Elora’s proud amateur theatre tradition dates to 1900

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The highly successful season recently concluded by the Elora Community Theatre culminates a long tradition of stage performances by Elora groups.

Few towns the size of Elora have been able to sustain such a high level of participation and quality of performance.

In Victorian times, theatrical performances in Elora were not common. Audiences preferred musical presentations. In the time before radio and recordings, any musical performance, even by amateurs, was an occasion to be savoured and remembered. There was also a lingering stigma against theatrical performances: for centuries many people had regarded actors and the stage as disreputable at best.

Before 1900, touring theatrical groups occasionally visited Elora. Their productions consisted of the standard fare of the age, with a strong moral message, such as Ten Nights in a Barroom and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Late in 1876 a small group of residents attempted to form a dramatic company, but the group failed. It was revived briefly in 1879, but did not seem to have had any sustained success.

The situation changed after 1900. The Elora High School offered dramatic performances to the public, and some of the church groups, particularly those involving young people, soon took to the stage as well.

After the First World War a more formal organization appeared: The Elora Dramatic Club. Many of the amateur thespians in this group were graduates of productions in high school and the church groups of the previous two decades.

The Dramatic Club did not have an ambitious schedule. They produced only one play each year, beginning with The Dust of the Earth in May 1920. Elora audiences received these productions enthusiastically from the beginning, packing the Armoury Hall (now the Elora LCBO) for each play.

Among the group’s strongest supporters were Art Badley (after whom the Badley Bridge was named), Bill and Russ Duncan, Harold Arthur, Elwood Davidson and Cecil Patmore. In many cases husbands and wives were both members of the club.

By coincidence, more than a half dozen of the active members were employed at the J.C. Mundell Furniture Company. This began a long association of this firm with theatre in Elora. Mundell’s regularly loaned furniture to be used as stage props, and gladly assigned workers to construct sets and other props on company time.

The success of the Elora Dramatic Club peaked in 1927 with a production of The Gay Deceiver. The performances were sold out several days in advance.

The Elora Dramatic Club became dormant during the Depression of the 1930s, but theatrical productions continued to be mounted by several church groups, notably the youth groups at Knox and St. John’s. These performances were staged at the Armoury Hall, and usually enjoyed large and enthusiastic audiences.

A 1931 production of Untangling Tiny by the A.Y.P.A. of St. John’s, for example, included in the cast Edith Dreyer, Kathleen Rankin, Helen and Dorothy Jeffries, and Doug Anderson. Several of these people would enjoy long associations with Elora theatre.

Following the Second World War, a strong interest in theatre continued in Elora. An April 1948 production of The Improper Henry Propper sponsored by the Rebekah and Oddfellow Lodges peaked focused the attention of a group of local theatre fanatics.

On Oct. 20, 1948 Mrs. Kay Marston presided at the founding meeting of the Elora Players. Doug Brown was elected president, Mrs. Art Bayne was placed in charge of costumes, and Kay Plyley took charge of a membership campaign. The group adopted the name Elora Players to indicate that their horizons included comedy and musicals as well as drama.

The Elora Players began by holding monthly meetings, which included the reading of a play followed by discussions of forthcoming stage productions. These began with several one-act plays in the spring of 1949, and another production in the fall.

The Fleury-Bissell Company offered to help the group by offering a prize for the best play written by a member of the group or by a local resident. Les Holbrook presented the winning entry, Room for Laughter, to the group in October 1949.

Membership grew quickly. The group was young – most members were under 40 – and television still had not made a claim on the spare time of most people.

The Elora Players quickly advanced in their achievements, and constantly set their goals higher. In 1950 they joined the Western Ontario Drama League (WODL), which consisted of amateur groups in towns and cities much larger than Elora.

The Elora players mounted a major production in the spring and fall of each year. Sometimes there would also be a night of short one-act plays as well.

The productions became more ambitious. In the fall of 1951 they staged The Chiltern Hundreds, followed by Blithe Spirit, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Angel Street.

The Elora Players began to draw respect from the others in the WODL. The 1953 production of Angel Street went to the final competition in Sarnia, and won the Meredith Achievement Award.

Directors from out of town took charge of some of the productions, but others were directed by members such as Art Barton, Shirley McCrae and Kay Plyley. The Elora Players attracted actors from Fergus. A 1956 production of Somerset Maugham’s Jane starred Les Taylor, Dave Lowe, Ron Sangster and Muriel Nelson of Fergus.

Participation and enthusiasm began to wane in the late 1950s. The group of active members dwindled, and the inroads of television partially eroded interest in community theatre. In February 1960 the Elora Players decided to suspend operations. During the previous 12 years, the group had built a solid reputation, as well as generating much enjoyment for themselves.

Founded in 1972, the Elora Community Theatre is now the longest lived theatrical group in Elora’s history. The group is built on a strong local tradition of amateur performances. We should all be proud of this record.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on June 5, 1996.

Thorning Revisited