KEEP­ING IT ALL IN THE FAM­ILY

After shoot­ing to fame in the 1980s, The Walters Fam­ily band plays on with a din­ner the­atre on their ru­ral prop­erty

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY JOANNE SHUT­TLE­WORTH

After shoot­ing to fame in the 1980s, The Walters Fam­ily band plays on with a din­ner the­atre on their ru­ral prop­erty

The story of the Walters fam­ily is a lit­tle bit coun­try, a lit­tle bit rock ’n’ roll, a lit­tle bit folksy with a healthy dose of gump­tion. It’s the story of three sib­lings with in­nate mu­si­cal tal­ent who formed an act and took it across the coun­try, even­tu­ally drag­ging their par­ents onto the stage with them. And it’s the story of a fam­ily that has taken their 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence on the stage and opened their own stage – a sum­mer din­ner the­atre that at­tracts mu­si­cal acts from across Canada and the United States.

As they cosy around the kitchen is­land for an in­ter­view in their 200-year-old farm­house near Bright, Ont., it’s clear this fam­ily has worked so long and so well to­gether they prac­ti­cally com­plete each other’s sen­tences.

Dar­ren, Kim­berly and Bradley Walters were in­tro­duced to mu­si­cal in­stru­ments at a young age thanks to their grandfather,

Ge­orge Mathe­son. The three chil­dren took to mu­sic nat­u­rally and be­fore long they were calling them­selves the Walters Fam­ily Trio and per­form­ing at lo­cal fairs and con­cert halls.

They were just four, seven and 10 re­spec­tively when they started, and they were adorable. Coun­try and gospel was their spe­cialty and they be­gan to make a name for them­selves.

“Even­tu­ally we got big­ger book­ings and we needed a drum and a bass player. Since mom and dad were driv­ing us to the gigs any­way, we fig­ured they should join the band,” Kim­berly says. “So Dar­ren taught mom and dad to play, and we be­came The Walters Fam­ily.”

Mom – that’s Shirley – learned to play bass, and dad – Garry – played the drums. They too picked it up quickly and The Walters Fam­ily started tour­ing.

Their lo­cal fame earned them a 26-week TV show in the 1980s – “The Walters Fam­ily Live,” recorded in the CKCO stu­dio in Kitch­ener.

Their first big tour was in 1986 when they trav­elled across Canada to per­form at Expo ’86 in Van­cou­ver.

“We were stay­ing in a condo in Van­cou­ver and the TV was on, and sud­denly we saw our­selves on TV. They were air­ing our show out there. For us it was the coolest thing,” Kim­berly re­calls.

The fam­ily had an on­stage chem­istry and reper­toire that was on the mark. They worked hard. Their au­di­ences loved them.

“We toured all over the world and it was fan­tas­tic. But it was also re­ally hard. We were on the road so much that after a while we missed our home base. So we de­cided to open a the­atre here in­stead,” Kim­berly said.

They trans­formed the 200-year-old barn on their 150-acre prop­erty into a stage and din­ner the­atre, maintaining the rough-hewn beams but adding el­e­gance with fancy chan­de­liers and din­ing ta­bles. Walters The­atre opened in 2000.

The sound and light­ing sys­tems are sta­teof-the-art. The meals are catered by Quehl’s Res­tau­rant and Cater­ing in Tav­i­s­tock. And the grounds are beau­ti­ful, with walk­ing trails, hang­ing bas­kets, a pond, lush green­ery and benches to sit and take it all in.

“The barn has great acous­tics – there’s a re­ally great sound,” Shirley says. “What’s re­ally unique though is how in­ti­mate it is. Even the fur­thest seat from the stage is still close.”

They knew Cana­di­ans were trav­el­ling to Bran­son, Mis­souri, for unique the­atre ex­pe­ri­ences and used that as their model.

“We wanted to do up here what they were do­ing down there,” Dar­ren says. “So we get artists who don’t oth­er­wise play in this area. It’s con­stant work to find new shows and good shows and shows that will fit in our-sized the­atre. But now when we call peo­ple up, they’ve heard of us. And our au­di­ences come back year after year.”

Cape Bre­ton singer Rita MacNeil graced their stage in the years be­fore she died in

2013. Larry Gatlin of the Grand Ole Oprey also made the trek to the Walters The­atre. Car­roll Baker, dubbed Canada’s First Lady of Coun­try Mu­sic, is sched­uled to do five per­for­mances this sum­mer.

“You can see the new ones get nervous when they come down the drive and see this farm­house and barn. They must won­der what they got them­selves into,” Dar­ren says, chuck­ling. “But we get to know our artists. We wel­come them into the house. They get com­fort­able and they want to come back. It’s pretty great when they do.”

Much to the fam­ily’s de­light, au­di­ences keep com­ing back too.

“Some peo­ple come for ev­ery act we have. A lot will bring visi­tors if they have them. And some will come for one show, love it, and come back for the rest of the sea­son. It snow­balls and that’s what we like,” Dar­ren said.

“We don’t have a huge ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get so word of mouth re­ally mat­ters.”

Judi Meadows is a neigh­bour of the the­atre, a pa­tron, a vol­un­teer – so she can see more shows – and is ar­guably The Walters Fam­ily’s big­gest fan.

She says she and her hus­band used to go to Strat­ford for the­atre but found the dis­tance and ex­pense a bit daunt­ing.

“We wanted to find some­thing more lo­cal, so when I heard that a per­former I like was com­ing to the Walters The­atre, we de­cided to try it out. Well, once gone, once bit­ten,” Meadows says with a laugh. “We’ve been see­ing shows there for 10 years.”

Meadows says it’s not just the cal­i­bre of en­ter­tain­ment or qual­ity of meal that keeps her com­ing back, but the in­ti­macy of the en­tire event. You re­ally feel the show is just for you, she says.

“There’s not a bad seat in the house and the per­form­ers are all avail­able to talk after the show. Where else can you do that?” Meadows asks.

“I live so close. Why didn’t I go sooner? It’s crazy that we don’t know what’s in our own back­yard.”

Al­though Garry Walters and Ge­orge Mathe­son have both passed away, their pres­ence is still felt by the fam­ily and that mo­ti­vates them to bring new and in­ter­est­ing shows to their the­atre.

“We al­ways wanted to stay in the mu­sic in­dus­try,” Kim­berly says. “This is a way to stay and sus­tain all of us. And we have so many ideas to evolve things here.”

“We just dis­cov­ered we’re not nor­mal,” Shirley jokes. “Ap­par­ently not all fam­i­lies are like ours.”

The­atre sea­son is June to Oc­to­ber but it takes the whole year to book the acts and deal with pro­mo­tion, ticket sales and the other de­tails. In­deed, some of the acts are book­ing two years ahead.

But win­ter is also when the fam­ily can squeeze in some of their sep­a­rate, per­sonal in­ter­ests. Brad, for ex­am­ple, runs a travel busi­ness, Bradley Walters Jour­neys, and is often out of the coun­try on cruises and guid­ing tours. He was in Costa Rica the day the fam­ily was in­ter­viewed for this story.

Dar­ren has a record­ing stu­dio at the back of the farm­house where per­form­ers can book record­ing time. He also pro­duces other shows, “so I’m on the road a lot,” he says. Dar­ren is also a Cana­dian fid­dle cham­pion and oc­ca­sion­ally plays with other groups, al­though not as much as in the past.

The youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily band is Kim­berly’s son, Schyler Lam­bert. The 15-year-old plays vi­o­lin, gui­tar, pi­ano and sings. As a mem­ber of the fam­ily, he also pulls his weight with other as­pects of run­ning the the­atre.

And he has ap­peared with his mother on a YTV re­al­ity show called “Driv­ing Me Crazy,” in which Kim­berly taught him to drive.

“I love ev­ery­thing in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness,” Schyler says. “And I have the op­por­tu­nity to see how to do ev­ery­thing. It’s what I know and it’s what I love.”

“We’re cu­ri­ous to see the path he takes,” his mother says. “It’s up to him though, as it was for us.”

The 2017 the­atre sea­son was 75 per cent sold by Jan­uary, which is a solid po­si­tion for an in­de­pen­dent the­atre. The Walters Fam­ily was to open the sea­son in June with its own brand of mu­sic and en­ter­tain­ment. They will also do a gospel show in Septem­ber.

Among the other acts this sea­son: The Toronto All-Star Big Band and tribute con­certs to Elvis Pres­ley, Abba, Patsy Cline, Don Messer, Michael Bublé and bands from the 1950s and 1960s.

The the­atre usu­ally runs mati­nees dur­ing the week and evening shows on week­ends, al­though the sched­ule changes de­pend­ing on the per­former. The the­atre seats 160 peo­ple at ta­bles of eight, so it’s en­tirely likely you’ll be seated with peo­ple you don’t know, adding to the com­mu­nal feel of the place.

It’s a tough busi­ness and ev­ery sea­son is a gam­ble. Dar­ren noted most the­atres are either city-owned or not-for-profit, “so we have to look at ev­ery dol­lar to make this work. We can’t af­ford to have a bad show.”

For more in­for­ma­tion about Walters The­atre, visit wal­ter­sthe­atre.com.

Lo­cal fame led to ‘The Walters Fam­ily Live,’ a 1980s TV show recorded at CKCO in Kitch­ener

Walters Fam­ily band mem­bers Kim­berly and her brother, Dar­ren, flank mom, Shirley. Kim­berly’s son, Schyler, left, has been added to the lineup, and her brother, Bradley, is also still in the band.

Walters Fam­ily Pro­duc­tions

TOP: Things took off after mom, Shirley, and dad, Garry, joined the band. MID­DLE: The orig­i­nal Walters Fam­ily Trio: Dar­ren, Kim­berly and Bradley. BOT­TOM: On­stage at the Walters The­atre.

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