Stage ghosts

By Sharman Yarnell on May 29, 2008

To be or not....

That is the question in many Montrealers minds when it comes to English Theatre. And for good reason.

For those too young to know and those too old to remember, I offer a gentle nudge. English Theatre was alive and darn well hopping in the early years.

 Looking at the derelict Seville Theatre on Ste Catherine Street, it's hard to believe that there was once a thriving theatre community here in Montreal. The Seville was home to many a great artist in its early years. Before it was turned into a movie cinema, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole are but a few who graced its floorboards.

It was built in 1929, a grand old lady with her interior design leaning towards a Spanish theme. Hence the name The Seville Theatre. Equipped with state of the art special affects it boasted a ceiling covered in tiny stars and had a device that could create the illusion of clouds floating across the sky. Thems were the days! Anyone sitting in the torn seats during the early 80's, before the Seville became a shadow of its glory days, marveled at the beautiful art that still peaked out along the edge of the proscenium arch. All gone now. Nothing but a dark shell remains of the marvel she once was.

But the Seville wasn't the only stage in the Montreal scene. Nestled atop Mount Royal overlooking Beaver Lake was the old Montreal Toboggan and Ski Club. In the late forties it caught the eye of Joy Thompson who worked a bit of theatre magic and turned it into The Mountain Playhouse. Until that point she had been entertaining Montrealers with the Bard-in-the-open-air atop the mountain. Critic Herb Whittaker, described Thompson as "rich, eccentric, and dynamic, so talented and gifted in many different ways." That, along with some good business sense, is what it takes to create any theatre venue and Thompson had it aplenty.

When Thompson left for New York to teach mime and design sets for on and off Broadway productions, The Mountain Playhouse was taken over by Norma Springford. Both these grand dames of theatre were able to talk the city into renting the building to them for the hefty rent of one dollar a year.

Well-known Canadians walked those boards. Christopher Plummer and Barry Morse played there. Walter Massey was both its Artistic Director and resident Leading Man in 1961 and 1962, until then Mayor, Jean Drapeau, closed that sweet little theatre over a fraudulent rental dispute between the landlord and the city (the Playhouse company did not own the building. It was merely a tenant).

William Shatner started his career as the box office/assistant manager after he graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1952. He once told me in an interview that Springford soon realised that perhaps his forte was not in management, when he kept losing the box office receipts and tickets. He also regarded her as the one Montrealer who most influenced his career.

Women appeared to be at the forefront in the development of theatres in Montreal: Also thriving in our city was The Montreal Repertory Theatre, founded in 1930 by Martha Allan and know as the Theatre Guild. Offering training in the theatrical arts, the bilingual amateur group became a tour de force in the Canadian theatre scene. Its curtain rose on what are today some of the biggest names in the country: Denise Pelletier (remember evenings watching The Plouffe Family?), Hume Cronyn, Chris Plummer, Gratien Gelinas, John Colicos, Jean-Louis Rioux and many, many others. In 1942 the company turned their small building into a full-blown regional theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1952. The company disbanded in 1961 because of financial difficulties.

Anyone wandering through the Place Ville Marie during the 60's could have come across a line up to get into an unusual company called Instant Theatre. It was a 99 seater that held three twenty minute productions each lunch hour. Mary Morter created and established the little theatre that got its name from one of the early sponsors - an instant food company. To help keep the company going (and make it possible for people to see a play without depriving themselves of lunch), Morter sold sandwiches to the audience. Not a problem for the actors who found the ambience and crackling of papers part of the overall charm of the experience.

Finance always reared its ugly head, causing most of the English theatres in our city to close or be turned into movie houses. In those days, Canadian theatre was always thought of as just a hobby for the idle rich or poorly employed. Raising funds from government subsidy was an unheard of venture, and the private sector rarely took 'amateur' theatre seriously. Those involved were forced to support it personally, out of love or through their own companies.

William Hutt was the first of our Stage Artists to 'turn professional'. Realizing that he intended to make acting his life's work, yet wanting to stay in Canada, he received support from others in his small circle of like-minded friends and began requesting a salary for services rendered. His first 'paycheck' was a cash settlement of a twenty-five dollar honorariam. Soon after, a seed of 'professionalism' (paid work) began to grow and an Association of performers took route under what was at first the banner of American Actors Equity Association. Later, Canadian Actors' Equity Association found its own national atonomy as it exists today.

As heart warming and rosey as all this may sound, today's Montreal English theatre has withered somewhat around its edges. Oh, we do have the robust Segal and Centaur Theatres but the struggle for recognition and financial support is ever deeply precarious and on-going here in Montreal. Our many good professionals often bond together into small groups looking for scarce space in which to perform their fringe work – a lot of it surprisingly wonderful considering the pathetic resources with which they endure.

Killing structures like The Seville Theatre, starving out artists through lack of work and weakening their social and cultural involvement in our society deadens all of our souls. We need to revive the theatre world of yesteryear in order that we may have any kind of worthwhile culture to boast in tomorrows years to come.

There are so many theatres, big and small, professional and amateur, that contributed to the vibrant theatre scene in those hay days of Montreal theatre. From His Majesty's on Guy Street to The Orpheum on Ste Catherine—and the wonderful stage productions of Yiddish Theatre out of the genius of Dora Wasserman—we have much to be proud of in our contribution to Canadian Theatre. It is with the earliest foundations of the theatres themselves, the very buildings that served as spring boards into the profession that we can certainly hale the talent they have provided over the years—but that's another story.

I hope that dark shell of The Seville Theatre isn't an omen for the future of English theatre in Montreal. May some divine spot-light always shine over whatever modern box will replace its grand self.

When I look to the destruction of our theatres past I think “…my God, what have we done?”


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