If you’re like me, when you think of Massey Hall you probably think of your favourite rock and roll show. (My vote: Arcade Fire, 2007.) Or maybe you think of other more traditional presentations that have found a home at Massey Hall over the years: dance performances, comedians doing stand-up, symphonic concerts. You likely don’t, however, think of: beauty pageants, a typewriting contest (won by none other than Northrop Frye), sex education films for soldiers, and not one but two rallies against free trade (in 1911 and 1988).*
The point, dear readers, is this: the grand old lady of Shuter Street has witnessed more than you or I can imagine.
Perhaps the most unexpected events to have graced the stage at Massey Hall — and regularly no less — were boxing matches.
In fact, between 1919 and 1921 boxing and wrestling matches were booked at the Hall three times more than any other kind of entertainment. What was arguably the most significant of these Massey Hall boxing events took place on Saturday, April 12, 1919: Jack Dempsey, who would go on to win the world heavyweight championship from Jess Willard, both refereed and fought in a championship match.
Much like the marathon Arcade Fire concert of 2007 was epic for me, it appears that this series of boxing bouts was a key moment in time for those who attended. The Toronto World ran an article summarizing the event on April 14, 1919, which opened in an heroic vein: “Probably there was never a better show of the kind given in Toronto or anywhere else, than the Jack Dempsey exhibition Saturday night in Massey Hall. The big building was filled to almost overflowing by men and men only — real men who appreciate the manly art of self defence.”
That sense — of witnessing a surpassing moment — is precisely how I felt (and still feel) about that Arcade Fire concert: my experience made it seem like there never had been and there never could be a concert so totally awe-inspiring. When a building so rich in history is “filled to almost overflowing” with a group of people who are outstandingly enthusiastic about the presentation on stage, there’s nothing quite like it. With over a hundred years of history a lot has changed at Massey Hall, but some of the most important things haven’t — and in this case, that’s just fine with me.
* For more background, you can take a look at Intimate Grandeurby William Kilbourn, pages 5-6.