Belfry Theatre revisits Puttin’ on the Ritz for birthday

What: Puttin’ on the Ritz

Where: Belfry Theatre

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When: Opens tonight, continues to May 8

Tickets: $23 to $52 (250-385-6815)



If not for “the drunk, the quack, the dwarf and the bum,” the Belfry Theatre’s first hit might never have been staged.

The show in question, Puttin’ on the Ritz, was a rollicking revue featuring the music of Irving Berlin. Now remounted by the Belfry Theatre to celebrate the theatre’s 40th anniversary, the original Puttin’ on the Ritz was only the second production the company had staged. The first was a co-production of David Freeman’s Creeps with the Bastion Theatre.

When founded in the mid-1970s, the Belfry Theatre had little money. Don Shipley, the artistic director of the time, realized he was $3,000 short of the bare-bones budget required for Puttin’ on the Ritz. So he approached the Belfry’s chairman of the board, Patrick (Paddy) Stewart, for help.

Stewart persuaded three cronies — Brian Winsby, Camille LaBossiere and Kelly Covin — to match his $750 investment. Winsby was a general practitioner, LaBossiere was a Royal Roads University professor and Covin owned Garden of Eden Boutique, a Victoria sex shop.

“The alliance was known vernacularly as ‘the drunk, the quack, the dwarf and the bum’ and the show we invested in actually made money,” Stewart wrote in an article commemorating a 1994 re-staging of Puttin’ on the Ritz.

The most unlikely investor was probably the late Covin. An eccentric drinking buddy of Stewart’s, he had been a novelist and script writer for the Bonanza TV series before opening the Garden of Eden. Stewart and Covin regularly convened at the Red Lion bar to booze it up and talk about Hemingway and Faulkner.

Stewart had previously bankrolled Covin’s sex shop to the tune of $1,200. So when his friend asked him to invest in the Belfry’s new show, Covin was happy to return the favour. However, Stewart notes he “gave the money on the assurance that he would not have to set foot in the theatre.”

Glynis Leyshon is directing the new production of Puttin’ on the Ritz — and also directed the 1994 remount. She has heard the tale of how the Belfry met Covin to receive his $750 in cash.

“He didn’t want anything on the books. He did, truly, give us the money in small-denomination bills in some paper bags.”

Despite humble beginnings, Puttin’ on the Ritz was a boffo success in 1977. Shipley, interviewed this week, credited a superior cast and production team. The original show starred Bill Hosie, Danny Costain, Mary Swinton and Sheila McCarthy (who later starred in the movie I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and TV show Little Mosque on the Prairie). Judith Marcuse was the choreographer; Ken MacDonald designed the set.

“It really was quite a stellar creative team,” Shipley said.

At the time, British farces were all the rage in Victoria. Shipley, bucking the trend, convinced the Bastion to join the Belfry in co-producing Creeps, a dark drama about men dealing with cerebral palsy. Emboldened after that show drew audiences, Shipley conceived and created Puttin’ on the Ritz, which samples more than 40 Berlin tunes and splices them together with good-humoured routines.

After its five-week run in Victoria, impresario David Y.I. Lui snapped up Puttin’ on the Ritz for a Vancouver remount. Then Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, included the show in his season. Puttin’ on the Ritz was not only a success, it had legs.

Shipley recalled everyone in the original production did double-duty and more. Leyshon, who later became the Belfry’s artistic director, was not directly connected with the show, but helped out by painting the grand piano white at MacDonald’s insistence.

Because it was borrowed, the piano was first coated in “rubber cement” so the white paint could be removed after the run. “The piano was ‘voila!’ — back to black,” Leyshon recalled.

Her mom helped sew the costumes. “It really was like, we have a barn, let’s make a play. It was just friends, really. Friends of the theatre putting it together,” she said. Shipley went on to become one of Canada’s notable theatre directors, serving as co-artistic director of the Stratford Festival and at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Based in Stratford, he now works as a consultant for Montreal’s ArtsGames, an artistic counterpart to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Shipley said he became the Belfry Theatre’s first artistic director — a tenure he recalled fondly — almost by chance.

“I just came to visit Victoria, I hadn’t planned on staying. [Glynis] said: ‘You know, there’s this great little space here reminiscent of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. You should go and have a look at it.’ And I did. And I stayed five years.”

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