David Mirvish giveth, and David Mirvish taketh away.
A generation of Toronto theatregoers who grew up seeing musicals at the Princess of Wales theatre went into shock this weekend when the news slipped out that the commercial impresario will demolish his own building to make way for three condo towers (with museum space) designed by Canadian-born starchitect Frank Gehry.
Theatres are emotional places and audiences, understandably, grow emotional over the bricks and mortar where they saw a lion rise to be king or the fall of Saigon.
I'm attached, too. The Princess of Wales is the nicest commercial theatre in town. It's got a warm, Edwardian look, but, opened in 1993, has all the amenities missing from genuinely old theatres – legroom, elevators to all the levels, good sightlines from just about every corner.
But, the truth is, Mirvish – who went into crisis-management mode over the weekend when his plan to unveil the Gehry project on Monday was tripped up by a video that went online too soon – is absolutely right that Toronto has too many large theatres and not enough audience to support them.
The city is currently trying to figure out what to do with the three behemoths it owns: the 1,727-seat Toronto Centre for the Arts, the 3,191-seat Sony Centre and the comparatively cozy St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
Meanwhile, Mirvish is only putting shows onstage at his four theatres about 50 to 60 per cent of the time, he tells me. He'll lose some flexibility when he loses the Princess of Wales, but doesn't expect the amount of programming to decrease.
As should be clear by now, the explosion of mega-musicals during the 1990s when Livent and Mirvish Productions were competing for bus business from here to Buffalo was a bubble. It popped years ago; only the infrastructure remains.
At least in the case of Mirvish Productions, it's not the taxpayers of Toronto – said in Rob Ford voice – who are left subsidizing empty houses. The Toronto Centre for the Arts, which also opened in 1993 to house Livent's mega-musicals, costs upwards of a million a year to keep going – and the main house is too big for our non-profits to use.
Now, the only thing that grates about the impending disappearance of The Princess of Wales once you take emotion out of it is that Mirvish bought two of his theatres just five years ago for $35-million – the Canon (now the Ed Mirvish, formerly the Pantages) and the Panasonic.
At the time, Aubrey Dan – the quixotic head of the soon-to-be dormant Dancap – was trying to find a downtown home for his theatre business and wanted to get his hands on them.
Mirvish outmanoeuvred Dan – and the rest is history. Now, he owns enough theatres that he can spare one. The optics of that aren't great, unless you subscribe to a Kevin O'Leary philosophy.
Still, Mirvish rightly argues that Dan could have outbid him – or built his own theatre. That's what any potential challenger in the future will now have to do.
As ferocious as Mirvish can be in smacking down competitors such as Livent's Garth Drabinsky and Dan (some might use the word "ruthless"), he's equally ferocious in his dedication to theatre in Toronto. If he ever needs another 2,000-seat theatre, he can build one on a number of sites, he says. More enticing is the idea that he might at some point build a 500-seat house – a facility the city's theatre ecology actually needs.
Does the city need more condos, though – even by Gehry? I wouldn't invest in them. But then I wouldn't invest in the even shakier business of theatre, either. Thank goodness there are folks like David Mirvish around to do these sorts of mad things.