Northern Wilds Magazine
Thelma Molkoski looking at photos of past Mile Hill Melodrama productions. | PETER FERGUS-MOORE

The curtain closes on Mile Hill Melodrama

Mile Hill Melodrama, based in South Gillies west of Thunder Bay, was set to stage its 51st production, in April of 2020. Unfortunately, when all public venues were forced to close their doors, Mama Won’t Fly was never staged.

“My sister was visiting from Saskatchewan in 1990,” says Thelma Molkoski. “I saw an amateur theatre production that she was involved in and I remembered the Christmas concerts in Hymers where I grew up—they were a big deal for the community and I wanted to capture that spirit again.”

Molkoski recruited a few friends, among whom were neighbours Glenn and Sandy Graham, and what eventually became Mile Hill Melodrama (MHM) mounted its first production, Terror Walks Tonight, at the South Gillies Hall. Thus, also began what Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca character called “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” with the rural building.

“No one had any theatre experience, but we did have an overabundance of confidence,” Molkoski remembers. “With play rehearsals, we had something to fill the long winters and no more trips to town for entertainment.”

The group was stunned to discover a packed house for their first production, a trend that carried through MHM’s 30 years of existence. Gerald Mosa, Tracy Gardner, and Molkoski shared directing duties over a number of the first few productions, which were shorter plays. Naturally, the course of theatre production was not always a smooth one.

“It may have been hard on the actors’ nerves,” Molkoski smiles. “But sometimes there were hijinks, missed lines and mistakes which the audience loved.”

“In the early years, following the last performance, members celebrated at each others’ homes, partying until all hours of the night,” she adds. “In later years, we held a windup dance.”

The group eventually evolved from one-night productions of short plays to larger productions over a period of weekends. This brought out new challenges for the group.

“There were always people who wanted to act,” Molkoski says, “but it was harder to find people for backstage, set and production work. We needed one person just to handle all the seating reservations—their phone would be tied up for two to three weeks before the show.”

Audience members are not always aware of the difficulties of staging a play. Molkoski and Graham both recall the June 1995 production of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Mile Hill Melodrama’s production of Nana’s Naughty Knockers. | SUBMITTED

“There was a heat wave for the whole production,” Glenn says. “The temperature outside was 35 C [95 F], but inside under our old flood lights it must have been 45 C [113 F]!”

The wool period costumes borrowed from Magnus Theatre had cast members prodigiously sweating.

“Backstage we had fans to try to cool it down but they just moved the hot air around faster,” he adds. “And then following the Sunday matinee production, we all served cake, pie and coffee to our audience as we had set up that play as a tea. Needless to say, we never did that again.”

One of the earlier productions, Out for the Count (December 1991), had its own near-miss.

“Tracy was out with an appendectomy two weeks before the play day,” Molkoski remembers. “She performed anyway, walking pretty gingerly, but cringing when performing a dip in the dance scene.”

With bigger productions, timelines grew longer and longer. For a spring play, members would start rehearsals right after Christmas, meeting once a week with scripts in hand. After a month and a half, actors were supposed to be off script.

“About a month before the play date, we would start panicking,” Molkoski smiles. “By then we were rehearsing twice a week, then every night the week before.”

As so often happens, life beyond the stage affects what happens in the production. Molkoski remembers one weekend when a major snowstorm interfered with dress rehearsal, and how the weather could wreak havoc with the unpaved parking lot at the hall.

“Around 2010, the province set new standards for public buildings. The hall needed to be closed as it was upgraded,” Molkoski says. “This required time, money and effort from MHM, the hall board and many others.”

In its heyday decades, Mile Hill Melodrama could boast packed houses with theatre-goers from surrounding areas including Thunder Bay and Grand Marais. A production involved many area volunteers coming together not only to put on plays, but to also seat patrons; bake and sell homemade pies during intermission; set up and take down sets and audience chairs; and clean the hall after the plays were over. Most of the helpers were family and friends of MHM. These productions helped build community in the area.

In February of this year, after the impact of a long hiatus, a bit of burnout and difficulties retaining the interest of younger people in theatre work, the Mile Hill Melodrama Board decided to close the curtains on amateur theatre after 30 years.

“I hope that a new group of friends will start their own creative journey at the South Gillies Hall,” Molkoski reflects. “Our intent from the beginning was to have fun and build a sense of community. I believe that we remained true to that goal.”

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