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Memory Lane: Sudbury’s humble ‘barn’ has hosted some killer concerts

Everyone remembers the Elton John ticket scandal, but Sudbury Arena has hosted everyone from Kiss to the USSR State Symphony to Shania Twain, who kicked off her very first world tour in the Nickel City

Although Sudbury Arena has been used for everything from rock concerts to political rallies and religious ceremonies, it was built for hockey, skating, boxing, wrestling, basketball and trade shows. 

Prior to 1951, Sudbury was one of the few cities of its size in Canada without a hockey arena. (During the 1940s, Sudbury senior hockey teams played at the Copper Cliff arena.)

The plan released in the late 1940s for Sudbury's "Civic Centre" called for fixed-seating capacity of 4,680, seating on the ice surface of 3,400 and 1,000 standing-room spaces. There would be 200 parking spaces, broadcasting facilities and small meeting rooms.

The architects also drew plans for an auditorium to be built over the entrance lobby with 800 removable seats. This space would accommodate community events with room for banquets, a large dance floor for 500 couples, and a stage for theatrical productions.

City council OK'd the estimated $700,000 for the arena, but the auditorium added $500,000 to the bill.

The champions of the project, including Mayor Bill Beaton, hoped to convince 9,000 citizens to contribute $500,000 by donating $1 for 36 months or $360 in one lump sum. 

It was money citizens did not want to spend.

Despite its limitations, Sudbury Community Arena has hosted hundreds of rock, pop and country acts over the years, as well as the symphonies, comedians and touring productions of Broadway musicals. The list is impressive because Sudbury is a mid-sized Canadian city with a small catchment area. The arena has a concert capacity of about 6,000. invited readers to share memories of their favourite concerts at the arena for Memory Lane.

John Lindsay remembers seeing extravagant American pianist Liberace. 

"I overhead some men, likely brought kicking and screaming by their spouses, leaving the venue saying they really enjoyed the show. Then, there was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians – some great big band music from my era. (And) classical music lovers appreciated a large symphony orchestra from Russia (USSR State Symphony in October 1986)."

The world-famous orchestra did not sell out; only 2,975 tickets were sold.

"The orchestra members enjoyed local shopping and buying things not available behind the Iron Curtain," Lindsay wrote.

"The acoustics were pretty good for these shows, better than the rock shows with their huge amplification that damage your hearing."  

The sound for the Soviet symphony concert was provided by Half Nelson Systems. The Sudbury company would be hired again for the Montreal Symphony performance in January 1989.

At that time, the music critic for The Montreal Gazette, Arthur Kaptanis (Jan. 17, 1989), took the opportunity to ‘dis’ our humble arena as an inappropriate venue for a symphony orchestra.

He noted the arena concession would be open for the performance, but popcorn would not be sold to the highbrow audience.

Sudbury Arena's acoustic characteristics have always been problematic.

"Perhaps the acoustics in the Sudbury arena could be better, but the intimacy of the Elton John show (March 2008) more than made up for it," wrote Craig Vokey. "When Elton John came to Sudbury, I was very fortunate to attend with my wife and several friends. We were in a box overlooking the stage and it was an amazing experience where Sir Elton played pretty much every song that you could think of. It was amazing as it was just him and his piano.

"It was not only the best concert I had ever been to in Sudbury, but I think the best one I ever attended."

Barry Yorke remembered," My first concert was Bachman Turner Overdrive, Aug. 17, 1975. I was 11 years old and my big sister and my brother-in-law took my younger brother and me. I think REO Speedwagon opened for them, if memory serves correctly. 

"The first of 11 Rush shows I've attended was Oct. 18, 1978. Rush is my favourite band of all time. I was in the front row, close enough to tie Geddy Lee's shoes. It was magical.

"One hundred and sixty-eight concerts later, I still love going to them at 58 years old."

Neil Cooper wrote: "My first concert at Sudbury Arena was Kiss with Cheap Trick July 19, 1977. I was eight. Tickets for this show were $7.50."

Fans can see the setlist from that concert here.

Thirty-six years later, Kiss sold out Sudbury Arena (July 23, 2013) on their Monster Tour. As part of the promotion for the concert, a local radio station teamed up with Confederation Secondary School’s Evolutionary Band to offer listeners an opportunity to win a Cort axe guitar signed by bassist Gene Simmons.

Country/pop music diva Shania Twain's decision to launch her first concert tour in a "wilderness" beer and bingo town in 1998 made national and even international headlines.

Twain was already a superstar with numerous hits when she announced a world-wide concert tour, one that would break concert box office records.

She launched the 19th-month tour with two concerts at Sudbury Arena on May 29 and May 31, 1998. 

Why Sudbury? It was close to Timmins where she had grown up.  The Timmins arena wasn't available.

Twain also lived for a time in Sudbury and her first agent, Mary Bailey, discovered the future superstar performing at Northern Lights Festival Boréal.

The Calgary Herald (May 29, 1998) reported, "This small town in northern Ontario may have played its part in the first moon landing, but never before has the world beat a path to its door like it has this week. Then again, never has a superstar – let alone a native daughter – kicked off a world tour in Sudbury as Shania Twain does tonight. 

"The old, battered brick Sudbury Arena will host 5,000 adoring fans as well as media from across North America, all set to take in the first concert this country music star has headlined since she became a multi-multimillion selling artist three years ago." 

There was speculation Twain was a music studio product with scripted music videos and she couldn't pull off a world tour.

"With the considerable help of gimmicks (and an enthusiastic hometown crowd), she prevailed despite mediocre sound and distracting feedback," critic Finbarr O'Reilly wrote for The Globe and Mail.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.