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March 11, 2005

Theatre Impresario
Tom Patterson
Remembered (1920-2005)

The remarkable Tom Patterson, one of Canada’s best known theatrical personalities, died on February 20 at the age 84.  He was the driving force behind many great Canadian theatrical initiatives including the Stratford Festival which he founded. 

Tom grew up in Stratford, went into the army for six years and completed university on his return.  He had little interest in theatre but a strong entrepreneurial drive and a lot of skill and nerve.  At age 30 in 1953 he talked the municipal council of Stratford Ontario into putting up a tent and Shakespearean stage to present Shakespeare to help revitalize a struggling Stratford economy.  The Festival with 4 permanent theatres now draws 600,000 customers, has a 365 million dollar budget and is known around the world.  One of the theatres is named after Tom.  Other plays and musicals are now included.  

The tent is erected over first stage. Inset: First stage almost finished.-Photos from the book “First Stage the making of the Stratford Festival” by Tom Patterson

Tom needed some luck to start the original festival and found it in Tyrone Guthrie who became Artistic Director with Tom as Manager.  Many outstanding theatrical people were drawn in and a permanent theatre was soon built.  Tom remained until 1967 when he moved on to other initiatives. 

Tom Patterson and Actor Alec Guinness-Photo from the book “First Stage the making of the Stratford Festival” by Tom Patterson


The Canadian Players 

Patterson in his 1987 biography First Stage outlines his many initiatives including the Canadian Players.  Besides helping the Stratford economy he wanted to create work for actors.  With a short summer season (now 5 months) actors needed work in the off season.  Tom and Douglas Campbell formed the Canadian Players and mounted a touring company that played all over Canada and the US for 12 years developing Canadian talent. 

Patterson raised money for the Players from Lady Eaton, a Detroit businessman etc. etc. and they opened in Ottawa in 1954 and began their tour.  In northern Ontario Patterson talked Colonel Reynolds, the head of the Ontario Northland Railway, into supporting a northern Ontario Tour and Patterson’s book tells an incredible story of the Players’ trip to Moosonee. 

Moosonee didn’t have enough power for both the production and the town’s lights so they turned off all the town’s lights.  A New York Times reporter described the event in a 5 column spread in her paper.  She described the native adults and children and others crammed in to see the George Bernard Shaw play.  She took a picture of a native man looking from the outside through a window he had scraped clean of -40° frost and it appeared in the article. 

Patterson helped found the Canadian Theatre Centre and the National Theatre School and several other theatrical initiatives as a consultant.  He became a member of the Order of Canada in 1967 and an Office 10 years later.  He had honorary doctorates from the U of T and The University of Western Ontario plus many other honours including recognition at the 50th anniversary celebrations.  Beside the theatre in his name they named an island after him in the Avon River. 

Along with great memories of the Stratford Festival I have been aware of Tom’s story through a close friend of my son.  Her ex-husband married Tom Patterson’s daughter Penny and the wives and children from the two marriages became close.  Both children are listed in Tom’s obituary as grandchildren.  One of the children, Andres, an up and coming cellist played at the funeral of Penny who died 2 weeks before Tom, and at Tom’s funeral. 

Perhaps Tom is already organizing some event for as Hamlet said “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”.

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