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Kits Showboat an enduring tradition

By Fiona Hughes

Although it's in a popular part of town, free to the public and has been operating since 1935, many Vancouverites don't know about the Kitsilano Showboat. You can't see it from the street and until last year, there was no sign to indicate its presence until you walked right up to the entrance, which is tucked behind trees and bushes and near a concession stand.

Located on the south side of Kitsilano Pool along Cornwall Avenue, the Kitsilano Showboat is an enduring summertime Vancouver tradition that may be one of a kind in North America. Playing an important role in its past and current history is Beatrice Leinbach, president of the non-profit Kitsilano Showboat Society. "Captain Bea," as she's known to the regulars, has been involved with Showboat since the mid-1940s. And she became one of the event's stalwart backers, as founder Bert Emery often called her at the last minute when the evening's program fell apart. "He'd call and say, "Bea, I know you have many friends with children who take dancing lessons. Can you get them to come out?'" recalls Leinbach. "We'd even ask for singers from the audience-anything to keep the show going."

That no longer happens. While there may be a couple of TBAs on the schedule, performances have gone on with few hitches. "It's good to have a few TBAs," surmises the grandmother of five. "People have to call to find out what's going on."

Emery, who died in 1977, started the Showboat as a community event to entertain residents and tourists and to encourage amateur talent. In 1935, unemployed entertainers were willing to display their talents whenever they could, whereas people eager for entertainment but unable to pay provided an appreciative audience. Then as now, the entertainment at the open-air amphitheatre remains free and runs at no cost to the taxpayer thanks to volunteers and local companies who donate prizes to give away at each performance. (Donations, however, are welcome and can be dropped into the strawberry jam cans that are passed around at the end of the show.) Bills are paid through the donations and from money earned at charity casinos.

Not only is Leinbach president of the society, she helps emcee the shows, programs the entertainment and handles the PR-all as a volunteer. (Her efforts haven't gone unnoticed. She's a recipient of the Canada Volunteer Award and in 1998 was honoured with the Order of Canada.)

A recent bout of pneumonia slowed her down a little and her kids pitched in to help kick off the 2001 summer season that started June 27 and runs until Aug. 17. But she's back and keen to promote the Showboat.

"To the best of my knowledge there is no other place like it," says Leinbach from the musty basement office in St. James Community Centre where she organizes the show. "Where can you go nowadays and sit up and look at a three-dimensional picture? You've got the Showboat, the entertainment, the mountains, activity on the water and the swimmers in the pool. This is one of the most beautiful spots in the world."

Running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (weather permitting), the Showboat has seen now-famous individuals make their debut on its stage. Among the best known are Rolf Harris, Barbara Perkins, Juliette, Judith Forst and Deborah Kara Unger. The late Chief Dan George was a regular. Even pop sensation Bobby Curtola appeared at the venue, sending teenage girls into a frenzy. To get away, Curtola had to slip into a lifeguard's t-shirt to disguise himself and lay flat in a row boat while lifeguards took him to the other side of the pool. That was when the stage was situated in the outdoor tidal pool long before it was renovated into the current heated pool.

Finding out whether the performances will go ahead on a rainy day doesn't require a phone call. One need only look to see if the Canadian, B.C. and Showboat flags are flying.

"Predicting the weather is still the hardest thing to do," says Leinbach. "We try to make a decision at 5 p.m. for the 7:30 start. You look at the clouds and mountains and ask is it going to rain or not. Sometimes we've cancelled only to see the sun come out and shine at 7:30."

Although attendance is down this summer due to the transit strike, Leinbach continues to get calls from regulars. Leinbach says one West Van couple looks across English Bay to see if the flags are flying before heading over to catch the show.

Although attendance has been consistent since 1935, Leinbach was initially reluctant to get involved with the Showboat back in the '40s thinking it was a little hokey and geared for seniors. She's obviously altered her opinion.

"The entertainment has improved so much over the years," she says. "I get calls from all the local bands who want to play. We have all different kinds of cultural performers and regulars that keep coming back like Klondike Kate... Once it opens, I'm down there-it's my summer holiday. I wouldn't miss it."

Upcoming Showboat performers include the Be Good Tanyas, Slowdrag, Amalia, Bela Domingo Polynesian Dancers and the Summer Pops Youth Orchestra. Call 734-7332 for more information.

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