“In the beginning we didn’t know
what to do with the arts, we just knew we should be
– Elena Arkell, founding member and second President.
A principal recommendation of ‘The Arts and Our Town’ was the establishment of a civic theatre. The Arts Council appointed a committee, chaired by well-known Group of Seven painter, Lawren Harris, to study theatre design, materials, capacity, and structure. A strenuous phoning and speaking campaign reached 250 local organizations and resulted in the city including a civic theatre in its five-year plan, approved by voters in December 1953. The following year, The Arts council President Douglas Nixon chaired a citizens’ committee which located a suitable site on Block 47. The city acted promptly in getting an architectural competition underway as recorded by the Arts Council.
It was hoped that the theatre would be opened in time for the next project, an international festival. This was the inspiration of Arts Council member Iby Koerner who, just before WWII had come to Vancouver from Europe with her husband, Otto, and other family members. She brought with her a wealth of knowledge concerning the arts and an enthusiasm which was never-ending and decidedly infectious. The Koerners had spoken to Toronto impresario Nicholas Goldschmidt and had persuaded him to come to Vancouver to stage an exciting international festival on a grand scale. Ambitious plans were put into place and finalized in 1958 when it was expected that the new Queen Elizabeth Theatre would be completed. When it was not ready, to quote Mary Road:
“We had to have the first program, the premiere performance of Lister Sinclair’s play, ‘The World of the Wonderful Dark,’ in the old Denman Auditorium on Georgia Street. It was a very formal occasion on a sweltering summer evening. When Brooke Claxton, chairman of the Canada Council, shed his dinner jacket, all the men in the audience did likewise. During intermission everyone ran outside to get a breath of fresh air.”
One outstanding visual feature of this first Vancouver Festival was the appearance of decorative street banners for which the Arts Council was responsible, both for the idea and the funding. Since that time banners have become a distinctive annual summer feature, financed by the City of Vancouver.
Exciting events at this first international festival were held in the Orpheum Theatre, the only other large performance space. It included Don Giovanni with Joan Sutherland making her North American debut as Donna Anna. World-renowned conductor Bruno Walter led the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a concert attended by Princess Margaret, who during the final applause graciously bowed to the conductor. The Canada Council decided to hold a meeting in Vancouver to coincide with this first Vancou¬ver International Festival, to which it had granted $25,000. The council came en masse to the festival and considered it a fantastic success, which put Vancouver on the interna¬tional cultural map. In conjunction with these events the Arts Council organized a film fes¬tival with ninety entries from eleven coun¬tries.
In January 1962, the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse Theatre opened. The Arts Coun¬cil’s Frank Low-Beer, along with other mem¬bers, had succeeded (through persistent lobbying, including a 20,000-name petition), in persuading Vancouver City Council to include a small theatre in the city’s late 1950’s five-year plan. The gala opening ceremonies were presided over by Arts Council President Janet Carswell, the first person to make a public appearance on the Playhouse stage. During this memorable evening she present-ed honorary life memberships in the Arts Council to Ira Dilworth, Dorothy Somerset and Marjorie Agnew in recognition of their contribution to the arts.
A civic theatre board was formed by the city, with the Arts Council’s Mary Roaf as one of its members. It soon became apparent that since theatre employees were union members, costs at both the Queen Elizabeth and Playhouse civic theatres were far too high for performances by smaller theatre groups. When the Arts Council was asked for advice, Alex Walton brought together a committee of knowledgeable theatre people to study the possibility of establishing a professional resident theatre company. This was a timely development since local interest and talent had been built up through UBC’s Department of Theatre, local CBC productions, the Vancouver lnternational Festival and flourishing amateur groups. The committee worked diligently during the spring and summer of 1962, and finally in October, at an Arts Council board meeting, a motion was passed that an autonomous society be incorporated for the ‘establishment, development, and operation’ of a professional theatre company in Vancouver. Seven directors were elected to the new society which became the Playhouse Theatre Company. A managing director, Michael Johnston, was appointed and six plays were announced for the 1963/64 season. The company continues to flourish today, thirty years later.