By Keith Lacey
A landmark building, which has been an entertainment mecca in Greater Sudbury for almost 100 years, is officially up for sale.
The Grand Theatre, located at 28 Elgin St. in downtown Sudbury, has been put on the block. Up for sale is not only the Grand, serving as a nightclub for about a decade, but also an adjacent nightclub, three retail outlets and 16 apartment units.
The former opera and vaudeville house, which also offered live theatre and motion picture films, is one of the most recognizable buildings in Greater Sudbury. The list of performers who have played the Grand is long, impressive and world-class.
The list of musicians, bands and comedians who have entertained over the past decades includes Johnny Cash, Celine Dion, Tom Jones, Nana Mouskouri, k.d. lang, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Wayne Newton, Tony Bennett, Engelbert Humperdinck, Crowded House, Blue Rodeo, The Everly Brothers, The Barenaked Ladies, Colin James, George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, Howie Mandel and Victor Borge.
The theatre is the focal point of the large building, which also includes Coyotes Nightclub, a hair dressing salon, fabric shop, theatre supply outlet and more than one dozen apartment units.
Claude Michel, who purchased the building with his father Arnel and two private investors back in 1988, decided two years ago he was going to sell the building and finally put it up for sale last week.
“I own a number of other businesses and I’ve been trying to run this place part-time for the last few years,” said Michel. “I’m hoping someone will be able to come in, be dedicated and run it properly.”
In its prime, the Grand could hold more than 1,000 patrons. The beautiful theatre had three large balconies and floor seating for hundreds. The theatre was built with majestic high ceilings and sophisticated and ornate decorations throughout.
Jim Fortin, the city’s curator of Museums, said the Grand Theatre first opened around 1908 as a live entertainment venue.
“The theatre was located in a very large building that also included shops, a photographer’s studio, and even a bus depot, right under the stage,” said Fortin.
“It was an old-fashioned theatre, built in the style of a grand opera house.”
A letter from the chair of the Ontario Board of Censors to the executive assistant to the Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, dated April 12, 1938, describes the theatre very well at the time, said Forton.
“The Grand Theatre is a brick building with an interior practically all of wood construction, including a balcony. It is classified among the more hazardous in the province and the department is of the opinion a complete renovation is long overdue.”
By the late 1940s, the Motion Picture Censorship and Theatre Inspection Branch felt the necessary improvements could no longer be postponed and the theatre was informed that its license would not be renewed, said Fortin.
The owners decided not to bring the theatre up to standard and the Grand Theatre closed its doors in 1949.
After this date, the Grand was renovated and became the Empire Theatre, which became the most popular movie house in the city, said Fortin.
Local business owner Ted Szilva eventually became owner and returned the Grand to its previous position as Sudbury’s premiere live entertainment venue.
Sudbury’s economy wasn’t very good when Michel and his father and partners stepped in, but they knew the citizens of this community were starving for world-class entertainment. They brought in world-class performers and it paid off for more than a decade.
Michel says he and his father became interested in the building not only as an investment, but because they knew the history of the Grand and how much it meant to the people of this community.
“I can still remember going there as a kid,” he said. “State-of-the-art lighting back then consisted of 100, 100-watt lightbulbs...it was just a beautiful place.
“When my father heard there were investors interested in tearing the place down and turning it into a car wash, he made some calls.”
Michel always had aspirations of becoming an entertainment promoter and remembers those early days very fondly, said Michel.
“I had grandiose thoughts of providing world-class entertainment in this city and back in the late 1980s, we started getting bands and performers up here people in this city could only dream of seeing in places like Toronto,” he said. “Actually, in those early days a lot of the bigger names came directly to Sudbury and bypassed Toronto because they knew every show would be sold out.”
But, about a decade ago, the combination of a booming American economy and stagnant local economy marked the beginning of the end of the Grand as a live entertainment venue, said Michel.
“We used to be able to guarantee two shows and 2,400 seats, but the American entertainers who used to ask for $40,000 for two shows started demanding $80,000 for one show and we just couldn’t do those numbers,” he said.
The leaders at city hall also used to provide an annual subsidy to the Grand and when those subsidies were eliminated, he knew the writing was on the wall, said Michel.
The Grand has been a dance club for the past decade and still packs in hundreds of young people every Saturday evening.
Michel says after 20 years in the entertainment business, he’s ready for a much quieter lifestyle.
“I’ve bought a farm and I’m going to spend some time watching trees grow,” he said.
He’s selling the building privately and he hopes the new owner will choose to keep the Grand as an entertainment venue.
“Sudbury’s economy is very good right now...the building is in good shape in a prime location downtown,” he said. “I hope whoever buys it will be able to put all their energy into it and run it properly.”
Fortin says the Grand has been a special place for decades and he also hopes the new buyer will want to revitalize it and continue bringing in entertainers to this community.
“That building has provided more entertainment than any other in this city’s long history and I hope that doesn’t change,” he said.
If any building in this city should be declared an historical landmark, the Grand should qualify, said Forton.
Anyone interested in purchasing the building can contact Michel at 673-4840.