Tom Patterson, 1920-2005

On July 13, 2010, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Perth County Historical Foundation (with the support of the City of Stratford, Orr Insurance and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) unveiled a provincial plaque at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, to commemorate Tom Patterson, the founder of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

TOM PATTERSON, 1920-2005

    A native of Stratford, Ontario, Tom Patterson grew up during the Great Depression and dreamed of plans that might revitalize his community. After serving in the Second World War and completing university, he worked as an associate editor for a trade publication in Toronto. During the early 1950s, Patterson began discussing plans to establish an internationally renowned Shakespearean festival in his hometown. Although considered a risky venture by some, Patterson gained encouragement from Mayor David Simpson and the local council, and from British Shakespearean director Tyrone Guthrie. Through determination and perseverance, Patterson was able, in less than two years, to turn his dream into reality. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival opened in July 1953 with a production of Richard III, and created a new standard for North American theatre. Remaining with the Festival until 1967, Patterson was also founding director of the Canadian Theatre Centre and founding president of the National Theatre School. He received numerous honours for his work, including Officer of the Order of Canada (1977).

TOM PATTERSON, 1920-2005

    Né à Stratford, en Ontario, Tom Patterson grandit pendant la Crise de 1929 et rêve de projets pouvant revitaliser sa communauté. Après avoir combattu lors de la Seconde Guerre mondiale et obtenu son diplôme universitaire, il travaille comme rédacteur en chef adjoint pour une revue spécialisée de Toronto. Au début des années 1950, il commence à discuter de la possibilité de créer un festival shakespearien internationalement reconnu dans sa ville natale. Bien que ce projet soit considéré comme risqué par certains, Tom Patterson est encouragé par le maire David Simpson et par le conseil municipal, ainsi que par le metteur en scène britannique shakespearien Tyrone Guthrie. Grâce à sa détermination et à sa persévérance, Tom Patterson réussit, en moins de deux années, à faire de son rêve une réalité. Le Stratford Shakespearean Festival est inauguré en juillet 1953 avec une mise en scène de Richard III, et établit une nouvelle norme pour le théâtre nord-américain. Participant au festival jusqu'en 1967, Tom Patterson est également le directeur-fondateur du Centre du théâtre canadien et le président-fondateur de l'École nationale de théâtre. Il reçoit de nombreuses distinctions honorifiques pour son travail et il est notamment nommé Officier de l'Ordre du Canada en 1977.

Historical background


From its inception, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was a leading cultural institution in Canada and North America. It grew from the dream of Stratford native Tom Patterson, whose determination and perseverance led to the immediate success of the festival. Interestingly, it was not Patterson’s particular love for theatre that prompted the birth of the festival — he had only been to a couple of stage productions in his life. Rather, it was his ability, in a short time, to convince local residents, a great director and famous actors to take a chance on his “crazy” idea. As British theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch said about Patterson’s first visit with her, “I was bowled over.” Patterson was first and foremost a promoter for the Stratford Festival, and subsequently for other theatre and film projects across Canada for 40 years.

Early years

Harry Thomas Patterson was born in Stratford on June 11, 1920, the fourth child of Harry Murray Patterson and Lucinda Patterson, née Whyte. His great-grandfather, Thomas Patterson, was brought from Scotland in 1870 as an engineer for the new Grand Trunk Railway locomotive repair shops, the largest employer in Stratford. Tom’s grandfather and father were also master mechanics at the railroad shops until the strike of 1905, when his father started a bookstore. Shortly after Tom was born, his father became general manager (and later president) of the Stratford Brass Company and the bookstore was sold. Tom’s maternal great-grandfather, John Whyte, also emigrated from Scotland, and began an area meat-packing business, which moved to Stratford in 1900 and remained in the family until it was sold in the early 1960s.

Patterson’s background was solidly rooted in Stratford. He attended Avon Public School and Stratford Collegiate Institute (now Stratford Central Secondary School) during the Great Depression. During these difficult years, Stratford’s second major industry — furniture production — had a serious downturn and endured a general strike in 1933. Although the Patterson family managed financially, the economic downturn in the town still concerned them. During this time, Tom was in his teens. He and his group of friends began “. . . to think up ways of trying to save (their) native town.” Patterson’s idea was a Shakespearean festival. He argued that “. . . we had a city named Stratford, on a river named Avon. We had a beautiful park system. We had wards and schools with such names as Hamlet, Falstaff, Romeo, and Juliet.”1 The development of the Stratford park system, led by Thomas Orr, was inspired by the parks in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.2 The formal Shakespearean Gardens, close to the Stratford Collegiate Institute, were opened in 1936 and were frequented by Patterson and his friends.

Patterson’s “. . . original idea was to hold the prospective festival productions out-of-doors. The picture I had in my mind was not of a building nor of a stage, as I knew absolutely nothing about theatre, or how it worked. Rather I had an image only of lots of people pouring in . . .” Originally, Patterson selected the bandshell on the south side of the Avon River with its natural amphitheatre setting, for the theatre site.

Patterson graduated from secondary school in 1939. Although he had been turned down by the infantry, he served as a sergeant in the dental corps during the Second World War. He was stationed in northern Europe and England for five years, but never visited Stratford-upon-Avon while there. It appears that Patterson was in Normandy on D-Day in June 1944. After the war, he studied history at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and graduated in 1948. He then accepted a job in Toronto as associate editor for a Maclean-Hunter trade publication called Civic Administration.

An idea takes shape

His position with Maclean-Hunter took Patterson to municipal conferences all over the country. In May 1951, he was in Winnipeg covering a convention of the Canadian chapter of the American Waterworks Association, and happened to meet Stratford mayor David Simpson. During their discussions, he suggested to Simpson the creation of a Shakespearean theatre in Stratford. Patterson received positive feedback and was inspired to pursue the idea further. Using his connections as a journalist, Patterson gained access to leading politicians and others, including Floyd Chalmers, his boss at Maclean-Hunter, to present his idea and gain feedback. Patterson shared the encouraging results of these meetings with Mayor Simpson: “I quickly learned that nobody can say that a Shakespearean Festival is a bad thing.”

Having widely planted the seeds of his idea, Patterson approached Stratford city council in January 1952 with the idea of meeting with British actor Laurence Olivier in New York. The council members voted to give him $125 to take the trip. The headline in the Stratford Beacon Herald the next day — Council Told of Idea to Make Stratford World Famous Shakespearean Centre — was picked up by newspapers across the country. Although unable to meet with Olivier, Patterson did make contact with the Rockefeller Foundation,3 and also received a few comments and suggestions from others to take back to council. Soon, Patterson received his first firm commitment from the City of Stratford, and formed a festival committee. People such as Harry Showalter, President of Kist Canada Ltd., and Alf Bell, General Manager of Sealed Power Corporation, were willing to see the theatre plan through to fruition. By November 1952, the committee was transformed into the board of directors of the incorporated Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada.

It was through the assistance of Canadian director Dora Mavor Moore4 in Toronto that Patterson’s greatest step forward was achieved. At her suggestion, they contacted the eminent British director Tyrone Guthrie. Tom Patterson stated in his letter to Guthrie that the committee members knew nothing about theatre — “and we therefore are more than willing to give you a completely free hand — that is, within a fairly generous budget.”5 This was something Guthrie had always wanted — the chance to build a theatre from the ground up with an apron or thrust stage as was typical of Shakespeare’s time. Intrigued by the idea, Guthrie came to Canada in July 1952. Charmed by the town and its park, he immediately ruled out the bandshell as a possible theatre location. They decided on the present site of the Festival Theatre, built into the slope of the hill in Queen’s Park, overlooking the Avon River.

The dream becomes reality

With less than a year until the scheduled opening, Guthrie and Patterson were able to convince an impressive group of British theatre professionals to work with the new Festival. These included set and costume designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch,6 a group of actors that included stars Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, and production manager Cecil Clark. The remainder of the company of 60 were Canadians. Canadian architect Robert Fairfield was hired to design and build the amphitheatre and stage (and four years later, the permanent surrounding structure).

Planning for the theatre was not without its challenges. Money lagged seriously behind funding commitments made earlier, and up until the final few weeks prior to opening, many of those involved were not certain they would be paid for their work. This group included Gaffney Construction of Stratford, which was responsible for building the permanent amphitheatre and the stage. The enormous tent that eventually provided cover for the theatre had to be paid for in advance and there was simply not enough money. Consequently, the tent did not arrive until late June 1953, after rehearsals had begun. Fortunately, each crisis seemed to encourage additional, special donations, especially as opening night drew near.

The Stratford community rallied around Tom Patterson and his festival, even those that remained skeptical. The townspeople were relied on heavily as volunteers to staff the gates and box offices, and to open their homes to provide accommodation for the actors, staff and theatre patrons — there were only two hotels and one motel in Stratford at that time. Dinners were put on at local churches, especially Knox Presbyterian Church, due to the shortage of restaurants. (The special relationship between the Festival and the City of Stratford continues today.)

On July 13, 1953, Richard III opened the Festival, followed by All’s Well That Ends Well the next night. Both received rave reviews from critics from across North America, as did the Theatre as a whole. Luckily, ticket sales exceeded all expectations as soon as the box office opened and the original four-week season was extended to six. The season ended with a deficit of just $4,000, despite going $60,000 over the $150,000 budgeted to launch the initial project. It was clear that the Festival had a future.

Tyrone Guthrie, Alec Guinness, Canadian author Robertson Davies and many others who were involved or closely connected with the Festival during its period of inception, made it clear that Tom Patterson was the driving force behind the completion and success of the theatre. Patterson’s boldness and perseverance inspired many others to take large risks or to open up their homes to strangers to make it all happen. Antoni Cimolino, present director of the Stratford Festival, stated, “The notion of trying to do what Tom was suggesting must have seemed crazy for this little town in the early 1950s, and yet he didn’t give up on it.”7

A legacy left — beyond measure

The theatre was an international success, being compared favourably even in the first two seasons to the stalwarts of English drama, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Old Vic in London, England. Tom Patterson’s theatre dream created a new standard for theatre in North America that continues today.

Patterson continued with the Festival until 1967, although he also founded a number of other theatre initiatives throughout Canada, including the Canadian Players touring company in 1954 (together with Douglas Campbell) and the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal (founding president, 1960). Patterson also ran his own theatre consulting firm. He became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1967 (promoted to Officer in 1977) and received honorary degrees from the University of Toronto (1981) and the University of Western Ontario (1988). He also received the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal and the Order of Ontario (1991). Tom Patterson Island in the Avon River was named for him in 1977 and the third stage at the Stratford Festival was renamed Tom Patterson Theatre in 1991.

Although very ill at the time, Patterson was able to make a moving appearance at the 50th-season celebrations of the festival in 2002. He appeared in a wheelchair onstage and received a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience, at the opening of Richard III — the play that had launched the Stratford Festival, beneath a tent, 50 years before. Also in 2002, a Bronze Star to Patterson was one of the inaugural five placed in the sidewalk in front of the Avon Theatre. Tom Patterson died at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on February 23, 2005.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Lutzen H. Riedstra in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010

1 Thomas Mercer Jones named the town Stratford in 1832, when the Shakespeare Inn opened as the community’s first permanent structure. He also renamed the Little Thames River that ran through the village, the Avon River. Other names associated with the British playwright soon followed. During the 1850s, the town was organized into five wards — Hamlet, Falstaff, Romeo, Shakespeare and Avon. A neighbouring village was named Shakespeare.

2 An Ontario provincial plaque to commemorate R. Thomas Orr, 1870-1957, was unveiled in May 2003. It is located at the bandshell on Lakeside Drive, Stratford.

3 The Rockefeller Foundation is a private American philanthropic organization, founded in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Frederick T. Gates. The Foundation supports causes both nationally and internationally, including medicine, scientific research, education, the arts and humanities and international relations. In 1954, the Foundation began a program of institutional support for the arts, and supported the founding of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut that same year.

4 Moore (1888-1979), a pioneer of Canadian theatre, was an actor, teacher and director. She was the first Canadian accepted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England. Moore helped found the amateur Village Players, which performed Shakespearean plays in Ontario high schools. In 1946, she helped found the New Play Society, the first professional theatre company in Toronto founded after the Second World War. In 1970, Moore was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian theatre.

5 Tom Patterson and Allan Gould. First Stage: The Making of the Stratford Festival. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987, revised 1999), p.60.

6 In 1949, at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Moiseiwitsch and Tyrone Guthrie had collaborated on the design and use of an Elizabethan stage that emphasized the actors by accentuating the costumes. This concept was developed further at Stratford, Ontario. For the inaugural season, Moiseiwitsch designed the costumes and the wooden platform stage for the opening production of Richard III. She subsequently designed over 30 shows for the Stratford Festival.

7 Antoni Cimolino, quoted in The Toronto Star. Robert Crew, “Stage-struck boy created festival.” Toronto. February 25, 2005.