40 Years of Memories – Valerie Russell

Valerie Russell gave this speech at the 40th Anniversary Gala in 2017.

Valerie Russell, current Vice President of Northumberland Players

Forty years ago right around now a small number of Cobourg folk were putting on Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite for the only amateur theatre group in town: The Cobourg Opera and Drama Guild. The Guild was not very active, their board was elderly and their energy was failing. Our younger group was having a great time putting on this very funny show, and we wanted to do more. We wanted to produce our own plays. So, when Plaza Suite closed, we met at Gail Malenfant’s home, invited a few enthusiastic friends to join us, and over beer and Chinese food Northumberland Players was born.

A few of these founding members are here this evening – John Winkworth, Gail Malenfant, David and Nancy Lester, and me. And we fondly remember Dugald Mac Donald, Al Blair, and my dad Ron Templer. The name Northumberland Players was decided at that meeting and the NP logo was designed by original member Dan Goldring.

This fledgling company produced their first show a few months later performing Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water. Directed by Gail Malenfant, the rest of us were either in it, built it, or canvassed our family and friends for $20 to pay for it. And it was good. And we were a hit.

Our mission was simply to provide good community theatre a few times a year…which we did: Arsenic and Old Lace, Harvey and Vanities soon followed. Due to the diligence and foresight of our chairman Dugald Mac Donald, and our founding treasurer Stewart Cunningham we became incorporated in 1977. We had a board, we were gathering members and we needed money – grants were available and with incorporation we stood in good stead to apply, and we did.

We grew from building sets in my dad’s barn and borrowed garages and workshops to renting bigger and better spaces as our productions, set requirements, and collection of flats grew. It would be good to mention here a guy named Ken Halligan, one of the first and best set builders. A woodshop teacher by profession, Ken joined the Players because of his love of theatre and because he had a skill we could definitely use.  The first Best Western stage was designed and built by Ken and the little square stools still used on the third floor were Ken’s handiwork. Halligan Hall (the third floor rehearsal space) was named for him.

The technical side of every show was designed and hung by Al Blair. He loved a party and the Blair room on the second floor is named for him. There were countless times when at the end of a rehearsal we would be leaving the high school gym or the Best Western and Al would be there (with his buddy Art Middleton), on top of a ladder hanging lights until sometime way into the night… he would work until the design was done. Al was a dedicated, hard working member of the Players from 1976 until he passed away. Al was an electrician at Westinghouse and brought his love of theatre and electrical skills to the Players company.

Al Blair, seen here as the Stage Manager for My Fair Lady in the 1983-1984 season.

Our first musical was Dames at Sea directed by Pat Dawson through a grant from Theatre Ontario, and produced by Nancy Lester and me. We both had infant sons and rehearsals at Burnham school included a playpen with babies and two nursing mothers. Musicals then were accompanied by a piano and drum kit or small combos, and it was during the first time production of Cabaret in 1979-80 that Al Blair said he had heard about a guy who had just moved to town, who liked to play the piano and that he has asked him to come out and play the show. Brad Halls came to the Players then and for the next 20 years accompanied, was music director, or acted in almost every Players musical production.

Eventually, (I think it was for the first Music Man production), Roly White joined us and throughout the 80’s and 90’s members of the Cobourg Concert band, conducted by Roly were our orchestra.

Roly White with the pit band of My Fair Lady in the 1983-1984 season.

At this time I should mention Muriel White. Since very early on Muriel was the hair and makeup designer for every show. She was Roly’s wife, and a hair dresser by trade. Muriel was always so willing, so pleasant and was especially fabulous at period hair designs. Muriel could produce finger waves like no other. She has just finished working on the production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and I am sure will agree to any suggestion of another production. (Muriel White sadly passed away in 2019.)

The Players costumes were housed in the Henley Arcade. My Mom, Verna Templer, was the costume co-ordinator for years and along with Giselle Butcher, Norma Schultz, Nancy Kerr, Barb Horsecroft and Barbara Jean Taylor, these women worked weekly keeping costumes in repair and renting whenever there was a need. The space was cold. My mom would actually go in on a Sunday evening and turn the heat on a bit so that the frost would be off the windows by Monday morning. They climbed two flights of rickety stairs to the work room and ran up and down them all morning looking after directors, costumers or locals who wanted to rent a costume. AND there was no bathroom! The beautiful facility on Campbell St. that now houses their amazing collection of costumes is a far cry from our early beginnings. Lynne Templer (Verna’s daughter) now heads the Costume House crew.)

Suzanne Mess, also came to the Players via Al Blair. A professional costumer with the Canadian Opera Company, the New York Opera Company and CBC, Suzanne moved home to Cobourg when she retired  (and met Al Blair) …of course she was quickly snapped up…I have had the privilege to work with Suzanne on 30 musicals and plays that I have directed between the Players and the original La Jeunesse Choir. The Players have been gifted by this woman and her artistic genius and hundreds of beautiful costumes that are housed in the costume space are her creations.  (Sadly, Suzanne passed away in 2018.)

It was a natural expansion to add Youth Theatre productions to the Players season. There was a need in the community, and many of us who were active consistently in the company wanted our children to be involved as well. Mary Doig is a graduate of the Edinburgh College of Speech and Drama and she was the perfect choice for this new venture. Mary taught theatre classes in the Firehall and directed several youth theatre productions over the years. I know my own children found their acting skills and love of theatre through her.

“Community theatre enriches the lives of those who take an active part in it, as well as those in the community who benefit from live theatre productions. On either side of the footlights, those involved represent a diversity of age, culture, life experience and a strong appreciation of the importance of the arts.”

American Association of Community Theatre

The original group drew from the community. They sought out and attracted people with skills that could benefit the company, and with enthusiasm to work on productions. Original production directors such as Gail Malenfant, John Winkworth, Nancy Lester and Ron Templer paved the way for Brenda Worsnop, Jack Boyagian, Dave Clark, Christine Sharp, Matt Kowalyk and Heather Jopling.                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Al Blair’s technical wizardry is continued through David Hoare and Tim Russell…. Dan Goldring and Ken Halligan were set design and builders extraordinaire but the 12 or so guys at the Third Space, enthusiastic set designers like Lauren Russell, Jan Crane, Will and Jenny Ryan, and Alyson Demoe have certainly worked hard to maintain the bar they set. And the ladies who look after the now thousands of costumes at the Cobourg costume house have taken over the care and cataloguing of this valuable resource. 

After a few years Dugald MacDonald passed on the leadership and chair of Northumberland Players and many have successfully carried it on. Today, retired drama teacher Jack Boyagian with his unending energy and passion for the Players chairs the board, seeks out thousands of dollars in local sponsorship, directs, acts, builds and is the ambassador for this organization wherever they perform. We should all be grateful for his dynamic leadership over the past several years. 

I believe that we need to continue to work a maintaining the quality of the past. The pride I feel for Northumberland Players has a lot to do with that. A team of enthusiasts working diligently to produce excellent presentations, more inspired, more artistic, more real, is my personal objective every time I consider directing another show.    

Grant [Coward] said I should talk about my favourite memories…there are lots but I have chosen four.

The first is 1983 when we acquired the Firehall space from the Town. I went in wearing rubber boots with an over the top excited Al Blair and waded through piles of racoon and bird poop with pigeons flying through the broken windows on the top floor and listened to him tell me about how we were going to fix this up and make it the Players home and the best little theatre ever. Even through the piles of dung…I knew it would happen. 

Jeff Schissler & Mary Schultz at the 40th Anniversary Gala to perform “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors

The second is November 26th 1990 when I sat on a Tuesday night directing the rehearsal for Little Shop of Horrors…in labour, and 2 hours after we finished rehearing, Claire was born – The baby who wouldn’t sleep for the next year unless the sound track for Little Shop was on. …and tonight Mary Schultz (the original Audrey) and Jeff Schissler will sing my favourite song from that show, “Suddenly Seymour”.

The third is in 2002 when we piled 35 cast members including a few kids, a production crew and a full orchestra into two school buses and a cube van full of set pieces, costumes and instruments and drove it all to Sarnia. Set up in 4 hours and then performed Jesus Christ Superstar to a packed house for the Theatre Ontario festival. And we won….it all. Best party ever.   

And the fourth would be given the privilege of directing Les Miserables with my collegues Marie Anderson as vocal director and Alina Adjemian choreographer, a dedicated production crew and a dream cast to be sure.

The cake from the 40th Anniversary Gala

Les Mis was the pinnacle of productions for all of us involved. And tonight for hopefully not the very last time we have remounted “One Day More”.   

So tonight let us proudly raise a glass to Northumberland Players and its 40 years of great theatre. …and here’s to 40 more…I won’t be around but hopefully people will gather and celebrate and talk about how great it was then.