For most tourists of a certain age, the quaint city of Stratford, Ont., is synonymous with its world-renowned Shakespearean theatre festival.
But for a large number of young pop music-loving females, it’s the mecca for Justin Bieber tours, artifacts and purple-tinged curiosities.
Indeed, since the Steps to Stardom exhibit opened Feb. 18 at the Stratford Perth Museum, carloads of young women have been arriving to spend quality time an assortment of Bieber’s Teen Choice Awards surf boards, running shoes, star-studded photographs and personal letters, says general manager John Kastner.
“We should have seen this coming, but I didn’t see this coming,” Kastner admitted sheepishly on the eve of the exhibit’s third weekend.
“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been overwhelming, it’s been fantastic. Universally positive.”
Kastner says the exhibit drew 1,000 visitors on its opening weekend, a huge uptick from the 25 people who dropped by last year at the same time.
Traffic has dropped considerably since then — averaging 30 to 35 people a day during the week and about 100 people on the weekend — but he notes that’s still higher than the typical February turnout.
The exhibit most definitely caters to a very specific audience that is exactly the demographic you would expect, he says, describing their core draw as young women aged ”18, 19 to about 25 or 26.”
“I would say that makes up 75 per cent of the people who comes through,” he says.
“They may have a brother who’s had to drive them, or in some cases we have girls that age who come with parents, or younger kids who come with grandparents.”
He says most make the pilgrimage from the Greater Toronto Area, but the exhibit is also attracting visitors from U.S. college towns near the border, including Buffalo, N.Y., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and further afield. Four 20-year-olds told him on the first weekend that they came from France.
“They flew in Friday, were flying home Monday,” he says incredulously. “And I said: ‘You came for this?’”
It’s hard to overestimate the dedication of Beliebers.
The most popular attractions at the museum include an aluminum cut-out of the star positioned in front of a replica of the Avon Theatre, a set tailor-made for selfies and travel-brag photos.
Then there’s a chalkboard for visitors to write messages directly to Bieber — it’s photographed every hour and the images are posted on Instagram, a well-established haunt for the social media-friendly singer.
Overall, the show is much more akin to an exuberant fan convention than a contemplative trip down memory lane, Kastner agrees. Previous museum displays have drawn much more staid crowds.
“(Our) Anne Frank exhibit was terrific, very meaningful — we saw people in tears and reflecting and that was a very impactful exhibit. But to see people come in here and really excited, you get this sort of positive energy from them and you have to like these kids,” says Kastner, adding he’s now getting emails from earnest visitors after-the-fact, too, gushing about their experience.
“We were braced for people being goofy. I brought in a security guard for that first weekend. We had to shut the door at one point — we probably had 75 people lined up outside — but the spirit and the mood of people is unbelievable. It’s so positive.”
It seems some make the trek to meet fellow fans they know only through social media, he says, pointing to separate groups of opening-day visitors from Indiana and Montreal who met for the first time in Stratford.
“And there were about 40 people staying in the Stratford Hotel (that weekend) and they all belong to this Facebook group,” he says,
“They’d never met in person physically until that weekend…. This is different from other exhibits, it’s a new demographic and their way of deciding to go is different and a lot of it is social media-driven.”
The parents who chaperone generally roll their eyes, but there’s other stuff in the museum to keep them busy while the kids peruse the Bieber memorabilia, says Kastner.
Parallel displays include an overview of Stratford’s history as a railway hub, and a look at the Perth Regiment from inception in 1866 to present day. The town also offers several heritage and garden walking tours.
Bieber fans visiting Stratford can also check out his elementary and high schools, the ice cream parlour he’d head to after soccer games, the skate park where he hung out, and, of course, the steps of the Avon Theatre where Bieber used to busk.
If you go…
— The Stratford Perth Museum is located at 4275 Huron Rd., and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., while the operating hours are 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and holidays .
— Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for senior and students, $5 for children six to 12, while kids five and under get in for free. A family pass for two adults and two children is also available for $20.
— The Steps to Stardom exhibit is scheduled to run through the end of the year.
For more information visit http://www.stratfordperthmuseum.ca