The History Guy: Brighton Town Hall
The 50th anniversary of the Brighton tornado reminds us that the town we love can change quickly. The largest victim of the tornado, which roared through Brighton on July 13, 1973, was the Brighton Town Hall. It stood proudly on the east side of Memorial Park, from Main Street back to the new bandstand. Since 1885, it had served the community as municipal office, police station, fire station and meeting hall for everyone from scouts to the horticultural society. It was the centre of activity for many generations.
The best known and beloved part of the facility was the Opera House in the upstairs level. Back in the 1870s, the movers and shakers of Brighton took seriously the need to demonstrate Brighton’s prosperity and potential by building a substantial town hall. Yes, there was the mundane need for municipal meeting space, but the imagination of the community was rather more optimistic, hoping for an opera house just like the ones in other towns in the region.
The most popular entertainment of the time was delivered to small towns across Canada by travelling theatre troops which invaded a town for several days, filling the local hotel with strange new faces and clothing. Several times a day while they were in town, they wowed the locals with theatre productions of well-known plays presented with gusto and a good deal of improvisation. The halls were filled to bursting, the newspapers reported on the events with columns of comment and people talked about it for months – anticipating the next event on the calendar.
Charles Cheer was born in Brighton and took to acting very early in life. He joined one of the travelling troops as a young man and ended up marrying the daughter of the proprietor. There was special excitement in town when the name of a local boy was on the playbill, which were post all over town in the days leading up to the performances.
Much later, the opera house in the Brighton Town Hall would host another popular local artist, Neil Taft, who regularly had toes tapping and couples dancing on the smooth, purpose-built dance floor. Volleyball teams took advantage of the excellent floor and played weekly tournaments under the new and much better lighting installed in the hall. These features also supported the Brighton High School Commencement events, where everyone dressed to be seen and enjoyed one of their last social times together before moving on to the next part of their lives.
As a teenager in the late 1960s, the author attended concerts and dances in the old opera house, even though use of the building was being reduced for safety reasons. Council debated the fate of the structure: could they afford to fix it, or must it be torn down? We didn’t care. We just soaked in the music. But, on that Friday 13th, all discussion ended as the tornado made the decision: Goodbye Brighton Town Hall, it’s been fun!
Dan Buchanan is “The History Guy of Brighton, Ontario.” He is engaged in many projects related to local history and works closely with the Brighton Digital Archives, a volunteer group supported by the municipality that collects historical documents and pictures. www.vitacollections.ca/brightonarchives/search.