One of Toronto’s oldest venues, the origins of Massey Hall date back to 1892, when Hart Massey (a Toronto industrialist who would later build the Massey Ferguson farm equipment empire) purchased the land at 178 Victoria St. - where the venue still sits today - and hired architect Sidney R. Badgley to design a concert hall that would serve as a) a memorial to Massey’s son Charles, and b) a “gift” to the citizens of Toronto. Intended to aid in the development of the performing arts, the hall was designed to be a “spacious, substantial and comfortable” place, “where public meetings, conventions, musical and other entertainments, etc., could be given” (masseyhall.com). On July 14th, 1894, the newly opened “Massey Music Hall” held its first concert, a performance of Handel's Messiah, that kicked off the five-concert festival that would unfold over the following week.
Throughout the next century, the venue would host internationally-renowned opera singers, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural show, several suffragette rallies led by Sylvia & Christabel Pankhurst, and countless boxing and wrestling matches. But it was in the 1950’s that Massey Hall really gained traction in the music scene: in ‘53, jazz legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach played on stage together for the first and only time in their lives, putting on what is often referred to as “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.” In 1965, Bob Dylan and his Canadian back-up group (later known as The Band) outraged audiences by “going electric” for the second half of their set - a seminal moment in rock history (In 1975, the Hall was closed for a week as a movie about Bob Dylan was being filmed there - although the film was never released).
In 1971, Neil Young recorded his show for a live album that was eventually released as part of his 2007 Archives Series (which debuted at #1 on the Canadian album charts). Young’s 2011 shows were filmed and turned into the concert/documentary DVD, Journeys. Rush recorded their live album All the World’s a Stage - which sold over a million copies - at Massey Hall in 1976. The Matthew Good Band recorded a double live album of their 2008 show, and two of Burton Cummings 2010 and 2011 shows were turned into the live album Massey Hall.
Clearly, it’s not just the acts that have played at Massey that make the venue a historical place - it’s how many of these have been immortalized by being recorded. Seminal live albums and fims, from the best Canadian artists, were birthed in this building. Even if you’ve never actually been inside Massey Hall, you’ve probably heard a show that took place here.
This venue is such a popular venue for recording live albums because it was “designed with one thing in mind: to transmit sound beautifully” (masseyhall.com) Built long before electronic amplification was invented, every surface of the hall - from the floor to the walls to the ceiling - was designed to facilitate good acoustics. Massey Hall’s webpage boasts that “a quiet murmur from the stage can be heard, without amplification, from the last of the uppermost rows.” But as good as the Hall is for audiences, it’s a different story for artists. Doug McKendrick, Director of Production at Massey Hall, explains that musicians often struggle to hear themselves well, because the domed shape of the ceiling above the stage causes a “flutter echo,” wherein sound bounces from side to side, generating thirteen discrete repeats. “But the main culprit that muddies sound and disorients artists,” according to McKendrick, “is ‘slapback.’ The rear and stage walls face each other at a 90 degree angle, and when a high-pressure stream of sound exits the speakers, it literally slaps back toward the stage, almost at full amplitude, and collides with the out-going stream of sound from the PA system.”
This is one of the reasons why, in 2013, an eight million-dollar action plan was announced by the Government of Ontario to “revitalize” Massey Hall; and in 2018, the venue closed for “the most significant renovation in its 125 year history” (masseyhall.com). All surfaces on and near the stage will be treated so that they dampen, rather than reflect, the sound produced by the monitors. But it’s just in the department of sound quality that Massey Hall needs work. The non-profit organization that runs both Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall - the aptly named “Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall” - have announced that they will restore the plaster ceiling (which has been held together by wire mesh since the ‘60’s), reupholster or replace all the seats, improve accessibility to the balconies and washrooms, and bars, and add a deployable seating array to the main floor, raising the capacity beyond its current limit of 2,752 people. In addition, they will restore the original, 125 year-old stained glass windows. The Corporation states that they are “working closely with Heritage Toronto, architects specializing in the restoration of heritage buildings and a team of specialty consultants, including acousticians, lighting designers, architectural historians and conservationists” (masseyhall.com).