Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ottawa: The Unknown City

You might not know this, but the National Arts Centre - Centre national des Arts is built over the spot where the Russell Theatre opened on Elgin Street in 1897. The original Russell Theatre provided 1,500 seats, 10 private boxes and 4 loge boxes, becoming the centre of the serious arts in Ottawa, but was later destroyed by fire on April 7, 1901. Quickly rebuilt as the New Russell Opera House, it existed for nearly two decades more, providing a venue for visiting troupes from around the world, before the building was expropriated by the Federal District Commission to make way for Confederation Park (now Confederation Square). The New Russell Opera House had its last showing on April 14, 1928, despite an outcry from many prominent citizens, and the city's only legitimate theatre was finally destroyed. The current building is set slightly to the south of the previous, an idea set forth by then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to establish a national centre for the performing arts. Despite the fact that his idea for a new theatre was almost universally dismissed, it was finally approved in 1963, opening May 31, 1969 as The National Arts Centre.

Among numerous other events over the decades, the first few years of the Ottawa International Writers Festival (which started back in 1997) also occurred in the National Arts Centre building, and I could tell you a whole bunch of extremely good stories involving, say, Dany Laferriere, Michael Hartnett, Clare Latremouille, jwcurry, Robert McLiam Wilson, Lynn Crosbie, Will Ferguson, Michael Turner, Dermot Healy, Patrick Watson and perhaps others, but some parts of festival remain at festival.

Built well before the Russell Theatre, there was Her Majesty's Theatre, built in Wellington Street between O'Connor and Bank in 1854; renamed The Prince of Wales in 1860 to commemorate his visit to Ottawa that year, in 1866 it returned to previous name. In 1863, the theatre folded and in 1870 the building became the home of The Times Printing and Publishing. The Family Theatre itself, on Queen Street east of Bank, began showing feature-length films in 1912.

I have never understood the government small-mindedness when it comes to refusing to pay for anything arts-related. Don’t they know that every single study says that a dollar spent on the arts returns ten-fold to the community? A billion dollars was spent in Ottawa by tourists in 2004; how many of those people do you think were coming to visit, say, Nortel?

1 comment:

Dwight Williams said...

One more thing to truly love the memory of Lester Pearson for. Putting a theatre back into a place where its predecessor was destroyed.

That is dharmic repayment to the universe done with style.