The Passing of a Theatre Icon

One late afternoon in December afternoon of 1959 I – a 13 year old – came out of the Crest Theatre so wound up that the lonely walk down to the street car stop past the Mount Pleasant Cemetery had me running at a rattled pace. (And yes dear reader I was allowed to go all the way from Etobicoke to Uptown all by myself. Three streetcars and a bus! How times have changed!) So engrossed was I in the drama of Macbeth that I was unaware that I had witnessed what was the beginning of an era in Canadian theatre history. An era that was to last until 13 days ago when Martha Henry gave her last performance in Three Tall Women at the Stratford Festival. The great actress, director and teacher died Wednesday evening after a battle with cancer that had not slowed her down in her commitment to her greatest love: the theatre.

That cold December she was listed as Martha Buhs and played the role of Gentlewoman to Charmione King’s scheming Lady but she was destined for bigger things. After two years at the National Theatre School (she was its first graduate) she joined the Stratford Festival in 1962. Over the next sixty years she was to appear in over 70 productions there and play not only Shakespeare but Chekhov, Miller, Congreve, O’Neil, Shaw, Findley et al.

1962: Martha Henry as Miranda in The Tempest with Peter Donat
2018: Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest.

I was fortune to see many of her performances at Stratford and with several other Canadian companies. So many moments that were incandescently Henry stick in my mind. Her evil but sexy Lady De Winter in The Three Musketeers being dragged off to her death crying “I’m to young to die!”; the terrified look on Isabella’s face as her brother’s freedom had been accomplished but she found herself locked into the prison of an unwanted marriage in Measure for Measure; the triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Maggie Smith, and Henry keening for Moscow as The Three Sisters in the most brilliant ensemble production I have ever seen; a sparkling Raina in Shaw’s Arms and the Man in the early days of the Shaw Festival; a world-weary Vera telling us how “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered” she was by Pal Joey; and the list goes on. Perhaps the strangest thing I saw her in was a schlock murder mystery in London’s West End in 1970. Who Killed Santa Claus starred Bond girl Honor Blackman, who wore Belmain. Martha Henry got a red felt Father Christmas costume. It was one of her few forays outside Canada. She was devote most of her working life to theatre here in Canada.

Fortunately she was back the next year at Stratford darkly demanding that the hypocrite Tartuffe be sent to her. Perhaps her finest years were during the Robin Phillips directorship when she commanded the stage with Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford and William Hutt as frequent partners and adversaries in a company that was overflowing with remarkable talent. She was absent from the Festival for over a decade but returned for a “golden” second era as actress, director and teacher, nurturing and mentoring young performers.

The last time I had the joy of seeing her on stage was in 2014 when she brought all her artistry to the small part of Lady Bountiful in The Beaux’ Stratagem – gleefully brandishing a phallic zucchini as witness to the efficacy of her herbal concoctions. She was slightly stooped with osteoporosis but even that was part of a characterization that could have become caricature but through sheer stage magic was a delightful comic cameo.

Her first major Shakespearean role was a Miranda in The Tempest that first season; she was to return to that play 56 years later when she played Prospero as her farewell to Shakespeare on that stage that she had made her home and where she was at home. I only wish that I had been able to see that and her appearance this year as Albee’s A. It would be incredible to have been able to say I had seen both the beginning and the end of that era but I am thankful that I was able to see a truly great performer at so many stage in her remarkable career.

Thank you Martha for all that you gave me, and the rest of Canada, over the past six decades. May you rest in peace.

The word for October 22nd is:
Icon /ˈīˌkän/: [noun]
1. A painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.
2. A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.
3. A symbol or graphic representation on a screen of a program, option, or window, especially one of several for selection.
Mid 16th century (in the sense ‘simile’): via Latin from Greek eikōn ‘likeness, image’. Second sense dates from the mid 19th century. Third sense dates from late 20th century.

Capitol Gains

Stu pendousmat at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA]

During the heyday of vaudeville every town worthy of its name had one if not two theatres that saw the greats, and not so greats, of the circuit entertaining the local population. Moncton, a major railway hub of the time, was no exception. In 1908 the Empress Theatre was constructed on Main Street to be joined in 1920 by the Capitol. The later was the work of architect René-Arthur Fréchet, who specialized in domestic and ecclesiastical architecture including the Memorial Church at Grand-Pré.

A fire in 1926 destroyed the Empress and gutted the Capitol but both were quickly rebuilt by Fréchet and reopened within seven months. With changing times the Empress fell into disuse and the Capitol began showing silent movies between bills. By the 1960s it had become a Famous Players cinema. In the 1980s the company began divesting itself of the old style cinemas to make room for the popular Cineplex concept. The Capitol sat derelict as city councillors debated its fate. There was a possibility that it would be demolished to become another Main Street parking lot but stronger wills, aware of its historic significance and its value as a entertainment centre, prevailed. The theatres were bought by the City of Moncton and a project to restore it to its former glory was launched.

The removal of false walls and 70 years of paint and alterations revealed the splendours of a true “Entertainment Palace”. The meticulous restoration of the fabric and modernizing of equipment was completed in 1993. The Capitol became the centre of live entertainment for the city while the smaller Empress space was converted into a cabaret style “black box” venue.

Amongst the detritus the restoration team found charred beams from the 1926 fire which 70 years later still gave off the smell of burnt timber. The original fire curtain, covered in soot from the 1926 fire, was also found. The team knew exactly what to do. They were able to clean all the soot and years worth of grime using raw bread dough. Today performers autograph the curtain to record their appearance on the Capitol stage.

The theatre is now the Moncton home of Theatre New Brunswick, Atlantic Ballet, Symphony New Brunswick as well as visiting performers and touring companies. It is also used by schools and organizations in the area as both a performance and social space.

A standard feature in many theatres of the time was the proscenium murals with the muses standing watch. The entertainment on stage at the Capitol is guarded by Thalia – Comedy, Erato, and Melpomene. A left click will give you a closer look at the three protectors of the arts.

And no old theatre would be complete without its ghost. And the presence of soot or ashes in unusual place denotes visits from Alexander “Sandy” H. Lindsay. The only firefighter in the city’s history to have lost in their life in the line of duty. Almost a century after that 1926 fire he still makes the odd appearance or can be heard running on the steps leading up to the rafters of the building.

A climb to the gods would have cost you 5¢ in the 1930s.
Photo: Théâtre Capitol Theatre

As someone who loves old theatres I was overjoyed, and a bit awed, when we first went into this beautiful auditorium. It is the sort of venue that makes theatre going a real experience.

For a virtual visit to the Capitol check out their website at:

The word for February 11th is:
The gods /T͟Hē ɡɒdz/: [idiom]
An English idiom used to indicate the upper reaches of a theatre. So called because they are closest to the mythological paintings that often adorn the ceilings of theatres in the 19th-20th centuries. Also called the peanut gallery or the nosebleed seats in French they are known as Paradis (Paradise).
Much of my early allowances and spending money went to buying seats up in the gods at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto.

Raising the Tent – 1953

When the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1953 Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s iconic stage was at the centre of a concrete amphitheatre. However there was neither sufficient monies nor assurance of longevity to do other than enclose the “wooden O*” with canvas. For the first four years of the Festival history the Bard was declaimed in a large tent, often to the sounds of pounding rain, whistles from the nearby train yards and umpires’ calls from the local baseball diamond.

Nestled in Queen’s Park the original home of the Festival rose 61′ above the landscape and was 150′ in diameter.  It’s original cost was $23,000.
From 1953 to 1956 canvas covered Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s thrust stage set in a concrete
amphitheatre. When money became tight that first year local contractor Oliver Gaffney
refused to stop work and completed the theatre in time for opening night.  His daughter
Anita is now the Festival’s Executive Director. 

In 1953 Tent Master Roy “Skip” Manly and his crew – many of them local volunteers – raise the tent for
the first time.  It took two whole days to complete the operation.  Two miles of cable and 10 miles of rope kept audience and performers protected and dry – most of the time!  This photo was the inspiration for the sculpture group that now adorns the lawn in front of the theatre.

It’s hard to imagine sitting for three hours of Shakespeare in
one of these original seats from the tent days.  And what’s with the
single armrest?  I guess there was no fighting to see who got it.

At the end of the 1956 season when Christopher Plummer had sounded his final call to the troops at Agincourt the tent was struck for the last time.  By the opening of the 1957 season Robert Fairchild’s unique round structure resounded to the, by now, familiar sound of Louis Applebaum’s trumpet fanfare and the answer to Plummer’s Hamlet was:  it is “to be”.  The building has undergone major changes since I first saw it back in 1958 most involved reconfiguring the stage.  But in 1997 the theatre itself was totally renovated with the addition of public spaces for talks, food and drink, a very pleasant members’ lounge, as well as an expanded backstage.  And the Festival has grown to four theatres and a season that stretches from April until October – all of it inside without a train whistle to be heard**!

Robert Fairchild’s innovative re-imagining of the original tent was expanded in 1997 and turned into an event centre that would have brought joy to the hearts  of Sir Tyrone, Tom Patterson, Miss Moiseiwitsch, “Skip” Manley, Oliver Gaffney and the incredible people who had a vision back in 1953. 

To celebrate the next stage in the Theatre’s life and the first raising of the tent a sculpture grouping was created by a talented group of artisans working at the Festival.  As well as honouring the people who made the renewal in 1997 possible designer Douglas Paraschuk paid tribute to the remarkable “Skip” and stage carpenter Al Jones, who’s handiwork included that first thrust platform.

This sculpture group on the lawn in front of the Festival Theatre celebrates the many people who’s contributions made the renovation of the theatre possible.  But it also commemorates that first exciting day when “Skip” Manly and his crew – many of them local volunteers – raised the canvas on one of the four Queen poles. 

Design Coordinator Douglas Paraschuk’s concept was realized in the Festival Workshops by property maker Ruth Abernathy with the assistance of Frank Holte and Brian Mcleod.  Another example of the exceptional creative work that comes out of the Festival shops.

Tent Master extraordinaire Roy “Skip” Manly (right) was known throughout the circus world as one of the greats – and as the years passed Festival veteran Al Jones (left) became as much a legend for his wizardry as a stage carpenter.

The one thing I find a bit puzzling is the little girl and her dog sitting in the bleachers watching – for some reason it strikes me as more Dorothy pointing the way to Oz than anything.  I don’t really see where it was needed – those two figures straining at the ropes are enough, in my mind,  to convey the dream and the hard work that established the Festival.   I’m also not fond of the ostentatious statue of the Bard that stands nearby either.  However I do find the lovely rose garden with it’s simple plaque remembering Ann Casson (Campbell) a touching tribute to a much respected member of the  company.

The gardens around the Festival Theatre are quite lush – almost too much so – however this simple rose garden serves as a memorial to Ann Casson.  The daughter of Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Sir Lewis Casson she came to Canada with her husband Douglas Campbell.  He was a member of the original company and she was to appear in subsequent seasons.

Though the Festival has grown well beyond the hopes of any of those original (in so many senses of the word) dreamers who watched as that first tent was unfurled in Queen’s Park there remians a slightly homespun atmosphere to it all.   We are still in small town Ontario, there is still a nearby baseball diamond and there is still a wonder that this is all here.

*Well okay the concrete O in this case but let’s be literary rather than literal!

**Stratford was once a railway hub with as many as 30 passenger trains going through a day – now there are only four though an old chap at the station was optimistic that there would be an increase in service in the future. 

September 9 – 1839: John Herschel takes the first glass plate photograph.

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