By David Ball
For many of us – even the non–Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Argonauts and monster truck fans – it will always be (and still should be) the SkyDome, and not the Rogers Centre. Likewise, for the more wizened across the country and the millions around the world who have passed under its majestic marquee since its celebrated grand opening on October 1, 1960, it will always be the O’Keefe Centre, and not the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. Admittedly, I was finally growing accustomed to calling the venerable multi-purpose Canadian venue by its 1996-branded Hummingbird Centre moniker before it was renamed by the electronics giant in 2007.
The attractive postwar Toronto landmark, designed by English ex-pat architect Peter Dickinson, sits on the southeast corner of Yonge and Front Streets and was built for $12 million by O’Keefe Brewery; the purveyors of an uninspiring, but cheap domestic swill owned the facility until 1968. Possession of the 3,200-seat hall, still the largest of its kind in the country, was handed over to the City of Toronto and renamed by its new sponsor, Hummingbird Communications, in the mid-1990s.
Cursed with poor natural acoustics partly due to its cavernous size, the facility was originally intended to host only large-scale productions, specifically ballet, opera and theatre performances, and it made an ideal home for both the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. However, both original longtime tenants relocated operations a few blocks west to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts when the glass-and-grey box opened in 2006.
But because of the venue’s growing popularity and large capacity, big mainstream acts were also booked there, eventually bringing about two state-of-the-art acoustic redesigns, first in 1996 and again in 2010, the latter as part of Sony’s current mega-million-dollar project featuring the Daniel Libeskind–designed L-shaped 57-storey condo retrofit – or as some locals, including outspoken Toronto Star urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume, see it: a city hall cash-grab and permanent disfiguring of a former modernist architectural “jewel” and would-be heritage building. I guess we’ll see how it all looks when construction is complete sometime in 2013. I’m hopeful it turns out far better than Libeskind’s garish vision of another Toronto landmark, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition to the north wing of the Royal Ontario Museum (although seeing dinosaurs peering down at you through exploding glass panels as you trudge down Bloor Street is pretty freaking awesome).
The spectacular October 1, 1960, gala featured a pre-Broadway performance of Camelot, starring the original cast, including Julie Andrews (I still have the hots for the Sound of Music matriarch, regardless of her age), Richard Burton and then little-known Canadian entertainer Robert Goulet.
Celebrating its 50th year of operation (minus 2008–09 when it was closed for renovations), the O’Keefe/Hummingbird/Sony Centre has hosted a wide variety of events since its inception, including countless big-ticket national and worldwide ballet productions, travelling Broadway shows, plays, orchestra recitals and live concerts by many of the world’s top entertainers.
Some of the performers who have graced the centre’s stage over the years include Count Basie, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby, Judy Garland, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Elton John, Celine Dion, Anne Murray, The Clash and metal gods Tool (I’m still kicking myself for missing their gig).
Cause I got one hand in my pocket and the other one’s counting bags and bags of cash…
Proving disbelievers – who probably included those few aging fans still pining for a return to her former ’90s teen-dance-queen glory – wrong, Alanis Morissette’s first serious album, Jagged Little Pill, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on October 2, 1995, a mere 15 weeks after its album chart debut. The staggering fame, fortune and critical praise that accompanied the release of Morissette’s third studio effort launched the then 21-year-old Ottawa native into superstardom, subsequently making her one of the most influential singer-songwriters of her generation.
Jagged Little Pill spawned six hit singles (Morissette co-wrote all 13 tracks with producer Glen Ballard), was the album champ in 13 countries, including 24 straight weeks at No. 1 in Canada, and sold 33 million copies worldwide (as of 2009), making it one of the biggest sellers of the ’90s. The album went on to win a barrelful of JUNO Awards, as well as four Grammy Awards and tons of international awards, essentially turning any lingering threads of her past dance-pop persona into nothing more than a mere curiosity. Regarding the latter: I’d love to see the collective “WTF?!” looks on the faces of her newfound international fan base the moment they first discovered her past fluffy-pop hits “Too Hot” and “Feel Your Love.” I believe I was one of the deaf, definitely dumb and blind fools who thought at the time that she’d forever be Canada’s version of Debbie Gibson.
On a related note (yes, I like related notes), I remember being totally distracted when I heard JLP’s bold leadoff single on FM radio for the first time mainly because Morissette’s voice, at least on “You Outta Know,” reminded me a lot of Maria del Mar from Toronto’s 1980s and ’90s goth-rockers National Velvet.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” may have been Billboard’s No. 1 pop song this year for nine straight weeks, but it can’t hold a candle to this Canadian singer’s feat…
Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” was the top-ranked tune on the Billboard country chart on October 6, 1954. It was the Nova Scotia native’s fourth No. 1 hit, but, more significantly, the Don Robertson and Jack Rollins–penned track spent a whopping 20 weeks at No. 1, making it one of country music’s biggest country singles of all time and one of the best-loved ditties in the singer’s six-decade hit-laden career.
Snow achieved another chart-topper later in 1954, but “The Singing Ranger” wouldn’t score another No. 1 until 1962 with a North American–centric reworking of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” his second-last claim as country singles champ.
A member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Snow remains one of Nashville’s best-loved talents and has sold an astonishing 80 million records worldwide.
Next week: k.d lang and Triumph
Jefferson Airplane Live at the O’Keefe Centre, 1967