For 50 years the remarkable spectacle was produced by committed voluteers
by Brian G. Spare
Christmas is a magical time for children. On the first Saturday morning of December, for two one hour shows, the kids of the Lakehead both young and old were treated to the magical excitement of the Chapples Christmas Show. In 1916, Chapples held its first annual Christmas Show at the Orpheum theatre. The Show moved to the newly constructed Fort William Gardens in December, 1951.
Beginning in September, a fairy tale theme was chosen for that year’s Christmas Show. Wil Beck, the display manager for Chapples, and his team started to design and build a set for the Show based on the theme. He made a big boot for “The Old Woman in a Shoe,” igloos for “Jack Frost,” a castle, a big fireplace for the show’s finale, and a 32 x 32 foot stage with five steps up to it to place at centre ice for the dancers. Everything had to be made off-site at the old Loblaws building in prefab sections so it could be transported to the Gardens and put together quickly for the Show.
While Wil was building the set, his wife Evelyne was busy helping to sew the many dancer’s costumes designed to co-ordinate with the theme. The girls graced the stage dancing dressed as snowflakes, dolls, Christmas trees and butter tarts.
Sylvia Horne, the dance instructor who choreographed all the dances for the show rehearsed with her girls, 4 to 18 years old, every Saturday from morning until evening for months in the Hammarskjold high school gym. Sylvia was determined her girls would dance flawlessly for the Show. Sylvia’s girls danced to jazz, waltzes, polkas and ballet.
The dancers needed music for the dances, and that was Jack Masters’ job. Jack worked for CKPR. Jack and Sylvia spent hours finding the music for each dance with the right number of beats and tempo and recorded it onto audio tape. Jack recorded Christmas carols and the music for the clown’s acts, too. He spliced the lengths of audio tape together to run in sequence for the entire Show.
The clown came out with their antics between the girl’s dances to entertain everyone. One time 12 clowns came out packed into a little VW Beatle. They got out of the car one by one with the last clown holding a big red balloon. How did they get the balloon in there with them? They loaded one of the clowns into their big cannon, The lights went out, a loud boom sounded, and when the lights came on there was the clown right the other side of the Gardens waving to the crowd. The clowns had stock car races around the stage smashing into each other. The kids roared with laughter.
Months of work came down to Friday night before the Show. Wil Beck and his team loaded all the parts of the set onto trucks and drove them to the Gardens and wait for the hockey game to finish at 11:00 before they could put the set together. They worked feverously all night to have it ready for 6:00 Saturday morning when everyone participating in the Show started to arrive. Jack went up in the announcer’s booth getting the music track ready while Wil was put the finishing touches on the set. Sylvia was in the dressing room with the girls organizing them and helping with their costumes. The first show was their dress rehearsal.
Before they knew it the clock struck 9:00, and lights … action … it was show time. The Gardens was packed, and the paint was still wet as Frosty the Snowman and George the Porter ascended to the stage steps to welcome everybody to Chapples Christmas Show. They led everyone in singing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Then Frosty said, “Please welcome the girls from the Sylvia Horne School of Dancing.” The 4-8 year old girls took to the stage all dressed up in their costumes. Then the aged 9-12 girls danced.
Next frosty announced, “Here come the clowns.” The clowns entered and got the audience laughing with their antics. That was followed by a dance from the 13-16 aged girls, and then more shenanigans from the clowns. After that, Suzy Snowflake performed a solo dance to be joined by the 17 and 18 year old girls. Last, George the Porter performed his tap dance for everyone.
Time for the big finale arrived. Only Frosty the Snowman and George the Porter remained on stage. The lights went out, a big “Ho Ho Ho” echoed through the Gardens, and the lights came on. Frosty turned to George, put a hand to his ear, and said, “I thought I heard something.”
George pointed to the big fireplace and said, “It’s Santa Claus!” Santa emerged from the fireplace, and the kids went wild. If you were one of the lucky children you got to sit on Santa’s knee before he got into his sleigh pulled by the clowns. Santa circled the rink waving and calling out “Merry Christmas.” A sleigh behind Santa’s had elves in it throwing candy to the kids. And the elves sleigh was followed by all the dancing girls. When the train had circled the rink they exited through a door, and the show was over.
Frosty thanked everyone for coming to Chapples Christmas Show and George added, “Don’t forget to visit Chapples Toyland.”
As people filed out of the Gardens, everybody involved in the Show prepared for the next Show. They only had an hour to do it. When 11 o’clock came, the Frosty and Gorge welcomed a standing-room-only crowd to Chapples Christmas Show. When the Show finished, and the audience had left, Wil and his team had to dismantle the set as quickly as they had built it and cart it away to be stored for next year.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. On December 4, 1966, Chapples held its 50th Christmas Show. However, circumstance had it that this show would be the last. Thus came the end of an era. Generations of people from the Lakehead had grown up with the Chapples Christmas Show. It was as much a part of Christmas to them as Christmas Day. Although the Christmas Show faded into history, it is remembered warmly to this day.
Producing the Chapples Christmas Show was a labour of love for everyone who worked on it. They often felt as if they were flying by the seat of their pants, but a lot of work, dedication, and a little Christmas magic, ensured the Christmas Show’s success every year. Jack Masters produced the music for the Show for eight years, Wil Beck built the sets for nineteen years, Sylvia Horne choreographed the girls dances for twenty-four years, and Hector “Hec” Ede played the beloved George the Porter for thirty-four years.
Chapples was always a community-minded company. The Christmas Show was its way of saying thank you to its customers. Admission was free to anyone who came and Chapples gave presents to everybody who participated in the Show. Bayview Magazine’s own Dorothy Christie remembers receiving a beautiful cashmere sweater for dancing in the Show.
The Chapples Christmas Show was a pageant that could rival any show like it anywhere. It was professionally planned and produced entirely by volunteers from our community. It was performed for everyone in our community to enjoy and was done in a spirit of thanks. That is truly the meaning of Christmas.
Thank you Wil Beck, Jack Masters, Dorothy Christie, Fay Gleeson, and Ronnie Josef-Chak for generously giving their time to talk to me. Also, thank you to Thunder Bay Public Library and the City of Thunder Bay for their help.
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*