Tucked inside a grand old Victorian house in the heart of Yorkville, the Penny Farthing possessed eccentric charms—including a swimming pool and bikini-clad waitresses. Owned and operated by John McHugh and his wife, it featured jazz and blues and was the first coffeehouse to feature Joni Mitchell’s original songs.
Ex-RAF pilot John McHugh and his wife, Marilyn, opened the Penny Farthing in the spring of 1963, after their initial success with the Half Beat coffeehouse. In an unusual move, the McHughs installed a patio and swimming pool, enabling customers to have a dip while sipping cappuccinos in the backyard. With the Penny, John indulged his taste for the blues and Dixieland jazz, both of which came together on the live recording Stompin’ at the Penny, by Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers and legendary American bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Johnson later operated a Yorkville coffeehouse of his own.
With shifting musical styles, the Penny also provided a stage for folk-rockers the Stormy Clovers, who attracted Leonard Cohen when they debuted the Montréal poet’s songs. In early 1965, the McHughs featured American folksinger Chuck Mitchell upstairs, while downstairs Saskatchewan-raised Joni Anderson sang in a space ignominiously known as the Dungeon. It proved an auspicious booking: it was where the young prairie girl first got to perform original material, written in her unique open tunings, and where she met the man she briefly married and whose name she ultimately kept.
By Nicholas Jennings