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Sharon Hancock brings style and pizazz to theatre in Orillia

Local woman has had a decades-long love affair with Opera House; 'It's a beautiful venue ... we need that as a community ... it's wonderful,' she says

If you enjoyed going to live productions at the Orillia Opera House during the 1980s and 90s, you were likely greeted by the exuberant and always stylish Sharon Hancock.

Maybe you were lucky enough to have been guided to your seat by Hancock, who was known for her dazzling outfits, often highlighting the theme of the production.

After being introduced to the theatre as a summer student while at Georgian College, Hancock became the house manager at the Opera House, a position she held until she retired in 1996.

She was responsible for setting up and managing all front of house operations and staff. Throughout the years, she also assisted with promotion and helped initiate the theatre’s popular bus tour programs.

It was a career that Hancock had not envisioned for herself, but it turned out to be a job that she absolutely loved.

“I loved it, just loved it. I got to dress up and work with wonderful people, every day. What could be better than that,” she exclaimed.

Hancock moved to Orillia in the 1960s with her husband Ron when he landed a teaching position in the area. After purchasing land and building a home, the couple, with two small children at the time, realized they needed more than one teacher’s salary.

Sharon found employment at the Huronia Regional Centre, but after a work-related injury, was forced to look for something else. She answered a call for volunteers at the local cable television station and was soon hired to do her own show. It was called, “What’s New Pussycat,” and featured interviews with local people.

“That experience opened up a whole new world to me,” said Hancock. “People love to tell their stories.”

While involved with the community, Hancock attended an event at Fern Resort where Georgian College was to announce a new program for Tourism Management students. Hancock decided to enrol.

Within weeks of beginning her studies, Hancock was offered a summer position from Jackson Spear, who was starting a new Couchiching Music Theatre program at the Opera House.

“As part of our college program, we were expected to find work placements during the summer,” explained Hancock. “My classmates were talking about where and how they would find positions. Here I was being offered a job right in my home town. I thought, this sounds like heaven!”

And heaven it was to Hancock. It became more than a job. “It was a wonderful place to work. Ron had the steady job; I had the jobs that were fun,” said Hancock.

During her 16 years at the Opera House, Hancock worked with different theatre producers and managers and a team of volunteers and staff members who helped keep theatre alive and well in Orillia.

Under Jackson Spear’s direction, Hancock said the Couchiching Music Theatre packed the hall all summer long.

“You couldn’t find a seat in the house. People love musicals and we did every musical you could think of,” said Hancock. “And once we started bus tours, groups would come in twice a week. We’d have these old dolls tottering off the bus, just the most wonderful thing you ever did see,” added Hancock.

Following Spear’s tenure, other managers and theatre producers kept the Opera House filled with audiences all year long, including the long-running Mariposa Arts Theatre (MAT) shows.

“If it hadn’t been for MAT, the Opera House could have been turned into a multi-level parking lot,” said Hancock. “Some time ago, in the early 1960s I believe, City Council actually considered this.”

The community-based theatre group led a protest with “Save the Opera House” placards, and, after a very close vote, Council did save the heritage building.

“When the Opera House turned 100 in 1995, we celebrated by wearing period costumes. I remember the elaborate hats, which the audience loved seeing.”

Besides dressing up to celebrate the building’s centenary, Hancock would regularly dress for the occasion, depending on what kind of show was being presented.

“If it was a western-themed show, I would get out my western garb and encourage all the staff and volunteers to wear cowboy hats,” explained Hancock. “People would tell me they loved coming to the Opera House just to see what I was wearing!”

Of all the shows presented over the years, Hancock says she remembers the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Cats,” as being the most popular.

“We had to extend the production by three weeks because we had to keep turning people away. It was a huge, huge show. Some of the performers were from the Toronto production and when the Toronto audience came to see the show, they fell in love with the small theatre. They went back and talked it up with their friends.”

As far as the most memorable moments, Hancock didn’t hesitate when she replied, “Gordie.”

“I met Gordie (Gordon Lightfoot) many times, but when he came up to do the fundraising show to support the hospital and the Opera House, it touched my heart,” said Hancock. “He had come home to help raise funds; it brings tears to my eyes.”

Hancock certainly has many fond memories of her role at the Opera House, even though the job had its challenges too. What she liked most about the position – being with people, was also what caused the occasional challenge.

“I was responsible for making sure the audience entered the hall only after the act was ready to go on stage. Until the act is ready, I couldn’t let clients in. I got a lot of flak about that from the occasional person.”

Hancock is happy that she is still able to get back to the Opera House to volunteer from time to time, which she often does with her husband Ron.

“After Ron retired, I quit my full-time job at the Opera House. We now spend much of our time travelling, but I still love to get back to help out,” said Hancock.

“It’s a beautiful venue and I’m so thankful that our City Council of today realizes its value – for tourism and for culture. We need that as a community and we need to make sure we maintain the building. Now we have a new ceiling, new seats, a new proscenium. It’s wonderful.”