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Regal moniker for Manitoba Theatre Centre

Queen bestows imperial designation on city venue

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In 1952, on the very first night of the very first play at Winnipeg's new Theatre 77, founder Tom Hendry got a telegram from England's newly ascended Queen Elizabeth II.

"It was wishing us good luck, and asking us to keep in touch," Hendry said Tuesday of the telegram, which he promptly put up on Theatre 77's wall.

Someone stole that telegram.

Hendry never found out who snatched it, but on Tuesday he jokingly accused Theatre 77 co-founder John Hirsch. Six years later, Theatre 77 would merge with the Winnipeg Little Theatre to become the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Though the name changed and the telegram went missing, the Queen kept in touch after all. On Tuesday afternoon, at a gala reception at the Manitoba legislature, the province announced that MTC has become the third Manitoban recipient of the rare and cherished Royal designation, after the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, which takes place in Brandon.

"To have a theatre company named 'royal' shows that Manitoba is a place of quality, and will be for decades to come," Premier Greg Selinger said. He then unveiled a plaque announcing the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

With that, the MTC -- or rather, RMTC -- became only the second Canadian theatre to obtain the designation, over 100 years since King Edward VII bestowed the title on Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, which was believed to be the only North American theatre with the title until Tuesday.

The designation was a long time coming. In 2004, the province launched the lengthy process that would culminate in the title; the application was sent to Ottawa, and on to the Queen, who approved the designation this year.

The formal announcement was saved for after the Queen's visit here last summer, a provincial protocol official said, in order to respect that visit's theme of promoting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. So in September, they told MTC staff the theatre would be adding a big new word to its name.

Now, with the affirmation in hand, MTC board chairman Gary Hannaford wonders if they should have seen it coming. For example, in 2008, Prince Edward joined a group of children to watch a play at the MTC's Tom Hendry Theatre.

"In retrospect, our royal guest was probably serving as a scout," Hannaford said, calling the designation a challenge to the MTC to keep up its community-minded programming. "We feel humbled by the whole thing."

What practical benefits the designation brings are yet to be seen: a calling card for tourists, perhaps?

Either way, MTC executive director Steven Schipper is looking at the big picture: that the designation is a validation of Canadian theatre.

"Our feet are on the ground," he said. "This adds value to the art form that transforms lives, one play at a time."

As for Hendry, in Winnipeg for a rare visit since leaving for Toronto in 1963, the designation echoes back to that first telegram... and to a little theatre that believed it could. "We never thought in these (royal) terms," he mused. "The (Royal Winnipeg Ballet) had the designation, justifiably, but we never thought about it, because it was very unusual for a theatre."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2010 A5

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