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The History of Langham Court Theatre
The Original Buildings
Langham Court Theatre started life as the carriage house and barn of “The Laurels” – the home of the Robert Ward family, built in 1876. In 1903, the Collegiate School for Boys bought the home as a replacement for their original building, destroyed in a fire, and used the carriage house for classroom space until the family moved out of the house. Classes then shifted to the main residence and the carriage house was turned into a combination gymnasium and assembly hall. In 1912, “The Laurels” became St.George’s School for Girls. The girls had no use for the gymnasium and it was converted back into classrooms. Mrs. Ethel Bennett, the new owner, subdivided the property in1924. St. George’s School was closed around 1928 – probably because of the economic climate, but perhaps also because of Mrs. Bennett’s plans. When the roadway of Langham Court was completed in early 1929 she tried unsuccessfully to sell her six lots along the road. “The Laurels” itself was leased in August 1929, becoming a lodging house and Ms. Bennett advertised the carriage house as a meeting hall.
When The Laurels became the Collegiate School for Boys in 1903, the carriage house was transformed into a classroom, then later an auditorium and gymnasium – and finally a theatre when the Victoria Little Theatre bought the building in 1940. A great deal of work has gone into developing the theatre into its current state, with the addition of a stage, theatre seating, dressing rooms, washrooms, props, scenery storage areas, a lighting booth, lighting lofts, a grid, a costume loft, a laundry room, a workshop, a lobby, and a lounge area and bar.
In addition to many actors, backstage works, social organizers, and gardeners, the theatre is supposedly inhabited by a ghost. Some claim she is a stable hand, others say a student from the old St. George’s School for Girls (successor here in 1912 to the Collegiate School for Boys) – but most agree it is a female spirit. Many members working late at night claim to have seen or sensed her.
The Mimes’ and Masquers’ Guild and The Victoria Operatic Society
In 1927, the Reginald Hincks Playhouse Theatre on Yates Street closed its doors, creating a theatrical vacuum in Victoria. This led five Little Theatre enthusiasts –Horace Sidney (“Bunny”) Hurn, Fraser Lister, Dr. Percy Barr, Ira Dilworth and one other – to form a new company, the “Mimes’ and Masquers’ Guild,” in 1929. Its first show was staged at the Crystal Garden Theatre in the spring of 1930. Since many of the members were teachers, it quickly became known as the “Marms and Masters Guild,” and the name was changed in 1931 to the “Victoria Little Theatre Association.” The Victoria Operatic Society (no connection with the present society of that name) was founded in 1930 by Countess Laura de Turczynowicz – who produced five successful operas at the Royal Victoria during 1931 and 1932 using amateur talent. The society leased the old assembly hall behind “The Laurels” as a headquarters and rehearsal space, probably adding running waster and toilet facilities, and produced six more shows – four of them directed by Reg Hincks.
The Victoria Little Theatre Association and the Victoria Civic Opera
Many of the stars of the Victoria Operatic Society were also members of the Little Theatre. By 1933, the Little Theatre was holding its meetings and rehearsals in members’ garages and leaky warehouses on Wharf Street. It was a relief when they were able to rent a classroom in the Collegiate School for Girls on Burdette Street for their meetings in 1934 but finding rehearsal space for their shows was a continual headache. Harry Davis joined the Victoria Operatic Society in 1932 and the Little Theatre in 1933 – likely through Fraser Lister, Art Kerr and Charles Ozard, who were both members of the Operatic Society and on the Little Theatre Board. At the end of 1934, Basil Horsfall formed the Victoria Philharmonic Society to use the singers and musicians of the Operatic Society, which had closed down, and Davis approached both him and Reg Hincks to suggest that the Philharmonic Society and the Little Theatre take over the carriage house as a joint venture. Davis was elected Vice-President of the Little Theatre Association in the spring of 1935 on the strength of this coup and Horsfall founded the Victoria Civic Opera to carry on where the Operatic Society had left off. The Little Theatre and the Civic Opera shared the carriage house during 1935 and 1936. The Little Theatre used the space for both its rehearsals and its monthly meetings. A few alterations were made to improve performing conditions for the meetings – the addition of folding screens to serve as wing space, for example. A few lights to improve illumination and some benches for the audience. In 1936, Mrs. Bennett defaulted on the taxes for the lot behind the carriage house and Basil Horsfall formed a new society, the Victoria Grand Opera Association – purchasing the property at 1753 Rockland to serve both as his home and as the headquarters of the Association. They moved out of Langham Court in late 1936 and formally opened their new headquarters as a performance space in April 1937. Harry Davis – now President of the Little Theatre Association – looked for funds to purchase the carriage house and the lot behind it. He persuaded two of his clients – Percy and Eila Nicolle – to put up the money. Then, “absolutely bursting with excitement” (according to Audrey Johnson), he broke the news, suggesting that the building could be made into an effective theatre.
Early Construction: 1938 – 1940
The actual purchase did not take place until 1940, but construction began in the summer of 1938. A crew of volunteers built a furnace room under the south end of the building, with a chain of short people crouched beneath the floor, passing buckets of earth out and buckets of cement in. A stage-house was constructed with a stage the same size at that at the Empire Theatre – the society’s main performance venue since 1935. The proscenium was placed at the end of the carriage house and an orchestra pit was built in front of the stage, with tunnel access to the dressing rooms. The stage-house was made wide enough for wings, but the money, time and skills available allowed for a height of only 35 feet above the stage. A switchboard was paid for by a donation, and in May 1939, 60 students of Cedar Hill School presented “The Pirates of Penzance” to a capacity and appreciative audience. Work continued during 1939 and 1940. The floor of the auditorium was ramped and theatre seats were obtained from the Dominion Theatre on Yates Street. There were more seats than we have today, arranged on either side of a central aisle, with at least two rows in front of the present Row A. The barn was converted to a set-building space, and an unroofed passageway was built to allow set pieces to be carried from the barn into the auditorium. The Little Theatre became owners of the property on March 14th, 1940 and the formal opening was held on Friday, September 20th, 1940, with the first night of “Freddy Steps Out.” The Daily Colonist commented: “The organization now has one of the most comfortable and complete little theatres in Canada. There is an excellent stage with modern and effective lighting equipment. Below this have been built dressing-rooms (where make-up is taught and carried out, on play nights, by an expert), an orchestra room and the furnace room.”
As people left town to go to war, the Little Theatre became seriously short of men. Despite this, they maintained a schedule of four plays a season, and performed at local military bases after their theatre runs. The theatre was known as the “Little Theatre” or the “Little Theatre Hall.” The name “Langham Court Theatre” was not invented until the summer of 1950. The post-war years saw both a vigorous growth in membership and a wider variety of shows. Audrey Johnson directed the western Canada premiere of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” in 1946 and a widely acclaimed production of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in 1947. The technical side of both productions was handled by her husband Maurice, one of the society’s best backstage workers. Harry Davis, Art Kerr and Jack Reynolds remained in office until 1948 under the terms of the original financing. They were finally forced to pay off the debt to the Nicolles by resentment among the members, who wanted more of a say in running the society, and took out a mortgage on the theatre for the purpose. However, the changes were too little, too late, and in 1949 many of the best actors, directors and backstage workers – led by Audrey and Maurice Johnson – left to form a new company, the “Victoria Players Guild,” performing in the Club Sirocco. Competition led to serious financial difficulties for both groups, but they were saved from bankruptcy by founding member “Bunny” Hurn – now provincial Director of Community Theatre – who persuaded them to recombine in 1950 as the “Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School.”
The reunited society was soon able to afford some badly needed renovations. Technical Director, Maurice Johnson, remodelled the old barn by tearing out two mezzanine floors. Parts of the original walls were removed to build a ramp directly from the set-building area to the stage. The rest of the space between the buildings was converted to a corridor-like room known as “the tunnel” used as a props room and catch-all storage space. Percy George (former Mayor of Victoria) rebuilt the furnace room, replaced the original furnace, and gave the auditorium its first coat of paint in many years. A group directed by Bob Hewett cut a new fired exit in the west wall of theatre and built an escape staircase which survived until 1984. Ted Wood decorated the theatre with production photographs collected and framed for display by Gerald Hummel during the 1940’s. The mortgage was paid off during 1953-54, the society’s twenty-fifth year. In the mid 1950’s the lighting switchboard was move from the wings to a lighting booth in the middle of the back three rows of seats. It was only big enough to hold two people, and emergency access was provided through a trap in the north wall. The practice of using an orchestra for every show died in the early 1950’s and the pit was covered over in the late 1950’s to bring the actors closer to the audience. The original footlights and proscenium were abandoned and the first few feet of the stage now had a ceiling only 11 feet above the stage floor. The set-building area in the old barn was split into two sections with a pass-door between them, somewhere near the middle of the room. The section connected to the stage was called the “Workshop” and the section connected to the auditorium was called the “Workroom.” By 1960, coffee was being served to patrons in the “Workroom” during intermissions.
In 1965, Dave Foster built a second raked floor in the auditorium, on top of the one installed in 1940, leaving the floor much as it is today. In 1967, President, Allan Purdy, initiated several major projects. The seats were reupholstered, new stage curtains were installed and the former “Workroom” was redecorated, refurnished, and renamed the “Coffee Room.” A crew of volunteers completely rebuilt the stage and extended the stage apron further into the auditorium, at the expense of two rows of seats. A shallow orchestra pit was retained beneath the apron covered by two heavy traps, each nearly half the width of the stage. Maurice Johnson supervised the installation of a Props Loft in the wings, built a switch-back staircase up to it, and suspended the Guild’s stock of costumes beneath it on pipes raised and lowered on pulleys. At the end of the 1967-78 season, the Fire Marshall closed the theatre. Fortunately, he allowed the Jerry Gosley Smile Show – for many years the theatre’s summer tenant – to perform during July and August. Since the renovation cost was far beyond the Guild’s ability to pay, the membership voted to sell the theatre and look for other accommodation. Fortunately, no buyer appeared, and the search committee realized that no suitable alternatives were available. The sale was called off, and Percy George (many times President) came to the rescue with a large, low-interest loan. The rest of the work was covered by donations (including a benefit performance by the Smile Show), and the sale of debentures – with most of the debenture holders later accepting name plaques on seats in lieu of their money. A crash renovation with largely volunteer labour began at the end of July 1968, and the theatre reopened in mid-October with a production of “Oh Dad, Poor Dad”, “Mama’s Hung You in the Closet”, and “I’m Feelin’ So Sad.”
In the early 1970’s, the dressing rooms were reorganized and redecorated, the theatre roof was repaired, and the kitchen area was rebuilt. In 1975, John Krich and Giles Hogya supervised the installation of a new lighting system. In 1977, Dave Foster and a team of volunteers built the Workshop Wing. The area beneath the present workshop was dug out for storage space, the floor of the shop was raised to the level of the stage, new staircases were built, and the doorway between the workshop area and the Coffee Room was shifted to its present location, making the Coffee Room substantially larger. In 1978, Helen Smith financed the rebuilding of the Lobby – originally a very small structure at the northeast corner of the building. The new Lobby had its entrance facing the north walk way, with a staircase running through the present Box Office.
A new Costume Loft was begun in 1979 and complete in 1982. At the same time, the Coffee Room and Bar were completely renovated. In August 1981, Rube Price obtained zoning approval for construction of what is now know as the Lounge, or the “Percy George Room,” which was completed in the fall of 1983. Alpine Industries began a multi-stage project to improve the theatre’s insulation, and major professional repairs were made to the roof. In 1983, after a rash of expensive break-ins and robberies, a security and fire alarm system was installed. In 1984 the north wall of the stage-house, the western side wall of the auditorium and the auditorium fire-escape staircase were rebuilt, and a new curtain system was installed. A new era began in 1985 with the arrival of Reg Taylor. Working as a volunteer, he took over both the maintenance of the theatre and the job of Production Manager. During his first year, the auditorium was repainted, the furnace was replaced, and the kitchen area was completely rebuilt and rewired. In 1986, he supervised a complete rebuilding and expansion of the public washrooms and rebuilt the back wall of the stage. In the meantime, Technical Director, Drew Shand, was rigging new fly lines, upgrading the theatre’s lighting, and supervising the installation of $21,000 worth of backstage electrics. In 1988, Reg built a wheelchair ramp along the north wall and supervised a complete rebuilding of the dressing room area. At the beginning of 1989, ex-President, Judy Treloar was hired as Administrator – a post that had been tried before in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, but which had never been fully funded. Reg Taylor rebuilt the Lobby alcove as an office, and Judy began installing office equipment – including a copier. Reg went on to supervise another renovation of the Lounge, Coffee Room, and Bar, and worked with Drew Shand to rebuild the fly gallery. Drew purchased a new set of stage scaffolding and installed fire-proofing above the lighting pipes, while Reg resurfaced the circle. At the start of the 198/90 Season, a Gala Celebration was held to celebrate the Guild’s 60th birthday, with a packed house and a ‘monster’ cake.
During 1990, discussions began on major renovations. In the meantime, the outside of the building was repainted, the fences were rebuilt, and new stage lighting was installed by Adam Wilkinson, Drew Shand’s replacement as Technical Director. Toward the end of the year, Reg retired as Production Manager and Ken Baker took over the position. Ken repaired the “tunnel” roof, and completely reorganized the shop and the backstage storage, while Adam Wilkinson purchased new lights, a new scrim and installed a new lighting computer. Working as contractors, Ken and his brother rebuilt the stairs to the Costume Loft and converted the room behind the Coffee Room to a scenery storage space. They also completely rebuilt the Props Loft, installed a new workshop mezzanine, outside deck and staircase , and rebuilt the “tunnel” as a dressing room and storage area. Ken managed a major reconstruction of the north end of the theatre in 1991, carried out at a cost $ 100,000 with the aid of a GO B.C. Grant. The existing lighting booth was removed and a new booth was constructed outside the original north wall of the auditorium. The lobby was completely redesigned and rebuilt to provide room for the present Administration Office. A deck was constructed to provide a new main entrance, and new security system and ventilation systems were installed. Technical Director, Roger Traviss (largely responsible for the design of the new booth) and Al MacKenzie (our current Technical director) installed an audio system purchased from the McPherson Playhouse. During the summer of 1992, Ken Baker, who had resigned as Production Manager, supervised a complete rebuilding of the stage and the excavation of the space beneath if for storage. Paul Terry installed a new lighting grid about the front portion of the stage, Roger Traviss installed a new infra-red Hearing Assistance System, and Ken Baker and Brian Woodman built a new Green Room beneath the workshop. As a final touch, the poplar trees in the parking lot (donated in the early 1960’s by the owners of Butchard’s Gardens), whose roots were causing our neighbours trouble, were felled. In 1993, Roger Traviss resigned as Technical Director and Scott Cadillac was hired as Theatre Custodian. A major renovation project was put in hand to refurbish the seats in the auditorium, financed by selling plaques on the newly refurbished seats to add to those sold during the early 1970’s. A total of $ 28,000 was raised, permitting a complete redecoration of the auditorium and hallway by the members, with advice from Astrid Furley-Eaton, and the installation of 1920’s light fixtures from old Janion Hotel. In August 1993, Judy Treloar resigned and Alice Bacon was hired as the new Administrator. In 1994, Alice acted as Project Manager for a complete renovation and redesign of the Lounge, Kitchen and Bar with advice of Astrid Furley-Eaton and construction work by Paul Terry’s company. The renovation was celebrated in September at a 65th Birthday Gala. At the beginning of 1995, the Theatre Guild was awarded a major grant under the Federal/Provincial Infrastructure Renewal program. The first stage of this work was carried out in 1995, with the paving of the east side of the theatre property, the repair and reconstruction of fencing, the extension of the Costume Loft, the conversion of the room behind the Coffee Room to a laundry and sewing room, the installation of a sprinkler system and the redecoration, refurnishing and reconstruction of the Green Room. An awning to shelter smokers was also installed outside the door to the Lounge. In the spring of 1995, a new Technical Assistant was hired, in the person of Greg Stoneman. Greg immediately reorganized the workshop and the theatre’s storage system, and began reviewing the theatre’s safety regulations. He has since been made Project Manager for the second portion of the work funded by the infrastructure grant – a complete upgrading of the stage-house with the installation of a steel-beam structure which will support the building and provide improved safety for fly rigging.
Over the years, the Theatre Guild has provided opportunities for over 26,000 volunteers. Since 1929, over 2,800 performances have been staged using over 4,000 actors, more than 3,200 set builders, 3,000 lighting technicians and over 500 directors and stage managers. Over a quarter of a million patrons have been greeted by more than 11,000 ushers and front-of-house volunteers. Why not give it a try yourself?
(Compiled by John Gilliland – Guild Archivist – approx. 1988 to 2010)