Yearbook Flip: High School Variety Shows

In the era of the Ed Sullivan Show, student variety shows were a staple production in high schools. Though variety shows first gained their popularity on the radio, live television brought a new immediacy and intimacy between the viewers at home and the stars on stage. During the Golden Age of Television (about 1948 to 1960), teenagers in Canada and the United States were watching some of the biggest stars perform on variety shows, including acts from Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

As variety shows saturated pop culture, it was only natural for the sensation to make its way into the high school auditorium. Variety shows became a fun opportunity for teenagers to showcase their talents among their peers, and emulate the celebrities they adored on television.

When flipping through the yearbooks in the St. Catharines Museum Collection, the earliest mention of a variety show was in the 1953 Vox Collegiensis, the yearbook of St. Catharines Collegiate Institute. By the 1960s, most high schools in St. Catharines were hosting variety shows – the height of the television variety show era. While students were practicing their own performances, they would have been watching one of the many variety shows on T.V., including The Jackie Gleason Show (1960-1970), The Andy Williams Show (1962-1971), The Hollywood Palace (1964-1970), The Dean Martin Show (1965-1974), and The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978) to name a few.

As one of the school’s largest student productions, variety shows were usually organized by the student senate, or student council, with the support of a number of teachers. The 1955-1956 Vox made a special note that the year’s variety show was a full school effort – with all students coming together to either help sell tickets, spread publicity, usher, assist in backstage production, or actually perform. Acts included singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, gymnastics, cheerleaders, and comedy routines.

The money raised by the production typically went back into future school activities or community efforts. In the early years of the Collegiate Variety Show, for example, the event raised money to support the school’s Student Loan Fund for graduates.  

Take a look at a few of the variety shows that were performed on the stages of St. Catharines High Schools.

Denis Morris Variety Show, 1970. In this era, dressing in Black Face was commonplace and was considered humourous. Today, society understands that this act is harmful and unacceptable. STCM 2016.41.2

Merritton High School, 1970. STCM 1999.121.10

Merritton High School  1967. STCM 1999.121.8

Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, 1963/64. STCM 1975.171.13

Were you in a variety show during your high school days? What was your act? We’d love to hear your stories either performing in, or watching, variety shows in your youth!

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

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