by Lorraine Payette, written September 4, 2013
(GANANOQUE, ONTARIO) There was a magical time in Gananoque when everyone could “Take the A Train” with Duke Ellington and enjoy “Rum and Coca-Cola” with the Andrews Sisters, going steady was serious business and the hottest evening entertainment for all the young people was a chance to go to the Canoe Club dance.
In “At The Canoe Club Dance”, Master Story Teller Deborah Dunleavy has put together a warmly nostalgic one-woman musical featuring classics by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and other great swing composers woven into heartfelt stories of just what it meant to be young and alive during this amazing time.
Dunleavy was storyteller-in-residence at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum in Gananoque in 2010. While there, she worked on a project called “Telling Hands”, which gave her the rich opportunity to interview a number of Gananoque’s senior residents and learn their stories. She was able to collect more than 30 hours of materials from those who well remembered area life before 1945, and were more than happy to share.
“The seniors told me amazing stories about how a test pilot crashed his plane on Blue Mountain, how they drank the river water, and how they chewed paving tar like bubble gum,” says Dunleavy. “There were stories about going to the Delaney Cinema, learning to swim, riding an old train called the Suzie Push and taking the steamships to Kingston. Many people recalled fondly the Thursday night dances at the Canoe Club.”
“At the Canoe Club Dance grew out of Deborah’s time on staff at the Museum as our Storyteller in Residence and her interviews for an exhibit called ‘Telling Hands’,” says Linda Mainse, Executive Director of the museum. “The old Canoe Club, which is of course now the 1000 Islands Playhouse, holds rich and lasting memories in the hearts and minds of long time Gananoque and Island residents. It will be a real gift to the community and how fortunate we are that someone of Deborah’s talent and international exposure has chosen to turn our community heritage into a play that will serve to rekindle many a fond memory for so many.”
In 2012, the Ontario Arts Council Word of Mouth program awarded her a grant to write “At the Canoe Club Dance”, and this year the Town of Gananoque awarded her another grant to bring the play to life on the stage for November, 2013.
Using the real people she interviewed as a base, Dunleavy skilfully wove them together to create Bea Tompkins, who shares these wonderful true stories, her recollections, with the audience.
“Bea is a combination of several women who were interviewed. Bea is quick witted, full of spunk, and she never feels sorry for herself,” says Dunleavy. “The story starts in the present. Bea is an elderly woman living in a retirement home and while she cannot always remember what she had for breakfast, she recalls with great clarity her years as a singer fronting a Swing Band on Thursday nights at the Canoe Club dance.”
And what a story! We learn about a young woman falling in love with Jimmy, the boy next door, who is also based on a real person in Gananoque. This is an era of pride in oneself, pride in one’s community, pride in one’s country. Jimmy enlists in the army and is sent overseas, while Bea keeps the home fires burning in Gananoque, eagerly awaiting his return.
“The theme of aging and how we perceive the elderly is foremost in the work,” says Dunleavy. “Bea is not lonely, sad or despondent. She is always bright and cheerful and sees the humour in her frailties as an elderly person, but at no time is she ready to throw in the towel.
“Every detail of the play is in Bea’s imagination. She sees the dance hall, the river, the marching band, the orange crate boat – everything. There are minimal sets, only two chairs and a small table. And there are no props. Everything is imagined and comes to life through Bea’s voice, facial expression and gestures.”
“At the Canoe Club Dance” plays at the Dreams in Motion/Ourtown Theatre, 365 William Street South in Gananoque from November 8 – 10. Show times are 8:00 pm on the 8th and 9th, with a matinee on the 10th at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $20 each, cash only, with open seating. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance by calling 613-382-6700.
Deborah Dunleavy is thrilled to be coming back to her theatre roots after 30 years of touring as a singer and storyteller. She is an award-winning recording artist, playwright, author and arts advocate. Her work has taken her to China, Singapore, Ireland, Scotland and USA. She recently toured her one-woman show, “Battlefield Petticoats – Women in the War of 1812”, to rave reviews.