Despite its reputation for knocking down and/or paving over the remnants of its cultural past, Toronto does occasionally manage to hang on to some of its most cherished spaces.
Few of those spaces are prized as highly by local music fans these days as the Danforth Music Hall, which turns 100 years old on Aug. 18 and will, thus, be throwing itself a little birthday party this weekend with performances by Wolf Parade on Friday and the New Pornographers on Saturday.
The Music Hall, originally built in 1919 as the Allen Theatre chain’s first foothold east of the Don River and billed as “Canada’s First Super-Suburban Photoplay Palace,” has been experiencing a latter-years renaissance since its day-to-day operations were taken over by concert-promotion company Embrace Presents — itself recently acquired by Live Nation — in 2011.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, really; with the Cadillac Lounge recently shut; with the Silver Dollar demolished and awaiting a mysterious rebirth; El Mocambo still in stasis amidst a pricey five-year rebuild; the 102-year-old Matador ballroom now under threat of condo-ization after years of fighting against the same, and Massey Hall shuttered until at least its own 125th anniversary next July. The 1,400-capacity Music Hall is one of the only historic venues still operating as an actual venue in this city. Only the 70-year-old Horseshoe Tavern and the 75-year-old Grossman’s Tavern come close in terms of longevity.
The Danforth Music Hall won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, either. Unlike a lot of other promoters and venue operators in Toronto, Embrace actually has a great relationship with its landlords, longtime theatre operators Mike Andrikopoulos and Spiro Dotsikas, and currently enjoys the security of a long-term lease at 147 Danforth Ave.
“We have a fantastic relationship,” says Embrace founder and president Adam Gill, crammed with Andrikopoulos into a small upstairs office laden with boxes of 100th-anniversary T-shirts this past Tuesday evening while a mob of videogame geeks takes in one of two sold-out shows by internet sensations Game Grumps downstairs.
“We’re trying to just help keep Mike’s vision of the theatre alive and I think that’s why he likes us. I hope so. But I think that’s a big part of it: we’re trying to carry on his legacy.
“I’m born in Toronto and I’m a student of the history of Toronto and music,” he adds. “And personally, I love carrying Mike’s torch of ‘good Toronto’ — of original Toronto values — forward … The reason why we’re doing the 100th anniversary is we just want people to realize that this is an icon in our city. Everyone loves the venue, but they don’t necessarily know the history to it.”
Andrikopoulos, 83, has been involved with the Music Hall since 1970, when he and Dotsikas, who’d previously run theatres on College St. and further east on the Danforth near Greenwood Ave., began operating it as tenants as a Greek-language theatre dubbed the Titania.
The building had been snapped up by Famous Players in 1923 when the Allen Theatre chain went under — Allen’s, the nearby pub at 143 Danforth Ave., is still named in its honour — and had served as the Century Theatre since the late 1920s, but it was under Andrikopoulos’s stewardship that it became more than just another movie house.
Ever the impresario, he’d begun bringing the occasional Greek musical act in between screenings and, once he purchased the building in 1978, decided to rechristen the theatre the Music Hall (“We tried to imitate Radio City Music Hall,” he laughs) and “opened the market” to more and more live shows, among them early Toronto performances by the Police, the Clash and the Ramones put on by the venerable New Wave-era promotion team of Gary Topp and Gary Cormier.
Soon it became a regular stop for touring acts working with the Concert Productions International promotion company, too, visited by everyone from George Thorogood to Billy Ray Cyrus into the early 1990s.
Andrikopoulos has fond memories of meeting Sting and the Police (“Nice guys”), being complimented on the Music Hall’s acoustics by the Clash’s soundman, a chap named Alex, and hugging the original Jesus Christ Superstar himself, Ted Neeley, in the lobby back in the day, but the venue’s time as a music hub would come to a premature halt. By the ’90s, it was operating as one of the Festival Cinemas chain of repertory theatres and, in 2004, neglected and rundown, it stood empty.
Hope for yet another rebirth arrived in 2006, when new tenants moved in, spiffed the place up and tried to revive it as a live-music and theatre spot. Tegan and Sara, the Tragically Hip and even Twisted Sister passed through over the ensuing years until, not long after a memorable two-night stand by the Arcade Fire in June 2010 and a not-so-memorable run of The Toxic Avenger: The Musical, those same new tenants were evicted, owing some $45,000 in unpaid rent.
Gill was at one of those Arcade Fire shows, however, and was inspired to ring up Andrikopoulos after coming across an article on the Music Hall’s uncertain future.
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“We were on our Embrace ‘growth mission’ so we were trying to find venues, and I went there and I went to that show, and I was, like, ‘This place is amazing,’” he recalls. “I got Mike on the phone and we had a great chat and said, ‘Let’s meet up’ and, long story short, we ended up leasing the theatre from him. And the rest is history.”
Still, Gill and Embrace “didn’t necessarily know what we’d signed up for.”
“We just thought it was an awesome theatre and we’d somehow figure out what to do with it. And the first year was pretty tough, to be honest. We had to beg people to get bands to play. It wasn’t an instant success. It took a couple of years for it to become what it is now, which is kind of a staple touring venue for bands.
“At the time, they’d actually changed the theatre rules to allow drinking in the auditoriums, so our big change was we made the seats removable. That was the big thing that allowed the venue to become more multi-purpose because, before then, you’d just get bands who wanted to do seated shows.”
The new seats allowed “more general-admission shows … where we could do electronic shows and hip hop and punk and metal and all different kinds of genres.”
The rechristened Danforth Music Hall has since caught on with local music audiences for its impeccable sightlines, sharp sound and easy access from the Broadview TTC station, and is so routinely full to the brim that Andrikopoulos is fond of joking that they should change the name to “the Sold-Out Theatre.”
“One of the best things about this venue and a reason why artists love playing here is the venue actually sells you tickets,” says Gill. “You can be Band X playing in a different venue and your sales will be worse, but if you play here your sales will be better. So anytime you can deliver that kind of value to an artist, they’re going to be happy and they’re going to keep coming back.”
Artists passing through the Music Hall appreciate its historic value as well as its inviting nature, even if its history isn’t as well known as that of, say, Massey Hall.
“At 100 years old, the Danforth goes back to when we were barely a country, before we had a flag or a national anthem, before Canadian music was respected on the world stage,” emails Carl Newman of the New Pornographers. “We’re a young nation and places like the Danforth are as much a part of our history as any other Canadian landmark. It’s an honour to be asked to play there, to show up and be a tiny part of its history.”
Toronto has a bad habit of bulldozing its past, after all. And there were certainly times when that fate could have befallen the Danforth Music Hall.
“I’ll give Mike all the credit,” shrugs Gill. “The reality is if he’d wanted to make this a condo, it would be a condo, you know? We got lucky. And the Music Hall is here for a very long time, thanks to Mike and his family.”
“We try our best,” shrugs Andrikopoulos. “We had faced difficulties before these guys, but thanks to God we kept the theatre. And now the proper people are doing the proper work.
“The main thing is they brought their souls in here. It’s a human atmosphere. Creating human atmosphere is very important and they are champions … And also the people who work here are always smiling and these smiles come from the heart. It’s not a business smile. You can feel the difference. People feel comfortable so they say, ‘Let’s go back’ to the same place.”
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner
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