ARTS AND CULTURE
Pinball, Power Chords and Pierogies at Ottawa's House of Targ
Three local men turned some music equipment and a 1980s arcade machine into a community hub
You grip the wheel of your Rad Mobile and floor it round the bend. You deke up the lane and dunk over Karl Malone’s head. You feather the flippers on Metallica Pinball, and the bell tolls not for thee – not this time anyway. But then you overheat your Excitebike, and you’re fresh out of change, man, fresh out of luck. But you’ve got a couple twenties left in your wallet, so you head to the bar, order a tasty beer, and dig into some handmade perogies. Then you take in the rock band wailing on stage.
This is an average night at House of Targ, one of Ottawa’s most original nightlife offerings. Located on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South, and just embarking on its third year of operations, Targ is owned and operated by Paul Granger, Mark McHale, and Kevin Berger. Products of the city’s music scene, they’ve created a basement venue with more than 60 coin-operated games, from a Super Mario arcade cabinet to a Walking Dead pinball machine. And because it’s all about scorekeeping, the House knows it has made hundreds of thousands of pierogies and hosted about 800 bands.
Typically, the musical flavour leans toward metal, punk, and hard rock, but Targ has booked hip-hop acts, country, a puppet show, and vaudeville. And it hosts regular all-ages events where the kids steep themselves in all things indie. “I’m floored at the ability of some of these kids,” says the lanky and gently tattooed Berger, a drummer himself. “I’ve played forever, but I’m kind of a one-trick pony.”
The venue’s origins date back about 10 years ago and centre around a studio and a primitive video game from 1980 called Targ. “It started out as recording studio and jam space on Main – just a little warehouse,” Berger says. The studio was Granger’s, and it’s still doing business today as The Meat Locker. He was hosting underground performances in the space, and they were getting increasingly popular. When a client offered Granger a Targ console to pay for a bill, the live music-plus-video games concept came together. “Lots of people came through the jam space,” Berger says, “and of course they came from different walks of life. One of them was actually into pinball machines, and a relationship started.”
After a while, the performances got too big for the studio. With McHale and Berger onboard, Granger started casting around for a more spacious venue, which brought them to a relatively quiet section of Bank Street, just south of The Glebe and the Rideau Canal. Here, the street’s upscale, boutique finish starts to crack up a little, allowing space for a dollar store, but maintaining features like the Mayfair Theatre and Black Squirrel Books. The Targ basement, meanwhile, had been put to multiple uses over the years, from strip club to storage space.
Courtesy House of Targ
“It was clearly in a state of neglect,” says Berger, who swapped his professional life managing a futon manufacturer to take on his duties with Targ. “We cleaned it up, painted it, and fixed it, then turned it into this contraption.”
In order to get a liquor licence, the partners needed to come up with a menu. Pub grub seemed too typical, so they drew on Granger’s Ukrainian heritage to bring in the pierogi element. “Little did we know how labour-intensive they are,” says Berger, shaking his head at the “relentless folding” it takes to make the joy-stuffed pouches.
Now, after abundant media attention and two successful years of operation, House of Targ is in a mature position, with Granger in charge of booking, McHale running the kitchen, and Berger heading up general management. The House has a steady clientele, loads of feature nights and special events, and endless live music options – thanks in part to a handy submission form for acts that aspire to play there, which generates hundreds of emails a month.
Helping to tie the House of Targ’s various activities together is the House of Targ zine, which features work by local artists and writers alongside listings for gigs and events (including a recurring family day), music reviews, profiles of the games you can play and even an advice column.
Still, there have been challenges, most notably the one generated last summer by a stoner rock outfit called Black P---y. While the band’s lyrics seem innocuous enough, the name lit up a bonfire of outrage. Blowback surfaced in the media and online, and the House of Targ was accused of trafficking in racism and misogyny. When Granger posted a defence on Facebook – saying the group’s name isn’t meant to be taken literally, and inviting further discussion – the reaction only grew more severe, prompting Targ to unveil an inclusivity policy, which includes free and regular community workshops as well as better vetting of performers. Berger looks at the experience as necessary to the venue’s development. “People took offence to that name, and we really got an education [through] that whole process.”
It’s been almost a year since the policy was announced, and while some of its action points – including a mission statement to be posted in the venue – are still in development, he says others have been in place for quite some time.
If anything, the incident helped shepherd the House of Targ along its evolutionary path: What started as a spot to play pinball, listen to bands and eat pierogies is morphing into a community and cultural hub. “Our mentality is not to be a rock in the stream,” says Berger, “but just to be the stream.”