Ken Smith was an amazing visionary who created the Chemainus Theatre Festival, an institution that is still thriving after 25 years.
The news he had died was just getting around the theatre late last week before the opening of the Cornwalls’ All-Inclusive Cancun Christmas, the final production of the 25th anniversary season, and brought an emotional response from all who knew him and how integral he was in providing a facility that put Chemainus on the arts and entertainment map.
North Cowichan Coun. Tom Walker remembers those formative years well when Smith came forward with his proposal for a theatre in Chemainus.
“When Rex Hollett was the mayor, Ken Smith came to visit the mayor’s office and I just happened to be wandering through the municipal office,” Walker recalled.
“Rex Hollett and I listened to Ken Smith make a pitch to build something called live theatre in Chemainus. He said, ‘have you ever heard of Rosebud, Alberta?’”
Both Hollett and Walker answered they hadn’t and Smith went on to tell the story of the town’s theatre.
“He told us about the people [who] came from far and wide,” pointed out Walker.
From there, the obvious question to Walker was why not look at a larger population centre for building a theatre.
“I remember saying to him, why would you pick Chemainus?” he pondered. “He said do you know how big Rosebud is? He said I don’t think 100 people live there. He said we’ll stand on our own and we’ll make Chemainus a destination.”
Walker had to see all this for himself and sidetracked from his travels to Rosebud during an R.V. trip.
“I did see Rosebud. I didn’t get a chance to stay over for a play or anything. People came from all over to go to that theatre and he predicted they would do that in Chemainus.”
Smith formed a friendship and partnership with Rosebud Theatre’s LaVerne Erickson that led to them co-founding the Chemainus Theatre and the doors officially opened in the summer of 1993.
Walker remembers a public hearing before the theatre was built drawing a huge crowd and he’s never seen such support at one of those meetings, especially since North Cowichan had to waive a requirement for a certain number of parking spaces.
“We had to do the biggest waiver on parking you ever saw,” noted Walker.
But no one objected too strongly and the rest is history.
“It all worked out,” said Walker. “He had that vision and knew what he wanted.
“He seemed such a genuine guy who knew what he was talking about. I found him to be a very persuasive gentleman. I thought, you know, he kind of convinced me.”
“I met Ken Smith a number of times and found him to be a very kind and gentle man, as well as passionate about live theatre and what it could mean to a town like Chemainus,” noted current North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure. “His vision led us to the point where we have this amazingly successful enterprise called the Chemainus Theatre Festival in our town. Our community will always be indebted to him.”
As Smith predicted, people did come from miles around to see live theatre in Chemainus, but there were definitely some lean years in the beginning before that happened.
“There were often shows that featured more people on stage than in the audience,” Randy Huber, the managing director with the CTF who’s been there from the beginning, pointed out in the program for the Rock Legends show in the summer. “Those early years were a real test of Ken’s faith and his family foundation, but he persisted and continued to support the theatre that he knew he’d been called to found.”
Smith reflected on the situation in an article by Warren Goulding in the Chemainus Valley Courier in 2006.
“We had huge start-up costs and with the low numbers that first year it almost sank,” said Smith, who as the head of the Oswald Smith Foundation, provided the capital for the construction of the facility. The Foundation invested heavily in the Theatre over the years and provided a level of support that allowed it to become the third largest theatre in British Columbia.
“It survived only by the grace of God and now it is respected near and far,” he said moments before announcing that the Oswald Smith Foundation was donating the building to the Chemainus Theatre Festival Society, a not-for-profit organization operated by a volunteer board of directors. Several Chemainus residents sit on the 12-member board and Smith remained on that board, having been named a lifetime director.
“If these first 25 seasons were dedicated to one person, it would be Ken Smith,” Huber indicated. “His steadfast belief and faith has been the springboard from which the Chemainus Theatre has achieved many accolades and touched many lives.”
Smith still attended some performances in later years. It was perhaps fitting that he was around to see the theatre’s 25th anniversary celebration earlier this year and joined the celebration in the spectacular facility he created as a legacy.