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The Canadian Phenomenons

wingfield's progress 1989"Theatre is an animal that likes variety and one could no more have a steady diet of large cast shows, musicals and so on in the theatre than one could have a steady diet of one person shows. The great thing is to have the mix…If it's good, if it's well written, if it's well acted and done with honesty and truth then it's going to have its place." - Rod Beattie, actor

The first Canadian stars to come out of the Grand were a World War I entertainment troop known as The Dumbells. In September 1919 the Grand was the scene for their first professional appearance.

The applause from the all-soldier audience spoke for itself. The Dumbells toured across Canada for over a decade.

During the next World War, the Grand created its own entertainment. Take It Or Leave It was one of several musical reviews that toured army camps around Southern Ontario. Produced, written and performed by Londoners, Take It Or Leave It offered plenty of music, comedy, chorus girls - and not a shred of plot.

By the end of the war, the army shows had entertained 300 thousand soldiers and raised $40,000 for charities.

A new breed of Canadian entertainers arrived at the Grand in the 1950s. The topical review Spring Thaw featured a rising young comic named Dave Broadfoot. Bandleader Guy Lombardo, who had once played violin in the Grand's pit orchestra, returned to London in 1955 for a special day named in his honour. Another musical legend was created when a radio producer spotted a 16-year-old guitar player in the Grand's production of the play Dark of the Moon. It was the proverbial big break for Tommy Hunter.

And in the summer of 1956 the first all-Canadian stock company was headquartered out of the Grand. Although it didn't succeed, it pointed the way for a bolder experiment 25 years later.

brent carver in hamlet 1983In 1983 Robin Phillips, the wonderboy of Canadian theatre, was given the green light to turn the Grand into Canada's wintertime theatrical center with the finest talents available. Phillips drew on an A list of actors: Brent Carver and Martha Henry in Doctors Dilemma, Carol Shelly and John Neville in Dear Antoine and William Hutt in Timon of Athens. But Phillips also eliminated season subscriptions for Londoners- the backbone of the Grand's ticket sales for 50 years.

"They'll never see theatre as good as we had those couple of years that Robin was here," recalls former Grand board member Eddie Escaf. "Those shows were fantastic. But people got mad because after subscribing for 15 years some of them were told you can't subscribe anymore you've gotta go down and buy tickets. It's a stupid thing but they got mad at wouldn't and wouldn't even buy the single tickets. They got mad and they turned against the theatre and we ended up with a $2 million debt in two years."

Within months Phillips was gone and his repertory season had been abandonned. A year later a modest one-man show was staged in the Grand's basement. Letter from Wingfield Farm had none of the fanfare or production values of the Robin Phillips season - but its fate would be different.

"The Grand Theatre was the first theatre that though that Wingfield was main stage fare rather than alternate space fare. And that was really a breakthrough for the Wingfield team," says Rod Beattie, the star of Wingfield. "We've always respected the Grand for having given us that chance."

Letter from Wingfield Farm became a national success and spawn four sequels - so far.