Gravenhurst Opera House
By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
There are lots of lovely theatres in Ontario, and many have statues of prominent local citizens in front. But Gravenhurst must be the only town in the province – maybe in all of Canada – to give pride of place to a life-sized bronze of a Communist war hero.
In fact there are three statues of Norman Bethune in town, as well as a street and buildings named after him. The home where he was born in 1890 is now a national historic site, and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of visitors, mainly from China. Bethune’s death was memorialized in an essay by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, an essay which was memorized by every student in China for an entire generation, meaning that Bethune is quite likely the most famous Canadian in the world.
Bethune may not be as famous at home, but his birthplace still manages to attract some significant Canadian visitors: on the day we were in Gravenhurst to see Thumbs at the Opera House, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a surprise visit to Bethune House on his way to a meeting of business leaders on Lake Joseph.
Trudeau didn’t come to the play that evening, but few people would have been surprised if he had: that kind of celebrity drop-in is one of the features that make Muskoka such an interesting place to be.
It’s not just that celebrity cottagers like Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford and Shania Twain have digs on the lakes here; it’s that you’re never completely sure who you will run into. Is that Kate Hudson snacking on a Cobb Salad at The Oar and Paddle restaurant? Did you just see Stephen Spielberg stopping in to get a case of Gateway Kolsch at Sawdust City Brewery? Maybe… or not.
Currie’s Music and Antiques, for example, is a converted movie theatre across from the Opera House, which now houses a fascinating and eclectic collection. One room is given over entirely to vinyl records; another houses antique guitars; a tiny room at the top of the stairs is jammed with cowboy boots and Western shirts; there’s even a small recording studio on-site. One day the brothers who own the shop were playing some recordings for one of their regular customers, a cottager they knew only as Johnny. When he asked if he could sit in on a session, he revealed that he plays in another band: a little Canadian outfit called The Tragically Hip.
Every waiter and building contractor in Muskoka has a similar story – the time they served Cindy Crawford, the day they delivered a tray of sandwiches to Keith Richards, the afternoon they showed up to do some work at a cottage and saw Justin Bieber relaxing on the deck. But part of the game in Muskoka is to tell your story without making a big deal of it: Canadians may love celebrities, but we like to be cool about them.
All of which makes Thumbs such a great choice for the Gravenhurst Opera House. A comedy-murder mystery, it’s set in a fictionalized small town where a famous actress shows up at the cottage that her ex-husband owns. It’s a tale of murder and deception, in which sophisticated city visitors rub up against local yokels in a game of cat and mouse.
Surely this must have been in mind when Dave Campbell, artistic director of the summer theatre season, chose Thumbs. Campbell boasts an impressive Canadian and international resume, and is also intimately familiar with life in cottage country and the tensions it sometimes brings. Thumbs may have been written with upstate New York in mind, but it flows seamlessly onto the stage in Muskoka.
That’s due to some superb direction from Maja Ardal (winner of two 2016 Dora awards) as well as standout performances from an extremely strong cast. Robin Clipsham’s portrayal of the chief of police is nuanced and multi-layered, while Jane Miller provides a worthy opponent as the famous actress from Los Angeles. Richard Peters’ transformation into a new character before our eyes is mesmerizing. Geoffrey Tyler rounds out the cast with a solid performance as the tennis instructor who may not be quite as compliant as he seems.
There’s more to Thumbs than just the tension between urban and rural; similarly, it would be a mistake to dismiss Gravenhurst as just another spot to look for celebrities. The town is multi-faceted, with many sides to explore. The southernmost town in lake-rich Muskoka, it has frontage on two separate lakes, but a downtown core that embraces neither. It’s seen its shares of booms and busts. Once nicknamed Sawdust City, a century ago it had so many sawmills ringing Muskoka Bay that it was said you could walk across the bay on floating logs; even today, many of the buildings at the water’s edge are standing on layers of compacted sawdust. It later was centre of the local boat-building industry, with two prominent boat shops and several smaller ones turning out luxurious mahogany vessels for cottagers, as well as more utilitarian craft for the people who worked on the lakes.
Those stories are magnificently told at The Muskoka Discovery Centre, an engaging museum which includes an enormous boathouse full of these gorgeous boats.
Not far away, the grandest boat on the lakes – the RMS Segwun – still loads up with coal and steams out onto the lake all summer, taking passengers aboard the oldest steamship still operating in North America.
And in the middle of it all is the lovely and historic Gravenhurst Opera House.
This is just the second season that professional theatre has been back in Gravenhurst, after an absence of several years. Thumbs will be followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes which runs through August. An original musicial, Wake Me When It’s Over, runs in September.
Where to stay in Gravenhurst:
Residence Inn by Marriott: Located on Muskoka Wharf, the hotel offers superb views of all the boating action and is just a few blocks from downtown.
Muskoka Rose Bed and Breakfast. Located on Pine Lake, just minutes out of town, this charming spot has its own dock and beach, allowing a cottage-like experience.
Where to eat:
The Oar and Paddle serves superbly crafted meals in a casual setting. Try the mushroom ravioli with oven-dried tomato, or the burger crafted from wild boar, venison and blueberries. They do excellent fish and chips as well.
Well-Fed is a secret little hideaway on a sidestreet: there’s only one table inside with another couple on the sidewalk, but their salads and sandwiches are superb for takeout.
What to buy:
Muskoka Dry Ginger Ale is a great reminder of what ginger ale should taste like: it’s been bottled here since 1873. You can get six packs in local grocery stores, but if you just want to try a bottle, stop by the bottling plant – there’s a vending machine outside where it sells for 50 cents a bottle.
Sawdust City brewery is much newer, but is equally beloved. A bar inside the brewery allows you sample the different brews before you order your pint. (And if you’re still hungry, be sure to try the bulgogi poutine from the chip truck in the parking lot)
Gypsy Market Mews is a fascinating and eclectic mix of antiques and fun finds, at prices you wouldn’t expect to find in cottage country. There’s a great coffee shop at the front of the store, where you can get excellent croissants.
For more decadent baked goods, the Gravenhurst Bakery is particularly renowned for their over-the-top cream-filled donuts, massive apple fritters, and delicious Chelsea buns, as well as a large gluten-free selection.
And be sure to check out the art on display across the road at the converted Albion Hotel. It’s run by a collective of professional artists.