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Music

That time when the O'Keefe Centre was the place to play

Posted by Guest Contributor / October 27, 2012

O'Keefe CentreThe date is October 4th, 2012, and Jack White is tearing it up onstage for the second straight night at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a music venue Torontonians probably wouldn't immediately associate with intense rock concerts. The Peter Dickinson-designed building at 1 Front Street East with the angled, bulb-filled canopy has seen a steady parade of musicals, ballets and symphonies since its movie palace-style doors first opened almost 52 years to the day (October 1st, 1960). Being as much a student of rock history as he is a dynamic entertainer, don't think White isn't aware of the icons and heroes who have graced the St. Lawrence area building with their presence over the years.

Back in the 1960s, when hockey fans actually saw the Leafs sipping out of Lord Stanley's mug, O'Keefe Ale was one of Canada's best-selling beers and a logical initial sponsor of this eventual landmark. From 1960 until 1996, it was known as the O'Keefe Centre, and a number of high-profile tours chose to make their Toronto stop there due to its superior architectural acoustics. July 31st to August 5th, 1967 saw revolutionary promoter Bill Graham bring the San Francisco Scene in the form of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane for a weeklong residence during the infamous Summer of Love.

O'Keefe CentreLed Zeppelin's twin bill on November 2nd, 1969 (a 5 PM as well as 8:30 PM show), freaked more than a few people out with their newfangled hard rock sound, but it was the precursor to them becoming the biggest band of the '70s. Speaking of which, David Bowie and his elaborate getup brought the glam to T.O. for the first time on June 16th, 1974 in support of Diamond Dogs. Bob Dylan was at the O'Keefe Centre for a 3-night stand between June 5th - 7th, 1990 in the midst of one of his neverending worldwide jaunts. It has even been used as a makeshift television studio; The Doors recorded a trippy version of "The End" there for the CBC on August 8th, 1967, which was broadcast later on an episode of the Noel Harrison-hosted program The Rock Scene: Like It Is.

O'Keefe CentreTo this day, the venue prides itself as being Canada's largest soft seat theatre. One of the more shameful incidents in the O'Keefe Centre's history no doubt occurred when numerous of those seats were ripped out by overzealous fans of The Clash on September 26th, 1979, causing thousands in damage at the height of Toronto's New Wave and punk obsession. It was one of the few black marks on the permanent record of a place many residents still refer to as the Hummingbird Centre, even though the latter only had naming rights from 1996 to 2007.

Not because Hummingbird Ltd. was a local software company bought out by Waterloo's Open Text Corporation primarily for its Exceed product, but because of the memorable, lower-key shows that were made to seem like one-off events. June 7th & 8th, 2006 - Radiohead previewed a bevy of new songs to a rapturous audience that will eventually be heard on "pay what you want" album In Rainbows, although not for another 16 months. August 23rd, 2006 - As part of a busy year which saw them return to town less than three months later, Foo Fighters stripped down to their skin and bones, acoustically-speaking, to reveal their tender side. September 22nd, 2007 - Beastie Boys threw "A Gala Event," an all-instrumental affair where attendees were encouraged to take advantage of the Centre's glamourous setting and dress up for the occasion. Sadly, it ended up being the Beasties' last ever Toronto appearance.

And speaking to the upscale feeling it has always exuded, no matter whose corporate name is on the marquee, who wouldn't have wanted to see classy artists such as the enigmatic Lou Reed (June 16th, 2000), swan dress-wearing Björk (October 7th & 8th, 2001), Mr. Cheerful himself, a.k.a. Morrissey (October 12th, 2004), or Marilyn Manson, for God's sake (July 26th, 2003), followed by sipping on a White Zinfandel in one of the spacious, artfully decorated lobbies?

Sony CentreIt isn't the city's most booked concert hall, which adds a certain level of prestige for those fortunate enough to have played the elegantly renovated Sony Centre from the time when it reopened for the public in celebration of its 50th anniversary on October 1st, 2010. If you think it's a coincidence that on January 22nd & 23rd, 2011, Robert Plant was on the same stage with the Band of Joy that he was with Led Zeppelin 40+ years earlier, think back to the reverence someone like a Jack White has, who's cut from the same cloth as Plant.

O'Keefe CentreHe's not the only one; well before he and his Imposters dragged the colourful "Wheel of Songs" into Toronto on June 23rd, 2011, Elvis Costello made an appearance at the O'Keefe Centre back in November of 1978. His wife, Diana Krall, is no stranger to the place either. The jazz chanteuse tickled the ivories at the then Hummingbird Centre multiple times in the early-2000s. And you can't tell me Roger Daltrey wasn't aware of its reputation for being able to contain intensity in an intimate locale from all the times The Who were selling out the infinitely more cavernous Exhibition Stadium and Maple Leaf Gardens.

Anyone who was present on September 30th, 2011 to witness Tommy Reborn would surely agree that there's nowhere else in Toronto they would rather experience something like that. The Sony Centre seems to possess a certain majesty that is rooted in its unique combination of downtown convenience, gorgeously striking architecture and a healthy dash of glitz, topped off by a deceptively rich music history created by a parade of entertainers who have a genuine respect for the legacy they are helping build. Qualities that a great deal of other venues throughout Toronto would kill for.

Additional Photos:

O'Keefe CentreO'Keefe CentreO'Keefe CentreWriting by Gilles LeBlanc

Photos from the Toronto Archives and Roger Cullman (present day shot). Ticket stubs by Ken Schafer.


Discussion

49 Comments

Insert Real Name / October 27, 2012 at 02:08 pm
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I don't think anyone would qualify the original O'Keefe Centre as having "superior architectural acoustics". It was a typical N. American large multi-purpose hall, requiring acoustic reinforcement for unamplified voices and instruments. At least I was conscious of the reinforcement when going to National Ballet and Canadian Opera Company performances there (I never could afford the best seats).
Khristopher / October 27, 2012 at 02:47 pm
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Really great article!
BH / October 27, 2012 at 03:13 pm
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Great article.

Something that really caught my eye was the ticket prices for the time. Prices well under $10 with taxes included in the late 70s for top talent--wow. Even taking inflation into account there's no comparison with ticket prices today. We are being gouged by Ticketmaster and the promoters.
iSkyscraper / October 27, 2012 at 03:52 pm
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Anyone who whines about endless glass condos should study the last couple photos closely. Downtown was a mess of surface parking lots well into the 1990s and a miserable place to walk around as a result; you can complain about architecture or retail choices or investors all you want, but the condo boom has physically saved this city.
Craig / October 27, 2012 at 04:49 pm
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Good article. One minor issue though; the reason it was called the O'Keefe Centre was because E.P. Taylor donated $12,000,000. E.P. Taylor just happened to be the Chairman of O'Keefe Breweries at the time. Needless to say this caused a lot of concern among the teetotalers in Toronto in the 1950's.

Ford4ever replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / October 27, 2012 at 07:02 pm
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It's worth pointing out that those parking lots were only there to cover up and monetize the vacant lots left behind by the decline of industry and warehousing. They weren't planned. They were born out of necessity in a time of change. If the photos had been taken a couple decades earlier, they would have showed massive local industrial activity.

We always like to think we are ten times smarter than those who came before us, and that WE have the sun shining out our asses, but it ain't really ever the case.

Also, I disagree with the assertion that downtown was miserable until cheap credit and the financial economy created the condo boom. It was rougher and tougher for sure, but there was lots going on. Ask anyone who was there.
Robert replying to a comment from Ford4ever / October 28, 2012 at 07:57 am
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I lived through the years, it was dirty, mean and a wasted no man land. At the time you just did not go there. Yonge shops were reduced to porn fast food and stores selling cheap goods, the BiWay was high class. Over the past 10 years I have seen Toronto transform, more people, more stores, more entertainment. There are no longer no go zones. Yonge street is alive 24hrs.
Robert / October 28, 2012 at 10:38 am
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Toronto was destroyed for the sake of the automobile and the suburbs. The streets were widened, some tuned into inner city highways all to make room for the exodus to the suburbs. No effort was put into trying to revive the city, instead it became a dumping ground for those that the suburban societies did not want, the homeless, the mentally ill, the poor, the addicted, the immigrant. To this day city hall has little use for the voice of downtown, the current mayor still feels only the 'unwanted' live in the city and do not deserve his ear.
Unfortunately due to the insensitivity of the suburban societies the 'unwanted' are struggling like it was before social programs came to be to find a place to live and survive.
Due to lack of interest from city hall and its citizens the developers moved in first a trickle now a landslide and built what they wanted they were now the city planners. There is a lot of good that has come from this and there is a lot of bad.
For the first time in a century Toronto is starting to grow again, a sort of renaissance.
Ford4ever replying to a comment from Robert / October 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm
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With all due respect, I think you're a revisionist. For starters, please show me which downtown streets were widened for the automobile. Yonge? King? Queen? Maybe Lakeshore.

Second, I think the legions of Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, South Asian and other immigrants who came to the city during the period, and kept the neighbourhoods alive, would disagree that the city was a "dumping ground" for them. They took PRIDE in the place, changed the fabric of it, and kept it busy enough that the donut hole effect barely took hold here. Yeah, lots of established Canadians left for the burbs, but a remarkable number stayed, which was unusual for a North American city.

"For the first time in a century, Toronto is starting to grow again"??? Seriously? Did you miss the 1970s, when this city fought its way out of being an industrial backwater and started emerging as a cosmopolitan financial centre? Did you miss the 1980s condo and office boom? Did you ever hear of "Toronto the good" or "New York run by the Swiss"?

I do agree, the construction we're seeing now in the core is unprecedented, and probably good (if it can withstand the coming deleveraging trend). But to say the whole city was a wreck before cheap money and young white people seeking the "Friends" lifestyle brought new construction downtown is vastly oversimplifying things.







rick mcginnis / October 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm
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I was at that Clash show.

It was fun.
norm / October 28, 2012 at 02:01 pm
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Is that Johnny Wayne being interviewed by Fred Davis in the last picture? Yes, Toronto was a very drab, conservative, tightly-wrapped but clean place right up to the mid-'60's but it was still (clean)fun and caring except for the covert racism and open homophobia. The immigrants who came adopted the place, sometimes grudingly, but they soon affected the city in a very positive way making it the vibrant, cosmopolitan place it is today. After 50 yrs. I was happy to move to Niagara and remain satisfied to visit T.O. for fun. Like N.Y.C., T.O. is great for making and spending money but I don't think I would want to be a poor kid in the town it has become. It was lots of fun and opportunity for a poor kid back in the 50's thru '80's if my memory serves me. Ciao.
Amy / October 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm
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My parents were at that Clash show! Amazing to see the ticket. They were already in their 30s when New Wave hit; they couldn't resist it. My dad said it was like watching a speeding locomotive when the band hit the stage.
J Moore / October 28, 2012 at 10:31 pm
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Peter Tosh came out smoking a giant spliff right after the announcer admonished everyone to remain in their seats and reminded us "NO SMOKING in the auditorium"...classic
King replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / October 29, 2012 at 09:59 am
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Those parking lot's were all once full of some great historic buildings that were brought down during the post modern 50-60's revival. We could of had an entire "Old Toronto" area saved like Montreal or Quebec City but chose not to and instead went the cheaper route to bring it all down and start over. What a great example of foresight and a good way to shed years off our already young past.
lightsweetcrude / January 25, 2013 at 05:17 pm
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An article on "Psychedelic Toronto" discussing those Summer, 1967 shows at the O'Keefe Centre

http://www.syncopatedsound.com/psychedelic-toronto/
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