Adonis – the steam bath, spa and mingling place for gay and bisexual men – was started in spring 1972 by a CBC makeup artist, Phillip Benson. Its location was chosen because the Happenings Social Club had its premises on Manitoba Avenue, so it was convenient.
For the GLBT community the 1970s were still the dark ages, with equality rights yet to be won. Homophobic cops still violently raided bathhouses in Toronto and the gay rights movement was yet to be born. Gay men faced oppressive societal discrimination.
At its birth in 1972 Adonis was called The Office. Benson, now dead, also owned apartments above the steam bath. “He mostly rented them out to his gay friends and kept rents very low,” recalls a friend who once lived in one of them. “Originally there were three businesses in the block, including a grocery. Eventually the baths took over the other spaces as it expanded.”
When Benson died his partner, Joe Miller, assumed ownership. The original premises were very basic with lockers and a few rooms plus a large, dark backroom. Later, the business was expanded, offering a 10-man hot tub on the main floor as well as three extra rooms. Today it has 26 rooms and 30 lockers. It is also being constantly updated.
In 2000, Miller sold the business to hospitality worker Doug Pomanski. He upgraded the spa and spent six days a week working flat out to improve it. “It kept me very busy but today I have cut back to three days a week working hands on,” he says. “The original business was only a third the size of the present one. We are busy and I plan to keep on going.”
The 40th celebrations will be held the weekend of April 20-22 and Pomanski says lockers will be half price all weekend. In addition there will be free coffee and doughnuts as well as lot of prizes to be won. “We have noon-hour specials and other promotions and we see a surprising number of bisexual and married men these days,” he says. “We are open every day and attract quite a few out-of-town visitors as well as locals.”
He says non-resident visitors like the fact they offer a 24-hour pass which allows men to check in and out and not have to pay twice. Besides the steam and sauna it offers tanning and a free wireless Internet facility. Adonis has always maintained good relations with the police and never faced a raid or shutdown like some of those in Ontario. “We have firm rules and we always follow them,” says Pomanski. “We have always kept our nose clean and given the police no problems, so we have had none with them.”
Victor (not his real name) worked at the spa from 1980 until his retirement in 2010. He says there was a period when the fear of AIDS did hit business but it slowly recovered as people learned more and took precautions. “In the old days people were pretty freewheeling, but once AIDS came on the scene they became a lot more cautious,” he says. “I worry the new, younger generation isn’t quite as cautious because they know there are drugs to cope with it and prolong life.”
Victor says he believes Adonis is probably the oldest men’s sauna and steam bath in North America in the sense that it has been open continuously in the same location. Many baths in Toronto were shut down in the past. And in San Francisco they were ordered closed as AIDS caused a sense of terror.
He says original owner Philip Benson used to bring food in over the Christmas period and invited all the gay men who had no accepting family. “Their parents didn’t want them around for Christmas dinner so Philip gave them a place,” he says.
Victor recalls Adonis used to get very busy sometimes. “One weekend we had every room and every locker booked and we ended up having to put clients’ belongings in plastic bags at the front desk,” he recalls. “It was that busy.”
–Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.