The O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts opened to great fanfare on the evening of October 1, 1960, with Richard Burton starring in the debut performance of the musical Camelot. Designed by Peter Dickinson of Page and Steele with Earle C. Morgan, the 3200-seat multi-purpose theatre at 1 Front Street East introduced Toronto audiences to an an unprecedented level of elegance and luxury.
Benefactor and Canadian Breweries Limited owner E.P. Taylor spared little expense on the O’Keefe Centre’s state-of-the-art design and lavish materials. Exteriors are Alabama limestone and black granite, accented by custom bronze fittings and fixtures; the striking cantilevered entrance canopy, lined with rows of mirrored globe lights, provides a suitably glamorous entrance. Inside the expansive double-height entrance foyer, walls of white Carrara marble and deeply-veined Laredo Chiaro marble frame cantilevered staircases of granite and bronze. Cherrywood acoustic paneling lines the velvety red interior of the theatre itself.
Art was a significant element of the O’Keefe Centre interiors, and the focal point is The Seven Lively Arts, a monumental 100’x15’ mural by Toronto artist York Wilson. Dominating the entry foyer, the densely-layered, richly-toned mix of realism and abstraction celebrates artistic expression through painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, dance and drama.
Toronto-born York Wilson (1907-1984) was an internationally-acclaimed painter and muralist. As well as The Seven Lively Arts, Wilson’s other murals in Toronto include The History of Oil at the Imperial Oil Building (111 St. Clair Avenue West, 1957); Communication at the Bell Telephone Building (76 Adelaide Street West, 1965); and Ontario at the Macdonald Block in Queen’s Park (900 Bay Street, 1968). He lived for many years in a John B. Layng-designed Modernist studio residence at 41 Alcina Avenue, just outside the historic arts colony of Wychwood Park.
The O’Keefe Centre (renamed the Hummingbird Centre in 1996 and the Sony Centre in 2007) served as Toronto’s premier performing arts venue for over forty years. In 2006 the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company decamped to the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, calling the building’s future into question, but after two years of renovations the O’Keefe Centre reopened on October 1, 2010, exactly fifty years to the day of its original opening night. Designated a heritage building by the City of Toronto, the O’Keefe Centre will nevertheless soon be ornamented by starchitect Daniel Libeskind’s L Tower condominium, a 57-storey exclamation point of glass and steel scheduled for completion in 2012.
More about the O’Keefe Centre can be found in the recent books Peter Dickinson and Mean City, both written by John Martins-Manteiga and available through Dominion Modern.