Apr 7, 2017

790 Bay Street

Take a walk by 790 Bay Street in Toronto and you’ll see why most people would never give it a second look. There's nothing distinctive about it, nothing to draw your interest, excitement or imagination. In fact, it's rather utilitarian and sad, nondescript, ordinary, featureless.

It's a mid-century modern-style building from the late 1950s, and it was built as the Canadian offices of the Continental Can Company. Then, it was sold and refurbished to make money from tenanting.

It's a drab, eleven-story building situated on a standard, street corner and there's nothing special about it. Not in architecture, styling, location or presence. Today, it's a simple medical building that exudes nothing in character, history, culture or elegance. It just is.

Yet, this building is a-part of Toronto's history and it is a major part of Canada's storytelling legacy. For this building housed the creative offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the 1970s and ‘80s, until the new CBC Broadcast Centre was built on Front Street.

The CBC offices at 790 Bay Street became the nucleus of television production in Canada. Here, television drama was created, current affairs and documentary programs were innovated, television specials were instigated, and crews were sent out all over the world to bring back stories and footage from everywhere. It was here that the productions were edited and post-produced, ready for broadcast to the nation.

This building housed, not just production offices for writers, producers, directors and staff, but other floors where film camera units were ready for action, editing rooms were assembling shot footage, screening rooms, negative cutting rooms and sound editing rooms were in a huddle creating and finishing programming. There were camera maintenance departments, film evaluation rooms, scheduling offices and travel offices. Throughout the many floors the CBC rented in this office building, there was a total production facility, from script to screen.

This was hub of creative and artistic talent and anyone who was anyone, the Who's Who in Canadian production, walked these unassuming corridors.

And from 1971 to 1986 this building was the epicenter of my career.

Here, I learned how to be an assistant cameraman, a camera operator and a Director of Photography. Here, I learned to be an international cinematographer, sent around the globe, to return with stories within the many cans of film that I shot.

We would be sent to the jungles of the South Pacific, across the iron curtain into the heart of communist countries, across the oceans and continents to hunt out the most interesting of stories, from the wine-making vineyards of California’s Napa Valley to the high speed rail systems of Europe. And each story had it’s own drama, happy moments and sorrow, birth and death. We were sent everywhere across the USA and we explored and documented every inch of our own country of Canada, from sea, to sea to sea. It was a busy world and we were shipped off for months, weeks and days.

Everything that stemmed from 790 Bay Street, for me, was the greatest of education. The subjects were endless and the people I worked with and documented were fascinating.

Here I also learned the essence of drama cinematography, and I would build my resume of television series, TV drama and movies for television.

The building itself was filled with life. When I came home from an assignment, I would sit with the editors who became my friends. I might climb the stairs to the drama department to see what productions were in the works. Sometimes I would get a call from a friend who was producing documentaries or have a coffee with a scheduling clerk. Then, there were the wrap parties and the office Christmas parties, one on each floor. I had a blast at every one. Friendships were made and lost, we loved, we cried, we laughed, we created together. Where are they all now?

In 1985, I left the CBC to become a freelance Director of Photography, but a year later I was asked back to shoot a lawyer-based TV series.

Then, in 1986, I ended my CBC days and never looked back. I had learned what I could, and had traveled the world. It had been a charmed life of adventure, knowledge and creativity. Not long after, the CBC moved out of 790 Bay Street and into their new production facility on Front Street.

Today, nothing remains of the CBC’s involvement with 790 Bay Street except in the minds of the many people who worked and created there.

Much like the workings of a drama where sets are designed and erected to bring a story to life, then they are torn down when the production is finished, 790 Bay Street was discarded and cast away in the same way. It was of its time and nothing more.

It is now a medical building, helping bring wellness to thousands who remain unaware of the history it holds.

So take a walk by 790 Bay Street in Toronto and see a place that, for one shining moment, gave Canada and the world a touch of film magic.