Tech Company Revives Century-Old Toronto Concert Hall, Where Zeppelin, Zappa & The Who Once Rocked

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The TD Toronto Jazz Festival Concert Hall

Toronto's famed century-old Concert Hall, where Frank Sinatra hosted parties, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder climbed its balcony, Led Zeppelin held its first Toronto show, and The Rolling Stones rehearsed for tour, is officially back in business after Info-Tech Research Group purchased the building.

The venue enjoys its official re-launch tonight (June 23) with a concert by Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Guess Who fame to kick off TD Toronto Jazz Festival (June 23 to July 2). Local rock station Q107 is presenting and tickets are $19.17 in honor of the venue's 100th anniversary.

The ornate building was originally a meeting place for Masons like the Knights Templar and York Rite and is filled with symbols and intricate carvings.

As a venue it was first known as The Masonic Temple (1918), then Masonic Temple Auditorium (1945), then Club 888 (Tina Turner played there in 1966), then for a significant period as The Rock Pile with shows by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, MC5, Crazy Horse (with Neil Young), The Who, Frank Zappa and more.

In 1969, it became The Masonic Temple again, and hosted concerts by Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Hugh Masekela, The Animals and Toots & the Maytals. Five years later, it was added to the Toronto Heritage Property Inventory and in 1979 was again known by The Concert Hall. 

It remained a top tour-stop destination for the next 20 years, reading like a who's who of popular music from rap to new wave and rock:  Sugarhill Gang, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Iron Maiden, Kraftwerk, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, R.E.M., Metallica, Run D.M.C., Skinny Puppy, Midnight Oil, Public Enemy, The Tragically Hip, Red Hot Chili Peppers (The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam opened), Tin Machine (with David Bowie), Phish, Pantera, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Bob Dylan, Beck and more.

In 1997, a potential new developer planned to demolish the site to build condos but the same year the provincial government acknowledged its value by protecting it under the Ontario Heritage Act which "helps to ensure the conservation of these important places for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations." That September, the Rolling Stones set up shop there for weeks of rehearsals for their Bridges To Babylon Tour. 

The live venue now done, Bell Media purchased the properly in 1998 and used it as TV studio for CTV's national talk show, Open Mic with Mike Bullard, which did book live music performers. From 2006, it was used as MTV's studio, and the Polaris Music Prize rented it to host its annual awards gala. When Bell put it up for sale, it was expected it would be turned into condos. But Info-Tech -- headquartered in a 75,000 sq. ft. space in London, Ontario, with offices in Las Vegas -- purchased it in 2013 for $12.5 million and had other plans. 

After millions in renovations, the Toronto staff of 250 moved in Easter Weekend the following year.  The Concert Hall operates under a separate corporation, 888 Yonge Street (pronounced triple eight]. It has already been renting it out for private events, including a listening session with Jimmy Page for the final three Led Zeppelin albums; a charity concert headlined by former Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle; and a performance by Luke and the Apostles as part of a Yorkville Heritage plaque unveiling. 

Billboard spoke with 888 Yonge Street executive director William Russell about how a tech company became involved in the live touring business and what its plans are for the space.

How did you hook up with the Toronto Jazz Festival and have Randy Bachman as first official event the public could purchase tickets for?

Jazz Festival found us. We have been working with [the City of] Toronto and had a Yorkville Heritage event plaque unveiling. We had Gordon Lightfoot in the space and Howard [Kerbel], who is the CEO of Toronto festival, I believe was there for the event and thought it would be perfect.

Info-Tech bought the building and you work for them or they brought you in to manage and book the hall?

The answer is both. It's a tech company that bought the building. We had initially thought of ways we could use The Concert Hall as office space but keep the furniture easily moveable, so that we could use it as a concert hall whenever there was opportunity. We didn't actually ever do that. We just kept it as a concert hall. So it's been our plan from the start to getting around to running an events business formally in the space again. We decided in the last six months and have been ramping that up. Toronto Jazz Fest is a soft launch, I suppose.

There is always uproar in this city when a historic venue gets taken over by a massive non-music corporation. Where does Info-Tech's desire come from to get in the music biz? Is founder Joel McLean a big music lover or are you, yourself?

Both Joel and myself are huge music lovers. I'm a live music junkie and have been my entire life. Music is what I do in my spare time and now I have the luxury of doing it in my professional time as well. We talk about being a little bit disappointed in some of the media when we purchased the building because they were painting us as being a boring technology company, which we are the furthest thing from to be completely honest.

In what way aren't you a boring technology company?

You'd have to come see the space. Let me tell you -- we moved in and we said, "This is amazing. We own the Concert Hall, which is where everyone played and such an amazing venue. What do we do to make sure we embrace that and celebrate that?'  And we went all out to do that. All of our boardrooms are named after bands that played there.  We have a Led Zeppelin boardroom, a Pearl Jam boardroom, a Rolling Stones boardroom, The Who boardroom, a Frank Sinatra boardroom, Grateful Dead boardroom. You name it. We even have a Slayer boardroom featuring two concert t-shirts from those shows mounted in shadow boxes so that the front and back can be seen. My mission to fill all the boardrooms with memorabilia, preferably from their Concert Hall shows.

How many rooms are in the building?

I don't know the exact number of rooms, but it's six floors and basement. It's deceitfully large once you get inside.  There's probably about 25 to 30 boardrooms.

Did you keep that vintage scissor gate elevator?

Absolutely. They need love. What we did is hired a full-time lift operator who I think would be one of the last remaining ones in Canada, if not the last one. I don't know for sure. But Michael [Bathurst] is our lift operator and he spends his day both playing music for people -- his set up is a Bluetooth speaker and an iPad -- and he spends his day playing music for people in the elevator and shuttling them between floors. There's actually two elevators in there. One we use for moving our maintenance people around and one we use for staff.

Did you touch the grand poobah room, I call it, with its red thrones where the freemasons held their meetings nearly a hundred years ago and where the Polaris Music Prize held its grand jury debates?

Absolutely not. It's remained in all its splendor. We refer to it as The Red Room or our VIP boardroom, for our other business [Info-Tech]. I think we replaced the carpet because it was very worn out but other than that we put some new tables that have inlays of the Masonic logo, The Concert Hall logo, and the Info-Tech Research Group logo to embrace the history of the building.  And Mick Jagger's snooker table is in the space as well.

What is the capacity of the Concert Hall now?

When all is said and done, we're going to operate with a capacity of 1200. We're looking at our desire to share the space with as many people as possible with our desire to operate as a premium vent location, so I think that means not overcrowding.  I know a tight capacity has been as high as 1500 in the past, but we're going to operate at 1200.

Any upgrades to stage, light, sound?

We put in digital theatre-class projector and screen in the main Concert Hall, and the screen is hidden behind the proscenium, so it doesn't change the look of the hall at all when we use it for presentations or events, or watching movies if we feel like it. We put in a very basic PA when we first bought the space to handle talking heads. We're now in the process of upgrading the PA to something that makes more sense to run an events business with. 

So after hours this space is available to be rented for concerts?  Are you in touch with the promoters and booking agencies?

It's available both day and evening. I envision live performance in the evenings and in the daytime host more corporate style events. Our goal with the space is to establish it as one of Toronto's premiere event venues that would encompass both music and more corporate events and perhaps even weddings and that sort of thing. As far as Live Nation and all, a lot of the promoters have been reaching out to us now that we announced Jazz Fest and we are building those relationships with them. We're talking to everybody.

So it will be a regular venue to see live acts again.

That's specifically our goal.

Do you not have staff there in the daytime?

When we do not have events going on, our staff used it as a social space. The stage is set up as a bit of a lounge, a coffee table and couple of comfortable chairs. We have turntables and a vinyl collection, which plays through the house PA. Staff can gather there, have coffee together or a glass of wine at the end of the day, spin some vinyl or play some music on the jukebox. And when it is in use, we just keep our staff out of there.

We have a couple of venue-specific operational challenges we work around.  We ask that soundcheck is either scheduled at noon when our employees are taking lunch and it won't be as disruptive as or at 5 o'oclock. Or, if we don't have event the day previously, then we ask load in the previous day and do soundcheck the night before, but so far that hasn't presented a major problem. Most people just do their soundcheck at 5 o'clock and often they invite our staff to watch soundcheck if they want, which is a nice little perk.  We're had people say, ‘No, we need the space closed out which we honour.'

What are your memories of the space? Did you see a lot of shows there?

I did. The one that means the most to me was seeing the Pixies with Frank Black.  I remember exactly where I was sitting in the space and I remember being absolutely blown away by the show and the venue and, of course, the walls sweating, which is what the space was famous for.