It opened with Bryan Adams. It’s now an annual destination for Drake. And in the intervening years, it’s hosted everyone from Blue Rodeo and R.E.M. to Alexisonfire and some strange Engelbert Humperdinck fans. Artists and architects alike reflect upon the venue that, for two decades now, has become synonymous with summertime in Toronto.
Twenty years ago, Toronto’s two most popular (and longest standing) outdoor concert venues were situated down by the lake; both are now torn to dust. The first was the CNE Grandstand, which operated from 1948 to 1994 on the current site of BMO Field. The second was the Ontario Place Forum—a unique covered theatre with a grassy hill that, as of 1971, offered a stage that rotated 360 degrees (for real!) and free—or, at least, cheap—shows for the whole family. Then, in the summer of 1994, the Forum was shuttered, bulldozed, and replaced with a shiny new lakeside venue: the Molson Amphitheatre.
Originally a partnership between the ubiquitous Canadian beer company and MCA Concerts Canada, the venue is now owned by Live Nation, and is home to some of the city’s biggest summer shows. Over the years, the Ampitheatre has hosted over seven million guests at 650 concerts—everyone from CanCon giants like Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and Shania Twain to ’80s nostalgia acts (hi, Poison!) and old-timer reunions (The Guess Who, The Beach Boys). It’s been home to festivals like Edgefest, the Warped Tour, Lilith Fair, Virgin and, most recently, Drake’s OVO Fest. Occasionally, local indie outfits like Metric or City and Colour even grace its main stage, headlining in front of 16,000 people. (The honour for most consistent act, though, goes to Toronto’s own Blue Rodeo—they’ve played every year since 2001.)
This summer, the Amphitheatre’s concert calendar is a mix of old (Mötley Crüe; Lionel Richie) and newish (Wiz Khalifa; Arcade Fire), drawing thousands of music lovers to the waterfront. As the venue enters its 20th year, The Grid looks back at its history, from the wet paint of opening night to its rightful place in the city today.
Design and construction
Michael Moxam, architect: The Molson Amphitheatre is an incredible outdoor venue in the middle of the city, and it’s right on the waterfront. In 1992, [Dunlop Farrow] won the contract from MCA Concerts Canada. It was an incredible opportunity for me as a young architect and music fan to combine my two loves. The challenge was to provide a venue with a 16,000-seat capacity—9,000 fixed and 7,000 on the lawn—plus a stage environment with all the facilities required by large acts and office space, all on the site of the old Forum.
Paul Corcoran, executive vice president of venues, Live Nation: I loved the Forum and its revolving stage. For the first 30 minutes [of a set], you saw the act from the front; for the next 30, you saw their backs.
Bazil Donovan, bassist, Blue Rodeo: We played the Forum many times. The stage rotated so slowly, you didn’t really feel it [moving]. It was more like you looked up and there were different people you were playing to.
Paul Corcoran: The problem was that the concert business was starting to change—events were getting bigger, the shows wouldn’t fit on the Forum stage, and it was becoming more and more of a challenge to make the events economically viable. You just couldn’t put them on for seven dollars.
Michael Moxam: In terms of the design, the site is in the heart of Ontario Place, and Ed Zeidler’s three pods sit so beautifully in the water. One of the most important issues for the [surrounding] community was the sound. We developed side walls, like the wings of a bird, that turned out quite well. We also had to reshape the lawn to create seating and sightlines to the stage, yet still retained the beauty of the landscape. Thinking back, it’s quite amazing how quickly it was constructed. Ontario Place closed in September of 1994, and that’s when demolition began. It was one of the mildest winters; we were able to lay sod in February. The opening concert was Bryan Adams on May 18, 1995.
The first decade
Paul Corcoran: Bryan Adams was probably the biggest name in Canadian talent in the early ’90s, and [MCA Concerts] had a good relationship with him, so he was a logical fit [as the opening-night headliner]. What I recall from that night was how exciting it was to see the facility open and being used the way it was intended—to be outdoors in the summer, instead of in a hockey arena with no air conditioning. I also remember that the carpet was still [being installed] in Bryan’s dressing room as he was loading in.
Debbie Rix, former director of publicity: On opening night, I was at the front gates with several TV cameras. To my horror, I saw “wet paint” signs tacked up, because crews were still painting a few hours before the doors opened. The cameras were right behind me, but I scrambled ahead, tearing down the signs as I went.
Riley O’Connor, chairman, Live Nation: Torontonians have always been a summer concert–going audience, and that tradition continued when Molson Amphitheatre opened. It’s not the only downtown theatre in North America, but it is vital in terms of what it means to Toronto. There’s a completely different feeling here than with any other venue: It’s beautiful to look at, there are boats on the water, and [it’s got] a great city view. I’ve seen visiting boat crews carrying fishing rods plunk them down right in the lake [beside it].
Patrick Pentland, guitarist, Sloan: I remember when we played Edgefest there [in 1995], and our dressing room had a balcony looking over the marina. That’s pretty pleasant compared to the usual venue that’s beside a Burger King and a Wal-Mart, or out in a sea of asphalt. That first Edgefest was billed as Sloan’s last show—[bassist] Chris [Murphy] and [drummer] Andrew [Scott] had a huge fight six months before, and Chris said he didn’t want to be in the band anymore. I remember there was a curfew and the band before us, 13 Engines, went way over, so our time was cut short. We didn’t have a road crew—because we were such a mess at the time—so we were setting up our own gear. [CFNY’s] Brother Bill introduced us 10 minutes before we even started playing because we weren’t ready.
Debbie Rix: Edgefest showed [promoter] Eliott Lefko and CFNY at their best. It bounced around [between] venues, but when it was at the Amphitheatre, those were some of the most fun days down by the water. Backstage was a huge party because everyone knew everyone else—the bands, crews, staff, management, radio stations, and all the music critics at the time, like John Sakamoto, Chris Dafoe, Mitch Potter, Peter Howell, and Kim Hughes. Everyone got into the spirit.
Wade MacNeil, ex-Alexisonfire guitarist: Growing up, my reference points for bands playing heavy music were basements and legions halls, so for Alexisonfire to play something like Edgefest at such a big venue really helped us become a mainstream band in this country. I remember coming off stage and seeing that our deadbeat friends had cleaned out our case of beer, though. I found a locked fridge in one of the corporate rooms. It had a chain around it, but you could kind of sneak your hand in. So I had a hockey stick that I was using to fish out beers, and one of the promoters ran in and yelled, “I can just get you more beer! You don’t need to destroy our fridge!” Another time, we brought fireworks and had our own little private Alexis pyro show over the water. Once again, I don’t think [the venue] was super happy with us. The best thing about Molson is that, unlike at other amphitheatres, it has a big enough floor area [in front of the stage], so even though you’re in a big bandshell on a massive stage, there’s still room for people to act crazy.
Paul Corcoran: We designed the facility when Seattle’s grunge scene was very popular. I remember having conversations about how we absolutely had to have an area at the front that could have the seats [taken out]. There were some nervous nights back then, to be honest, but that whole crowdsurfing vibe has gone away. But now, at some of the classic-rock or country shows, artists want the fans as close to the stage as they can get.
Debbie Rix: There were some strange moments over the years. Some performers had very active fan clubs that would make unusual requests. Engelbert Humperdinck’s was “Friends of Engie,” and they arrived to decorate his dressing room with numerous photos of mostly naked women. They were not boudoir shots, however—these featured fans at home doing the laundry or the dishes, but they were topless for some bizarre reason. Of course, the room I gave them was not Mr. Humperdinck’s actual dressing room. I also used to coordinate all of the presentations for when we gave an act a “star” for one achievement or another. My favourite moment involved instructing a slightly bewildered Michael Stipe to stand by R.E.M.’s star and smile for a photographer. He had no idea what was going on, but he did what I told him. I believe R.E.M. was the fastest sell-out; something under five minutes. But my favourite shows were always Blue Rodeo’s—they were, and still are, homecoming events.
Blue Rodeo at the Amphitheatre circa 2003. Photograph: Tony Bock/Toronto Star.
Today and beyond
Paul Corcoran: Blue Rodeo is pretty close to our house band; they’ve played here more than any other act. You almost just hand the guys (and their crew) the keys and say, “Go to it.”
Bazil Donovan: We were doing our own thing at Fort York for a while, but we decided we’d rather just play the Amphitheatre. It’s more of a controlled setting, rain or shine. We thought we might do it once or twice, but we’ve become a perennial act. It took us a while to actually conquer that stage. You’ve got to think about the people at the back—are they entertained? Sometimes we did [the show] with a backdrop, or a string or horn section. One year, we took some of the front seating area and put a little stage there to make things more intimate. But it didn’t really work; apparently, if you were sitting in the stands, Jim and Greg were cut off at the knee. Fortunately, we’ve had some great people play with us, like Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Josh Ritter, Kathleen Edwards…. The list goes on. I like that we’ve become a tradition, like, “It’s August, time to go down to the waterfront and see Blue Rodeo and watch the fireworks!” We are part of people’s lives, a signal of the end of the summer.
Riley O’Connor: Our goal is to constantly improve every year. We got Wi-Fi in here for the fans, and we’ve just done another cell-tower upgrade. During well-attended shows, we want people to be able to go online together to text or Tweet or update their Facebook. You shouldn’t lose your signal when you come to the Amphitheatre.
Drake and The Weeknd at OVO Fest 2013. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star.
Paul Corcoran: Echo Beach and other new outdoor venues are great for smaller shows, but the Amphitheatre is still very relevant. Look what’s happened with Drake’s OVO festival: I remember that in the first year, a lot of the discussion was about “Drake and friends” like, “Who are these friends?” Drake and his team were very confident, obviously. We had to trust them, because we might get a day’s notice for the guests. We might not even know. The biggest OVO moment for me was Eminem. It was just off the charts. When he walked on stage, I thought the roof was literally going to blow right off.
Riley O’Connor: We’re lucky that Drake picked the Amphitheatre. To have a local artist that wants to reach out to his own community and develop something… you want to be a part of that. Hopefully, with the future development at Ontario Place and with more green space, we’ll be able to expand the festival across the park. I want to see this whole waterfront shine like a beacon for everybody in Ontario.
What is your favourite Molson Amphitheatre memory? Share your story in the comments section below.