Monday, May 11, 2015

Thanks for the memories, Debbie Slade and Centre for the Arts!

You know by now, of course, an end to an era occurred late last month when the 45th season at Centre for the Arts at Brock University came to a close April 23rd.  The performance by Flamenco guitarist Jorge Miguel not only closed the season at Brock, but the stellar run of seasons dating back to 1969.

Next fall, all performances will emanate from the brand-spanking new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines.  That means another era begins, but not without a tear or two being shed beforehand.

It's almost hard to believe Centre for the Arts has been around for 45 years now; yet I can't imagine a time when the performance venues at Brock were not operating.  Just imagine for a moment what we did here in St. Catharines before the Centre for the Arts opening at Brock 45 years ago.

In all likelihood, any performances would have been in school auditoriums or churches in the area, since there would not have been many proper entertainment facilities available just about anywhere in the Region.  Movies would have been more popular forms of entertainment out of necessity, one would think, and the occasional live performance would likely include a chorus of "we need a decent performance space" from those who attended.

That brings us to 1969 and the beginning of the Centre For the Arts era at Brock, admittedly a much shorter season than what we are used to now.  But it was something, and the state-of-the-art theatre facilities at the time were light years ahead of what we had seen up to that time.

Since then, the storied venue has hosted musical acts ranging from Bob Geldoff to Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth to Anne Murray, Stomping' Tom Connors to Diana Krall.  In other words, something for everyone.

My own memories of Centre for the Arts include sitting in the audience for countless performances by the Niagara Symphony, as well as memorable evenings spent with the likes of La Bottine Souriante and guitarist Jesse Cooke.  I can't say I have ever sat through a bad performance at the place, ever.

I've also participated in many shows there myself, having for many years been the so-called "Voice of God" for the off-stage announcements for the NSO.  I also stood on stage for announcements on occasion, and looking up at that large expanse of full seats at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre was more than a little intimidating, let me tell you.

Over at the David S. Howes Theatre, once known simply as The Playhouse, I remember spending many a Wednesday afternoon back in the 80s enjoying shows by our local theatre company, Press Theatre, headed up by the late Diane Nyland-Proctor.  Their performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest I recall as being particularly memorable.

For both venues, I also provided artist chat sessions after the performance for a few seasons, and that was always a challenge balancing information and entertainment with the artist for the enjoyment of the audience.  But again, I never had a bad experience while doing those popular chats for many years.

Much of the time Centre for the Arts has been in existence - well, for 30 years of it at least - Director Debbie Slade has guided the ship from success to success, through most of the 1,450 performances there since it opened in 1969.  I occasionally heard grumblings the season line up was weighted too heavily towards East-Coast performers, but hey, you don't mess with success and Deb experienced a lot of it with her deft handling of the seasons' programming.

Few people in the industry have garnered the respect of both her peers and the acts she has booked as Debbie Slade has.  Everyone knows her and more importantly, they and by extension we - trust her talent for booking winning acts year in and year out.  They can't all be winners of course, but there have been far more winners than losers over the years, and that track record is to be admired.

Sadly, Debbie has chosen this particular juncture in local entertainment history to bid farewell and retire, rather than stay on and guide the programming at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in the future.  It must have been a tough decision for Debbie certainly, but also for those around her who in many cases have known no other Director of Centre for the Arts, ever.

To give you an indication of the respect Deb has acquired over the years, when I spoke to Canadian singer John McDermott back in January by phone for an article I was writing for Centre for the Arts magazine, I could almost hear his jaw drop over the line when I broke the news to him.  John is one of those artists who placed his trust and respect in Debbie and her talented team, having played Centre for the Arts something like 29 times over the years.

But you know what they say:  quit while you're ahead and still on top, so perhaps Debbie was seeing the proverbial tea leaves aligning in just a way that to her seemed to spell out an auspicious time to hang it up and put down her booking pen one last time.

The legacy she will leave behind will be significant, as Centre for the Arts would not of - could not of - grown to its present size without her sheer determination and grit.   I don't think I am overstating the case by saying for most of us in Niagara, Debbie Slade simply was Centre for the Arts at Brock University.

Having said all that, this coming Thursday evening Niagara gets a chance to bid farewell to a classy lady who often worked in the wings to bring some pretty big stars out on stage for our enjoyment.  On Thursday, it is Debbie's moment at centre-stage as we get to say thanks for the memories, job well done, and all the best in retirement.

Tickets are only $25 and includes light hors d'oeuvres at 6 pm before action shifts to the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre stage where Debbie has worked her considerable magic for so many years.  For tickets, call the box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257 or go online at

The rest of the Centre for the Arts staff including Debbie's right-hand girl, Sara Palmieri, will all be moving to First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in the fall, but Debbie will move on at the end of this season.  Afterwards, the performance spaces she has known so well over the years will be converted into university lecture space, I'm told.

But that's all in the future.  Right now, let's raise a collective toast to a lady who not only earned our respect and admiration, but also won our hearts by giving Niagara the entertainment line up year in and year out we have almost taken for granted.  It is a lot of hard work and Deb has earned the right to take a break right about now.

But not before we say goodbye, and that happens Thursday night of this week.

Have a great retirement, Debbie, and all the best in the future.  You will be very much missed!

May 11th, 2015.

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