What do Justin Bieber, Tom Waits, a nesting mouse, a platoon of Elvis impersonators, Surrey high school students and dozens of dedicated volunteers have in common?
The Bell Performing Arts Centre, that’s what.
The people who run the Sullivan Heights-area theatre have some stories to tell after 15 years of staging shows in the 1,052-seat hall they cherish.
The Bell, so named with sponsorship money from the telecommunications giant, officially opened on April 13, 2002, with a gala headlined by Surrey-raised country artist Lisa Brokop.
From the start, the school district-owned theatre was in a unique position, located as it is in the heart of Sullivan Heights Secondary.
“Those first few days were pretty weird for me as I walked through the hallways surrounded by kids,” recalled Steven Goodman, who co-manages the Bell with colleague Andrew Elliot.
“It was just like being back in high school, you know. And it’s still kind of weird, because it’s not like we’re off at the end of the school somewhere, we’re right in the middle of it. We can’t really do anything without the entire school knowing what’s going on here.”
With close to 240 events booked at the Bell each year, there’s a lot going on. The theatre is among the busiest in the region, Goodman noted, despite its location in a relatively rural area of Surrey – or so it was when it first opened.
“What’s interesting is that when I came in for my job interview, on one of the first planes that flew in (from Winnipeg) after 9/11, there were, like, four houses across the street,” Goodman said. “All this behind us was trees, and now we have a full audience across the street here.”
School assemblies are held in the theatre, but the entire student population can no longer be seated. “We could do that at the start, because the school was built for 1,000 students, but now there’s 1,500 of them,” explained Goodman.
A core group of 30 volunteers helps keep the place running on what Goodman calls a “bare-bones” operating budget. Among them is Betty Sing (pictured), a 91-year-old retired nurse whose volunteer schedule sounds like a work week for someone a third her age.
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“I’m an usher here, concession, wherever I’m needed,” Sing said with a smile. “I’ve been retired since 1991. I applied to volunteer here right when it opened, but I didn’t hear back from them for about a year. I reapplied and I got accepted, and I’ve been here since.”
Sing loves working the frequent concerts played by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which, in a private booking, used the theatre to record anthems for every single country represented at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, for the medal ceremonies.
“They were here for almost three days, when school was in and the hallways were packed with students,” Goodman explained. “Nobody outside those doors knew what was happening in here.”
Years earlier, not long after the theatre opened, bluesy crooner Tom Waits booked the Bell for three days to rehearse his touring band.
“Sometimes the coolest things that happen here are things the public doesn’t know about,” Goodman said. “His production team would be here during the day, setting up, all that, and Waits would show up at about 10 o’clock at night and rehearse all night. He was nocturnal, I guess, and they brought his old, beat-up piano he toured with, one with cigarette stains and, I don’t know, coffee marks on it. That was a great experience seeing all that come together. Somewhere around here we have a piece of paper with his hand-written music on it, but we didn’t take any photos.”
A framed poster on Goodman’s office wall reminds him of the Justin Bieber concert that never happened at the Bell. The show was set for Nov. 1, 2009, just as the current superstar was about to “take off,” commercially speaking.
“The day before, we were told that he got sick with the flu and they wouldn’t let him on the plane,” Goodman said. “The concert was sold-out, and it was one of the first stars-in-the-making shows we did. We also had Carly Rae Jepsen in here, as part of a ‘Canadian Idol’ tour, before her big hit (‘Call Me Maybe’).”
After Bieber bailed, phones at the Bell rang off the hook for several weeks, Elliot recalled.
“A lot of fans, young girls, were upset that another concert wasn’t booked after that show was cancelled,” he said.
Performers who have hit the Bell stage over the years include Honeymoon Suite, Tommy Hunter, April Wine, the Blind Boys of Alabama, The Tennessee Three (members of Johnny Cash’s first band), Riders on the Storm (surviving members of The Doors) and some artists no longer with us, including Canadians Rita MacNeil (who loved hosting tea with staff and volunteers) and Stuart McLean. Among repeat performers are Red Green, comedians on Just For Laughs tours, Koba Entertainment’s many kids shows and countless Elvis tribute acts.
Some events sell out quickly – City and Colour’s concert on April 7, for one – but others don’t go so well, attendance-wise.
“One show we always talk about is a band that was going to tour Europe and they wanted a promotional video with crowd shots, and 12 people showed up for the concert,” Goodman said.
On the movie end of business, stars Selena Gomez (in “Another Cinderella Story”) and, more recently, Kenny Wormald (in “Center Stage: On Pointe”) have filmed scenes at the theatre.
“We have, on average, about four to five South Asian-language events every month,” added Elliot, who lists Kanwar Grewal, Satinder Sartaaj, Nooran Sisters, Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta among the big-name performers – some of them superstars in certain countries.
“Also, I have recently been working with the Ambassador of India (on) a large public event being put on by the Consulate General of India called ‘Namaste 2017,’ which will be held (at the Bell) from Sept. 3 and 4.”
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Spring is the busiest time of year at the theatre, with dance shows, grad ceremonies and whatever else that comes along.
“We’ll be doing almost seven days a week in April, May and June,” Goodman said.
“We book five years in advance, on a first-come, first-served basis,” he added. “The clients who are the most organized get the good weekend dates. The bookings go up on July 1 every year, and we have dance clients who actually wake up at 12:01 (a.m.) and leave a phone message with the dates they want five years later. That’s how much those dates mean to them.”
One of Goodman’s favourite, quirky stories about the Bell involves the theatre’s fancy Steinway piano and the mystery of the missing felt, which had been clipped from the hammers that hit its strings.
“The piano tuner came in, and we couldn’t figure it out for a week – like, who’s been messing with the piano?” Goodman said with a laugh. “We had new locks put on the piano lockup, all that. The next time he came back, it happened again, and that time he discovered why: He saw a small mouse’s nest built of all of the felt clippings, inside the piano, so the mouse had been living in the piano. We figured there was probably a show, probably the VSO, where the piano may or may not have had the mouse living inside of it.
“We always laugh thinking, what if it had tore out of the piano and ran into the audience at some point?”
(VSO performing at the Bell in 2013)