The price of renaming

Just over a year ago, some of our Centennial College student reporters were assembling the latest edition of the East York Observer newspaper. One reporter had been assigned to cover a media conference at the regional hospital in the area. She returned to explain that the hospital, which for probably half a century was known as the Toronto East General Hospital, was now going to be called the Michael Garron Hospital, in honour of the son of long-time hospital donors, Myron and Berna Garron. Michael Burns, the chair of the old TEGH, explained it to our reporter this way.

“If you’re lucky, once in a lifetime a truly extraordinary philanthropic gesture transforms an institution and care for thousands of people,” he said. “We are humbled and beyond grateful that our hospital is in receipt of such a remarkable and historic gesture.”

On that day, Dec. 2, 2015, the Garron family announced a gift to the TEGH of $50 million in memory of their son. The story reporter Marwa Mohkam Sheikh wrote, explained that in 1975, when Myron and Berna Garron’s son Michael was dying of cancer, the 13-year-old had wished that he not be forgotten. His parents promised that he would not.

Thus, in honour of the extraordinary monetary gift, the officials at the hospital agreed to change TEGH to Michael Garron Hospital. And at the time that decision sparked a good deal of discussion around our office and around the community about the idea of renaming facilities to recognize sizable donations. Was it appropriate to attach a new name to an institution as recognizable as Toronto East General? But why shouldn’t such philanthropy be recognized and respected that way?

In truth, these days, it happens all the time. Just this week, for example, the Toronto Star published a story about the renaming of the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre to the Budweiser Stage. Why? Well, because the parent company of Budweiser had outbid the Molson folks for the right to attach its name to the Toronto lakeside performance stage.

And is that a good idea? Well, in a Star editorial Martin Regg Cohn, described the takeover as Toronto losing “another piece of its history, geography, memory.” Perhaps, but I think that horse has long departed the corporate-naming barn. I mean, when I was growing up, I can remember many special nights going to the performance theatre on Front Street in Toronto known as the O’Keefe Centre.

My dad got us tickets to see Robert Goulet in “Camelot” at the O’Keefe, even before the show opened on Broadway. Our family took in hit musicals, revues and concerts with all the leading lights of show business – Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Harry Belafonte, Anne Murray and the National Ballet of Canada. Among the real landmark appearances I associate with “the O’Keefe” though, were those by Bob Dylan, The Doors and Janis Joplin. My Ryerson broadcast journalism schoolmate, Ross Perigoe, even got an interview with Joplin while she was in town at the O’Keefe.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Perigoe told me later. “I interviewed her on the stage during a rehearsal. And as we talked, she knocked back shots Jack Daniel’s straight out of the bottle.”

Of course, the O’Keefe Centre was so named because E.P. Taylor, the head of the O’Keefe Brewing Co. at the time, invested in and opened the place in 1960. All that changed in 1996, when the computer software company, Hummingbird took over ownership of the place and hung its nameplate where the O’Keefe sign used to be. Then the Hummingbird was renamed the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts when it bought the rights. And on and on. If one is a good corporate citizen, I guess the rule goes, one earns the right to name a performing facility after itself.

But, just a minute. Could Massey Hall be anything but Massey Hall? Or Roy Thomson Hall be anything but Roy Thomson Hall? I don’t know whether money can buy out that kind of tradition (although there was probably family vanity involved in when those two halls were built).

Perhaps sports centres are a completely different (base)ball of wax. Especially when it comes to the SkyDome. As I recall, the unique indoor movable dome over the lakeshore stadium was a publicly funded facility, built for year-round weather protection of Toronto’s sports franchises – the Argos, the Blue Jays, etc. But then, when the Rogers conglomerate bought the place, it chose to rename the SkyDome the Rogers Centre. I have utmost respect for the legacy of Ted Rogers as a broadcast force in this country. But does the indoor home of Toronto football and baseball franchises have to have his name on it? Maybe, if he’s paying all the other club bills.

Sometimes making one’s way onto the outside wall of a major facility ought to have some substance behind it, not just dollars. There’s a difference between renaming for philanthropy, versus renaming for vanity.

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