The Glenwood Hall serves its community

🕔May 28, 2007

It’s said that the nucleus of an urban community is its shopping mall.

Maybe, but I’d argue that the measure of the health of a rural area is its community hall. In fact, a hall doesn’t have to be a hall at all, for it is not so much a building as it is an institution, a community’s centre of gravity—with a roof. It could as well be the flame of a seal oil lamp in the centre of an Inuit igloo, or the fire under a thatched roof in the Amazon Basin. In short, a hall is simply a place where people meet under shelter.

We’re surrounded by halls. There are pool halls, dance halls, union halls, symphony halls, Carnegie Hall, Masonic Halls, Kingdom Halls, bingo halls, Halls of Fame, and the Halls of Montezuma. “Church,” a friend once observed, “is the place where we to go pray for a crop failure—after a night of sowing our wild oats at the hall.” Hall-elujah!

Back in the pre-“reality TV” days, when reality was more real than TV, the community hall was one’s tether to sanity, especially during winter. Today, in fact, halls are still places to escape the humdrum; places to go to hum and drum. Fantasy, novelty, spice, suggestion of spice, and news of the ’hood: community halls are venues for communicating, commiserating, rejoicing, gossiping, ranting, performing, mourning, entertaining and being entertained.

Northern traditions

Our hall happens to be in the great Canadian north, in the mountains, in a community where people live by choice rather than necessity. The building isn’t much to look at, and yet it’s the kind of place composers immortalize. “There is no hall like the Glenwood Hall on a Saturday night when it is wall to wall.” (Mark Perry, View from the Highroad)

I guess you could say it is both homey and homely. The style is universal to any setting across Canada, be it on the prairies or in the Maritimes: a single gable building, long and lean, with a porch at each end. The sign by the door, “Glenwood Hall,” tells of the union of energies of the folks from the Glentanna and Driftwood regions of the valley. The hall first opened its doors in 1951. By rough calculations: at 50 gatherings per year for 56 years, that’s 2,800 events—and still counting!

As you enter from the front—for a dance, say—you’re greeted by a blast of warm air, the light smell of wood smoke and the chaos of a cloakroom where gumboots and heavy coats are discarded in disarray, their owners wasting not a moment to get inside. There’s a table to the right for collecting admission and dispensing drink tickets. To the left is a pot-bellied stove surrounded by an iron railing and the drama of human courtship: slouching young men—James Deans or Brad Pitts, depending on your generation—crafting sullen nonchalance for the girls, who are too honest and amused by the attention not to beam like beauty queens.

Beyond is the bar, where a request for a Black Russian or Singapore Sling gets you a cold beer dripping wet from a bathtub of ice in the back, its label still floating in the tub.

Or you can get wine. “Do you have a perky Chardonnay, 1998 or earlier?”

“You can have red, and you can have white,” says the bartender, “and if you mix the two, you can have rosé.”

Hardwood floors and softwood walls—walls insulated with sawdust and memories: these are energy collectors, still vibrating from thousands of events. And if you press your ear to one, you might hear the range of human emotions from a performer’s Janis-Joplin-wail, to the wail of one who has lost a mate. These pine-surfaced walls are camouflaged one night like the steaming streets of the New Orleans French Quarter, and the following Friday become a plaza near the Acropolis in Athens.

The back entrance opens upon the kitchen, a delivery dock for incoming dishes prepared in kitchens around the valley, arriving musicians with their instruments and, of course, Santa. The kitchen is a hive of activity as a handful of women divide their time between re-warming homemade bread in the wood stove and laying out food, coffee urns and dishes in the main hall on tables sagging with the bounty.


But it’s the stage that’s the main attraction, lime-lighting a diversity of events: from wakes to weddings; Valentino’s Cabaret to the Vagina Monologues; the birth of a child or the birth of a century; celebrating life for the living or a life that has passed. The stage showcases with equal encouragement both talent and talent-in-training. It is the venue of preference for visiting performers like Daniel Lapp and Oliver Schroer, and a launch-pad for a long list of local talent.

At the hall, valley youth aren’t pushed onto the stage, they’re pulled by its gravity, by imitation, not intimidation. From those first tentative and wide-eyed words of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to the release years later of their first CD, the hall stage nurtures performing careers. Give a kid a stage, encouragement, and a hall to echo the applause, and that first two-finger piano recital will bloom into a sublimely polished Chopin sonata …or Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Johnny Be Good.”

I must admit: I too have fallen prey to the stage’s attraction. You see, in the closet of my aspirations, I’m a brow-sweating, clap-the-air and pound-the-pulpit gospel preacher….Say Hallelujah! And sure enough, the occasion arose when the hall called and I was asked to officiate a Gospel Music Festival.

“SINNERS! Come out of those dens of darkness and iniquity! Sing hallelujah!” And the choir did, and soon the hall’s frame walls were gasping for breath as the Spirit rattled the roof-rafters and flexed the floorboards. Alas, the hall never called again, though I did get to keep my tambourine.

Dance styles

The attraction of the hall is eclectic, pulling bushkins out of the woods and closet extroverts out of the woodwork. Take the annual Gumboot Stomp and “Socrates,” for example. He’s a philosopher king living with his artist queen on top of a mountain, surrounded by forests and books. Their lives are seemingly self-realized except for one annual craving (manifest in the dead of winter) that only the hall can satisfy. Socrates dances like a jack-hammer, stomping so hard that his knees come up around his ears from the recoil. Going full throttle, Socrates is a force to be reckoned with, his territory defined by the orbit of his partner and the length of her arms. Fortunately, when the dance is over Socrates retreats back into seclusion—his Buddha-like serenity coming not from meditation, but from gyration…at the hall.

The hall breeds familiarity, and I can pick out a Glenwoodee from across any crowded ballroom. We don’t all dance alike—in fact, just the opposite. On a given night you’ll find Guy Lambardo devotees polkaing to hard rock, and hard rockers rolling around on the floor doing street jive. For example, there is one hallite whose dance mimics the Golden Gate Bridge during an earthquake: a violent, tendon-tearing wave running through the girders, snapping like a whip, and you marvel that his head doesn’t detach.

In fact, there’s no shortage at the Glenwood Hall of eccentric dancers. Consider “The Clergy,” a long, lean, man whose rug-cutting pirouettes resemble an eagle in flight—a screaming eagle—swooping in and out, up and down.

“So, why do you dance so hard when half as many steps would suffice?” I asked The Clergy.

“It takes more energy not to dance than it does to do it,” he replied. “I figure I’m actually saving energy!”

Hall holiday

So many memories come to mind when I reflect upon events at the Glenwood Hall. But three stand out more vividly than most: the Christmas Party of ‘82, Mardi Gras, and the time we came of age.

It had been an arid fall, the grey landscape looking very un-Christmasy. Still, inside the hall the season was evident: the main room was laced together by a long chain of interlocking paper rings, looping along the walls above the red-bowed windows and pine-bough wreaths, and hanging low from the rafters like lazy interlocking sloths. The tree came from “moose meadows” on the nearby mountainside, and if the measure of Christmas is love, this spruce would dwarf New York’s Rockefeller Plaza tree. It was decorated completely with homemade ornaments, ranging from hand-painted Russian eggs hung on high branches (near the aluminum-foil star), to the lower-limb globs of baking dough painted red and sprinkled generously with pre-school sparkles. Ropes of popcorn garlands turbaned the tree, and on them hung small candy canes. In fact, the only stroke of commercialism was the electric lights—candles having a history of burning down halls.

Because of the dry fall, only when some late arrivals announced it was beginning to snow did anyone at the hall pageant believe that it might really be Christmas Eve, and not just on the calendar. Every kid rushed to the window. “It’s really snowing!” each echoed, just in case their parents hadn’t heard. (Of course, no one yet realized that the operative word was really!)

It was still snowing during the performance part of the pageant, but no one paid it much attention because there was far too much going on. The three little lambs wandered away from the “Silent Night” manger and started eating popcorn from the Christmas tree. Bethesna did her annual rendition of “Jingles Bells” on her saxophone, accompanied by her youngest son ringing a set of harness bells with great concentration…until he slipped on the popcorn and dough-ball ornaments spilled by the lambs, falling from grace—and the stage.

“Ho Ho Ho!” bellowed Santa, entering from outside in a suit first fashioned by the Women’s Institute many years ago. Everyone was so excited that no one noticed that Santa was dusted with snow.

“He’s here!” cried the children.

“Have you been good this year?” Santa asked rhetorically, drawing a resounding “YES!” from everyone. Settling into an overstuffed chair on the stage by the tree, surrounded by helpers, he reached into his bag of presents and began calling out names. Oh, will he remember me? Does he know I’m here? The younger children approached him with a mixture of magnetism and terror, their parents pushing them forward while wrestling with their camera’s focus to capture next year’s Christmas card snaps. Santa, of course, missed no one, including a couple of teenagers who were far too cool to open their presents in public. With platters of cookies, chocolate milk and black coffee, the floor was soon a festive mayhem of babies crawling amongst the Christmas wrapping and broken candy canes, and older children hypered out of control like over-wound wind-up toys.

The first family to leave soon returned: “We’re stuck in the parking lot!” With an instinct to help neighbours in distress (and seeking relief from the chaos), the adult males rushed for their parkas and boots. Even Santa started for the door.

“You can’t do that—you’re Santa!” the children protested.

“You’re right!” he conceded. “Maybe I will have another cookie until my reindeer return.” For two hours the children had Santa’s undivided attention, and he had the real spirit of Christmas tugging at his beard and ringing in his ears. Outside, we jacked, chained, pulled, pushed and shoveled until every stranded vehicle (including Santa’s 4×4 Ford sleigh) reached the edge of the parking lot. Fortunately the miracle of Christmas Eve came wrapped in the form of a snowplow blasting a single lane along the road leading home. Returning to the hall for a hot drink, we saved Santa from the children and, a little sorry it was over, Christmas-caroled our way home, the lights of the hall winking in the rearview mirror.

A community comes of age

The Glenwood Hall community, over time and shared histories, has evolved into what is best described as a tribe—a family without the DNA connections. Ours was a generation who had chosen to step back from the promise of progress, a tribe of half- to full-blooded Age-of-Aquareans; a bunch of hippies and country folk who grew old but never grew up—that is, until it came time to bury our own.

The first to go from the tribe was Beba. And while she still had the strength, we threw a party and she danced at least once with all who wanted. Next was Joe, master impresario for the hall and the valley’s music scene. And again we told stories and sang and played music, and promised to gather again the following year for another night of music in his memory—which we have ever since.

But the wake I remember most was Myron’s. He was a Pollyanna sunshine kind of guy with a camera around his neck at birth. He always smiled, made statements in the form of questions, and listened. Women loved him. Everyone loved him, and it showed in his portraits. The hall’s walls were covered with his work that night: major magazine covers, gallery prints, valley pictures, and lots of images of us, revealing our own evolution over time. Myron was an environmentalist who died in pursuit of his trade and passion: a bush-plane accident while photographing for a campaign to reform forestry practices.

I recall thinking, as I sat listening to the eulogies and studying Myron’s work on the walls, that a community hall is like a boathouse through which the waves of time and people’s lives come and go: celebrations of birth, celebrations of death. A protected place to keep your boat afloat. Partnerships, friendships, courtships, hardships…anchorage under shelter. And finally, when the wells of grief, of passion, of joy, or simply the boredom of cabin fever are drained, you set sail again from the hall a stronger person than when you arrived.