The building where the Stirling Festival Theatre now makes its home was built in 1927 as a “community service building” at a cost of $25,000. The upstairs hall immediately became a focal point for community social activities and meetings, ranging from the Women’s Institute to ballet classes. Beginning in 1936, until the late 50s, the auditorium served as Stirling’s movie theatre, but not many live performances were held in the 436 seat auditorium.
Although the rest of the building was used for many purposes over the years, including Public Works, the Police Station, even the Jail, by 1982 the town was starting to think about a new, up-to-date public works building. And to accomplish that, the town fathers talked about tearing down the theatre.
In 1984, when council made the decision to go ahead call in the wrecking crew, a small group of dedicated Stirling residents banded together to create The Stirling Performing Arts Committee. Marion & Bert Bastedo, Dave & Ruth Potts, Peggy Faulkner, Bob & Jean Hatton and John Lowery were the founding members of the committee, known locally as SPAC. Working long, dedicated hours for the cause, they marshalled a petition around town and around the area, to stop council’s plans to destroy the theatre.
Then they started working on fundraising to refurbish the building. With an Ontario Arts Council grant to help bring in performers for shows like comedians Dave Broadfoot and Don Harron, musicians like the North York Symphony Orchestra and the Elmer Eisler Singers, and professional theatre productions of shows like Noel Coward’s Private Lives. SPAC members sold tickets from their homes, were responsible for cleaning and maintaining the theatre, and even worked very hard to make a lot of interior improvements to the space.
A truly exciting time for SPAC, and for the future of the theatre, came in 1990 when Board Chair Alex Winkler made arrangements to buy Pierre LaCasse’s beautiful Bosendorfer grand piano for a quarter of its assessed value. The “Key Campaign” was kicked off in early 1991, with the 92 keys of the Bosendorfer “sold” for $100 each. The names of each buy is permanently inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of the theatre – check it out next time you head up to Burrell Hall for intermission. The theatre is very proud of the fact that our beautiful Bosendorfer is the only one between Toronto and Ottawa available for use by musicians who come into the theatre for concerts and performances.
The next big step forward in the development of the theatre came in November 1996 when Caroline Smith was hired full-time as the Artistic and Managing Director of the Stirling Festival Theatre. With help and support of huge team of volunteers and local craftsmen, the building was repaired, updated and generally made ready for its first summer of professional entertainment. From that remarkably successful first summer, the SFT cycle grew to year-round offerings of plays, musicals and youth programming, with a concurrent growth of staff to meet the company’s many production and administrative needs.
Over a decade, more than $500,000 worth of renovations have been made at the theatre, including air conditioning, new washrooms, a complete overhaul of the box office, new seating and sound baffling in the auditorium, excavation of the orchestra pit, and a complete re-wiring of the complex.
As a theatre company, SFT continues to show great strength and growth with large bus groups coming on a regular basis to catch a wide variety of shows and concerts, while at the same time managing to hold on to the appeal it has always had for its local residents and patrons. SFT is proud of the continual growth in the membership rolls and business sponsorships, but mostly we are delighted to say that over 45,000 people come to Stirling every year to attend small town theatre with big time talent!