Tag Archives: Victoria Playhouse

Making the Landmark

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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?

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

 

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Show on the Road

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Erin McQueen isn’t blonde, doesn’t often wear pearls carry a silk hand fan or suit up in gilded dresses with bows at the breast and puffed sleeves, and rarely looks perplexed. She does, however, speak with an English accent, which comes in handy when you’re a blonde sporting a string of pearls in a posh dress in the Restoration-era play “The Man of Mode.”

Staged by the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the comedy by George Etherege is about a notorious man-about-town trying to slip-slide out of his love affairs and win over the young spunky seemingly virtuous heiress Harriet.

The play hit the bright lights way back when at just the right time. William Shakespeare had died 60 years earlier. The screws tightened by the Puritans had been recently loosened and women were finally being allowed to play female roles on stage.

There’s nothing like a gal in a gal’s role, rather than some scruffy cross-dresser.

“The make up and costumes are totally different from any other show we’ve done,” said Erin, then in her final year at the school. “Having the period costumes is really exciting. It’s a total transformation. The play truly is an authentic glimpse inside the intricate dating scene of 1676.”

Although she paced her prowling at a good trot, cast arched looks in the stagecraft of 17th century love stories, and had at it with barbed one-liners, like everyone else in a play that is all innuendo and intrigue, unlike everyone else in the play her English accent was neither feigned nor all wrong.

Even though she graduated from high school in Canada, spent four years at Dalhousie University, earning a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Theatre, lives in Victoria on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, and her father is Canadian, she isn’t, not entirely Canadian, not exactly.

Erin McQueen is British, born and bred in Bristol.

“It’s right on the border with Wales,” said Erin.

Iron Age hill forts and remnants of Roman villas dot the southwestern British landscape. In the 11th century the town was known as Brycgstow, easier to pronounce then than it is now. The port was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery to the New World in the 15th century. Today the modern economy of the city is built on aerospace, electronics, and creative media.

Unlike most cities, it has its own money, the Bristol pound, which is pegged to the Pound sterling. “Our town, our money,” is what they say in Bristol. Since money is a matter of belief, it’s best to believe in what you’ve got.

“There are a lot of art festivals,” said Erin.

“They do a scavenger hunt every summer with ceramic animals. They started with gorillas, giving giant ceramic gorillas to artists, who painted them, and businesses sponsored them in their shops and on sidewalks, where you had to find them. They have a theatre festival, too, but that only started when we left.”

She was 16-years-old.

“The first time we came to Canada we went to see Halifax, where my father was born. It also happened to be the 150th anniversary of ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ My sister Caitlin was a massive fan. My parents finally said, ‘OK, we are in Halifax anyway, we’ll just pop over to Prince Edward Island.’”

She was 11-years-old.

“We did the tour, all the Anne of Green Gables things,” said Caitlin McQueen. They stayed in Victoria, a small village of maybe one hundred residents near the Westmoreland River. It is much, much smaller than Bristol, which is the 8th largest urban area in England, home to nearly a million.

”I remember saying to Erin, I know I’ve never been here before, but I feel like I am coming home. I feel like I am supposed to be here. It is a dream come true.”

“I don’t really know what happened after that,” said Erin, “but the next year and for a couple of years after, we came back, and we always ended up in Victoria.”

While on a return trip, Andy and Tania McQueen, Erin and Caitlin’s parents, bought a lot overlooking the village harbor. In 2012 the family immigrated to Canada. They commissioned a house to be built, to be completed for occupancy the following spring. That winter was the winter they almost went back to the UK, back to England, back to Bristol.

“We spent a year living in Hampton, just up the road, in a rented house that had no central heating,” said Erin. ”I’m honestly surprised we didn’t move home that winter, because it was horrible.”

The winter months on PEI can be cold, temperatures averaging below zero in January and February. There are many storms, veering from freezing cold rain to freezing cold blizzards. The February 2013 North American blizzard started in the Northern Plains of the United States. By the third day of its arrival in the Maritimes there was heavy snowfall, wind gusts were hitting 100 MPH, more than a thousand flights had been cancelled across eastern Canada, and all Marine Atlantic ferries were suspended.

There was nowhere to go, anyway.  There are few things as democratic as a snowstorm. It’s the same everyone everywhere weather.

“I feel like many people on this island have done that, lived without central heating, but British people aren’t cut out for Canadian winters in unheated houses. I had a comforter on my bed and many, many blankets. I often wore two pairs of pajamas.”

The McQueen family stuck it out.

“The main reason we didn’t move back to England was probably pride,” said Erin. “Obviously, you can’t move back after five months because your whole family back home would be saying, ‘Oh, so that didn’t go well?’”

The McQueen family cats stuck it out, too.

“They are rescue cats, Callie and Zebedee, and we got their vaccination papers together, and applied for pet passports. My uncle said, ‘Why don’t you just get new cats?’”

“You did not just say that!” said Tania McQueen. “They’re part of the family.”

“Let me tell you, though, cats do not like emigrating,” said Erin. “It traumatized them a little. The only other animals on the plane the eight-hour flight were two dogs, a little thing that barked all the time, and a big, quiet German shepherd. We’re still making up for it six years later.”

The cats slept in front of the fireplace in the living room in the rented house from morning to every next morning from the beginning to the end of winter. Unlike the upstairs rooms, there were no doors downstairs shutting the living room off from the kitchen and two back rooms. They made doors out of blankets to conserve the heat in the living room. The cat litter box was in one of the small rooms, behind a blanket door.

“They would wait quite a long time, and then dart behind the blanket, and as soon as they were done, run back in to the fireplace.”

The school buses stayed the course. Erin enrolled at Bluefield High School to complete her last two years. The family had waited leaving England until she finished her first set of high school exams there.

“It’s a big thing,” she said. “Everyone in the country takes the same exams. You study for them for two years. It’s what you’re working up to that whole time.”

Bluefield High School is in the small town of Hampshire. A $2 million dollar addition in 2000 enlarged and modernized the school, which as well as secondary education trains in carpentry, welding, and applied technology. All of its classrooms feature SmartBoards and there are two computer labs. The sports teams from badminton to hockey are all called the Bluefield Bobcats.

The school is thirteen miles and 90 minutes from Victoria.

“The bus went everywhere, so by the time I got there I didn’t really know where I was, because we had gone all over the island. My first day we did orienteering, even though the school is just surrounded by forest and potato fields. It wasn’t like you ever came across any houses. It was very different from Bristol.”

Her plan had been to study fashion design and costume, but her plans changed. “They didn’t have any sewing or couture classes. They did have drama, so I thought, I guess drama is where my theatrical tendencies are going to have to go.”

After graduation she enrolled at Dalhousie University, majoring in anthropology, keeping acting in the back of her mind. “I took acting as an elective and later auditioned for the program. If I get in, I’ll think about it, I thought. I didn’t think I actually would. And then I did.”

In order to find the unexpected it’s best to expect it. You can’t plan for it, but it’s what often changes your life. ”All creative people want to do the unexpected,” said Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood starlet and designer of a patented frequency-hopping radio guidance system for torpedoes. Even though she once said “Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – her smart invention was the precursor to GPS, secure WiFi, and Bluetooth technology.

“My sister is the anthropologist, no acting, although she’s fascinated by actors,” said Erin. “She thinks she might do a research project about them one day. Actors never know what the future holds. They’re rarely employed for a long time, always on the way to their next role. It’s living on the edge. It’s the idea that you could love doing something so much that you choose that over stability or financial security.

“That’s what I want to do.”

It’s taking the show on the road. “I’m just going to start auditioning in Halifax. There are so many small weird theatre spaces. I’m thinking of potentially writing a fringe play.” She has no plans of pursuing the discipline of anthropology.

Her four years studying the arts and sciences of theater at Dalhousie University were matched by four summers working in theater in her newly adopted hometown.

“My parents saw there was a job at the Victoria Playhouse. I needed to work in the village. It was the perfect job, since although I do now drive, I couldn’t drive at the time. I could meet people in the industry, too.”

The Victoria Playhouse, in the middle of town, in what used to be the Victoria Hall, seats about 150, and has been producing and presenting live theater and performance events for thirty-seven seasons. In 2007 it was designated a ‘Historic Place’ on the Canadian Register of Historic Places. History gets made every summer seven days a week on its stage.

She worked the refreshment stand her first two summers.

“I don’t do that so much anymore,” she said last summer. “You could say I’ve moved up.”

She worked part-time in the box office, then went full-time, and worked front of the house. Odd jobs became must-do jobs. “I helped one of the actors run their lines, and then I did that a couple more times.” When the stage manager was conscripted to do lighting cues, she went backstage. “I gave the actors their places, which was exciting. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the show goes on.”

Sometimes the lighting cues are on the sturm und drang side of the curtain, occasioning careful calculation. Higher than normal water temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can and do morph into massive thunderstorms, roiling the island. It is batten down the hatches and check the flashlights.

“In villages like this, in bad thunderstorms, power goes out,” said Erin. “The doors are going to open in twenty minutes, the power keeps flickering off and on, and the management has to make a call about whether you think you can make it through the show.”

She became one of the emcees at the front of the stage, pointing out the exits, encouraging donations to the theater, and introducing the play. After the show was over was her favorite time. “It might sound corny, but at the end of the show, when we get to open the curtain and the applause, and afterwards the actors are happy, a kind of high, even with small crowds, that they brought a story to life and created some magic for the audience.”

After her employment contract at the Victoria Playhouse expired at the end of October, she moved back to Halifax, where she went to university, and where there is a red-blooded theatre scene. It is zesty and diverse, ranging from Zuppa Theatre, whose performances defy categorization, to the Neptune Theatre, whose performances outpace categorization.

“Some of the actors who worked at the Playhouse live in Halifax, so that’s quite cool,” she said. “They came to my shows at Dalhousie and I went to their shows.

“Acting, that’s my plan.”

If in the event a professional acting career doesn’t pan out, she is determined to keep her foot on the boards, front back or in the wings. ”If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be a secret agent,” said Thornton Wilder. Erin’s secret is all parts of the theater business interest her, from acting to directing to writing to the nuts and bolts.

“If I’m not acting, I will definitely be doing something in theatre. It’s plow ahead.”

It’s keeping your hand on the gospel plow.

“A part of me is intrigued by stage management,” she said. “Stage managers are another level of human being. They’re like super people with super powers. They’re the people you go to if you have any issues, personal, professional, or logistical. One of my stage managers at Dalhousie had a locker full of extra clothes and every kind of medicine you could imagine. They are prepared for anything.”

A career in the arts often means being a jack-of-all-trades.

“I am very into doing whatever I can,” said Erin.

If you want to accomplish anything something everything, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes, maybe not blood, but certainly sweat, and probably a locker loaded for bear, to make it work, to make it happen.

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

 

 

Opening Act

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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.

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