By Keith Lacey
Special to Osoyoos Today
Music, dance and arts lovers in the South Okanagan can smile as the Frank Venables Theatre enjoyed a “massive increase” in attendance and ticket sales in 2019.
The beautiful community theatre, located inside Oliver’s Southern Okanagan Secondary School (SOSS), saw ticket sales more than double in 2019 from the previous year, said Tom Szalay, the outgoing president of the Oliver Community Theatre Society.
The society operates the Venables Theatre in conjunction with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS).
During a presentation to Oliver Council Monday afternoon, Szalay, who was joined by society treasurer Gordon Hahn, current vice-president Ken Oldfield and theatre manager Leah Foreman, said close to 10,000 tickets were sold in 2019, compared to just over 4,700 in 2018.
The increase was due partly to more sold-out shows as well as students at SOSS and the Oliver Dance Studio using the theatre on a regular basis.
Both groups were extremely happy with the outcome and will be using the facility for many years to come, he said.
The theatre’s database shows there are now more than 3,100 customer ticket accounts, which is 1,100 more than last year. Just over 40 per cent of these account holders are from Oliver, just over 20 per cent from Osoyoos, 14 per cent from Penticton and 19 per cent from other visitors.
The theatre was in use for 165 days in 2019, which included 79 public performances as well as other private events, rehearsals and set up for shows. Close to 16,000 people attended these events.
The Frank Venables Theatre was rebuilt, as was SOSS, following a devastating fire in 2011.
The price tag to rebuild the theatre was $12 million, but those costs were reduced by $3.8 million in grant money after residents of Oliver and the surrounding rural area voted almost 80 per cent in favour in a referendum to pay the remaining $8.2 million over several years, said Mr. Szalay.
When the new theatre opened five years ago, it was no longer eligible for “core funding” from the provincial government and local taxpayers once again voted overwhelmingly in support of providing annual operational funding, he said.
Ms. Foreman, who was hired in April, said she continues to work closely with the society’s board of directors in order to fulfill the goals and projects of the society.
“We continue to grow in a very positive way,” Foreman told council.
Obtaining a liquor primary license a couple of years ago to sell alcohol before and during performances have been a success so far, she said.
Her goal is to continue booking a diverse selection of performers and continuing to draw large audiences, she said.
Oldfield the society is now “well funded, well equipped and well staffed” and the future for the Venables Theatre looks very bright. “The last year has been very successful.”
The only negative he could think of was the ongoing problem of staining of the carpeting inside the theatre due to winter weather, he said.
A plan is in place to spend $35,000 to replace the carpeting and the society has already put $10,000 into a new capital reserve fund to pay for this and future capital upgrades, he said.
Mayor Martin Johansen commended the board directors for a job well done before inquiring if there will be a reduction in the amount of public financing of the theatre as it continues to grow and prosper.
Mr. Szalay said the goal of the society has been to keep their annual ask to council — in the range of $110,000 annually — roughly the same each year over the past five years and that goal has been accomplished, he said.
Community theatres like the Venables Theatre should be looked at, and funded, in the same vein as community arenas and pools, which traditionally don’t make money, but add incredible value to the quality of life of local residents.
Local residents pay roughly 10 cents per $100,000 of property assessment values, which is far lower than most communities of a similar size with community theatres and roughly half the amount approved during the funding referendum, he said.
Coun. David Mattes said he’s glad the theatre continues to succeed, but he would like the society’s board to draw up a list of capital projects that may need funding in future years that can hopefully be largely paid for through the use of reserve funds.
The remainder of 2019 and beginning of the new year looks exciting as there are four bookings in September alone and the society’s presentations for this coming season have been expanded to 10 shows, said Foreman.
Mayor Johansen warned booking too many shows in a small town like Oliver could lead to over saturation on the market and a decrease in profits as the costs to bring in shows exceeds ticket sales, which is what happened at the Kelowna Community Theatre, he said.