It began with a group of Summerside citizens who had a vision to create a state of the art performing arts facility for Prince County. Years of tireless planning and fundraising ensued. The non-profit Regional Cultural Events Centre Inc. was formed to administer fundraising, and The Summerside Regional Development Corporation would be the body to construct and operate the Wyatt Centre which would house, along with the pre-existing Eptek Centre and the PEI Sports Hall of Fame, a 520 seat theatre. Generous support was garnered from government, the business community, and many private citizens. The major contributor, after whom the building was named, was The Wyatt Foundation, representing well-known Summerside citizen and patron of the arts, Dr. Wanda Wyatt. The foundation made an initial donation of $500,000 and matched subsequent contributions to the tune of an additional half million dollars. More than a decade from its inception, the vision became reality on July 10, 1996 as the curtain rose on opening night of Jamboree – A Maritime Musical Revue (written by Jamie Bradley). Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre was born.
The venue was to be a year round, multipurpose performance space, serving not just the city’s visitors during tourism season, but also the local population during the other months. The first few concerts on the new stage showcased some of Canada’s finest talent of the day, as Frank Mills, Natalie MacMaster and Great Big Sea were featured that inaugural fall. The facility also saw lots of community use, including numerous school plays and concerts, local theatre productions by the Prince County Players, and the Summerside Community Concert Series.
Fast forward to 2016, and “the Island’s biggest little theatre” is celebrating a milestone anniversary. It’s now known simply as Harbourfront Theatre, the title having been shortened some 10 years ago, but ask around and chances are you’ll hear it still affectionately referred to as “The Jubilee.” The venue has had lots of growing pains and bumps in the road along the way, but in recent years has really come into its own, its small but dedicated staff passionately pursuing its mission to provide a continuous live entertainment service to Prince County and its visitors, and to be the driving force in the community to nurture and develop the performing arts.
He said follow that star, that Maritime Star,
Don’t lose sight of the water, wherever you are,
With sand in your pocket, girl, you can’t wander too far,
Those big city lights can’t shine as bright as the Maritime Star.
It was 1997 and the theatre’s showpiece for the summer was Maritime Star, written by Nils Ling with music composed by Allan Rankin. The show would live on the Summerside stage for two summer seasons, its heartwarming storyline, sketches of Island humour and memorable music resonating with locals and visitors alike. To this day, the Harbourfront box office still gets occasional calls from nostalgic patrons remembering “that Maritime Star.”
’97 also saw the birth of the theatre’s volunteer force, which started as an enthusiastic group of around a dozen men and women serving as ushers and bartenders, and growing to today’s membership of 100+ who have expanded their services to everything from greeting and ushering to facility care projects, gardening, hospitality, fundraising and administrative support. The show could not go on without this valued troupe of friendly and eager ambassadors, who are truly a source of deep pride for Harbourfront.
After a few summers of producing its own show, the theatre sought renters to provide product for the tourism season, resulting in a string of summer touring productions including Master Clash, Don Messer’s Violin and Don Messer’s Jubilee in the early 2000s.
Approaching its 10th birthday, the theatre was navigating some rougher waters. RCEC Inc. was now the full owner, having acquired the building from SRDC in 2003. Changes were happening in personnel and programming, and the challenges of running a non-profit arts facility were many. 2005 marked a turning point, however, as the staff of the day set out to re-connect with the community and revive the struggling Harbourfront Jubilee. A different sort of summer was planned; instead of one theatre production, a variety program would be offered on selected nights, focusing more on local and regional artists. The response was immediate and positive and the theatre began to thrive once again under this model.
An alliance had also been formed with the former Kensington Players who had become The Jubilee Players, the theatre’s resident community theatre troupe. This group offered their own contribution to summer 2005, Move Over Mrs. Markham, which was a smash hit, and the precursor to many more highly successful community productions by this group throughout the years, including Whose Wives Are They Anyway, Calendar Girls, and more recently the locally written hit Lights, Camera, Island! which enjoyed a sold out run in March 2016.
2005 was capped off with the theatre’s first ever self-produced community Yuletide variety show, The Christmas Gathering, ending the year on a high note with another sold out house. The program featured popular local talent and a number of artists who wouldn’t typically perform on stage, for an intimate, familiar experience topped off by holiday treats in the lobby and a visit from Santa. This would be the first of several consecutive community Christmas Gatherings.
So impactful was the turnaround that the theatre was honoured with the Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Community Enhancement the following year, and subsequently another for Business Excellence 1 to 19 employees.
Gilbert loves Anne of Green Gables,
And though she won’t admit it’s true,
Anne of Green Gables loves Gilbert, too.
Conditions were favourable to welcome another major production back to the stage when Campbell Webster Entertainment expressed an interest in renting Harbourfront Theatre to present Anne & Gilbert the Musical in summer 2006. The critically acclaimed Anne sequel would enjoy 5 more summers on the Harbourfront stage, with the theatre itself producing the final two summers in 2010 and 2011.
Harbourfront went Broadway in 2012 and ’13, and PEI responded in a big way to arguably the most successful summer show to ever hit its stage, Dan Goggin’s zany musical comedy, Nunsense! It was hilarity in habits as 5 fun loving nuns attempted to stage a fundraising show to raise money for the funerals of their departed sisters, resulting in a record setting run of consecutive sell-out crowds for the last half of the 2012 run.
It’s Bud the Spud from the bright red mud
Rollin’ down the highway smilin’
The spuds are big on the back o’ bud’s rig
And they’re from Prince Edward Island
They’re from Prince Edward Island
2014 was an iconic year for Prince Edward Island, and fittingly, an iconic figure was honoured on the Harbourfront Stage when The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom made its debut in Summerside that summer. One of the theatre’s proudest accomplishments as noted by staff and resonating throughout the community, this funny, touching, impactful and highly entertaining musical chronicled the life and times of Canada’s “Man of the Land”, the late Stompin’ Tom Connors, from his early years on the streets to his notable rise to fame.
Beyond its many summer seasons, Harbourfront has welcomed a wealth of local, regional and world renowned talent to its stage throughout the years. Island schools and dance academies have performed plays, concerts and recitals year after year. PEI household names like Kendra, Bruce & Boomer, Nathan Wiley, Jericho Road, Meaghan Blanchard, Lennie Gallant and many more have played solo and variety shows and festivals. A plethora of touring acts across many disciplines and genres have entertained Harbourfront audiences, from mainstream popular, country and folk to classical music, ballet, opera, comedy, contemporary dance. Some of these notable names include iconic Canadian artists like Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Valdy, April Wine, The Irish Rovers, Stuart MacLean, Sylvia Tyson, Liona Boyd, Fred Penner, and Tommy Hunter, and some of Nashville’s legends, including Mel Tillis, Roy Clark, Bill Anderson, Marty Stuart, and Mickey Gilley. Also fondly remembered are those artists who are part of Harbourfront’s history and have since passed on, including Rita MacNeil, John Allen Cameron, Stompin’ Tom, Mr. Dressup, Kitty Wells, Angele Arsenault, Stan Carew, and Ron Hynes.
A lot has happened since that first idea took root, 30 plus years ago, that Summerside should have its own performing arts facility. Harbourfront Theatre has woven a rich history of arts and entertainment into the community and has much to look back on and be proud of over the last two decades. Looking ahead there are so many experiences yet to be had, so much untapped talent just around the corner, and so many artists, emerging and renowned across this country and beyond to yet invite to the stage. In many ways, the Island’s “biggest little theatre” is just getting started. Hop on for the ride. If the last 20 years are any indication, the next 20 will be lot of fun.