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Then and Now: Looking back at STC’s beginnings nearly a half-century ago

A book about the Sudbury theatre company is coming out next month

Everyone was very nervous behind the scenes when Sudbury Theatre Centre's first production opened at the Inco Club on Frood Road Oct. 16, 1972. 

They crossed their fingers that their hard work over the past year would result in a flawless evening and the new seats wouldn't collapse.

The daughter of one of the founders remembered volunteering the day of the opening. 

"We were all helping out and they were setting up the seating. We went for lunch into the room next door. Then, all of a sudden there was this colossal boom. The whole back row fell down. We were just so lucky nobody was injured. I just remember thinking, as a kid, oh my God!"

The seats came courtesy of the old Capitol Theatre in Owen Sound.

Actor Bruce Bell, who worked as a backstage apprentice during the 1972-73 season, said, "What I remember most about that opening night, besides the fact the seats held in place (thankfully), was the glamorous opening night party filled with actors from Toronto, city councillors, and all the movers and shakers in Sudbury then.

"It was amazing how (artistic director) Tony Lloyd managed in a few short weeks to build a theatre from the ground up, hire the actors, stage crew, then direct a play, and have it all go smoothly by the time the curtain finally went up on opening night." 

Both the audience and critics lavished praise on the transformation of the auditorium into a cozy theatre. Architect Bernard T. Barbeau designed and transformed it into an attractive, comfortable and intimate theatre. Barbeau would later go on to do the original design for STC’s theatre on Shaughnessy Street.  

The season opener, "The Little Hut," a British comedy directed by Lloyd, received a standing ovation from an enthusiastic sold-out audience who had paid $4 for their tickets.

But reviewer David L Erickson didn't like the play, calling it "a petty, bourgeois, mediocre play.” 

The play may not be remembered as great theatre, but it was a memorable evening. It was a dream come true. And no one got hurt.

The original dreamers who believed professional theatre would thrive in a "beer and bingo" town are remembered as the "Fabulous Five”: Bill Hart, Bob Remnant, Peg Roberts and Carolyn Fouriezos and Sonja Dunn.

Hart was a Canadian television pioneer who spent a decade at Toronto's CFTO-TV. He became head of program production at CKSO-TV in 1964, and later was the founder of Thorneloe University's theatre program. He died Dec. 1, 2004 at age 78.  

"If a play doesn't move you, it is a waste of time to put on," Hart told Northern Life in 1980.

Remnant was a drama force at the four Sudbury secondary schools where he taught during his career. Remnant passed away July 16, 2013.

Peg Roberts was active in the Sudbury Little Theatre Guild as a director, producer, and stage manager in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1966 to 1970, she was the representative for the northeast on the Ontario Arts Council theatre study committee. It is during this time, the idea of establishing a professional theatre company in Sudbury started to develop. 

Fouriezos was secretary of the founding board of directors. The mother of five children wrote about the arts for Northern Life and The Sudbury Star. She also wrote book reviews for CBC Radio. She passed away in 2000.

Dunn, poet, storyteller, author, performer, television producer, drama specialist and teacher, is the only member of the Fabulous Five still living. 

The Fabulous Five sought a founding president who was a respected business and community leader. They approached Morey Speigel, owner of ACME Construction.

"He guaranteed the bank account using his own line of credit. He was totally committed," remembered his nephew, Mitch Speigel.

The letters of patent incorporating Sudbury Theatre Centre were issued by the Province of Ontario through the Minister of Financial and Commercial Affairs Sept. 14, 1971.

To mark this occasion 50 years ago, retired educator and theatre writer and director Judi Straughan asked me to help her write a book about the STC.

 “A Theatre in Five Acts: Fifty Years of Sudbury Theatre Centre" will be launched Tuesday, Sept. 14 at the STC. 

Guests can arrive from 6:30 p.m. to purchase or pick up pre-ordered copies. There will be an opportunity to have books signed, memorabilia displays and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. 

Reservations are needed to attend a presentation at 7:30 p.m. in the theatre auditorium in order to maintain COVID-19 protocols.

The book can be reserved now on the STC website sudburytheatre.com for $30 until Sept. 14.  

Beginning Sept. 15, copies will be available for $35 at Sudbury Paint and Framing on Elgin Street as well as at the STC box office and website.  

All proceeds from the book go to support the theatre centre.

Vicki Gilhula is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.