We can look ahead with sorrow or look back with glee

There are lots of older Barrie residents this week who are experiencing real sadness around the closing of Gryphon Theatre. As Gryphon gives way to other performing arts in our community, it gives us the chance to reflect and celebrate the true achievement that occurred in young Barrie in 1969, population 22,000.

They were founding members of the Board of Directors who saw a vision for a performing theatre back in 1969. They were members of the Board who, for 41 years, have toiled diligently to offer residents of this city high quality theatre.

There were members of the Guild of the Gryphon Theatre, a coordinated stronghold of women with ideas and energy who supported the theatre financially and socially with official opening night receptions, fundraising events, ushering services, box office help… a myriad of services that kept Gryphon Theatre chugging along.

In its heyday, Gryphon was Barrie’s only professional theatre company. Housed at Georgian College Theatre after a few years on wooden benches at Collier St Church Hall, Gryphon in the 1970’s, 80’s & 90’s became a focal point for high-end live production. Some of Canada’s great performers graced Gryphon’s stage… Michael Burgess actually was in rehearsal at Gryphon when he got the call that he’d won the role of Jean Valjean for Les Miserables! Ted Follows, Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables), Charmion King, David Fox, John Gardiner… so many Canadian names have graced Gryphon’s stage.

Gryphon offered North American premieres for a number of playwrights. It boasted a foundation membership in the hundreds. Its annual general meetings were exciting, wondrous black-tie affairs.

I’ve looked back this week at the end of the little theatre company that could and did for almost half a century. We have lots of live theatre in Barrie now, unique and vibrant, and wonderful. And so it’s possible to mourn Gryphon, but also to celebrate the incredible memories that exist in its being.

I think about the tireless efforts of the Guild as Gryphon’s season opened with the attendance of Lieutenant Governor Pauline McGibbon. Those woman–many gone, and many still with us–stayed determined year after year in support of the end goal.

Bertah Cameron, wife of Hospital CEO DSF Cameron and Ethel Turnbull, wife of Dr Ross Turnbull (see what I mean? it was an era) hosted after-theatre parties in their gracious, gracious homes. Rugs were rolled up as actors let loose. In fact, I think every piece of furniture in Ethel Turnbull’s house appeared on Gryphon’s stage at one point or another.

Highlights? So very many. The absolute magic of the Armories for the first (and subsequent) annual Gryphon Guild antique show. The precision and the success! Classy balls, garden parties, silent auction fundraisers, and artistic directors each with their own ‘style’… Brian Rintoul, Sean Mulcahy, Norm Brown, Virginia Reh, Uwe Meyer, Karen Ricketts, Barbara Aoki…

On two different occasions (80’s and 90’s) I participated on Gryphon’s board of directors, latterly in the role of president. When the board changed guard and I looked at the budget and at Treasurer, Alan Priest, who raised his eyebrows at the $279,000 deficit…well, it was time again for renewed vision and vigour. Interesting, challenging days.

I remember sitting in a car with Hugh Vernon after the board had just parked about a thousand cars in a field across from Molson’s Concert Venue… The field was donated by Steve Sperling for fundraising purposes. Bryan Adams was on stage and Hugh and I could hear clearly. We’d stayed with our customers’ cars; each paid $5 to park in broad daylight in a lumpy field with absolutely no rhyme or order to the parking system. Bryan was belting out “Everything I do, I do it for You” his huge hit of 1990. I gestured that the show would be over in seconds and it was time for us to clear out. Bedlam was about to erupt as all these drunk vehicle owners were about to arrive in the pitch black and try to negotiate their vehicles out of a single lane pathway. Time to go!

You had to laugh. If you didn’t, you’d cry. We had so many of those fundraisers to try to retire that deficit. So many new ideas and so much Guild support to make it happen.

If I go back farther, I see my young daughter, at 18 months old, taking her brother’s place at Gryphon’s Kids Subscription Series for the first time. Her brother was off to a birthday party. Terry Judd had returned to Gryphon but this time as the significant leader of The Potato People. I knew not how this would go with a virtual baby propped up on coats beside me. Her peals of laughter drew as much attention from those around her as the actors on stage. It was the spark of love for live theatre that continues today at her 27 years.

And that’s what the Gryphon Guild has done… For 40 years. For nearly half a century it has been the cultural element that will always be the fabric of those children and adults whose lives were affected by live performing theatre.

Thanks, Gryphon.