In 1931, the Kenora Women’s Institute organized and financed the Kenora Musical Competition Festival. It featured performances in piano, violin and voice by individuals, choirs and orchestras. Events were held on May 14 at the Tourist Hotel and on May 15 at Derry’s Palace Theatre. The evening concluded with the Grand Concert. Three of the nine trophies awarded that year may still be won today. (Rotary Shield, Board of Trade Shield and the G.A.Toole Cup)
For eight years Mrs. N.W. Paterson served as Secretary of the Music Festival Committee. Adjudicators were hired from Manitoba, Scotland and England. In 1934 Sir Hugh Roberton was so impressed with Kenora and the Lake of the Woods he wrote a report on his experience that was published in the local Glasgow newspaper. To encourage competition among the choirs, orchestras and one act plays, local citizens donated cups and awards. Many names will still be familiar today – Drewry, McLeod, Gunne, Cox, Cameron, Rioch, Silverman, Johnson, Dewdney and the Kenora Women’s Institute. The Institute and the school board donated silver medals for girls and boys individual classes.
By 1938, the festival, now held at the High School Auditorium, had expanded to four days (April 11 to 14) and included spoken poetry, one act plays, folk dancing and a poster contest. The Women’s Institute announced that they could no longer continue the festival due to a lack of volunteers.
In 1951, at the urging of the Kenora Registered Music Teachers, a group of interested citizens was formed to revive the festival. The main officers were Mr. E.Carter, Mr. C.Lee, Mrs. D.Bruce and Miss Y. Oshiro.
In 1952, after a hiatus of thirteen years caused by WW11 and post war recovery, the ninth festival, the Kenora District Musical Festival, was held May 7-9. At the Festival Highlights*, the Rose Bowl, donated by Newman’s Jewellers, was awarded to Pat Francis.
*In 1953 the name “Hi-Lites” was chosen.
The “Baby Boomer” generation born between 1946 and 1960 provided a boost to the festival’s popularity and success.
In 1957 festival experienced a bumper year with over 1000 entries involving over 5100 participants. Many from the Dryden area arrived by train. Nine full days (April 30-May 10) were scheduled to handle the large numbers (some of the verse classes had over sixty entries). All the classes were so well attended that parallel sessions were held morning, afternoon and evening with adjudications at the Legion, Masonic Hall, Kenora Keewatin High School, Notre Dame Parish Hall and the Presbyterian Church. It was necessary to hold two Hi-Lites (May 3 and May 10) to accommodate the large number of performers.
From 1958 to 1971 the organizers divided the festival into two parts. Section I, featuring Drama, Speech Arts and Folk Dancing, was held in February while Section II, featuring Instrumental, Vocal and Choirs, was held in late April and early May. Each section concluded with a Hi-Lites Concert. Additional festival venues included the Recreation Centre, Knights of Columbus, Paramount Theatre, Ukrainian Hall, Lakewood School, Saint Albans Parish Hall and the Knox United Church. In 1964 both sections were held in Dryden.
By 1962 the festival was renamed the Kenora District Festival of the Arts in recognition of the large part played by the Speech Arts, Drama and Dancing. Trophies were donated to the festival as rewards for such interest. The Kenora Miner and News Trophy for Square and Folk Dancing by classroom groups was awarded fourteen times between 1958 and 1982. Evergreen School had six wins. The Starlight Dance Studio Trophy for solos (tap and ethic) was won eight times between 1965 and 1982. The Bev Adams Talent Award (1965-1971), offered to couples dancing jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and other ethnic dances, was won three times. The Salisbury House Award for Drama, (1956 to 1985), offered first to individuals and later to high school and adult groups performing one act plays, was first won by Julia Cowey in 1959 and last won by the Beaver Brae Drama Club in 1980. The Margaret Korvas Accordian Trophy available from 1968 to 1982 was awarded six times. Lenard Whiting in 1973 was the final recipient.
Along with the growing interest in multiculturalism was that of bilingualism and French verse was offered in 1969. Later, trophies for French Verse Speaking were donated by the Oblate Fathers, the Sacred Heart/St. Louis Catholic Women’s League (in honour of Sister Bernadin) and two local Beta Sigma Phi Sororities- XI EPSILON NU and Ontario Tau. The English Verse Speaking already had the Paramount Theatre and Monsignor Hebert Trophies as well as the Pharmacy Shield. The Ukrainian Literary Society would round out the English awards in 1974.
In the 70’s and 80’s several changes occurred that would impact future decades of the festival.
In 1972 the festival was struggling to find funding and was forced to take out a personal loan to carry on (expenses- $2,234 but funds raised- $1,790). The deficit was remedied by holding a Spring Benefit Ball on April 7 at the Holiday Inn Ballroom, attended by 75 couples. A second one was held the next year. They began asking people to become “Friends of Festival” and for a donation of ten dollars they would receive a patron’s card.
Originally participants received marks and vied for trophies and scholarships.
1974 saw a move towards the “self improvement” concept of a modified workshop. Adjudicators would evaluate and make suggestions to the participants. It was hoped all performers would experience encouragement, challenge, and practical assistance in the development of their particular skills and talents. There would still be the opportunity to compete for trophies and awards. Festival was inspired by Sir H. Walford Davies’ ideal: “In Festivals, the object is not to gain a prize, or defeat a rival, but to pace one another on the road to excellence”.
As finances stabilized the festival committee set up a savings account and began to fulfill the wish to buy a piano for festival’s use. Jane Anderson, Mattie Bryngelson and Lucia Melnick worked tirelessly to make this happen. Grants from the Ontario Federation of Music Festivals and the Ontario Lottery Foundation added to this account.
By June, 1978, a Kawai Ebony Upright Concert piano was purchased and would be owned solely by the Festival. It would be made available to Festival participants and community cultural events. The Bethesda Luthern Church agreed to place the piano in their sanctuary. By August of 1978 the first of several concerts presented by the Lake of the Woods Concert Group in association with the Kenora District Festival of the Arts was held.
The festival became a member of the Ontario Music Festival Association and the Canadian Federation of Music Festivals. Now participants could participate in the Provincials if recommended by an adjudicator.
June 1978 was the first time a local music student was chosen and Lenard Whiting competed in Sudbury as a vocalist.
In 1979, Danny Ek represented Kenora at the Provincial Finals in Toronto playing the clarinet . In 1980 Danny attended the Provincials held in Ottawa. This time he performed on the clarinet and the piano. In 1981, Lenard Whiting returned to the Provincials in London to compete in the vocal section. Over the years several persons had the honour of being recommended and attending the Provincials.
In 1984, having sold the upright piano to St. Albans, the festival purchased a Kawai Ebony Concert Grand – a piano worthy not only of festival but of guest pianists of national and international stature. Lucia Melnick organized benefit concerts, canvassed businesses, and appealed to individuals to raise the extra funds required. This piano, resting in the Knox United Church sanctuary, is still enjoyed by performers and audiences today.
As the decades continued festivals followed the patterns established by the first forty years. Since 1984 there have been seven presidents, busy committees, loyal volunteers in April and fund raising campaigns. New classes have been introduced and old ones removed as the population’s interests have changed. The three classroom choirs that were held in the Century Cinema and necessitated busing, moving of a piano and risers and supervising a few hundred youngsters were halted in 1989. At this time it was decided to offer French and English Verse in alternate years.
In the 2000’s the numbers entering in solo piano and voice decreased as fewer parents now enrolled their children in private lessons. The entries in Speech Arts diminished. The guitar became a popular instrument and the schools still sent choirs and bands.
The Twenty-first Century ushered in intergenerational duets and trios, harps, the Ukeladies, musical theatre, woodwind and string ensembles, dramatic arts, multi-media and dance. Visual Arts began in 2008 has attracted people of all ages and the artists’ work is on display for the public to view throughout the month of April.
The festival was gifted with a complete set of syllabi and programmes from the 1931 to 1938 period. Added to the documents already on file, it was possible to compile our history. For the Fiftieth Anniversary the programme’s centerpiece was a history of festival and further research was done on 65 past performers, “Where are they now?”
For the Sixtieth, an anniversary concert was held- “The Joy of Music” at which 22 past trophy winners performed with another 56 sending their regrets. In 2014 a flash mob of music students from Beaver Brae Secondary School promoting the Seventieth Anniversary appeared in Safeway, Shoppers Mall and Donny B’s. A play, “Itches and Tics”, written by Phil Burke was staged by the Beaver Brae drama club. That afternoon also featured performances by past winners: Micheline Blouin Hay, Neil Kitson, Nancy Leckie Bonds, Helena Balka and Olivia Whiddon.
In the March 14, 2019 edition of the Enterprise, Reg Clayton’s “comment” page featured the upcoming spring cultural events. “Curtain rises on the season for the performing arts in Kenora” listed the plethora of events available to the viewing public for the next six weeks. The 75th Festival of the Arts was mentioned along with the concerts, plays at TryLight theatre and Thomas Aquinas High School to name a few. The Kenora Women’s Institute would be so proud. In 1931 they sponsored the idea of encouraging excellence in the arts. Many of the individuals continuing this quest today have been participants in the Kenora District Festival of the Arts. Bravo, ladies.
2018 and 2019 (75th & 76th) Correction In preparing for the celebration of the 75th Kenora District Festival of the Arts, this history was compiled and presented to the public in a series of four articles published in the Kenora Miner and News (March 29, April 11, April 17 and April 25, 2019). Later that year, research revealed that in both 1969 and 1970, the festival had been labelled the 26th. This meant the 75th had been in 2018, and 2019 was the 76th. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 festival was cancelled. The next festival will be the 77th.