Trying their ‘Best’: Behind the scenes at the Gordon Best Theatre

Three friends joined forces to breathe new energy into the downtown venue, persevering through a pandemic along the way

Danny Taro is something of a local Renaissance man. Born in Mississauga, Ontario, he came to Peterborough to study English and philosophy at Trent University, after which he worked as a teacher in Thailand. His return to Peterborough has put his hands in many pots: to name only a few, he is the business manager at Trent University’s student-run newspaper, Arthur; he runs PuzPuz Puzzles, his late father’s business; and he is the booking manager and promotions person for the Gordon Best Theatre.

Of course, Taro didn’t simply come to Peterborough for school, leave without a trace, and reappear out of nowhere. He was involved in the local arts scene as a performer with the Peterborough Poetry Slam Collective and under his rap persona, Erroneous Monk. It was during this time that he began organizing events in downtown Peterborough.

“I started booking shows at the Gordon Best Theatre. Shortly after that, Mick became my roommate at 215 [Hunter Street West]. And if you don’t know, the Only Café is 216, so literally just across the street,” he said with a laugh.

Mick Ackhurst was born in Toronto. He and his family moved here to Peterborough to open the Only Café, the sister location to the café in Toronto of the same name. His parents sold the location in Toronto to embrace the Peterborough business, where he has grown to be a fixture behind the bar at both the downstairs café and the upstairs theatre. He, Taro, and Brandon Root, the venue sound technician, form a team that makes live events happen under the eye of business owners Jerome and Charon Ackhurst.

“[Root]’s our sound tech and our emergency go-to guy; he can solve just about any problem. He’s absolutely wonderful. Danny Taro is a whiz on the computer. He is able to solve any problem that I have with a computer, which is a lot, because I’m technically challenged. And I’m the guy that just orders the beer,” Ackhurst said with a smile.

Root, born in New Westminster, British Columbia, grew up in the Northumberland area before moving to Peterborough. A musician in a number of local bands, he had played the Gordon Best before getting involved after the last sound technician retired.

Making space for music and events during difficult times

When the three close friends reflected on the past two years at the venue, it hasn’t been as they had imagined when they came together in 2019.

“There was a Black royalty-themed event for the Trent African Caribbean Student Union, and they had rented a whole bunch of tables and chairs for the banquet. So we got all the tables and chairs up the stairs, and then Trent [University] said all student activity must come to a stop because of the pandemic,” Taro recalled of the last event that was booked “before shit hit the fan, so to speak.”

From that point in mid-March 2020, the theatre was closed for events for the calendar year. In 2021, the stage hosted the local Borderless Festival, in a sense: the venue was available for artists to record their performances for the festival’s online streams on YouTube and Twitch.

The team has taken the downtime brought on by the pandemic to get into the nitty-gritty details of the space, doing a fresh coat of deep blue paint under the framed pictures and portraits that line the theatre’s walls.

“I watched Brandon so delicately clean our disco ball,” Ackhurst chuckled. “Brandon, with a little pink brush, dusted off every single panel.”

Brandon Root stands at the Gordon Best Theatre.
Brandon Root, sound technician, at the Gordon Best Theatre. (Photo: Leina Amatsuji-Berry)

The team managed one surprise show in early December 2021 before the Omicron wave shuttered indoor events once more, hosting local heavyweights garbageface, Crossdog, and Shahrazi.

“But the great part about the Gordon Best is that it sits on top of the Only Café, which has had more success than the [theatre] in terms of being open,” Taro explained. “It has a wonderful patio that everybody knows about. And of course, having a nice patio is part of the success of being open in a pandemic. So luckily, we have been able to ride off the survival of the Only Café and we remain open.”

Still, the language of survival and luck doesn’t feel dramatic as live event venues struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic. In Peterborough, the pandemic has played a role in the closure of two downtown venues, The Twisted Wheel and The Garnet. These closures left would-be patrons with fewer local watering holes and musicians with even fewer spaces to perform.

“I remember when I first moved here that there were like nine venues or something,” Root said. “Now there’s no Pig’s Ear. There’s no Spill [Coffee Bar]. There’s no Grassroots. There’s no Trasheteria. There’s no Blue Room. There’s no Garnet. And the venues that do exist all have their own barriers or caveats.”

“To grow as an artist, I think you do have to have a diverse music scene and diverse venues,” Taro agreed. “When I was in a band here in 2013, maybe, we could go on tour in Peterborough. I remember we’d go to The Spill, the Sapphire Room, and the Gordon Best – like, ‘Oh, wow, we played four shows in two weeks, and we didn’t leave downtown!’”

Taro sees it as part of his job to make booking the theatre as accessible as possible, from breaking down booking costs to taking risks on events that might not always turn a profit.

“There are so many beautiful communities in Peterborough and they all need space, whether it’s the drag scene, the EDM scene, the country music scene, or the hip hop scene,” he continued. “You walk in here and you don’t feel like, ‘Oh, this particular genre would be perfect for this room.’ It feels like a room that could really facilitate anything.”

“We want to make things happen again”

As musicians and performers begin to set up shows and tours again, the theatre is booking up Friday and Saturday evenings without a hitch. True to the vision of variety, the venue’s stage has hosted folk music, drag queens, and poetry during its first month reopened to the public.

“Before the pandemic we had talked about [the Gordon Best] being that place in Peterborough where a traveling musician feels comfortable going, and making sure you can’t skip Peterborough. If you’re playing Montreal, Kingston and Toronto, then why wouldn’t you just spend one night in Peterborough as well?” Taro said.

“We want to make things happen again,” he continued. “It’s of course just finding the right balance of ‘Is it going to be safe?’”

Ontario lifted its “vaccine passport” mandate on March 1, which allowed only individuals with proof of COVID-19 immunization to participate in activities without masks, such as dining indoors. On March 21, the provincial government lifted its mandatory mask mandate while permitting businesses to continue to request their patrons to wear them.

However, the team is still taking the risk of transmission seriously after some personal experiences during the pandemic. Following a March 2021 outbreak caused by a party near Fleming College, Root’s younger brother fell ill and died of COVID despite refusing to attend the gathering that caused the outbreak. Taro recently recovered from surgery following a diagnosis of testicular cancer, which left him immunocompromised for a period of time. With these encounters in mind, the Gordon Best will continue to operate at a lower capacity, asking for vaccine passports at non-seated events (like dance parties) and encouraging patrons to wear masks.

Mick Ackhurst sits on a barstool in the Gordon Best Theatre. His dog, Rudy, is on the floor to his right.
Mick Ackhurst, son of owners Jerome and Charon Ackhurst, with his dog Rudy at the Gordon Best Theatre. (Photo: Bryan Reid)

“I think we have a very good, positive, loving community that comes to this building in particular,” Ackhurst said, noting no significant issues with patrons have come up since the pandemic began. “Just be respectful.”

“In the time that I’ve been here, we rarely have to ask somebody to leave,” Root agreed.

“The proof of concept was in the Crossdog, garbageface, and Shahrazi show [in December]. All the bands wanted it to be COVID compliant, with people wearing masks. So it’s also about who you book and the audience you’re going to attract,” Taro also chimed in. “It’s worth it to work with the right people. And also stay home if you’re sick!”

“This is where I live and work,” Ackhurst continued. “The people that live and work downtown Peterborough that are involved with the arts, they are 100 percent trying to be as safe as possible, following all the guidelines from Peterborough Public Health. I think people should feel encouraged to go downtown and explore these small spaces with artists, publicans, restaurant owners – people that are encouraging the arts and being safe.”

Grab tickets and visit the Gordon Best Theatre, above the Only Café, for an upcoming event:

Benj Rowland Community Garden Album Release / Saturday April 9 / 7:30 p.m.

Decade Dayz: Queer Dance Party / Saturday April 16 / 9:30 p.m.

Evangeline Gentle & Guests / Saturday April 23 / 6:30 p.m.

Leina Amatsuji-Berry is a born-and-raised Peterborough community member. A Kenner Collegiate and Trent University alum, she was co-Editor-in-Chief of Arthur Newspaper for Volumes 53 and 54. She is also a member of the Peter Robinson College Student Association (PRCSA, Sadleir House) Board of Directors. Leina is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Communication and Culture at York University while (still) living in Peterborough.

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