By Brenda Hazlewood (from the files of Harry Barrett, The Port Dover Maple Leaf and the memories of many)
The year was 1980 and three aging actors walked onto the stage of the Old Town Hall Theatre. They began to reminisce about the early days of their careers, half-convinced that they could bring back that time when they were all the kings and queens of entertainment.
The stage lights come up and the audience is transported back to that era of bawdy music and slapstick comedy . . . the days of Vaudeville.
The actors playing those characters were hired by a new theatre company in Port Dover, known then as the Carpet Bag Players. The presentation was The Vaudevillians, by Peter Colley and Heinar Piller. And no more fitting a play could have been chosen for the first season of what was to become Lighthouse Festival Theatre.
In the Beginning
In 1904, the Port Dover Village Council, headed by Reeve James Ross, began construction of the Town Hall, at the corner of Main and Market Streets. The landmark, three-storey building was designed with stores on the ground-level and a 300-seat town hall auditorium and council chambers above.
Construction was completed in 1906 (when the famous clock was installed in the tower), at a total cost of $11,000 . . . $3,000 over the original estimate. But the additional cost was worth every penny as the facility truly was to become the social, business and community centre of the town, for decades to follow.
The Town Centre from 1905 through the 1950s
It is believed that the first show produced by local artists on the Town Hall stage was a musical which opened on Wednesday, February 1, 1905.
Over the years that followed, audiences were treated to a wide variety of “acts” ranging from Soap Shows and cure-all hucksters to professional traveling troupes such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Marks Brothers Bell Ringers to locally produced musical and theatrical productions.
The Town Hall became part of the Canadian/American Vaudeville Circuit and many of these performers stayed on to work in town before moving off to the next show stop.
The first professional stage play is believed to have been produced in the winter of 1908 by Lidney H. McQueen.
During this time, the Town Hall was also used for any community event or gathering requiring an auditorium, including political elections and results reporting, retirement parties for public servants, the Legion Brass Band’s public recitals and fashion shows organized by local church groups.
In 1908, the New Years Eve dance was held in the Town Hall auditorium. Tickets were 50 cents — 10 cents for ladies without escorts.
The Port Dover Horticultural Society held their annual flower shows in the Town Hall. The September 1914 show boasted more than 300 exhibitors.
During World War II, the Port Dover Red Cross met daily to knit and sew in contribution to the war effort. Hundreds of gallons of jam were made and shipped to Great Britain to feed town children, victims of bomb raids on their towns and villages. It is said that local homemaker, Ethel Steele, directed more plays on the Town Hall stage than anyone else. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she donated proceeds from her midwinter shows to local charities and community causes. Ethel was so much a part of live theatre in Port Dover that it is believed her ghost lives in the building to this day. A photo of her hangs in the second floor lobby, watching over the events of today.
Native Poet Pauline Johnson also gave reading of her poems in the Town Hall.
During the 50s, the Port Dover Lions Club staged their annual Variety Shows in the theatre, under the direction of Allan Wicker.
It is believed that the final stage show before the old Town Hall went dark was Blithe Spirit, produced by Frank Martin of Brantford.
A Time of Darkness
In 1958, the Town Hall stage curtain was removed and taken to the newly built auditorium in Port Dover Public School. It was a sign of the times. The advent of television, the popularity and availability of movies and the greater ease of travel had resulted in Vaudeville’s demise. And newer, more modern facilities were available for community events and gatherings. During the late 50s, 60s and 70s, the old Town Hall became nothing more than storage space for the municipality and fell into disrepair — forgotten and ignored.
A New Beginning:
In the late 70s, Sara Staysa, Artistic Director of the Carpet Bag Theatre Company of Brantford, had been looking for a facility out of which to operate the company. A frequent visitor to Port Dover, Sara knew of the old Town Hall building and began making inquiries regarding the feasibility of reopening the run-down auditorium for professional summer stock theatre.
The community rallied behind Sara and her dream. Carlos Ventin contacted an engineer who inspected the facility and determined that the only major structural deficiency was the roof — it needed to be reinforced.
In 1979, a team of volunteers, including Carlos, Don Simpson, Harry Barrett, Bill Gunn and George McCloy, oversaw the custom construction of two new ceiling beams. These were hoisted to the second storey level by several burly men, brought in through the theatre windows and installed, meeting engineering approval.
The City of Nanticoke came up with $160,000 for the reconstruction project and members of the community worked tirelessly, around the clock, completing the remainder of the renovations in time for the opening on June 18, 1980. Those who were there recall that volunteers were still painting the balcony and hand rails an hour before the curtain went up.
The auditorium still had the original bench seating, where four people sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a wooden bench, throughout entire performances. The orchestra section had stackable orange chairs which could be removed when floor space was required.
But having a theatre space which met building codes was not enough to bring the dream of live theatre to life in Port Dover. Professional theatre productions cost money.
Ms. Staysa lobbied foundations and corporations for funding for that first season. Founding sponsors included The Audrey S. Hellyer Foundation, S.C. Johnson, American Can, Texaco, Simcoe Leaf Tobacco, Thomas A. Ivey and Sons, Dover Mills Heritage Association and Gould Outdoor Advertising. Volunteers Deb Porter and Sharon Cairns handled the marketing to bring groups to the performances.
The first season line-up was The Vaudevillians, Gypsy, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Private Lives. Budget for that 1980 season was $80,000. They ended with a $27,000 deficit, but they had proved that the dream could become a reality.
The Birth of Lighthouse Festival Theatre
That first production by the Carpet Bag Players was, most appropriately, The Vaudevillians. While the characters in the play wonder if they can revive Vaudeville, the actors themselves hoped to resurrect live theatre in Port Dover.
To avoid confusion with the Brantford Company, the group incorporated under the name Lighthouse Festival Theatre in 1981.
The Building — a Series of Renovations
From the beginning, Port Dover and the City of Nanticoke owned the building. A Committee of Council (the Town Hall Management Committee) oversaw everything that went on in the facility as well as the maintenance. Jack Matham, Charles Ivey and Sonny Lowe sat on that committee.
Lighthouse Festival Theatre paid Council $100 for each day they used the building. Council paid 80% of that back to Lighthouse for their management of the facility. (This arrangement continued until Lighthouse purchased the building in January of 1999.)
In 1981, Council, through a “lot levy” of Port Dover land developers, undertook approximately $50,000 in further renovations. A heating and air-conditioning system was installed as well as carpeting and new roofing and wiring. Again, much of the work was done by the tireless volunteers of the community.
Throughout the years, the renovations have always attempted to preserve the heritage of the building as much as possible, such as maintaining the pressed embossed tin ceiling, oak beams, hardwood floor and original stage. Because of this attention to historical significance, in 1983 the Town Hall was designated as an Historical Building.
In 1984, renovations were once again undertaken — this time, in the upper lobby. The Ventin Group and Walter Moffatt were instrumental in preparing the necessary architectural drawings. Volunteers and their families who worked on the construction included Chuck Renaud, Rick and Cathy Crosby, Bill Robinson and Lawrence Miller. And of course, staff members joined the volunteers, each taking a turn with a paint brush or hammer.
In 1987, Lighthouse Festival Theatre almost closed for financial reasons. Boards Members met to decide which bills would be paid and which would be deferred. So, General manager, Jennifer Chittham and Artistic Director, Simon Johnston approached the City, the Region, the community and the Province, looking for financial assistance. It was at this time that Simon decided on an all-Canadian mandate for LFT. Almost overnight, funding from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council tripled. Lighthouse was once again on its financial feet and new life was breathed into professional theatre in Port Dover and Southwestern Ontario.
During that same time frame, the original bench seating was replaced with folding theatre seats, donated by another theatre. Lighthouse sold the old benches to the public and paid for the transportation and installation of the new seats on risers which were built to accommodate the new seating.
Until 1994, the building next to Lighthouse Theatre, on Market Street, was the fire hall. The upper level housed the firemen’s quarters, Council Chambers and the office of the Police Chief.
With the completion of a new fire hall in Port Dover, LFT moved its offices into the first floor of the old fire hall building. The following year, the upstair level was renovated and Lighthouse moved their offices upstairs, making room for the Port Dover Board of Trade and the theatre Box Office on the first floor.
Late in 1996, the theatre building was closed once again — this time due to fire code regulations. Reopening the doors would require the installation of a $70,000 sprinkler system. Already $63,000 in debt, the small, not-for-profit theatre felt they just could not take on this additional expense. And, after all, the building still belonged to the City.
Determined that this theatre, which was once again the centre of activity in Port Dover, not be allowed to remain closed and return to cobwebs and dust, Tony Schneider stood up at a public meeting and pledged $10,000 toward the required renovations, challenging others to do the same. Dorothy Blake met that challenge with another $10,000 and personally called on friends and neighbours to do their part. Soon people were showing up at the theatre office to make their donations.
With a good deal of the finances raised, Lighthouse negotiated with the City of Nanticoke to have the sprinkler system installed, lending the theatre the needed money which the theatre would repay. The City was convinced of the importance of the theatre to the community and of the community’s dedication to ensuring repayment of the loan. Carlos Ventin and Walter Moffat undertook the project and in April of 1997, Lighthouse once again opened their doors. Through the continued support of local businesses, service groups and community-minded individuals, the entire loan for the sprinkler system was repaid to the City in less than two years.
In 1999, the City of Nanticoke announced its intention to sell the old Town Hall building, including the three store fronts on Main Street. Lighthouse entered into discussions with the City and purchased the old Town Hall for the cost of the sprinkler system for which LFT had raised the funding, on the condition that, if Lighthouse should ever decide to sell the building, the City has the first opportunity to purchase it back for the same amount.
Now that the building was its own, LFT was ready to renovate once again, in 2000. Fundraising began and, with financial assistance from the Trillium Foundation, S.C. Johnson, the Port Dover Lions Club, The Ventin Group, Reid and Deleye, the Lighthouse Volunteer Committee and Dorothy Blake, an elevator to the theatre level was installed and the new lobby was built.
The new lobby area had been occupied by stores since the Town Hall was built. Most recently it had been a hardware store, owned by the Lawrences and the Barkers and the Schiltzes before that.
The old wall coverings were removed in preparation for new drywall installation. But renovations came to a halt when the workers found what was hidden beneath the old wall — beautiful old brickwork. The decision was made to restore the brick, rather than cover it. The result was the current lobby walls which provide a stunning backdrop for the works of local artists in the theatre gallery. A few of the old bricks were missing. But replacements were found in the Administrative Director, Helen Wagenaar’s garage.
To celebrate the old Town Hall building’s 100th anniversary in 2003, Lighthouse decided to replace the old theatre seats with new seating. The proposed seating would provide additional support and leg room for patrons while increasing the theatre capacity by about 40 seats. In order to raise the $100,000 required to pay for the new seats, Lighthouse launched the Take a Seat campaign, inviting individuals and corporations to sponsor seats and rows. Once again, the community, companies and service clubs rallied behind the cause and most of the seats were sponsored by the time the 2004 Season opened.
The Lighthouse Festival Theatre Company
In 1989, when it appeared that Lighthouse would most certainly suffer financial ruin, Artistic Director, Simon Johnston, established an all-Canadian mandate, with an emphasis on and commitment to new play development. Since that time, LFT has presented 24 World Premieres and many subsequent productions of new Canadian scripts.
In 1998, Artistic Director Robert More took new play development at Lighthouse a step further by introducing the Playwrights’ Festival. Each September, during the one week festival, new plays by Canadian playwrights were workshopped, critiqued, rewritten and given public reading with discussions following. This process brings the new works another step closer to the stage. Under the direction of Artistic Director Chris McHarge, the festival was moved to February. More than 30 new plays have been part of LFT’s Playwrights’ Festival, 10 of which have gone on to become main stage productions.
LFT now mounts four regular season productions each summer, from May through August, and has expanded the season to include a fifth show, or ‘Encore Presentation’ in September. Plays are typically comedies and musicals, although there may be ‘one for the soul’. In recent years 400 Kilometres, A Stranger in our House, and Firehave dealt with relevant social and cutlural issues that reflect the lives of Canadians. 400 Kilometres, by celebrated Native playwright Drew Hayden Taylor told the story of a Native woman raised by Caucasion parents reconnecting with her cultural heritage. Stranger focused on a family coping with their father/husband’s stroke and the adjustments they have to make in order to accomodate his new behaviour. In Fire, the relationships between celebrity, religion, and politics were examined in a story based on the lives of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart. All three shows received critical acclaim and were popular with audiences.
Prior to 2003, a series of plays known as the Norfolk Series were comissioned, and told stories about the community. Embodying the very essence of home-grown Canadian theatre, the Norfolk Series celebrates the folklore, history and prominent personalities that have shaped and changed life in this area.
Commissioned by Lighthouse in 1988, Abigail and the Gold Medal, by Patrick Young, recounted the heart-warming saga of Long Point heroine, Abigail Becker.
Summer Garden, by Robert More (commissioned in 1990) told the story of Summer Garden founder Don Ivey, who fulfilled a dream by building his famous dance pavilion on the beach.
The third in the Norfolk Series, The Steamer Atlantic, by Simon Johnston, was a sweeping epic based on the tragic sinking, in 1852, of a passenger steamship, off the shores of Long Point.
In 2002, Lighthouse produced Wooden Boats and Iron Men, by Robert More and Bruce Milner, telling the stories of the men and women who lived, worked and died on and beside the waters of Lake Erie.
The next in the Norfolk Series is being written by current Artistic Director, Derek Ritschel for Lighthouse Theatre’s 2012 Main Stage Season. A world premiere musical “Rum Runners” with Steve Thomas as co- author and musical director. This musical dances, sings and tells the tale of how Port Dover was part of some very exciting ‘midnight runs’ during the days of Rum Running.
Lighthouse and the Community Today
Just as it was in the early 1900s, the theatre is open “all year ’round” for a variety of events, including concerts, public meetings, community fund raisers, dance recitals, workshops, band rehearsals and classes.
In cooperation with the Norfolk Arts Centre, the Lighthouse Gallery presents the works of local artists, throughout the year, in the theatre lobby. Each month, the works of a different artist are on display for viewing and purchase.
Port Dover Composite School uses Lighthouse Theatre facilities for the Theatre Arts Cooperative program. Daily classes and productions are held in the theatre and students benefit from the instruction of professionals in all aspects of theatrical production, including technical.
Lighthouse Festival Theatre has a strong summer youth program, providing professional instruction for those aged 8 through 11 (in the Junior Company) and those 12 through 18 years (in the Young Company). Many graduates of this program have gone on to study theatre arts, post-secondarily and some have continued to professional careers in theatre. In addition, LFT holds a Young Playwrights’ Competition. Youth programming has also been expanded to include a day camp during March Break.
In 2002, Lighthouse mounted their first Spring Musical – a community theatre presentation involving local amateurs with the assistance of theatre professionals. The goal was twofold . . . to bring theatre to the community and to bring the community to theatre. That first show wasFootloose. In 2003, LFT presented Jesus Christ Superstar and in 2004, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In 2011, current Artistic Director, Derek Ritschel, brought the community show back to the LFT stage with the comedy Rumors, by Neil Simon.
Since its inception, Lighthouse has had a profound influence on this area. Annually, more than 40,000 people now attend events at Lighthouse Theatre. In addition to enriching the cultural fabric of Norfolk and beyond, Lighthouse bolsters the local economy, drawing tourists from out of town who then dine, shop and stay over in the community.
More importantly, Lighthouse contributes to the well-being of Canadian society as a whole.
“Not many major theatres in Canada are doing home-grown work. New Canadian plays are risky, both artistically and financially, so it is up to the regional theatres to take up the challenge of producing Canadian work . . . Lighthouse contributes to the soul of Haldimand, Norfolk and Canada.” Christine Boyko, Professor, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario
And so the story continues . . . a story of a Town Hall built more than 100 years ago, and a theatre company who made that building its home. But more importantly, it is the story of a community that found its centre — its very heart — in that old Town Hall. A community that built her, shored up her walls and supported her and the theatre she housed when that support was needed the most. Congratulations — to you all.
Past Artistic Directors
Sara Staysa 1980 – 1981
Greg Brown 1981 – 1984
Scott Williamson 1985 – 1987 (General Manager)
Sandy MacDonald 1984 – 1986
Simon Johnston 1988 – 1994
Robert More 1994 – 2003
Simon Joynes 2004
Chris McHarge 2005 – 2010
Derek Ritschel 2011 – present