Centrepiece of Cranbrook culture

Cranbrook Community Theatre celebrates 40 years as stewards of the venerable Studio Stage Door

Clockwise from top right: Melodie Hull performs a monologue from the play “Talking With …”

Clockwise from top right: Melodie Hull performs a monologue from the play “Talking With …”

A key part of Cranbrook’s cultural identity marked its 40th anniversary at a special ceremony last week.

Guests and members of Cranbrook Community Theatre gathered Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Studio Stage Door, the building the group saved 40 years ago, and which they have been stewards of ever since.

Kevin Higgins gave some introductory comments. He told how 40 years ago, a group that included Bud Abbott, Cornel Sawchuk and Phil Foster convinced the City to not bulldoze the old Masonic Lodge. Cranbrook Community Theatre (CCT) thus becoming stewards of the building, and have been serving in that role for 40 years.

“Looking after a building hasn’t been all sunshine and roses,” Higgins said. “But 40 years after the initial agreement, the partners are still working together. We’re here to celebrate a great working relationship between local government and volunteering citizens as it continues to work.”

Melodie Hull serving as MC, and Lorraine Harvey, longtime CCT board member and stage manager, reflected “this huge part of Cranbrook’s cultural heritage and history, from 1974 to 2014.”

Bud Abbott gave a thumbnail history of the last 40 years, starting from CCT’s activities in the 1960s.

“Our group was quite active, even competitive, rehearsing at home, performing wherever possible, usually in auditoriums,” Abbott said. “Costumes and props were stored whenever possible. But it was always a problem — where to perform and where to store our stuff.

“Then, in the early 1970s, the Masons put their building on 11th Avenue South on the market. Ralph Trozzo, owner of the Mount Baker, wanted to buy the building and tear it down to enhance parking.

“We approached Ralph Trozzo,” Abbott said, “who agreed to let us have the building for nothing provided we remove it from the premises.”

The group then approached the City of Cranbrook, who agreed to buy it on the group’s behalf, giving them a five-year lease for a dollar a year, “which we managed to raise,” Abbott said.

The group had no idea what they were taking on, he said. To both present plays and to take care of the building — “and the conflict between the two functions would trouble us for many years to come.”

Then began the long history of theatrical renovations, which Abbott recounted. A stage was initially built, then risers in 1977 (masterminded by Garry Anderson), the original seats (since replaced) came from an old movie theatre in Fernie. Many solutions were attempted at solving the problem of getting actors to the stage without involving the audience, including the use of a drawbridge at one point, and a “dicy” circular staircase from the green room on the ground floor. Finally, the present day tunnel was built, allowing actors to reach the stage without going through the audience.

“Over the years, we’ve spent an enormous amount on money renovating this building,” Abbott said. “Someone estimated $500,000, which is more than the City paid for it. I’m sure Mayor and Council appreciate having such a helpful lessee.”

Terry Miller took the stage to thank all the people who’ve worked behind the scenes and the those who’ve served as building managers. These include Harriet Pollock, Steve Lungal, Elvin Townsend, Kossene Foster and Rick and Marianne Smith. “We’ve been fortunate to have really good people here who really care about this building, and they’ve all left their mark.”

Miller read out greetings sent by Brad Price, who built the tunnel to the stage, and Phil and Maggie Foster, who were part of the group who helped save the building.

Mayor Wayne Stetski also spoke, citing a list of top cultural phenomena and events of 1974, and mentioning how many of those had faded into the pages of history. “Yet this relationship (between CCT and the City of Cranbrook) has endured,” he said.

CCT actors then performed tableaux of various plays from CCT’s oeuvre: Tracy McGuire did a monologue from “Enchanted April,” Terry Miller and Peter Schalk performed at scene from “Run For Your Wife,” Melodie Hull did a monologue from “Talking With …” and Bud Abbott performed a piece made famous byStanley Holloway — “The Lion and Albert (otherwise known as Albert and the Lion).”

The Little Jazz Orchestra then performed a jazz set. Following that, they performed underscore music while a slide show played of posters and photographs of all the plays Cranbrook Community Theatre has presented over the past 40 years — more than 80 of them, beginning with CCT’s first production at the Studio Stage Door, the complex musical “Canterbury Tales,” directed by David Stock.