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BRIARS RESORT ON LAKE SIMCOE, ONTARIO
HOUSES CANADA'S OLDEST SUMMER THEATRE

Story and photos by

Update: The Red Barn Theatre burned to the ground on April 18, 2009. Check here frequently for further developments.


Canada's oldest summer theater is in an unlikely location — an 1870's barn on the south shore of Lake Simcoe. Located 72 kilometers north of Toronto, Ontario, on property owned by the Briars Resort, it takes just over one hour to drive here.

Yellow flowers and the Red Barn Theatre, before it burned down.
Yellow flowers and the Red Barn Theatre, before it burned down.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When we booked our summer theatre package for the Red Barn Theatre and Briars Resort, we expected an enjoyable performance and a relaxing stay. What we didn't anticipate were the stories. Intriguing stories about the theater and resort that rivalled the plays on stage.

Singer Harry Belafonte

The first story we heard about the Red Barn Theatre took place in 1949. Harry Belafonte was a friend of actor, Al Mulock, who converted the building into a theatre. After christening it with a beer bottle on the silo, Belafonte sang an impromptu solo from the rafters.

John Sibbald, president of The Briars, which owns the theatre, remembers Belafonte's visit. He shows us the original heavy wooden crossbeams, now lined with stage lights. Dr. Frank Sibbald, his grandfather's uncle, bought the building in 1877 to stable shorthorn cattle. His father, Jack, leased it to Mulock.

"Look at the floorboards, in front of the seats," he says. "See the wear from the wheels of the horse-pulled hay wagons? They parked in the bay, near the current stage. Farmhands stacked the hay up to the rafters."

Today, the building's crimson exterior is original. Cow stalls house dressing rooms and props. A chicken coop is the box office. The men's washroom holds vivid memories. "When I was 10, my friends and I peaked inside and got the scare of our lives. It was a pen for a massive bull."

Celebrities from Dinah Christie to Barbara Hamilton

Sibbald recalls many performers who graced the Red Barn's stage: Wayne and Shuster, Barbara Hamilton, Luba Goy, Dinah Christie, Tom Kneebone and even Hal Jackman, who later became Ontario's 39th Lieutenant Governor.

In 1972, the theatre's financial problems resulted in its sale to developers who planned to demolish the structure to build houses. John Sibbald became president of a "Save the Red Barn" committee, which eventually became The Lake Simcoe Arts Foundation. His company, Briars Estates Limited, purchased the building in 1974, to ensure its survival. The Sibbalds maintain the grounds and donate their use to the theatre.

Briars Resort, just a three-minute stroll away, exudes as many stories as the Red Barn. The library and drawing rooms (now guest lounges) in the original manor house, display family heirlooms. Sibbald shows us light fixtures purchased, years ago, from Toronto's Casa Loma.

Barbara and John Sibbald, innkeepers at The Briars, examine Lake Simcoe region map.
Barbara and John Sibbald, innkeepers at The Briars, examine Lake Simcoe region map.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Dr. Frank bought this Regency-style manor house from retired British Royal Navy Captain, William Bourchier, who built it in 1840," he says. "Bourchier named it The Briars after a friend's house, The Briars, in St. Helena. During his exile, Napoleon lived there until his own residence was built."

Briars Resort packages

The west wing houses the Manor Dining Room. One of the pleasures of our theatre-inn-meal package was the hassle-free convenience. After a leisurely dinner of pistachio-crusted salmon and chocolate crème brulée, we strolled to the Red Barn Theatre for a light-hearted comedy. Back at The Briars, we enjoyed ballads by a guitarist in Drinkwaters Lounge. What a treat, not worrying about parking and a late drive back to Toronto!

Resort activities tempted us the following morning after our bountiful breakfast buffet — tennis, yoga, hiking, a bike tour in Sibbald Point Provincial Park, golfing at The Briars Golf Club, kayaking and a wildlife-viewing cruise on the Lady Simcoe. We opted for a historical tour of the buildings, grounds and beautiful gardens.

On- or off-tour, John, his wife Barbara, their younger sons Andrew and Hugh Sibbald, and their wives have many stories to tell. Just ask them about the peacock house, garden parties, summer dances and why they named a wing after humourist, Stephen Leacock.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Briars Resort: www.briars.ca

More things to see and do in Ontario:

Stratford Ontario - Theater and Attractions

Meaford Hall Ontario Theatre

Ontario Feast of Fields - Food, Wine and Sustainable Living

Ottawa - Things to Do in Canada's Capital City

York Region - Attractions for Everyone North of Toronto