Historical play recalls Pontypool’s past

Historic 1940's photo of Pontypool train station

Pontypool train station circa the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Grant Curtis.

Most locals know you take Hwy. 35 to get to Pontypool. But few are aware that, early in the last century, making the journey to that small village was a summer tradition for Jews from Toronto eager to find relief from the sweltering heat of the city. And it was not always so easy. The little-known story, of how Pontypool became a summer resort destination for Toronto’s Jewish community for close to 50 years, is being brought to life by the 4th Line Theatre’s production of The Right Road to Pontypool.

The play, written by Alex Poch-Goldin and directed by Kim Blackwell, was commissioned by the Millbrook theatre company as part of its mandate to develop and present original, regionally based, historical dramas. The Right Road to Pontypool, which opens Thursday, follows the history from the first resort started in 1916 by a local Jewish farmer named Moishe Yukle Bernstein.

Bernstein’s granddaughter, Doris Manetta, was born and raised in Pontypool and has contributed much to preserving the history of these resorts. Speaking by phone from her Toronto home recently, she said there already was a Jewish community in the area when her grandfather settled in Pontypool early in the 20th Century.

According to Manetta, Bernstein originally bought 200 acres that he farmed, right in the present-day centre of Pontypool next to the large pond or “lake.” Using the farm quota, he began to bring Jews in from Europe as farm labourers. Many of these Jews were from Eastern Europe, and had largely worked in the garment industry as tailors and cutters. They moved on to the Kensington Market neighbourhood of Toronto, helping to establish the garment district that flourished there.

At that time, most of the Toronto beaches were posted with signs that read, “No Jews Allowed.”  Desperate to escape the heat and smog of the city, some of the younger Jews remembered Bernstein and his “lake” in Pontypool, said Manetta.

“It just started very innocently with these ‘farm labourers’ asking, ‘Can we come out?’” she said. “It was mostly the younger ones at first; they didn’t care if they had to sleep in the barn loft. They just wanted to get out of the city.”

“They would just say they were going to Bernstein’s. I think they even slept in the summer kitchen until my grandfather quickly caught on. They had to be fed, so my grandmother cooked for them. He built little cottages for them. It was primitive by our standards, but it really was a resort. They provided full meals; the beds were made and clean linen provided.”

Word soon spread through the Jewish community in Toronto. Bernstein bought an additional 150-acre property adjacent to his, and gave it to his daughter when she married. This became Manetta’s Summer Resort. Other Jewish families, including Bernstein’s in-laws the Crystals, began opening resorts and building cottages of their own.

After Moishe Yukle died in 1937, his son built more cottages, which he rented out as stand-alone cottages rather than as part of the resort. Future celebrities like actor Howie Mandel, and Dr. Bernstein of the Bernstein Diet Clinic, summered at the resorts as children. Later to gain fame as Johnny Wayne of the comedy duo Wayne & Shuster, Louis Weingarten (as he was then known) provided entertainment at one of the resorts.

At its peak, Pontypool had a population of over 2,000 in the summer, with about 500 of those staying at the resorts, and the rest made up of cottagers and year-round residents. Train service came twice a day from Toronto, according to Manetta, with a third stop at midnight if there were three or more people to drop off or pick up. “That track is still there,” she said. “That main track from Toronto to Peterborough still runs through Pontypool.”

Besides the Bernsteins and the Manettas, a few other Jewish families, like the Crystals and the Whites, lived in Pontypool year round. “In some of the old school photos, you can see by the names that there was a bunch of Jewish kids,” said Manetta. “But that petered out by the late 1930s. Almost all had moved out to the city. You lose that bigger Jewish community, but they didn’t give up the resort properties.”

While the area was predominantly settled by British Protestants, the population changed during the summer months, even after the resorts’ heyday, recalled Manetta. “It was Orange-Irish country. The 12th of July was the big Orange parade; and in winter, school always knocked off early for the Christmas play. But it was Jewish in the summer.”

While Manetta has been instrumental in the development of The Right Road to Pontypool, she credits Pontypool native Grant Curtis with first unearthing the long-forgotten history of the Jewish resorts. Curtis wrote a book about the history of Pontypool called Laugh and the World Laughs with You in Pontypool. While researching his book, he first contacted Manetta, a retired school teacher who moved to Toronto after graduating from university, to ask her about the Jewish community.

“Grant’s grandfather used to talk about his Jewish friends,” said Manetta. “So, Grant started researching, and interviewing people in the village. He decided to write a book about Pontypool’s history, with one whole chapter reserved for the Jewish community.”

To familiarize himself with the historical details, playwright Poch-Goldin would later listen to many of the tape recordings Curtis made of his interviews. Poch-Goldin was born and raised in Montreal, before moving to Toronto. He said he had never heard of the Pontypool resorts until he was approached for the project by Blackwell and the 4th Line Theatre. “The Jewish community in Montreal vacationed in the Laurentians. Pontypool was known strictly to Toronto Jews,” he said.

His own family came to Canada from Odessa, then part of Russia, between 1915 and 1920, he said, and so discovering an untold story about Eastern European Jews touched him, “I felt this story was my story and that I had a responsibility to tell it.”

According to Manetta, the Manvers Township Historical Society held a re-union in 2005 to find descendents of Pontypool’s Jewish community, and attracted about 700 people. “When the 4th Line Theatre people got wind of this, they decided that a play should be written,” she said. “It sort of became Kim Blackwell’s baby. She picked Alex to write it. He’s a top-notch playwright with a Jewish background, so I guess she thought he could do justice to this story.”

44-year-old Poch-Goldin made his start with a solid background in film, television and stage acting, before branching out into playwriting over the past decade. His play This Hotel was nominated for a Dora Awards for Best New Play; Yahrzeit won the 2002 Toronto Jewish Playwrighting Award and has toured Germany twice; Cringeworthy also received several Dora nominations; Jim and Shorty was filmed for Bravo Television; and his radio play The Death of Simon Pinchuk was produced by CBC Radio for national broadcast.

Poch-Goldin said he first met Manetta in 2006, “She was a great source of information, and then eventually, I made her a character in my play.” The character of Doris is one of two narrators in the play, both of whom are based on real people. The play spans from 1905 to 2005, following the rise and fall of the town as it relates to the characters, and as world events touch the community.

For those who are interested in the history of Pontypool, including the Jewish resorts, Grant Curtis’s book is still available. Contact Grant  direct via his email at cnwg2001@yahoo.ca .  The book costs $25. plus postage. He says there are only a few copies left…

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9 thoughts on “Historical play recalls Pontypool’s past

  1. Also on this blog, see: “Take the right road to an enjoyable theatre experience” posted under “theatre” in Arts & Entertainment category, re: Pontypool, Jewish community in Pontypool, Alex Poch-Goldin, Doris Manetta.

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  2. A wonderful play and so interesting and so well done.!!
    It was the high lite of my summer.!1 loved it and made me so interested to find out more about the history of Pontypool
    The play was wonderful..well done and all the actors were great in their parts.
    I hope this play will come to Toronto as many would love to see it as they missed it in the summer.
    Why dont you put it on in a theater here in Toronto?/
    PLEASE!!
    Brenda Baskind

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    • Hi Brenda

      There are rumors of a Toronto theatre adaptation of the The Right Road to Pontypool. Not sure if you’ve heard but the play is being brought back by 4th Line Theatre this August. Renown Dora Award winning actor Richard Greenblatt will play ‘Old Harry’ opposite Ellen-Ray Hennessy’s ‘Old Doris’. Also, 4th Line Artistic Director Robert Winslow has taken the role of ‘Zev’.

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  3. Here’s a 4th Line Theatre update on its 2010 season: “The wildly successful The Right Road to Pontypool returns to the Winslow farm for another season. Not only was last season’s production sold out, but it attracted theatre-goers from across Ontario and, perhaps not surprisingly, many people who spent their summers in Pontypool. Director Kim Blackwell calls this production ‘my reunion play, almost every night we had someone in the audience, often groups or whole families, which had some connection to the Pontypool resorts. It was heart warming to see people re-connect at our performances.’ The Right Road to Pontypool will run Monday to Saturday with previews August 2 and 3rd until August 28, 2010.”

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  4. I was there at the MTHS event in 2005. My cousin Grant Curtis (with whom I was staying at the time) volunteered me to make film footage of the event. I walked around Pontypool with a Handycam talking to some of the people mentioned in Grant’s book. One quite amazing moment was taking one wonderful old gent to see the Orange Hall. He used to perform on stage during his summer breaks there.

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  5. It’s great that you have a record of that event, Shaun. Does the MTHS have a copy of it, or do you have any plans to do something more with it?

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  6. I was thrilled to see you are bringing back the play…Road to Ponypool!! I raved about the play and am encouraging my friends to see it.
    One friend remembers coming there for 10 years of her young life. She recalls them as the best memories and days of her life. She is now in her 50s.
    Your cast and the production was wonderful. Maybe I will come back to see it again!!
    Well done and good luck.
    Brenda

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  7. Hi,
    Did you ever bring this wonderful play to Toronto?? I know the public here would love it. It could be done at one of the small theatres downtown or at the Play house up north. Please bring it back…it was so wonderful!!
    Brenda Baskind

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