When the theatre doors opened in 1893, it was billed as the most technically perfect theatre in Canada. With seating for 900 people, there was one balcony and one dress circle, with VIP boxes on either side of the stage. The stage measured 38 by 44 feet, and the proscenium height was 28 feet. A fly gallery was 22 feet above the stage and a rigging gallery reached 48 feet.
At that time, there were 3 furnaces in the building, which needed to be fed coal constantly. This required a couple to live in the theatre on the third floor, in an apartment. According to legend, it is said that one day, the lady of this couple rushed down from the third floor stairs and fell and sadly, died. It is said to be her spirit that inhabits the theatre. To this day, “Mary”, as she has affectionately been named, is a friendly but mischievous “ghost” who mysteriously moves things, then puts them back, lowers the lights or opens and closes doors. Staff and patrons alike often have their own “Mary” story to share.
It was in this theatre that Marie Dressler made her first stage appearance at the age of 5, in an amateur play organized by her mother. As part of the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s, the Academy hosted a young Sammy Davis Jr. and the Marks Brothers as well.
Around 1918, silent movies also began to be played and later, in 1923, talking films were added. One of the projectors is found today in the Highlands Cinemas in Kinmount, part of the vast collection of movie memorabilia owned by Keith Stata. Another was donated to the Ontario Science Centre back in 1986.
In 1953 the theatre’s owner Mr. Meehan faced hard times with the opening of the new movie show-house, The Century Theatre. Some live shows continued, such as the Kiwanis Musicals, but over the next ten years it was often closed and eventually was put up for sale.
In 1963 the Academy Theatre Foundation was formed and bought the theatre for $18,000. The founding President was Dr. Bill Service. Assisted by the Mayor, Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, another $40,000 was raised to renovate the lobby, the office space, and the stage. The apron was added to the front of the stage, along with some lights. New furnaces were added and the old coal ones were removed.
Shortly after this revival of the theatre, in 1965, Kawartha Summer Theatre began and the beloved and respected Dennis and Maggie Sweeting spent their first summer here, producing Summer Stock. The opening show was “Charlie’s Aunt”. The Women’s Guild also started their valuable work hosting receptions, raising funds and ushering. Country Music Legend Tommy Hunter presented his show every Friday night from the Academy for about three summers, bring more fame to the theatre.
The Academy Theatre for Performing Arts, as it is known today, is a busy cultural centre, operated as a non-profit organization. Still presenting incredible concerts, community productions and providing a venue for local schools and organizations, the Academy relies upon rental income and is strongly supported by the generosity of donations from the public. With guidance from a dedicated Board of Directors, the Academy has a Manager and Administrative Staff who welcome up to 20,000 visitors a year to this grand old building.