Tracing the steps of our Toronto homeboy
by Marc Weisblott
A pop music combo contains a famous Toronto-reared actor-slash-bass player. They get a big U.S. record deal and pack fans into rock clubs around the world. The hometown media glare becomes unrelenting. The band's most famous member returns to his hometown a universal hero.
Well, nice fairy tale, but that's not quite the script Dogstar followed. Their initial release, a four-song EP, was released to an indifferent public and the group was dropped by their label, but the self-proclaimed "folk thrash" outfit soldier on. Their most reticent member even turned down a role in Speed 2 to keep slinging his bass and wearing his toque in the face of all the rigors that rest ahead.
Not that being known by just his first name could somehow camouflage his true identity -- not when his first name happens to be Keanu. Sure, there are two other guys in Dogstar: swarthy drummer Rob Mailhouse, a one-time contract player on Days Of Our Lives; and songwriting frontman Bret Domrose, whose affected Valley Boy vocals recall the persona of a certain excellent adventure dude.
Reeves was a resident of Toronto from the first grade 'til sometime in his 20th year. Born on Sept. 2, 1964, in Beirut, Keanu surfaced here via New York City with his younger sister, mother and first of two stepfathers. Nevertheless, the elusive Reeves has never seemed to acknowledge Toronto as more than a stopover on his path to Hollywood. And, while his lack of civic pride is almost admirable, he did spend his formative years in our midst.
Therefore, I went on a mission that rivals retracing the steps of Siddartha himself. To stroll where Keanu once strolled. To slouch where Keanu once slouched. To drowse where Keanu once drowsed. Keanu's reluctance to reveal details about his personal life doesn't make the task any easier. However, in the past year, there have been two biographies, Keanu by Sheila Johnston and Keanu Reeves by Chris Nickson -- both shabbily written, although that didn't stop me from cribbing clues from them. The information that follows should be accurate within 4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, all part of the path that leads to Dogstar.
THE YORKVILLE YEARS
Days after Speed established Keanu as a superstar, Alice Cooper was on the interview trail for his album The Last Temptation. Alice boasted of the fact that, during the recording of Welcome To My Nightmare, he lived in a house in Yorkville inhabited by a little boy named Keanu, who Alice would entertain with plastic vomit and fecal matter. Keanu's mother, Patric (no relation to Jason, star of Speed 2), designed costumes for rock stars and billeted the alcohol-addled Alice, who also recalled an "old Eskimo woman" living there.
Keanu attended the urban jungle called Jesse Ketchum Public School (61 Davenport). He would shoot hoops on the lot in solitude after school. According to a plaque in the hallway, Jesse Ketchum earned its first Elmer The Safety Elephant citation for an accident-free year in 1978-79, the year after Keanu would have last been a student there.
HIGH SCHOOL HIGH
The succession of schools Reeves attended scatters from there. The first one was in the Yonge-Eglinton corridor, North Toronto Collegiate (70 Roehampton), the kind of clique-oriented upper-middle-class high school that Keanu would no doubt consider too constraining. Based on the names of Ontario Scholars etched on the walls, his classmates would have included someone named "John Stamos." Not the Full House thespian, though -- after all, what would be the odds of two double-threat musician-actors attending the very same high school at the very same time?
In between ninth and tenth grades, Keanu visited his ex-stepfather, who had become a TV movie director in L.A., and returned home with intentions to pursue an acting career. He enrolled in the High School for the Performing Arts (207 Adelaide E.), within a building that now contains several offices, including the Russian Academy Of Classical Ballet. It was the sort of place where attendance wasn't taken that often, but Keanu still got involved in confrontations with his hippie teachers.
Reeves drifted into the institutional De La Salle (131 Farnham), a sprawling all boys Catholic school whose bucolic campus is nestled off Avenue Rd. (Part of the separate school system then, it's since turned private.) With a rink on the premises, Keanu became the school team's defenceman, earning the nickname "The Wall." The team didn't win that often, and Reeves fell one credit short of passing Grade 12. He is therefore not among the dweebs among the 132nd graduating class, whose pictures hang in the same school theatre where Keanu appeared in a production of The Crucible.
THE LEANER YEARS
Keanu then surfaced at the Leah Posluns Theatre School (4588 Bathurst), part of a concrete compound now known as the Bathurst Jewish Centre, where he slummed alongside aged racquetball players and chlorinated little kids from the adjoining health club facilities in the centre's wood-paneled cafeteria. (Its decor hasn't changed. There is also a pristine Ms Pac-Man machine on the premises, redolent of the era Keanu was loafing around.)
Taking classes in between auditions for commercials and assorted bit parts -- Hangin' In and Night Heat were his greatest accomplishments -- Keanu spent the summer of 1983 studying at the Hedgerow Theater in Pennsylvania, involved in a production of Romeo & Juliet. Returning to Leah Posluns, the senior student production for spring 1985 turned out to be the exact same play, and Keanu craved, and won, the role of Mercutio. The theatre school closed in a restructuring a couple years ago, and the 500-seater's bookings are Yiddish plays and the East York Symphony.
Keanu also performed at the Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre (86 Lombard), the former city morgue that is now a women's shelter. In the mid-'80s it rented out its stage for about $500 a week, which Reeves and five other theatre students doled out in order to mount the self-penned Holding Someone Holding Me. Keanu played a preppie.
Shortly thereafter, he earned a role in Wolfboy, a Brad Fraser play produced at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). The infamous poster depicted Keanu in the heat of passion with the wolfboy, played by Carl Marotte, who went on to appear in the pseudo-bilingual CBC hockey mini-series, He Shoots! He Scores!, but didn't become co-star Roch Voisine's bassist.
THE BOGUS JOURNEY
Youngblood, the hockey film starring Rob Lowe and his bare ass, became Keanu's first feature. He played a goalie who spoke in fractured French (among his six stirring lines, "Dat man is fuck-eeng an animal!"). It was largely set, and therefore filmed, in cold, working-class Canada. Keanu used his meagre earnings to buy his first bass guitar and amp.
A more classically Canadian piece of dreck called Flying followed (released on video as Dream To Believe), perhaps the first movie shot in Toronto set in Buffalo (images of Genesee Beer and Bills pennants put this point across). It stars Olivia D'Abo as the most buxom gymnast in history, triumphing over Flashdance-inspired adversity to win a competition. At first, Keanu figures she doesn't know he's alive after being spurned outside "Jefferson High" -- actually Danforth Collegiate (840 Greenwood). Reeves, in proto-Speed haircut and proto Bill & Ted clothes, does win her heart halfway through, and a dreadful song with a refrain about "the first time" wails as the pair consummate their relationship.
Well, the rest is history. Keanu loaded up his 1969 Volvo, went back to L.A. to live with his ex-stepdad, and, more than a decade later turned down a ridiculous amount of Speed 2 cash to record a Dogstar album, Our Little Visionary, selling their CDs at shows to buy enough gas for their van to get to the next town. Their Toronto appearance will be Keanu's first since Johnny Mnemonic, the lumbering futuristic thriller set in Newark whose most crucial scene was filmed in Union Station.
There, in a hospital where parking costs $25 per half hour, Keanu's title character is informed by Dr. Spider, played by Henry Rollins, that his brain has been programmed with the cure for Nerve Attenuation Syndrome. But then one of Johnny's pursuers nails the doctor's wrists to the wall. In the end, Mr. Mnemonic might live happily ever after, although, in real-life, Rollins has something Keanu doesn't -- a deal with David Geffen. (A record deal, silly.)