The 10 biggest moments in Toronto pop culture in the last 50 years

The 10 biggest moments in Toronto pop culture in the last 50 years

To celebrate Toronto Life’s 50th year, we’re counting down the biggest Toronto moments of the last half-century. This month: a ranking of the music, movies and shows that mattered most. Disagree with our choice for number one? Have your say at the bottom

(Image: courtesy of Bell Media)
The series that started a Toronto TV boom

10 In 2008, starved for content during a Writers Guild of America strike, CBS struck an unorthodox deal with CTV to air their Toronto-shot series Flashpoint in a prime-time slot. The show turned out to be a sleeper hit, driving American television producers north and sparking more cross-border co-productions: Rookie Blue and Lost Girl in 2010, Suits and Orphan Black a few years after that, and later still The Strain and The Expanse—series that prove Toronto-shot TV is more than just quirky CBC shows and Family Channel fodder.

Broken Social Scene
(Image: Getty Images)
Broken Social Scene and the birth of a genre

9 Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning’s shape-shifting indie orchestra has influenced practically every act in town. Their scrappy DIY aesthetic was the coming-of-age soundtrack for a generation of local artists, they transformed Arts and Crafts into the city’s most respected label, and their offshoot acts—Feist, Stars, Metric, Jason Collett and others—became indie-rock royalty.

(Image: Getty Images)
SCTV and the golden age of Canadian comedy

8 Second City’s TV iteration transformed its members—John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas—from emerging local comics to slapsticky Canadian heroes. Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis starred in Ghostbusters, Martin Short and Robin Duke graduated to SNL, Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara became movie icons, and together they kicked off the first classic Canadian comedy craze.

David Cronenberg
(Image: Getty Images)
The director who created Canadian art cinema

7 In 1975, the burgeoning auteur David Cronenberg debuted his first feature, Shivers, a sci-fi gorefest about a parasite that turns people into violent sex fiends. The film, which was publicly funded, sparked a vicious debate in Parliament about financing homegrown talent—and the controversy turned Cronenberg into a cult hero. A few years later, he released his breakthrough hit, Scanners—think X-Men, but with exploding heads. By refusing to pander to industry conventions, Cronenberg carved out an artistic space for Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema and the rest of the dark, audacious Toronto new wave.

Phantom of the Opera
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The Phantom of the Opera versus Les Misérables

6 The world’s most extravagant musicals arrived in Toronto seven months apart. Mirvish’s Les Mis, starring stage heavyweights Michael Burgess and Louise Pitre, ran for more than a year; Livent’s Phantom, with Colm Wilkinson and Rebecca Caine, continued for 10. Who won? It hardly matters. The competition raised the calibre of theatre in Toronto, attracted top talent and established the city as Broadway North.

Toronto Rock and Roll Revival

One show to rule them all

5 In September of ’69, 20,000 people packed into Varsity Stadium for a one-day marathon music fest called the Rock and Roll Revival, inspired by the golden-age antics of Chuck Berry and Little Richard (both of whom were on the bill). The Doors rocked until nearly two in the morning. Alice Cooper famously threw a live chicken into the crowd. And the Plastic Ono Band—John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton—surprised the crowd with their debut live set, heralding the breakup of the Beatles the following year.

The Riverboat
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A folk haven’s heyday

4 The Riverboat was an underground café where budding folk stars tried out new material. In 1965, an obscure troubadour named Neil Young played a solo set there before decamping to California to join Buffalo Springfield. By the time Young returned for a celebrated six-night run in 1969, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot had all played the Riverboat—and turned the venue into the nucleus of Yorkville’s music scene.

Hollywood North

The year Toronto became Hollywood North

3 In the mid-1980s, the feds created a new fund for TV shot in Canada, Ontario founded a film development organization, and the Canadian dollar was a measly 69 cents American. Then, like clockwork, three Toronto-shot films—Moonstruck, Three Men and a Baby and Adventures in Babysitting—kick-started a blockbuster boom, filling our streets with fake New York taxicabs and Chicago subway stations.

(Image: Playing with Time Productions)
The enduring teen drama

2 Since The Kids of Degrassi Street debuted 37 years ago, the grungy series has spanned five incarnations, become an international teen hallmark, and incubated homegrown performers like Nina Dobrev, Shenae Grimes and the ubiquitous Aubrey Graham. Every prime-time teen soap since has nicked Degrassi’s formula, but the original’s fearless exploration of adolescence in all its messiness—bullying, depression, pregnancy—remains unmatched.

Drake and The Weeknd
(Image: Getty Images)
The new wave of Toronto pop

1 Toronto has always had its music icons, but it was the Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Drake who became the first Canadian artists to occupy the top three slots of the Billboard Hot 100 last October (trailed by teen luminaries Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara). These superstars are defining not just Toronto’s music scene but the city itself, coaching NBA All-Star Games, opening restaurants staffed by celebrity chefs, and partying with the PM and POTUS. Because of them (and, let’s be honest, we mostly mean Drizzy), the world knows us as a vibrant, cool city of rappers, R&B crooners and YouTube celebs.

Top 10 Moments