When people hear the word star, they generally think of a white constellation in the sky or an actor in a movie or play. But there is another definition: a glowing, twinkling light that shines on and on with a steady flow of energy at its centre.
And that’s a good description of Mike Butler.
“He’s a modest, behind-the-scenes type of guy,” says Art Collins. “Mike’s been active in the local theatre community for over 50 years. And his spark and drive is still strong. He just never stops.”
Friends and family gathered recently at the Best Western Westerly Hotel to celebrate Butler’s 80th birthday and a lifetime commitment to the performing arts.
The list of achievements is impressive. Butler helped organize the popular productions called Scattered Skits and pitched in to build a stage at the old CRA Hall where many of the performances took place. Specializing in lighting and backstage work, he’s worked with Beryl Regier during performances at Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan and later Co-Val Choristers in the Comox Valley, and has been with the Comox Valley Telethon from almost the beginning. He’s also operated the lights for CYMC and just about every dance school in the Valley.
Butler was also involved in the renovation of the former Bickle Theatre, has constructed theatre-themed floats for July 1 parades and, before the civic theatre was staffed, was Sid Williams’ right-hand man when it came to looking after the theatre.
“Mike’s an ongoing piece of Sid’s legacy,” says Collins. “He operates the same way, does the same things and, like Sid, creates strong connections with others. He’s one of the unsung heroes of the Comox Valley.”
And Butler created his own lasting legacy as co-founder of Rainbow Youth Theatre (RYT). “I met Carol Coulson in 1982,” he recalls. “A couple years later, she started putting on a choral festival in the arena at Powell River. The lighting guy over there put her in the dark a few times, so she asked me to do it.” Butler said yes and has been handling the lighting for the bi-yearly event since 1988.
After that first show, Butler, Dale Burgess and Coulson were waiting for the ferry in Powell River when Burgess asked Coulson if she’d like to put together a production for kids over the summer. She agreed, so Butler and Burgess formed Rainbow Youth Theatre.
“The idea was to create something for kids and families,” says Butler. “No auditions; if you showed up, you got onstage.”
Since 1988, RYT has produced 70 musicals. Most years there are three, but two summers there was a whopping seven productions. Butler’s been on the board of directors since the beginning and served as president for many years. And he still does the lighting.
“My first contact with community theatre in Canada was with Rainbow Youth Theatre,” says former RYT board member Terry Penney. “From the very beginning, it was clear that RYT was a family that revolved around a devoted leader who gave tirelessly from his vast theatrical experience and generous heart.”
“RYT has a mandate to bring the joy of theatre to young people and their families, and Mike Butler, as president, made certain that the mandate was fulfilled,” continues Penney. “I count myself among the many who have gained so much from having known Mike and RYT. I could never express sufficiently my gratitude, so will just say thank you, Mike.”
Most RYT shows are held at what’s now known as the Old Church Theatre. Originally a Catholic church, Butler, Graham Woodward and some others were involved in transforming the building into a theatre. Their job was to run a multitude of wires through the walls to set up the lighting system.
Butler’s also a lifetime member of Courtenay Little Theatre. Another lifetime member, Gail Limber, remembers one performance in particular. “Mike and I did a funny little dance. I think he came out of the lighting booth, did his bit and then went back to the booth. He’s wonderful. If you need something done, you can always count on Mike.”
Of course, not every production runs smoothly. Butler recalls boiling water for a cauldron scene. “The kettle boiled over and ran through the floorboards — it didn’t mix too well with the crepe paper tutus.”
But the biggest challenge was creating a set and lighting that would work for a production of Oliver. The civic theatre had closed suddenly for renovations and earthquake proofing, so Butler and others scrambled to create a venue at Tsolum Riding Stables.
Born in Errington in 1930, Butler attended Qualicum Boys’ College and Parksville High School. His parents were actively involved in community theatre and Butler recalls being the “back end of a donkey at age seven. I’ve always been more interested in the technical end of things and was never too fond of being in front of the fourth wall (audience).”
After school, Butler worked for several years in Vancouver, but when his sister suggested a move to Courtenay, he leapt at the chance. It was 1952 when he began a 36-year career with the local office of the Ministry of Transportation and Highways. He took early retirement in 1988 and calls Rainbow his retirement project.
Butler’s behind-the-scenes efforts have not gone unnoticed. Along the way, he’s been named Freeman of the City of Courtenay, was honoured with a Paul Harris Fellowship from the Comox Rotary Club, and a Theatre BC North Island Zone Lighting Award has been created in his name.
And turning 80 hasn’t slowed him down. The interview for this story had to be co-ordinated around his job at Sandwick Waterworks (which he helped form) and the lighting he does for Christmas concerts at numerous elementary schools.
“They call Mike Mr. Rainbow, but I think it should be Mr. Theatre,” says CLT member Vicki Weiss. “There’s not a dance group, school or theatre club in the Valley that hasn’t used his services at one time. He’s quite the guy.”