Another Openin’: The HAT Salutes The Rotary Show

The smiling faces on the sold-out crowd leaving the Highland Arts Theatre (HAT) last Friday night were proof positive they had been part of something truly wonderful. The HAT’s Tribute to The Rotary Show was an energetic and enthusiastic look back at the Rotary productions that were musical staples in Sydney from 1955 (The Red Mill) to 1988 (Kiss Me Kate), featuring mostly local casts, with the addition of a star or two from Toronto, who contributed greatly to the Broadway-like atmosphere of the week-long event.

Source: YouTube “Tribute to the Rotary Show”

 

The HAT production brought together a talented group of Guys & Dolls (and children) who danced up a storm and whose voices filled the old St. Andrew’s Church building with songs so familiar to many in the audience. The musical numbers (including songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Lerner & Lowe) were well executed by the lively cast, made up of the Rotary Core Ensemble,  the HAT Resident Company, the Hat Junior Resident Company and the Rotary Dance Corps (which seemed to thoroughly enjoy performing the choreography of Cynthia Vokey and Lesley MacLean.)

From the first notes of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” (Kiss Me Kate) featuring Cathy Butler and cast, it was obvious all were putting their hearts and souls into entertaining their audience.

There were some excellent solo performances, including Michele Stephens’ “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” (Showboat); Morgan Reid’s “Anything Goes” (Anything Goes); and a beautiful medley from Oklahoma, including “People Will Say We’re In Love,” by Matt Campbell and Holley Gillis and a rousing rendition of “The Farmer and the Cowman” (complete with gunshot) by Frank McKibbon, Carl Stapleton and Marilyn MacKinnon-MacDonald.

 

 

Other standouts:  “Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” (South Pacific) by MacKenzie Sechi, the slightly snide “Bosom Buddies” (Mame) by Joella Foulds and Lisa Penny; “Anything You Can Do” (Annie Get Your Gun) with Frank McKibbon and Emily O’Leary; “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music) by the children of the Junior Resident Company; and George MacKenzie and Dane Pederson’s version of “The Company Way” (How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying).

Wesley Colford’s “Ya Got Trouble” (The Music Man) was an unbelievable feat, requiring him to cavort his way around the stage, singing his warning to the townsfolk of the dangers of allowing a pool table in their community! All in all, it was an energetic and truly enjoyable presentation ending, of course, with the entire cast singing and dancing and letting us know “There’s No Business Like Show Business!” (Annie Get Your Gun).

The Rotary Veteran Ensemble — Gail Constable, Janice Crawley, Linda Dieltgens, Jule Martell, Eileen Forrester and Diane Humphrey — added a nice touch to the evening as they sang (in very good voice, I must say) such oldies but goodies as “Hello Young Lovers” from The King and I. Especially appealing was 90-year-old Louise “Honey” Mann’s rendition of “Good Night My Someone” which she had sung as Marion the librarian in The Music Man, one of seven Rotary Shows in which she had played a lead role.

 

The Tribute to the Rotary Show was an excellent compilation of numbers from the musical productions that, back in the day, became a rite of spring for Cape Bretoners. The Rotary shows brought locals to the theater in droves to watch their friends and neighbors, sons and daughters (not to mention husbands and wives) performing — some for the very first time — on stage. In a 1970 ATV show looking back at the legacy of the Rotary Shows, host Ann Terry reminisced with her audience about the important place they played in the musical, cultural and social life of Cape Breton.

After all, local live theater wasn’t that common at the time. Although Cape Bretoners had long been involved in vaudeville and minstrel shows (usually performed at the Lyceum) a full-fledged musical — The Red Mill — presented at St. Andrew’s Hall in 1955, with a cast of 50, a full orchestra, elaborate costumes and sparkling new stage scenery was absolutely something new and different.

Source: Stephen MacDonald’s YouTube Channel
 

Between 1955 and 1988, the Rotary Club staged 22 shows, including all those mentioned above plus others like Naughty Marietta, The Student Prince, Song of Norway, The Pajama Game, Carousel and My Fair Lady. Two shows were staged at St. Andrew’s Hall, followed by a move to the Vogue Theater in 1957, another move to Sydney Academy Auditorium in 1973 and then to The Savoy in 1978 for the final decade of shows.

The end of the Rotary shows (in 1988) was definitely the end of an era — one that had involved hundreds of singers, actors, dancers, musicians, directors, choreographers, stagehands, scenery painters, make-up artists, costume designers, stage managers and producers. The HAT tribute included video of old Rotary Show programs featuring the names of frequent lead actors like Cora Duchemin, Harold Laidlaw, Marjorie McGibbon, Mary Charlotte Reeves, Al Foster and Fred Scott (who appeared in 12 shows and directed three). Then there were the musicians, like Vivian Smith, Sylvia Dubinsky, Laura Scott, Richard Duchemin, Aubrey Boone and Marguerite MacDougall and others, truly too many to mention, who appeared regularly in supporting roles. All devoted hours to rehearsals, while working every day or attending to their many duties at home.

Click to enlarge

In the ATV special mentioned earlier, Ann Terry indicated that while the first shows were fairly well attended, the audience increased when Ian MacNeil, editor of The Cape Breton Post, became the producer in 1961 and began bringing in established singers, such as Bill Walker (The Music Man), Wally Koster (Oklahoma), Jan Rubes, (South Pacific) and others to join the local cast. MacNeil also established an Opening Night Extravaganza, inviting various TV personalities — Juliette, singer and host of her own show; Fred Davis, popular host of Front Page Challenge; and writer Pierre Burton, come to mind.

Very quickly, Opening Night led to a surge in popularity for the shows as “must sees” for locals, politicians, media types and visitors to the area. Terry herself, as host of the Women’s Morning Program on CJCB radio, was one of the shows’ greatest promoters and became an opening night star herself, as she interviewed dignitaries, politicians and others who discovered the Rotary Show as a chance to “see and be seen.” In fact, according to Terry, some celebrities would call MacNeil wanting to be invited! It wasn’t unusual for people to park their cars along Charlotte Street and listen to the CJCB broadcast of the opening night activities. Nor was it unusual, according to Terry, for patrons to bring their radios into the theater for the same reason.

So it was certainly time to acknowledge and celebrate the Rotary Club’s wonderful contribution to local theater and The Highland Arts Theatre deserves great credit for doing so, especially considering the time and energy involved. Seeing so many new faces involved in the production indicates the local talent, always in evidence in Cape Breton, is still out there. It seems to be in the genes.  We can no doubt look forward to a continuation of what the Rotary Club began 63 years ago!

 

 

Dolores Campbell

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

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