Massey Hall, the 121-year-old Toronto live entertainment theater whose hallowed stage has been graced by such acts as Neil Young, George Gershwin, Rush, Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, Luciano Pavarotti and Johnny Cash, is undergoing Phase 1 of a seven-year revitalization project, its president and CEO, Charles Cutts, announced Monday (Feb. 23) at the venue.
“Today marks the beginning of an important journey for this unique Canadian cultural institution,” Cutts said from the stage. “Massey Hall is not only a national historic site that we all treasure, but a place where Canadian music history is made. It’s been that way for 120 years, and will be for the next 120. This seven-year revitalization project will not only result in an improved Massey Hall for future generations, but will bring it alive in exciting new ways.
“This revitalization will set the stage for the corporation to invest in not only the artists who perform on its stage currently, but also developing artists who aspire to perform here. We’ll also provide education programs for young people and audiences, while embracing technology as a tool for promoting artists, reaching new audiences and enriching their musical experiences in our hall.”
Ron Sexsmith, Whitehorse and Sam Roberts are all relatively new acts who aspired to and succeeded in headlining the famed venue as their careers progressed; 76-year-old folk legend Gordon Lightfoot has played Massey 150 times.
Phase 1 is already underway and will run until 2018 for a cost of $32 million (CAD) and Phase 2 from 2019 to 2021 for more than $100 million. The total projected cost is $135 million, the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall revealed.
The first phase includes an $8 million commitment from the government of Canada and the same figure from the province, $1 million each from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and TD Bank Group, and more than $1 million from individual donors. Undisclosed sums were also given by the American Express Foundation and Edwards Charitable Foundation.
The revitalization is made possible because of the 2012 transfer of 4,804 square feet of land to the south of Massey Hall by Toronto’s MOD Developments and Tricon Capital Group Inc., allowing the expansion and improvements.
Cutts, whose opening remarks addressed why the undertaking would take seven years, was followed by numerous speakers involved with the two-phase project, including Minister of Finance Hon. Joe Oliver and one artist with his own memory of performing on the Massey Hall stage, Rush singer/bassist Geddy Lee. The famed Toronto prog-rock trio recorded its first live album, All the World’s a Stage, at Massey Hall over three days in June of 1976.
“The first big show that I remember vividly was coming here to see a band called the Cream [Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker] back in the mid-60s,” recalled Lee of his youth. “I remember it clearly because none of my friends wanted to go with me and I was going anyway, so I bought a ticket and I sat right up there.” As for aspiring to play Massey himself with Rush, he says, “Of course all kids dream. Me and my bandmates used to dream of just working regularly, so the idea of playing Massey Hall was a dream beyond dreams. So when it finally came true it was quite something.”
Some speakers, like Hon. Michael Coteau, provincial minister of tourism, culture & sport, prefaced their formal remarks with a personal anecdote from their teen years, such as seeing LL Cool J at Massey Hall or Mayor John Tory seeing Jack Benny and later Carole King opening for James Taylor.
Built by architect Sidney R. Badgley for about $150,000, and financed by Hart Massey, the three-level concert theater opened in 1894 and originally seated 3,500 people; it currently seats 2,753. The revitalization is helmed by Order of Canada recipient Marianne McKenna of Kuwabarra Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects and Goldsmith Boreal & Company Ltd.
Phase 1 of the project will include modernization of back of house, the first-ever loading dock for the venue, and backstage artist space. Phase 2 will include refurbishment of the interior and exterior of Massey Hall, an expansion about the new foundation of two levels of enhanced, accessible patron amenities, which will include elevators, new washrooms, lobby, bar and hospitality/rental spaces.
Massey Hall will go dark for 18-24 months at some point after 2019, while construction takes place, and will be announced well in advance. “Until then, it will be business as usual at Massey Hall,” said Cutts.
Calling it a celebration of the launch of Phase 1, he added, “This would not have been possible without the generous support of government, corporate, foundation, and individual donors…It is significant that all three orders of government have been unified in their support of Phase 1 and by extension the entire revitalization project.
“The federal government recognizes that investing in Massey Hall’s future not only creates employment but will ensure that the hall continues to contribute to the lives of Canadians through arts, employment and cultural celebration for generations to come.”