Meridian Hall (Toronto)Meridian Hall}}Meridian Hall is a major performing arts venue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and it is the country's largest soft-seat theatre. The building opened as the O'Keefe Centre on October 1, 1960, and it has hosted a variety of international attractions and stars. From 1996 to 2007, the building was known as the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts. From 2007 to 2019, it was known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. On September 15, 2019, it was re-branded as Meridian Hall.
The theatre, designated a heritage building by the City of Toronto government, underwent renovations to restore its iconic features such as the marquee canopy and York Wilson's lobby mural, The Seven Lively Arts. Restoration of the wood, brass and marble that were hallmarks of the original facility was undertaken, along with audience seating, flooring upgrades, new washrooms and reconfigured lobby spaces. Following two years of renovations and restoration work, the building reopened its doors on October 1, 2010, fifty years to the date of the first opening night performance.
HistoryThe Centre was built on land formerly occupied by a series of commercial buildings, including the Canadian Consolidated Rubber Company, and previously it was the site of the Great Western Railway Terminal (later the Toronto Wholesale Fruit Market).
The idea for a performing arts centre that could serve the needs of an increasingly dynamic city predates the building's opening by almost 20 years. In the mid-1940s, Nathan Phillips issued a challenge to Toronto industrialists to underwrite the cost of a multipurpose centre for theatre, music and dance. Response to Phillips' challenge was not immediate. E.P. Taylor, the racehorse-loving head of Canadian Breweries, which owned O'Keefe Brewing, offered in early 1955 to build a performing arts centre that would not only serve the needs of local institutions but increase the diversity of entertainment options available in Toronto. Toronto City Council immediately accepted the proposal in principle, but not until 1958 was the project finally approved to be built. Among others, United Church spokesmen opposed money from the sale of beer to be used for community development. Taylor assigned one of his key executives, Hugh Walker, to oversee building what was to be known as the O'Keefe Centre during its first 36 years.
The O'Keefe Centre opened on October 1, 1960, with a red-carpet gala. The first production was Alexander H. Cohen's production of the pre-Broadway premiere of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. Camelot was followed by musical productions featuring such artists as Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Angela Lansbury, Alfred Drake, Yul Brynner, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Katharine Hepburn and Rudolf Nureyev.
Popular artists including Bob Dylan, Janet Jackson, Steve Earle, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John and bands such as The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Carpenters, The Clash and Beastie Boys played concerts at the performing arts venue.
Other artists who have performed on the arts venue's stage in a range of solo shows, revues and jazz spectaculars include: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich, Diana Ross, Anne Murray, Tom Jones, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, Jack Benny, Liza Minnelli and Liberace. The venue has also played host to several large-scale ballet and dance performances. The National Ballet of Canada held seasonal performances at the venue from 1964 to 2006. The venue has also seen frequent visits by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The venue has also welcomed a diverse range of international dance companies such as Les Ballets Africains, Britain's Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, the Dutch National Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, as well as the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies from Russia. It was during a 1974 Bolshoi visit that a young Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from Soviet Russia by escaping the venue into a waiting getaway car, aided by later Jim Peterson and businessman Tim Stewart.
Like The National Ballet, The Canadian Opera Company also made the Centre its home stage, from as early as 1961 to 2006. Many of Canada's greatest singers, as well as a host of international opera stars, have performed for Centre audiences in COC productions. In addition, although touring opera is now rare, in earlier days the performing arts venue played host to The Met and to such towering voices as those of Birgit Nilsson, Plácido Domingo and Renata Scotto.
In early February 1996, the building was renamed the Hummingbird Centre in recognition of a major gift from a Canadian software company, Hummingbird Communications Ltd. The $5-million donation allowed the Centre to undertake a number of capital improvements and repairs, among them the installation of an elevator and an acoustic reinforcement system for the auditorium. In September 2007, Sony bought the naming rights to the Centre for $10-million, and a 10-year partnership was born. When the Ballet and Opera moved to the Four Seasons Centre in 2006, it meant a more open programming schedule. This has allowed the Centre to place even greater emphasis on being an important community resource, where people from all backgrounds can gather to share their distinct and vibrant cultures. Notable performances that reflect this mandate include the Last Empress with its dramatic, musical portrayal of an important figure in Korean history, the Virsky Ukrainian Dance Company, South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir, Shaolin Warriors, Ricky Cheng, David Rudder & Friends and Club Tropicana.
In 2006, the performing arts venue received approval from the City of Toronto for the development of a high-rise condominium building beside the Centre. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind (who also designed the Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum), the L Tower was built on the southwest corner of the property. The Sony Centre closed on 26 June 2008 to begin the theatre renovations, which were unveiled on October 1, 2010.
In June 2012, the Sony Centre hosted the Canadian premiere of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach.
On 21 January, it was announced that the municipal government of Toronto entered into a C$30.75 million 15-year partnership with Meridian Credit Union, re-branding the Sony Centre into Meridian Hall, and the Toronto Centre for the Arts into the Meridian Arts Centre. The arts venues formally adopted their new names on September 15, 2019.
Designed by Peter Dickinson, the performing arts venue is a distinctive building and an example of a mid-twentieth century Modern performing arts venue. It is four storeys high and is broken up into three main forms: the entrance block, auditorium and fly tower. The central form of the building is highly symmetrical with an open floor plan. Structurally, the performing arts venue is not overcomplicated and uses steel trusses and concrete to hold the majority of the building together. In addition to the structure, the performing arts venue's auditorium houses a very sophisticated acoustic system, which gives the audience the sense that the sound is surrounding them (Canadian Architect 18).
When it comes to materiality, the majority of the original materials are still in the building today. Materials used include: Alabama limestone, glazing, granite, copper, bronze, Carrara marble, carpet, cherry plywood panels and Brazilian Rosewood. The performing arts venue is very diverse with its range of materials and employs them in such a way that they are not overshadowed by the unique forms of the building.
The interior also features a grand double-height foyer with coffered ceilings, a 30 m wide mural by the famous Toronto-born artist York Wilson, cantilevering staircases that appear to be floating, bright bronze auditorium doors, and a fan-shaped auditorium with a huge curving balcony.