Flash From the Past: The Ashcroft Opera House

My friend Martin says the difference between a dream and a delusion is a lot of hard work. That may be so, but some kinds of work are better for your soul than others, and when he gave me an invitation to visit the historic Ashcroft Opera House for a couple of weeks and write about the place, I leapt on it. After all, Martin and I share some of that history, and I was ready for any excuse to get out of downtown Vancouver.

Living in the city has been feeling a lot like the wrong kind of work, lately. For a couple of weeks I would enjoy pretending that life in a peaceful place like Ashcroft could be a realistic career move. Between trying to run my own independent record company, booking tours and doing publicity, sometimes it’s easy to forget that I am a songwriter. Martin is always telling me to take some time out and concentrate on nurturing my creativity. Here was my big chance. For two weeks at least, I knew I would be enjoying good company, breathing clean air and that the river and the hills would give my tired spirit rest. What I didn’t know was that the experience was to change my life completely.

The evening that I arrived, I was tired and sick. Martin was, by contrast, bubbling with enthusiasm. He picked me up at the bus stop in Cache Creek and drove me back to Ashcroft talking all the way. “We’ve had the kids in for the last two weeks doing an amateur production of “Grease,” he said. “It’s our first theatre production, and we’ve been sold out every night. Shakespeare’s next!” He grinned.

“How are the renovations going? And the plans for the Grand Opening Solstice Festival?” I asked.

“We’ve almost nailed down our line-up,” he said. “It’s a month away, so we’re just in time. We’ve got Valdy for sure, the Polyjesters and maybe Carolyn Mark. Do you think we can get Barney Bentall too?”

“I don’t know Martin, but we’ll try,” I said. Barney Bentall’s Grand Cariboo Opry, featuring a cast of thousands including me on banjo, had played three sold-out shows at the Opera House last winter. The proceeds had gone to benefit the youth theatre group now mounting the current production. All of us in the band had been thrilled with the acoustics of the old room, which resonate like a drum, providing a clarity and warmth I’ve rarely heard equaled anywhere else. And even then we’d been amazed and delighted at the progress Martin had made restoring the old building.

At the time, he’d been at it for over a year, dealing with structural, electrical and fire safety issues. He’d even elicited the assistance of my extremely busy husband, record producer John MacArthur Ellis, with the installation of a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system. Lately he’d been addressing cosmetic problems with the lobby and front façade, adding a kitchen and rebuilding the stairs to the upper balcony.

“We’re painting on Wednesday,” Martin said, “and re-varnishing the floors. We’re gonna put flowers everywhere. Wait ‘til you see the place. You won’t believe the changes.”

I smiled. As long as I’ve known him, Martin has embraced change with the kind of courage that borders on the – well, delusional. I remember when his plan to purchase and restore the 120 year old Ashcroft Opera House seemed flat-out crazy. I told him so, and so did numerous other people. After all, he was broke.

In June of 2001, his restaurant in the old Harvey Bailey Building on Railway Avenue had burned down. People thought he was nuts to open The Secret Garden in the first place – a vegetarian restaurant smack-dab in the middle of cattle country. But you can’t tell Martin much when he gets an idea into his head. Since 1999, he’d been slowly gaining the affection of the town with his healthy, delicious vegetarian fare and baked goods. With no experience or industry connections, before long he was also hosting concerts, drawing crowds from miles around to hear a series of mostly unknown songwriters and musicians. I was one of them.

It was April of 2000, the last show of the first Grrrls with Guitars tour out of Vancouver. As soon as we drove into town, we had a feeling we were someplace special. Situated so beautifully beside the river with dusty hills rising around it, the wide, empty streets of Ashcroft lined with old-fashioned false-fronted buildings had an authentic wild-west feel to them.

“This place was a big Gold Rush town in the old days,” said Linda McRae. In fact, I would later learn that when the Canadian Pacific Railway line arrived there in 1886, Ashcroft became the most important freight destination for Gold Rush trade in Canada. The northernmost stop on the line before it turned east to Kamloops, the town’s population had exploded overnight into a teeming hive of homes and businesses, including blacksmiths, livery stables, saddle makers, hotels, general stores, restaurants, a bakery and even a Chinatown. Becoming known as “Mile Zero” on the “Long Road” to the Klondike, Ashcroft attracted adventurers from all over the globe.

Some of that charm still lingered, though now the town seemed a peaceful little place far removed from the hustle of the outside world. A tumbleweed blew across the street and we laughed, wondering if there would be much of an audience for our show.

When you are a touring artist, there’s always a little apprehension about meeting a venue operator for the first time. Sometimes, when certain agreements aren’t fulfilled to satisfaction by one side or the other, the relationship can quickly go sour. You never know if your show is going to be well attended or not, because it all depends on how well the proprietor is liked by the town and how he promotes you. If he cares, he’ll put up posters, play your music in his establishment, and try to get a story in the paper. He’ll make sure that there is a hearty meal ready when you arrive, the equipment is in good running order and you have a comfortable place to sleep. When it comes to these issues, my general rule on the road has always been to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

When we reached the venue, however, we were in for a few pleasant surprises. Our posters were up, our CD was playing on the system and the room was clean and well lit. Expecting a cowboy, we were greeted instead by a friendly French-Canadian with a ponytail offering chilled organic apple cider spritzers rather than beer with his vegetarian menu. “I’d rather feature music than booze,” Martin explained. What a concept!

There was a subtle East Indian influence in the décor at once both incongruous and harmonious – I suspected it was connected with the vegetarianism. A picture on the wall showed an old fellow draped in flowers sitting cross-legged. I guessed he was vegetarian, too, smiling benevolently past the frame into an environment that exuded peacefulness and order. If he was our host’s guru, he wasn’t doing a bad job. We were delighted by Martin’s genuine warmth of welcome, childlike enthusiasm, and a sense that he above all he wanted to be of service. We all felt at home at once.

Before long, the room began to fill up. The crowd was well dressed and polite, and once the show got going, it was clear that these folks took their music seriously. It’s up to the promoter to create a culture of good listening in his venue – a respectful introduction, an attractive stage, and the odd “shhh” goes a long way. We had often been booked into rooms where people are used to gathering for drinks and conversation, while music takes a back seat. A concert experience is meant to be very different.

Something special can be created when an audience is really listening – a kind of group intimacy, an energy exchange that borders on the magical. Judging by the quality of attention we received that night, these folks were well trained. Afterwards, we all gathered around one of the tables and relaxed with Martin and his staff, laughing and talking like the old friends we already were. We all agreed it was the best show of the tour.

Over the next couple of years, we kept an eye on Martin and his establishment with interest, and came back to play whenever we could. He asked us to spread the word about the Secret Garden among Vancouver musicians – before long, he was swamped with requests to play his venue. Only four hours from Vancouver, Ashcroft is a perfect place to begin or end a Western Canadian tour. Martin’s reputation as a generous and fair host brought him more artists than he could afford to present. At the time, he could take only the smaller acts, his room not being large enough to attract national touring artists. Even so, there was plenty of talent to go around.

Martin began to realize that presenting too is an art – gauging and developing the community’s interest in a certain kind of music takes experience and intuition. His bottom line, though, was never about the number of seats he sold. Even a poorly attended show was a success by Martin’s standards if the performance shone. And with every show he put on, his resolve to create a better one next time grew.

We all knew how seriously he took his vocation, and that’s why when we heard that the Secret Garden had burned down, the news spread like – well, wildfire.

It wasn’t the first time that fire had changed the Ashcroft skyline. The great blaze of 1916 destroyed most of the business district, including the first Harvey Bailey building, which was reconstructed in the 20’s. The old Opera House was one of the few that had been left unscathed.

Now as then, the town rallied. The request came to donate performances for a show to benefit the businesses that had been lost in the Harvey Bailey fire. We were glad to help, as the people of Ashcroft had welcomed us like friends over the years, and we knew the loss of the historic building affected every one of them.

Martin himself had been without insurance and was completely devastated. Before long, though, he had rented a space across the street and had his business up and running again. The difficulty was, the new place was too small to hold concerts and by now Martin was hooked. It wasn’t enough for him to feed people’s bodies any more. He had to feed their souls too – with music.

At his own risk, he continued to present occasional concerts in alternate venues, and organized the first Ashcroft Solstice Festival in 2003 as a way of thanking the community for their support after the fire. Canadian folk music legend Valdy headlined, appearing with many of the other artists who’d played the Secret Garden over the years, and the event was a great success. But by now Martin had a different venue in mind – and a plan that would unite and benefit the whole town.

“The old Ashcroft Opera House is up for sale,” Martin said. “It’s the oldest surviving structure in town. Performers from all over the world played here during the Gold Rush. Imagine if we could bring it back!”

Because of the Opera House, Martin said, Ashcroft was once known as the “cultural oasis” of the Cariboo. If he had his way, it would be again. Later I learned that in the late 1800’s, as the town bustled with busy hotels and bars catering to the transient Gold Rush trade, the need for a true community center grew. A Town Hall Building Committee was formed, and town father J.C. Barnes came forward to donate land. A call for subscriptions and volunteer labor went out to the community and several residents bought shares. Built of sturdy Douglas Fir, the town hall was completed in 1889 and would soon come to be known as the Opera House.

From the late 1800’s until the 1940’s, the Opera House hosted local and international acts as diverse as the comedy trio the Georgia Minstrels, Canadian poet Pauline Johnson, and the Australian Royal Lilliputian Opera Company. Walachin pianist Fanny Foucault was a regular performer, traveling into town on her horse, and heading out the following day to play a neighboring town.

The Town Hall Building Committee kept the facility as functional and up-to-date as possible. By the time Philadelphia’s 22-member Metropolitan Opera toured through in 1898, electric lights had been installed and a state-of-the-art Heintzma