Tom Patterson, the Father of Canada's Stratford Festival, Dead at 84

Obituaries   Tom Patterson, the Father of Canada's Stratford Festival, Dead at 84 Tom Patterson, the visionary Canadian who had the idea to create a theatre festival in the Ontario town of Stratford, died Feb. 23 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto after a long illness, at age 84, the Stratford Festival announced.
Tom Patterson
Tom Patterson Photo by Stratford Festival Archives

The idea to put on Shakespeare plays in the farming-oriented city that shared the name of the Bard's English home was considered folly by some when Mr. Patterson cooked up the idea. But the mad dream became a reality in 1953. From it, one of North America's — and the world's — largest theatre festivals arose. Stars, tours, films, books and visits to New York and even Broadway (the recent King Lear at Lincoln Center started at Stratford) would be part of the festival's continuing history.

"Without Tom Patterson, there would be no Stratford Festival of Canada," said the festival's current artistic director, Richard Monette. "Tom has said, 'by late 1951, I knew that the Festival was going to happen, because I was going to make it happen.' And he did. His was an extraordinary vision at an extraordinary time."

According to the festival, more than a half-century ago, Mr. Patterson had returned from the Second World War and had started working in Toronto as a journalist for Civic Administration, a trade publication of Maclean Hunter. Self-admittedly, he knew little about theatre. But he did know about Stratford, and knew it needed something to ensure its growth and vitality in the future. It was his idea that there should be a festival of Shakespearean plays. His tenacious enthusiasm eventually drew together the theatre professionals, townspeople, financiers and volunteers who worked so hard to make his dream come true.

"The notion of trying to do what Tom was suggesting certainly must have seemed crazy for this little town in the early 1950s, and yet, he didn't give up on it," said Antoni Cimolino, the festival's current executive director. "His commitment and his enthusiasm were infectious."

Mr. Patterson was able to convince local residents and politicians to get on board and then was also able to attract the confidence of theatre professionals such as famed director Tyrone Guthrie, who eventually agreed to be the festival's first artistic director and who brought with him Alec Guinness and Irene Worth to star in the first season's plays: Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well. Tom Patterson "had no great influence to back him, no great reputation, no great fortune," Guthrie said, according to the book "Renown at Stratford." "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."

"I've known Tom Patterson as far back as my memory can go," said Tom Orr, chair of the festival's board of governors and a life-long Stratford resident. "Tom was a great friend of my grandfather and my parents, and collaborated with my grandfather, who founded Stratford's riverside park system, as to where a good Shakespearean festival might be situated along the river. As a result, today we have a world-renowned theatre that generates an enormous impact on this community. I have very fond memories of being with Tom over the years, and will miss him."

After the initial year of the festival, when Mr. Patterson served as general manager, he founded the touring theatrical company Canadian Players with actor Douglas Campbell, and later became instrumental in a host of cultural innovations in Canada, including being founding director of the Canadian Theatre Centre; founding president of the National Theatre School of Canada; and founder of the Dawson City Gold Rush Festival. He worked in various capacities with the Stratford Festival until 1967, consulted to theatre companies across North America and also worked in the film industry.

Mr. Patterson became a member of the Order of Canada in 1967 (promoted to officer in 1977) in recognition of his work with the Stratford Festival and was awarded honorary law degrees from the University of Toronto in 1981 and the University of Western Ontario in 1988. He was also a recipient of the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Medal and the Order of Ontario.

In his hometown, Mr. Patterson has been honored in many ways. There is an island in the Avon River named after him and, in 2002, his was one of five inaugural Bronze Stars placed in the sidewalk in front of the Avon Theatre. In 1991, the Festival rechristened its Third Stage to honor Mr. Patterson, renaming it the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Mr. Patterson made what the festival called "an emotional and electrifying appearance" in 2002 during its 50th-season celebrations. Due to health concerns, it was uncertain whether he would be able to attend any of the festivities. However, on July 13 he was able to appear in front of the sold-out opening night crowd at Richard III — 50 seasons, to the date, of when that same play launched the Stratford Festival in 1953.

Mr. Patterson's health improved in the years after 2002 and he was able to return to the Festival as a patron. His last visit was during the 2004 season, when he traveled to Stratford with a group of fellow veterans living at Sunnybrook Hospital to see King Henry VIII (All Is True) at the Festival Theatre. As was always the case when Mr. Patterson returned to Stratford, he met up with many friends and colleagues from the Festival family during his visit, according to the festival.

In Mr. Patterson's book, "First Stage: The Makings of the Stratford Festival," he stated he was always "amazed at how the Stratford Festival came together in such a short time — less than two years. How did our 'miracle' happen? Basically, there were four groups without whom the festival could not have been created. The first group, of course, were the professionals, Tony Guthrie, (designer) Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Cecil Clarke and his wife Jacqueline Cundall, Ray Diffen and Annette Geber, and other giants of modern theatre . . . without their unselfishness and sacrifice, and their ever-ready offers of help, it would have been impossible to engender the enthusiasm that kept the rest of us going."

Mr. Patterson went on to identify three other key groups: the Stratford board, the many volunteer committees and the administrative staff. "Finally, to all those unsung heroes in Stratford who, by their individual and joint efforts, assured the success of the festival, my heartfelt appreciation."

Tom Patterson is survived by his wife, Pat, and children, Bob, Tim, Lucy Ann and Lyle Scott. He is predeceased by his daughter, Penny. Funeral arrangements have not yet been completed. The festival will hold a memorial service celebrating Tom Patterson's life at the Festival Theatre on Sunday March 13, 2005.