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Straw Hat Players

Summer theatre company, founded in Port Carling in Muskoka cottage country north of Toronto Ontario in 1948 by members of Hart House Theatre: students Donald and Murray Davis, their sister Barbara Chilcott, and producer Brian Doherty. The first production was the melodrama, The Drunkard, featuring University of Toronto classmates Araby Lockhart, Eric House, Charmion King, and Ted Follows.

In 1949, actors Kate Reid and David Gardner joined the Players for an ambitious season including Hay Fever by Noel Coward. In 1950, they produced their first Canadian work, Fortune My Foe by Robertson Davies, with Donald Davis as Idris Rowlands, the curmudgeonly drunk old professor; and in 1951, they produced Davies’ At My Heart’s Core.

The 1952 season, under the direction of Peter Potter from the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and Russell Graves from Florida State University, was the most ambitious to date: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams; The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot; Overlaid by Robertson Davies; The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan; and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

After the 1955 season, the Davis family relinquished control, and in 1956, Nathan Cohen assessed the contribution the Straw Hat Players had made to Canadian theatre:

"The disbanding of the Straw Hat Players, after eight years of operation in the Muskoka region, is a matter of considerable regret. In the opinion of many playgoers, including this one, the Straw Hat Players was a model of stock company purpose and programming. Organized by Murray and Donald Davis on the proverbial shoestring, it grew into a sturdy professional organization which was a credit to everyone involved. A great many of our ablest performers served their apprenticeship and came to maturity with this company, which was regarded by other companies with envy and admiration. The Straw Hat Players reached its peak in 1952 ... there was an élan and sense of dedication in the Straw Hat Players those days which was unique, and which gave promise of flowering into a genuine Canadian style of acting."

However, the Straw Hat Players did not dissolve, and the company was reconfigured over the next six seasons by various groups. Alan Hughes was the producer from 1965 to 1966, running an Equity company, with Nicholas Ayre as director of professionals and students, who included Terry Tweed. Other directors included Maurice Evans, Richard Howard, and Andrew Allan. Productions included: John Van Druton's Bell, Book and Candle, Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap (1965) and The Unexpected Guest (1966), in which Mel Scott played the Welsh detective, one of the first black actors in Canada. He also played in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey. The last bill in 1965 was "Three Comedies", two of which were new Canadian one-acts.

For the next three years, Alexander Gray's Theatre 21 kept a summer theatre running, and from 1972 into the 1990s Michael Ayoub, an actor/director, and his wife, Mary Bellows ran the summer Muskoka Festival which established a successful format of one company for two musicals, and a second company for two plays, performed at the Gravenhurst Opera House and the Port Carling Memorial Hall, with an emphasis on Canadian content.

The success of the Straw Hat Players inspired the formation of many other summer theatre companies in Ontario, including the Peterborough Summer Theatre Company.

In 2001, the town of Gravenhurst resurrected the name of the Straw Hat Players for a theatre company to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gravenhurst Opera House, and commissioned Vince Grittani to write a summer musical entitled Scenes From My Dock. In 2002, Grittani founded the Muskoka Theatre Project, and for eight seasons in the role of artistic director and producer, he has brought professional theatre back to the region.

Straw Hat Player archives are located in the Theatre Collection in the Toronto Public Library.

Sources: Ross Stuart. “Summer Stock.” Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989; Jill Tomasson Goodwin. “A Career in Review: Donald Davis Canadian Actor, Producer, Director.” Theatre Research in Canada 10. 2 (Fall 1989).

Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University. Additional information from Alan Hughes.

Last updated 2019-07-09