One thought leads to another - Keith Roulston editorial
Three things came together to suggest this column last Friday. In the same mail, I received both The Citizen, with Editor Shawn Loughlin’s complimentary column crediting me as being a co-founder (with James Roy and Anne Chislett) of the Blyth Festival and the brochure for the 2023 Blyth Festival season. At the same time, I had been doing research in old newspapers about the 1975 founding of the Festival.
Actually, the research I’d been doing in old files of The Blyth Standard, available through the Huron County Museum’s website, goes back farther than the beginning of the Festival itself to 1972 when the roots of the story began. Murray Scott, president of the now-long-forgotten Blyth Fall Fair, had approached Helen Gowing, chair of the Blyth Board of Trade, about the new Queen of the Fair, the winner of which was to proceed to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto to compete, with Queens from Ontario’s other fall fairs, for the title there.
I had arrived in Blyth the previous November to take over as publisher of The Standard from previous publishers Doug and Lorna Whitmore, who would continue the printing side of the business with Blyth Printing, now run by their son Ken. Because we would be using the new offset printing process at the new printing plant at the Goderich Signal-Star, we’d be able to print photographs. I wanted to impress our readers, so I decided to cover a variety concert being held at Blyth Memorial Hall that week.
When I entered the 50-year-old hall, I had trouble taking photos of the local talent because I was so impressed by the building itself. I had been in theatres like the Royal Alexandra and the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto while I studied journalism in the city, and while the rundown building did not live up to these facilities, it was special. Though the paint was flaking off and the sets were shoddy from years of being seldom used since people started staying home to watch television, it was an impressive site.
So I suggested to Helen Gowing that the Queen of the Fair contest should be held in an updated Memorial Hall. With approval from the Blyth Recreation Committee, which ran the hall, a brigade of bucket-and-mop-wielding volunteers including (all sadly deceased, now) Helen, Evalena and Keith Webster, Lloyd Tasker, Phyllis Street and Melda McElroy, arrived to tackle cleaning and redecorating the building.
About the same time, I was in Clinton to cover a meeting of the Huron County Federation of Agriculture. I arrived early and was attending a street fair when I ran into Jim Fitzgerald, editor of the Clinton News-Record. He introduced me to Paul Thompson, director of a Toronto-based company from Theatre Passe Muraille, which was researching a play west of Clinton. I told Thompson what we were doing in Blyth and he invited me to The Farm Show when it was presented to the community in August, when 150 local residents sat in a hay mow in an old barn, (including, unknown to me, James Roy).
Back in Blyth, cleaning and redecorating continued for the Sept. 19 community concert and Queen crowning. When the show was over, however, the local fire chief stepped in to say the hall could no longer be used unless a new fire escape was provided to the old building. Local council agreed to provide the $5,000 needed, but worried about the electrical wiring for the old building. That passed inspection, but a local builder on council worried about a sag in the Memorial Hall roof. An engineer agreed, saying the entire roof needed to be replaced.
Debate dragged on, month after month, year after year. Paul Thompson initially was excited about making Blyth a summer home base. After The Farm Show was successful in Toronto and he took it on tour, he squeezed the show into Memorial Hall’s basement for a sold-out show.
But the debate about the hall dragged on and Theatre Passe Muraille went to Petrolia. In the fall of 1974, the Blyth Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Blyth Senior Citizens convinced council that spending $50,000 to replace Memorial Hall roof was worth the investment. By February, the hall was still poorly decorated, but hosted the tour of Take A Beaver to Lunch, starring Dave Broadfoot and Carol Robinson, and Naked on the North Shore by Clinton-area native Ted Johns.
During that winter, James Roy was making a small show at Theatre Passe Muraille and, during a conversation with Paul Thompson, was told about Blyth’s theatre. James wrote to me in March, came up and saw the theatre, put together a company and chose to make the opening show based on local native Harry J. Boyle’s book Mostly in Clover, and the first Festival was a success a few months later.
And that’s how Shawn’s column in The Citizen, the Festival’s brochure and my own reading led to this column.