The Gravenhurst Opera House officially opened on March 12, 1901, and cost twice the estimated budget to build. Referred to by many as Mickle’s folly, after staunch supporter and then mayor Charles Mickle, it has survived one depression, two world wars and the indignity of a wrecking ball.
In February 1899, the Gravenhurst town council proclaimed that a town hall was needed for the thriving settlement. Plans for the hall were quickly halted, however, when the $3,500 loan obtained for construction was embezzled by town clerk Henry Oaten. Undaunted, Gravenhurst secured a $10,000 loan the following year, half to be used for sidewalk and street improvements and the remainder for the building itself. In August 1900, construction began.
By February 1901, reports began to surface that the council had laid out close to $9,000 for the new town hall/opera house, leaving little cash for sidewalk and street improvements. Fortunately, the impressiveness of the towering structure kept most eyes skyward. On opening night, March 12, 1901, more than 400 townspeople packed the second-floor auditorium to see The Days of the Year. Three weeks later, the first town council meeting was held in the main-floor hall, a practice that continued for 67 years.
Over the years, the Gravenhurst Opera House has served a variety of functions, housing everything from trimonthly criminal court proceedings to war rallies, bingos and flower shows, but theatre productions have, and continue to be, the main attraction. In the years prior to World War I, Gravenhurst was on the tour circuit for travelling stock companies from both Canada and the United States. Repertoire companies would often present several productions along with vaudeville performances for between 25 and 50 cents during their three- to four-night runs. Publicity for the Boyer-Vincent Company’s visit in October 1914 promised “all attractions are presented complete in every detail with special scenery and electrical effects. The five refined vaudeville specialties between acts are assured to be worth the price of admission alone.”
In 1934, John Holden, a Toronto actor with a dream of reviving summer stock theatre in Canada, brought his Good Companions Theatre Company to Gravenhurst’s Opera House. Holden commented at the time that “for a town of its size, I consider your opera house the finest in Ontario.” When Holden’s Victory Hall headquarters in nearby Bala burnt down in the 1940s, the Gravenhurst Opera House became the oldest surviving venue for professional summer theatre in all of Canada. Gravenhurst’s is, in fact, one of only four heritage opera houses still operational in Ontario.
For eight consecutive summers, from 1948 through 1955, the Straw Hat Players performed 62 different productions at the opera house. Alumni include many of Canada’s most talented performers, including Kate Reid, Ted Follows, Charmion King, Barbara Hamilton, Araby Lockhart and Donald Sutherland. During this time, Robertson Davies wrote and directed two original plays at the opera house, Fortune My Foe in 1950 and At My Heart’s Core in 1951.
Twice in its history, the opera house has faced possible closure. For 17 years, from 1950 to 1967, the town council debated whether the building should be torn down and replaced by a community centre. On December 4, 1967, the question was taken to the taxpayers, and they saved it from the wrecking ball. The town had to rally again in February 1993 when the Ministry of Labour padlocked and sealed the front doors for safety reasons. Launching fundraising campaigns and lobbying Queen’s Park for support, townspeople managed to secure government funding and a $3 million restoration began in February of the following year. On February 4, 1995, the Gravenhurst Opera House reopened its doors to the strings of the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra.
Today, this heritage theatre boasts state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems housed beside original pieces including the beautiful fleur-de-lis patterned stained glass windows and the antique brass chandeliers imported from France at the then-cost of $50 each.
This summer will mark the third season of the annual Straw Hat Festival, a summer-long event that brings a series of professional music, comedy and drama to the opera house. The highlight of this year’s festival will be Scenes from My Dock, a musical based on the history of Muskoka written by Vince “The Weekend Guy” Grittani. Ross Carlin, manager and artistic director of the Op, hopes that the play will become an annual event similar to P.E.I.’s musical Anne of Green Gables. Carlin also commissioned a coffee table book: The Many Stages of Our Lives (Gravenhurst Opera House, 2001, $39.95) by Joe Stratford about the top 100 events in the opera house’s history.
For a century, the Grand Old Lady of Gravenhurst continues to be one of Muskoka’s most cherished establishments.—Donna Grieves