A Look Back at The Danforth Music Hall

A brief history of the venue we've come to know and love as The Danforth Music Hall

It’s 1989 and two young women are using The Danforth Music Hall to record their very first EP as a band. Suzanne Little and Michele Gould call themselves Lava Hey, their thing is Folk and they met at NOW Magazine. A Toronto story if there ever was one. In 1989 The Danforth Music Hall is imperfect for live concerts; the paint is peeling and the almost century-old building had been constructed for shows without amplification, so the sound echoes like crazy, but it’s got a charisma. Despite the imperfections, James Brown, the Clash, The Police and the Ramones have all played there.

And so Lava Hey sets to work recording.

(Allen’s Danforth Theatre, 1919)

The old building they’re in had opened with grand ambitions and upscale intentions. Things were never supposed to get so dire. In 1919, the movie theatre boasted marble stairs, red tile on the lobby floor, and gold trimmed velour curtains. It was a jewel in the Allen Theatre chain.

Constructed just after the Bloor Viaduct had been completed, it was a time when buildings optimistically shot up all the way down Danforth. But the venue’s bad luck started not even five years after opening: it was bought by Famous Players, then it was a Greek language theatre.

It was not until the ‘70s that ‘The Hall’ started booking live acts and things started to look up again. The building had gotten old enough to morph from fancy to edgy, like mansions along the Annex that become rooming houses, and eventually edgy, artsy rentals.

(The Century Theatre, 1939)

As for Lava Hey’s 1989 recording – surprisingly it goes on to become a big success. The EP was only really meant for their friends’ enjoyment, but within a short time it’s picked up by Nettwerk, which by the 90s is fast becoming one of the largest and most influential record labels in the world. The tracks get re-recorded and band enjoys a couple years of fame. The Musical Hall, however, doesn’t get a Lava Hey style make-over for a while, and the first attempts are disastrous.

Let’s blame Jersey Boys for one of them.

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(The Danforth Music Hall, 2013 via Facebook)

In 2004, the Hall closes and remains vacant until re-opening with new owners in 2005 who turn it back into a live music venue. It is even named the Performing Arts Centre of the year (under 1500 capacity) at the 2008 Canadian Music Industry Awards. At this point the owners made an agreement with DanCap Productions Inc., an American company still dizzy from the success of their Jersey Boys production and looking to bring their new comedy stage show Toxic Avengers to the Danforth Music Hall for its Canadian debut. In exchange for the honour of hosting such a money maker, the production company demands new seats, interior renovations, and upgrades to the washrooms and dressing rooms. The bill is split between the Hall’s owners and DanCap.

The show is a huge flop and closes early. A year later, in 2010, the property is seized and closed due to non-payment of rent.

(seating, present day, via thedanforth.com)

But The Music Hall is not a business that stays closed for long. In 2012, it reopens under Impressario Inc. Sixty acoustic panels help with the echoes, removable seats allow the floor to be cleared in under four hours. There are two bars and the entire property is licensed, meaning people can drink in their seats (and the Hall can haul in more money.) The place still has structural charm: 1000 person capacity, a slanted floor (even short people can see the stage) and a location right on the subway line. General Manager Michael Sherman has a goal: 100 -150 shows a year, around 2000 people visiting a week, and booking “proper talent”, people who can make money, from Rihanna to Hanson to Neil Gaiman, to Two Door Cinema Club, Mogwai, Chromeo, Bombay Bicycle Club, and The Black Lips. The odds of some kids, like the ones in Lava Hey, walking off the street to record an EP on any given Tuesday are slim to none. All the same, one would be tempted to hope that things are on the up and up, even for this perennially unlucky Music Hall.

We’ll check in 5 years from now.

(Owen Pallett @ The Danforth Music Hall, 2014)