NAC’s keeper of memories retires
Gerry Grace amassed thousands of performance keepsakes in his 32 years at the National Arts Centre, 20 of them as the NAC’s archivist, writes. TONY LOFARO
Gerry Grace remembers the night when a screen legend caused a stir on the stage of the National Arts Centre.
It was no less than Marlene Dietrich, shortly after the NAC opened in June 1969, says Grace, who retires this week as the NAC’s archivist.
“She stopped her show several times to admonish people who were taking photos of her during her performance,” he says in an interview in the archives — known as Graceland — deep in the bowels of the NAC. One treasured item in the archives is a signed telegram from Dietrich to David Haber, the NAC’s former director of programming. The telegram simply reads, “All my thanks, Marlene.”
Mr. Grace retires after 32 years at the NAC, 20 as the keeper of a vast collection of posters, photos, costumes and programs.
“It’s been a fantastic job,” he says, and one he worked his way up to after starting in the NAC mailroom. The archives are certainly full of celebrity moments. An autographed photo of Richard Nixon is dated April 14, 1972. The U.S. president was in the company of then prime minister Pierre Trudeau for a performance by the NAC Orchestra.
“There was quite a to-do that the president always had to be in touch with the White House and a direct link to Washington had to be set up at the insistence of the U.S. Secret Service,” Mr. Grace recalls. “We installed a special phone linkup in a room off the NAC Salon for the time Nixon was watching the performance. We had to rip it up afterwards; we still call it the ‘Nixon Room.’ ”
In January 1970, Mr. Trudeau came with his date, Barbra Streisand, which, needless to say, caught the attention of the audience gathered for a performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “She wore an eye-catching white fur hat,” Mr. Grace says.
Ms. Streisand’s surprise appearance overshadowed the presence of American choreographer Agnes DeMille, who was there to see the performance of her work Fall River Legend.
Other meetings were more tense, Mr. Grace says. New York producer Joseph Papp came to the NAC in 1975 and “really upset the apple cart.
“One of the first things he said was how much he disliked the building and how much he disliked huge performing arts complexes,” Mr. Grace says.
Hamilton Southam, the first director-general of the NAC, rose to the building’s defence and declared it one of Canada’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, Mr. Grace says.