Catharine Brickenden

Grand Dame of the Grand – The Story of Catharine Brickenden

Outside of the very large cities, there is little left of the professional theatre, leaving only the thousand-foot reels of celluloid to unfold to us the dramatic genius of ancient and modern writers. And as one’s taste palls for canned food, so does a goodly section of the public long for a diet of fresh and living plays.

— Catharine Brickenden, 1936

Catharine Keziah McCormick Brickenden (1896–1993), known as “Kizzie” by her friends, was the granddaughter of wealthy biscuit maker Thomas McCormick. She had studied drama, literature and playwriting at the Emerson College in Boston.

Brickenden brought ambitious, almost unrealizable visions to the self-indulgent world of amateur theatre. But if her contributions weren’t always appreciated at the time, it’s clear that over fifty years she would almost single-handedly re-establish a London-based theatre community that is still flourishing today.

In 1922, Catharine Brickenden was instrumental in the formation of the London Drama League. This fledgling amateur theatre troupe produced mostly one-act plays in small halls, schools and church basements, the odd three-acter thrown in at the Patricia Theatre on Clarence Street, when it wasn’t screening Mary Pickford features. Within a decade, three more groups were on the scene, each presenting their own unique form of theatre.

In late 1934, Brickenden’s group, and the Half-Way House Players, The Meredith Players, as well as the Community Drama Guild joined together under the banner of London Little Theatre and began renting the Grand Theatre for $2,100 a year.

Taking a cue from Dublin, Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre, Brickenden realized it was important to provide a venue for Canadian plays. Brickenden had come across a work, 25 Cents, by Sarnia-based auto supply manager, W. Eric Harris, a one-acter about a Canadian family struggling through the Depression.

Despite lack of enthusiasm for an unknown script by a Canadian from most of the other members of LLT, Brickenden succeeded in having 25 Cents produced, sandwiched between two established one-act plays, on the Grand’s stage in January 1936. Brickenden directed the production herself.

To everyone’s surprise, 25 Cents was well received and was chosen as the group’s entry in the Western Ontario Drama League that March, where it copped a special award for playwriting. The play advanced to the national finals in Ottawa where the adjudicator, English playwright Harley Granville Barker, gave it the nod for top prize, The Bessborough Trophy. It was the first time a Canadian play had received such an honour.

The success of 25 Cents had a galvanizing effect on theatre in London. LLT would dominate the city’s theatrical scene for the next 35 years.

Although the great years of amateur theatre had ended by the 1960s, Brickenden remained an artistic presence in London. She was on hand when the Grand was awarded historical status and toured the theatre after its rebuild in 1978–79. In 2002 the Brickenden Awards were founded to promote excellence in independent theatre in London, Ontario. Brickenden’s daughter, Dorinda Greenway, presented the first award for best actress, just as her mother had done at many award ceremonies in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Adapted from an article published in The London Reader in February 2005, prepared by the late Christopher Doty, co-founder of the Brickenden Awards Committee.


Readings by Kipling, Shakespeare
and Barrie

First Methodist Church, 1920

Liberty Hall
by R. C. Carton
Women’s Press Club, 1921

The Second Lady Bantock
(a.k.a. Fanny and the Servant Problem)
by Jerome K. Jerome
London Drama League, 1921

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
by Frederick Lonsdale
London Drama League, 1932

by Rupert Brook
London Drama League, 1933

Half and Hour
by J. M. Barrie
London Drama League, 1933

St. Simeon Stylites
by F. Sladen-Smith
The London Community Drama Guild, 1935

Twenty Five Cents
by W. Eric Harris
London Drama League, 1936

The Mask and the Face
by C. B. Fernald
London Little Theatre, 1937

Nellie McNabb
by Louis Reynolds
London Little Theatre, 1939

Springtime for Henry
by Benn W. Levy
London Little Theatre, 1940

The Mad Hopes
by Romney Brent
London Little Theatre, 1941

Pig in A Poke
by Catharine Brickenden
London Little Theatre, 1950

Grand National Night
by Dorothy and Campbell Christie
London Little Theatre, 1950

At My Heart’s Core
by Robertson Davies
London Little Theatre, 1951

Dead Sea Apple
by Stephen Grey
London Little Theatre, 1953

The Torch-Bearers
by George Kelly
London Little Theatre, 1957

by Catherine Brickenden
Studio Club, 1957