This cultural dimension in Muskoka life was launched in the 1870s when a popular Bracebridge organization, the Winter Evening Amusement Association, began to stage impressive dramas, including Shakespearean plays, at the British Lion Hotel. The impulse to mount plays continued unabated, leading to the desire for better stage facilities. As a result, in 1880 a new Town Hall for Bracebridge was designed to incorporate a splendid theatre. At this central venue on Dominion Street, local actors and singers, as well as visiting celebrity performers such as poet Pauline Johnson on her cross-Canada tours, would entertain for the next 78 years, until the building was lost to fire.
Yet as fine as the Bracebridge stage now was, from the moment the Gravenhurst Opera House first opened its doors on March 12, 1901, no Muskoka community boasted a more prestigious theatre. It, too, was housed above a new town hall, like the set-up in Bracebridge, but as Gravenhurst's theatre became a magnet for talent and a centre for the arts, it for sure became the envy of all other Muskoka towns. Indeed, it was called the finest theatre in Ontario for a town of Gravenhurst's size.
The name "Opera House" struck some as pretentious for a small town theatre. John Ibbitson, who grew up in Gravenhurst, opens his Governor-General's award-winning 2008 novel The Landing with a scene featuring an orchestra concert in the theatre, quipping that the Opera House "was too grand a name for a hall so small, where not a living soul had ever seen an opera, or wanted to." In fact, decades would pass after 1901 before a full-length opera was even performed at the so-called Opera House.
Just over a decade ago Gravenhurst Opera House celebrated its first century by publishing The Many Stages of Our Lives, Joe Stratford's colourful compendium of social history, photographs, newspaper accounts, playbills, and reviews – unquestionably the best book about theatre in Muskoka. Not only is Stratford's book zippy, comprehensive, and written in a popular style for a wide audience, but it is artfully produced and, happily, still in print.
Ontario's first summer theatre opened at Bala in the mid-1930s, thanks to the enterprise of playwright, actor, and stage producer John Holden. His Actors' Colony Theatre opened its first season, in 1934, with four plays. Holden brought with him to Muskoka a company of young actors from Toronto to perform during July and August at Victory Hall in the village. Holden's Actors' Colony troupe was later enticed to perform at both the Opera House in Gravenhurst and Bigwin Inn on the Lake of Bays, but kept Bala, with its improved theatre, as the base of operation. The company performed nine or ten different plays each summer until 1941, when wartime conditions temporarily brought down the curtain on summer stock theatre.
This pioneering effort is recounted by Robert J. Boyer in Bracebridge Around 1930, in a chapter on how Muskoka became home to the first summer theatre. He also describes the resumption, after World War II, of summer theatre at the Opera House, as well as in Bracebridge and at Port Carling, when Murray and Donald Davis founded The Straw Hat Players. The renowned Straw Hatters, like the Actors' Colony before it, mounted a demanding repertoire of stage plays – a different one each week, all summer long. You cannot mount something as demanding as a Shakespeare production in just a week, which meant the actors offered a lighter fare of comedy and melodrama, entertainment which meshed perfectly with Muskoka's summer vacation state of mind.
Until 1941, Bigwin Inn's massive Pavilion at Lake of Bays provided a prestigious Muskoka stage for one-night stands by the Actors' Colony Theatre. The troupe alternated its productions with a star-studded parade of Canadian and American musicians, many of whom had also arrived in Muskoka to play Dunn's Pavilion at Bala, one of Ontario's premier dance halls of the era.
Douglas McTaggart's rich history Bigwin Inn tells this story, both through the book's black-and-white period photographs and the author's descriptions of how concerts, plays, reviews, and recitals drew the hotel's hundreds of eminent guests to the elegant Pavilion on summer nights.
The most complete account of Muskoka's success story in innovating summer stock theatre is found in Scott McClellan's engaging 1984 book Straw Hats and Greasepaint: 50 Years of Theatre in the Summer Colony. This smallish 56-page illustrated book features The Actors' Colony Story, 1934–1942. Author McClellan had amassed, during more than two years of research, more than 100 hours of taped interviews, plus a cabinet filled with press clippings, theatre programs, and Muskoka theatre history. Although Straw Hats and Greasepaint was billed at the time of publication as "Volume 1" in a series of four titles (the three other projected books were to deal with The Straw Hat Players, the "modern era" from the mid-Fifties to late-Sixties, and the celebrated Muskoka Festival) it was, sadly, the only volume that made it into print.
Muskoka's summer stock theatre was good for everyone: an entertainment bonus for vacationers; a chance for young actors to expand their repertoire before live audiences; experience for set designers (with such latter day notable Canadian actors as William Hutt doing carpentry work); increased business for local hotels, restaurants, printers, and newspapers; participation by Muskoka's year-round residents who not only bought tickets to attend the plays but whose homes provided props for the changing stage sets each week; and general enhancement of cultural life in Muskoka.
— Review by J. Patrick Boyer