On the floor above the East of Main restaurant, on the fringe of Vancouver’s Chinatown and the cusp of the Downtown Eastside, is the rehearsal space for Project Limelight, a children’s charity so dear to the heart of 31-year-old Cory Monteith that he spent the last Thursday evening of his life making plans for its future.
Limelight is not unlike Glee, the hit high school musical TV show that made Monteith a star. Glee is about outsiders who are elevated and redeemed by the power of music, song and dance. It worked fictionally for Monteith’s character Finn Hudson, the naive high school quarterback who finds a home in the glee club—and gets the girl. For a time, it worked in real life, too. Monteith was a lost boy until acting gave him the passion and focus, and Glee provided him with fame and a platform to do good things. And here, too, he got the girl. On the show, she was Rachel Berry, his love interest. In reality, she is Lea Michele Sarfati, 26, who was a Broadway singer and actress before Glee came along, where she met this sweet, complicated Canadian, and they became a couple.
Tragically, she was not with him on this visit, for she was known as a steadying, sobering influence. Police say he died alone in his room at the Fairmont Pacific Rim sometime on the morning of July 13. Autopsy results released Tuesday found he died of a toxic mix of heroin and alcohol. There is nothing to suggest it “was anything other than a most-tragic accident,” the B.C. Coroners Service said in a statement. Monteith had checked himself into rehab this spring to deal with a recurrence of drug and alcohol abuse that had plagued him during his teen years on Vancouver Island.
Monteith seemed robust and enthused on Thursday, July 11, as he dined at East of Main with his Vancouver agent, Elena Kirschner, and Maureen Webb, a casting director, who had known Monteith since he was 19, full of unfocused potential. Webb is a co-founder of Project Limelight with her sister Donalda Weaver. Monteith requested the meeting because he wanted to do more to help the program, which runs on volunteers, grants and the profits from the restaurant, which the sisters also operate. “He was very open to using his star power to attract other people and money,” says Webb. “He said, ‘Just use me however you want.’ ”
Limelight takes about 20 children at a time from the Downtown Eastside and introduces them to a series of mentors from TV, film and theatre. The kids go through a four-month free program of acting, singing, dancing and rehearsal before they put on a show at the Simon Fraser University theatre in the Downtown Eastside. “It looks like a professional production put on by eight- to 12-year-olds,” says Webb, flashing a tired smile. “Most of them had never been on stage, let alone acted. They’ve probably never been to a theatre.”
Monteith was in from the beginning two years ago. “We wanted it to be inclusive. We wanted it to be a place that kids were proud to come to,” says Webb, “a place that was cool to belong to.” Glee, in microcosm. “Kids really need a place to go, to feel like they belong,” Monteith says in a promotional video for Limelight. “When I was a kid, I struggled a lot with who I was and, you know, where my life was going . . . I was fortunate to have the arts inspire me.”
He related to the kids: Some were from single homes and humble means, much like himself. Weaver’s eyes light up when she talks about the transformations she’s seen. “There are so many changes in these kids. We didn’t expect it to be that fast, or that dramatic.” Maybe they’ll never go into the arts, she says, but they can stand in front of their classes for a science project, or be high school valedictorians, or run board meetings. “That’s powerful,” says Weaver. “That’s success.”
One of the last photos of Monteith was taken by Kirschner, his agent, that night. It shows his profile against the restaurant window, his face unreadable; a dark silhouette. It’s a moody shot for what was an uplifting evening. He was talking about coming back soon, about ways to finance air conditioning for the stifling rehearsal room upstairs, about someday helping Limelight get its own theatre. Why not? “Yeah,” he said, “Let’s dream big.”