A history in three acts!
The Time: January 1961
The Place: Berch residence, Owen Sound
Characters: 19 community members
Synopsis: With a small group of community citizens interested in developing and nurturing performance arts in Owen Sound on Georgian Bay, the Owen Sound Little Theatre was formed.
In the early years, the company moved from one spartan rehearsal space to another, from unheated rooms over the Bank of Montreal to the abandoned Crofthaven School.
The first OSLT play, My Three Angels, was produced in May of 1961 and performed in the auditorium of the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute. In 1963, OSLT won a place in the Western Ontario Drama League theatre competition with Deep Blue Sea.
From this base, OSLT expanded its goals and mounted many ambitious and successful plays. The Fantastiks was the group’s first musical, to be followed by larger and more ambitious productions such as Oliver (with the Georgian Bay Community Orchestra), Cabaret, Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof and the final play in the OSCVI, My Fair Lady in May 1984.
Crofthaven School had become the holding tank to a burgeoning stock of set pieces, wardrobe, props and general theatre paraphernalia. As the physical assets grew, so did the expertise of the troupe. Theatre Ontario – the highest competition available to a community theatre company, was won in 1981 and 1982 with productions of Bethune, The Runner Stumbles and again in 1989 with Tally’s Folly which led to an invitation to perform in Victoria BC as part of a national one-time competition.
But deep in the hearts of the company members was the dream to be able to rehearse, live and perform in their very own home theatre.
The Time: 1986
Place: 251 9th St. East, Owen Sound
Characters: 100+ members
Synopsis: In pursuing the dream of a permanent home, OSLT had explored many possibilities: The old Savoy Theatre (1976), the Bayshore Community Centre (1982), the proposed Arts Centre Georgian College (1984), but none of these projects materialized. Finally, in 1986, under the capable leadership of Velma Mitges, the group purchased the Roxy Theatre, one time home of opera and vaudeville theatre, sometime Odeon movie house, and now, finally, the home of Owen Sound Little Theatre.
With a firm foundation under its feet, the company undertook even more challenges, opening the theatre to other community groups for music, dance, drama and business – becoming a vital cultural anchor, and a major player in the redevelopment of Owen Sound’s historic downtown core.
The Time: The Future
Place: Roxy Theatre
Characters: The Community
The Roxy welcomes over 30,000 patrons each year, and brings significant financial benefit to regional tourism, recreation and retail industries. The Roxy employs a full-time theatre manager, a full time box office manager and two part-time assistants, a part-time fund development and communications assistant and a very busy contracted technical director.
In 2011, the OSLT celebrated its 50 year anniversary, marking the occasion with the conclusion of a successful burn and build campaign which allowed us to close our 25 year, $1,000,000 mortgage held on the building. We are now actively building a reserve fund, building capacity and finding creative ways to ensure our continued sustainability. The curtain has opened every year on the newest OSLT production. With the support of the community, and a new generation of interest in live performance, we hope it always will.
The Roxy was built in 1913 as The Griffin Opera House/Griffin’s Theatre. Originally, the theatre could accommodate approximately 1200 people with ground level and balcony seating. The orientation of the original theatre was the opposite to its present layout. Back then, the stage and fly gallery were located where the present day control booth is at the rear of the theatre.
Griffin’s Theatre specialized in live theatre, vaudeville, and later, silent films. Toronto’s nickel cinema magnate John Griffin owned the theatre until the mid 1920’s, when it underwent another transformation to become the Grand Opera House. John Griffin owned a number of cinemas in south western Ontario, including the first permanent movie theatre in Toronto.
In 1948, The Odeon Cinema purchased the building and gutted the interior, moving the stage to the front of the building, removing the balconies, and renaming it The Roxy. The Roxy remained an Odeon Cinema until 1986, when it was purchased from the Ontario Cedars Group by Owen Sound Little Theatre. The last film to be shown at The Roxy as The Odeon Cinema was on October 25, 1986 when A Coalminer’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek was screened.
The first phase of renovation designed by Paul Dawson of Flesherton, and with General Contractor Laurie McConnell was completed October 28, 1987 at a cost of $400,000. Velma Mitges and Georgia Bunston were the OSLT Presidents through these early years of The Roxy, and along with an enthusiasic membership, they saw the first phrase through to completion.
The second phase of renovations took place in 1994 at a cost of 1.5 million dollars , which saw major remodeling of the theatre, a new stage, sound and lighting system, new heating and air-conditioning system, workshop, make-up room, dressing rooms, control room, box-office and lobby along with storage area for costumes, props, paints, and an administrative office. All this took place in 1994 at a cost of $1.5 million dollars. A restaurant to the west of the theatre (called The Alps) was purchased by OSLT in 1994 to accommodate the box-office, a stairwell and part of the “green room”. The second phase, designed by the architects MacDonald and Zuberec of St. Catherines, and contracted by Dwight Burley. A gala opening of “The Man who Came to Dinner” marked the birth of the refurbished theatre, a permanent cultural institution and showpiece for the community, on October 28, 1994.
Many plaques reside in our Griffin Gallery today thanking our vital supporters and funders who helped make this dream a reality, including the provincial government, The Trillium Foundation and many community members. Please have a look at our wall of fame the next time you are in the theatre.
Edwardian brass lighting fixtures found during the renovations are displayed at our bar. Painted frescoes on the original theatre ceiling and balconies can still be seen in our attic and the building’s former Edwardian simplicity and elegance have been captured in archival photos in the J. James Collection at FotoArt and in the Grey Roots Archival Collection.
Against all odds, including two world wars, prolonged prohibition and a depression, The Roxy is a survivor, the community’s cultural hub and single performing arts centre with an unbroken performance history. While the building has changed, the spirit which has kept it alive has not.