“I went to Delta!”, was the punchline, in what is the funniest joke in Douglas Rodger’s How Could You, Mrs Dick?, the 1989 stage play about Evelyn Dick and the notorious 1946 “torso” murder, that still resonates in Hamilton to this day. In fact, the real Evelyn Dick (nee Maclean), went to Delta as well. She did her grade nine year, at the iconic east end high school, before transferring to the posh Loretto Academy downtown, run by nuns, where she graduated in 1937.
Rodger’s stage play is actually part of the curriculum, at Delta, these days, as it is taught to students studying grade twelve English, or so Janice Nutter, who has been a teacher at the Delta, for the past twenty-two years, informs me.
Nutter, who also teaches drama, staged what will now be the final performance in the school’s historic 1200 seat auditorium last week. She explains that, “Last Thursday, the senior drama class performed a series of short, student written plays, that we called “?One Mistake I Will Never Forget”. ?After the curtain call and applause, the hugs, thanks, and flowers, I realized that it would be the last time anyone, would stage a production on that stage, and it made me cry. I cried that this beautiful auditorium, home to so many generations of young Hamilton artists, their families, friends and educators, will soon be silent.”
Like “Goodbye, Mr Chips”, the end of a school, and the legacy that it represents, is a painful thing.
Nutter is retiring, as the school shuts its doors, so unlike many of her students, she is not going to be at the newly constructed replacement school, in September.
“Many former students have remarked how their time in my Drama class, strongly impacted their life in essential and positive ways. Several have even confided to me, that it saved their life.”
I can second this, as I was a troubled teenager at Delta, between 1982 and 1986, and the only reason I graduated high school was because of the arts, music and drama, then on offer at the school.
This coming Saturday, May 25th, the Delta Alumni Association is staging a “closing celebration” and the doors will be thrown open for a few hours, from 10:00am to 1:00pm, for the public, students and staff past and present, to wander the halls for one final time, before the building is sealed up and sold off to be redeveloped. This is the final few weeks that the school, which opened in 1924, will be in operation, the final semester, that classes will be in session.
Next September, the brand new Bernie Custis Secondary, will open at the former Scott Park location, and will replace Delta and Sir John A MacDonald schools. Custis, will not have an auditorium or a theatre as part of its facilities. A dedicated drama/music class room, and a small stage at one end of the cafeteria, are all that it will offer to incoming students.
Back in the 1940s, there were only four high schools in the city. Delta Collegiate, in the east end, Westdale, in the west end, with Cathedral, for Catholic students, and Central High School for everyone else in the core of Hamilton. Those four teams were the entire football league, and played each other again and again. More to the point, all of the three public schools at least, had large well equipped theatres as part of the buildings. Music and drama, in those days, was considered an essential part of student life.
While the facade of Delta, has a historical designation, it is likely, that the auditorium, with its plasterwork, will not survive, a conversion of the building into condos.
As much as I love, the auditorium at Delta, the one at Sir John A. MacDonald, which was constructed in 1974, at a coast of 1.4 million dollars, is an even greater loss. It was designed and intended for the use of community groups, just after Hamilton Place opened. For many years the Player’s Guild and Hamilton Theatre Inc, and the Sears Drama Festival were the anchor tenants, for the theatre. It too is closing in the next few months, the final production, in that space, was “Mamma Mia”, which was previewed in last week’s issue of VIEW.
Many former Delta students went on to have notable careers in the Performing arts. A quick sample would include Brian Linehan, the TV personality with an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, Bill Powell, the local artist and festival organizer, and a classmate of mine Floria Sigismundi, who went onto steady employment directing Hollywood feature films.
Most important, to Canada perhaps, was Amelia Hall, who spent most of her forty year theatrical career. performing at the Stratford Festival, every summer. In fact, “Millie”, was the very first woman to ever appear on the Stratford MainStage, in 1953, opposite Sir Alec Guinness, (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi), in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of “Richard III”.
The only time that Hall, ever played the role of Lady Macbeth, was on the stage of the Delta Auditorium in 1932. She died in 1984, while I was a student at Delta, and I dedicated my first original play, which was part of the Sears Drama Festival, to her memory. Amelia Hall, was part of the very first generation of professional Canadian actors who did not have to leave Canada, in order to make a living.
Gordon Carruth, was a two year student council president, in the late 1950s, and during 1970s, became the school’s vice principal. In his era, at the school productions of musicals like “Lorelei”, first produced on Broadway as a vehicle for Carol Channing in 1974. were common. My friend, the comedian Larry Smith, was the student council president in 1984 and 1985 two years in a row, since he could not hand the Lampadion torch to himself, they got Gord Carruth to give it to him. I last saw Carruth about two years back, when a revue, based upon his many original musicals, played the Pearl Company Theatre. He now lives in Ottawa.
The fiftieth anniversary of the school in 1974, featured a Delta student production in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place. There was also a production of “Marat / Sade” the controversial “theatre of cruelty” play by German playwright Peter Weiss in 1975. Eyebrows were raised, by faculty at the student driven production inciting revolution.
Another, was my friend Ray Harris, a local lawyer, who became an Ontario Court Justice in 2001, was a fixture on the local theatre scene, as an actor, director and producer, with Hamilton Theatre Inc., for more than thirty years. He passed away, just two weeks ago. He acted on the Delta stage, as a student in the Rogers and Hart musical, called “I’ll Take Manhattan”, with Sharon Reynolds, who remains active with HTI, to this day.
I reached out to my own high school Drama teacher, John Paul Morrison. Long since retired from a thirty four year teaching career, he spent nine years, during the 1980s, teaching at Delta. He is still active in the arts, he plays lead guitar with a number of local bands, focusing on the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I owe him, more than I can write, as he saved my life.
Morrison tells me about, “The wonderful old auditorium, was a godsend and was magnificent for our productions. We would bring in feeder schools to preview our plays and many were awestruck at this facility, which is now a mere shadow of its former glory. One thing, I found about Delta kids. They were straight shooters with few pretensions and airs. Their creativity lay close to the surface. They only needed an opportunity to strut their stuff. If you struck the ground with hammer and spike, oil would come gushing. It was an amazing time for me”
Walking the halls this coming Saturday, will bring back a flood of memories, I expect. Sadly, all of the technical lighting equipment, and curtains, was stripped out of the stage, a few years back. So the stage has been made unusable, for most stage events. Janice Nutter’s final production, used technical equipment more suitable for a small club, rather than a huge proscenium stage.
But at least I will be able to stand in the wings of the place, where my first ever stage play, “Dreamer Within a Dream”, a biography of the writer Edgar Allan Poe, made its debut in January 1986. I still recall the lunchtime rehearsal, when we learned that the space shuttle “Challenger” had exploded. Six months later, I was beginning my first year at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
So here is to the grand old lady, my “alma mater”, her long run, is now sadly coming to an end. But Delta Collegiate and its Greek motto, “to know thyself”, will live on in the collective memories of Hamiltonians for a long time to come. V
DELTA CLOSING :
Saturday May 25, at 1284 Main St. E.,
School classrooms and campus
open for final walkthrough.
10:00am to 1:00pm
Live music on the back campus
1:00pm to 5:00pm
band line up:
Michelle Grimard (former student)
Men in Black T-Shirts
- Bryan March (teacher)
The Dubay Band
- Claude Dube (teacher)
The Delta Overdrive Jason Kane
Billy Holmes (teacher)
John Connolly (teacher)
& Stu Marshall
For further info: facebook.com/RaidersTheFinalChapter