Memories of Elora Community Theatre 1972-2015

by Gary Bryant

I remember well the morning of Saturday, December 7, 1991.

 A small group of us, all members of Elora Community Theatre, were busy at our workshop and rehearsal hall in central Elora, preparing to take part in the annual Elora Santa Claus parade. A phone call stopped us short. We learned that Pat Chataway, our founding president and tireless advocate for community theatre, had died suddenly that morning. She had arisen earlier that day, as was her custom, to do her morning exercises. She planned then to prepare lunch for those of us in the parade. The news of her death was a shock and made us all think about Pat’s huge contributions to local arts and culture.

Patricia Chataway arrived in Elora from England in 1971, and for a time lived with her daughter and son-in law Nancy and Peter Knudstrup. The Knudstrup home and business, Peter and Nancy’s Pottery, was the former Free Presbyterian Church, an old stone structure, on Henderson Street. I remember that as well as helping to care for her two grandchildren, Pat enthusiastically promoted the idea of starting up a local dramatic group. Her crisp British speech, boundless energy, and aristocratic bearing made her an impressive theatre advocate.

In 1972, after many conversations with interested residents, Pat placed an ad in the Elora Express inviting  all who were interested in bringing live theatre back to Elora to meet Friday evening,  September 15 in Carnegie Hall (the Library‘s lower floor). The estimated 50 people who came voted to establish a theatre group and chose the name “Elora Community Theatre” to differentiate itself from “The Elora Players” a former dramatic society that had been active in the 1950s with performances in the Drill Shed (now Elora’s L.C.B.O.). The assembly chose a board of directors with Pat as president. Plans began for the production of two one-act melodramas to be presented in January of 1973 at the Elora Senior Public School. (As I recall, the Drill Shed was at that time leased to an antique dealer.)

During those early years of Elora Community Theatre (ECT) from 1972 to 1981, the organization had a nomadic life. Rehearsals and shows were held at a dizzying variety of locations: the gym at Elora Senior School, an open space near the Gorge Cinema, St. Mary School in Elora, the former Fergus High School, Aboyne Hall at the Wellington County Museum, the Elora Mill Inn, Salem Public School, the Elora Legion, and Knox Church in Elora. Many performance sites had no stage; thus, large wooden “risers” had to be hauled in and securely placed so that audiences could view the action. Of course, there were lighting trees, electrical cables, a weighty dimmer board, scenic flats, and set furnishings to be hauled and placed. On occasion, everything had to be dismantled between performances if the space was being rented for another function.

By 1977, ECT was renting rehearsal and storage space on the second floor of the former Nichol Township Hall in Salem  (originally Wissler’s 1854 store) at the corner of George and Washington streets. Play practice there was made awkward by the presence of a large vertical wooden pillar in the centre of the rehearsal room as well as the lack of running water and toilet facilities. Furthermore, I remember having to pass through a narrow passage between great piles of set pieces, props, and furniture to access the rehearsal space which was at the opposite end of the building from the top of the stairwell that led upwards from George Street.

Somehow the organization survived all the necessary moves and growing pains of those early years. Pat could be very forceful and persistent, and it wasn’t easy to say no to her. I recall that she carried lists of useful people with phone numbers so that she could quickly summon them for various duties.

I remember one theatrical milestone of the 1970s that required lots of Pat’s organizational and persuasive skill.  This was the 1974 original musical spoof of Elora history, Tales of Elora, which was performed six evenings at the Elora Senior School. This was the first truly large-cast show in ECT history, and even included an appearance by the Fergus Brass Band.

In the summer of 1975, Pat and ECT came to an agreement with the Huron Country Playhouse of Grand Bend to the effect that we would assist this professional summer theatre to bring several of their plays into Fergus for one night performances. This was the first time I had ever seen live theatre at the Grand Theatre.

At about the same time, Pat Chataway began a Saturday morning “Elora Childen’s Drama Club”. This was initially a tiny group which included Pat’s grandchildren Lisa and Martin, as well as Pam and Andrew Miller and my children, Jill and Max. This group continued to grow and flourish through the decades and continues today to thrive as “The Centre Wellington Children’s Drama Club”. Some of the many volunteer leaders, I recall, who followed Pat’s lead were: Peter Scott, Conn Gartley, Deb Stanson, Lena Nudds, Kim Renders, Tom Riddell, Judy McMullan, Sheri Roberts, and Gerard Gouthro.

In the summer of 1977, ECT held its first outdoor production, The Maltese Falcon. This was produced in an open area adjacent to the Gorge Cinema with a youthful director and cast, and featured the arrival of a vintage car as part of the action.

By late 1977, Drimmie Hall of the newly renovated Elora Mill was now the preferred venue for plays. At the Elora Mill Inn, Barefoot in the Park was the first adjudicated ECT play as the group took advantage of membership services of the Western Ontario Drama League of which it was now a member.

In the late ‘70s and continuing into the early ‘80s, a second community theatre group made use of Drimmie Hall. This was “The Elora Poverty Theatre” a creative energetic group that successfully tackled several modern dramas and new Canadian works. Over the last few decades there has been a surprisingly large number of other amateur theatre companies that have sprung up in Centre Wellington. Some have had short lives while others continue to function.  Names that come to mind are: The Not so Grand Players, Wellington Youth Theatre Projects, Waterloo-Wellington Productions, Rob Goodale Productions, On the Spot Productions, Vision Theatre Productions, Grinder Productions, Climbing Vine Productions, Assembly Hall Productions, and McGinnis Productions. Productions by these groups are in addition to the many shows mounted by our schools in Centre Wellington.

I must, however, return to the fortunes of Elora Community Theatre. In 1981, we began to use the Grand Theatre in Fergus on a regular basis. This came about through the efforts of Maldwyn Allen, ECT president, and the generosity of former Fergus mayor and television pioneer Jake Milligan, the owner of the building. By now, ECT was producing an annual season of three plays, and had secured both non-profit and registered charitable status. We staged three one-act plays at our “new” home in April 1981. The Grand Theatre, with over 300 seats, a raked auditorium floor, and a stage, was the best site yet for live performances.  Pat and all of us were quite excited by the possibilities it offered. The Grand Theatre, however did pose a few challenges through the 1980s. There was no proper box office, so that we continued to use a number of Fergus, Elora, and Guelph retail outlets for our ticket sales. Although there were 323 seats, they were the original ones from 1928 and sometimes one would give way, depositing its occupant onto the concrete floor. There was no lighting booth and no lighting or sound equipment. There was an open attic area at the back of the theatre auditorium where the technical booth and upstairs washrooms now exist. Lighting a show often proved a great challenge until 1993 when the power supply was upgraded. Before that time, it was not uncommon for blackouts to occur at inappropriate and unwanted times during onstage action. The stage, which had no front curtain, had several uneven patches. No washroom existed in the limited backstage area: in fact, Fergus-Elora Cable TV operated out of a studio that is now a dressing room. As I recall, the one tiny washroom in the front of the theatre was the size of a broom closet and not exactly welcoming to any considerable throng of theatre-goers. Also, the roof leaked! This remained a continuing issue through the twentieth century, dampening the enthusiasm of performers and patrons alike. The main auditorium usually needed a thorough cleaning before a play could be staged as it was used as a storage area for “The Old Projection Room”, the electronics shop that operated at the front of the building which housed the lobby. Pat Chataway could be counted on to take charge of the necessary sweeping and vacuuming.

In 1981, a group of Elora Community Theatre members including Mal Allen, Chris Golding, Lance Hinds, and I, along with Brent Campbell who operated “The Old Projection Room”, created the group “Summer Theatre at the Grand”. For a few summers, we presented popular plays by Neil Simon as well as one-act plays and melodramas. As profits were put back into the building, we were able to make some physical improvements to the Grand through the addition of lighting bars, carpets in the aisles, and fresh paint.

By 1986, ECT had moved out of its Salem rehearsal and storage facility and relocated to the second floor of the Elora Oddfellows’ Hall at 5 Mill Street East (above where Styll is now located). Here we had a larger rehearsal space, without a post in the middle, as well as additional room for costume and prop storage. There was even a kitchen and washroom with running water! Although this new space represented an upgrade, it too had some drawbacks. Even with plastic sheeting over the windows, cold draughts plagued winter rehearsals. Also, features such as the lack of hot water, a steep access stairwell, falling plaster, dampness, and occasional vermin sightings bothered some of our members. Under such conditions, sometimes enlisting people for a winter play could be difficult. In late 1988, Translations director Chris Golding recruited several actors in the bar area of the Iroquois Hotel (Dalby House) including the multi-talented, colourful Phil Lamb.

During the 1980s it was often a struggle to mount three full-length plays a year. Because of this, we often worked with the Children’s Drama Club to help organize a production. Also, Don McNiven and I felt that it would help to have ECT sponsor a fall Blyth Festival touring show for one or two performances. This would free us from feeling compelled to produce a big show every autumn. As a result, a series of Blyth shows came to Fergus starting with Garrison’s Garage in 1985. ECT helped promote each of these, as well as assist the Blyth crews in unloading and loading their sets and equipment.

In the middle of 1989, ECT’s bank balance was dangerously low. This was worsened by the late cancellation of a play that we had planned for that fall. After browsing through dozens of scripts at the University of Guelph Library, I came upon a unique Canadian script I felt would have lots of appeal to our audiences and would keep ECT solvent. This was Ted Johns’ play He Won’t Come in from the Barn, which we staged in February of 1990. Our production featured: Morley Trask of Alma; Ted Kent’s jersey cow Kendra, who was led into the theatre each night through the front door, down an aisle and up a ramp to her stall onstage; a realistic set of a barn’s interior; an original ballad, created by Chris Moreno to connect the play’s scenes; a few piglets; and sometimes, Morley’s dog.  Stage manager Lis Pieper and producer Julie Wheeler-Bryant were extremely busy dealing with the many complex elements and associated duties of our production. One of these tasks, usually done by Julie, was to keep the Grand Theatre’s patron areas unsoiled. This meant carrying a shovel behind the cow as it entered and exited the building and scooping up deposits. During the intermission of one show, Kendra lay down, only to rise promptly as the lights came up to begin the second act. For her masterful stage sense and impeccable timing, Kendra received the longest and loudest ovation of the evening.  

There was a huge ticket demand for the nine performances. In fact, the last seven shows were sold out. We added two extra March performances for those that missed the play. In all, we sold over three thousand tickets- an ECT record. By 2010, when the stage at the Grand had been rebuilt, a rumour had taken hold to the effect that the stage was in bad shape because a cow had fallen through it. This was untrue.

The success of this show allowed Elora Community Theatre to carry on into the future. This was significant because later in 1990, the Grand was closed for needed renovations and upgrades as it had been purchased by Lorraine and Hugh Drewbrook of Salem. I believe this purchase took place, in part, because of  continuing urgings from Pat Chataway who was determined to ensure a performance venue for the theatre group she had established and nurtured almost twenty years before. For many months prior to this purchase, Pat could be seen at various public places selling almond chocolates in a personal crusade to raise money to buy ECT a home.

 I should also add that until the success of He Won’t Come in from the Barn, there was no need for ushers as there were no designated rows and seats in the Grand Theatre. All tickets sold were for general admission. In fact, because of the large seating capacity of the Grand, all the show dates appeared on each ticket which allowed the patron to show up for any performance. These customs were soon to change.

It would be a year and a half before the renamed “Theatre on the Grand” opened under the ownership of the Drewbrooks and a series of theatre managers. During this time, ECT had to find other venues for its productions. These included The Fergus Community Centre, Melville Church, and the former Fergus High School where we helped to stage two more Blyth touring shows: Perils of Persephone and Cornflower Blue. At last, in April of 1992 we were happy to return to downtown Fergus to open the upgraded facility with our own production of Another Season’s Promise, a fitting title for a new beginning. Although there were now about 50 fewer seats in the auditorium, there was a proper technical booth at the back, new washrooms and offices upstairs, and many improvements on the main floor, including a brilliant red curtain that could be drawn across the front of the stage.

Through the 1990s, Elora Community Theatre held a number of special events including “Twelfth Night Medieval Feasts” and “Murder Mystery Dinners”. These were necessary fundraisers as our rental costs for the Theatre and rehearsal workshop began to climb. Many of these extra entertainments, such as Peter Scott’s Death Stalks the Dahlias and Vote for Death, were held at the Wellington County Museum. Murder at Rutherford House was hosted by the Metcalfe Inn, while Blood on the Battlefield was performed at the Fergus Legion.

A huge success in the ‘90s was our production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1996. This play captured the award as “Best Production” at the Western Ontario Drama League Festival, and then went on to the Theatre Ontario Festival in North Bay where again it was declared “Best Production”. The show’s cast and crew won several individual awards. One of these, “Best Supporting Actor”, went to Gerry Butts, the play’s director, who also played the character “Big Daddy”.

In the spring of 2000, the Theatre on the Grand building was purchased from the Drewbrooks by the newly -formed 1999 municipality “The Township of Centre Wellington”, although the structure was still being managed by the professional theatre company called “Theatre on the Grand” that had been created in the spring of 1993. This summer theatre company ceased operations in mid-summer of 2002 amid a continuous rising debt over its ten -year history. At this point, ECT sought assurances from the Township that it would continue to be able to present plays in the building which was renamed “Fergus Grand Theatre”. For several months, ECT volunteers kept the box office running until the Township hired a theatre manager, Alan Argue. Once again, in the fall of 2002, Elora Community Theatre had the pleasure of presenting the first play, An Inspector Calls, at the Grand under its new name. From that time to the present, ECT has continued to stage three plays annually at the Grand, and happily, many improvements have been made to the building by the Township and theatre volunteers.

In the middle of 2003, ECT vacated its second -floor rented rehearsal and storage space at Mill and Metcalfe Streets in Elora, and began to use the Elora Centre for the Arts and, shortly thereafter,  St. James Church in Fergus for several years, before returning again to the Arts Centre in 2012. While both of these locales were spacious enough for rehearsals, there was no storage space for costumes, props and set pieces. In 2014 the group began to lease part of the former Ross Dunn/ Gary Cooper auto dealership property across from the Elora Quarry. Here we are able to rehearse, build sets, and store costumes and properties all in one location.

Over the last decade, we have certainly increased performances of Canadian scripts as well as family plays. Works by popular Canadian playwrights Norm Foster and David French as well as local playwrights Peter Scott and Keith Slater have been among our offerings. In addition, several large-cast shows have been staged which have featured lots of young people. These included three “Anne of Green Gables” productions, all directed by our current president, Deb Stanson.

Without doubt, one of the most challenging Canadian works that we brought to life was a 2008 remount of the 1933 script by Dr. Norman Craig of Fergus: You’re Lucky if You’re Killed. It seemed a good time to consider this script not only because it was the 175th anniversary of Fergus, but also because there was no other play proposed for that fall! Bronwyn Allen-Hill offered to direct the play, and I offered my assistance through adding newsboys and letter readings to the script to add historical context for young audiences. This play had originally been presented three times at the Grand Theatre during the summer of 1933, and was part of Doctor Craig’s campaign to get action on the construction of a war memorial in Fergus. It is believed to be “Canada’s first war play”. We were happy to have the support of the Craig family in this venture, and even added an actor (Al Koop) to play Doctor Craig to introduce and end the play. Members of the Craig family from Fergus, London, and California joined us for our opening night along with Fred Hotson, who was in the original production 75 years ago.

Elora Community Theatre is now over 42 years old, and in the prime of life. Through its lifetime it has turned out over 150 varied productions. It continues to operate as a non-profit charity under a constitution and a 12-member board of directors. From its early struggles to its gradual establishment as a dependable fixture in the community, ECT is indebted to the nurturing work of its founder Pat Chataway.  I’m sure Pat would be delighted that her beloved Elora Community Theatre is still thriving, still utilizes its performance home in Fergus, and still fosters the love of theatre among the youth of our community. For her dedication to ECT and her unselfish help to others, Pat was declared “Elora Citizen of the Year”, following her death. Later still, a bust of Pat created by sculptor and former ECT President Beverley Cairns, was unveiled at the Grand Theatre.

Many thanks to the following for their encouragement, advice and assistance: Ian Easterbrook, Al Koop, Julie Wheeler-Bryant, Bronwyn Allen-Hill, Simon Leibovitz, Bill Exley, Jill Bryant, and the Wellington County Archives wherein many theatre records including photos, programmes, and other documents are preserved.

Gary Bryant, who has been active with Elora Community Theatre since 1973,   now enjoys Life Member status. Gary is a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, and is a retired teacher of geography and drama. He owns and operates Elora Tours, providing step-on guides for local coach tours. He also partners with Al Koop of Older Voices giving historical walking tours and dramatic presentations.