Tag Archives: Victoria PEI

Six Oysters Ahoy

IMG_6834 2

“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on the eating of oysters.”  King James VI and I

“I checked the weather report,” said Frank Glass.

“What did you find out?” asked Vera Glass.

“It’s going to be the same today as it was yesterday.”

“Is it going to rain all day?” asked Vera.

“You don’t need a weatherman for that,” said Frank, throwing a glance at the window.

A steady rain was falling outside the large front window of the cottage, down on the long sloping lawn of the Coastline Cottages, on the Gulf Shore Parkway, on the three houses on the other side of the road, and out to the horizon as far as they could see. The sky was dark over Doyle’s Cove. Broad surfboard-sized waves worked up the water. When Frank looked out the northwest-facing kitchen window, the sky, where the weather was coming from, was even darker.

“What should we do? It rained all day yesterday. I’m getting cabin fever.”

“We could play cards, read, and talk among ourselves. How about dinner and a show?”

“That sounds good, especially the part about dinner,” said Vera. “Where do you want to eat?”

“There’s a show opening tonight at the Victoria Theatre.”

“All right, but what about dinner?”

“We could eat at the Landmark, it’s right there.”

“I’ve always liked the Landmark,” said Vera. “Eugene is a great cook. They have the best meat pies.”

“Somebody told me he sold it and there are new owners,” said Frank.

“What? How can that be? Eugene and Olivier and Rachel are gone?”

The Sauve family tree had repurposed an old grocery store in Victoria into a café restaurant in the late 1980s, adding a deck, digging a basement for storage and coolers, and expanding their dining space several times. They were a perennial ‘Best Place to Eat on Prince Edward Island’ in the magazine Canadian Living.

“It’s now called the Landmark Oyster House.”

“I love oysters,” said Vera. “Let’s go.”

It was still raining when Frank and Vera drove up Church Hill Road and swung onto Route 6, through North Rustico to Route 13, through Hunter River and Kelly’s Cross. It was still raining when they pulled into the small seaside town of Victoria on the other side of Prince Edward Island, on the Northumberland Straight side, 45 minutes later. It rained on them as they rushed into the Landmark Oyster House.

There wasn’t a table to be had, but there were two seats at the bar.

“Look, we’re right in front of the oysters,” said Vera, as they sat down at the closed end of it. “I love this spot.”

Kieran Goodwin, the bartender, agreed, standing on the other side of the bar, on the other side of a large shallow stainless steel bin full of raw oysters on ice.

“Best seats in the house,” he said. “They were going to put the bar in the front room, but the dimensions didn’t work out.”

“Who’s they?” asked Frank.

Vera looked the chalkboard on the wall up and down. The names of the oysters on ice were written on the board. There were six of them, Valley Pearl, Sand Dune, Shipwreck, Blackberry Point, Lucky Limes, and Dukes. She looked down into the bin. She couldn’t make heads or tails of which were which. She knew raw oysters were alive, more-or-less.

She wondered, how could you even tell?

“Greg and Marly Anderson,” said Kieran. “They own a wedding venue up the road.”  It is the Grand Victoria Wedding Events Venue, in a restored former 19th century church. “When this opportunity came up, when Eugene was looking to tone it down a bit, they decided to purchase it.”

“I worked at the Oyster House in Charlottetown shucking oysters for almost five years,” said Marly. “We heard that the family wanted to retire because they had been working at this restaurant for 29 years. We already felt a connection to this place and we are friends and neighbors with the family.”

“They’ve put their roots down in the community, are making their stand here,” said Kieran.

“I like what they’ve done in here, casual but upscale,” said Vera.

“It looks like the kitchen is more enclosed than it was,” observed Frank.

“Yeah, they did up a wall,” said Kieran. “When you used to walk in, you could peek right in.”

“I remember Eugene telling us once he learned all his cooking from his mom. Who does the cooking now?”

“Kaela Barnett is our chef.”

“We couldn’t do this without her,” said Greg Anderson.

Somebody’s got to have a steady hand on the ladle that stirs the soup.

“I’m thinking of doing oysters and a board,” said Vera.

“That’s a good choice,” said Kieran. “I recommend the large board. You get a bit of everything. I personally like getting some cheese.”

“Me, too.”

“Are you oyster connoisseurs?” asked Kieran.

“Not me,” said Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I ate an oyster.”

“I wish I was, but I love them,” said Vera. “We were on the island last year and went to the Merchantman in Charlottetown with Doug and Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. We had oysters and she went through all the ones we ate, explaining them to me.”

“Would you like something from the bar?” asked Kieran.

“I’ll take the Gahan on tap, the 1772 Pale Ale.”

“What wine goes with oysters?” asked Vera.

“We have a beautiful California chardonnay,” said Kieran. “It’s great with shellfish. I recommend it.”

“This is good, fruity,” said Vera, tasting it.

“We have six oysters,” said Kieran. “You could do one of each.”

“That’s what I’ll do,” said Vera.

“I think I’ll have the seafood chowder and some of the board,” said Frank.

“Oh, Frank, try one,” said Vera.

“Lucky Limes are my favorite,” said Kieran. “It’s a good medium oyster.”

“OK, I’ll try it,” said Frank, shrugging.

Kieran handed him a Lucky Lime.

“How do I eat this thing?” Frank asked Vera.

“Sometimes I chew it, sometimes I don’t,” she said.

“Some people like putting stuff on it, like horseradish, which kills the taste,” said Kieran. “But straight up is best. That’s how islanders do it, just shuck it.”

Frank looked down at the liquid-filled half shell.

“From the wide end,” said Kieran.

He slurped the oyster into his mouth and swallowed it.

“Now you’re a pro,” said Vera.

“That wasn’t bad,” said Frank. “How could you tell it was a Lucky Lime? They all look the same to me.”

“If you look at the chalkboard, it’s one through six. That’s one way.”

“Can you tell by looking at them?” asked Vera.

“I can tell by the shell,” said Kieran. “The ones that are more green, that means there’s more saltwater content. So this is a Sand Dune, quite briny. That one is almost straight salt water.” He pointed to an even darker greener shell.

“The Shipwreck, the name made me nervous to have it, but it was mild,” said Vera.

“It would be farther up the estuary, closer to fresh water.”

“Blackberry Point was very salty.”

“The Blackberry’s are from Malpeque, which is near Cavendish,” said Kieran. “The Sand Dune is from Surrey, down east, and the Lucky Limes are from New London Bay. Valley Pearl is from Tyne Valley and the Dukes are from Ten Mile Creek.”

“I thought you were just making all this up,” said Frank.

“No, its like wine,” said Kieran.

“How did you get into the shellfish racket?” asked Frank.

“I graduated in business, traveled, lived in New Zealand and Australia, and then came back home, and worked in a bank as a financial advisor for six years, in Summerside and Charlottetown, but then I just got tired of working in a bank, and went back to school.”

“How did you find your way here, behind the bar?”

“I date Jamie, who is Marly’s sister.”

“Are those pickled carrots?” asked Vera, pointing at the charcuterie board in front of her.

“Yes, and you have raisin jam, too,” said Kieran.

“Chutney, stop the madness!” exclaimed Vera. “Oh, it’s strawberry jam. It just looks like chutney. It’s delicious.”

“We had raisin pie at a small diner in Hunter River the other day,” said Frank.

“The one by the side of the road, up from the Irving gas station?” asked Kieran.

“That’s the one,” said Frank. “The waitress told us she always thinks of raisin pie as funeral pie, because back in the day, if there was a funeral in the winter, women always made raisin pies for the reception after the memorial service, because raisins kept all year round.”

“Can I take my oyster shells with me?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said Kieran. ”We can get a little bag for you.”

“You can really taste the sea eating oysters,” said Vera. “Blackberry Point was a little thin and too salty, but once you eat one, and you don’t like it, whoa, what are you going to do? Valley Pearl didn’t have a lot of flavor, but there was some good texture to it. Lucky Lime was very good. My favorite was Sand Dune. It had a strong ocean flavor, briny.”

“I’ve heard people say oysters are slimy, but the one I had, it didn’t seem that way,” said Frank. “I can see having oysters again.”

“Don’t people sometimes say the world is your oyster?” said Vera.

“Do you want dessert?” asked Kieran.

“Do you have carrot cake?”

“It’s made here.”

“We’ll split a slice of that, and two coffees, thanks.”

As Vera and Frank dug into their carrot cake, there was a commotion at the other end of the bar. Kieran, Jamie, and Marly were huddling over glowing screens.

“Did your electronics go haywire?” asked Frank when Kieran brought them coffee.

“The microwave in the basement tripped the breaker. We hardly ever use it, except to melt butter sometimes. It’s weird, it’s been working until now. We have a thing that magnifies our wi-fi signal. We just found out it’s on the same circuit.”

“My mother was a pastry chef,” said Vera. ”She didn’t use microwaves much, but whenever she did, she always said, ‘I’m going to nuke it now!’”

Frank and Vera used their forks on the last crumbs of their cake and finished their coffee. Frank checked the time on his iPhone. “Time to go, sweetheart,” he said. They paid the bill and stood to go.

“Enjoy the show, hope to see you again,” Kieran said as Frank and Vera walked out of the Oyster House.

“It’s raining and sunny at the same time,” said Frank as they dashed across the street to the Victoria Theatre, yellow slanting sunlight leading the way.

“That’s PEI for you,” said Vera. “By the way, what are we seeing?”

“Where You Are.”

“I know where we are,” said Vera.

“That’s the name of the show,” said Frank.

“Aha, I see,” said Vera.

“Hustle it up, we’re almost late.”

They went up the steps into the theater, got their programs, and sat down. Vera tucked the bag of shells under her seat. “Wherever you are, there you are, oyster boys and girls” she thought, making sure they were safe and sound.

“How could you even tell?” she wondered as the lights went down and the show started.

Photograph by Vanessa Staskus

aerial-beverage-coffee-990825

Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus

 

 

Advertisements

Making the Landmark

345156-eugene-sauve-proprietaire-landmark-cafe-e1550336589734.jpg

There are thousands of moving parts to restaurants, from sourcing good food for the larder to wage and safety regulations to clearing the tables. Keeping the doors open is an exercise in controlling chaos. That’s why Calvin Trillin, the New York City food writer, has said he never eats in a restaurant more than hundred feet off the ground.

It can be a way of life, a labor of love, and Dante’s Inferno all rolled up in one, especially if you are the owner and chef at the same time.

Restaurants are fine dining with a reserved atmosphere and noisy gastropubs and clam chowder shacks on the beach. All restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, need stoves and ovens and grills to prepare food. And no matter what kind of a restaurant it is, unless it’s a street takeaway or a food truck, it needs chairs, tables, and booths.

“There was a neighbor of mine up the road in Crapaud, a farmer, who had built tables for a little church fair,” said Eugene Sauve, the owner and chef of the Landmark Café in Victoria, a seacoast town on the Northumberland Strait side of Prince Edward Island. “I asked him if he would consider building tables and a whole bunch of chairs for me. A week later he said, I’ll do it for two thousand.”

A dozen some tables and forty chairs were made. It was 1988. “I didn’t have a formal plan, but it was all visually in my mind,” said Eugene. “I knew I wanted a big round one. The tables and chairs in the front and back dining rooms are still the originals. The big round table is still in the front.”

The Landmark Café, in the centuries old building that had once been Craig’s Grocery Store, opened on the day long-time Victoria resident Hope Laird drove her three-wheeled bicycle through the grand opening ceremonial ribbon. Almost everyone in town was there.

“When we were kids we used to call Craig’s Store the Landmark,” she said. “Say meet you at the Landmark and all the kids would meet you there.”

“So, that’s what we called it,” said Eugene Sauve.

Restaurateurs open eateries because they are conversant with the business, are self-motivated, and are usually people with people skills. They are foodies who want to match a menu with what they love to do. Sometimes they are people who just like getting their hands wet and dirty, like to be on their feet all day, and like to work long, long hours.

Opening your own sit-down means pulling up your pants, pilgrim. It takes gumption and hard work the spread out hours you are on your feet. It takes nerve, too. 50% of all restaurants go south inside of three years. After a decade more than 70% have closed their doors.

Why do friends let friends open restaurants?

“I remember having nightmares opening this place,” said Eugene. “All my friends were saying, you’re crazy, you’re wasting your money.”

What Eugene Sauve’s friends didn’t know was that he had worked in restaurants since he was 16-years-old, and had an outsize appetite, to boot. A business centering on an all-you-can-eat business plan made all the sense in the world. “Growing up I played a lot of hockey and I was always hungry,” he said.

“My father was very formal. He was a banker. He would come home from work, go upstairs, get out of his suit, come downstairs, sit down, and only then was supper served. So, I volunteered to help in the kitchen. I had three sisters, but they weren’t interested. My mom was an amazing great cook. One night dinner would be Japanese, another Italian, another French.”

He helped her and helped himself.  “Every time my mom turned her back in the kitchen I was eating.”

In the early 1970s Euene Sauve’s father, Eugene, Sr., was transferred from Quebec to British Columbia. He was the first French-Canadian to become vice-president of a major bank in western Canada. Eugene’s sisters, as they grew up, went into banking, too, following the lead of their father.

“I was the only one who got away,” said Eugene.

Before his father was a banker, he was a football player in high school and later joined the Canadian Navy.

“After his military service he became a loan officer in a bank. Sometimes loans would only be ten or twenty dollars and he would literally hound guys for fifty cents. It was right after the war and every penny counted. Since he had also once been a boxer, he was an ideal collector.”

After leaving home in the mid 70s Eugene was on the road and staying in a small coastal town in Portugal. It was where he found out for himself what good food was, the kind of food he describes to this day as something that “snaps and cracks.” It was the kind of food three decades after opening the Landmark Café he continues to procure and make and serve.

“When I was in Portugal the fishermen would come in, take a little nap, get dressed up, and walk around the plaza, drinking coffee and booze. Their women would go to work, sardines on the barbeque, dipped in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with a big crusty roll. Those are my images of good food, good simple food.”

There’s a difference between good table manners and good food. No one needs a silver spoon to eat the best food.

By the 1980s, although his wanderlust had not, and has not to this day abated, he found himself living, working, and newly married in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Julia was from New York, performing in a modern dance company. That’s how we met.” He was soon working in the performing arts and the father of the first of two children.

But his children didn’t grow up in PEI’s capital city. Charlottetown is the province’s largest city. They grew up in Victoria. It is one of the province’s smallest communities.

“Erskine Smith, the director of the theater in Victoria, phoned me in April one day, out of the blue,” said Eugene. “He said, I’d like to have you at the Victoria Playhouse, would you come out to talk?”

The seaside town that is Victoria, once known simply as Lot 29, was founded in 1819.  Besides landing fish, its livelihood was shipping potatoes and eggs to Europe and the West Indies. Today there are some year-round residents, but not many more than a hundred. Summer is what animates the former seaport of family-run fine and folk-art galleries, artisan chocolate and coffee shops, and the Victoria Playhouse. The Landmark Café is kitty-corner to the theater.

The town in April is quiet wet cold.  “I had a half-hour, I walked around, and I instantly felt something here, something about this place. I got the job, and a month in someone at the theater says to me, there’s a house on the corner. I think the guy wants to sell it.” By the end of the summer Eugene Sauve and his nascent family were living in Victoria.

Two years later he approached Annie Craig about renting her grocery store to him for a new seasonal café to serve the theater’s playgoers.

“She had the post office, a bit of pension, although she wasn’t making a living at the store. But, she said no,” said Eugene.

Two months later he approached her again. “This time I asked her if I could buy it. She said no, again.”

Annie Craig spent winters knitting sitting in a rocking chair in the back corner of the store. “Under our carpet you can see where she wore the floor out, rubbing her feet as she rocked,” said Rachel, Eugene’s daughter. “She wore through the tile and into the wood.”

The Craig’s Grocery Store building was almost two hundred years old. It had been gambled away in a card game and had once been sold with the bill of sale hand written on the back of a pack of cigarettes. Before it was a grocery it had a history of cobbling, butchering, and bootlegging.

Annie Craig called back the next spring. “You know what, I will sell to you,” she said.

“How much?” asked Eugene Sauve.

“Twenty thousand. I’m going to be firm on that,” she said.

“You got a deal,” he said.

“20 grand,” he thought after hanging up the phone. “Where am I going to get 20 grand?”

Entrepreneurs need capital to get going, but banks don’t like lending to start-up businesses. “They have no historical income,” said Tom Swenson, chief executive of an American bank. “If you are proposing a start-up business, you are de facto proposing something that doesn’t meet typical bank underwriting standards.”

If it’s a food-related business, they like it even less, because restaurants have high rates of default, no matter how much people like eating the food or how well known the chef might be. A healthy dose of skepticism is the default setting of most banks, or at least it should be. Many start-ups look to their families for cash.

Eugene Sauve looked to his father, who was family, and a banker, too.

“My father lent me the 20 grand, since I was determined to open it for exactly that amount of money,” he said. “But I had to bring him in as a partner. It cost me 50 for 20 the six years he was my partner, which was pretty darn good for him, which explains why he was a banker.”

He stuck to his budget by buying end-of-the-roll carpeting on the cheap, cadging no cost paint that had been returned because it was the wrong color, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself. “A buddy of mine was an electrician. I worked with him. That‘s how it all fell together.”

His first stove was an old 4-burner Enterprise. The galvanized range hood came from a bakery going bankrupt. He was the dishwasher, sous chef, and chef. The kitchen had no air conditioning. “It used to be so hot in here it was unbelievable.”

The Landmark Café in Victoria opened in the summer of 1989.  In the movies they say things like, “If you build it, they will come.” In real life not everything is scripted. “The first day was really scary,” said Eugene. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to walk in.”

But if you build something good somebody is going to pay good money for it.

“The best Caesar salad I have ever experienced. The flavors were amazing. And the seafood pasta was melt in your mouth delicious,” said a man finishing his seafood pasta.

“I had been searching for a great seafood chowder,” said a woman in a print skirt. “After four other places this was the very best I’ve had on the island so far, just delicious.”

“I usually go with the flavorful Acadian meat pie, but yesterday I tried the special, a fish burger,” said a frequent diner. “It was delicious.”

When you’re serving people delicious food they don’t complain.

Not much beats delicious. Sunshine and fresh air are delicious. Kissing is delicious, tastier than sex. You don’t have to think about rotisserie chicken to know that it’s delicious. Authentic fresh yummy ingredients like island beef, island fish, and island produce are what make the Landmark Café a landmark when Eugene Sauve prepares and brings them to the table.

A decade-and-a-half after opening, in the mid-aughts, the family, son Oliver and daughter Rachel having joined the labor force, expanded the Landmark Café. “We lifted the whole building, since we had a problem with storage and there was no basement, which we needed to grow,“ said Eugene.

“We added 40 seats and that changed everything, since we were turning people away. The air conditioning in the kitchen got done, too. I’m the chef here, anyway, and I need to stay cool. That way we serve more food and everybody’s happy.”

For all the changes and renovations, the original chairs and tables built by Crapaud farmer George Nicholson thirty years ago are still what many diners sit on and eat at in the Landmark Café. In the course of time, however, things happen, chairs and tables sometimes taking the brunt of it.

Opening the restaurant one morning after a stormy night Eugene Sauve found a note addressed to him.

Dear Eugene,

Please accept my sincere apology for the disorderly behavior I displayed last evening. Enclosed is a cheque that I hope is sufficient for the purchase of a new table. It’s been awhile since I’ve let myself loose like that and I’m only sorry it was at your expense.

Signed, Pam

The next day he wrote back.

Pam, the table is going to be fixed with a little glue. There’s no problem. You are always welcome here.

Love, Eugene

Who doesn’t want to stop and eat and drink and kick back somewhere where the chairs are time tested and sturdy and the table is always set for you?

aerial-beverage-coffee-990825

Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus

 

Opening Act

maxresdefault

Before they turned the Victoria Hall into the Victoria Playhouse, and before they spent the next thirty years transforming the theater into ‘PEI’s Longest Running Little Theatre’, Erskine and Pat Smith bought a house in Victoria. The house, in which Pat Smith lives to this day, had bathrooms, running water, and electricity.

Their house in Point Deroche, where they had been living for three years, had no bathroom, no running water, and no electricity.

Victoria is a village on a sheltered harbor on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island. It is an arts community of family-run businesses. The year-round population is just a few heads above a hundred. Point Deroche is a pocket-sized community on the north shore. There are some summer cottages and a quiet gulf- side beach.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Point Deroche.

“Erskine and I homesteaded there,” said Pat. “We lived in a house that had been built in one day.”

Reggie and Annie McInnis, a brother and sister whose home burned down, built the emergency house in Point Deroche. “They were subsistence farmers. They had no money. They were poor people, but kind and generous.”

The McInnis’s gathered driftwood, had it milled, and cobbled the house together.  They nailed the roof down when the sun was shining. It served as shelter against a rainy day.

“It was unfinished on the inside,” said Pat. “You could see all the wormholes from the sea worms that had eaten into the wood.” As small as the house was, there were three rooms and two more upstairs. There was a well and the Smiths built an outhouse.

“Erskine hauled in a Silver Moon wood cook stove.” In the wintertime the stove never went cold. “That’s how we heated the house.”

Erskine Noble Smith, a native PEI-man, lived the length and breadth of Canada. His father was in the Armed Forces and was routinely transferred from base to base. Military brats are time and again drawn to the stage because they’ve learned how to make a fast impression at the drop of a hat.

Pat Stunden Smith moved to Prince Edward Island from Montreal to work at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. “I applied to work in the art gallery, but ended up as a tour guide,” she said.

After graduating from university she applied again and was accepted as an assistant curator. She worked at the gallery for several years.

“Then I got itchy feet.”

She traveled, lived in Toronto, and returned to Prince Edward Island. She enrolled at Holland College School of Visual Arts and trained in weaving and silver work. Erskine Smith met his wife-to-be the one and only time she ever appeared on stage.

“I had just moved back to the island, and I thought I needed to meet people, so I joined the Drama Club. I never wanted to be on stage after my first show, which was Brigadoon, but Erskine was in the audience, and we met at a party afterwards.”

Brigadoon is a musical about a mysterious village that appears out of thin air only one day once every one hundred years, and where a man and woman stumble onto each other and fall in love.

“There’s a nice little house in Victoria for sale,” Erskine said to his wife one night after work. He was working in children’s theater, lunchtime performances, and cadging shows around the island. He had taken on the role of Ronald McDonald, as well, becoming the jump suited big shoe big heart clown character for the whole of the Atlantic Canada region.

“He went to every parade and every hospital for seven years,” said Pat. “Kids loved him and he loved kids. He could just touch people. He had children die in his arms.”

The next day the family drove the family car through the heart of the crescent-shaped island to Victoria.

“After my daughter Emily turned three, and I got pregnant with my son Jonathan, no running water became an issue. We were young, but I was tired of washing diapers by hand, and my parents were desperate to help us find another house.”

The Smith family looked at, walked through, and ran the taps in the house. “Yeah, this is a good move for us,” they all agreed.

Victoria is a handful of blocks one way and a handful of blocks the other way. The Victoria Hall, built by a local carpenter between 1912 and 1914, was built at the exact center of the village. It is a wood shingled building with a gambrel roof. For more than seventy years it was where lobster suppers, quilting bees, and community council meetings were held.

It was home to the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute.

“The identity of Victoria is in the buildings that have been here for generations,” said Stephen Hunter, for many years the chef and owner of the Victoria Village Inn.

But, the Trans Canada Highway bypassed Victoria in the 1960s and many businesses left. The village declined as people moved in search of work. “It went into a lull for about two decades,” said Henry Dunsmore, owner of the Studio Gallery.

“When we moved here the hall was a community hall, but it wasn’t being used by the community,” said Pat. “It was empty.” Except for the New York City performing arts troupe that came some summers and put on shows.

“The village loved them, but they left a mess. They were kids, renting an old house, and living the life of Riley, although they had nothing. They raided the Women’s Institute room in the hall and took everything, dishes, silverware.”

While Erskine Smith tromped up and down the Maritimes in his red oversized Ronald McDonald shoes, Pat Smith started up a kindergarten, which she soon moved into the basement of the Victoria Hall.

“Don’t quit your day job,” play-actors are often warned. Pat went on to teach kindergarten for fifteen years. Since so many entertainers are the voices of cartoon characters on TV and in the movies, her classroom might have been a kind of informal inadvertent in-house training ground.

One day in 1981 Frieda and Loren McLelland, who owned a craft shop in the village, visited the Smiths. “Is there any way you could get the theatre going again?” they asked. “It would be good for the community.”

“It hadn’t occurred to us,” said Pat.

“Yeah, I think we can do it,” said Erskine.

“Actor people, do we want any of them?” asked the community council cross-examining the proposal.

“It wasn’t all easy sailing. What made the difference was that we were living in the community,” said Pat. “If they weren’t happy they knew where we lived.”

Where they lived was a few minutes walk from the Victoria Hall.

Erskine Smith recruited himself as actor and Artistic Director. “He looked after everything that happened on stage. Storytelling was who he was.” Charlene McLean and Bill McFadden came on board. Pat Smith became the General Manager, running the box office, searching for funding, writing press releases and programs, and everything else. “It’s a small community theatre. When things need to get done everybody needs to be on board 100%.”

They strategized, developed a mission statement, and opened a bank account. They recruited a Board of Directors.

Then they took a close look at the hall.

“It looked completely different,” said Pat.

The stage was painted black. The Women’s Institute had been using the stage for their suppers. The walls were painted, too, and the ceiling was false. “They had an oil furnace up in what is now our parts room and they pumped the heat down through the ceiling. We took that false ceiling out.“

The seats were hardwood pressed-back chairs. They were attached to two-by-fours because the floor was raked. The back legs of all 153 seats had been sawed down three inches and bolted to the two-by-fours. “The back legs had to be shorter so the seats would be level,” said Pat.

“We had a fund-raiser and auctioned off those chairs. I don’t know where, but they all actually went.”

The theater lacked a proscenium, which is the arch that frames the stage. It is the metaphorical fourth wall, a kind of window around the set. They are helpful to actors because on the other side they can pretend to not hear what the audience is saying, or not saying. It helps the company to mind their own business.

The proscenium was fashioned by chain saw and grinder. David Bennett, a set designer, did the job on his own after everyone else had gone home. “He was a creative guy. He marked the pine boards with a magic marker, did the initial cuts with a chain saw, and then used a small grinder,” said Pat.

“Everybody pitched in to make sure things worked.”

They tracked summer sunset times to make sure they knew when the theater’s windows could be opened during a performance. “We didn’t get air conditioning until 2004,” said Pat. “The windows were darkened and as soon as it got dark outside we would open them so there would be a cross draft in the auditorium.”

The Victoria Playhouse mounted its first show the summer of 1982. “All there was on the island at that time was the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and then we did what we needed to do and there was the Victoria. It was a very different landscape back then.”

Opening nights only happen once. After all the preparations and rehearsals you’re on your own. The lights go down and the curtain goes up. It helps, however, that opening night is for your friends and community. There were just enough seats in the new theater for them.

The Victoria Playhouse’s first season ran two months. It featured three plays running in repertory. The plays were Dear Liar, The Belle of Amherst, and The Owl and the Pussycat. “The Owl and the Pussycat want to get married – but they’re in the middle of the sea! They reach the land where the Bong Trees grow, and alight to find a vicar and a ring.”

Everybody was on board and everybody was all in. Everything came alive. Pat and Erskine Smith pulled it off.

Theatergoers go to plays because they want to have a great time at the theater. The best show halls, like the Victoria Playhouse, are more like verbs than they are nouns. It’s an event as much as it’s a place. It’s where the drama comedy musical happens, bold funny truthful. You can’t bail out of a story once it’s gotten going, even though most shows at small theaters are just a few characters in a room living it up.

What happens in a lifetime can sometimes be random and disordered. The walk of life is learning about the going by going. In performance on stage the story about what’s happened is put into order and fleshed out. When the season ended Erskine Smith went to work reading plays for the next season, which in time came to mean eighty performances seven days a week all summer long. He continued to do so for thirty years until his untimely death in 2013.

“Erskine was a real storyteller,” said Pat. “Oh, yeah, he loved stories. As long as I knew him, we would go to parties and all of a sudden everyone’s in the kitchen and there’s Erskine telling stories.”

Erskine Smith was the glow in the kitchen, the man in the smoke of the campfire, the storyteller who loved the stage. Pat Smith made sure the nuts and bolts were in all the right places. Today their son and daughter, Jonathan, set carpenter and scenic painter, and Emily, Assistant General Manager, spend the off-season on Prince Edward Island getting ready for the next season.

Standing in the wings while the show goes on Erskine Smith would be happy to see who’s working in the wings.

aerial-beverage-coffee-990825

Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus