He was Armstrong’s first leading man.
Lee Morris was a Hollywood and vaudeville actor who came to the small agricultural community of Armstrong to open, of all things, a theatre back in the early 1900s.
“His time here is one of intrigue and is slightly scandalous,” said Wayne Ashton, a founding member of Asparagus Community Theatre (ACT), who brought Morris’ story to the attention of the producers of the locally-scripted play, All About the People.
The play, to be staged by ACT during Armstrong’s centennial celebrations at the end of the month, tells the stories of some of the key figures who played a part in the city’s history.
Ashton became familiar with Morris’ story after an old steamer trunk was found in a barn belonging to the Docksteader family. The trunk, which was bequeathed to the Armstrong-Spallumcheen Museum, contained fabulous pictures of Morris in his stage makeup, said Ashton.
According to records, Morris was born in Missouri in 1863, and came north in the middle of his acting career, which included a long list of short films, to open a theatre in Armstrong.
“The theatre ended up burning to the ground,” said Ashton, adding it was around that time that Morris would meet the woman who would become his wife.
Bertha Docksteader, who was already married, would end up driving away in a luxury sedan to the coast with Morris to tour through the U.S.
“The two ended up married until Morris died, his mind gone, at Vancouver’s Essondale mental hospital while Bertha lived to be a grand, old dame of Armstrong. Young girls went to her for etiquette lessons,” said Ashton.
Both are buried in the Armstrong cemetery.
Morris’ story aptly returns to the theatre in the second act of All About the People.
Originally called History Train, the play’s title was changed to fit with the slogan of the Armstrong centennial.
“It is essentially what the play is about, the people,” said producer Maryka Simmonds.
Although Simmonds has only lived in Armstrong the past five years, originally coming to the area from Vancouver to work as a stage technician at Caravan Farm Theatre, she has already grown a strong attachment to the community she now calls home.
She now sits on the board of ACT and says the city has been very supportive in bringing All About the People to the stage.
“Armstrong has given so much to us. It is a way for us to give back. We are Armstrong’s community theatre and as a new Armstrong resident, I am really proud and excited of what we have been able to achieve.”
After coming up with the theme of the play, Asparagus commissioned retired Salmon Arm teacher Peter Blacklock to write the script.
“He has written plays and musicals for Shuswap Theatre and last year delved into the history of Armstrong by talking to people and visiting the museum,” said Simmonds, adding Blacklock not only came up with a narrative, but wrote seven original songs for the show.
Directed by Asparagus vet Paul Kirkwood-Hackett, All About the People starts when the railway first came through town, and picks up on historical segments and the people that made significant contributions to the city from 1891 to the late 1930s.
As the story goes, the new railway bypassed the old settlement of Lansdowne in the township of Armstrong, so the townsite was moved and became the downtown part of the city that we know today, said Simmonds.
Featuring a 16-member cast of both ACT alumni and newcomers ages nine to 77, the play uses the train as its focal point. The set features railway tracks that traverse the stage floor and the conductor serves as the narrator.
“The audience is taken back and brought forward through the history as the different characters and stories come to life,” said Simmonds.
Some of the stories touch on the Chinese settlers who arrived in town to farm and set up market gardens and on overlander pioneer Catherine Schubert’s daughter, Rose Swanson, whom the mountain is named after. Playing a central part throughout the play is Jim Wright, the first mayor of Armstrong, while the other stories, such as Morris’, are visited throughout the play.
Although some of the characters are fictional, most are based on real people and actual events, where their words, having been documented, will actually be spoken, said Simmonds, adding, “It’s history preserved, but to a point.”
Then there are the musical numbers, directed by Julie Dorsey and choreographed by Pleasant Valley Secondary graduate Mariah Enoch. They will be played live by the Pleasant Valley Boys, including Cameron Shook on stand-up bass, as well as brothers Allen and George Bensmiller, on guitar and accordion, respectively.
All About the People runs June 26 to 29 and July 3 to 6 at 8 p.m. at Centennial Theatre.
Reservations are available at The Guy Next Door, 3450 Okanagan St., 250-546-0950. Tickets are $15/adult, $12.50 senior/student, and $8/child 12 and under.
A special pay-what-you-can night, sponsored by the City of Armstrong, takes place July 3 while another is planned for June 27.