As Eatdrink celebrates ten years of publication, we visit an institution of much longer standing — the Grand Theatre. Its history goes back to 1901. Over the years it has been home to a myriad of artistic endeavors, from vaudeville, motion pictures, dance, comedy and concerts to amateur and professional theatre. Numerous well-known performers and directors have worked at the Grand. And many local artists have gone on to find fame across Canada, on Broadway, and in Hollywood. We’re grateful for the vibrancy that the Grand brings to downtown London.
With The Grand Top Ten we look forward, and backwards a little, at what makes this theatre a place of artistic innovation and fun.
1 It all started with Ambrose Small, who managed and operated the theatre for its first 18 years as the Grand Opera House. He also had entertainment operations in other Ontario cities. He was said to be a shrewd operator. Some people believe that Small still resides in the theatre — or rather, his ghost does. It is reported that Small disappeared suddenly the day after selling his theatre operations for a tidy sum. Over the years, several stories floated through the theatre including reported sightings on opening nights. Was he murdered and cremated in the Grand’s chimney? The mystery remains unsolved and continues to intrigue late night ushers.
2 Many well-known directors have brought stories to life at the Grand including some pretty famous Canadian actor/directors: Martha Henry, William Hutt and Bernard Hopkins. This season Dennis Garnhum comes home to London as the Grand’s new Artistic Director.
3 Sightlines at the Grand are unobstructed. Theatre-goers also get to take in the proscenium arch that spans the Spriet Stage. The arch features a three-panel garden floral image. It is believed to have been painted by Frederick Sproston Challener in the early 1900s.
4 The High School Project is a Grand signature program. It was started in 1997 by artistic director Michael Shamata. Students from across the city work with professional staff to create productions of Broadway musicals and Shakespearean plays. This year’s production of Evita marks a new partnership with Sheridan College Music Theatre Program, which is led by Michael Rubinoff, co-producer of the acclaimed Come From Away.
5 Speaking of theatre education, teachers are now being offered a VIP season membership at a greatly reduced price, which includes special pre-show meet ‘n’ greets, one-of-a-kind workshops/talks in the rehearsal hall, and ticket upgrades. Meanwhile, students can join the Students Club which is an all-access pass to the season for $81. It includes tickets, exclusive pre-show events, pizza and pop, artist-lead activities and discussions in the rehearsal hall, and post-show Q&As.
6 If teachers and students can’t make it to the Grand then the Grand will go to them to share the theatrical experience. New this year, the Grand will take Beethoven Lives Upstairs to 100 elementary schools in London and area at no cost to the schools.
7 Another progressive accessibility move by the Grand is a new pilot project called 1000 Seats. The theatre will offer ten seats for every performance in the Spriet Stage Series to first-time theatre-goers. Bravo to TD Bank for this sponsorship.
8 On stage this season will be the world premiere of Silence. Written from Mabel’s point of view, the story begins in Nova Scotia as Mabel reflects back on her life with Alexander Graham Bell. For sports and film fans, the North American debut of Chariots of Fire will be on stage next spring.
9 The COMPASS New Play Development Program is dedicated to creating and premiering new work on the Grand stages. In the works is a play about Ambrose Small for 2020.
10 The pre-theatre and intermission drinks have long been a fine part of any event. New last year at the Grand, guests can now take their drink into the theatre. How civilized. Raise your glass to Ambrose, if you happen to see him.