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The Little Theatre that grew

Orphan of the Holocaust turned his dramatic dreams into Rainbow reality

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/1/2012 (2485 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Excerpt from A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

John Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1959 and went on to become a major figure in North American theatre and television. His biography, A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, will launch at a reception Jan. 29 at the Tom Hendry Theatre, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., which is open to the public. Hirsch was born in Hungary in 1930, and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He came to Canada in 1947, through the War Orphans Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress, where he was welcomed into the North End home of the Shack family. Hirsch learned English at a phenomenal rate, graduating from St. John's High School and then the University of Manitoba in 1952. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life -- direct plays -- but theatre in Winnipeg was barely alive in the early 1950s. He would need some kindred souls to help him get what he wanted. As this excerpt from the book recounts, he found them at the corner of Portage and Main.

It wasn't a Budapest coffee house, still less a Paris café. But Child's Restaurant was, as John Hirsch's friend Tom Hendry put it, "headquarters... for a few harried souls then manning the cultural ramparts out here in the Artistic Outback." These few harried souls would, in coming decades, reveal themselves to be an impressively talented and productive generation of born, adopted and temporary Winnipeggers.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/1/2012 (2485 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

John Hirsch, 1967. Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1959 and went on to become a major figure in North American theatre and television.  Read an excerpt from Andrew Wilson's new biography, A Fiery Soul: The Life and Times of John Hirsch.

John Hirsch, 1967. Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1959 and went on to become a major figure in North American theatre and television. Read an excerpt from Andrew Wilson's new biography, A Fiery Soul: The Life and Times of John Hirsch.

Excerpt from A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

John Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1959 and went on to become a major figure in North American theatre and television. His biography, A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, will launch at a reception Jan. 29 at the Tom Hendry Theatre, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., which is open to the public. Hirsch was born in Hungary in 1930, and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He came to Canada in 1947, through the War Orphans Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress, where he was welcomed into the North End home of the Shack family. Hirsch learned English at a phenomenal rate, graduating from St. John's High School and then the University of Manitoba in 1952. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life — direct plays — but theatre in Winnipeg was barely alive in the early 1950s. He would need some kindred souls to help him get what he wanted. As this excerpt from the book recounts, he found them at the corner of Portage and Main.

 

It wasn't a Budapest coffee house, still less a Paris café. But Child's Restaurant was, as John Hirsch's friend Tom Hendry put it, "headquarters... for a few harried souls then manning the cultural ramparts out here in the Artistic Outback." These few harried souls would, in coming decades, reveal themselves to be an impressively talented and productive generation of born, adopted and temporary Winnipeggers.

Located in one of the city's tallest buildings at the windswept corner of Portage and Main, Child's Restaurant was part of a well-known chain established in the United States in the 1890s.

(Rodgers and Hart gave it a mention in the song Manhattan: "We'll go to Yonkers/ Where true love conquers/ In the wilds./ And starve together, dear/ In Child's...")

Looking back many years later, Tom makes it sound Runyon-esque, a place where "under the death-dealing gaze of a permanently furious hostess," gamblers showed up for pancakes and sausages at two in the morning after finishing their card games, a pornography dealer named Detroit arrived at three in search of a philosophical debate, and would-be writers who were Not Able to Work (Tom's capitals) sat over 10-cent cups of coffee till chucking-out time at four.

Hirsch at a performance of the Junior League Children’s Theatre, mid-1950s.

ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

Hirsch at a performance of the Junior League Children’s Theatre, mid-1950s.

John had inevitably gravitated there in the months following his arrival in Winnipeg, sensing it was the nearest thing he would find to the Budapest coffee house where his blue-stockinged grandmother had taken him, with its elegant chat about culture and politics. Physically, there was little resemblance. Most Budapest coffee houses were furnished with luxurious furniture, gilt mirrors and giant chandeliers; one could while away entire afternoons reading local and foreign newspapers and journals that hung from bamboo racks.

In contrast, Child's reminded him of a railway station's warm waiting room. The place was cavernous and high-ceilinged, with black-and-white tile floors and rows of thick, square pillars covered with the plainest of mirrors. Its ice-frosted front windows shone on the city-block-long marble counter, while the North End waitresses in black uniforms with white aprons and caps scurried around carrying plates of thick cinnamon pancakes and countless large cups of coffee. But the "intelligentsia," the intellectual community he felt an almost physical need to find, were there. Even with his minimal English, he recognized them before he knew their names.

Hirsch in rehearsal, mid-1950s.

UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA ARCHIVES

Hirsch in rehearsal, mid-1950s.

And before long, he did know their names, and their stories — some of which he would follow for decades, either personally or through the press. At another table one might find graduate philosophy student Roman Kroitor, who would become both an award-winning documentary filmmaker and co-inventor of the Imax cinema technology (as well as many National Film Board documentaries, he co-directed Rolling Stones: At the Max).

At another, art student Takao Tanabe, who would win the Governor General's award for his landscapes.

Future diplomat Dorothy Armstrong usually sat surrounded by male undergraduates looking, in Tom's amused memory, like "a belle who had decided to hell with the ball that she happened that day to be the belle of."

There were the writers like Adele Wiseman, a regular who was in danger of becoming a bit of a joke: Everyone knew she was working on a huge novel, but no one had ever seen it.

Or her friend Margaret Laurence, a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg, who was writing news stories and reviews for the Winnipeg Citizen. Both women would go on to win the Governor General's Award for Fiction.

There was already a theatre crowd, many of them fresh from the University of Manitoba Dramatic Society. Among them was Douglas Rain, already confident of the talent that would establish him as one of North America's finest actors and plotting his imminent escape to the Old Vic Theatre School in England. Members of the Winnipeg Little Theatre often made up a lively table headed by Peggy Green, who would prove an important collaborator of John's in the early days of his career.

video player to use on WFP

 

 

Another Child's regular was James Reaney, often to be found late at night writing poems in a school exercise book, his boiled eggs on toast going cold. The future playwright, children's writer, professor and literary critic migrated from the east to be an English lecturer at the University of Manitoba. Years later, John wrote: "James Reaney was a very young man at the time, from Stratford, Ont., whose mother took him to a blind tailor before he was sent out to the West and ordered him a blue serge suit, and in that blue serge suit and a raincoat, with an alarm clock under his arm, Jamie arrived in Winnipeg. The alarm clock was brought because he hated teaching so much he couldn't trust the alarm system at the university, and every time he walked into a lecture hall he'd set his clock exactly to 45 minutes, and when the bell rang, he walked out.

In 1967, John would direct James' play Colours in the Dark, the second Canadian play ever produced at Stratford.

1962-63: Hirsch and Tom Hendry flanked by Board president Donald J. Campbell and actor Jean Murray.

UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA ARCHIVES

1962-63: Hirsch and Tom Hendry flanked by Board president Donald J. Campbell and actor Jean Murray.

And then there was Tom Hendry. A year older than John, Tom was an occasional student at the University of Manitoba, forever changing courses or dropping out or being expelled, but always drawn back to the library, cafeteria, campus activities and what were then known as "coeds."

They first met in the university canteen when Tom borrowed two cents for coffee from John, who asked for repayment when they met again a couple of days later. The two got to chatting a bit later at Child's when Adele Wiseman introduced them formally. It turned out Tom was an actor, who at the time was rehearsing Eros at Breakfast, a wordy drama by Robertson Davies that was to be entered in a campus drama festival.

And not just an amateur actor: Like so many theatre people of his generation, Tom got his first paycheque as an artist from CBC's drama department. The speaking part — Buddy Jackson, a farm boy on the Winnipeg-based segments of the CBC's long-running Farm Radio Dramas — helped Tom pay his way through several years of university.

They talked some more; Tom invited John to the Eros at Breakfast cast party (where John "endeared himself to one and all during the festivities by getting terribly drunk, going to sleep behind some velvet drapes and awakening in time to recite poetry in Hungarian"); John invited Tom to the Shacks' to meet Ma and Sybil; John invited Tom to act in his first directorial effort at the university, a one-act play by poet and CBC drama producer Norman Newton, and so was born a partnership that would change the face of Canadian theatre.

In some ways, it was hard to imagine a less likely pair. Tom was born and bred in Winnipeg of Scots-Irish stock. Boyishly handsome and with an easy charm leavened by a mordant sense of humour, Tom had his own sense of style, eschewing the popular zoot suit for an English tweed jacket. Later on, he would drive a Jaguar, a highly impractical car for Winnipeg's winter conditions. Tom had the classic dilettante's problem of possessing many talents yet having no driving passion or direction.

Although he had never actually seen a fully professional stage company at work (theatre in Winnipeg had largely gone into hibernation during the war years) he enjoyed acting, and was good at it; he dabbled in writing fiction and drama and showed promise; he could more than hold his own in intellectual and political debates.

Yet he also had a talent for organization and numbers. When he and John first met in the winter of 1949-50, Tom had just embarked on a course in accounting, from which he would eventually graduate as a certified chartered accountant.

June 23, 1958: "Let me hear how you'd read that line." John Hirsch, one of the directors of the Rainbow Stage, listens to three young aspirants for roles in The King And I. A notice of tryouts brought out a number of boys to fill the two important roles of the Young Prince and the son of Anna. Reading from left to right, these three aspirants are: Burton Cummings, 10, of 97 Lansdowne Ave; Fred Westman, 12, of 58 Crowson Bay; Jim McCarthy, 12, 263 Donalda Ave.

June 23, 1958: "Let me hear how you'd read that line." John Hirsch, one of the directors of the Rainbow Stage, listens to three young aspirants for roles in The King And I. A notice of tryouts brought out a number of boys to fill the two important roles of the Young Prince and the son of Anna. Reading from left to right, these three aspirants are: Burton Cummings, 10, of 97 Lansdowne Ave; Fred Westman, 12, of 58 Crowson Bay; Jim McCarthy, 12, 263 Donalda Ave.

After a long dormancy during the war years, theatre was beginning to stir again in Winnipeg. The most obvious signs of life were at the newly resurrected Winnipeg Little Theatre, and the two both got involved with it.

However, their first enterprise was not theatre, but film. Both felt keenly the lack of access to foreign films in Winnipeg, where it was nearly impossible to see even the classics of non-English cinema. Learning of a distributor that could supply such films, they organized a film society and proceeded to order whatever interested them. One year, for instance, they gluttonously caught up on all the Russian films they had ever read about.

The friendship deepened over many evenings at the Shacks', where Tom spent much of his time lying on the living-room floor "endlessly engaged in three-cornered debates... on every imaginable subject" with John and Sybil.

Sometimes when the two were alone, John's fears and darker feelings emerged. On one of these occasions, Tom remembers John saying he wished he weren't Jewish, as all it had ever brought him was misfortune.

Another conversation began when John asked, "Tom, what would you do if I got sick?" Tom replied, "I'd bring you food and anything else you needed to comfort you." John paused and said, "If you were sick, I'd steal your food. That's how we survived during the war."

But the late-night talkfests at Child's Restaurant were central to these years, and it is interesting to see the way the two talented, ambitious young men thought about them. Tom's writings about the period seem typical of his pretention-piercing sense of humour and possibly of a certain Anglo-Scots disapproval of ambition worn too openly on the sleeve: "Epitaphs should be written for all the works of art discussed in Child's planned-parenthood fashion but all aborted or stillborn. All the stories told to death, the novels analyzed-before-written to death, the little magazines that never got beyond a table of contents (everything by us), the plays never put on, the painting never begun, and the poems never sung."

John participated in the same conversations, but "read" them differently. He, too, saw an irony in the endless talk, but found it normal and even desirable that people should have dreams. What bothered him was what he called later the "lack of arrogance" exhibited at Child's. It was a time when the diaries and letters of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group were being published, as were those of Gertrude Stein's expatriate "crowd" in 1930s Paris, and everyone was talking about them (Hendry once signed off a letter to John with "Love to all au coté de Chez Infant," an ironic if misspelled reference to Proust).

For the bright, talented people around the marble-topped tables at Child's, history and culture were things that happened elsewhere, in London or Paris or New York, or even Toronto. Certainly not in Winnipeg, which many of them thought of as "Nowheresville."

John (far right) in 1947 soon after arriving in Winnipeg, with social worker Thelma Tessler and fellow war orphans David Ehrlich, Anton Deutsch, Ernest Green, László Greenspan,and Eugene Josef.

ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

John (far right) in 1947 soon after arriving in Winnipeg, with social worker Thelma Tessler and fellow war orphans David Ehrlich, Anton Deutsch, Ernest Green, László Greenspan,and Eugene Josef.

John found this hard to take: "I had just arrived, and I got into Child's restaurant, where people were sitting around planning to go to London, and I couldn't (stand it). This was just too much. I had been wandering around long enough. I could not understand why all these people wanted to go. No one wanted to stay. They kept running down the place, they kept saying how terrible it was and how everything that was worthwhile, everything that was to be emulated, was in London. No one wanted to stay in Winnipeg, ever. And that was terrible because I had just got there. And I also knew that I had to stay there."

But to stay there, John had to put in place the final building block of a new identity. He had to make a career for himself in theatre, in a city where professional theatre had little history and no present.

— — —

In the next few years, Hirsch and Hendry "infiltrated" the local Little Theatre, created a children's theatre program for the Winnipeg Junior League and got involved with the newly created Rainbow Stage. In late 1955, Hirsch went to England, spending a term studying at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He returned to Winnipeg in the spring, where the story resumes.

 

Back in Winnipeg, John found not much had changed since he'd left. Child's was still the place to hang out and dream about being elsewhere. The Little Theatre was still on simmer, happily getting on with its occasional productions. Tom, who by this time had finished his accountancy degree, was working half days in his new profession and spending the rest of the time writing.

The Winnipeg Summer Theatre Association's working relationship with the municipality was still unclear, and the largely amateur "cultural events" on offer at Rainbow Stage were not attracting the hoped-for crowds.

Nonetheless, Tom put together a budget for productions he hoped would be big and colourful enough to draw large audiences. The numbers more or less added up, assuming bad weather didn't keep the crowds away.

 

A glimpse at the theatre career of John Hirsch.

 

As he was so often to do in the future, John went public with a challenge to the municipal government: If the municipality would provide $2,000 in working capital, he would provide the organization to put on a full summer season. After many meetings and much paperwork, the city declined the request.

Aldermen Douglas Chisholm, who was responsible for the municipal treasury, told them they would get the money when they could prove that they could get as many people to a musical comedy "as I can to a yo-yo contest."

With their own money and that of a few friends, they went ahead anyway and had a resoundingly successful season. The outstanding production that summer was a musical comedy written for the London stage during the First World War, Chu Chin Chow. The comedy is loosely based on the plot of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves with a complex plot, slapstick comedy, lively songs (from The Song of the Scimitar to Any Time's Kissing Time), and lots of parts for extras (thieves and slave girls abound.)

John and his team pulled out all the stops for their production. The starring roles featured some of Winnipeg's best performers and several members of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet figured in the more intricate dance numbers. Among the 60 extras were a group of waiters recruited from the Shanghai and New Nanking restaurants, making it difficult to get a Chinese meal during the run of the show.

In one of his first reviews for the Winnipeg Free Press, Chris Dafoe wrote, "John Hirsch and his crew of assistants have given us a show that has almost everything: colour, wild and tame animals, a gala parade, lascivious slaves, danced by some of the best dancers in Canada, and other numerous surprises. The costumes were a sight to behold. Anybody who stays home to watch TV this week is crazy."

Extra atmosphere was provided by city hall's contribution of the Christmas lights that normally decorated Portage Avenue in wintertime, which were placed behind and above the stage on the park's stately oak trees. The finale concluded with a blaze of fireworks and sent 2,000 satisfied Winnipeggers home almost every night of its run.

Despite the crowds, the season again lost money, but John had proved his point. If the quality of the production was high, Winnipeggers would come in their thousands to see locally produced musicals with local talent.

Alderman Chisholm had to eat his words in public about the yo-yo contest, but Rainbow Stage never got its subsidy.

 

Andrew Wilson is a writer, editor and translator. He was born in Vancouver. In the 1980s, he worked in Central America with CUSO. More recently, he has worked for UN organizations such as UNAIDS, UNICEF and the World Health Organization as a technical writer. His translations include Amélie Nothomb's novel Loving Sabotage (Faber & Faber 2005) from the French, and Zoe Berriatúa's The Existentialist Dog and Other Tales (Panta Rhei 2003) from the Spanish. His most recent book is Translators on Translating: Inside the Invisible Art (CCSP Press, 2009). He currently lives in England where, in addition to his freelance writing and translating, he is a magistrate.


Fraidie Martz was born in Montreal, studied at McGill University and is a psychiatric social worker by training. She moved to Vancouver with her husband and three daughters in the early 1970s, where in addition to professional practice, she was active in promoting social housing for people with mental illness and starting a Women's Resources Centre at the University of British Columbia. Fraidie became interested in John Hirsch when she wrote Open Your Hearts (Véhicule Press, 1996), the story of the Jewish war orphans who came to Canada after the Second World War, of whom Hirsch was the most famous. She is now an "active grandmother" with six grandchildren.

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History

Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 7:19 AM CST: Adds video

9:06 AM: Adds slideshow

9:35 AM: adds fact box

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