- Scotia Avenue Winnipeg, Manitoba R2V 2B9,
- 49.940742, -97.10348499999998
- (204) 989 5261
In Winnipeg’s beautiful Kildonan Park, nestled among the towering oak and elm trees by the meandering bank of the Red River, is a certain dome-like structure from which the sounds of stirring overtures, moving ballads, and thunderous applause have been known to emanate every summer.
The curious landmark is the theatrical haunt of Rainbow Stage, a Winnipeg-based theatre company that has been in continuous operation longer than any other outdoor theatre company in Canada. The summer of 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the venerable not-for-profit, which has grown steadily in prestige and stature throughout its six decades in operation. A half-century of critically-acclaimed Broadway-style musicals has earned Rainbow Stage an international reputation for artistic quality, but the theatre’s humble origin story is decidedly Manitoban, beginning as it does with a flood.
The idea for Rainbow Stage was generated in the years following World War II, when the Winnipeg Musicians’ Association would organize brass and concert bands to perform in the city’s parks during the summer months. In 1950, President of the Civic Music League Oliver M. “Hap” Day was asked by newspaper columnist and avid cultural supporter Frank Morris about the Musicians’ Association plans for concerts that summer. Mr. Day replied that, unfortunately, the bandstands at both Assiniboine and Kildonan Parks were in such poor condition following the devastating “Flood of ‘50” that they were now a hazard to the musicians. The following Saturday, Mr. Morris published a column that featured a picture of Mr. Day and called for the building of an outdoor stage in Winnipeg – the first public impetus for a new venue. It took a few attempts to successfully pitch the idea to the City and the Parks Board, but eventually it gained traction when the Parks Board agreed to participate in the new enterprise.
It was an opportune time for a collaboration between a musical theatre company and the Parks Board, whose new Superintendent Thomas R. Hodgson had harboured a lifelong passion for music since his days as a choirboy at St. Giles Church. Mr. Hodgson suggested Kildonan Park as the ideal location for the proposed construction, and eventually an agreeable plan was prepared by project architects Smith-Carter-Katelnikoff.
The architects also provided the creative spark that lead to the theatre’s naming; Mr. Dennis Carter arrived at a meeting one night with a cardboard model of the design, where someone observed that if lights were strung along the top curvature of the structure it would look like a rainbow. A consensus was reached, and thus was born the name Rainbow Stage. Construction began in 1951, with funds coming from the Park Reserve Fund and the Junior Chamber of Commerce as well as from compensation for the loss of the original bandstand from the Provincial Flood Fund, and was mostly complete by 1952. After additional work on the amphitheatre, the stage was completed in time for the first concert: a performance by the touring Kitsilano Boys Band from Vancouver on September 22, 1953.
The next spring and summer, pergola walkways were constructed on either side of the amphitheatre along with seats and complimentary landscaping, and on July 7th, 1954, the official opening of the 3,000 seat theatre was marked with a benefit concert featuring prominent local artists. Finally, in 1955, the first musical was presented (Brigadoon), and the rest is history. An anniversary in and of itself does not mean much.
Rather, it is the nostalgia in looking back or the excitement in looking forward that truly gives meaning to anniversaries. For six decades Rainbow Stage has been making musical theatre magic in its gorgeous outdoor setting, creating cherished memories that span generations of theatregoers, and every step along the way a stone was laid to build for the future. Whether it was the construction of the familiar triodetic dome, the development of more rehearsal space, or simply an expansion of the parking lot (complimentary, of course), every action has in some way provided vision and leadership to an organization that has long since transcended any one individual. With 60 years in the books and still growing, Rainbow Stage has firmly established itself as a must-see artistic, cultural, and community institution in central North America. Another 60 years seems eminently attainable!