Modest ceremony marks 100th anniversary of Blyth's Memorial Hall
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Over the weekend, members of the Blyth Festival staff marked the 100th anniversary of Memorial Hall, the Festival’s home and the living cenotaph on the village’s main street.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still active, there was no official celebration or gathering. However, Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt dusted off his bagpipes and kilt and performed from the roof of the hall at noon on Saturday, June 5. In addition, Festival staff then rang the bell at the hall 30 times to honour the 30 men from Blyth who died in World War I, followed by a moment of silence for their memory.
Festival General Manager Rachael King had discussed marking the anniversary in some way for months, but with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and government-issued measures to stop the spread of the virus, she was unsure what the Festival would be able to actually do when the day finally arrived.
The seeds for Memorial Hall would be sown in 1919 when residents of Blyth and Morris, Hullett and East Wawanosh Townships worked together to raise funds to pay tribute to the local lives lost in World War I. They chose to work towards the construction of a memorial building, rather than a monument.
The local Women’s Institutes purchased the land and a committee was established to work towards the construction of a “Memorial Hall” that didn’t require any tax money to be built.
It took the committee less than two years to raise the $25,000 needed and, on Sunday, June 5, 1921, a dedication ceremony officially opened the building to the world. The opening event boasted a full house, both in the auditorium and the basement, with a large crowd standing on the front lawn listening as speakers delivered speeches.
Below is a story on the history of Memorial Hall, written by Citizen Founder Keith Roulston in 2017 for The Citizen’s special issue celebrating Blyth’s 140th anniversary.
Former Blyth residents returning home for 2017’s 140th anniversary will see something familiar, yet different, in the village’s most iconic landmark. In the past year Blyth Memorial Hall has undergone a $4.2 million renovation that has both modernized it, and returned it to its original appearance.
For the passing visitor the most visible change will be the courtyard in front of the building, redesigned to better accommodate crowds before theatre performances and during intermissions. But look way up, and you’ll see the bell tower replicates the original that was part of the hall when it opened to great fanfare on June 5, 1921.
That tower had been replaced as part of a renovation in 1974 that made the upstairs theatre of the hall available for use again after engineers had found a design fault in the roof structure of the original building that made the upper storey unsafe. After much debate in the village as to whether repairing the building would be a wise investment of taxpayers’ money, village council had decided to spend $50,000 to replace the old roof structure with a safe new one. A simplified, square bell tower replaced the original elegant, six-sided tower.
The tower and courtyard are just the most outwardly visible of the changes that have their origin in 2013 with the formation of a community group called 14/19 Arts and Cultural Initiative made up of forward-thinking individuals and representatives of local groups such as the Blyth Legion, Legion Ladies Auxiliary, the Lions Club and the Blyth Festival. The group’s big plans included renovation of the hall, finding a new use for the former Blyth Public School which had been closed in 2012, and creation of a community trust fund for the village’s future needs.
Over the next couple of years the group went to work raising money including a gourmet dinner for 1,419 diners that filled two blocks of Blyth’s main street in the summer of 2014. Various grants including an essential $3.3 million contribution from the Ontario government finally meant the renovation could go ahead as soon as the 2016 Blyth Festival season ended.
The changes were literally from top to bottom: from the bell tower and repairing the flat-roofed sections of 1980 and 1990 additions to tearing up the floor in the basement meeting room to solve moisture issues that have long plagued the building. Improvements ranged from cosmetic such as a new wrought-iron railing in the theatre’s balcony to the practical need for new heating and air conditioning equipment.
New seats (yet with a period look to match the building’s heritage) and lighting were installed in the theatre along with the most modern audio-visual equipment. The biggest changes, however, are in the downstairs meeting room. Gone are the washrooms in the front corners of the room built during the 1980 renovation to meet the needs of swelling crowds at the Blyth Festival. They had been replaced by enlarged washrooms in the 1990 link addition.
The kitchen has been moved from the rear of the original hall into the 1980 addition and given the latest in commercial-quality equipment. The original support pillars, which were insulated and covered during the 1980 renovation to meet fire codes, have been revealed again, now meeting fire regulations through a thinner insulating method.
All these changes to Memorial Hall, nearly a century after community members first dreamed of building a living memorial to the area’s First World War veterans, would have made the original planners proud. Back then there was no place in Blyth to hold large events, the best options being halls above stores such as Industrial Hall.
There had been discussion as early as 1910 about the need for a community hall but it gained momentum after the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 finally ended the bloody World War I. While other communities planned to build statues to honour local soldiers who had lost their lives, groups such as the Blyth Women’s Institute rallied the community to build a hall. Momentum grew as the village and surrounding areas of East Wawanosh, Hullett and Morris Townships were canvassed for donations. The WI purchased the Queen St. property on which the hall could be built.
On June 6, 1919, $2,000 was raised for the project by, among other events, offering rides on two new-fangled airplanes. That brought the total raised to $8,000.
On July 28, 1920 the cornerstone for Blyth Community Memorial Hall, a $20,000 building, was laid. The architect was W. Murray of London. The builders were a local team, Cockerline and Floody. The building would house a theatre/concert hall upstairs holding more than 500 people, a meeting space downstairs and the village fire hall at the back on the southern side.
On Sunday, June 5, 1921 an opening ceremony and dedication of a memorial plaque was held. A reported crowd of 1,500 attended, filling the theatre, the basement and the lawns around the building.
Over the coming years the building would become the heart of the community with visits from the Chautauqua circuit and locally-organized events like cantatas and minstrel shows. The downstairs was kept busy with meetings of community groups and dances.
By 1946, there wasn’t enough room in the building’s fire hall for the modernized fire department so it moved to a new location. That year the village council called tenders for a new addition of 16 by 20 feet on the south side of the building to house the village library. A kitchen and washrooms were built in the old firehall.
As times changed, the downstairs hall continued to be busy with meetings and dances but as people turned to television for entertainment, the glory of the building, the upstairs theatre, got less and less use. It still hosted the village’s Remembrance Day ceremony but by the 1970s, little else.
In the summer of 1972 two events coincided that would radically alter Memorial Hall’s future. First, the Blyth Agricultural Society asked the Blyth Board of Trade (BBT) to host the first-ever Queen of the Fair pageant and Helen Gowing, the BBT president, felt Memorial Hall was the place to do it. Her call for helpers to clean and redecorate the theatre was answered by a group of volunteers who swarmed over the hall dusting, washing and repainting.
That same summer, a small troupe of then-unknown actors from Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille gathered west of Clinton to visit neighbouring farmers and collect stories for what would become The Farm Show, one of the most formative productions in the history of Canadian theatre. The troupe’s leader, Paul Thompson, originally from Listowel, met one of the Blyth volunteers who tried to interest him in making Memorial Hall a summer base for his theatre.
But by now the eager volunteers for the pageant had begun to discover Memorial Hall’s age and how much things like fire regulations had changed. Hearing of the work renewing the hall, the village’s fire chief realized the building required another fire escape to meet code – though he allowed the pageant to go ahead.
The volunteers had no money for a fire escape so they turned to the village council for help. Next came concerns about the building’s archaic electrical service. Despite its age, this passed muster but then one councillor worried about a sag in the roof he’d noticed. An engineer’s report confirmed that there was a fault in the roof structure.
The escalating price tag to repair the problems left councilors in a quandary about whether or not to proceed. But public support, including from groups such as the Legion and the senior citizens club, convinced council to spend the money. By the fall of 1974 work was ready to begin, removing the entire roof structure and replacing it with a new design that reduced outward pressure on the walls that had caused the original problem.
By then, however, Theatre Passe Muraille had found a new summer home at Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia. But as the repairs went on over the winter of 1974-1975, a young director, recently graduated from York University’s theatre program, did some work for Theatre Passe Muraille. When James Roy revealed to Paul Thompson that he wanted to start his own summer theatre, Thompson told him about Blyth – which just happened to be Roy’s home community before his family had moved away when he was still young. Roy made contact with Blyth volunteers, the first Blyth Festival production opened on the Memorial Hall stage and a new era began for the building.
That winter a group hired through a government winter works grant made more cosmetic improvements: painting seats and walls and stripping and refinishing the woodwork. In 1979, audiences gained relief from the summer heat in the packed theatre when the Festival installed air conditioning.
The theatre’s rapid growth led to an addition on the north side of the building in 1979-1980 that finally gave the actors proper dressing rooms and the technicians backstage storage for sets and provided the Festival administration with an office on ground floor (which would become the village’s library in the 1990s and the kitchen in the new renovation).
A decade later the Festival’s continued growth led it to add the “link” on the south side of the building between the original Memorial Hall and the Festival’s own administration building and rehearsal hall. That addition included more washrooms, more lobby space, a box office and The Bainton Gallery, home for the Festival’s art gallery.
All the improvements turned Memorial Hall into the region’s premier art centre, home not just to Blyth Festival and local productions, but also touring theatre and musical acts as diverse as classical guitarist Liona Boyd, opera singer Maureen Forrester, pop groups like Blue Rodeo, comedian Red Green and the Wingfield series of comic plays.
Since the theatre was put back into service with the 1974 renovation, more than a million people have attended events in the hall. Certainly those who dreamed of Blyth Community Memorial Hall and worked so hard to get it built would be proud to see their efforts have truly created a living memorial.