Come From Away: Gander rolls out red carpet to watch Tony Awards

The unassuming Royal Canadian Legion Branch 8 in Gander, N.L., an aging one-storey building with pale yellow siding on the edge of town, will host a sold-out Tony Awards viewing party Sunday night.

The come-as-you-are event, with chips, cheesies and a casual dress code, isn't your typical star-studded, red-carpet bash.

But neither is Gander a typical town, opening its doors with heartwarming hospitality to nearly 7,000 stranded passengers and crew after 38 planes were diverted there on September 11, 2001.

That story forms the plot for "Come From Away," the foot-tapping, tear-jerking Broadway musical that has enchanted audiences and earned seven Tony nominations including a nod for best musical.

"We're calling it a red carpet event,'' said Beulah Cooper, a Gander resident and 9/11 volunteer portrayed in the play. "But it will be a casual night. If it was dressy it might keep people away.''

Some 10,000 people call Gander home, a little more if you include the outskirts of town. On the northeastern side of the island of Newfoundland, it's home to Gander International Airport, once a critical refuelling stop for transatlantic jets and (as 9/11 demonstrated) still an important emergency landing site for aircraft.

The 'Plane People,' as Legion president Carl Waterman affectionately calls the airplane passengers stranded in Gander after U.S. airspace shut down, nearly doubled the town's population.

"I was with the Elks when we got a phone call about the Plane People coming to town,'' he said, referring to the non-profit community group. "The whole community pooled together to help. We had people coming through the doors with beef stews and chicken legs and soups.''

Waterman remembers bringing some of the stranded travellers to his house to shower.

"I had to head back out to the Elks Club and they couldn't believe I'd let some strangers stay in our house alone,'' he said. "They said that would never happen in New York. But in Gander, everyone knows everyone.''

That this neighbourly humanity could emerge amidst the sheer terror gripping much of North America after 9/11 is the victory of love over hate, kindness over animosity.

"Come From Away'' creators David Hein and Irene Sankoff recognized the universal appeal of the story. Coupled with the musical's folksy score, the award nominations started to pour in.

``Come From Away'' has been nominated for dozens of awards, but Sunday's Tonys are the most high-profile and potentially lucrative.

The legion quickly sold all 185 tickets to the viewing party. The $5 cover charge, which includes doors prizes and a glass of wine donated by a New Yorker to share in a toast, will go toward the legion's building fund to replace shingles on the leaking roof and install a new heating system.

With two 65`` television screens borrowed from the local furniture store, there'll be no bad seats in the house.

Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. local time, with a pre-show starting around 8:30 p.m. and the 71st Tony Awards at 9:30 p.m.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think we'd end up here,'' Cooper said with a laugh. ``When I got that call that people were coming to Gander ... I just thought 'Thank God they are coming here so we can help.' I never thought I'd make lifelong friends and there would be this hit musical.''