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Davis siblings created legacy that lives on in Canadian professional theatre

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the careers of three Newmarket-born siblings whose international renown in the theatrical world built a foundation for Canadian arts culture

Here’s a story with which few people are acquainted, but I believe it holds particular interest. I am speaking of the birth of one of Toronto’s first premier repertoire theatre venues, the Crest Theatre. It has a local connection as it was founded in 1953 by three members of the Davis family  in Newmarket, Donald and Murray Davis, along with the support of their sister, Barbara Chilcott (Davis). One of the things I strive to accomplish in my weekly article is to shine light on members of our community who have done extraordinary things on the national or international stage. I add this story to the others that we have examined in this series.

The Crest Theatre, located in a renovated movie house dating back to 1927 on Mount Pleasant in Toronto, was founded in 1953 by three Davis family members.

The 822-seat theatre opened its first 11-play season in January 1954, playing through to June of that year. The opening of the Crest, less than three years after the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey-Lévesque Commission) tabled its report, signalled the beginning of an indigenous, commercial theatre movement in Toronto. Until then, audiences interested in professional theatre saw mainly touring productions from Britain or the U.S.

The Davis brothers would not only manage it but also provide both artistic guidance and partial financing. The original charter of the company stated that its mandate was to establish a repertory theatre and to “contribute to the cultural life of Canada by providing opportunities for the development of Canadian artistic directors, playwrights, designers, managers and technicians”.

For 13 consecutive seasons, the Crest Theatre mounted an ambitious series of plays that included classical, contemporary, and original works. Donald and Murray, along with Barbara, would often act in the plays, along with their responsibility for the administration of the theatre.

The company produced more than 90 plays from both Canadian and international repertories, including the works of Robertson DaviesMarcel DubéMavor MooreBernard SladeHerbert Whittaker, with directors Malcolm Black and John Hirsch, and actors Barry MorseKate ReidMartha HenryCharmion KingBruno GerussiFrances HylandDouglas Rain, and Amelia Hall among many others.

In 1957, J.B. Priestly's The Glass Cage premiered with the company and when the troupe took the work to London's West End, it became the first all-Canadian troupe to play in London.

Thanks to the Davis’ efforts, an entire generation of Canadian actors and directors were given opportunities for full-time professional work early in their careers. Among these were Richard Monette, Jackie Burroughs, Frances Hyland, Amelia Hall, Eric House, John Baylis, Martha Henry, Marilyn Lightstone, Kate Reid, Leo Ciceri and Charmion King.

A corps of artistic directors also included Robert Gill, Douglas Campbell, John Holden, Malcolm Black, Jean Roberts, Barry Morse, Mavor Moore, David Gardner, Leon Major, John Hirsch, Herbert Whittaker, Marigold Charlesworth, Allan Lund, Kurt Reis, George McCowan and Donald and Murray Davis.

The Crest Theatre was also committed to providing opportunities for Canadian playwrights. At least one Canadian play was included every season. These productions, many of them premieres, included works by Robertson Davies, John Gray, Mary Jukes, Marcel Dubé, Ted Allan and Bernard Slade.

The enterprise experimented with a mixture of private and public funding, beginning as a limited-liability company, it later reorganized as a non-profit foundation run by a board of directors. This model, backing artistic independence with financial support from both the public and private sector, has been adopted by many arts organizations in existence today.

Unfortunately, the Crest closed its doors on April 30, 1966 after mounting 140 productions. In the 1960s, the Canada Council refused the theatre a grant, claiming that the company's artistic standards had diminished. 

The Crest shares with contemporary arts organizations today a history marked by controversy over funding, artistic control and the quality of its production. The Crest Theatre's enduring achievement was that it represented an important beginning for a commercially viable domestic theatre community in Toronto.

For those who have not read my earlier articles on the Davis family, I will provide you with a little background on the main players.

Donald George Davis was born in Newmarket February 1928, where his grandfather Elihu James Davis (and uncle Aubrey Davis) owned the Davis Leather Company. He attended St. Andrew's College from 1941 to 1946 and received a BA from the University of Toronto in 1950. Donald’s career included acting, directing and producing. Along with the Crest Theatre, he co-founded the Straw-Hat Players in Muskoka with his siblings.  

Donald performed at the Woodstock Playhouse in New York in 1947 and between 1950 and 1953, Donald acted in Britain with the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic. He also performed at the Stratford Festival and on North American radio and television. He was a member of the American Shakespeare Theatre. In 1959, he began performing off-Broadway and in regional theatres in Canada and the United States. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Donald enjoyed a busy acting career appearing in critically acclaimed productions throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition to his roles in the plays of Beckett, he appeared with Katharine Hepburn at the American Shakespeare Theatre, with Judith Anderson in Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen, with Elaine Stritch in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and in Timothy Findley’s The Stillborn Lover.

Sadly, like several Canadian artists, he had a much higher profile south of the border than he did back home.

Murray Edward Davis had a similar career to  his brother. Born on Feb. 16, 1924 and passing on Jan. 22,  1997, he was an actor, director and theatre educator.  They both had studied theatre under the direction of Robert Gill at the Hart House Theatre. Fellow graduates of this program were Anna Cameron, Araby Lockhart, Barbara Hamilton, Charmion King, Kate Reid, Don Harron, Donald Sutherland and William Hutt.

Murray Davis was primarily interested in theatre production, directing numerous productions at the Crest, and serving as artistic director. With the closing of the Crest in 1966, Murray would go on to teach for three years at the National Theatre School in Montréal before retiring to pursue livestock farming in Ontario.

Murray and Donald’s sister, Barbara Chilcott Davis, was a renowned performer on the stage, television, and film in both Canada and England.  She was cast for her strikingly exotic appearance and intensity of her performing style.

When she returned to Canada in 1950, she quickly established herself as one of this country's leading actors, performing on CBC Radio and becoming involved in the burgeoning summer theatre movement, joining her brothers Murray and Donald Davis in their Straw Hat Players venture and acting with the International Players in Kingston and the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa.

At the Stratford Festival, she starred in The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure (1954), and Julius Caesar (1955). In 1956, she starred in Tyrone Guthrie's Stratford production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. In 1957, Chilcott returned to London’s West End with the Crest’s production of The Glass Cage, written by J.B. Priestley especially for her and her brothers and was hailed as the season's most exciting "newcomer."

She continued to travel back and forth between England and Canada, acting on stage, television and in film in both countries. In 1963, she founded the Crest Hour Company to tour plays to schools. When the Crest closed in 1966, Chilcott continued to perform on radio and television, but did no stage work until 1973, when she starred in Robertson Davies's A Jig for the Gypsy at Festival Lennoxville, recreating the role she had played in the original Crest production.

She returned to Stratford in 1981 in Coriolanus and in Wild Oats and worked in regional theatres across Canada. She continued to perform in Toronto, in film, television and on stage

She was also involved in several projects related to the work of her late husband, the composer Harry Somers.

The Davis family will be remembered as pioneers in the early days of professional theatre in Canada.  Their vision and spirit left a foundation upon which others have been able to build solid careers both within this country and abroad. 

They left behind a legacy that includes the staging of new Canadian work at a time when few would care (or dare) to do so and the formation of a rep season that produced international hits.

Probably the Davis' most important contribution was the creation of a cornerstone from which was built a solid foundation for a proud Canadian arts culture. 

Sources: Donald George and Murray Edward Davis Article by Robin Breon; The Crest Theatre Article by Robin Breon; Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story was written by Paul Illidge; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; The Crest Theatre. By Mira Friedlander; The Newmarket Era; The Toronto Star; Oral History Interview with Donald Davis 


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.



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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