REMEMBER THIS: The Lions Music Festival, the pinnacle of the music scene

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This week, History Hound Richard MacLeod tells the story of the Newmarket Lions Club Music Festival, which has a 62-year-old tradition of honoring top musical talent

The Lions Music Festival has been part of the Newmarket and area entertainment calendar for over 62 years.

So many local musicians and music lovers have attended this event over the years, including yours truly, and I want to explore a bit of the history of the Newmarket Lions Club Music Festival if I can.

The festival was organized in 1960 and first performed on April 26, 1961. It was on November 16, 1960 that an organizing committee met in the council chambers of the Botsford Street Agricultural Offices to exhibit festival details. Eugene McCaffrey was elected president and Margaret Atkinson became secretary-treasurer. A committee of music teachers was called in to establish a testing program, select judges, and set the general rules that would govern the event. This committee was initially made up of Mae Patterson, Leon Nash, Mona Armstrong and John Giovanelli.

The executive committee decided it was imperative to maintain the highest standards, insisting on examination scores according to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Medals were to be awarded in the solo and duo categories, gold for 80% and above, silver for 75-79% and bronze for 70-74%.

This first year, the festival ran from April 26-29, and all classes were judged at St. John’s Auditorium, with the exception of piano accordion, which was at Prince Charles School. There were 204 enrollments in piano, accordion, solo singing, school groups, and urban and rural church groups.

The local business community provided 14 scholarships and 27 shields and trophies were awarded.

The judges for this first year were Madeline Bone for piano, Reginald G. Green for vocal solo, school and church bands, and Eric Mundinger for accordion.

Participants from local schools marched from their schools to the festival and then returned after playing. The rural participants came to town by bus and stayed there for the afternoon.

The Festival of Stars Concert tradition began this first year with standing room only. Of note, a young pianist named Jacqueline Bourdon who they say mesmerized the audience with her incredible talent.

The festival did not generate a profit this first year, but thanks to the advice of local Lions, scholarships were obtained and shields and trophies were awarded. The tradition of community involvement and the power of volunteerism were recognized.

A scholarship was particularly appreciated as it was awarded to the youngest winner. The scholarship was named the Colville Scholarship in honor of Isabel and Archie Colville, who had supported local musicians over a span of three generations. That first year the winner was Nancy Brinkos who, at age six, was the youngest winner that year.

The first festival went so well that plans were made to make it an annual Lions Club project. The music committee would meet in October to set in motion plans for next year’s festival. This second year, they approached Trinity United Church to rent their auditorium for growing school sections.

The school groups assembled on the lower level and supposedly without any noise, ascended to the auditorium in the correct order. More and more members of the Lions Club were involved and its success was no longer in doubt.

A brilliant marketing move was the launch of the poster competition, open to grades 7 and 8 classes, with the winning posters used in festival advertisements that year.

In those early years, several local musicians stood out. As I mentioned, Jackie Bourdon on piano with Kevin Tunney on piano and Bud West on trombone. A choral reading section was added and the Stuart Scott School groups, led by Evelyn Denne, were always a hit. I was, in fact, in two of Miss Denne’s bands, selected more for my height and ability to balance the look of the band than my choral reading abilities.

The festival in its infancy was a critical success but unfortunately financially it was still operating at a loss. The festival continued to grow, with the number of classes increasing as well as the number of shields, scholarships and trophies awarded.

In the early years, the festival held an opening gala, where council members, York County politicians, and Lions gave speeches and promoted the event. The mayor would declare the week of the festival as music week in Newmarket and the era would feature it in its coverage.

The list of locals who have dedicated their time to the festival over the years is impressive. Their ranks included Charles Boyd, Jean Jay, Emma Broadbent, Betty Beer, Harold Jackson and Ernie McCaffrey are just a few who kept the festival going during those early years.

I understand that we feared that the festival would become too big. What would they do if it exceeded the available manpower? Fortunately, they always managed to cope.

By 1964, over 5,000 children were participating in the program and there were 38 marshals to keep things running smoothly. The Festival of Stars night moved to Trinity United Church to welcome the crowds who wanted to see the show.

Over the next few years, several performances will stand out. Kevin Tunney would return to dazzle the crowds, Keith Evans, Garry Wilson, Judy Ann Nicholls, Bud West on his trombone and Linda West on piano, as well as Nancy Brinkos were always crowd favorites.

Eventually, finances picked up and the festival began to show a small surplus. Attendance continued to grow through the 1960s. The festival used both Trinity United Church and St. John’s Hall with 142 choirs performing at Trinity United Church alone.

The host position became increasingly important as the number continued to grow. People opened their homes to visitors, and lunches and dinners were offered. Some of those who became regular hosts included the Beer family, the Broadbent family, the Bowman and Blosdale families, the Boyds, Hammetts, Peevers and Mannings to name a few.

One of the interesting aspects of the festival was that many participants became educators and brought their own students to participate in the festival. People like Keith Evans and Gail Rettie got their students to compete like they had years before. They were creating an alumnus that was vast. Two families have become renowned for their participation in the festival, the Giovanelli Accordion Orchestra, which has generally received over 90 per cent in all its productions, and the Joseph de Gormley family which has been presented by the National Film Board in Canada’s Centennial Book.

The festival continued to thrive in the 1970s. Some interesting changes took place. A section for rock bands was added with James Wrightman appointed as a judge. Participants often returned as referees, Wrightman being a prime example.

The sections have changed over the years, as well as the number of participants. A rock band and a recorder section were added. The number of some sections has decreased while others, such as the piano, have increased from 68 in 1961 to 300 10 years later.

The festival program in the mid-1970s featured 127 advertisements from local businesses. The next generation of some of the previous participating families began to appear at the festival, such as the Rose family.

Evelyn Denne retired in 1970, but her legend continued to grow. One of the things that always intrigued me was the fact that the winners of the choral reading course were always coached by her. This begs the question, why was she so competitive? A fact to which I can well attest. The only question was which of his groups would win?

The festival continued to grow throughout the 1970s. In 1971 the festival added a banner hanging above Main Street. Trophies were eventually replaced by medals. School bands were added to the class roster and new local talent continued to shine, along with older talent such as Karen Brinkos, Linda West, Brian Kohler and Lisa Sullivan.

Over the years, the various classes have continued to flourish, with the number of participants increasing each year. The new classes proved to be a welcome addition to the program.

On a sad note, one of the early stars of the festival was Colin Rose, a talented pianist. He died aged 12 and a Colin Rose Memorial Scholarship was established, along with the Colin Rose Memorial Trophy to be awarded to the most outstanding 12-year-old at the festival.

You can see how some families seemed to return year after year, producing another talented brother every year. The examples are many, but the Rose family (Donald, David and Colin), the West family (Bud and Linda), the Brinkos family (Nancy, Karen and Jim), the Schofield family (Ian, Joanne and Maureen) and the Reddens (Judy and Susan) would shine through the years.

The festival continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s. You could say the festival had hit its stride with numbers growing exponentially each year. I would be remiss if I did not, at this point, mention some of the people who contributed to the creation, growth and very existence of the festival.

Gene McCaffrey and Emma Broadbent were there from the start. Charles Boyd was one of the main financial contributors to the festival, inspiring other traders to get involved. What can you say about the Newmarket Lions Club? There’s a reason it’s called the Newmarket Lions Music Festival. Their participation and role in initiating the festival is responsible for the festival and its success.

When we try to thank people, it is always at the risk of forgetting someone. If I omit someone who should have been mentioned, I apologize. Please add your memories and the names of the builders in the comments section so we can thank them properly.

The festival has gone strong over the years and really the only thing that has turned it away has been the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. It’s still the pinnacle of the Newmarket music scene and taking part in it is still a centuries-old tradition, whether you win or not.

The Lions Club has supported the festival from the beginning and I think it deserves a huge thank you from everyone who participated or just had the pleasure of watching. The community has supported the festival from the start, offering trophies, plaques and scholarships, not to mention publicity support. The Lions Music Festival has become synonymous with great music and a familiar Newmarket tradition.

Next weekend, I resume our historical timeline with the opening of the year 1980.

Sources: The Newmarket Era and The Newmarket Courier; A History of the Lions Music Festival by Eugene McCaffrey; Stories of Newmarket, an Old Town in Ontario by Robert Terence Carter

Richard MacLeod, a Newmarket resident, the History Hound, has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on our town’s history in partnership with Newmarket Today, hosts heritage talks and local interest walking tours, and conducts local oral history interviews.

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