Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rescued concert hall going strong again

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VIRDEN -- Thirty years ago, Gladys Carefoot asked Randy Rostecki what he thought of the town's old concert hall, the historic Virden Auditorium that was filled with bird droppings, fallen plaster, glass from broken windows and had water damage from the collapsing roof.

Rostecki was visiting on behalf of Manitoba Historical Resources but had earlier compiled an inventory of historic buildings across Western Canada for Parks Canada. Today, he is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of prairie architecture and is author of two books, including Armstrong's Point: A History.

Rostecki told Carefoot it was the finest vintage concert hall between Winnipeg and Calgary.

That stiffened the resolve of a small group of people opposed to the town council's plan to demolish the "Aud," as it's lovingly known in Western Manitoba. Carefoot and her posse started to round up support (and money) from the community to save it. Long story short: They succeeded.

This Wednesday, the Aud takes a bow, takes a curtsey, whatever, for its 100th anniversary. It was exactly a century ago, on Leap Year Day, 1912, it opened. A wonderful painting by Virden artist Terry McLean depicts that wintry day, with cutter sleighs pulling up to the Aud and theatregoers dressed in their finest.

The Aud is the pride of Western Manitoba. "Performers love it," said Carefoot. "They're very surprised when they come here. They often are performing in gymnasiums and town halls around rural Manitoba. Then they see this."

The Aud has always been as much a symbol of people who dream big as a functional theatre. The original champion was newspaper editor John "Jack" MacLachlan of the Virden Empire-Advance. People said the theatre was more than the town of 1,500 people could afford and dubbed it "Jack's Folly."

"The Aud epitomizes what the small towns were at the turn of the century and probably for the first two decades before the decline took place," said Rostecki. "They were vibrant places. They all had big-city ambitions and built accordingly."

The first performance was a local production of a forgettable farce called The Misogynist, about a man engaged to four women. The first touring performance was of Tolstoy's Resurrection on March 7, 1912.

Since then it has hosted operettas, vaudeville acts, concerts, theatre productions, weddings and other services. It became a movie theatre in the 1920s and followed the evolution from silent film to talkies. It started to die after the movie theatre closed in the 1960s and the owners invested in a drive-in theatre instead.

What makes the Aud so special? Exquisite acoustics that give it a "warm" sound; 467 red-upholstered seats set in cast iron with decorative scrollwork; two double-decker loges on each side swaddled in flowing red velvet curtains and valences; the stage's proscenium arch; the orchestra pit; graduated seating with a concave floor sunken in the middle; and marble imitation pillars.

It originally had six canvas scenery curtains that lowered onto the stage with pulley ropes. Only one remains. Its motif is imagination. It looks out from a temple onto a Mediterranean vista, where gondolas equipped with white sails skim over table-smooth water, and Middle East-style architecture in the backdrop.

In 1980, Virden mayor Al Case declared that "the old bird has to go." Jimmy Moffatt, 95, and Carefoot, 90, are the only two people left of the small group that campaigned to save the Aud. Moffatt, a Second World War D-Day vet, oversaw its restoration. A Brandon Sun story recently dubbed them "the Aud couple."

The Aud has been run successfully the last three decades, receiving only a small annual operating grant from the town, said Rick Kristjanson, a Virden Aud board member since 1986.

The Air Command Band from17 Wing in Winnipeg will perform at the anniversary show.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2012 A8

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