Massey Hall, opened in 1894, was built as a gift to Toronto in the hopes of promoting and developing the arts in Canada. As the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street undergoes a massive revitalization through a project promising to ‘change nothing but improve everything,’ here’s a look back at some moments that happened in Toronto’s longest running music theatre.
A phenomenal Italian operatic tenor, Caruso came to Massey Hall in 1908 and stayed at the King Edward Hotel in the same suite the Beatles would stay in 40 years later. Tickets were $2.50 – when most Vaudeville shows at the time cost a dime. The Great Caruso returned again in 1920, to ticket prices of $8 — an average month’s wage. After his sold out show, he took to the fire escape to sing an aria for those on the street who couldn’t get into the venue.
Oscar Peterson made his Massey Hall debut in his early-twenties on March 1946, followed soon after by Glenn Gould, who was 13 when he performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever
Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie took to the stage in May, 1953, resulting in a concert that’s still talked about to this day. It was the only time the five were together for a recording, the last recorded meeting of Parker and Gillespie, and only attended by about 600 people after concert organizers advertised by word of mouth. Missed it?
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Orchestra for Ronnie
When Ronnie Hawkins turned 60 in 1995, he did so with a huge party at Massey Hall. Friends he invited on stage included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeff Healey and the Band, who all played as the Rock’N’Roll Orchestra. Wish you had been there? Listen to his live album that captured the event: Let It Rock.
Live at Massey Hall Series
Massey Hall’s live concert series features 30-minute concert films showcasing Canadian artists like Owen Pallett, Peaches, Rheostatics, Tanya Tagaq, Bahamas, The Weather Station, Alejandra Ribera, Amelia Curran, Chilly Gonzales and The Hidden Cameras performing live at the iconic venue. You can attend the performances, stream them from the venue’s website, as well as view archived versions on YouTube. The series has produced some unforgettable sets and behind the scenes looks at major artists, including Guelph’s The Constantines.
In 1965, Bob Dylan was at Massey Hall with Toronto band Levon and the Hawks. The first set was acoustic, what his fans were used to, and the second set went electric, with Levon and the Hawks (later, The Band). They were all booed, and a few local reviews lambasted the what they called a departure from folk to rock and roll.
There might not be just one moment that Gordon Lightfoot has stood out at Massey Hall. The singer first played at Massey Hall in 1967, playing his 150th solo concert in 2011. He received the first-ever Massey Hall Honours Award in 2014 and has called the place the “centre of my universe as a musician.”
Massey Hall has been good to live recordings, including one by Neil Young that he recorded in 1971 and didn’t release until 2007, when it quickly became the number one album in Canada. Rush’s first live album All the World’s a Stage was recorded at Massey Hall in 1976 and sold over one million copies.
Hayden performs with The National
If you were there, you will never forget it. Canadian indie-folk icon Hayden joined The National on stage to perform a rendition of “Terrible Love” on April 11, 2014.
Behind the Scenes
Alan Cross told a crowd in 2015 that Eddie Vedder once found the same spot in the back of the building where Neil Young had relieved himself, and did the same. Audience members were known during some of Massey Hall’s dry years (there were 100 of them) to visit nearby establishments during intermission for a drink or two. Morrissey was pulled from the stage in September 1997 when guards mistook him for a crazed fan. Massey Hall has been featured in TV shows like Murdoch Mysteries and The Strain and also in documentaries like Spirit Unforgettable.
The non-music stuff
Winston Churchill gave speeches at Massey Hall in 1900 and 1901 while the future King George V and his wife Queen Mary visited with Wilfrid Laurier in 1901. Famous distance runner Tom Longboat was married there in 1908. Women suffragettes were inspired by Nellie McClung at a rally in 1915. The 14th Dalai Lama brought a message of compassion to the stage in 1990. The hall has also been home to boxing matches, movies, chess tournaments and boxing matches.
Looking for more about Massey Hall performances? Visit Centuries, the Hall’s basement bar. It was added in 1994, bringing alcohol to the Hall for the first time. A look at the walls will give you another glimpse at the artists who’ve made the Massey Hall stage part of their history. Or check out the history section of Massey Hall’s website.
Feature photo courtesy Danielle Scott via Flickr.