Category Archives: Arts & Artists

Art and artists made in Whistler.

Whistler’s First Children’s Festival

In a town known for festivals featuring mountain bikes, snowsports, and fine dining, you might be surprised to learn that the longest running festival in Whistler began as a way to expose local and visiting children to different forms of visual and performing arts.

The first Whistler Children’s Art Festival was held in 1983, just one year after the Whistler Community Arts Council (now known as Arts Whistler, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year!) was formed in 1982. In February 1983, the Arts Council began planning for what they hoped would be the first of many Children’s Art Festivals. Over the next few months, a committee of fourteen volunteers led by Margaret Long spent many hours planning for the two-day event.

The planning committee of volunteers meets to plan the 1995 Whistler Children’s Art Festival. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

The first festival was a combination of hands-on workshops, performances, and author readings, as well as an art show at Blackcomb Lodge featuring works for children by professional artists. Over June 18 and 19, children could attend 38 workshop sessions at Myrtle Philip School, then located next to the Whistler Village. The workshops were mainly led by artists and instructors from Whistler and Vancouver and included pottery, banner making, mask making, photography, writing, and, of course, painting and sketching with Isobel MacLaurin. Other activities included face painting, a flower painting contest on the nearby plywood construction fences (in 1983 there were still quite a few lots under construction in the first part of the Village to be developed), readings, karate demonstrations, and performances by the Celestial Circus, Pied Pear, and a children’s choir under the direction of Molly Boyd.

A shirt-printing workshop takes place in Myrtle Philip School during the 1991 Whistler Children’s Art Festival. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

According to Long, all but two of the workshop sessions were filled to capacity and one parent told the Whistler Question that their children were so excited for the festival they barely slept the night before. From the thank yous printed in the local paper after the festival, it was clearly a community event with support from hundreds of volunteers and many of the local businesses.

The success of the first Whistler Children’s Art Festival led to an even bigger festival in 1984. More than 65 workshops were offered for a small fee, including many of the favourites from the year before. Setsuko Hamazaki led an origami workshop while Penny Domries led a graffiti workshop; Arlene Byne taught children how to paint their faces while Cecilia Mavrow taught others about writing poetry. Under the Whistler Resort Association’s brightly striped tent in Village Square, groups listened to stories from authors such as Robert Munsch, Elizabeth Brockmann, Graham Walker, and Linda Lesch and watched acts including the Extraordinary Clown Band and breakdancers in Jane Bailey’s dance company.

A performance takes place in Village Square during the 1985 Whistler Children’s Art Festival. Whistler Question Collection, 1986.

The festival continued to grow throughout he 1980s, though they began to run out of space to hold workshops. In June 1983, the eleventh festival moved to a new location in the new, larger Myrtle Philip School on Lorimer Road where about 130 workshop sessions were offered. In 2005, the festival moved to Creekside and in more recent years (not including the past two, when it has been held online) the festival has returned to the Whistler Village. Though the original school may be long gone, there are still many familiar elements to the festival, which, this year, is taking place over two weekends (that past two weekends, May 21-22 and 28-29).

Whistler’s Connection to Canada’s First Talking Picture

Whistler has long had a connection the film industry in Canada, from the long-running Whistler Film Festival to film productions like the campy Ski School comedy films of the 1990s and countless Hallmark Christmas movies to the world-renowned action sports films by Anthill Films and Sherpas Cinema.

Whistler is also part of our nation’s earlier film history in that Canada’s first talking picture, or “talkie” – a film produced with synchronized sound, as opposed to the silent films that were prevalent prior to the 1930s – was based off a novel written by Alta Lake resident Alex Philip.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

Alex Philip was one of Whistler’s most well known residents during the first part of the 20th century. In 1914, he and his wife Myrtle opened Rainbow lodge, Alta Lake’s first summer getaway, and were essential in bringing tourism to the valley.

Alex was also an author and went on to pen three novels while operating Rainbow Lodge. The first of three novels, The Crimson West, was published in 1925. This novel would be adapted into a film called The Crimson Paradise (or Fighting Playboy in the US) in 1933. Shot in Victoria and the surrounding area of Oak Bay and Cowichan Valley, this was Canada’s first talkie.

The screenplay for The Crimson Paradise was written by Arthur Hoerl, who later wrote the screenplay for Reefer Madness (1936), the now-infamous American propaganda film about the dangers of the consumption of marijuana.

The director of The Crimson Paradise, Robert F. Hill, was one of the directors of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, a 15-episode serial film released in 1938. Lucile Browne, who had a leading role in The Crimson Paradise, went on to star opposite John Wayne in two films in 1935: Texas Terror and Rainbow Valley.

The filmmakers hoped that The Crimson Paradise would help to position Victoria as “Hollywood North,” and also hoped to take advantage of new rules limiting the importation of foreign and Hollywood films into the UK. The producers believed that Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth, would not be subjected to the importation rule and could take advantage of a guaranteed audience by being labeled British instead of “foreign.” This turned out to be incorrect, much to the chagrin of the producers.

The Crimson Paradise premiered at the Capitol Theatre in Victoria on Thursday, December 14, 1933. Ivan Ackery, manager of the Capitol Theatre and good friend of Alex Philip, stated, “We only played The Crimson Paradise a week, as I recall, but we did sensational business… It was a real turkey. So lousy it was good. Everyone wanted to see the local people and local scenes.”

Alta Lake’s Alex Philip (left) and Ivan Ackery, manager of the Capitol Theatre in Victoria, remained friends long after the film premiered in 1933. Philip Collection.

The premiere was a major event in Victoria, attracting a few Hollywood stars along with the Premier and Lieutenant Governor of BC. The film played in Victoria for a week before moving to Vancouver for another weeklong engagement. Despite its successful premiere, the film ended up being a major financial disaster and bankrupted one of the financial backers, Kathleen Dunsmuir. The film was estimated to cost between $50,000 and $60,000 (about $1 – 1.2 million when adjusted for inflation).

Alex Philip and Capitol Theatre operator Ivan Ackery remained good friends and would look back fondly on their mutual brush with the film industry. The Whistler Museum collection contains copies of all of Alex’s novels, which we hope to have digitized and available for public viewing in the near future. Sadly, The Crimson Paradise is considered a lost film, meaning that no known copies exist.

Livening Up the Street

On the mid-to-late 1980s, after working as the Vice-President of Marketing at Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation, Mike Hurst began a new position as the acting general manager of the Whistler Resort Association (WRA), known today as Tourism Whistler. While Vancouver had drawn international attention during Expo 86, summers in the Whistler resort were still quite slow, with some businesses even shutting down for the season. According to Hurst, “People would come up to the Village, and they’d come in, and they’d go to a restaurant, and then they’d walk around wondering what to do, and there’d be very little to do.”

In an effort to change this, Hurst contacted Maureen Douglas and Laurel Darnell of Street Access and asked them to organize street entertainment in the Village for the summer of 1987. Though Douglas spent Expo 86 recovering from a broken leg, she was inspired by the “sleeper hit” street performers at the festival and wanted to ensure that talent wasn’t forgotten. She and Darnell formed Street Access Entertainment Society as a non-profit street entertainment booking and development society in September 1986. They were soon contracted to organize three days/week of entertainment in Whistler.

Some acts included combinations of acrobatics and knife juggling. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Each weekend the Village would host performances by jugglers, musicians, comedians, and character actors who roamed the Village Stroll. At the end of the summer, fifteen acts were brought together for the Whistler Street Festival Grand Finale over the Labour Day weekend to compete for a contract to perform at Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia.

The street entertainers from the very first season in 1987. Photo courtesy of Maureen Douglas.

Street Access continued to organize summer street entertainment for the WRA, increasing to four days/week in 1988 and then seven days/week in 1989. The WRA then decided to bring festival and entertainment planning in house and asked Douglas to write a job description and apply. She began working at the WRA and ran the street entertainment program through the 1990s.

The Checkerboard Guy demonstrates how to eat fire on the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

According to Douglas, each year’s lineup was made of about 50% returning acts from the Lower Mainland and 50% new or touring acts. One regular act was Carolyn Sadowska, who appeared as Queen Elizabeth II and would instruct visitors on points of etiquette, provide tiaras and props, and pose for photos. Other acts included Fifi Lafluff (“the world’s worst hairdresser”), a cappella groups such as Party Fever, bands like the Mulberry Street Jazz Band, clowns, and comedic jugglers such as the Checkerboard Guy and Mike Battie (whose grand finale involved juggling pins and broccoli, which he proceeded to eat, accompanied by the William Tell Overture). Over the years Douglas also started to hire local musical acts, such as Stephen and Peter Vogler, singing group Colours on Key, and harpist Alison Hunter.

Colours on Key, a local singing group in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

By most accounts, the street entertainment program was a big success. Through the 1990s the September festival was renamed Whistler’s Really Big Street Fest and weekly showcases were added to the schedule. Acts were carefully placed throughout the Village, as some could attract audiences of 300 to 400 people. While this was alright in Village Square, in other areas those numbers created gridlock.

Performances could fill Village Square, sometimes even impeding foot traffic. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Whistler became part of the street entertainment circuit, joining other festivals across Canada in cities such as Halifax and Edmonton. While some of the other areas offered performers a chance to make a lot of money through busking, the WRA didn’t want the audience to have to pay and instead offered a “working holiday,” with a decent fee, accommodation, wine and cheese get-togethers on Fridays, and time to enjoy summer in Whistler. Douglas remembered that one of the producers of a busking festival once told her, “You know, our one beef with Whistler is that you guys are just too nice. They come here and then we don’t treat them quite as well and they’re miffed.”

Encouraging summer visitors was a large focus of the WRA and Mike Hurst in the mid-to-late 1980s and street entertainment was just one strategy to increase numbers. For many visitors and residents, however, the performers were one of the most memorable parts of their Village experience.

Cameras and Museums: How Photographs Help Preserve History

No one can deny that Whistler is an extremely photogenic place.  With the valley’s majestic mountains, clear blue lakes, and abundant wildlife, it has been a beautiful getaway for lovers of the outdoors for over a century.  Many changes have taken place over those years, and the Whistler Museum and Archives Society (WMAS) is fortunate to have an extensive photo collection that documents most of it.  It is amazing how much the valley has changed over the decades, and the ability to actually see the differences through photographs is a great asset for the preservation of Whistler’s history.

A display of 1980s ski fashion, captured by photographer Greg Griffith.

If any of you follow the Whistler Museum on social media, you know that we have some very interesting photos in our archives.  One of our largest photo collections is the Greg Griffith Collection.  Greg Griffith is an Australian-born photographer who moved to Whistler in 1973 to ski.  He went on to have a successful careers in photography, showcasing Whistler’s natural beauty and documenting over 30 years of Whistler’s history.  Donated to the Whistler Museum in 2009, the collection is made up of thousands of Whistler-related photographs, ranging in subject from skiing and snowboarding competitions, to mountain tours and dramatic scenery.

Another of the Museum’s larger photo collections is the George Benjamin Collection, which was donated in 2010.  George Benjamin is a semi-professional photographer, who moved to Whistler in 1970 after staying in Toad Hall for a ski vacation.  He co-owned a well-known cabin called Tokum Corners until the 1980s and opened a photography store called the Photo Cell in Creekside, following after his family members, who owned a photo-finishing business in Ontario.  He lived in Whistler until the 1980s, and took many impressive photographs of the area during his time here.

George Benjamin captures the scene at Jordan’s Lodge on Nita Lake in the 1970s.

The Museum is also proud to house the Philip Collection, which includes photographs taken during the Rainbow Lodge era.  These photos illustrate the beauty of Whistler while it was still an undeveloped fishing retreat, and offer an interesting comparison between the Whistler Valley of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, and the Whistler of today.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

There are so many other aspects of the WMAS photo collection that we won’t be able to cover in this article, but they all play an enormous part in illustrating the valley’s colourful history.  From early horseback riding trips, to present-day Crankworx festivals, the trusty camera is always there to help preserve our history.  The WMAS collection currently includes over 170,000 photographs, which may seem like a lot, but we are always looking for more.  We are especially eager for photographs related to snowboarding and mountain biking in Whistler, photographs documenting life as mountain staff members, as well as photographs from the 1990s to the present.  With the tenth anniversary of the Olympics coming up, we’re hoping to expand our Olympic photographs collection, too.  Any photographs related to Whistler are extremely useful, though, and if you’re interested in donating to the Museum, please get in contact with us!  You can send an email to our archivist, Alyssa Bruijns, at archives @ whistlermuseum.org.  We would love to be able to add your photos and stories to the larger Whistler narrative.

If you’re interested in viewing part of our photo collection, you can go to www.whistlermuseum.smugmug.com, where you can order prints of any archival photo we have digitized.  You can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram, where we often feature photographs from the WMAS collection.