Highly-experienced director Kay Valentine (right) directs Lise Boily and Dave Sansom in rehearsals for the delightfully-hilarious Newmarket Stage Company production of ‘The Housekeeper’, which was on stage early in September at the Newmarket Legion. The Newmarket Stage Company has quite the history, almost folding a few short years ago  ( Photo courtesy of Greg King)

The History of Community Theatre in Newmarket

By Rod Urquhart

Newmarket has a very intriguing theatre history, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, when two community theatre groups existed in town – the Newmarket Theatre Centre and the Old Town Hall Players (formed 1981).

The Newmarket Theatre Centre was led by Artistic Director and renowned actor named Paul Aspland, while the Old Town Hall Players was virtually created by then Mayor Ray Twinney and resident Lynda Fraser.

To see how the eventual only community theatre group in Newmarket today, The Newmarket Stage Company, was formed is quite the history. For example, did you know Newmarket almost had a Performing Arts Theatre on Cane Parkway?

And, did you know the Newmarket Stage Company almost folded, leaving Newmarket with no community theatre group?

Today, the Newmarket Stage Company is thriving, putting on hilarious ‘community-minded’ adult plays, but as mentioned, the history written below is quite the read!

Enjoy, dear reader!

The first known actual theatre group in Newmarket started in the early 1930s. Called the Newmarket Little Theatre, they brought in Vaudeville Acts and also did quite a bit of community theatre.

In 1973, a theatre group was once again formed in Newmarket and used the name Newmarket Little Theatre, although there was no affiliation with the earlier group. Ray Burdon and David Lawton used the name once again as it was used in local theatre in England, separating local groups from professional productions.

Fourteen people formed the new group after seeing an advertisement in the Town Directory. Then Mayor, Bob Forhan, and Recreation Commissioner, Dan Shannon, made the Old Town Hall available to this new group for plays.

The 14 people who formed this new Newmarket Little Theatre group were: David Lawton; Raymond Burdon; Faye Vink; Jim Westlake; Joe Deardon; Ethel Codd; Nancy Oulton; Nessie Begg; Jim Holmes; Catherine Downie; Cynthia Clegg; Charlotte Holmes; Julia Mountford; and, Maria Laczka.

The play, Separate Tables, was presented in April 1974 by the Newmarket Little Theatre. The opening night was marred by a huge snowstorm and only two people turned up, and as Ray reported, “we managed to do one act only as one of the cast was stranded at the rail crossing in Aurora.” The rest of the scheduled shows were successfully completed.

Paul Aspland, a prominent name in local theatre in Newmarket, responded to questioning: “I joined the theatre company in 1975. It was named Newmarket Little Theatre then, which borrowed its name from the last time the town had a theatre group in the 1960s and 1970s. Andy Foot had been a member of the old group and was there again when I joined. Dave Lawton and Ray Burdon were prominent.”

The group changed their name to the Newmarket Theatre Centre. As Ray Burdon explained, “the name was changed by the Theatre Board and led by Paul Aspland. The Newmarket Theatre Centre was used to promote a wider range of opportunities in the theatrical field.”

Paul Aspland noted at this time, “My first involvement was Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, followed by Alfie, and Charley’s Aunt.” By 1978, the President of this theatre troupe was Ray Burdon. Plays had been and were performed at the Old Town Hall on Botsford Street in downtown Newmarket.

The Old Town Hall had been a multi-purpose building with an auditorium and a stage on the upper floor. The stage was raked and slanted towards the audience from the upstage to downstage to provide better viewing for the audience, who were seated on a level floor. In later years, it was probably the only slanted and raked stage in Ontario.

During the day, the auditorium became a Court House for York Region. The judge’s bench was at the rear of the auditorium and after each evening performance, the chairs had to be turned around to face the judge’s bench. Tables for the lawyers were set out and the set and stage draped.

In 1975, as mentioned Paul Aspland had joined the group as Artistic Director. Paul had a degree in fine arts from the University of Windsor and the Board appointed him the Artistic Director.

It wasn’t long before the group tried harder plays, like William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Paul took the lead role and Christine Schillemore was the female shrew and other actors included Andy Foote, Fraser Milne, a local architect, who designed and built the set with the help of members of the company.

Paul and many of the actors were new Canadians from the United Kingdom, who had performed in amateur dramatics in England and they attracted many other expats from the UK, such as Gillian Rourke, Alan Cox, Norma Busby and Christine Hamley.

The group became decidedly English in character. Paul wrote a play, Penny Farthing Street Siege, about an older English couple who were being evicted from their home and the antics that went on inside and outside the house. John Dowson, who went on to play many roles, built the set for this production.

The next production was Billy Budd, a seafaring venture aboard an English battleship during the time of the Napoleonic War. John Dowson was the midshipman, even though he was aged 40 – He became the oldest midshipman in the Royal Navy.

Paul Aspland suggested that a thrust be built, which would extend the stage into the audience, similar to the Globe Theatre Shakespeare built in London and the theatre in Stratford, Ontario.

Keeping in mind the auditorium was a court house, the thrust had to be cleared from the room. Fraser Milne designed the thrust with a step down, so it could be stored under the stage during the court session. The plays performed were classic productions: Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, No Sex Please We’re British, Sargent Musgrave’s Dance, Blythe Spirit, The Miracle Worker, Tom Jones, Anne of a Thousand Days, and as the quality improved, more actors joined.

In 1979, Fraser Milne designed a theatre which could be built on Fairy Lake, off the Cane Parkway, on property donated by the South Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. A ‘Let’s Build a Theatre’ Foundation was formed and began to raise funds through donations.

Presentations were made to council. The vision was a Performing Arts Theatre on Fairy Lake with white swans with a Stratford, Ontario Festival setting. In 1980, the York Region court moved to their York Region Courthouse on Yonge Street and the Old Town Hall was closed for renovation.

Paul Aspland and Fraser Milne and the foundation committee continued to lobby the town for a performing arts centre on Fairy Lake. However, with the closure of the Old Town Hall, NTC had to find a new home while negotiations for a new theatre continued. The drama teacher at Pickering College and a member of NTC persuaded the Pickering College Board to allow NTC to perform there until renovations in the Old Town Hall were completed.

NTC moved into Pickering College auditorium for the 1979/80 season. The season opened with the musical Cabaret, followed by a fabulous performance of A Christmas Carol and ended the season with the musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The 1980/81 season was also at Pickering College.

A group of citizens in the area of the Cane Parkway took up a petition that there would be too much traffic to have a theatre on Cane Parkway. Negotiations for the new theatre with council hit rough patches.

As Ray Burdon explained at this time period, “I was present at a private meeting with Paul Aspland and Tony Marshall in the Mayor’s office (Mayor Ray Twinney) where he assured us that it was a done deal. When the vote was taken, the proposal was rejected.”

Town council held a public meeting to gauge support for the theatre and tourism. Paul Aspland and Fraser Milne gave the presentation with the support of one of the councillors and the director of parks and recreation. However, after a raucous meeting, the council turned down the proposal since the Old Town Hall was now ready for occupancy.

The ‘Let’s Build a Theatre’ Foundation was wound down …. The funds raised were returned to the donors and the remainder given to charity. The dream of a performing arts centre on Fairy Lake, complete with white swans, was dashed.

NTC had a meeting at the old Granada restaurant and in a misguided effort to urge council to alter their decision, the NTC members voted to not perform in the Old Town Hall and they would go back to Pickering College. However, Pickering College decided to develop a drama group from their own students.

In the meantime, the Town of Newmarket had sunk a lot of money into the renovations of the Old Town Hall on the condition that it would be a local arts centre with pottery, arts school and a venue for local theatre.

A large portion of the cost of the renovation was paid to the town from a Wintario grant on the condition that a community theatre group would perform in the renovated building. The Town had counted on NTC to return to perform in the building.

This led to the creation of the famed Old Town Hall Players. The OTHP formed in 1981 while the Old Town Hall was being renovated with this Wintario grant. The OTHP was formed by then Mayor Ray Twinney, Lynda (Gray) Fraser and Sam Twinney. Vivian Luesby came on the scene several years later. By all accounts, there was some misunderstanding with the NTC over the new theatre at Fairy Lake and Mayor Twinney became the patron of the OTHP. Due to constant changes in the opening date of the Old Town Hall, the first play by OTHP did not open until April 1982.

Lynda (Gray) Fraser has a plaque from the Town that recognizes her as the Founding President of the Old Town Hall Players from 1981-1983. Gary Tyas of Toronto was brought in by Lynda as Artistic Director. Mayor Ray Twinney urged Lynda to put an advertisement in The Newmarket Era for members of this new group and 60 people showed up.

The first OTHP executive included Lynda as President; Kathy Wheatley as Vice-President; Carol Green as Treasurer; and, Roy Green handling publicity.

The first play by OTHP was Arsenic and Old Lace, starring John McFadyen (News Director at CFRB at the time) as the escaped criminal and Ray Austin (the morning DJ on CKAN Radio in Newmarket) as Dr. Einstein.

The cast included Roy Green, who was news director at CKAN at the time, longtime thespian Kay Valentine as Aunt Abby Brewster, Noreen Aldridge as Elaine Harper, and Eleanor Whibley as Aunt Martha Brewster.

The OTHP rehearsed this play for approximately six months, waiting for the Old Town Hall to be finished renovations. Although renovations weren’t complete, the play did go on stage in March 1981, with the official opening of the renovated Old Town Hall held October 23, 1982.

The OTHP put on plays that always ran for two weeks, with opening night always free for seniors. Over the years, OTHP put on special performances for various charitable organizations. These plays were reviewed by the renowned Ruby Haskett, wife of the legendary long-time Sports Editor of The Newmarket Era, George Haskett.

The OTHP’s next play was the comedy Lovers and Other Strangers, which hit the stage in October, 1982. It was directed by John McFadyen and starred Diane Haskett as Brenda and Ray Austin as Jerry.

In 1983, the NTC returned to the Old Town Hall under the direction of Ray Burdon as Artistic Director. Their premiere was Boeing Boeing, a comedy. Ray brought the idea of a British Pantomime to NTC and the tradition of performing a British pantomime each season was born and for the next few years, the Old Town Hall stage was full of laughter as the late British actor Alan Cox performed as the Dame.

In 1984, NTC and OTHP were both performing at the Old Town Hall and both theatre groups alternated dates throughout the year. Each performed three plays per season.

For example, during this time, the NTC did Doctor In The House, with John Dowson as the surgeon, his younger brother Charles in the lead in his first role and also the late Peter Stanton, also in his first role. It was directed by the talented Gillian Rourke.

During this time, OTHP had some memorable performances, such as The Night of January 16th, written by Ann Rand, and starring the late John McFadyen,  Noreen Aldridge, Faye Longhurst, the late Chuck Cino and Gillian Rourke, among others in February and March of 1983. This play was notable as it picked the jury from the audience and the ending changed depending on the verdict. Also notable is Noreen Aldridge replaced Lynette Braks in the lead role. It had a cast of 20 people.

The OTHP 1983-1984 season included Design for Murder; Curious Savage; and Tribute. Design for Murder opened November 10, with Kay Valentine as Director. Curious Savage opened February 23, 1983 and starred Ray Austin as Hannibal, Kay Valentine as Mrs. Savage and Diane Haskett as Lilly Belle. That year ended with Tribute starring Lynda (Gray) Fraser and Chuck Cino.

Realizing that one group of 100 would have better negotiation opportunities than two groups of 50, NTC and OTHP began the amalgamation process in 1993. It was completed in 1995 with the Newmarket Stage Company being formed.

A committee was set up to choose a new name and to write a constitution and the Newmarket Stage Company was created. However, some members of both groups were bitter about the amalgamation so they left and joined other area theatre groups. From all accounts, there was some hostility between the two groups prior to the merge.

Prior to Gail Cook being named president of the Old Town Hall Players Noreen Aldridge stepped down as president of OTHP. She noted that “the two groups were very different.” Most of NTC plays were British with a lot of British plays and farces. The OTHP did a lot of Canadian plays and also “did one play each season that stretched us.”

At the time of amalgamation, Gail Cook was the president of The Old Town Hall Players and Rick Koury was the president of Newmarket Theatre Centre. Once the groups amalgamated, Dwight Jones was the first president of the Newmarket Stage Company (NSC). Ray Burdon and Noreen Walmsley (Aldridge) were honoured with lifetime memberships in NSC as a thank you to their years of service with their “home” groups.

By all accounts, the Town did not insist on NTC and OTHP merging, but Town Council suggested strongly that perhaps they should. A meeting was set up upstairs at the Grey Goat and a vote was taken to merge.

The newly-formed group applied for a new (and was able to retain) its charitable number, which helped to raise funds to help with the costs. Rick Koury, who spent 10 years as President of the NSC noted, “After amalgamation some play selections caused some controversy and the membership dropped.”

As the new Newmarket Stage Company, Noreen Aldridge directed My Husband’s Wild Desires Almost Drove Me Mad in April of 2008 still in the Old Town Hall, starring Brian Hargan and an amazing actress in the lead from Theatre Aurora, Laurie Campbell.

Before the Old Town Hall closed for renovations, the Newmarket Stage Company did the panto Cinderella, with Emily Mathieson as Cinderella; Thomas Cooper as Button; Mark Hayward and Gregory Morton as the Ugly Sisters; John Dowson as Baron Hardup; and Sue Meacock as the Barnoness. It was directed by Ray Burdon and produced by Shelley Mathieson. Ann Cox was assistant director.

The last play prior to closing at the Old Town Hall was by the Newmarket Stage Company and directed by Noreen Aldridge and was Wrong For Each Other in April 2009, which was attended by its famed playwright, Norm Foster, who was actually raised in Newmarket. By all accounts, it was an honor to have Foster attend.

During this time Paul Aspland had taken a position as assistant director to Peter Hall in the National Theatre in London, England, where he stayed for many years. As Paul explained, “I left in 1982 after many adventures, changes of venue (Pickering) etc. I think in all I did 25 plays…..Oh dear.”

In 2009, the Old Town Hall was expected to close permanently, but instead shut down for extensive renovations once again and the Newmarket Stage Company was forced to move to the Newmarket Theatre.

The Newmarket Stage Company moved to the Newmarket Theatre and did not have much success. There is some disagreement between the NSC and the Town, but NSC maintains it lost the bar revenue and could not get in to create sets and rehearse until the day prior to the first performance and paid far more for the Newmarket Theatre.

These claims are disputed by the Town, who maintain fees for Newmarket Theatre were almost the same as the Old Town Hall and that the NSC did not sell enough alcohol to cover the Special Occasion Permit for Alcohol.

Despite these claims, all of these problems took a toll on the NSC’s revenues, audience and membership, not to mention morale of its members. They just weren’t drawing the audiences, their revenues were down and the group almost folded.

For the past few years, even while the Old Town Hall was still under renovations, the NSC began a relationship with the Newmarket Legion and has performed a number of memorable plays there over the past few of years.

The Newmarket Stage Company has built up a faithful audience at the Newmarket Legion with memorable plays, such as the initial Cookin’ With Gus, The Last Romance, Opal’s Million Dollar Duck, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Ladies Foursome, The Cemetery Club, The Odd Couple – (Female Version), and most recently, The Housekeeper.

The NSC  has on its Board: Sue Meacock, a tireless worker who always acts as Producer of the plays, Peter Salt usually builds the excellent sets and also the very experienced Artistic Director Teri Hallett, who usually directs these comedies.

They have attracted back some superb actors, such as Marlo Alcock, Susan Lane and Denise Kennedy as regulars, actor/director Jeff Burke, and actor/director Kay Valentine in their selection of hilarious comedies that fill the Newmarket Legion to capacity.

The Newmarket Stage Company held its Annual General Meeting in June of this year and has selected an outstanding Board to lead it through the next theatre season, under the direction of President Diane Ament.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This history is from the recollections of many people. It is in no way written in ‘stone’. If you, the reader, have any knowledge or recollection of the past theatre years in Newmarket, it can certainly be added. Please contact the Newmarket Stage Company at e-mail:  newmarketstagecompany@gmail.com. We thank you for your interest in community theatre in Newmarket.