Don Gillies remembered for work with Rotary Shows
By Greg McNeil
Cape Breton Post
June 23, 2007
SYDNEY - Without much fanfare or applause the curtain fell for a final time on the life of Don Gillies.
His quiet passing at the age of 80, June 13 in Sydney, was a sharp contrast to the roaring applause he earned as choreographer and director of the much beloved Rotary shows in Sydney.
Through these gala events, the Toronto-born dancer and artist made a lasting impression on the Cape Breton arts community, inspiring and influencing many local dancers and choreographers.
"Don was very eccentric and that is what you loved about him," recalled Susan Gallop a high school student and Rotary Show performer in 1965 and 1966.
"He did everything in a different way. He really was amazing."
Charlotte Street was often referred to as Sydney's mini-Broadway when the Rotary Club staged its annual musical at the Vogue Theatre. Shows were later moved to Sydney Academy.
Star studded VIPs were always in the audience from fields of entertainment, industry and politics at both locales.
On opening night CJCB radio would broadcast events with the late Ann Terry describing in great detail the excitement of festivities.
Gillis came on board in 1965 and quickly made his mark as choreographer for the Music Man. The following year he was director of the entire production of The Pajama Game.
He also worked on Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma and Anything Goes.
Gallop still remembers the excitement of Rotary shows, an excitement Gillies accentuated.
"Everything would light up. Everything would close down."
Beside choreography and directing, her friend also created and painted scenery.
"There wasn't anything on the stage he couldn't co-ordinate. He loved to paint. He was so artistically inclined, not just with dance but every aspect of the theatre."
Scott Boyd was 15 when he did his first Rotary Show. Like Gallop, he recalled how Gillies put his mark on every aspect of the show.
"He was very creative," said the dancing waiter in Hello Dolly.
"He would look at the overall feel of the whole show and the look of the show."
In Anything Goes, Gillies wanted something "hip" for 1973 so he came up with the idea of creating a curtain made of see through plastic cups.
"And he did it, he put it all together. I remember sitting down in the hotel room and we were talking about the look of the stage. I'd always wonder what Don Gillies was doing asking me these questions. Your opinion mattered to him."
His attention to detail made the shows world class, said Boyd.
"We could have gone anywhere and taken those shows and not been embarrassed. We'd go on the stage and with Hello Dolly I believe there were 150 people in that show. Some of the stage hands would be out for the big Hello Dolly number, Sr. Rita Clare would have the men singing in their four-part harmony and then the women singing their four-part harmony and putting it all together. The sound was a glorious noise that would lift the roof right off the theatre. It was just brilliant."
While his own creativity was evident, Gillies inspired others to find their form, as well.
"He could take somebody off the street and make them look good," said Gallop.
"When you knew you were a dancer he made you go. He made you work. He took me under his arm at the age of 15 and was such an influence in my life."
When Gallop graduated from high school he told her to train in as many places as possible.
"He inspired me to go to New York, to England and all over to get as much as I could get to bring it back to the kids," said the owner of the Cape Breton School of the Arts for 37 years.
"And I'm still doing it."
Gillies influenced Boyd, who spent many years on television before taking a job with the provincial Conservatives, in a similar way.
"If it wasn't for Don Gillies I don't know where I would have gone with my perseverance to stay in the business and do what I did. He was everything. He drove you. He inspired you."
Gillies spent the final 20 years of his life in Sydney.
Before his work with Rotary shows, he studied commercial art and dancing in Toronto.
He travelled to England to work in Carousel, High Button Shoes, a movie with Gene Kelly, and then worked on BBC TV.
He would return to Canada to tour with Sadlers Wells before becoming a television performer, leading the Don Gillies Trio to fame on CBC's Wayne & Shuster Hour in the 60s and 70s.
Work with Crest Theatre, Canadian Opera Festival, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, National Ballet and the Manitoba Theatre Centre also highlight his impressive resume.
"He could move," said Gallop of his dancing talents. "He had such a nice way of moving and it was great to watch him."
An amazing person has passed, said Boyd.
"He mattered. He knew what theatre was and knew performing and making people smile and being the best you could be was an important job. He knew that."