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REMEMBER THIS: Lions Music Festival pinnacle of music scene

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

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

So many local musicians and music aficionados have been part of 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 presented April 26, 1961. It was on Nov. 16, 1960, that an organizing committee met in the board room of the Agricultural Offices on Botsford Street to lay out the details of the festival. Eugene McCaffrey was elected as president and Margaret Atkinson became the secretary-treasurer. A committee of music teachers were called upon to set a test syllabus, select adjudicators and establish 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 that it was imperative to maintain the highest standards, insisting on examination marks according to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Medals were to be awarded in the solo and duet classes, gold for 80 per cent and above, silver 75 to 79 per cent and bronze for 70 to 74 per cent.

That first year, the festival ran from April 26 to 29 and all classes were adjudicated at St. John’s Auditorium except for piano accordion, which was at Prince Charles School. There were 204 entries in the classes of piano, accordion, vocal solo, school groups and church groups both urban and rural.

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

The adjudicators that first year consisted of Madeline Bone for piano, Reginald G. Green for vocal solo, school and church groups, and Eric Mundinger for accordion.

Local school participants marched from their schools to the festival and then marched back after performing. The rural participants came into town by bus and stayed the afternoon.

The tradition of the Festival of Stars Concert started that first year with standing room only. Of note was a young pianist named Jacqueline Bourdon whom they say mesmerized the audience with her incredible talent.

The festival did not turn a profit that first year, but through the guidance of the local Lions, scholarships were obtained and shields and trophies awarded. The tradition of community involvement and the power of the volunteerism was recognized.

One scholarship was particularly prized as it was awarded to the youngest winner. The scholarship was named the Colville Scholarship after Isabel and Archie Colville, who had supported local musicians over a period of three generations. That first year, the winner was Nancy Brinkos who at six years old 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 the plans for the next year’s festival. That second year, they approached the Trinity United Church about renting their auditorium for the growing school sections.

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

A brilliant marketing decision was the initiation of the poster contest, open to grades 7 and 8 classes, with the winning posters used in the advertisements for the festival that year.

Those first years, several local musicians stood out. As I mentioned, Jackie Bourdon on the piano along with Kevin Tunney on the piano and Bud West on his trombone. A choral reading section was added and groups from Stuart Scott School, directed by Evelyn Denne, were always a hit. I was, in fact, in two of Miss Denne’s groups, selected more for my height and ability to balance the group appearance than my choral reading abilities.

The festival in those early days was a critical success but alas financially, it was still operating at a loss. The festival continued to grow, with the number of classes expand along with the number of shields, scholarships and trophies awarded.

In the formative years, the festival would hold an opening night gala, where members of council, York County politicians and the Lions would give speeches and hype 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 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 were but a few who made the festival work in those early years.  

I understand that there was some concern that the festival may become too big. What would they do if it outgrew the available manpower? Thankfully, they were always able to cope.

By 1964 there were more than 5,000 children participating in the program and there were 38 marshals to keep everything running smoothly. The Festival of Stars evening moved to the Trinity United Church to accommodate the crowds who wanted to see the show.

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

Eventually, the finances came around and the festival started to show a small surplus. The number of participants continued to grow during the 1960s. The festival was using both the Trinity United Church and the St. John’s venue with 142 choirs performing at Trinity United Church alone.

The position of host became more and more important as the numbers continued to grow. People opened their homes to visitors, and lunches and dinners were on offer. 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 but a few.

One of the cool things about the festival was that many participants went on to become educators and brought their own students to participate in the festival. People like Keith Evans and Gail Rettie brought their students to compete as they had years before. They were creating an alumnus that was extensive. Two families became renowned for their participation in the festival, the Giovanelli Accordion Orchestra, which usually received 90 per cent plus in all its completions, and the Joseph family of Gormley who were featured by the National Film Board in the Centennial Book of Canada.

The festival continued to thrive into the 1970s. There were a few interesting changes taking place. A section for rock groups was added with James Wrightman named adjudicator. Participants often returned as adjudicators with Wrightman being an excellent example.

The sections changed over the years, along with the number of participants. A rock group and recorder section were added. The numbers in some of the sections decreased while some, like piano increased from 68 in 1961 to 300 10 years later.

The program for the festival in the mid 1970s featured 127 ads from local businesses. The next generation from some of the previous participant families began to appear at the festival, like 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 class were always coached by her. It begs the question, why she was so competitive?”A fact I can well attest to. The only question was which one of her groups was going to win?

The festival continued to grow throughout the 1970s. In 1971 the festival added a banner that hung over Main Street. The trophies were eventually replaced by medals. School bands were added to the list of classes and new local talent continued to shine, along with some older talent such as Karen Brinkos, Linda West, Brian Kohler and Lisa Sullivan.

Over the years, the various classes continued to flourish, the number of participants growing every year. The new classes proved a welcome addition to the program.

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

One can see how certain families seemed to return year after year, each year seemingly producing another talented sibling. Examples are plentiful, 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 over the years.

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

Gene McCaffrey and Emma Broadbent were there from the beginning. Charles Boyd was a major contributor to the festival financially, getting the other merchants to become involved. What can you say about the Newmarket Lions Club? There is a reason why it is called the Newmarket Lions Music Festival. Their participation and part in the initiation of the festival is responsible for the festival and its success.

When one attempts to thank people, it is always at the risk of forgetting someone. If I leave anyone out who should have been mentioned, please forgive me. Please add your memories and the names of builders in the comment section so that we can properly thank them.

The festival has gone on strong over the years and really the only thing that has sidetracked it was the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. It is still the pinnacle of the Newmarket music scene and to participate in it is still a time-honoured tradition, whether you win or not.

The Lions Club has supported the festival from the beginning and I think they deserve a huge thank you from everyone who has participated or just had the pleasure of watching. The community has supported the festival right from the beginning, providing trophies, plaques and scholarships not to mention advertising support. The Lions Music Festival became synonymise with great music and a familiar Newmarket tradition.

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

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

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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