History

Front Street, Stirling ON (looking east) with the Stirling Library and Stirling Theatre on the right. Date unknown. (Thanks to Brian Ackers, long-time supporter, for providing this photo that was given to him by his grandfather.)

This historic building, located in the charming village of Stirling Ontario where the Stirling Festival Theatre makes its home, was built in 1927 as the region’s Community Service Building at a cost of $25,000.

As we understand, the design of the theatre auditorium was originally modelled after Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in New York, then considered to be the ultimate in theatre design. However, the actual configuration was considerably scaled down and the main stage auditorium was not built with a balcony, so that it originally contained only 499 seats compared to the Shubert’s 1,300.

The upstairs hall (now named the Eugene Burrell Hall) immediately became a focal point for community social activities and gatherings, ranging from Women’s Institute meetings to ballet classes to dances featuring full orchestras! Beginning in 1936, and until the late 1950s, the theatre auditorium served as Stirling’s movie theatre, however not many live performances were held in the auditorium. By this time, the theatre auditorium seated 436.

Stirling’s purpose-built Community Service Building was also used for many purposes over the years, including: Public Works, the Police Station and even the local Jail on the lower level (which is now where the actors’ dressing rooms are today – we’re not sure what to say about that…!). We have yet to verify when ‘Stirling Theatre’ became the new name of the building, but we believe it was between 1940 and 1942.

By 1982, with the changing times, Stirling Council was starting to envision a new and up-to-date Public Works facility. To accomplish this expansion, Council discussed tearing down Stirling’s local community gathering space and performing arts complex.

A bill for piano tuning, May 4, 1928 for $3.50! This was found in the original ledger book (1927-1948) for Stirling’s Community Service Building, given to the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County by the Municipality of Stirling-Rawdon in late 2017.

Enter the Stirling Performing Arts Committee…!
In 1984, when Stirling Council made the decision to go ahead and call in the wrecking crew, a small group of dedicated, formidable and determined Stirling residents banded together to create The Stirling Performing Arts Committee (SPAC).

Their founding members were:
Bert Bastedo
Marion Bastedo
Peggy Faulkner
Bob Hatton
Jean Hatton
John Lowery
David Potts
Ruth Potts

Volunteering long and dedicated hours for the cause, the SPAC members and their colleagues marshalled a petition around Stirling and the area successfully halting Council’s plans to dismantle the Stirling Theatre/Community Service Building.

If it were not for their steadfast dedication, drive and vision, their future SPAC presentations, other community rentals and those since 1996 by the Stirling Festival Theatre, would…
well… would just never have been brought to our local audiences and to our visitors from other regions in Ontario and beyond.

Having surmounted that milestone decision by Council, the SPAC members then focussed upon fundraising to refurbish the facility and for programming. They were successful in applications for Ontario Arts Council grants supporting professional artistic costs of presenting comedians such as: Dave Broadfoot and Don Harron, musicians including the North York Symphony Orchestra and the Elmer Eisler Singers and professional theatre productions of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

The SPAC members also sold tickets from their homes and were responsible for cleaning and maintenance of the theatre complex.

At that time, Stirling Council felt it necessary to appoint a part-time caretaker for the theatre and retired local businessman, Eugene Burrell, was asked to take on this position for a maximum of 5 hours/week. Eugene, like the members of SPAC, devoted many more hours than that to keeping the building running with a variety of live entertainment.

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 supported by donations of $100 each. The names of each donor are permanently inscribed on a plaque in the lobby of the theatre – check it out next time you head up to the Eugene Burrell Hall. The SFT 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 newly formed professional theatre company, Stirling Festival Theatre (SFT). With the continued support of massive team of volunteers and local craftspersons, this 1927 Community Service Building was repaired, updated and made ready for its first summer of professional entertainment.

From that remarkably successful first summer season in 1997, the SFT season 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.

During the next decade, more than $500,000 worth of renovations were completed by the generosity of donors and sponsors 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 the ongoing expansion of activity for the SFT Young Company, providing area youth an opportunity to work on a production under the guidance and direction of professional directors, choreographers and technical staff. Thanks to the support of our donors and sponsors, there is no charge to the young participants to be a member of the SFT Young Company.

Bus tour operators bring audiences from well outside our region to enjoy a wide variety of shows and concerts. Corporate groups and clubs book their staff and member gatherings at SFT to celebrate at our shows and pre- and post-show gatherings.

The Stirling Festival Theatre is proud of the growth in memberships and business sponsorships and support of our …

“Small Town Theatre with Big Time Talent!”