Michael J. Fox Theatre marks 20th year

John White and his operations team, Dave McRae, Jim Dobbs and Monika Vriend, have been putting on events at the Michael J. Fox Theatre for 20 years. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
John White and his operations team, Dave McRae, Jim Dobbs and Monika Vriend, have been putting on events at the Michael J. Fox Theatre for 20 years.

As Michael J. Fox Theatre marks its 20th year, retired Burnaby school district superintendent Elmer Froese recalled it was a minor miracle that the school it's a part of got built at all.

When planning started for a new Burnaby South secondary in the late 1980s, it had many cards stacked against it.

The student population of the district was half what it had been in 1972 when Froese took the helm. The Social Credit government was in a period of budgetary restraint. And the neighbourhood around Rumble Street and MacPherson Avenue was largely an industrial one, what homes were nearby belonged mostly to greying, empty nesters.

Referring to the disappearing student population, Froese said, "we had to do something."

That something ended up being Burnaby South 2000, a strategy to revitalize and renew the district's high schools by taking maximum advantage of technology, with a new South being something of a flagship for the new approach.

For the first time, Burnaby companies B.C. Tel and IBM partnered to make it happen on the high-tech end, starting with Cariboo Hill and Alpha secondaries.

But the idea of building a new school when the existing South and other Burnaby high schools weren't full and the government was cutting back?

"It was, in the minds of many people, crazy," Froese said. "To have a theatre as part of that project was pie in the sky."

What would become Michael J. Fox Theatre was far from a reality but even then, there were staunch supporters, such as then-school board chair Carol Jones, of a professional-level theatre.

"I had an ally in her saying, 'you don't build a big high school if it doesn't have a proper performing facility and we need a theatre and it's got to be a real theatre,'" Froese said.

While Burnaby had its fair share of athletic facilities, up until then the city lacked arts facilities, he said. Efforts to build a theatre even included a referendum but when it failed to get enough votes, city hall gave up. James Cowan Theatre was renovated instead, eventually incorporated into the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, but it still didn't have a fly-tower or other infrastructure needed for a professional venue.

The new South was designed with a theatre in it, but "the education ministry was not excited about theatres," Froese said. "As a matter of fact it was probably the first thing to get chopped as soon as the budget had to get trimmed back.

"My wife will tell you the number of times I came home from planning and committee meetings and said, '[the theatre is] dead, it's gone.'"

The prognosis for the stage facility remained poor until one serendipitous day when the new deputy minister of education, Sandy Peel, turned up in Froese's office.

The Jericho School for the Deaf in Vancouver had been the subject of allegations of abuse in its boarding school and Peel wanted Burnaby school district to take over its management.

Peel explained that the ministry was pleased with Burnaby's success in running schools at Oakalla Prison and the Willingdon Youth Detention Centre, and thought it would be a good fit.

Froese saw an opportunity and seized it.

He said no to managing Jericho but proposed including a new provincial school for the deaf in the plans for South. He touted the technology component as well as a proper theatre as ideal learning tools for deaf students.

Peel was sold and thereafter helped make the project happen at the ministry.

Today, the adaptations throughout South don't seem out of the ordinary, but they're significant and belie their state-of-the-art status of the early 1990s—video screens throughout the corridors displaying announcements, both for hearing and non-hearing students, for example.

The theatre, meanwhile, is double-raked, with the sloped portion closest to the stage designed so deaf students can sit up front to read the sign-language interpreters and participate in what's happening. Infrared wireless technology also connects microphones to headsets in the audience.

Response to the theatre and school when they opened in the fall of 1993 was positive, but the venue didn't start making a name for itself until its famous acting namesake lent it his name, said John White, retired director of instruction and vice-chair of the Michael J. Fox Theatre Society's board.

It was originally called "The Theatre at Burnaby South," said White. But thanks to local restaurateur and nightclub owner Sev Morin, who knew the Fox family and proposed the idea, Michael J. Fox allowed the theatre to bear his name in 1995.

The only disadvantage—often being confused with the Terry Fox Theatre in Port Coquitlam—has been far outweighed by the benefits of the name and profile.

Michael J. Fox has attended just about all, if not every, golf tournament held annually since 2002, which raises upwards of $55,000 per year.

The money was originally earmarked to pay the theatre's debt, but now that that's paid off, it's used for capital expenditures as well as scholarships for aspiring young performers from Burnaby schools, White said.

When not being used by the school itself—it is alloted 350 hours of use per year—the theatre serves as a roadhouse for shows in which the producers bring in all their own equipment.

It currently accommodates an average of 350 shows a year, making it probably the busiest theatre in the Lower Mainland, White said.

At 613 seats, the facility fills a niche in the regional theatre community—larger than the 285-seat James Cowan Theatre at the Shadbolt Centre, and other spaces in the Tri-Cities, but more intimate than the approximately 1,200-seat Massey Theatre in New Westminster.

One of the advantages of it being a roadhouse is that the shows bring their own audiences with them, with people coming from all over the Lower Mainland to watch Chinese opera or kids' dance competitions, for example.

For Burnaby students, they not only get to take the stage of a high-calibre facility, elementary students go there to watch touring performances.

"Very high expectations are placed on their behaviour in the theatre," said White, suggesting students from the district might be among the best-behaved audiences around.

As for Froese, he summed up the "very satisfying experience" of getting the school built this way: "The new school was like designing a gold ring. The theatre was

literally adding a big diamond."

Until Froese retired in 1996, he used to delight in taking international delegations on tours of the school, it was so well regarded.

He recalled with a laugh taking dignitaries such as the minister of education for Malaysia on tours of South and, without any fanfare, leading them through a door to the theatre.

"They would literally gasp and they would say, 'in a school?'"

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