The Métropolitain

The Childrens’ Theatre turns 75

By Sharman Yarnell on January 15, 2009

When I interviewed him at a Montreal Actra Awards ceremony, William Shatner recognized a number of Montreal theatre icons as being instrumental in creating a strong foundation for his career in acting.

The conversation started off with him asking me about Norma Springford who ran the Mountain Playhouse atop Mount Royal - I remember lowering my voice to more serene tones and telling him she had died. And that the Playhouse had been razed to the ground.

He then asked about Rupert Kaplan, who produced and directed the best radio dramas at the CBC in the 50s.  Once more I lowered my tone and announced that he, too, had passed on. And that, alas, Radio Canada no longer did Radio Dramas.

The interview was quickly disintegrating to black comedy. 

Until...! Shatner recalled taking Saturday acting classes with two ladies (One of whom he admitted to having a crush on). He remembered being one of the few boys in his class and loved playing Prince Charming and having the opportunity to wave a sword around. Only guys got the sword. (Clearly they did not mount Shaw's Saint Joan.) 

Well, Mr Shatner, those two ladies also died a number of years ago. But the little school lives on, bringing the world of  Theatre into the lives of Montreal children - giving them the opportunity to develop emotionally, physically and artistically. And to develop what will probably become a life long addiction to the stage. (Once bitten by the bug, you are totally done for.)

It was 1933. Montrealers were in the throws of the Great Depression, when Violet Walters and Dorothy Davis decided Montreal children needed some exposure to the dramatic arts - Theatre.  The Montreal Children's Theatre School born when jobs and money were hard to come by. Under normal circumstances, persuading parents that movement and elocution classes and plays to act in, were important to their children's growth, wouldn't have been all that easy but to attempt it during a depression was quite a feat.  To succeed, an even bigger feat. 

And succeed they did. At one point, 400 hundred students were enrolled in the school in five different locations across the city.

Consider Montreal in 1933:

St Catherine was a two way street with lines of tram tracks stretched along it. 

The 1933-34 Montreal Canadiens season was the team's 25th season of play and the Canadians qualified for the playoffs, finishing third in their division.

Premier Robert Bourassa was born.

The Montreal Neurological Institute was but an embryo! A shell of a building with no working teams in it. Wilder Penfield was the young visionary whose brilliant and illustrious career stretched ahead of him.

As did that of The Montreal Children's Theatre  School. In 1933, it opened it's doors to 25 students and blossomed into what was to become a Saturday morning meeting place for miniature thespians to be, rich and not-so-rich alike. The first class was actually held in a basement.

Walters and Davis started the school, not necessarily to create young actors and actresses, but with the premise that good speech, self-esteem and confidence were primary goals – if a talent for theatre reared it's head then there was due encouragement.  And with that, the ladies ran the school until they were in their 90s. 

Davis, who studied at The Westminster Theatre School in London, England, probably came to love theatre through her mother who was also in theatre. Walters, too, had always loved theatre but was forbidden any involvement in it by her grandparents. Her encouragement also came from her mother and, thus, she studied dance and became a professional dancer.

Not too much has charged over the years.  The school, now called The Children's Theatre, is run by Erin Downey-Silcoff and Danusia Lapinski who are equally committed to the ideals set up so many years ago by the two ladies. Many of the skills that are overlooked in every day teaching but are fundamental to success in any profession are focused on. Learning a script forces children to read and to exercise good memory skills. They learn to listen and, importantly, how to work as a team. All good, solid basics to get ahead in the big world of commerce, industry and yes, theatre.

The Children's Theatre is celebrating 75 years of service to Montreal children on June 13th at Victoria Hall. If you, or anyone you know of, studied there please contact the school at 

Dorothy Davis and Violet Walters loved theatre and they loved children and what better gift could they leave behind them but an institution that continues to develop the young minds and spirits of our children? An institution that teaches them to trust themselves and dare to do.  

An institution that teaches respect for the Theatre and for those who tread the stage boards.

To The Childrens Theatre and the two ladies that started it all – thank you - here's to many more years of success - 'Merde-a-tous'!!