The Big Stage
Celebrating the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium
By Matt Prokopchuk
Today, it’s often called one of the finest concert halls in North America, home to the only professional symphony orchestra between Toronto and Winnipeg, and lauded by numerous international performers who have graced its stage over the past 38 years as a gem of an arts venue, particularly for its acoustics. But the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium was almost never built as the planning phase, which spanned years, was fraught with civic and local political opposition. The Auditorium opened on August 16, 1985, but talk of building a performing arts centre in the city dated back to the early 1970s. Several locations were considered, including the downtown south core and a site on Balmoral Street, before its current location was finalized. Still, opposition to the project on city councils of the day ran deep; despite his background in Vaudeville, then-mayor Walter Assef famously declared he would never set foot in the building should it be built, and he didn’t attend the Auditorium’s gala opening upon its completion. A significant portion of city residents also opposed the project, with a plebiscite on whether to build the Auditorium only passing with 50.4% in favour, according to a lecture at the Thunder Bay Museum by Gary Polonsky, who was the chair of the board tasked with getting the facility built. Contemporary media reports from 1983 (when the issue of whether to tender bids for construction was being debated by council) show that councillors approved the project by a 9–3 vote (Assef being one of the three dissenters), with some changing their vote over time to be in favour, based on the wishes of the public. Current Thunder Bay mayor Ken Boshcoff was a city councillor (then called an alderman) during the years when the Auditorium was being debated, and recalls how heated an issue it was. “Raucous would be an understatement,” he says of council meetings at the time. “It was more of a bloodbath,” he adds. “There were people who swore the concept was evil and was going to sink us.” Nowadays, given his decades in politics, Boshcoff says the arguments for and against the facility generally play out similarly whenever big-ticket projects are proposed. “It was almost like a textbook model in political science,” he says. “Your arts community [was] for it, the hardcore, older demographic swearingly against it. [...] It really did follow partisan demographics, I would think.” Boshcoff and current Auditorium general manager Trevor Hurtig say the venue plays a significant role in attracting top-calibre entertainment to the city. Hurtig has a long history with the facility, dating back to 1994 when he interned there in audience services, and has subsequently held a variety of other positions there during various stints. “It does an important job of giving the residents of Thunder Bay the exposure to world-class entertainment and cultural events that would be a lot more difficult if we didn’t have a leading-edge performing arts facility of this sort,” Hurtig says, adding that its role in hosting events like graduation ceremonies, lectures, and other community events are also a core function. “If you look at our calendar, most weeks there’s something happening here that’s exposing people to arts, entertainment, music.” Hurtig, too, remembers the fractious debate around the facility’s construction (he was in high school at the time), recalling that a popular argument against the Auditorium was that it would become a white elephant and only serve the interests of the arts elite. But he feels the facility’s track record of acts booked over the decades has quashed those concerns, giving credit to his predecessor Bob Halvorsen for promoting the venue to a wide variety of acts—something Hurtig says they’re striving to continue. “We’re running this building as efficiently as we possibly can to try and make sure that we’re doing our fiscal responsibility while also continuing our mandate of providing something for everybody,” he says. Boshcoff adds that having a performance venue for organizations like the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra exposes more people, including youth, to the arts and promotes it as a possible field of study. Going forward, Hurtig says the Auditorium, as is the case in much of the entertainment world, continues its recovery from the halt of live entertainment due to the COVID-19 pandemic amid some lingering uncertainties, as well as dealing with current economic conditions, like the rising costs of living, that have people being careful where they spend their money. As for his favourite show at the Auditorium, while he says there are many, Hurtig ultimately points to a pair: an October 2016 show that featured Paul Shaffer and his band from the David Letterman show, as well as when B.B. King played here in 2007. “I love the blues; I love the guitars,” he says of the King show. “There’s been a few shows over the years where you just get that feeling that you’re standing in front of a living legend.” And with the Auditorium at the centre of the local arts scene, Thunder Bay residents will be able to experience that feeling for years to come.