The Ladies of the Arcade – Dawn Watters

Dawn Watters, right, moving costumes.

Live theatre has always been a factor in my life!  A favourite memory is going to see the musical, Anne of Green Gables, in Toronto, with my father and sister. Later on, my daughter became involved with theatre both at her school and through the Northumberland Players. Under the superb tutelage of Mary Doig, she became smitten.

My role in her endeavours was mostly as an enthusiastic audience member.  Little did I know the backstage and pre-production role that I could play. It wasn’t until I retired and my friend and former teaching colleague Mary Liz Clark asked me to become involved with The Elephant Man that I realized I could be of help. 

Mary Liz asked me to work on props and so I did, carefully researching and crafting items.  This took me considerable time, time that the actors should have had their props in hand for rehearsal. Meanwhile, I was busily perfecting each item and showed up a week before opening night with what was needed.  The props were praised and I was thrilled, it wasn’t until the post-production party that someone teased me about the lateness of the arrival of the props. This teasing was done in the kindest and gentlest manner and is reflective of the nature of Players volunteers and actors. 

Next, Mary Liz asked if I would help with costuming for a youth theatre production. This was an introduction to the Henley Arcade…I had heard of the “Ladies of the Arcade” from my daughter and was thrilled to meet these women. The “Ladies of the Arcade” worked three floors of costumes over King St.!  Three floors without heat, without running water, without toilets, with racks jammed so tightly, one person had to push and separate if you wanted to get an item in or out.

Their dedication, skills and knowledge were inspiring. The ladies I first met were: Barbara Horscroft, Nancy Kerr, Barbara Jean Taylor, Helen Matthews and the coordinator Lynne Templer.  With a love of fashion and clothing, I knew I was home and Mary Liz was on board too!  

Grace Price & Dawn Watters tell us about working on the costumes for the period piece Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Little did I know a journey was just beginning – the Arcade was moving to a new location.  No one seemed daunted by the thoughts of moving 30 years worth of clothing, on three floors, collected under the leadership of Verna Templer, Norma Schultz and Vivian Foster.  The sorting and packing began.

In that time, I was privileged to work with Delphine White-Crane.  Delphine is known for being the costume designer for Guillermo del Toro, the show Copper, etc, etc! She is the first winner of an award from the Canadian Alliance of Film & TV.  Besides being one of the kindest, gentlest people I know, she is fascinating to talk to.  Delphine and I worked sorting and packing hats. Delphine could tell me more about one hat than I can tell you about a favourite book I’ve read.  

Moving and packing carried on for days.  Luckily many of us had SUVs, which were packed to overflowing, convoyed to the new location, unloaded and the process repeated.  Up and down three flights of stairs was no easy task and yet rarely were there complaints.  It was a labour of love for the “Ladies of the Arcade”; their commitment and friendship became a welcome part of my life.  There is a passion that develops when dealing with beautiful things, and historic items – these women had that passion in spades.  It is catching!  

One day, Mary Liz and I came across a box of house dresses.  House dresses, the exact kind my grandmother wore, fine cotton and patterned.  The dresses were unworn and bore their original price tags: 25c.  They had been for sale at Macintosh’s General Store in Cold Springs and subsequently donated to the Players.  I won’t ever forget the excitement I felt at this discovery nor the nostalgia it created in me for my grandmother. 

One Monday, I was working on ties.  I had neatly folded and packed numerous bankers’ boxes full of ties…ties of every colour, width and description.  Most of the boxes had been transferred down to a vehicle.  I had two in my arms when one box slipped and fell, everything tumbled out.  Crouching down, I started jamming the ties back into the box carelessly.  Nancy Kerr came to the rescue and together we repaired the mess I was making.  In the process, Nancy pulled out a green tie, held it up and proceeded to tell me and the others, that the tie looked identical to the tie Jim Flaherty (the then Conservative Finance Minister) wore whenever he presented the budget.  There were a few political comments made, some positive, some disparaging .  The shocker came as I was driving home listening to the radio. Jim Flaherty had collapsed and died at about the time we were looking at the green tie.  I phoned Nancy when I got home and she was aghast as well.   Subsequently, when we were annoyed at a politician it became a joke to look for a tie similar to one favoured by that politician. But…I can assure you it was never done! 

The Ladies of the Arcade are always full of smiles.

With the move came a name change, no longer The Arcade, now, “The Costume House”.   Some have called The Costume House the “jewel of the Northumberland Players”.  This is not far wrong.  The collection is stunningly beautiful and of historic significance…where else would you find a beautiful black and gold cape embroidered with gold and turquoise, with its twin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City? 

The collection includes original dresses from the early 1800’s, wedding dresses from that era, original dresses from the 20s and 30s, clothing from other cultures.  I have followed movie costume people around the Costume House as they lauded everything including men’s shirts, hats, ties, etc.  This praise was welcome and savoured by all of us. 

But more than all of this, the Costume House has become what the Arcade was, a meeting place of friends, friends who share a passion for beautiful things, fashion, theatre, history and design. Friends who bring different skills to the table,  friends who love seeing their “progeny” on stage.  Friends who will be friends for life, a jewel in more aspects than one!

In closing, one of my most satisfying moments was phoning my daughter in the UK and telling her, I had become a “Lady of the Arcade”!

The Northumberland Players Costume House is the largest costume house between Toronto and Montreal with more than 10,000 pieces. Our costumes are available for rent to other theatre companies, film and TV, or for your own private events! Come check out our wide assortment of costume pieces!