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Cultural boom helps recharged Imperial Theatre post a record year

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Cathy Dobson

How many people do you know who always use “Jr.” after their name?

“I know it’s unusual but I love my name,” says Brian Austin Jr., manager at the Imperial Theatre in downtown Sarnia.

“I’m my father’s son. And I also like to wear bow ties and a suit.”

At 30, Austin Jr. has spent nearly half his life working for the Imperial Theatre.

As a Grade 9 student at SCITS he was asked to crew for a concert.  “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said.

That led to a job doing maintenance and tech work. When he graduated high school, he was offered a full-time job as technical director.

“It’s my baby. I don’t think there’s a spot I haven’t cleaned or painted,” he said, with a sweeping look of the 600-seat house.

The Imperial Theatre, owned and operated by Theatre Sarnia, is a success story these days artistically and financially, Austin Jr. said.

There were lean times when it didn’t look like the community theatre would stay in the black, but the past three to five years have been particularly good. And with the stage booked for 297 days, this year will bring the greatest number of shows and concerts ever to the Imperial Theatre.

“Culture in Sarnia is booming,” said Austin Jr. “We’ve really gained momentum.”

Theatre Sarnia, which was known as Sarnia Little Theatre for years, is staging five shows this season at the Imperial.

On top of that, 30 professional shows are booked, including Jann Arden, Michael Kaeshammer and Paul Potts, the first winner of the Britain’s Got Talent TV show.

Jim Henson’s daughter is coming with some of The Muppets, as is magician Timothy Drake and Sarnia’s own Jayden the Jester.

There’s also an array of touring artists such as Colm Wilkinson who played two sold-out shows last December.

“Colm Wilkinson actually called us and said it’s such a lovely theatre he’d be honored to come back,” said Austin Jr. “I know he doesn’t do that for other theatres.”

The secret to the Imperial’s momentum appears to be variety.

Executive director Ron Lawton resigned in August, but before he left he ensured a solid season was booked, said Austin Jr. who has taken on much of what Lawton did.

“Ron’s time here was nothing short of awe-inspiring,” he said. “I really admire his passion and his business acumen. He left us in really good shape.”

On any given week, Sarnians can see a ballet at the Imperial on a Wednesday, a rock concert on Thursday, a symphony performance on Friday and the start of a two-week run of a British farce on Saturday.

“The diversity is really working for us,” said Austin Jr.

He is one of five full-time and part-time theatre employees. There’s also a strong and dedicated volunteer base and a board of directors.

An operating budget of about $500,000 keeps it all afloat, including 10% in donations and sponsorships.

“This all happens without any government money,” said Austin Jr., waving his arms.  “And just wait until 2016 when the mortgage is paid off.”

For more this season’s shows, call the box office at 519-344-7469 or visit www.imperialtheatre.net.

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