The curtain closes on Rob Saunders’ 20-plus year career with Huntsville Festival of the Arts


Photos courtesy of Rob Saunders

His will be big shoes to fill.

This August, after 23 years of bringing an eclectic mix of performers to Huntsville stages, Rob Saunders will retire from his role as General Manager of Huntsville Festival of the Arts. Knowing that they’ll need time to find someone up to the task, the HFA board has already begun the process of recruiting a replacement.

“We are reluctant to let him go,” admits HFA board president Karen Cassian. “The entire board is fond of him and we have great respect for him. It feels like we are losing a family member.”

Saunders got involved with the Festival back in 1996 when he was still working for the Royal Bank as a commercial account manager. They were interested in his financial expertise and he was happy to help them out. Not long after, at about the same time that Saunders decided to strike out on his own and do some consulting, the HFA board decided they needed a General Manager who could do month-to-month administrative tasks. “I was on the search committee and someone said, ‘why don’t you put your name in?’ I did and hired myself and it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says.

When the Festival’s early venue at Deerhurst was no longer available, its shows moved over to the tennis courts at Grandview where they set up a stage with lights and sound for the next nine years. They supplemented that with occasional outdoor shows at the pioneer village at Muskoka Heritage Place and in downtown Huntsville pre-River Mill Park. Then in 2005, the Festival began using the newly built Algonquin Theatre and was able to expand its offering beyond the summer months. And behind it all was Saunders. “I haven’t had a summer off in 20 years,” he laughs.

The highlights are many, but he picks out a few that stand out.

Meeting Roméo Dallaire, former commander of a UN peace-keeping force during the Rwanda genocide and later a Canadian senator, is high on his list. Dallaire was the second in the HFA’s early speaker series (astronaut Roberta Bondar was the first). “I had to pick him up from the airport and when we got just north of the 401, he said, ‘Don’t take any offence, I’m going to fall asleep.’ And when he wakes up he tells me he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to sleep, so he sleeps when things are moving so he knows where he’s at because of all the stuff he sees when he closes his eyes. That was pretty powerful stuff. I had total respect for him then and still do today.”

Meeting Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, another person he admires, was up there among his favourite moments, too, along with seeing artists and Festival favourites like Jesse Cook and Jim Cuddy return multiple times. “I try not to put myself in the face of the artists too much, I give them their space. But some you have a good conversation with and it’s neat to see them behind the scenes.” He said he’s only had maybe two artists in all his years with the Festival who were difficult to work with, but he’s not naming names. “It happens so rarely. Most people are happy to be here and they love the theatre. Overall it’s been quite positive.”

On a more local front, helping the late playwright Stina Nyquist — who was also a former HFA board member —stage some of her plays was an enjoyable experience. “I wasn’t an artistic-minded person, I came from a finance background,” says Saunders, “but I remember seeing Stina’s plays with the local heritage context and really enjoying them. They were educational but entertaining, done with all local actors down at the old Huntsville town theatre that is no longer there. They were a great addition. I look back on those as being some of the most fun presentations that we did.”

Nuit Blanche North, which grew from a combination of some early small HFA street festivals and others presented by Edge of the Woods Theatre and Dan Watson, has become an immensely popular and unique draw for visitors and locals alike and is perhaps the Festival’s most successful fringe event.

Other fringe offerings often came at the suggestion of the late Kareen Burns, a former HFA board member and a driving force behind some of its artistic endeavours. “She was such a yin to my yang, me being more practical and she being more artistic,” says Saunders. “We had a lot of fun over the years. She opened my eyes to a lot of things I’d think were nuts and they’d work out, and I held her back from getting into too much trouble.”

He credits the various HFA board members over the years for making his job easy and fun. “We are a hands-on group,” he says. “They’ve always been people who like the arts, who want to be involved, and are prepared to get their hands a bit dirty to make things happen.”

Saunders says his role has been a balancing act. “I think I’ve brought lots of ideas and helped shape ideas, but you have to be a financially practical person. You can do interesting things but they have to be sustainable.”  Through it all, he’s remained true to the HFA’s mandate to present an eclectic mix of music and performances to the Huntsville community.

Up next for Saunders is an extended North American motorcycle trip, but he says he’ll be back in time for the HFA annual general meeting in mid-October.  And then he can look forward to family time, more travel, and summers off.

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  1. Congratulations Rob! Hope you have a wonderful bike trip and enjoy your retirement to it’s fullest!
    Doesn’t seem like 20 years ago that I met you at MORE FM.
    You have left behind many wonderful memories of fantastic shows we have all had the privilege of enjoying.
    Keep on biking!!

  2. Rob, Thanks for giving Huntsville your guidance and wisdom to develop what is now a remarkable Festival of the Arts. Your leadership for the Board has been outstanding and I thoroughly enjoyed my time being a part of it. Enjoy your bike trip and your retirement.
    Best Regards, Peter

  3. Jim Alexander on

    Rob, you are too humble. I doubt the festival would still be operating had you not spent 23 years of your life guiding the various boards who by definition are artistic and not even interested in the financial aspects.
    HFA’s first-year presentation lost $50,000 in four days because there was no one with your skill and acumen watching and guiding.
    Thank you for a great run.
    Jim Alexander
    P.S. As athletic as you are, you are not 30 anymore so ride carefully: there is no shame in renting a trailer and hauling your bike back. Beth can fly.

  4. I am honoured to call Rob a friend. We have known each other for 30 years plus, and my wife Jane and I have attended as many Huntsville Festival performances as we could, given the fact that we operated a summer camp away from Huntsville, and we loved to watch Rob’s involvement and commitment. I’m sure that he and his wife Beth will continue to support the Festival in any way that they can. Having just retired myself not quite a year ago, I know Rob will most likely have some adjustments to make in his daily routine and all, but no one deserves a rest and a change more than he. Good luck my friend, and may the future bring you nothing but joy and good times.

  5. John Rivière-Anderson on

    Much praise and many thanks, Rob, for your years of dedication to the Festival. You have enriched the cultural life of Huntsville. Sincerely,

  6. Sonja Garlick on

    Congratulations Rob on a successful career with the festival!
    You have earned a well-deserved retirement!
    We will miss you!
    John and Sonja Garlick

  7. Congratulations Rob. You have done such a fantastic job. Retirement is great… I recommend it. Be warned…you will still be busy!,

  8. Joan Jerrett on

    It’s good that the Festival has lots of notice of Rob’s retirement because he is certainly leaving very large shoes to fill. As long time supporters and “enjoyers” of the Festival, John and I will miss working with Rob. He has always been calm, cool, collected and efficient…the perfect guy for the job.
    Enjoy your retirement Rob, and take care on that bike!

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