Return iconic Toronto concert hall to its populist roots

Incorporate Hart Massey’s original model for Massey Hall and charge $1 for tickets to the first few concerts

Michael TaubeCOVID-19 remains a significant health problem around the world. Fortunately, some things are slowly beginning to shift into what’s commonly referred to as the “new normal.”

It’s certainly happening in Canada. Many sports stadiums have returned to full capacity. Small and large businesses like movie theatres, gyms, hair salons and (fairly soon) restaurants are increasing their indoor capacities. The Canada-United States border will hopefully be reopened next month, too.

During this period of transition, it will be incumbent on businesses to identify ways to build or rebuild their dilapidated customer bases. Some of that work will obviously have to be unique.

I’d like to propose a creative idea for concert halls and opera houses. It’s part of a long-forgotten proposal linked to a historical venue and could be remodelled to fit within today’s entertainment industry.

The topic of upcoming schedules of Toronto’s two concert halls, Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall, recently popped up during a conversation with my father. He asked about the history of the latter building. We both believed it was built in the late 19th century but couldn’t remember how it was funded – and which member of the prominent Massey family was behind it.

Massey Hall opened its doors on June 14, 1894. The first performance was George Frideric Handel’s brilliant 1741 oratorio Messiah, which was part of a three-day festival.

Hart Massey funded the concert hall.

Click here to downloadMassey was a prominent 19th-century businessman/philanthropist. Born in Haldimand Township to American parents in 1823, he went to work at his father Daniel’s agricultural machinery company, Newcastle Foundry and Machine Manufactory. He took over the business in 1856 when his father passed away and renamed it Massey Manufacturing Co. He moved operations to Toronto in 1879. His company merged with A. Harris, Son & Co. in 1891 to form Massey-Harris Ltd. before he passed away five years later.

Does the company sound vaguely familiar?

It should. Massey-Harris merged with the United Kingdom-based Ferguson Co. in 1953 to become Massey-Harris-Ferguson, which was shortened to Massey Ferguson in 1958. (It’s now owned by the U.S. firm AGCO.)

Massey Hall’s origins are rooted in a family tragedy.

According to Chris Bateman’s June 22, 2013, blogTO piece, Massey’s son Charles was brought in as a partner in 1867. “Tragically for Hart,” he wrote, “Charles died suddenly from typhoid on February 12, 1884. The family decided the best way to commemorate their beloved son would be a $100,000 (almost $2 million today) gift to Toronto, where the Masseys had many dealings. Charles was a skilled organist and pianist and it was felt his legacy should be musically inclined.”

Massey Hall was designed by architect Sidney Badgley and took roughly a decade to complete. William Kilbourn’s Intimate Grandeur: One Hundred Years At Massey Hall (1993) pointed to influences such as Spain’s Alhambra Palace and Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Auditorium. The cost, as listed in Mollie Gillen’s The Masseys: Founding Family (1965), was $152,390.75, which would be more than $3 million in 2021.

Massey didn’t want his music hall to be a “money-making property.” Instead, he wanted to make it accessible to all levels of society. “The expenses are to be as low as possible, the revenue being merely intended to meet current expenses and to provide a sinking fund for repairs, insurance, etc.”

Moreover, as Bateman wrote, “‘Everything beyond that is to go to reduce the price of admission, so that the hall may be to benefit the poor rather than the rich,’ the Globe reported. One idea revealed at the time was to sell tickets to a season of lectures for a nominal $1 fee.”

As a marketing technique, I believe Massey Hall, along with Roy Thomson Hall and other musical venues across Canada, should incorporate Hart Massey’s original model and charge $1 apiece for tickets to the first concert or two. Anyone who has already paid full price for an impending performance should be refunded the additional money and allowed to keep their seats.

What better way to welcome back the public after all the difficulties we’ve had with COVID-19?

It would give some people a unique opportunity to see a concert in person that they wouldn’t have been able to afford under normal circumstances. It would also be a nice gesture on the part of Canada’s concert halls and opera houses and lead to some goodwill in these tough times.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory should consider getting behind this idea. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, other provincial premiers and mayors should do so, too.

With apologies to Depeche Mode, if the Music for the Masses briefly became the Music for the Masseys, it would be the performance of a lifetime.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.


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