The so-called “closing statement” on the Oh Canada Eh? website is truly that, as the Niagara Falls dinner theatre will not be re-opening once pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
Co-owner Jim Cooper says he is proud of the 26-year run of the theatre company, especially in light of the number of nay-sayers he and original partner Ross Robinson faced when they decided to begin the venture.
“When we first opened, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who said ‘good luck, you’ll be lucky if you last six months,’” he remembers.
Until the business was shut down in March, Cooper says things were moving along quite well, approaching its 27th season. “We had no complaints,” he says. “Advance bookings were a little slower this year, naturally, but we were pretty healthy.”
But once the state of emergency was declared, he says Canadiana Productions, Inc., the organization currently owned by Cooper and Anne Robinson, both from Niagara-on-the-Lake, had to take a long, hard look at the feasibility of continuing.
“Our type of operation, where you have eight people sitting at a picnic table watching a show, it’s not a shock that it would suffer,” he says. “You have to ask how long can you last, is it worthwhile trying? You put 250 people in a room, they’re fairly close together. If you spread it out, you probably have about half, you will have an unprofitable operation.”
Anne Robinson adds, via the website, “nothing could have prepared us for this crisis, and we are heartbroken that we couldn’t keep Canadiana Productions going.”
She tells The Local that she is very proud of the company’s contribution to culture, theatre and tourism for 26 years, but declined to talk directly about the closure, as it’s “too difficult right now.”
Cooper asserts that over the years, Oh Canada Eh? has been “a great platform for wonderful new talent, and fresh thinking about how to operate a theatre, and how you can actually combine a great meal with it, and do it well.”
On March 14, an enthusiastic crowd enjoyed a final performance of the original production, All Night Long – Hitz of the 80s, then the doors were closed due to the pandemic. At the time, they anticipated reopening in time for another successful summer tourism season.
But as the pandemic continued, and the refund requests kept coming in, the financial situation became more and more difficult.
Cast members tried to help the company by creating a GoFundMe campaign. Artistic director Lee Siegel created a two-hour online production with musical contributions from several cast members and musicians. It was performed on May 12, and funds were raised, but not enough to save the company. They are currently in the process of refunding the money to their supporters.
With no certainty of a reopening timeline or if the dinner theatre business model would continue to be feasible under new public health requirements, the owners came to the difficult decision to close. Eight full-time employees and about 40 cast members and musicians are left looking for other work.
Cooper admits that the long, successful run of the business was partially a factor in deciding to end things. “I guess if this had happened in our fifth year, then we’d be out there seeing if we could get more financial support,” he reflects. But I’m just about 80 years old, and I don’t have the fight in me to continue to struggle.”
Since 1994, the dinner theatre has served and entertained almost a million visitors, and performed 4,910 Oh Canada Eh? shows, featuring the likes of the singing Mountie, the Hockey Player, Anne of Green Gables, and Klondike Kitty. A number of other successful musical productions, many written by Siegel, were added over the years. This Canada Day would have been the 5,000th performance of Oh Canada Eh?, and there were big plans to celebrate this major milestone.
Cooper holds out hope that someone will pick up the Oh Canada Eh? torch and run with it. He points out that Robinson and general manager Erik Hitchcock bought the building that has housed Oh Canada Eh? about two years ago. The log cabin on Lundy’s Lane is currently for sale, but Cooper says it’s perfectly set up to house a new theatre company.
“Certainly there’s an opportunity there for someone, perhaps a couple of our performers, and maybe my business partner, who’s much younger than me, and our artistic director. There’s a possibility for them to revive all this. And they will do well, because they are extremely talented people.”