Some might say that the Rogers Centre SkyDome was born under a bad sign: After the 1982 Grey Cup relayed broadcast to an audience of over 7 million Canadian viewers (at the time, a whopping record) embarrassing images of sullen Argos fans at Exhibition Stadium soaked to the bone, frozen masses huddled under concession stands, overflowing toilets and torrential disaster movie style rain, it became apparent that if Toronto desired to be a world class city, it urgently required an enclosed sport`s Stadium. The Argos might have lost that night, but Toronto`s image was the real loser.
Enter Ontario Premier Bill Davis, who had been in attendance at the great Grey Cup wash out, and who was drowned out the following day during the Argos presser by universal cries of “We want a Dome!” Never one to let a good crisis go to waste, Davis expedited plans for an enclosed stadium to be built in Toronto; a bump in the polls soon followed.
After several years of geographic uncertainty it was finally decided to build a retracting Dome stadium at the base of the CN Tower, at the time a near barren waste-land, but conveniently within close walking distance to the Union Station hub. Construction began in October 1986 with EllisDon winning the lucrative lead contractor bid, and spearheaded by Chuck Magwood, President of the crown corporation formed to run the Dome.”Before debt service, the project will throw off something like $30 million in the first full calendar year,” he once said, famously.
Two and a bit years and $570 million dollars later, the newly christened SkyDome, designated such after a frenzied months long National contest, was ready to open to the public. Sadly the EllisDon completion came a scant few months later than originally planned, resulting in the gigantic missed opportunity of kicking-off SkyDome activity with the Toronto Blue Jays 1989 home opener (it was held at the old and busted Ex Stadium, for shame). To make up for this, Chuck Magwood and StadCo planned a gala, star-studded party-of-the-century to mark the epic launch of Toronto’s, nay, Canada’s dome – “The Opening of SkyDome: A Celebration”
Broadcast nationwide on the CBC, hyped for weeks in advance, and hosted by, ahem, Canadians Alan Thicke and Andrea Martin, “The Opening of SkyDome” was clearly one of those events which probably seemed like a great idea at the time, and may well have looked good on paper, but did not translate into compelling television – unless you consider rubber necking an inglorious train wreck compelling. In fact, it is a top tier contender for the most bizarre, frustratingly inept CBC broadcasts of all time, thanks to a potent cocktail of its own misguided hubris and poorly judged antics, and a deft bitch-slap from Mother Nature.
After the rousing WTF intro which clearly caught the elated audience off-guard (beautifully setting the stage for the melt down to follow), the rat-a-tat thud of Quebec impersonator André-Philippe Gagnon`s poor and incomprehensible jokes, and a gaunt, sleepwalking performance from soft rock gods Glass Tiger, Premier David Peterson rocked the mic with a laser pen to officially open the Dome. The legend Oscar Peterson (no relation) then took to his keys to soundtrack this poignant moment which should have carried the emotional weight of the structure itself, but instead marked segued into a gargantuan farce.
CBC host Brian Williams breathless reports that due to a lightning storm in the area, the Dome roof cannot be fully open, thus somewhat deflating the mood of the event, and actually it`s raison d’être. One can only imagine the flop sweat and foul language flying around behind the scenes, as the decision to close or keep open the roof would not have been a light one. Never mind that Chuck Magwood, seated and all smiles ham for the cameras, was busy demanding the roof be opened come hell or highwater. Highwater it was.
Poor Alan Thicke does his best to introduce the salute to those who built the Dome, but by this point the oncoming soak must have been giving broadcasters a migraine induced déjà vu of Grey Cup 1982. Not even the much vaunted touchdown of SkyDome`s kid friendly mascot Domer could raise a smile. The parade for Toronto’s bright and shiny new toy was well and truly being rained on.
As if the patience of attendees had not been tested enough, the following song and dance number absolutely defied convention. Dedicated to the people of Toronto, and ostensibly based upon our rich multicultural fabric, “We Are Toronto, That`s Why We Celebrate!” is just about the most cringe-worthy item to limp out of the sometimes taste challenged 1980s, and that`s saying something. You can just about hear the feint sound of a million people changing the channel to watch something, anything else.
Smearing rock salt into an already festering wound, the onslaught of torturous light entertainment continued unabated. Maestro and until-then flawless Toronto jingle chef Tommy Ambrose appeared to sing his specially composed for the occasion ditty, “Open up the Dome!” to which the few people remaining in the stands reportedly yelled back “Close the roof!”
At this point in the “celebration”, it is hard to decide which is the most tragic sight: The aging local heroes and middling talent being driven around and announced over the loud speaker in embarrassing rhyming lyrics (look, Al Waxman!), the few die-hard souls who had probably paid out the nose for tickets and were staying put in their seats, or the faces of those young entertainers who had practiced day and night for moths preparing for this, the biggest show of their life, only to be dumped on by the unimpressed gods from above. Karma, or divine intervention?
While scandal and cronyism ran rampant in the years before, and those which followed, and as more and more juicy stories leaked out about StadCo’s business dealings, and the enormous financial sucking wound SkyDome created, never mind the renaming of the building, people mostly forgot about “The Opening of SkyDome: A Celebration”. Maybe people just blocked it out of their memories, like they would any other traumatic event.
Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.
Lead image: Domer the (retried) SkyDome mascot