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Toronto must go on, though not all the shows do

Times Staff Writer

As the World Health Organization lifted its warning against traveling to SARS-struck Toronto on Tuesday, cultural officials in the Canadian city hoped that an epidemic of postponed performances by U.S. artists would reverse itself, and that a dip in attendance at museums, plays and concerts during the outbreak would end.

Meanwhile, in China and parts of Asia, where the flu-like viral illness SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- remains a concern, groups ranging from the Rolling Stones to Christie’s art auction house and a Canadian ballet company have canceled tours or postponed events.

In Toronto, Elton John and Billy Joel postponed a Monday performance at the Air Canada Center, where all 20,000 tickets had been sold in advance. On Tuesday, presenters learned that classical pianist Murray Perahia was canceling a May 7 concert at the 2,630-seat Roy Thomson Hall. Perahia’s managers in New York said his recitals in the United States would go on as planned.

“We feel almost in a surreal state,” said Charlie Cutts, president of Thomson Hall, noting that life has gone on normally in Toronto, where SARS has infected fewer than 200 people and claimed 21 lives. “We’re on the road to recovery, but there’s been a World Health warning and people on the outside are cautious about entering the bubble. I think lifting the travel advisory is going to have a huge impact” on artists who might have considered skipping Toronto engagements.

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Jim Garrard, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council, estimated that attendance has been down 10% to 15% at the large theaters, museums and concert halls that depend on a strong tourist trade. In the last two weeks, turnout for the two big theatrical shows in town, “Mamma Mia!” and “The Lion King,” has fallen from over 90% to about 80%, according to John Karastamatis, an official of the theatrical presenter, Mirvish Productions.

But Garrard and Karastamatis both said that war in Iraq and a harsh, long-lasting winter might have contributed to those drops. In any case, Karastamatis said, the SARS outbreak makes it imperative for Toronto to mount a public relations blitz to combat any lingering damage to tourism. “With this sort of thing, that image takes a long time to fix,” he said.

Touring pop attractions that have canceled shows in Toronto include Styx, Lisa Marie Presley and Kelly Clarkson. Aretha Franklin and Ravi Shankar postponed dates, and a May 4 Independent Schools Festival, featuring student performers from across Canada, was canceled.

In Asia, SARS prompted the Rolling Stones to pull out of their debut concerts in China and postpone two shows in Hong Kong, although the rockers did keep an engagement in Singapore. Moby dropped dates in Singapore and Hong Kong; Carlos Santana canceled in Hong Kong; and Mariah Carey has postponed a June date in Singapore.

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Others canceling tours in China, where the SARS outbreak originated last November and remains uncontrolled, are the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada, the BBC Scottish Symphony and a touring company of “Riverdance.”

Christie’s, which was set to auction Chinese and Indian art in Hong Kong this week, postponed the sales until early July.

But Canadian presenters point to strong crowds for shows that have gone forward as evidence that normalcy -- not crisis -- prevails outside the wards where SARS patients have been confined.

The Toronto Blue Jays, despite their last-place standing in the American League East, sold out the Sky Dome for Tuesday’s baseball game against the Texas Rangers. Team owners charged just $1 per seat, aiming to avoid internationally circulated pictures of a nearly empty ball park. “This is a community initiative. The World Health Organization put us on a list of ‘don’t visit.’ That had a great economic impact not on just the team, but on the city,” said Blue Jays spokesman Howard Starkman, in a phone interview from Toronto. “The hotels are struggling. Conventions have canceled. Business people aren’t coming up.

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“Ted Rogers, the CEO of Rodgers Communications, which owns 80% of the team, and Paul Godfrey, president and CEO of the ballclub, decided to sell tickets for $1 .... It’s really a community-type effort to show that we’re not all walking around with masks up here.”

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ act and a lecture by Jehan Sadat, widow of Anwar Sadat, both packed Thomson Hall and the adjoining 2,700-seat Massey Hall in recent days, and the Motown musicians the Funk Brothers drew more than 2,000 people, Cutts said.

Don Simpson, president of House of Blues Concerts Canada, said that concert sales, which don’t depend on an out-of-town trade, have stayed strong. He was hoping that with the travel warning lifted, shows by Matchbox 20 on May 7 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on May 13 would go forward as scheduled in the Air Canada Center.

Meanwhile, he said, he would try to reschedule the John-Joel concert.

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BookExpo Canada, the nation’s biggest book industry event, had determined to go through with its June 6-9 gathering in Toronto even before the World Health Organization lifted its travel advisory, show manager Jennifer Sickinger said.

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Times staff writers Christopher Reynolds, Chris Pasles, Suzanne Muchnic and Gayle Pollard-Terry contributed to this report.


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