Our History

Portal Players Dramatic Society
and the Capitol Theatre
A Brief History by Wayne S. Moore & Diane Dobson

A Portal Players 20th Anniversary Commemorative Project (1999), Adapted for Online Presentation, Summer 2005.

Acknowledgements: AV Museum & Photographic Archives; Joan Frohn-Nielsen; Pam Aspinall; Cindy Solda; Special Thanks to Mr. Harold Warren. Without his actual experience of the theatre’s beginning days, it would not have been possible to document this work. The photo shown below was taken on Opening Day of The Capitol Theatre, on May 16, 1936. The film showing that day was “Dangerous” (1935) starring Bette Davis. Photo Credit: A. Joseph Clegg, courtesy the collection of the Alberni Valley Museum.

In the fall of 1978, a number of Port Alberni residents got together to discuss the feasibility of the formation of a drama group. Twenty or so people met in the gymnasium of North Island College, then located at the corner of Maitland Street and 8th Avenue. Those in attendance included Allan Markin, of the college’s English department, Gordon Scoffield, John Andrews, Margita Hartman, David Lord and Pam Aspinall. It was an enthusiastic amateur drama group, one that spearheaded the Portal Players Dramatic Society.

The North Island College gymnasium was chosen as the club venue. A couple of spare rooms were allocated for Portal Players use. The staff room was used for green room purposes. Risers were constructed for visual effect on stage and some minor work was done to expand the stage. The college stage had no curtains, but, with time and fund-raising, they were provided. During this time, North Island College offered a course in acting to help justify the existence of Portal Players.

Various committees were struck, including a script reading and play selection one. In very short order, the first production was mounted. It consisted of three one-act farces. “You Can’t Take It With You”, directed by Ray Noble was one of the first full-length productions. There was no charge for admission at the beginning of the club’s existence.

Portal Players was off and running. Throughout the 1980’s, the group produced and performed numerous productions – too numerous to mention. Here is a sampling:

Within the first couple of years, “Funeral Tea” and “Street of Dreams”, directed by Irene Scott and Pam Aspinall, respectively, were produced.

In 1984, “A Family Christmas”, starring Bill Einerson as the irascible Scrooge, was produced and directed by Ray Noble.

The following year, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” opened with Charlie Burrell playing Oscar and Ray Noble as roommate, Felix. Directed by Mildred Farn, this play was another one of Portal Players productions that opened to a sellout crowd. As reviewed in the AV Times “…laughter echoed through the audience until curtain call.”

In December of 1986, “Sing A Song of Sixpence” was performed – another success.

The November, 1988 production of the warm-hearted comedy “Cheating Cheaters” was offered. The play was produced by inveterate director, Stan Graves, with the leading role played by Jack Ashbridge.

Since its inception, the Portal Players Dramatic Society has been actively involved in the North Island Zone Theatre BC Drama Festivals. In 1984, for example, it entered three plays from the local spring trio. Adjudicator Ian Fenwick was impressed by Portal Players, “…thoroughly professional backstage skills which allowed them to mount three plays on a strange stage and do it all smoothly and completely on time”. Individual members have received much-deserved accolades. As novice director, Pam Aspinall received Honourable Mention for work on “The Street of Good Friends”. For leading role in “A Life”, Allan Markin received the Best Actor award.

Nearing the end of the 1980’s, Portal Players membership was looking for a larger and more appropriate venue. Sights were set on the Capitol Theatre building. But first, a short history of the theatre itself.

Before the inception of the Capitol Theatre, the Port Theatre operated on First Avenue across from Alberni Hardware. It opened in 1914 under the management of Jack Warren. Walter Hamly oversaw the theatre’s day-to-day operation and his wife took care of the company’s books. Capacity was 200 and shows were first offered every Wednesday and Saturday night. An Edison cylinder gramophone supplied the music for these first movies – silent ones they were.

In 1929, talking pictures became the latest innovation. During the mid-1930’s, though times were hard, Jack Warren saw the need for a larger and more modern theatre. In 1934, he bought the property at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Argyle Street, and construction of the Capitol Theatre began. Jack Warren died in December, 1935 and never saw his theatre’s opening. His wife, Louise, and son, Harold, took over management. A West Coast Advocate article, dated November 25, 1937, touts the Capitol Theatre as a “community asset”. It notes seating capacity of 500, air conditioning and modern sound system, original lighting intensity of 4,000 watts and a large chesterfield in the foyer. The Capitol Theatre operated, as such, until the late 1970’s.

The old theatre building still had much life in it and, against the better judgment of some, in 1989, Portal Players membership bit the bullet and bought it. They never looked back. This was a dedicated and hard-working group of individuals – and they had to be for such an undertaking. The Capitol Theatre demanded a great deal of work before opening night.

The roof was repaired, dressing rooms and makeup rooms were built behind the stage and the washrooms were totally revamped. Lighting and sound equipment was installed. This was just some of the work required. It took over $150,000 in grants and donations, some eight months and incalculable hours of volunteer work. But it happened. As project manager Maurice Farn of Portal Players noted, “the impossible dream is a fitting way to describe our new home.”

Just as the group had done ten years previously, soon after completing work on the new venue, the Portal Players ambitiously undertook their grand opening in this new facility, the production of the play “Something’s Afoot”. Under the directorship of Marcia Westly, the play opened on September 27.

Just in time for Christmas of that same year, 1989, audiences were treated to a popular favorite, Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes”, Featured were two delightful dancers, Julianne Bowman and Andrea White, along with veteran actors Ray Noble and Mildred Farn. The play proved to be a delight to all comers. The brand new theatre curtains were put to use for the first time in this production. The old movie screen, too, was used for the first time since the renovation, for the projection of lighting images.

Throughout the 1990’s, Portal Players continued to impress and entertain audiences with its productions. A fine example was the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy, “Harvey”, about the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, who has a big, white rabbit for a “best friend”. Veteran dancer, actor and choreographer, George Marshall, filled the demanding role with panache. Despite poor opening night attendance due to a blizzard, subsequent performances attracted a record 750 patrons.

Another hit was the 1994 production of Canadian playwright, Peter Colley’s thriller, “Mark of Cain”. Local actor, Brad Henderson, headed the cast. Directing this and the following year’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” was Cindy Solda. Cindy directed several Portal Players productions, notably “Opening Night”, winner of three awards at the ’93 North Island Zone Drama Festival.

The Portal Players Dramatic Society was once known by some as a “contentious little group”. Over the past 20 years, it has grown into a highly respected community theatre, due, for the most part, to the dedication and hard work of the all-volunteer effort. The response, through the years, to audition calls has proven positive and proven, too, that there is a great deal of talent, covering all aspects of production, here in the Alberni Valley.