Last week a broken water main flooded the basement levels of Toronto's Sony Centre. Tens of thousands of litres of water flooded the orchestra pit, dressing rooms, the wardrobe department, storage and office space, but spared a rehearsal hall with a sprung floor used by dancers. And, miraculously, the archives that date back to its beginnings as the O'Keefe Centre.
Mark Hammond, CEO for the past 15 years, took our call earlier this week to ask about the damage. It turns out that initial media reports suggesting the venue's extensive archives dating back 55 years were severely damaged were exaggerated. The documents in fact were largely spared from ruination.
"It happened about 3 a.m. last week on the Wednesday when a broken water main flooded the basement levels one and two. Call it a premature 55th birthday present from the waterworks department (the actual anniversary is Oct. 1st)."
Top notch insurance and a lot of experienced hands had the orchestra pit drained within 24 hours and the rest of the spaces within a day following, followed by ripping out sheet rock and hand drying studs to prevent mold setting in. And in the spirit of the show must go on, not a day was lost as Chris de Burgh took to the stage within 16 hours of the disaster being discovered. The orchestra necessarily was on the stage around him.
Of the archives: "Our archives are quite extensive but I can tell you the immediate media reports were somewhat exaggerated. We lost hardly anything that was not duplicated. Maybe 10-percent was seriously damaged but the other 90-percent is completely fine."
Continuing: "The damage to the walls and floors of the building was more extensive than to the archives themselves, which is not to diminish the fact that it took 100 to 150 man hours to take apart paper by paper, photograph by photograph, every single piece that had stuck together in the dampness and separate them out so they could be singly dried out. Of course, hundreds and hundreds of photos and documents now have water stains on them."
The Centre is in the midst of a program to organize and catalogue its extensive holdings of mementos from the past. "I don't think anyone realized the extent of our archives until a couple of people in the building took a great interest in the archives and that was about a year ago. We then started to catalogue what we had using students from the University of Toronto Museums and Archives program. They had been cataloguing it all right up until the day of the flood. It has been put on hold now, but will resume again imminently."
The archives contain a treasure trove of memorabilia —handbills, signed guest books and photographs, show materials, contracts and riders. There is a history of the Centre now being catalogued in orderly fashion. And the list of acts and performers that have appeared at the O'Keefe Centre that became the Hummingbird Centre and today at the Sony Centre... every major dance troupe from the Bolshoi to the Peking and Royal Ballet, opera stars including our own Jon Vickers, Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Harry Belafonte, Bob Newhart, Anne Murray, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, and Van Morrison. The list is long. The ticket prices, as you can see, almost unbelievably cheap back in the day.
And what advice does Hammond have for other performing arts centre CEO's having faced down a flood?: "Don't build a theatre at the bottom of a hill. I mean literally that's what happened here. The water main burst at the top of the hill and ran down and our basement is at the bottom of the hill."
Good advice, as is having a premium insurance policy.