Canadian journalist Tom Patterson (1920-2005) transformed Stratford, Ontario, from a fading industrial town into a flourishing tourist destination by founding the Stratford Festival in 1953. He is also credited with changing the face of Canadian theater, as his singular vision jump-started the professional theater scene throughout the country. Patterson died on February 23, 2005, in Toronto.
Veteran and Journalist
Patterson was born Harry Thomas (“Tom”) Patterson on June 11, 1920, in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. His father was a businessman, but the small industrial town suffered a near mortal blow during the Great Depression (1929-1939). Patterson's recollection of the time was cited by Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post as, “Not many people know it, but Stratford had one of the first major strikes of the Depression. The reputation of the town as a home for industry was destroyed. And eventually, the government sent troops in with tanks, and it was like a war.” Stratford never really recovered, languishing in obscurity for years until Patterson rejuvenated it at last.
It was to be some time before Stratford's redemption, however. Patterson graduated from his hometown's Collegiate Vocational School before serving as a sergeant in the Canadian Dental Corps from 1939 until 1945. His military service took him abroad and exposed him to culture in Italy and England, a new experience for a young man from a rather grim small town. After World War II ended, he returned to Canada and studied history at the University of Toronto. He received a bachelor's degree in 1948 and went to work as a journalist and associate editor for the Maclean Hunter publishing company on a trade magazine called Civic Administration. Before long, though, Patterson began to contemplate an idea that would displace his career in journalism entirely. Indeed, the inkling was to become a veritable mission.
For all Stratford's failings, its founding fathers had possessed adequate foresight when they created and preserved lovely parkland along the banks of its aptly named Avon River. Nor were the current residents insensible to the existence and importance of their famous sister city in England. Still, it was nearly inexplicable that Patterson came to believe that the bucolic riverside would be a likely spot for a Shakespearean theater festival. He did, nonetheless, and he was eventually convinced of the idea's viability. Nicholas Fogg of the London Guardian quoted Patterson's recollection of the time from his book First Stage. “By 1951, I knew the festival was going to happen. I was going to make it happen.” Amazingly, that is precisely what occurred.
Idea Bears Fruit
Patterson's idea was initially buttressed more by way of kismet than perseverance, although that would change. He happened to come across Stratford's then-mayor, David Simpson, at a convention in Winnipeg in 1951. Robert Crew of the Toronto Star recounted Patterson's description of that meeting, as given to Crew's fellow reporter Richard Ouzounian: “There was a hell of a lot of liquid being consumed but none of it water,” Patterson said. “What do you think about a Shakespearean festival?,” [he asked the mayor.] “And [the mayor] said: ‘Sounds great to me. That's fine. Go ahead. See what you can do.’ ” It was, perhaps, not the sort of auspicious wordplay that one would expect to foreshadow the altering of a town's fortunes, but it was more than enough for Patterson.
Buoyed by the vote of confidence, Patterson formed a committee and set about exploring the various possibilities. Armed with relentless enthusiasm, an active imagination, and dogged determination, he was sent by the town of Stratford to New York City to court no less a personage than the famed actor Lawrence Olivier, who was appearing on Broadway at the time. That potential connection was not to be, although he did succeed in getting a somewhat tepid response from the Rockefeller Foundation. Undaunted, Patterson sought out the leading lights of Canadian theater. This approach also proved unsatisfactory until he elicited the advice of theatrical luminary Dora Mavor Moore. Moore had been the first Canadian to graduate from London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had gone on to become a highly acclaimed actor and teacher. She suggested that Patterson contact legendary director Tyrone Guthrie, then working at the venerable Old Vic theater in London. And this time around, Patterson hit pay dirt.
Much to nearly everyone's surprise (except Patterson's, who as a self-described theatrical neophyte, had no real understanding of Guthrie's prominence), Guthrie agreed to come to Canada and evaluate the situation. It was later revealed that the esteemed director had his own agenda, in that he had long wanted to produce Shakespeare on an authentic replica of a stage of the Bard's time, but there is no doubt that Patterson's exuberance swayed him as well. Kenneth Jones of Playbill quoted Guthrie's impression of Patterson from the director's book Renown at Stratford. “[Patterson] had no great influence to back him, no great reputation, no great fortune. Most of us similarly placed abandon our Great Ideas, write them off as Daydreams, and settle for something less exciting and more practicable. Not so Mr. Patterson. His perseverance was indomitable.”
Thus, despite all odds against it, Guthrie signed on as the artistic director of Stratford's first Shakespeare festival. Patterson's strength of purpose and zeal had trumped the naysayers and won the day. And, interestingly, none of his effort was for the love of art or the theater, but rather for the sake of his hometown. As Bernstein quoted him, “The basic interest was in Stratford. It wasn't in Shakespeare or literature.” Whatever the motivations had been, however, the play became the thing.
The Stratford Shakespearean Festival, as it was then called, was slated to open in the summer of 1953. Guthrie's clout in the theater unquestionably lent credibility to the endeavor and helped move matters along. For instance, noted actors Alec Guinness and Irene Worth agreed to star in the inaugural productions of Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well for expenses only. Prestigious technical experts, such as scenic artist John Collins, designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and production manager Cecil Clarke were also imported from England to contribute their assorted talents to the venture. (Moiseiwitsch, it should be noted, designed Guthrie's long-coveted thrust stage from the Shakespearean era for the festival.) Indeed, Patterson's dream began to steam towards reality in fairly short order.
The progress was not without its problems, however. A proposed open-air theater idea had been scrapped early on in favor of a circus tent, and Chicago tent master Skip Manley was brought in to erect the four-ton monstrosity. Guinness, smelling potential disaster far in advance, had insisted on the right to back out if the tent was not in place at least three weeks prior to opening night. Sure enough, the tent was not ready as planned, but crisis was narrowly averted when Guinness was persuaded to rehearse in a nearby barn. Trouble reared its head again upon the tent's completion just one week before opening night, when it was discovered that the concrete floor absorbed all sound. That predicament was solved by a rushed application of matting. Other prospective show-stoppers were both more and less monumental, from financial emergencies to the unexpected need to use Bunsen burners to keep the scenic artist's paint from freezing in the winter, but all contributed to an abiding concern as to whether the festival would ever really open. And perhaps such fears were not truly put to rest until June 13, 1953.
On the evening of June 13, the Stratford Festival presented its first performance, Richard III. Noise from a local baseball game did nothing to dim the audience's ardor, and the entire inaugural season played to packed houses that necessitated extending the run from four weeks to six. Patterson's castle in the air had become not only a success but a triumph.
Stratford Festival and Beyond
Within a year of its inception, Patterson's festival repertoire had expanded to include non-Shakespearean plays. Within four years, a permanent theater had been built. And by 1959 it had been graced by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of England. Eminent and then-aspiring actors such as James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Peter Ustinov, Julie Harris, Zoe Caldwell, and William Shatner appeared on the festival's stage, and critical acclaim from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to Los Angeles to New York helped stoke the fires. A music series was launched, although that was one of the festival's few efforts that did not last long. One of the biggest theatrical undertakings of its time, the Stratford Festival also provided much-needed fuel to the Canadian theater scene and economy. Fine arts schools and new theaters sprouted up across the country, while the coffers of Canada and, most importantly, Stratford, were enhanced. Patterson had, in fact, not merely brought his hometown out of its slump, but had initiated a theatrical renaissance throughout his homeland.
Patterson served as general manager of the Stratford Festival until 1967, but realized after just one season that his strength lay more in ideas than in the day-to-day business of administration. So he turned his remarkable energies elsewhere as well. Among his other pursuits were founding the Canadian Players with actor Douglas Campbell in 1954, becoming founding director of the Canadian Theater Center and a member of the National Theater School's founding committee in 1956, leading a Canadian theater delegation to the Soviet Union in 1956, and serving as general manager of the West Indian Festival of the Arts in 1956. He also founded the Dawson City Gold Rush Festival in 1962 and was general manager of the Ypsilanti Greek Festival in 1966, in addition to serving as associate producer on Guthrie's 1956 film Oedipus Rex and as co-producer of the Broadway musical Foxy in 1962. Further, he acted as a consultant to various theater companies and festivals all across North America.
Such important contributions to Canadian theater naturally did not go without notice. Patterson's many accolades included the Canadian Drama Award (1954), the President's Award of the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists (1955), the Canadian Centennial Medal (1967), and the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977). He became a member of the Order of Canada in 1967 and an officer in 1977. In 1978 the city of Stratford dedicated Tom Patterson Island in the Avon River, and in 1991 the Stratford Festival rechristened its Third Stage in his honor. And his was one of the inaugural Bronze Stars placed in front of the festival's Avon Theater in 2002.
By the time the Stratford Festival was celebrating its fiftieth season, Patterson's health was failing. Nonetheless, he was able to make a memorable appearance before the sold-out crowd on the opening night of Richard III on July 13, 2002. He rallied in the next couple of years, making his last visit during the 2004 season to see King Henry VIII (All Is True), but his seemingly limitless energy was finally coming to an end. Patterson died on February 23, 2005, in Toronto, at the age of 84. His vision and legacy, however, remained vital and strong, and showed no signs of faltering.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 25, 2005.
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"Patterson, Tom." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/patterson-tom
"Patterson, Tom." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/patterson-tom
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