The Bandshell is located at 100 Prince Edward Island Cres in Bandshell Park, on the south side of Exhibition Place in Toronto.
Before the Bandshell
In the mid-1930s, the Exhibition needed a larger outdoor stage to host various musical performances. Until then, many of the CNE’s outside concerts were taking place at the bandstand stages in various areas of Exhibition grounds.
Architects Craig & Madill were commissioned to design a permanent open-air concert venue. They extensively researched other music shells, including the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, which inspired the design of our Bandshell.
The Architecture of the Bandshell
Built in 1936 and set against the backdrop of Lake Ontario, the Bandshell is designed in the Art Deco style. When completed, its elevated north-facing stage was 19 m or 63 ft wide, 11.6 m or 38 ft deep and could accommodate a 100-piece band. The stage is covered by a concentric semicircular shell consisting of 8 louvres that are specially engineered to achieve optimal acoustics. Its staggered arches are designed to reflect the sound. There were over 1,000 lamps concealed in the inner part of the shell. The dimmable lights could illuminate the stage in red, blue and green and add further expression to performances.
Art Deco details included stylized geometric shapes on the shell’s exterior, and it was once accented with bold colours. The structure has a full basement that originally housed dressing, transformer and store rooms.
At the time of completion, the Bandshell was considered a state-of-the-art concert venue and cost approximately $50,000 to construct.
The Official Opening
On August 28, 1936, thousands stood under a rainy sky for the official opening of the Bandshell as part of the Canadian National Exhibition opening ceremonies. It was presided over by several dignitaries, including the Premier of Ontario, Mitchell F Hepburn, Toronto Mayor Sam McBride and the Mayor of London (UK), Sir Percy Vincent. With the press of a button, Premier Hepburn released rockets and hundreds of Union Jack flags into the air. This was followed by performances by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Kneller Hall Band and the United States Navy Band and more.
Hosting a Variety of Entertainment & Events
Through the years, the Bandshell stage has hosted many famous military and big bands, orchestras, choirs, jazz bands, musical shows, rock bands, comedians, dignitaries, celebrities, contests, and more.
Some of the notable names include Louis Armstong, The Band, Benny Goodman, Joni Mitchell, Motorhead, Count Basie, Marvin Gaye, Glen Campbell, Guy Lombardo, Chicago, Bob Hope, OMD, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis Jr, Petula Clark, The Guess Who, Gene Krupa, Hall & Oates, Johnny Cash and The Moody Blues. Other events at the Bandshell include Battle of the Bands, talent shows, bodybuilding competitions and church Mass.
And while today’s opening day ceremonies for The Ex take place at the Princes’ Gates, for decades, the Bandshell was the site for the annual fair’s formal launch. Dignitaries officiating the occasion include William Lyon Mackenzie King, Vincent Massey (grandson of Hart Massey, who built Massey Hall) and Lester B Pearson.
A Renovation & the Bandshell Today
In 1983, the structure underwent $200,000 in improvements, including enlarging the stage to about 30 m or 99 ft in width and 16 m or 52 ft in depth. A removable grid to shelter entertainers was also added to the stage; however, it has since been updated to a more permanent arch that extends the Bandshell’s depth. Inside are dressing rooms, a green room, sound and switch rooms, and an office.
The Bandshell and the 160,000 sq ft Bandshell Park continue today to host a variety of shows, concerts, community events and festivals.
Did You Know?
Before the construction of the Bandshell, the Exhibition grounds had three bandstands – one was in Bandshell Park (in front of today’s Bandshell), another near the southeast corner of Princes’ Blvd and Newfoundland Rd (on the site of the Automotive Building) and the third where it stands today in Centennial Park.
Major Adkins, the famous conductor of the Kneller Hall Band, whose band played at the 1936 opening of the new Bandshell, criticized the new music venue at a CNE Directors luncheon. Major Adkins said the shell was built 4 ft too high and felt “the music went around and around and came out upstairs.” He also offered suggestions to better the acoustics. It caused a bit of an uproar among city officials. Kneller Hall in the United Kingdom was the home of the Royal Military School of Music and the Royal Corps of Army Music.
In 1973, the Bandshell received heritage status from the city.
During the 1983 renovation, work on the Bandshell was temporarily halted due to protests by the Toronto Historical Board. They were concerned that the updates would not preserve the architectural significance of the heritage structure.
At the 2003 CNE, Sesame Street’s Elmo led over 4,700 dancers doing the Hokey Pokey in Bandshell Park.