The Imperial Theatre and its owners at Theatre Sarnia kicked off the New Year celebrating a milestone few community theatre companies ever reach.
“We’ve been in the black for 20 years. That’s virtually unheard of,” says executive director Brian Austin Jr.
Financial prosperity meant the theatre group never missed a single mortgage payment to the city for the Imperial Theatre building. The final installment was made Nov. 30 with a special cheque presentation to the mayor and council.
The final $10,000 was donated by Megan and Diane Hadley on behalf of Megan’s late parents, Fred and Val Hadley. The Hadleys were tireless supporters of community theatre and participated in nearly every aspect of production.
The Christina Street theatre is not only mortgage-free it is excelling artistically. More nights were booked with shows and more tickets sold in 2016 than in any other year, said Austin Jr.
Between rehearsals and shows, the theatre operated 280 nights last year with professional comedy and music shows and, of course, community theatre productions.
The first two Theatre Sarnia productions alone grossed nearly $250,000 in 2016 and sold out more than 95% of the house. About 10,000 people saw Rock of Ages and Beauty and the Beast. Rock of Ages was the first show in Theatre Sarnia’s history to gross over $100,000.
“That’s incredible,” says Jay Peckham, board chairman of Theatre Sarnia. “More people are coming to our theatre. It just keeps getting better and better.”
But times were always been so good.
In 1996, Theatre Sarnia made the bold move to buy the abandoned Capitol Theatre movie house and restore it. The city rather reluctantly agreed to a 20-year interest-free $600,000 loan.
“There were years when we struggled a lot to make the payment,” Peckham said. “There was even a time when we talked among ourselves about the potential of selling the property.
“The truth is that Theatre Sarnia is a group of people who just love to do plays and we had always rented our venues before. To rebuild a theatre as large as this (600 seats) required a ton of vision and a whole lot of hard work,” said Peckham.
He credits Ron Lawton, a former executive director, who insisted the board operate as a business.
“He did a terrific job, as has Brian Austin Jr.,” said Peckham. “I also believe that (former) board member Scott Palko deserves a lot of the credit for moving us in the right direction.
“We’ve become a theatre group that understands the business of theatre.”
Today, The Imperial Theatre operates with five salaried staff and offers rehearsal halls, two licensed bars, a small function room and admin offices.
With the mortgage paid off, the theatre will put its resources into big-ticket maintenance items like a new roof, washroom improvements, and refurbished seating.
Peckham said he wants to keep the tradition of dreaming big alive by looking to the future. He talks about the potential of a second, smaller theatre downtown for dinner theatre, young theatre and more “edgy” productions.
“We love being downtown and we love the talent base that’s developed in our community,” said Peckham.
“The mayor and council have recognized that Theatre Sarnia is a catalyst for downtown redevelopment.
“It’s just an incredible time for theatre in Sarnia.”
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
* Theatre Sarnia started as the Sarnia Drama Club in 1927 and is one of the oldest community theatre groups in Canada.
* It bought the dilapidated 1930s-style Capitol Theatre movie house on Christina in 1996 and restored it.
* The city provided a $600,000 interest-free mortgage payable over 20 years.
* No annual payments were missed and the mortgage was fully paid in 2016.
* The Imperial Theatre receives no government operational funding.
* One million patrons have seen a show at The Imperial.
* In March 2016, The Imperial Theatre was listed among the 50 best Canadian Small Music Venues.
* Theatre Sarnia is an award-winning company with more than 200 members.