In summer, GBS fans head for Niagara on the Lake

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It is highly unlikely that the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw ever heard of the small and quaint Ontario town of Niagara on the Lake. Yet Shaw might well have been offering instruction to the town's current inhabitants and summer visitors when he wrote, with characteristic tongue-in-cheek and unabashed overstatement, the following:

"When once you get accustomed to my habit of mind, which I was born with and cannot help, you will not find me such bad company.But please do not think you can take in the work of my long lifetime at one reading. You must make it your practice to read all of my works at least twice over every year for 10 years or so."

During the summer of each year, devotees of theater and literature gather here to delight in, study, and celebrate Shaw's profound philosophizing and elegant wit. The Shaw Festival, as this celebration is known, is dedicated to production of plays by Shaw, about Shaw, and by the best of Shaw's contemporaries -- and, because Shaw's productive lifetime spanned the years 1856 to 1950, that includes quite a few great playwrights.

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The festival began in 1962 as an amateur project, "Salute to Shaw," presenting eight performances of two Shaw plays by 10 unpaid actors. The first season was organized in the 115-year-old courthouse by Brian Dougherty. In 1963 , the festival was incorporated and the ensuing years of constant artistic and economic growth have culminated in the festival's current place as one of Canada's leading cultural institutions, with its highly acclaimed summer production season and regularly scheduled events throughout the year.

Since 1962, the festival has presented 50 productions of Shaw plays, with favorites such as "Pygmalion," "Heartbreak House," "Candida," and "Arms and the Man" produced more than one time. The festival still occupies the 400-seat Courthouse Theatre. In addition, a new 830-seat Festival Theatre, opened in 1973, has become the festival's year-round cultural center. The 1981 season will also use the recently acquired Royal George Theatre, an intimate auditorium with an attractive white and gold Georgian facade.

Paxton Whitehead, for many years the festival's artistic director, has reputedly acted in more Shaw plays than any other actor of his generations. The festival's ensemble has included such stars as Carole Shelley, Kate Reid, Zoe Caldwell, Barry Morse, and Stanley Holloway -- to mention but a few. Christopher Newton, the current artistic director, is committed to the festival's continued artistic excellence. For information on the 1981 production season presenting Shaw's "St. Joan," "Man of Destiny," and "In Good King Charles' golden Days," among other plays or for reservations, write to: The Shaw Festival, Box 774, Niagara on the Lake, Ontario LOS 1J0, Canada, or telephone (416) 468-3201. For information on the Shaw Festival Educational Seminars, write to: Shaw Festival/York University Seminar, Center for Continuing Education, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Downsview, Ontario M3J 2R6 Canada , or telephone (416) 667-2502.

The Shaw Festival is certainly Niagara on the Lake's pride and joy -- And its most famous feature. But this 19th-century town has a great many other attractions for tourists. With its refreshingly tranquil atmosphere, it is often described as the most charming town in Ontorio. Neatly symmetrical late Georgian houses and trim lawns reside peacefully behind white picket fences.There are lovely antique shops, noted for fine furniture and collectible curios. Handicraft shops have attractive displays of local wares --letherwork, woodwork, and needlework are outstanding among these. The Doll Shop at 23 Queen Street (enter through Warren Heating & Plumbing), with its surprising variety of handmade poppins, is a special treat.

The best accommodations in town are at the several old-fashioned inns. The largest of these is the Pillar and Post, converted to a hostelry from the town's old cannery and recently expanded with 60 additional air-conditioned rooms, many of which also have working fireplaces. All decoration is in the colonial style, with all furniture crafted at the inn. The inn's high-ceilinged dining room serves exceptional luncheons and dinners. Reservations are recommended both for accommodation and meals. Address inquiries to the Pillar and Post, 48 John Street, Niagara on the Lake. Telephone (416) 468-2123.

The Pillar and Post also rents bicycles -- a convenient means of transportation with which to follow a wall, tour through town, or both. Such tours of manageable duration are detailed and mapped in publications available able at tourist information centers. About 40 points of particular interest are covered, including old homes, historical sites, churches, and public buildings. These tours allow you to feel that you've really seen the town without exhausting yourself by the time you're through.

Niagara on the Lake's parks and unspoiled Lake Ontario waterfront provide a marvelous opportunity for leisurely meandering through nature. A nice idea is to visit Simcoe Park or Queen's Royal Park (overlooking the lake) with a picnic lunch or dinner. Kerry's Kitchen supplies a delightful and wholesome assortment of picnic baskets. A sample menu might include cold pate, chicken, freshly baked bread, cherry tomatoes or marinated vegetables, fruit and cookies, and refreshing lemonade. Prices are reasonable; a day's notice is required for large parties. Telephone (416) 468-3443.

Niagara on the Lake is stop the destination list for history buffs, especially in 1981, during which the town celebrates its bicentennial. This fertile region on the banks of the Niagara River had been peacefully inhabited by Iroquois Indians when five Loyalist colonial families fled the skirmishes of the American Revolution and settled, in 1780, at Fordt Niagara. In 1784, a treaty between the British Crown and the Iroquois Nation provided land on both sides of Lake Niagara for settlement by Loyalist refugees, many of whom had been members oof Butler's Rangers or other pro-British forces in the War of Independence. Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. John Greaves Simcoe (for whom Simcoe Park is named), the village, then named Newark, became capital of Upper Canada. And so it remained until just before the War of 1812, when the seat of government was removed farther from the border, to York (toronto).

During the War of 1812, Newark was captured and burned to the ground by American troops. The town was rebuilt and, under the new name of Niagara, became a local center for trade and scenic touring. Both commerce and early tourism received a tremendous boost in 1854 (two years before Shaw's birth) with the arrival of the Niagara, a noisy steam locomotive -- the first in the area -- which connected the town with Toronto, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls. Elegant waterfront inns, with wide verandas and many gabled homes --constructed to house visitors to the scenic area. In 1900, the town was renamed Niagara on the Lake, a more poetic appellation which also aided the postal delivery service in distinguishing this destination from nearby. Niagara Falls. Since 1937, the town has been actively involved in restoring and preserving its landmark buildings and treasured traditional atmosphere.

The Niagara Historical Society Museum is the best of several historical museums in the area. The museum, in the old Memorial Hall and school building at 43 Castlereagh Street, houses artifacts, documents, and historical curiosities on permanent exhibition. The society, founded in 1895, sponsors annual special events; the Simcoe ball and a tour of old houses are examples.

Niagara on the Lake is on the Canadian-US border and is easily reached from the nearby cities of Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y. Public and special tour buses are regularly scheduled from both cities; or the trip from Toronto can be made by cruise boat (2 1/2 hours) or hydrofoil (one-hour) across Lake Ontorio. This is a wonderful voyage at very reasonable cost (the hydrofoil costs about $40, round trip; regular boat cruises cost around $14 round trip).

Additional and more detailed information may be obtained from the Ontario Ministry of Industry and Tourism, 900 Bay Street, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario M7A 2E5, Canada. All prices above are quoted in Canadian dollars, which means there a savings of about 15 percent with conversion from US currency.

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