“On With the Show, This is It!” – The McCance Theatre Men

When I began researching this post, I intended to focus exclusively on Gail McCance, set designer for Theatre Under the Stars, the Vancouver Opera Association and other organizations. However, one of the first sources I encountered was a 1919 newspaper review of a Vancouver production of The Geisha that referred to the scenery being “specially designed by Mr. J. McCance”. I didn’t know a lot about Gail at that stage, but I knew what year he was born – 1924 – and so either the similarity of name and occupation was a remarkable coincidence, or there was more to Gail’s story than I had thought!

John A. McCance

John Askew photo for Vancouver Sun. 1959.

John Alexander (Jack Sr.) was father to Gail and his siblings. He was born in St. Thomas, Ontario to John and Sarah McCance. He married Mary Teresa McHugh in 1910 after moving to Vancouver in 1900. The McCances had four sons and a daughter together: John Bernarr (Jack Jr.) (1911-1974), Larry Hugh (1918-1970), Edgar Joseph (1920-2005), Frederick Gail (1924-2009), and Theresa S. (Archie) MacLagan.

Jack Sr. was a carpenter by trade and, after coming to Vancouver, began to work as a stage carpenter in city theatres. He joined the Lyric Theatre group in 1903 and over the years constructed sets for the Vancouver Opera House, Pantages, Avenue, Capitol, Empress Theatre, and others. There is evidence that Jack’s “day job” – in the late ‘30s at least – was as an employee of Greater Vancouver Water Board, probably also as a carpenter (Sun 28 Nov 1936).

The first press mention I found of Jack was the review of The Geisha at the Avenue Theatre in 1919, mentioned in the first paragraph of this post (Province, 16 May 1919). Interestingly, Jack would be responsible again for set design in a revival of The Geisha in the city 21 years later (Province 8 Aug 1940).

Jack was stage manager for the pre-TUTS productions of A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Sun 1 Aug 1936) and Hiawatha (Province 8 Aug 1936) at Brockton Point in 1936. [1]

Jack was invited to teach in UBC’s extension department in (at least) 1941, 1945 and 1946 where he provided practical instruction in scene construction and lighting. Other note-worthy people who were on faculty there at that time were Beatrice Lennie (theatrical masks), Ross Lort (scene design), and Vivien Ramsay (make-up) (Sun, 31 May 1941; Province 3 May 1945; Sun 14 May 1946).

Jack packed his hammer away for the last time after building sets in 1959 for the Vancouver Opera Association’s production of Carmen (Sun, 1 Feb 1962). He passed away in 1962.

Larry was Jack’s second son. His first son and namesake, Jack Jr., became a coppersmith who also farmed a bit. Another of Jack Sr.‘s sons, Edgar J. became an executive with the Ocean Cement Group.

Larry H. McCance

Province photo.

Larry had the acting bug. The first mention of him in the local press pertained to him acting in 1937 with the Masquers Guild in Silas the Chore-Boy (Sun 21 May 1937). He later performed with the Masquers in The Golden Lady and Our Town. He also acted with the Vancouver Little Theatre Association in Waiting for Lefty, Of Mice and Men, and Full House.

The earliest TUTS performances were held at Brockton Point Oval, not the Malkin Bowl. Because the acoustics at Brockton Point Oval were poor, the director of TUTS at the time, E. V. Young, chose to rehearse two casts — one that would provide dramatic voices that could be amplified by hidden microphone and another cast that would mutely act out the parts. [2] Larry would play voice role of Quince in the TUTS precursor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the early 1940s, Larry was working as a broadcaster with CJOR.

By 1947, in addition to acting and broadcasting, Larry had also taken up scenery design (like Dad and youngest brother, Gail) for the [Bowen] Island Theatre Summer Stock Company: “Larry McCance designs and builds all sets for the company”. Plays presented by the company included: George and Margaret, East Lynn, Accent on Youth, Late Christopher Bean, Petticoat Fever, Death Takes a Holiday, and Meet the Wife (Sun 16 July 1947). I suspect that part of the reason for taking on set design for this company was that Larry was under-employed as an actor and possibly as a local broadcaster, hence his decision later that year to move away from Vancouver.

In Autumn of 1947, Larry and his family moved to Toronto. He remained there for the rest of his life with the exception of 1956-1958 when he returned to B.C. to become the Executive Secretary in charge of the B.C. Centennial celebrations (Sun, 6 Jan 1970). In the 1960s, he appeared on early trans-national CBC television broadcasts out of Toronto.

At his death in 1970, Larry was the Canadian Executive Secretary of the Actor’s Equity Association, the union representing theatre actors in Canada.

F. Gail McCance

Gail McCance posing with a model of one of the sets for Madame Butterfly at the Vancouver International Festival at QE Theatre. George Diack Sun photo, 1960.

Gail was born, raised and schooled in North Vancouver (like his siblings). He ‘played theatre’ as a kid and, encouraged by his Dad, kind of fell into set design (Province 28 Jan 1961). Gail’s first job in the theatre was helping his Dad with set construction for A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a 12-year-old in 1936 (Sun 1 March 1963). When he was older, he spent a year in New York working in most of the scenic design shops there. He plainly wasn’t a typical kid.

Gail began his lengthy association with Theatre Under the Stars at Stanley Park’s Malkin Memorial Bowl in 1945 at the tender age of 20. Gordon Hilker, the producer of TUTS from 1940 until 1949, had a tendency, apparently, to hire staff who were known to him. [3] That may go some ways to explaining why it is that Hilker took a chance on such a young man to take on set design for TUTS. He may have approached Jack Sr., and Jack stood aside in favour of his youngest son, or it could be that Hilker wanted a young man in whom he could invest over several years, and Gail was known to him through his Dad, and so seemed a logical choice.

When Gail began with TUTS in 1945, he wasn’t hired on as the set designer. His task, together with Frank Vyvyan, was to construct and paint sets designed by Adrian Awan of Hollywood, CA. Awan had designed sets for the Hollywood Bowl, on which the Malkin Bowl’s design had been based (although Malkin was substantially smaller) (Sun 9 June 1945). For this first season of Gail’s involvement with TUTS, he and Vyvyan would build sets based on designs by Awan for Vagabond King, Maytime, Red Mill, Rio Rita, and Chocolate Soldier.

In 1946, Gail was sent by TUTS to New York City where he spent 6 weeks studying the construction and painting of Broadway shows in their scenery studios (Sun 25 Feb 1946). This was to become an annual venture for a number of years.

The British Columbia Institute of Music and Drama (BCIMD) was a creation of Gordon Hilker and was a creature of TUTS that had as its purpose “to provide free training to promising young talent throughout British Columbia in all branches of the theatrical arts.” [4] The BCIMD provided Gail with a teaching outlet very early in his time with TUTS (1945-46). He was in charge of courses pertaining to scenery construction, painting, and the resolution of electrical challenges presented by different productions.

In November 1946, the Parks Board, concluded an agreement with the federal Department of Naval Affairs to acquire the ‘Old HMCS Discovery’ building on Deadman’s Island. This two-storey building would become the TUTS scenery shop and Gail McCance’s work-a-day home for many years.

Crop of CVA 59-16 – Aerial photo. Pacific Survey Corp. 1959. I believe “Old Discovery” is the first building encountered upon crossing over to Deadman’s Island (left) from Stanley Park.

The first TUTS season in which Gail seems to have earned his set designer ‘wings’ was in 1947: for that season, the local press mentioned that there were “settings by Gail McCance” (Province 26 Aug 1947).

In 1947, Gail began to work for organizations besides TUTS; specifically the Vancouver Little Theatre group, for which he developed scenery for their production of George Washington Slept Here. However, Gail’s fireplace in the play proved to be a little too realistic:

It was the third act and the cue was given . . . acrid dusky coloured real fumes poured from the artificial fireplace. The cast coughed, according to script, but the first-nighters [the audience] coughed too and the keynote was realism.

Province 18 Nov 1947
Charlie Baker. “Coastal Currents” BC’s T. Eaton Co. employee magazine. ca1954. Gordon Poppy Collection. (Baker worked at Eaton’s Construction Dept., too, at this time.)

Gail’s job title was changed in 1948, to “Technical Superintendent”, probably reflecting a promotion. Charlie Baker, who had from 1946 been credited as the set painter is shown in the 1948 season as “Designer”. I take it from these changes in title that Gail was in charge of overall TUTS set design.

Gail married Patricia Mary Gale in 1948.

Gordon Hilker left the TUTS company in 1949 and was replaced in 1950 as producer by William Buckingham. Gail continued as Technical Superintendent until TUTS folded in 1963.

Gail produced the sets for the Steinbeck standard, Of Mice and Men in 1953 at the Avon Theatre (the original Pantages). In 1956, he took on the challenge of set design in the mammoth space that was the Georgia Auditoruim for the Opera Society of B.C.’s. Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe. And in 1958, he was working in a much smaller space, the auditorium of John Oliver high school for a performance of the Vancouver Ballet Society.

In Autumn 1962, Gail created scenery for the Vancouver Opera’s production of Tosca. It cannot often happen that the scenery upstages the actors in an opera, but that seemed to be the case with this opera:

Although there were many beautiful gowns in the first night audience it was Gail McCance’s set in the third act of “Tosca” that stole the show.

For this creation of his was one of the finest displays of the art that I have seen at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Here was the fortress Castel Sant’Angelo set against a morning sky.

In the distance were silhouetted some buildings of Rome and obviously there were more spread out beyond the hill if only we could see over, such was the illusion of distance created by lighting and a large heroic statue set on the battlements.

For me this illusion lasted for minutes, this feeling that we were looking not at a theatre stage but through an archway with the world spread out on the other side.

But the illusion was destroyed by some of the sloppiest acting in the opera.

Province 19 Oct 1962

In 1963, TUTS went bankrupt. The previous year, the Theatre organization as a whole lost $14,000. The only department in TUTS to show a profit was Gail McCance’s scenery department which made $2,960 off an income of $95,814, operating out of rent-free premises (the Old Discovery) (Sun 23 Nov 1962).

Starting in 1964, Gail relied on the Vancouver Opera Association more than before for steady set design work. He had no difficulty filling his days. He designed that year for VOA’s Barber of Seville, La Boheme, The Consul, and The Marriage of Figaro. The following year was likewise busy.

He collapsed from what was diagnosed as sheer exhaustion in 1966 (Sun 9 July 1966). He eased up considerably on his workload after that, producing about one set per year for the VOA ‘til 1973. Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until his death, Gail painted and exhibited watercolours. He continued to design sets for productions at Marpole’s Metro Theatre through the late 1970s. He seems to have retired by 1980.

In 1997, the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame set Gail McCance’s name in a star along Granville Street near the Orpheum Theatre for his contributions to set design (Sun 24 Nov 1997).

Gail described the job of the set designer as “like the ham in the sandwich — necessary for the art of the theatre and the tastes of the public yet hidden from view” (Province 25 May 1963). Gail McCance died on June 16, 2009.

Notes

  1. These weren’t advertised as being TUTS productions, but it is generally acknowledged that they were precursors to the Theatre Under the Stars; TUTS officially became known by that name in 1940 and began holding performances at the Malkin Memorial Bowl in that year.
  2. Richard Sutherland. Theatre Under the Stars: The Hilker Years. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Arts. UBC. 1993, p.6
  3. Sutherland, p. 29.
  4. Sutherland, p. 40.
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