Curtain falls on 30-year career

Arts & Entertainment Community Featured

Darlene MacDonald helped to raise the curtain on worldwide entertainment for Pictou County.

She is a virtual walking encyclopedia when it comes to who’s entertained at the deCoste Performing Arts Centre. And she should be. She spent 30 years as its general manager.

Recently retired, MacDonald has been witness to a lot of changes over the years she spent there, but some things remain the same.

“We were always a not-for-profit so we were always responsible for building our own operating line… One of the most important things we did was to create some annual fundraisers that gave us that reliability that we knew we could sustain (the deCoste),” MacDonald explains.

In addition to enabling the deCoste to bring in top quality entertainment, this fundraising made possible two major renovations to the building in the years that MacDonald was manager, as well as revamped sound and lights. She was project manager for the renovation that “gave us our amazing outdoor space and the Murray Room.”

Fundraisers like the annual travel draw that began more than 20 years ago and which has generated more than $1.5 million since then continue to be crucial to the centre’s success.

“There has always been community support. Our membership, our supporters and our community support – that is what’s kept the doors open, as well as the volunteers,” MacDonald says. “The place could not be in operation without our volunteers.”

MacDonald is quick to give credit to others for the centre’s growth over three decades, but no one has been any more instrumental in its success than she herself.

She started at the deCoste in 1988, just six years after the centre opened, after finishing a university degree in public relations and marketing. She held a variety of jobs before joining the deCoste, including in the public relations department at St. FX University, Nova Scotia Tourism, Canada Post and Empire Company to name a few.

“The deCoste was a better fit for me,” MacDonald nodded. She attributes this to several factors: “Because of the great variety; no two days were ever the same; it never felt like ‘work’; the opportunity to work with professional musicians, community groups, volunteers and be involved in the economic development of the Pictou waterfront and regional tourism,” she lists.

MacDonald praises co-workers who she refers to as the ‘DreamTeam’ — “Wayne MacGillivary, chair for 30 years, raised millions of dollars for the centre over his tenure; John Meir, program director for 30 years, brought the world to Pictou County and developed the professional reputation of the centre across Canada; and Nancy MacDonald, box office manager, who has also been with the deCoste for 30 years and has been unwavering in her dedication to its success.

“I also have had the great fortune to have the best summer students over the years. Some of them have since gone on to amazing achievements and careers – doctor, actor, MLA, business executives, architects, engineers, teachers, parents…”

MacDonald also lauds the deCoste’s sound pro, Allen Gunn, who has been at the facility for more than 25 years. “He brings a level of expertise not often found in small theatres. He has won a legion of fans amongst performers who have told me he gave them the best sound they ever had in concert.”

The deCoste, MacDonald says, is a ‘magical place’. “Everyone who has had the opportunity to experience the centre has, in some, way, felt its magic. I have had many magical moments over the years.”

She laughs at some of the memories she has: the little girl in the audience who didn’t want to leave after a performance by Mr. Dressup because, she told her mom – “Sesame Street is coming on next.” High school musicals that virtually transformed over six days of rehearsals and performances – “the rockier the start the better the final show.” Seeing hordes of ballerinas dance for their family and friends and “feeling the excitement emanating from backstage where they are waiting for their ‘star turn.’”

Lasting friendships are something else MacDonald treasures. She has shared in the success of many musicians who began their concert careers at the deCoste and who continue to return to the Pictou stage. “And the many who say ‘it feels like coming home’,” she smiles.

She has become lifelong friends with the Barra MacNeils, Dave Gunning, Natalie MacMaster, Kevin Evans and Brian Doherty, Bette MacDonald and Maynard Morrison, Ardyth & Jennifer, John Spyder Macdonald, The Putnams, Buddy MacDonald … and those who were great friends of the deCoste over the years like Fleur Mainville and John Allan Cameron and others.

In fact, MacDonald was honoured to help organize and host the tribute and memorial service for Fleur Mainville and work with Dave Gunning and John Meir to organize the tribute to John Allan Cameron, “and stage managing the show at the Rebecca Cohn —and having John Allan in the audience conducting everyone on stage in the singing of the finale.”

MacDonald sometimes stepped outside of the walls of the deCoste to manage other endeavours, for example, the Hector Festival. She was part of the Hector Festival for 25 years — a festival which was instrumental in inspiring the waterfront development for Pictou and the construction of the Hector Heritage Quay.

She laughs at this ‘shocking’ recollection: “Sitting in the lobby at the end of the Hector Festival with committee members and having a bolt of lightning go through the windows from one end of the lobby to the other right between where we were all sitting… made us realize it was probably time to go home!”

She also played a lead role in organizing four Tall Ships events for the community. “The committee that came together to make these events possible was unwavering in their support and commitment,” she praises. “We decided early on that rather than have numerous meetings to plan the event everyone would take on a task and complete it on time; this proved very successful and the economic impact generated from these events was a bonus for the local business community.”

The 2017 Tall Ships Pictou event recently won the DEANS Festival & Events Award in recognition of having the highest visitation for Tall Ships 2017 outside of Halifax.

In her retirement, MacDonald enjoys reflecting on many ‘magical’ events that will never be forgotten … “Watching the sunrise over Pictou Harbour after a ceilidh marathon that was started by the performers after the audience had left. The stage filled with musicians sharing their love of Celtic music and traditions and knowing that at eight o’clock that morning we would be invaded by hundreds of highland dancers ready to compete for the coveted Hector Medal. Or having Stuart MacLean of Vinyl Café fame come to ask me for my recipe for cheese pasta after we fed him and his crew before a performance. Hearing Lennie Gallant sing ‘Peter’s Dream’ on stage for the first time.”

Another time: “Having the auditorium in total blackness and watching the entrance of Men of the Deeps from the back of the room — the only illumination coming from the lights on their miner’s helmets and the only sound their voices singing a miner’s song.”

Or the time selling out four performances by George Canyon just after his triumph on Nashville Star.

“We had no box office at the time as we were in the middle of renovations — the box office was set up in the kitchen at the back of the building. The lineup started at 6 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. opening time… all four shows were sold out by 2:30 p.m. —and this was in the days before we had a computerized ticketing system — all tickets were purchased in person or by phone.”

A performance by Bette MacDonald during the Summertime Revue many years ago stands out. “Bette MacDonald appeared on stage as her alter-ego Mary Morrison. As Mary Morrison enters the ‘confessional’ an incredible clap of thunder shakes the building… Bette never lost a beat, crossed herself, looked heaven-ward and continued with her dialogue. The audience were in paroxysms of laughter!”

MacDonald may be gone from centre stage, but returned to the facility to direct PICTOU — Our Town, Our Story, this summer.