|"Maytime in Alberta" — the four day cultural festival co-sponsored by the University and the provincial government and which made the circuit of eight Peace River towns in the early spring, was to have been commented upon in The New Trail in three parts.
Miss Mary Lou Lister, B.A. '51, has given us a graphic account of the fortunes of the University Mixed Chorus; C. Thomas Peacocke the trials and tribulations of taking a stage play on the road. However our commentator for the arts and handicraft exhibit became enmeshed in summer duties and was unable to meet the publication deadline.
Early church-goers in north Edmonton on the first Sunday in May were startled to see three chartered busses roll by, full of gaily singing young people. The busses were startling, indeed, colourfully painted with strange figures and even stranger slogans. One vehicle proudly announced to puzzled pedestrians that from its windows one could get a "Fair View". Another's luggage compartment was designated "Beaver Lodge"!
It was the University of Alberta Mixed Chorus starting its annual spring tour and launching "Maytime In Alberta" — a four day cultural festival in eight Peace River towns.
"Headed north!" The ninety choristers kept repeating the phrase over and over, still finding it hard to believe that after three years of much talk and crossed fingers, they were actually on their way. For most of us, natives of southern and central Alberta, Edmonton was as far north as we had ever travelled; those whose families were in the north eagerly looked forward to introducing their favourite campus organization to their home towns.
There were scores of details to iron out. Hard-working Don Hepburn, business manager of the Chorus, obtained transportation, distributed the Students' Union grant to cover incidental expenses, worked with sponsors over the billeting, and did a host of other tasks. Professor Richard Eaton, conductor, spent many hours getting the chorus back into shape after examinations were over. Miss Maimie Simpson, the University's Dean of Women, was again our chaperone. Always there when needed, Miss Simpson was ready with a needle, a pill, or a word of advice. She is an indispensable member of our tours. During the concerts, Bruce Hatfield, president of the Chorus, sparked the intermissions with witty talks. A medical student, Bruce also came supplied with various medications, and was constantly called upon to provide remedies for sore throats, headaches, and other minor ailments.
It was a long first day — 12 hours on the bus — but not without interest. Southerners discovered that Grande Prairie was not slightly east, or due north, but was very much west, as far west as Jasper! Names in school books became realities — Slave Lake, still partly covered with ice, accompanied us for miles. Miles, too, of blackened stumps, were a bleak reminder of forest fires, and the smouldering muskeg was everywhere.
On arrival in Grande Prairie, we were quickly billeted in private homes, as we were elsewhere on tour, and received our first introduction to the wonderful hospitality of the north. No singing that night — just much-needed sleep!
Next day the Chorus met its sponsors at a special Rotary luncheon, and that evening, with much trepidation, we faced a large crowd from the stage of a fine school auditorium, and gave our all. The audience was delighted, the Chorus was delighted, and the tour was off to a fine start.
Tuesday afternoon we arrived in the agricultural center of Beaverlodge. The town has a population of 500, and 600 of them attended the concert! Overwhelmed, we gave one of our best concerts, and were in turn rewarded with some very fine music for dancing later in the evening.
After lunching, shopping, and taking pictures of the Mile "O" post at Dawson Creek, we climbed back into the busses for a trip to the new Peace River bridge. We managed to overcome our awe of the magnificent river valley long enough to clamber down the banks and taste the water of the great river, for it is said that he who drinks of the "mighty Peace" will never be satisfied until he returns to the north.
Back in Dawson Creek, we found ourselves billed to sing in the auditorium of the new composite High School. The next morning a special program was given for the school children. Before leaving, we toured the new primary school, where we watched pint-sized youngsters working at pint-sized desks, in charming and colourful surroundings. Very much impressed, the Chorus said goodbye to Dawson Creek and headed back to Alberta.
Spirit River was another legendary name now become a reality. Chorus members were billeted in near-by Rycroft as well, and thoroughly enjoyed "commuting" to the concert and back. The large garage in which the program was presented had just about the best acoustics of any hall en route. The wonderful resonance delighted both the audience and the performers.
It took several hours to reach Fairview, only a few miles away. The ferry on the direct route was not yet running, so the busses forded the Smoky river farther south and east at Watino. A ferry ride was a novel experience to many of the Chorus members; later, before passing through Peace River town, we found ourselves engulfed in the smoke of a small forest fire at the side of the road. All of us were glad that the longer trip had been necessary.
Fairview's School of Agriculture was impressive with its marvellous equipment and beautiful dormitory facilities. Many of us were billeted at the School and were delighted with the luxurious surroundings, and with the abundance of hot water which provided an opportunity for freshening ourselves and our suitcase contents.
For some of us, the day will always be especially remembered, for it was in Fairview that the graduation results were received. All the seniors were successful, which added a fillip to the tour.
All were up bright and early next morning, for a children's matinee was scheduled in Peace River, as well as an evening performance. In between concerts, some of us took advantage of a lovely day and even lovelier surroundings to eat our supper on the river bank. That evening, despite the oppressive heat, a large and appreciative audience found energy enough to applaud until our last encore.
The next morning, we stopped at a famous spot of historic and aesthetic interest, "Twelve-foot Davis'" grave. On a hill overlooking the town of Peace River is the grave of an old pioneer of the north, who requested that his last resting-place be there. It is a beautiful spot, from which the junction of three river valleys can be seen to the left, with the town nestling in the large valley directly below. The Chorus, famous for its noises, was silenced again by the awesome grandeur of the northland.
As the busses progressed toward McLennan for Sunday night's concert, we noticed menus and signs printed in both French and English.
Dust and changes of water are not kind to voices or constitutions, but until now, we had managed to get by on the dwindling supply of pills and medicines brought by Miss Simpson and "Doc" Hatfield. Near-tragedy struck the Chorus Monday morning, however, as one of the most important members, accompanist Jocelyn Rogers, became so ill she was unable to play at the final concert in High Prairie. Donna Parker, assistant accompanist, was obliged to take over almost without notice.
The final "wind-up" party was both nostalgic and noisy. Thanks to our sponsors, the party was held in the same hall as the concert. High Prairie's high school students served refreshments, and provided records for dancing. The evening was sparked with gift presentations, many of them of a comic nature and commemorating incidents on tour.
During the final concert, a trick was played on Mr. Eaton, our conductor. The sheet-music of the popular song, "The Girl with the Green Sleeves" was substituted for "My Ladye Greensleeves", one of the Chorus selections. Mr. Eaton was known to have a strong aversion to the recent adaptation of the lovely Elizabethan song. As a final insult, he was asked to sing the new version at the party. Much to everyone's amazement and delight, he did, complete with appropriate Western twang and maudlin sentiment.
One bus left for Edmonton directly after the party, so that graduating members could get back in time for some of the festivities. Our goodbyes were lengthy, for we were reluctant to let a part of our number go. We were sorry, too, to say goodbye to three fine bus drivers, who had become fast friends of the Chorus during their ten-day association with us.
It was the end of another successful spring tour. As the busses left High Prairie Tuesday morning, we were still hoarsely singing a new song. The voices were negligible, but there was plenty of enthusiasm: "When it's 'Maytime in Alberta', We'll be coming back to you; When it's Maytime in Peace River, With your bonny skies so blue'."
We had all drunk of the mighty Peace; and we knew that some day we would return.
It was most fitting that "Widger's Way" be chosen as the play to be taken on the "Maytime" tour. Firstly, because it was written by Alberta's own Gwen Pharis Ringwood and secondly because of its great adaptability and ease of production. Thirdly, the play was a reflection of Alberta life, a bit exaggerated perhaps, but certainly of sufficient truth for us to see in one character or another a bit of ourselves as typical western Canadians. The touring of this play has done much toward the realization that here in the west, there exists a culture different from any other and that it is worth nurturing and developing that it may grow even stronger and more dynamic.
Many technical difficulties faced us — how were we going to be able to carry all of our light and sound equipment and how could we pack our flats and other scenery into our small panel delivery? The first two questions were easily answered — we merely had special, very versatile, portable equipment made. Our flat problem was a little more pressing until we finally decided to use a collapsible aluminum framework around which we bound our hession "canvas" with drawstrings. This proved to be very compact and very easy to assemble and take down. The remaining parts of our scenery were all made so they would collapse into the smallest possible size. All of the preparatory work of scene construction and planning was done by the cast under the capable guidance of Professor Robert Orchard of the U.of A.
Finally we got the show on the road. Ahead of us lay eight performances; eight times we were to assemble and collapse our scenery, light and sound; eight times we were to dress and put on our makeup in either a garage or a modern dressing room (as in the Dawson Creek high school); eight times we were to average five to six hours of sleep. Sometimes we were able to take a bath; other times we were lucky to share a sink. But the spirit that possessed the old Chautauqua soon surged through us. The show was all that mattered and every effort was directed to the successful production of it.
It would be selfish to say that we (the cast), alone, did all the work. Had it not been for the tremendous amount of help received from the teenagers in most of the towns visited it is doubtful whether we would have been able to put the performances on at all. In many of the halls and auditoriums it was necessary to set up improvised rigging in order that we could hang our lights or put up our scenery. It was here and in the quick scene changes that our local help was so invaluable. Indeed, we would likely all have perished from sheer exhaustion if their aid had not been close at hand.
Despite all this help the itinerary for each day provided for little leisure time. At eight a.m. we would rise, then eat, rush down to the hall, pack the equipment and drive on to the next town. The distance we travelled each day varied from twenty-five to four hundred miles. Arriving at our destination at about one or two in the afternoon we would unpack, have lunch and then set up our scenery, lights, etc. At about four o'clock our operations would be slowed down by the presentation to the school children of Carl Hare's "Punch and Judy" show. The hanging of lights took the bulk of the time as most of the halls had little or no provision for the two-color system of lighting that we used. In one place we would have to cut holes in the ceiling; in the next we would have to hang up a special iron rod. When the lights were finally focused and the sound and sight lines checked we would be ready for supper with one hour to eat, dress and make up.
It wasn't much time but night after night we did it and loved every minute of it. It was hot and hard work and our fatigue in no way enhanced the performance. When the show was over there was still the set to strike, and after that we attended a function given in our honor.
At the stroke of two or three a.m. (depending on the function) we would fall into bed to remain completely senseless until the hotel keeper awakened us to start the vicious circle rolling again.
But the cast was "up" to each barrier thrust in its path. It was a hardy group, a mixture of each part of our great province. North, south, east and west; farm, small town, and big town were all represented. From Grande Prairie there was John Moore; from Edmonton, Professor Orchard, Ted Kemp, Carl Hare, Ted Patterson, Craig Elliott, and Don and Betty Wilson; from Calgary, Frank Glenfield; from Provost, Clara Angletvedt; and from Barons, Tommy Peacocke. With the tour as its welder, these eleven individuals became fused together into one compact unit. Besides the thrilling experience of being on the road each person made ten very close friends.
The tour was as gratifying financially as it was personally. In every town we played to a full or near full house. So encouraging was this tour of "Widger's Way" that the director, Mr. Orchard, is planning to take more productions into rural Alberta. If he can do this, it is certain that interest and activity in the fine arts will be immeasurably increased. Through this medium, perhaps, we can counteract the growing forces of materialism and so make our province and subsequently our nation a better and richer place in which to live.
Published Summer 1952.