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Flash From the Past: The Ashcroft Opera House

My friend Martin says the difference between a dream and a delusion is a lot of hard work. That may be so, but some kinds of work are better for your soul than others, and when he gave me an invitation to visit the historic Ashcroft Opera House for a couple of weeks and write about the place, I leapt on it. After all, Martin and I share some of that history, and I was ready for any excuse to get out of downtown Vancouver.

Living in the city has been feeling a lot like the wrong kind of work, lately. For a couple of weeks I would enjoy pretending that life in a peaceful place like Ashcroft could be a realistic career move. Between trying to run my own independent record company, booking tours and doing publicity, sometimes it’s easy to forget that I am a songwriter. Martin is always telling me to take some time out and concentrate on nurturing my creativity. Here was my big chance. For two weeks at least, I knew I would be enjoying good company, breathing clean air and that the river and the hills would give my tired spirit rest. What I didn’t know was that the experience was to change my life completely.

The evening that I arrived, I was tired and sick. Martin was, by contrast, bubbling with enthusiasm. He picked me up at the bus stop in Cache Creek and drove me back to Ashcroft talking all the way. “We’ve had the kids in for the last two weeks doing an amateur production of “Grease,” he said. “It’s our first theatre production, and we’ve been sold out every night. Shakespeare’s next!” He grinned.

“How are the renovations going? And the plans for the Grand Opening Solstice Festival?” I asked.

“We’ve almost nailed down our line-up,” he said. “It’s a month away, so we’re just in time. We’ve got Valdy for sure, the Polyjesters and maybe Carolyn Mark. Do you think we can get Barney Bentall too?”

“I don’t know Martin, but we’ll try,” I said. Barney Bentall’s Grand Cariboo Opry, featuring a cast of thousands including me on banjo, had played three sold-out shows at the Opera House last winter. The proceeds had gone to benefit the youth theatre group now mounting the current production. All of us in the band had been thrilled with the acoustics of the old room, which resonate like a drum, providing a clarity and warmth I’ve rarely heard equaled anywhere else. And even then we’d been amazed and delighted at the progress Martin had made restoring the old building.

At the time, he’d been at it for over a year, dealing with structural, electrical and fire safety issues. He’d even elicited the assistance of my extremely busy husband, record producer John MacArthur Ellis, with the installation of a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system. Lately he’d been addressing cosmetic problems with the lobby and front façade, adding a kitchen and rebuilding the stairs to the upper balcony.

“We’re painting on Wednesday,” Martin said, “and re-varnishing the floors. We’re gonna put flowers everywhere. Wait ‘til you see the place. You won’t believe the changes.”

I smiled. As long as I’ve known him, Martin has embraced change with the kind of courage that borders on the – well, delusional. I remember when his plan to purchase and restore the 120 year old Ashcroft Opera House seemed flat-out crazy. I told him so, and so did numerous other people. After all, he was broke.

In June of 2001, his restaurant in the old Harvey Bailey Building on Railway Avenue had burned down. People thought he was nuts to open The Secret Garden in the first place – a vegetarian restaurant smack-dab in the middle of cattle country. But you can’t tell Martin much when he gets an idea into his head. Since 1999, he’d been slowly gaining the affection of the town with his healthy, delicious vegetarian fare and baked goods. With no experience or industry connections, before long he was also hosting concerts, drawing crowds from miles around to hear a series of mostly unknown songwriters and musicians. I was one of them.

It was April of 2000, the last show of the first Grrrls with Guitars tour out of Vancouver. As soon as we drove into town, we had a feeling we were someplace special. Situated so beautifully beside the river with dusty hills rising around it, the wide, empty streets of Ashcroft lined with old-fashioned false-fronted buildings had an authentic wild-west feel to them.

“This place was a big Gold Rush town in the old days,” said Linda McRae. In fact, I would later learn that when the Canadian Pacific Railway line arrived there in 1886, Ashcroft became the most important freight destination for Gold Rush trade in Canada. The northernmost stop on the line before it turned east to Kamloops, the town’s population had exploded overnight into a teeming hive of homes and businesses, including blacksmiths, livery stables, saddle makers, hotels, general stores, restaurants, a bakery and even a Chinatown. Becoming known as “Mile Zero” on the “Long Road” to the Klondike, Ashcroft attracted adventurers from all over the globe.

Some of that charm still lingered, though now the town seemed a peaceful little place far removed from the hustle of the outside world. A tumbleweed blew across the street and we laughed, wondering if there would be much of an audience for our show.

When you are a touring artist, there’s always a little apprehension about meeting a venue operator for the first time. Sometimes, when certain agreements aren’t fulfilled to satisfaction by one side or the other, the relationship can quickly go sour. You never know if your show is going to be well attended or not, because it all depends on how well the proprietor is liked by the town and how he promotes you. If he cares, he’ll put up posters, play your music in his establishment, and try to get a story in the paper. He’ll make sure that there is a hearty meal ready when you arrive, the equipment is in good running order and you have a comfortable place to sleep. When it comes to these issues, my general rule on the road has always been to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

When we reached the venue, however, we were in for a few pleasant surprises. Our posters were up, our CD was playing on the system and the room was clean and well lit. Expecting a cowboy, we were greeted instead by a friendly French-Canadian with a ponytail offering chilled organic apple cider spritzers rather than beer with his vegetarian menu. “I’d rather feature music than booze,” Martin explained. What a concept!

There was a subtle East Indian influence in the décor at once both incongruous and harmonious – I suspected it was connected with the vegetarianism. A picture on the wall showed an old fellow draped in flowers sitting cross-legged. I guessed he was vegetarian, too, smiling benevolently past the frame into an environment that exuded peacefulness and order. If he was our host’s guru, he wasn’t doing a bad job. We were delighted by Martin’s genuine warmth of welcome, childlike enthusiasm, and a sense that he above all he wanted to be of service. We all felt at home at once.

Before long, the room began to fill up. The crowd was well dressed and polite, and once the show got going, it was clear that these folks took their music seriously. It’s up to the promoter to create a culture of good listening in his venue – a respectful introduction, an attractive stage, and the odd “shhh” goes a long way. We had often been booked into rooms where people are used to gathering for drinks and conversation, while music takes a back seat. A concert experience is meant to be very different.

Something special can be created when an audience is really listening – a kind of group intimacy, an energy exchange that borders on the magical. Judging by the quality of attention we received that night, these folks were well trained. Afterwards, we all gathered around one of the tables and relaxed with Martin and his staff, laughing and talking like the old friends we already were. We all agreed it was the best show of the tour.

Over the next couple of years, we kept an eye on Martin and his establishment with interest, and came back to play whenever we could. He asked us to spread the word about the Secret Garden among Vancouver musicians – before long, he was swamped with requests to play his venue. Only four hours from Vancouver, Ashcroft is a perfect place to begin or end a Western Canadian tour. Martin’s reputation as a generous and fair host brought him more artists than he could afford to present. At the time, he could take only the smaller acts, his room not being large enough to attract national touring artists. Even so, there was plenty of talent to go around.

Martin began to realize that presenting too is an art – gauging and developing the community’s interest in a certain kind of music takes experience and intuition. His bottom line, though, was never about the number of seats he sold. Even a poorly attended show was a success by Martin’s standards if the performance shone. And with every show he put on, his resolve to create a better one next time grew.

We all knew how seriously he took his vocation, and that’s why when we heard that the Secret Garden had burned down, the news spread like – well, wildfire.

It wasn’t the first time that fire had changed the Ashcroft skyline. The great blaze of 1916 destroyed most of the business district, including the first Harvey Bailey building, which was reconstructed in the 20’s. The old Opera House was one of the few that had been left unscathed.

Now as then, the town rallied. The request came to donate performances for a show to benefit the businesses that had been lost in the Harvey Bailey fire. We were glad to help, as the people of Ashcroft had welcomed us like friends over the years, and we knew the loss of the historic building affected every one of them.

Martin himself had been without insurance and was completely devastated. Before long, though, he had rented a space across the street and had his business up and running again. The difficulty was, the new place was too small to hold concerts and by now Martin was hooked. It wasn’t enough for him to feed people’s bodies any more. He had to feed their souls too – with music.

At his own risk, he continued to present occasional concerts in alternate venues, and organized the first Ashcroft Solstice Festival in 2003 as a way of thanking the community for their support after the fire. Canadian folk music legend Valdy headlined, appearing with many of the other artists who’d played the Secret Garden over the years, and the event was a great success. But by now Martin had a different venue in mind – and a plan that would unite and benefit the whole town.

“The old Ashcroft Opera House is up for sale,” Martin said. “It’s the oldest surviving structure in town. Performers from all over the world played here during the Gold Rush. Imagine if we could bring it back!”

Because of the Opera House, Martin said, Ashcroft was once known as the “cultural oasis” of the Cariboo. If he had his way, it would be again. Later I learned that in the late 1800’s, as the town bustled with busy hotels and bars catering to the transient Gold Rush trade, the need for a true community center grew. A Town Hall Building Committee was formed, and town father J.C. Barnes came forward to donate land. A call for subscriptions and volunteer labor went out to the community and several residents bought shares. Built of sturdy Douglas Fir, the town hall was completed in 1889 and would soon come to be known as the Opera House.

From the late 1800’s until the 1940’s, the Opera House hosted local and international acts as diverse as the comedy trio the Georgia Minstrels, Canadian poet Pauline Johnson, and the Australian Royal Lilliputian Opera Company. Walachin pianist Fanny Foucault was a regular performer, traveling into town on her horse, and heading out the following day to play a neighboring town.

The Town Hall Building Committee kept the facility as functional and up-to-date as possible. By the time Philadelphia’s 22-member Metropolitan Opera toured through in 1898, electric lights had been installed and a state-of-the-art Heintzman transposing piano imported from Vancouver. In 1907, a graceful arched gallery was added over the front entrance, adding to the seating capacity. A new stage was built in 1911, as well as the addition of a “screen canopy” rising up above the existing roof. Using pulleys, screens could now be raised and lowered for theatrical scenery or to separate the stage from the audience.

Notable events over the years included a 1914 performance by Victoria songstress Beatrice “Trixie” Campbell, whose grandson Ian Tyson went on to even greater fame. Concerts, plays and even political meetings all took place regularly under the Opera House roof. People would travel from miles around to attend elaborate balls, appearing in the latest European fashions. The evening would commence with the traditional Grand March at 9:00 PM, supper would be served at midnight and dancing would continue until 5:00 AM.

Despite Martin’s enthusiasm about the building’s history, however, I could see nothing about the humble structure that suggested the old glory days. There it was on 4th Avenue – a nondescript old building with a weathered “FOR SALE” sign that had been out front for months. The windows were boarded up, and the false front covered in peeling blue paint and ugly faux stone. Whatever heritage charm the place had once had was now buried in modern “improvements” long past their prime.

Inside, things were no better. The walls were covered in white acoustic tiling installed during its tenure as a 1970’s movie house, the floors with tacky carpet and linoleum. The structure’s last gig as a second hand store pretty much summed up its current condition: the place was full of junk.

First listed at $90,000, the price for the building kept dropping until it had reached an all time low of $40,000. A steal, Martin said, but nobody was buying. Real estate in Ashcroft at the time was ridiculously affordable, and to me the reason seemed clear. The Gold Rush days were long past, and Ashcroft’s economic base, later growing and declining according to the fortunes of agriculture and mining concerns, was currently static. The Coquihalla Highway had since the 80’s diverted traffic that used to pass by on the Trans Canada highway, and the town was quiet.

Martin believed that with the Opera House restored, Ashcroft could regain some the vitality of the past. Was there enough of a market for live music in the area to support such a venture? I wondered. I knew from experience that most music presenters barely get by, even in well-populated areas, with fully functional facilities. Many of them rely on grants. Martin had none of these advantages going for him, but he did have vision. He was gathering inspiration from the past. “You know, the place was built with volunteer labor,” he said. “Townspeople bought shares in the project. Everybody pitched in!”

I could see where he was going with this. Regretfully I declined his offer to sell me shares for the restoration, and wished him well. Next I heard, though, he’d actually managed to pull it off. With the participation of many resident shareholders, he purchased the building in 2004 and was now hard at work orchestrating on the renovations. To save money, he’d packed up his house and set up camp in the old projection room above the lobby. “They showed silent movies here in the 20’s,” he said. “The walls are solid concrete, to protect the equipment from fire. The place is built like a bunker.”

And about as attractive. But with a little elbow grease and paint, Martin made the small room livable during renovations. And once the white tiling, old flooring and junk was in the big room below was removed, the true charm of the Opera House began to reveal itself.

The old walls of Douglas Fir fairly glowed once they’d been sandblasted and treated with linseed oil. I could see that the stage, with its gracefully curved proscenium, would be a pleasure to perform upon. Behind it was a good-sized dressing room still filled with old costumes.

There, on the walls painted a traditional green, Martin discovered the signatures of many performers who played the room over the past 100 years. They included the Missouri sister act Norton & Norton, whose note boasted a $166.75 gate back in 1916 - a record Martin intended to break as soon as possible. A signature left in 1934 commemorated a concert by songstress Vera Burr, a relative of the famous actor Raymond Burr. Also still visible are signatures of participants of the 1940 high school play, including that of David Rogers, whose brother Larry purchased the structure in 1946 from CPR Agent Jim Cameron. By then, it was known as the Ashcroft Theatre.

In the years to come, the old building would be used primarily as a movie house, changing hands and changing names several times. By the time it was purchased by Frankl Wohlhauser for use as a second hand store, few remembered that the old Opera House had once been the focal point of the whole town. With renovations under way and media attention now focused on the project, they would soon be reminded.

As soon as it was reasonably feasible, Martin began holding shows in the old theatre, kicking things off with a sold-out benefit concert featuring Tom Coles and Valdy. Improvising with borrowed and donated equipment and furniture, he catered shows out of his restaurant down the street with the help of a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers. The buzz began to circulate among musicians about the extraordinary acoustics of the room and the warmth of its audience. The town turned out regularly in support, along with visitors from all over BC who came to investigate as the word spread. Before long, Martin was receiving inquiries from national touring agents about booking such high profile acts as Juno award winners David Francey, Connie Kaldor and Lynn Miles.

After all these years of toil and struggle, the Grand Opening was now less than a month away. On the calendar for the following season was a full slate of both local and international touring artists. I myself was to play a solo show in a week – and I could hardly wait. The night I arrived for my two-week stay, I reflected as we drove into town that of the many hands through which the Opera House had passed over it’s long history, it was unlikely any loved it more than Martin.

As soon as we pulled up, I made Martin go in and turn on the outside lights. We stood in the desert dusk, looking up at the new façade. A graceful arch curved over the doors, and sturdy pillars framed the western-style false front upon which was proudly displayed the new sign, tastefully lit from below. The warm wood glowed against the night sky.

Inside, the lovely slate and wood flooring of the lobby, installed by Kerry, ?? invited further exploration which revealed a brand new kitchen where the Secret Garden had found it’s third and final home. The old projection room upstairs had been converted into comfortable quarters for visiting artists. Everywhere were the signs of Jacques quality craftsmanship. The stage was set for the performance the following day – the production of “Grease” being mounted by the youth theatre group.

“Martin, you’ve really outdone yourself,” I said. “This is just fantastic. How on earth did you pull this off?”

“I’m just a conduit,” he replied. “I’m a caretaker. I have been asked to take care of this theatre and to educate the public. It hasn’t been about me creating the Opera House . . .it’s about the Opera House crying out to be uncovered. I’m just the one who heard it. As much as I work on it, that’s how much it rewards me. It’s been a spiritual quest.”

“An expensive one,” I remarked.

“Sure,” he replied. “If you look at this project from the outside, it looks impossible. That’s what the bankers said. They look at my books and they say how do you survive? But I eat so well, I have amazing friends, and I get to see about 80 shows a year without even leaving my living room. This is a desert paradise.”

That night I fell asleep with the scent of lilacs in the air and had the best sleep I’d had in a long time. The next day, I headed to museum to begin research before attending the theatre’s matinee performance.

In a newspaper from the turn of the century, I found reference to a theatre production mounted by the “children of Ashcroft” that had also had a sold out run – in 1900. As I entered the Opera House later that afternoon and took my place among the proud townspeople, I understood what Martin said about being a conduit. There is a river of experience flowing beneath the surface of time that gives meaning and purpose to all we do. Out of the ashes of the Harvey Bailey fire had come something beautiful and worthy – a vision combining respect for the past and hope for the future. I remembered all of my doubts and dire warnings. I was glad he’d ignored them. With the Ashcroft Opera House, Martin had achieved a rarity: a dream come true.

Over the next two weeks, I learned about the Opera House in the museum next door, attended concerts and ate meals prepared by Martin’s wonderful staff. I walked in the hills, wrote songs and played a solo show in the theatre that was one of the most satisfying of my career to date. By the time Johnny turned up to take me home, I didn’t want to leave. Martin had offered me a job booking the place, and slyly pointed us towards a couple of choice real estate options.

Is it reasonable to consider moving to Ashcroft, starting a recording studio there and start a new life? Of course not. But it feels right. I’ve learned from Martin that the unreasonable can be done. Dreams can come true. The Opera House is living proof.

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