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Symphony in the Gardens.
Soul In The City.
Just For Laughs Comedy at the Castle.
Every Torontonian has a Casa Loma story. (Mine occurred in university, when I managed to finagle my way onto the set of a movie being shot there. I met Alicia Silverstone, who promptly gave me the flu.)
It is one of Toronto’s oddest landmarks. Originally built in the early 1900s as a vanity project by electricity scion Sir Henry Pellatt, it ultimately bankrupted the multi-millionaire. In 1924, the city seized control of the property after taxes went unpaid. Since taking over, no has ever been able to figure out how best to use the impressive (if architecturally inconsistent) castle in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Several generations of Toronto kids and tourists will remember it as a fun, if somewhat baffling, museum. (Instead of anything of historical or educational importance, it mainly offered a glimpse into the predilections of a rich old weirdo.) Busloads of tourists, charmed, perhaps, by the idiosyncrasy of a castle in the middle of the city, would show up for photo ops.
But there has always been untapped potential in the site as an event space.
The castle’s latest tenant, Nick Di Donato and his Liberty Entertainment Group, have been trying to change Casa Loma’s image from a one-and-done tourist bus stop to a place that’s embedded in the community, with year-round programming that will keep tourists and locals alike coming back.
“I really felt the site was under-utilized,” says Di Donato. “When we were developing our concept for Casa Loma, we tried to think about how we can engage Torontonians and not just make it a tourist site.”
They’ve been operating the space for five years now, and have a 20-year lease from the city.
When he was putting together his proposal for Casa Loma, he put out feelers for how people thought of the space, and whether they had been before. “We asked, ‘Have you been?’ And the answer was always ‘Only when I was a kid.’” Di Donato saw an opportunity.
“The programming was what would make people come back,” he says. “Because you can enjoy the historic site, even if you’ve already seen it once. So our focus was programming, to create events that will bring Torontonians back again and again.”
They began with summer programming that would highlight the site’s impressive gardens, and tap into Torontonians’ innate desire to be outside on a patio on summer nights. “We started with the symphony in the gardens,” Di Donato explains. “The castle is regularly closed after 5 pm. But in Toronto, people love to be outside on summer nights. And the castle had these beautiful gardens.”
The Symphony in the Gardens series, which will run every Tuesday night from June 4 until August 27 this summer, was an immediate hit. And this year, on June 11, Di Donato is bringing in a guest conductor from Italy, Beatriz Venezi. “Beatriz is a fabulous conductor, and a trailblazer,” says Di Donato. “June is Italian heritage month, and to celebrate that, we’ve created special events. It’s close to my heart as well: Beatriz leads the Scarlatti Orchestra in Naples, which is my birthplace. So there’s a sentimental connection.”
While Tuesday nights are for classical music at the castle this summer, Mondays are for soul. Sean Jones and his seven-piece band The Righteous Echo will perform every Monday from June until the end of August.
Last year, Di Donato and his company partnered with Just For Laughs to bring stand-up comedy to Casa Loma. “The comedy at the castle is one of those things that you look and say, ‘How does this fit; will it resonate?’” says Di Donato. “We were extremely surprised at how well it resonated with Toronto audiences, but also with tours.” Just For Laughs Comedy at the Castle will take place on Wednesday nights throughout the summer.
Di Donato takes a measure of pride in being able to bring a new crowd to Casa Loma, and to give them a more accessible experience of the space. “One thing I’m really proud of is that, as a tourist destination it creates this incredible sense of beauty for the city of Toronto,” he says. “So if you’re a tourist from the U.S. or Europe, and you happen upon Casa Loma on a Tuesday night, and you see people in the garden enjoying music; it’s all so beautiful, you go back and say ‘Toronto is a great city.’”
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