‘The foundation upon which a community thrives’

Arts Hall of Fame inductees celebrated as integral to Prince Albert’s arts scene as it exists today

Watsonairs director May Janzen, left, receives the Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame trophy from arts board chair Shona Stapleton. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

If not for the three newest members of the Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame, the city’s bustling arts scene and hall of fame itself would possibly not have existed.

Saturday’s ceremony at Rawlinson Centre honoured two groups, the Watsonairs and the Prince Albert Community Players, along with an individual, Bruce Rusheleau.

Their fingerprints are all over the city’s arts community, in some cases Saturday, literally.

First, there was the Watsonairs. The 63-year-old group is the longest continually-operating choral group in the province. It started as a church choir expanded to accept members of the community. Six decades later, it’s still going strong.

“This group … has a very important part in the cultural life of Prince Albert,” said Linda Jensen, a former Watsonair herself, who introduced the organization.

The choral group, in addition to providing money for scholarships and for the Salvation Army’s Christmas Cheer Fund, has raised money for several organizations and institutions to purchase pianos, organs and other musical instruments over the years.

One of those physical pieces of that legacy sat just a few feet from the podium where the Watsonairs accepted their award and their spot in the city’s hall of fame.

In 1969, the group started a fund to purchase a piano for a performing arts centre in Prince Albert.

Watsonairs director May Janzen speaks during the 2019 Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sept. 28, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

That performing arts centre “was really not even a concept yet,” Jensen said.

“That visionary action by … the group was predicated on the absolute trust that this community would build a performing arts centre. That is amazing.”

It took 31 years for the rest of the community to catch up. In 2000, the centennial project was named — the building of a visual and performing arts centre.

The Watsonairs hadn’t forgotten about their promise.

‘That was sacred,” Jensen said.

“That money was held, and they really scrimped so they wouldn’t be using their piano fund for other things the group would be using.”

Concert after concert, the Watsonairs put a little bit away. When the centennial project was announced, they began fundraising “in earnest” in addition to what they had saved up, Jensen said.

“A grand piano doesn’t come that cheaply. To finally achieve that goal, personal donations from individual Watsonairs members allowed for the purchase of the beautiful Yamaha nine-foot concert grand. I’m sure … when they saw that unveiled it gave them a huge amount of pride.”

***

Just like the Watsonairs, the contributions of Bruce Rusheleau were physically present on the stage Saturday night. Rusheleau carved the base of each of the statues presented to inductees. The bases, made out of birch, the province’s official tree, were topped by a Jack Jensen aluminum sculpture depicting a strand of DNA shaped like the province of Saskatchewan.

But the statues were far from Rusheleau’s only contribution.

Nick Beach worked at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre when it first opened its doors to the public. He was in attendance Saturday to introduce Bruce to the gala crowd.

Bruce Rusheleau, left, poses with Prince Albert Arts Board chair Shona Stapleton during the 2019 Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sept. 28, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“Throughout all of those musicals, opening all of those amazing events here at the centre … the constant through all of that was Bruce. He was always there, always helping me out show after show throughout all of those ten years I was here,” Beach said.

Bruce started as a set builder. His eye for the smallest of details “amazed” Beach. As the Rawlinson Centre neared completion, Beach started telling Rusheleau about the fly tower.

“I figured this was something he would want to do,” Beach said. “I remember getting a lukewarm response.”

But Rusheleau agreed to go on a tour. As he examined what could be done and flown from the stage to the rafters above, “I think the bug had bitten him, the spark had been ignited,” Beach said.

Rusheleau quickly became “a primary expert” on the fly tower, Beach said, though he still spent a lot of time in the shop.

As a shop teacher, when shows would close, Rusheleau would scavenge old sets for usable two-by-fours and one-by-fours. They were cared for and safely stored on his home property.

This year he took a look at the pile and decided to put it to use. All the one-by-fours and two-by-fours used to build the set of Mamma Mia came from that collection, from Broadway North shows of the past.

Mamma Mia castmembers Lauren Lohneis (left) and Teegan Jeffers perform a rendition of Chiquitita at the 2019 Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame induction ceremony during a segment dedicated to longtime backstage volutneer Bruce Rusheleau. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

“It’s almost kind of weird, almost ephemeral,” Rusheleau said.

“Here’s all this material that was part of a Broadway North Show before. It did its job and was cast off, and now it’s back again. I stood back one day … and thought that was kind of neat.”

Through his years at the centre, Rusheleau saw many shows. But he made a special effort to see the Watsonairs.

“Man, did those ladies ever perform. Wow,” he said.

“For the first four or five years, I used to make it a point … of doing that show for them. It was always fun.”

Beach said the stories of Rusheleau could continue all night.

“It’s important to note how much he’s done over those years,” Beach said.

“Bruce, you’ve given so much of your time and experience over 20 years and everything you’ve contributed … really made the arts in this city thrive. Volunteers like you are the foundation upon a great community thrives.”

While Rusheleau appreciated the sentiment, he said he’s far from the only one.

“I’m only one of the hundreds of volunteers in the city who have made their contribution of energy and time to the arts community,” he said. “This (award) is for them too.”

***

Prince Albert Community Players president Gail Enright speaks during the 2019 Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sept. 28, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

While Rusheleau has contributed to dozens of productions, without the third inductee of Saturday night, there may not have been any productions to start with.

Before Odyssey Productions, before Broadway North and before Spark Theatre, there was the Prince Albert Community Players.

In the fall of 1959, a group of families, seeing that the city had little to offer for family entertainment, decided to start a community drama program. The following spring, they produced their first show, The Man Who Came to Dinner by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.

“The group had an interest in acting but no knowledge of the ins and outs of bringing the production to life, so they hired a professional director,” explained Marnie Anderson.

“After that, they taught themselves to act and learned how to direct out of necessity.”

The group learned how to build sets, using items from their own homes to furnish them. They enlisted their children to paint, build props and act in as many shows as they could be talked into.

At the height of the group’s popularity, they would sell out a five-day run of a production in less than three hours.

Sixty years later, community players are one of the province’s oldest theatre groups.

“Hundreds of actors, directors and backstage personnel have helped bring productions to the citizens of Prince Albert,” Anderson said.

As if to make that point, the organization’s current president, Gail Enright, asked anyone who had been involved in a production with the theatre company to stand.

Several did, including the directors of both Odyssey Productions’ and Spark Theatre’s upcoming shows and other theatre volunteers and professionals.

“I am going to accept this award on everybody’s behalf. Because community players have touched the lives of many, many people over the years,” Enright said.

“I’d betcha there’s even been some Watsonairs on our stage over the years.”

While it still may have been possible to get the Rawlinson Centre built, or to launch additional theatre companies in Prince Albert had it not been for the community players, it would have been more difficult, Arts Board chair Shona Stapleton said.

“I think they paved the way for all the groups that exist now, and for the success of our theatre groups,” she said.

“They’ve held some really good shows, and they’re sold-out shows. It’s amazing how one group can make such a big difference for all of them.”

While the Community Players are celebrating their 60th anniversary with a gala this weekend, the organization has no plans to pack it in now.

“We look forward to the next decade to continue to provide a high level of entertainment,” Anderson said.

“(Sixty years) is a long time to keep on plugging away,” Enright added.

“Sixty years and we’re still playing around.”

And while all three groups inducted Saturday share something in common — that they helped develop Prince Albert’s arts scene into what it is today, they also share something else — family.

The Watsonairs say they’re so close they’re like a family. Rusheleau volunteered along with his family, and the community players were founded by and provide entertainment for families.

“The people who are inducted are very community-minded and family-minded,” emcee Roger Boucher said.

“That’s what they bring into the arts. It’s a community and a family-oriented thing, these arts we’re all a part of. On behalf of the Prince Albert Arts Hall of Fame, thanks for coming. Tonight would not happen without you.”