THE MUSKOKAN - The Gravenhurst Opera House, built in 1901, is one of the oldest working opera houses in Ontario. As one might expect of a building so aged and steeped in history, many legends lurk behind its spectacular portico. One of the most fascinating is a tale that may have unfolded a century ago, but today is little remembered: the possibility that Hollywood legend Mary Pickford may have performed at the Op.
One name that appeared in the concert of 1906 was Marie Smith of Toronto — Could this have been the famous Mary Pickford?
Born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto on April 8, 1893, Pickford was an internationally known figure, the world’s first movie star. Known as “America’s sweetheart,” she was so popular that visiting heads-of-state would request meetings with her. More than just a celebrity, Pickford was a pioneer in the motion picture industry, co-founding United Artists and playing an important developmental role in film acting.
But it was before she attained stardom, before she even became Mary Pickford, that Smith may have performed on the Gravenhurst Opera House stage.
In the early 20th century, the rafters of the opera house echoed to the thunderous applause of audiences that had come to marvel at productions staged there by travelling vaudeville acts. Between the turn of the century and the 1920s, some 300 vaudeville companies crisscrossed the United States and Canada by train, stopping at rail-side communities to provide entertainment for locals before moving on again. The typical show would offer a variety of entertainment with something for everyone: musical performances, comedy skits, short one-scene plays, and circus-like acts that might include jugglers, acrobats, trained animals and even sideshow “freaks.”
Many famous entertainers began their careers in the vaudeville circuit, including George Burns, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope and WC Fields. The future Mary Pickford was no different. Her various roles as a child performer are impossible to track because some companies refused to name their performers, and in other cases names were changed to avoid over-exposure or to skirt the legalities of being an adolescent breadwinner. In any event, we know Pickford’s childhood was literally spent in an untold number of theatres across North America.
But did she ever perform on the Gravenhurst Opera House stage? Some believe that she did. To examine the mystery we need to start at the beginning.
Pickford’s Methodist father had insisted on the name Gladys, but her staunchly Catholic mother added the Marie and always called her by that name. When her alcoholic father died and left his family impoverished, the talented Marie fell into the entertainment business and from the age of seven largely supported her family. She, her mother, and her two younger siblings toured the U.S. and Canada by rail with a succession of third-rate vaudeville companies.
During the time she was touring in relative obscurity, Catholic churchgoers from both Bracebridge and Gravenhurst shared the services of the respected Father Collins. Every year, Father Collins entertained his flock with an annual show at the Gravenhurst Opera House that included local and some professional performers. One name that appeared in the concert of 1906 was Marie Smith of Toronto. According to the Gravenhurst Banner’s story on the concert, the young Ms. Smith was “a very clever violinist and drew from her audiences the heartiest kind of applause.”
Could this have been the famous Mary Pickford? The coincidences — the name, the Catholic upbringing, the timing — are compelling to say the least. Adding to this is a possible connection between Pickford and Gravenhurst. According to family lore, James O’Brien, born in Gravenhurst in 1879, was a cousin of the famous actress. It’s possible, therefore, that the Smiths were familiar to some degree with the community, which could help explain why a 13-year old Pickford might have performed in the 1906 concert.
While the evidence is not conclusive, it certainly seems possible that Gladys Marie Smith performed at the Gravenhurst Opera House in 1906.
Just three years later, her film career launched, her name changed to Mary Pickford, and a Hollywood star was born. Never again would she play in small-town theatres. Her performance at the Gravenhurst Opera House would have quickly been forgotten.
Did Hollywood legend Mary Pickford perform in Muskoka? We’ll likely never know for sure. The Gravenhurst Opera House does not give up its secrets so readily.