In 1944, the White Rock Players’ Club made its first tentative appearance in the local theatre scene, forming from the remnants of the disbanded Surrey Teachers Dramatic Society. The first six years of the Club, from then until 1950, was their nomadic era, where they performed in schools, church halls, and other assorted venues throughout the area.
A major turning point happened in 1947, when Franklin Johnson joined the Club. Franklin became the club’s guiding force, directing nearly every play for the next 17 years, and many more in later years. In 1950, they found a small rental space in a former furniture store on the White Rock waterfront, which they used for eight years until the building was condemned and the property sold. The building had no backstage area, and was so small that the actors would exit stage right through a door that opened into a telephone booth in the café next door, trudge though a muddy path out back & re-appear through a door on stage left.
Possibly the most memorable event in the Club’s history was winning the 1958 Dominion Drama Festival in Halifax. The group’s entry, “Playboy of the Western World,” swept the top three awards for best presentation, best visual production and best director. It was the first time that a small-town group had won the national competition.
In the months that followed, their Dominion Drama Festival win provided a huge emotional boost and much-sought credibility from the community. The White Rock Players’ Club had been declared the finest theatre club in Canada. Now its members wanted a theatre of their own to call home, and they needed all the support they could get.
That same year, a building came up for sale on Johnston Road – the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – for $19,000. For half of the $2,000 down payment, they used the prize money from their Dominion Drama Festival win. The other $1,000 (not a small amount for a theatre group in the late-1950s) was raised through loans, donations, debentures, promissory notes, and Franklin Johnson’s marathon pie-making. The club had finally realized the dream of every theatre group: it had a home.
By the time the stage and backstage area was added to the existing Quonset hut auditorium, the total cost for the building had risen to $35,000. In a supreme act of faith, thirteen club members (and their families) guaranteed $1,000 each, putting up their homes as collateral. The building became a theatre with much volunteer labour, and an unprecedented act of commitment.
The White Rock Little Theatre opened at the present location on March 12, 1960, with a highly acclaimed performance of “Teahouse of the August Moon” which featured an actual Jeep and a live goat on stage. The production was so well received that it was held over for eight more shows – and was still turning people away from the box office when it ended. By 1966 the White Rock Players’ Club members had paid off the building and rejoiced with a mortgage-burning celebration. Between 1964 and 1976, charity performances of their Christmas pantomimes were performed on Boxing Day at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver.
The club has been one of the few community theatres to own and run its own building and to operate almost grant-free. The building was expanded in the 1970s with a lobby, and with extra backstage space in the 1980s. In 1995, new washrooms, and structural and safety improvements were added. By 2004, the older parts of the building were sadly in need of renovation and improvement. Up to then, the Players’ Club had financed all aspects of the building, its maintenance and repair, through its own resources.
In 2005, to celebrate its 50th anniversary and Rotary International’s Centennial, the Rotary Club of White Rock chose the restoration of the White Rock Playhouse as a major project, and undertook to raise funds in cooperation with the Players’ Club. A prime motivator for the project was both a Rotary member and a Players’ Club member, Scott Wheeler. Scott was the long-time President and de facto Artistic Director of the Club, in addition to being very active in Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce. Scott passed away just a few months before the grand re-opening on July 6th, 2006 but was very present during construction and was able to see the new auditorium take shape. Designed by Ankenman Associates, and built by General Contractors KDS Construction, improvements to the building included a stunning new lobby, a modern air-conditioned auditorium and balcony, and 220 new seats. Technical benefits included a new booth, catwalk, and sound and lighting systems. The people of White Rock contributed through many fund-raising events including the bricks that can be seen at the outside entrances to the theatre lobby.
Major donors were the Federal and Provincial governments, the Bosa family, The City of White Rock, and of course Coast Capital Savings provided much needed funds in exchange for naming rights to the theatre for 10 years. KDS Construction, The Vancouver Foundation, Bill and Rose Dyke, Roy and Marjorie Jelly and The White Rock South Surrey Foundation were also key donors. To make up for budget over-runs the Club took on a $200,000 loan.
The White Rock Players’ Club currently produces five shows a year, including comedies, thrillers and dramas, and the popular Christmas Pantomime, a local tradition since 1954. The Panto is such a White Rock favourite that you can see four generations of families come to enjoy the magic, colourful costumes, romance and just plain silliness
Every year new people walk through the doors of the theatre to volunteer their time to bring the performing arts to the City of White Rock. We know that through these new members the spirit of the Founders will live on for many performances to come. Long live the White Rock Players’ Club.