottawa area in 1955. Duke Ellington performed there that year, as did Josephine Baker, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong.Into this swirling, smoky world of jazz orchestras and pop vocalists, 18-year-old Viger Gendron came of age, waiting on tables and serving drinks while soaking up such hits as Bennett’s Rags to Riches, Ellington’s Satin Doll, and Satchmo’s rendition of I Get Ideas.“Because of you,” Gendron sings, imitating Bennett, “there’s a song in my heart.”Gendron never abandoned the Great American Songbook, but the public’s appetite for it ebbed. As a result, in late July this year, months shy of its 25th anniversary, Gendron closed his Laurier Avenue piano bar, VJ’s.“It’s the end of an era,” he says, citing other Vegas-style piano bars in the area whose closures preceded his: Friday’s Roast Beef House on Elgin Street; the Beacon Arms Hotel’s La Bibliotheque on Albert Street.“I’m the last one.”Surely there are others, but it’s true that the sort of music lounge that Billy Joel sang about in his autobiographical hit song Piano Man has increasingly become an artifact. Today, you can peer through VJ’s windows and see hints of the unpretentious, anachronistic bar that was. A small disco ball hangs from the ceiling, while eight empty chairs remain clustered around a grand piano, as if hoping for customers to call out another tune or put a last bill in the large glass resting atop its quiet lid. The piano’s keys are absent, removed to make room for the electronic keyboard that could be slotted in their place, rendering the grand little more than a large mood-setting drink-holder.Left to the imagination are the scores of photos of actors and musicians — Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, even an autographed Sinatra — that once covered the forest-green walls.On the floor near the piano, meanwhile, lies a discarded sheet of paper with the lyrics to George and Ira Gershwin’s 1920s standard ‘S Wonderful printed on it: “You make my life so glamorous. You can’t blame me for feeling amorous! Wonderful, marvelous, that you should care for me!”Over the years, countless people in the mood for a melody came through the doors of VJ’s, where Gendron, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, held court. Just like at the Gatineau Club so many decades before, he tended bar and served tables. He’d sing, too — Engelbert Humperdinck’s After the Lovin’, for example — while couples of a certain age danced wherever they could find room. Eventually, however, fewer and fewer people showed up. The Gershwin glamour wore off.“The younger crowd don’t come to piano bars,” he says. “It’s the older, middle-age people, from 50 to 70.”He adds that shorter lunchtimes for nearby public servants, coupled with stricter laws for impaired driving enacted last December, have further quieted business.“It’s not like it was years ago, when we’d pack them in on Friday nights. Now people have big mortgages and don’t go out so much, and they just talk with each other on their computers and cellphones. And now if you have even one beer and drive, you might be charged.”
For nearly a quarter century, Viger Gendron owned and operated VJ’s piano bar on Laurier Avenue W. The bar closed last month.
Bruce Deachman /
There were other opportunities over the years. Named Ottawa’s high school athlete of the year in 1953, Gendron pursued careers in football and hockey. In 1956, he played a couple of pre-season games with the Montreal Alouettes before signing with the Sarnia Golden Bears.In the winter he played hockey, initially with Toronto St. Michael’s of the OHA, before moving on to the Hamilton Tiger Cubs, Chatham Maroons and St. Catharines Teepees, at the latter alongside Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Hockey eventually took him to the U.S., where he played for teams in the International, Eastern and Western hockey leagues: The Louisville Rebels, Troy Bruins, Muskegon Zephyrs, Toledo Blades, New Haven Blades, Charlotte Clippers and Los Angeles Blades. A tough blueliner nicknamed “The Tiger” and “Fritz” Gendron spent his share of time in penalty boxes from coast to coast, while a stickfight that cost him a month-long suspension saw him, in 1959, try his luck with the Wembley Lions of the British National League. The league folded in 1960.Alas, an NHL tryout eluded him. “There were only six teams,” he explains.But the music was never far away. Although not well paid, his hockey career allowed him to spend a summer month one year in Las Vegas, where he attended shows by some of his favourite performers, including Frank Sinatra.After his hockey career ended, he worked for a while for the Teamsters as a dock supervisor in San Pedro, California. But his wife, Shirley, who died almost four years ago, convinced him to move back to Ottawa, where her family was. And so Gendron, a lifelong non-drinker, returned to work in bars before opening his own.“What now, my love,” he sings, the opening line to Sinatra’s 1966 cover version of the song of the same name.What now for the nearly 83-year-old Gendron? He stays in shape and says he could work as a consultant at a gym close to his Centretown apartment. And there’s a nearby bar where he’s been offered night shifts, though he adds he’s had enough of the 12- and 14-hour days that he regularly put in at VJ’s.And while his music is from the past, he says he doesn’t live there, preferring to look forward. “That’s how you stay young.”And so, to his former customers who may be wondering where he’s gone, he simply offers this: “I might see you again, somewhere.”email@example.comALSO IN THE NEWSFive candidates to interview for Ottawa police chiefEspionage, double-dealing, death: An excerpt from the mystery novel SpikedPopular bar Hooley’s closes, owner blames Elgin Street construction