Original Theatre Design
A landmark modernist design by architects Earle C. Morgan and Peter Dickinson of Page and Steele of Toronto, with Eggers and Higgins of New York as consultants and V.L. Henderson as acoustician, the fan-shaped theatre was built to seat more than 3,200 people on two levels facing an 18 metre wide proscenium stage. Moveable panels were attached to the wall and an acoustic shell (added in 1961) was lowered from the stage tower for band and orchestra performances. Though intended as a multi-purpose entertainment centre for opera, ballet, drama, and touring productions, the theatre's size and limited natural acoustics (an aspect criticized in later years) suited it primarily for large-scale productions. Conventional amplification was necessary until 1998, when a $600,000 digital enhancement system was installed to improve sound clarity and flexibility.
The O'Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts opened 1 Oct 1960 with a pre-Broadway production of Camelot starring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet. Seldom dark, the centre was host to productions of Anne of Green Gables, Johnny Belinda and Cliff Jones's Kronborg: 1582; leading Broadway shows and stage plays; and performances by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; the Royal Winnipeg, Bolshoi, Royal, and Kirov ballet companies; Twyla Tharp; the Metropolitan, Peking, and D'Oyly Carte opera companies; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic; the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras; the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis; rock groups Jefferson Airplane and Steppenwolf (Sparrow); the Harlem Gospel Choir; and entertainers Harry Belafonte, Leonard Cohen, Céline Dion, Elton John, Tom Jones, k.d. lang, Anne Murray, and Sonny and Cher, among many others. Hugh P. Walker, the centre's first managing director, was succeeded in 1976 by Thomas Burrows. John P. Kruger was interim general manager 1979-80, followed by Charles S. Cutts 1981-9, Martin H. Onrot 1990-5, Elizabeth Bradley 1995-2001, and Daniel Brambilla as CEO beginning in 2002, a position he retained in 2012.
In 2008 the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts was closed for major renovations; its original tenants, the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, moved to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in 2006. The facility remained closed for 2 years, re-opening on 1 Oct 2010, exactly fifty years to the day of its original opening date. The work was led by renowned American architect Daniel Libeskind. Many original features were preserved, among them The Seven Lively Arts mural by artist Ronald York Wilson, the 189 solid brass doors, and 1,700 cherrywood panels. There were major upgrades to the stage, sound system and comfort (seats, lobby, food amenities, art gallery). The building incorporated a tall residential space some fifty stories high, known as the L- Tower.
The 2010 opening programme featured the contemporary dance/circus Cirque Eloize in iD (with hip hop, breakdance, BMX bikes, acrobats, contortionists and more). Meant for use by Torontonians of all ages, ethnicities and musical tastes, the venue no longer caters primarily to Broadway musicals as it did in the past. Shows have now included the Shaolin Warriors (China), Bharati (India), The Merchants of Bollywood and works by Robert Lepage among many other diverse spectacles. The venue is also available for special events.
A second phase of capital improvements to include exterior landscape and design is planned for 2012-2021.
See also Toronto Feature: 1 Front St. E.
Author Alex Murray, Sarah Church, Susan Spier
Henderson, V.L. 'Acoustic considerations at the O'Keefe Centre,' The Canadian Music Journal, vol 6, Summer 1960
Mercer, Ruby. 'O'Keefe Centre: a house for all seasons,' Opera Canada, Fall 1971
'O'Keefe at 25,' series of articles, Performance, Nov-Dec 1985
Baillie, Joan. Look at the Record: An Album of Toronto's Lyric Theatres 1825-1984 (Oakville, 1985)
Godfrey, John. 'Playing chicken with opera and ballet,' Toronto Financial Post, 6 Jan 1989
'Glitz, glamour & glory: 30 spectacular years,' supplement to Globe and Mail, 1 Oct 1990
Shopsowitz, Karen. "Toronto's O'Keefe Centre," Performance, 2-4 Dec 1991
Hume, Christopher. "O'Keefe Centre reflects city's spirit," Performance, 5-7 Dec 1994
Loudon, Christopher. "Hummingbird gift revitalizes centre," Performance, 3-7 Sep 1996
Hume, Christopher. "Facelift enhances a centre built to last," Performance, 30 Nov 1996
Citron, Paula. "The LARES system: the scientific sound of music," Performance, 5-27 Jun 1998
Ouzounian, Richard. "The rebirth of Hummingbird Centre," Performance, Sep-Nov 2000
Knelman, Martin. "Case closed: city needs the Sony Centre," Toronto Star, 23 Jun 2008
Knelman, Martin. " Sony Centre's new season all about diversity," Toronto Star 14 Apr 2010
Ouzounian, Richard. "Cirque Éloise: A Fitting way to open the Sony Centre," Toronto Star 24 Sep 2010
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Sony Centre for the Performing Arts
The official website for the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Canada’s largest soft seat theatre. See the latest details and videos for upcoming performances and photos of the theatre's swank interior.
Sony Centre for the Performing Arts
See a nicely illustrated description of the restoration of the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a heritage modernist theatre in downtown Toronto. From the website for Claude Cormier + Associés Inc.
The Sony Centre For The Performing Arts Opens Its Doors
A news story about the 2010 reopening of the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts following extensive renovations. From "Cashbox Magazine Canada."
O'Keefe Centre - 1960
A brief early history of the O'Keefe Centre (later renamed the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts), Toronto's premier multi-use performance venue. From Heritage Toronto.
Sony Centre For The Performing Arts Channel
Watch a selection of video clips that highlights the cultural diversity of shows that have appeared at the Sony Centre For the Performing Arts. From YouTube.