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The Classics and The Stars

john gielgud company 1947Macbeth is the fifth play in the Grand's 100th anniversary season. The most famous version of this Shakespearean tragedy was performed at the Grand by Michael Redgrave - even though he had a bad cold.

The stars have drawn audiences to every seat of the Grand since its first season which featured American bandmaster John Phillips Sousa and an eccentric juggler and future comedian named W. C. Fields.

Other celebrities followed: Former heavy weight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett appeared in a play tailored to his limited acting abilities. And Sarah Bernhardt performed the death scene from Camille, despite the loss of a pet poodle which had been denied entry into Canada by customs officials. The dog was one of the few things the Grand's owner, Ambrose Small, couldn't get into his theatre.

"At his absolute peak it is said that Ambrose Small had something going on in this theatre 300 days of the year and if you realize that there are 365 days in a year and 52 of those days would have been Sundays that means that weren't that many days for whatever reason that the Grand was allowed to go dark," says Herman Goodden, author of Curtain Rising.

The son of fugitive slaves, Richard Berry Harrison was the most famous black actor of his day. He came to the Grand in October 1934 to appear in The Green Pastures - a folksy retelling of The Bible. Harrison was given the Freedom of the City by London's mayor - the first time a black Londoner received such an honor.

In 1947 John Gielgud confounded the critics by kicking off his North American tour of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Grand instead of New York. Gielgud was so impressed with the reception he cut his Broadway engagement short so he could return to London. Overnight, London had became the Broadway of the North - with the ticket orders to prove it. Even Alec Guinness was scheduled to direct Twelfth Night at the Grand - but the engagement fell through. It was one of the few disappointments for London audiences.

"Charles Laughton came to town with his one many show of readings from Dickens, the Bible, Shakespeare, everything," recalls actor Paul Soles, who was working as a radio interviewer at the time. "He was most gracious. Looked around the backstage of the Grand and said: Wonderful theatre this is, isn't it! It's known all over the world you know!"

william hutt 1976But by the mid 1970s the beauty of the Grand was at risk. Decades of plays and performances had left the building structurally unsound. William Hutt, one of Canada's greatest actors, realized those challenges when he became the theatre's artistic director.

After a year of renovations the new Grand welcomed the crowds back in November 1978. The first season in the new building included the world premier of the play, John A. - Himself, written by Timothy Findley and starring William Hutt in the title role.