Another summer dawns warm and pleasant…or stiflingly hot and humid, depending on your point of view. So far in the Toronto area we have had several days of record-breaking heat, interspersed with massive thunderstorms and a tornado warning in nearby Hamilton. Still, it’s summer!
Since the 1980’s this time of year has usually found me working in what is known as Summer Stock Theatre. Once called the Straw Hat circuit and plentiful all across the country, many of these theatres eventually fell prey to television, video and more recently the Internet. It seems to be a tougher job every year to get people out of their cottages, away from other forms of entertainment, and into one of the charming little theatres that still dot our country, mostly in rural areas.
Many of these theatres are situated in small opera houses, under large tents or in converted barns. In fact ever since Mickey and Judy exclaimed, “Let’s put on a show! My dad’s got a barn,” the combination of barns and theatre has formed an integral part of the summer experience.
What sets barn theatres apart from other venues is that they are invariably situated in a bucolic setting, far from the city, surrounded by peace and tranquility. The downside is they often smell of former occupants, and are usually not air-conditioned.
The Red Barn Theatre in Ontario was known as the oldest summer theatre in Canada. Its rafters rang with the memory of all the entertainers who had performed there, from Harry Belafonte to Jason Robards to Wayne and Shuster. My first performance there was as part of the Second City comedy show, and many a hot, sweaty evening was subsequently spent on that stage, hoping we’d complete our performance before the raccoons dropped any surprises on us from the rafters (which on several occasions, they did).
The final show I did there was the classic Canadian musical, Anne Of Green Gables. We had a stellar cast, a terrific band, beautiful costumes shipped in from the Charlottetown Festival…and 45-degree temperatures on the stage. Stage lights tend to add a good 10 degrees to the ambient temperature, and mixed with that summer’s overwhelming heat and the actors’ heavy costumes, people were passing out long before we got to the Act One finale, “Ice Cream.”
Oh, the “Ice Cream” song. At the end of the song our heroine Anne accidentally gets her delicious ice cream cone mashed against the front of her dress. Well, you can’t use real ice cream on stage, as it would melt too quickly, so usually shaving cream is substituted. Our production used whipped cream instead.
The management of the theatre at that time was what could charitably be described as “thrifty,” and they had no intention of spending any money to dry clean the costumes during our entire summer run. Eight shows a week for ten weeks, Anne had whipped cream spread across her wool dress, then quickly wiped off with a wet towel during intermission.
As anyone who has ever left cream out in the sun can attest, heat is not its friend. The mixture of dairy product, intense heat and lack of cleaning eventually caused our beloved Anne to…let’s just say her presence was felt long before she walked onstage.
During one performance as she danced across the stage in her aromatic outfit, I heard a voice in the front row plaintively cry, “Oh my god, what’s that smell?” I wanted to shout out, “Canadian theatre!”
The indignities didn’t stop there. The thrifty management decided to save the cost of hiring a set designer, so they took the plans from another production and scaled down the two-storey set to fit on their stage. It was a wonderful cost-saving measure, except they forgot to tell the carpenters of this plan so they built it full size. Anne’s second-storey bedroom was so high in the air that when she stood up her beautiful red hair was six inches from those hot stage lights.
I can’t say for sure but I’m fairly certain there has never been another production of this show where the local townsfolk had to extinguish Anne’s wig. For a brief moment we actually hoped that the raccoons would pay us an early visit.
The success of ANNE allowed the theatre to finally, after 50 years, install air conditioning. Sadly, this iconic theatre was consumed by fire two years ago, and the beautiful Red Barn Theatre was lost forever.
This summer I’m fortunate to have 2 of my musicals on the road. BOARDWALK! The Doo Wop Show, is in Brockville, Ontario in July, and THE ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN will be bringing Irish music and comedy to The Piggery, a beautiful barn theatre in North Hatley, Quebec, in August. Happily, both venues are air-conditioned.
And I promise to clean the costumes.