Spotlight: The first presidents of KWLT

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Fred L. Dreger and Keith Staebler had several things in common. Both were young professionals living in Kitchener in the 1930s; both were married to women whose reputations would overshadow theirs; and both were presidents of the “K-W Little Theatre Group” in its earliest days.

Dreger was a lawyer, a fresh graduate of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall in 1935. He had returned to his home city of Kitchener to start his practice, but soon found himself “immersed in the deep waters of Little Theatre”, in his own words. The Little Theatre movement was gripping the Dominion generally and southern Ontario in particular; most of the small cities nearby were starting theatre groups, including Galt in 1934 and Guelph in 1935. Dreger organized the first meeting of citizens of the “Twin City” interested in community theatre; they decided on the plays for the first production (a pair of J. M. Barrie one-act plays, “Shall We Join the Ladies?” and “The Twelve-Pound Look”) to be mounted at the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute auditorium. This happened in late November of 1935, and the community interest was high enough that planning began immediately for the first full-length productions. Dreger was officially elected the president of the fledgling group at that time.

Over the next two years, Dreger would oversee the organization of five major productions, plus the formation of several “interest groups” within KWLT for people who wanted to learn about the various theatrical skills. He also initiated the first KWLT playwriting competition in the summer of 1936, with a $50 prize ultimately divided between three winning authors. He stepped down as president at the end of the 1936-37 season, but remained involved as the props master for the group. Some years later, he would follow his father – Fred W. Dreger, a button-maker turned city councilor – into local politics, becoming the mayor of Kitchener in 1956.

Dreger’s wife was Elizabeth Janzen Dreger; while also involved in the early days of KWLT – then, as now, community theatre was often a family endeavor – her later contributions to civic life were far more notable. Highlights of her career include her involvement with the Ontario Pioneer Community Foundation (responsible for Doon Pioneer Village), her term as treasurer of the national YWCA, and her presidency of the Progressive Conservative Women’s Association of Canada; in the latter role, she became the first woman in Canada to preside at sessions of a national party convention. She also served as a charter member of the Ontario Press Council, and on the Boards of Directors of the University of Waterloo and of Conestoga College.

Dreger’s successor as president of KWLT was Keith Staebler, a third-generation insurance broker. (While no longer in the family, the Staebler Insurance Company is still in business; their slogan “Be Wise, Staeblerize” was coined in 1935.) KWLT continued to prosper under Staebler’s leadership. The new president formalized the production of “studio plays”: in contrast with the major productions, these were typically shorter works that were presented on a smaller scale, to allow both for experimentation by directors and for a lower-key introduction to acting. Staebler also grew the membership of the group, oversaw the expansion of the playwriting competitions, and in 1940 would bring the Western Ontario Drama League festival to Kitchener for the first time. The onset of the war was troubling to the former pacifist, however, and during the war years the formerly outgoing Staebler became withdrawn, struggling with alcoholism and mental illness. He would eventually take over as president of Staebler Insurance in 1955 following the death of his father, and later was instrumental in establishing the Center in the Square.

Keith Staebler’s wife (at the time; she divorced him in 1962) was Edna Staebler, an excellent candidate for the title of Most Famous KWLT Alum. She acted (along with Keith) in some of the early plays, and her play “The White Waist-Coat” was selected as the winner of KWLT’s 1937 playwriting contest; it was produced for the first time as a KWLT studio play in January 1938. Subsequently, of course, she went on to become a famous journalist and non-fiction writer; Wilfred Laurier University annually awards the Edna Staebler Prize for Non-Fiction Writing in her honour.