In May of 1956 London Little Theatre, the amateur group that owned the Grand, returned from the Dominion Drama Festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Their entry in the national competition had been the comedy Mrs. McThing. It brought home awards for best actor and best English presentation. It was also among the worst efforts in the theatre's history.
Mediocre plays weren't the only problem for London Little Theatre. Its amateur actors were now competing with professional theatre in Toronto and Stratford. Television was also cutting subscriptions, which had fallen by more than 3,000 in five years. The Grand's board realized it was time to take the first step towards professional theatre. They created the position of artistic director and went looking for the right person to fill it. In early 1957 they found Peter Dearing.
For Peter Dearing, staging big, splashy musicals was the best way to reverse the theatre's sagging fortunes. London Little Theatre had never staged a major musical, but they followed their new director without question. Actor Eddie Escaff was so excited about being offered a part in South Pacific, the first Dearing musical, that he cut his honeymoon in half so he could attend rehearsals.
Musicals became the most well-loved part of Dearing's repertoire. The Boy Friend, Oliver, West Side Story and My Fair Lady became essential parts of the playbill. It was if Broadway had come to Southern Ontario.
"You just didn't go to opening theatre without wearing a long dress or an after five and men wore tuxes," recalls Eleanor Ender. "It was a gala event, particularly opening night, the opening of the season. It was fabulous."
The musicals might have drawn the largest crowds, but they were only part of Dearing's repertoire. With the help of his wife Robin, he mounted everything from the black comedy of N. F. Simpson's One Way Pendulum to the intense drama of Peter Weiss' Marat Sade.
"He ran amok with one show about a madhouse in Paris in which some of the actors actually did go insane and kept attacking Robin and they had to cart them off," says playwright and poet James Reaney.
Dearing also organized theatre
classes and children's shows to foster new talent. A young painter named
Greg Curnoe worked on backdrops; future Broadway star Victor Garber auditioned
for the role of Tom Sawyer; and years before enthralling opera lovers,
Victor Braun terrorized young audiences as the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Ultimately, Peter Dearing did more to bring London Little Theatre to professional status than any person before him. His quest for excellence often put him at odds with older members, but for Dearing, what went happened on stage was more important than what happened in the boardroom.
"I wasn't brought here eleven years ago to win a popularity contest," Dearing once shrugged. "I somehow think that's what they wanted but they chose the wrong person…Basically, what I have tried to do is create theatre. Good theatre, bad theatre, professional theatre, amateur theatre."
Three years after leaving the helm of London Little Theatre, Peter Dearing was dead at the age of 57. At his memorial service on the Grand's stage, there were no flowers. Dearing had requested that all donations be made towards a new act curtain.