On Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, the Kirkland Block that housed the Club Morocco burned down. Harry Smith’s famed Club Morocco, 579 Portage Avenue was one of Winnipeg’s liveliest and long running nightclubs. Joanne Alexander-Smith, Harry’s widow talked to me about Harry on May 12, 2005:
Harry Smith (Herschel Schmutkin) came from Poland. He was fluent in English, Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish. Harry’s brother Earl was the first to come to Canada. He was told at the entry point into Canada that he would have to change his name, so Schmutkin became Smith. He worked on a dairy farm and sent money for Harry to come to Canada just before the start of WWII. When Harry arrived, he became Smith also. The rest of the family died in Auschwitz. Harry started in the restaurant and service business as a waiter on the railway. In 1952 he opened Lindy’s Lunch in the Lindsay building, home of radio station CJOB. He then ran the Roseland Dance Gardens and, in 1954, opened the Club Morocco. By the 1980s, it was the oldest nightclub in Canada still operated by the original owner. Harry passed away in August of 1998, age 83.
Harry featured some of the best Winnipeg singers and bands. Wally Koster, Aubrey Tadman and Del Wagner all performed at the Morocco with the Lloyd Semers Band.
The Al Sprintz band with drummer/vocalist/tap dancer Del Wagner was a great favourite for over twenty years at the Club Morocco. Sprintz started there on a two-week contract and stayed on for twenty-two years. Bob “Moose” Jackson, the bass player in Al’s band, took over as leader when Al retired.
I first went to the club in 1958. I was working for Burns Meats and their Christmas party was held at the “Morocco”. I felt very special as I knew the drummer, Del Wagner. By 1959, I was a working drummer. The Morocco, open until 2 am, became the place to go on a night off or when I had finished a gig. I played drums with the band in 1966 and again in the late 1970s.
The Chinese food buffet was a great draw and guaranteed good crowds for Harry, especially in the latter part of the week. Musicians from CBC and all over Winnipeg congregated at the Morocco. We established a sense of camaraderie and fellowship over a few drinks, a good meal, and listening to some fine music.
The Morocco had an admittance policy; you had to wear a sport jacket or suit coat. If you didn’t have one, no problem! Harry’s brother Earl was at the door, and he had a rack of old, odd sized, odoriferous jackets to lend to you.
I stopped going to the Morocco in the mid 1980s. I was busy with my own band and the camaraderie of the 60s and 70s had faded. Gary Gross, one of the accordion players that I had met there in 1959 and Al Sprintz went for breakfast regularly through the 90s. This was a needed connection to the Morocco’s glory days and where we would reminisce about the other Winnipeg night clubs such as Chan’s Moon Room, The Towers at the Town and Country, the Rancho Don Carlos, Jack’s Place, the Highwayman and the Copacabana.
Gary and Al are both gone now. At one of our last breakfast get togethers Al said: “Sometimes when I’m on my way home, I park in front of the Morocco and I cry, thinking about what a wonderful time I had there.”
The fire on Feb. 1, 2022, closed that chapter on Winnipeg music history.