- Webster, Sandy, Interviewee
- Cameron, Don, Interviewer
- Media Type
- Item Type
- Interview with Sandy Webster, veteran actor and member of the Shaw Festival for many decades.
Seasons with the Shaw Festival: 1966-67, 1973, 1979-80, 1982-83, 1985-90, 1993-98.
Transcription only; audio file not available.
- Part of Shaw Festival Foundation Oral History Project
- Date of Publication
- 25 Sep 1997
- Local identifier
- Language of Item
- Geographic Coverage
Latitude: 43.25012 Longitude: -79.06627
- Copyright Statement
- Copyright status unknown. Responsibility for determining the copyright status and any use rests exclusively with the user.
- Location of Original
- Shaw Festival Library
- Niagara-on-the-Lake Public LibraryEmail
Agency street/mail address10 Anderson Lane P.O. Box 430
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
I came in the summer of 1966. What brought me was the possibility of being involved with the Shaw Festival because in my final year at Queen's University—I graduated in 1949—I was of necessity called upon to do a fair amount of work on George Bernard Shaw as part of getting an honours degree in history, English and politics. I had arrived at Queen's as a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran of 21 years of age and Shaw was just a guy with a beard who showed up occasionally in the newsreels and did ridiculous things, and seemed to say ridiculous things. That was about the extent of my knowledge of him. But as a result of my studies in the final year at Queen's, I came of necessity to know a great deal more about him and read—not all, because I think it would have been very difficult to read them all—but enough in any event to know that I was cock-a-hoop, to use one of his own terms, for George Bernard Shaw. Only once I think, in the mid-fifties, I did get a chance to play in Heartbreak House in a production in the Red Barn Theatre at Vineland of all places, and was more than ever determined that I would like to play more of George Bernard Shaw.
That was at least a good part of my reason for wanting to come to the Shaw Festival, which was now beginning to get established, but something else was involved, which was Barry Morse who was the artistic director that year, 1966, and as it turned out, that was his only year. He called me and I was at that time quite a busy actor in CBC radio drama, which was still very large at that time, as well as television, which was now coming on. So I was busy and had long since learned that it was better to be busy in radio and television and, if you could spare the time, you might do a brief stint somewhere on stage, because there was no money in that; and if you had, as I did, a wife and three small children, the theatre was a luxury that I could not afford. But I was doing fairly well in television when Barry called and said, "I'd like you to come down and help us out," in his first stint. He wanted me to play in Tarleton in Misalliance, which is the lead middle-aged male. I was middle-aged by that time, 45 or something like that, and I thought, "I would love to play that but I'm not equal to that, and it's been so long since I've done anything significant or worth talking about on stage that I don't know that I could just go right down and walk in and take over that role. I don't know; I don't think so." So when I got back to Barry I pleaded, "I just don't feel confident enough and I haven't done enough stage work in the last while that I don't know that I'd be doing you any favour by accepting the role." So he wound up casting Les Yeo, who was excellent; I saw the play. But I said I would like to do something if he could find me something else in one of the plays but not in two or three, and he found me a spot in The Apple Cart, which was a great production to be in; I loved that. And it was fortuitous because Paxton Whitehead was playing the lead, the king, in The Apple Cart, and Paxton succeeded Barry the following year and I guess on the strength of our acquaintance and our working together he wanted me to play the father in Arms and the Man. In any event, I did do that with Paxton playing Surgess and Douglas Rain playing Blenchley.
There's a world of difference in the housing situation in Niagara-on-the-Lake now and what it was in 1966, because Barry was bringing in a lot of actors. There were three Shavian plays involved that year and that's a lot of actors. I knew Brian Doherty; we had worked together and had some time together in Hamilton where I was working for the first FM station in Canada, CJSH, and he was sharing the same building. The Spectator, which owned CJSH, was interested in developing a television franchise and Brian was doing something with that. So I knew Brian and Brian was the man, aside from Barry Morse, in connection with the company. I called him and asked how the housing situation was. Brian said, "Oh, we have a housing person here and she'll be glad to help you." The Apple Cart I think was the last play in, so I came down to be told that all of the available housing, which wasn't very much, was gone. I wound up in Port Colborne, on Lake Erie, where I got a place that suited us, because I wanted to bring my wife. That was another reason I came. There was (a) Shaw, (b) Barry Morse and (c) I had a young family that wanted and needed to get out of Toronto and I thought this was a great way to do it. As I found out, it wasn't too bad. They had to stay down in Port Colborne while I was commuting up here in mv station wagon, which was at that time a good hour's drive and it was over back roads—the Queen E was not then what it is now. So I had about an hour's drive in the morning to get up here to rehearse during the day and an hour's drive back, which meant my wife did not find me much use for anything in the way of housekeeping chores or helping with the children. Her name is Ruth, by the way, and whenever I think of Ruth at Port Colborne I think of that other Ruth that said "Whithersoever though goest, there also will I go and thy people will be my people." She had three small kids to look after and no car but she managed and has managed ever since. Anyway, that was how I solved the housing problem.
Patrick Boxill was a member of the cast of The Apple Cart in 1966 and when I first met him we had lunch together and hit it off real well. I asked him, "Where are you staying?" He said, "I haven't quite made up my mind." I said, "Made up your mind! Are you kidding? You think you have a choice?" He said, "I'm going to make my choice." I said, "What are you going to do?" He was staying temporarily in a motel, which was insufferable so far as he was concerned. He said, "I'm going to wander around and when I see the house I think I would like to stay in, I will make inquiries." And this is exactly what he did. He got billeted, you could say, in a very nice, very old house, up the street from the Oban Inn. It had a very large garden and Patrick was a very able strategist, to say the least. He saw this large garden, which was going to seed, really. It was sort of overrun. There were two beautiful mulberry trees on either side of the front lawn, not that they had been allowed to go. But the house was inhabited, so Patrick marched up to the front door and mittened manfully. The door was opened by a very elderly lady and he just explained to her, "Look, I've got a housing problem and I need to stay here for X number of weeks. I notice you have a very beautiful garden here, or potentially very beautiful, and I think it needs a little work. I would be glad to put your garden in order if you could find your way clear to give me a room. That's all I need; I would be eating out." As it turned out, this lady decided she liked the cut of his jib and gave him the run of the house virtually, and the cooking facilities and everything else. He really landed on his feet. That lasted for the year. After that I think he was able to find housing because he got in earlier. He came back just about every year while he was alive.
The housing situation is quite different now, where they have a better-organized thing and it's possible for actors to get accommodations that are livable and much more satisfactory than the housing situation was in those days.
Zoe Caldwell played Orinthia in The Apple Cart that year. There was a bunch of us who were, I'm afraid, a little more than inebriated standing out in the parking lot at The Anchorage serenading Zoe, who had rented a motel apartment on the second floor, which had a balcony that still runs around it. I remember seeing her standing there on the balcony looking somewhat amused, but obviously with measured ecstasy, listening to this bunch of drunks serenading her. She was very gracious about it and begged us not to detain ourselves any longer, or something to that effect, and we drifted away.
In 1967 I was back to do Major Petkoff in Arms and the Man under Paxton's artistic direction. They wanted me to come back to do The Chemmy Circle and other things the following season, but I had also had an offer from Stratford and I thought I should be taking that. In 1967 when we were doing Arms and the Man, I had been asked by John Hirsh to do the premiere performance of James Reaney's Colours in the Dark, which was Canada's 100th birthday. We happened to be flying back on a plane from Winnipeg when he asked that I do this and I said, "No, I can't, because I'm doing Arms and the Man at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the performance time there overlaps by two weeks your four-week rehearsal period at Stratford. That would mean I've got to be travelling up to Stratford during the day, a long drive, and then driving back and doing a performance of George Bernard Shaw. I'm not a kid any more, I know my own limitations and I know that's out of the question so let's forget it right now." He said, "Well, I've got to have you. What's the problem?" I said, "It would be that long drive, and that nail-biting drive, because I would be wondering all the while whether I was going to make it in time to the two places. That combination is bad and I can't face it and won't face it." Still he said, "Well, what can we do?" I said, "The only way you could get me to do that would be to fly me from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Stratford and back." I knew that would settle him. I heard nothing more until I was rehearsing for Arms and the Man in Toronto, where we rehearsed the first couple of weeks and then came down to Niagara-on-the-Lake and rehearsed for another week in the Court House. Douglas Rain and Martha Henry were also in Arms and the Man, and so was Heath Lamberts, and we were all rehearsing in Toronto and they were all going to be in Colours in the Dark at Stratford. I remember when we started rehearsals in Toronto, Douglas saying to me, "You're coming to Stratford, aren't you?" I said, "No, I am not." He said, "I thought you were. I was talking to Hirsh." I said, "I haven't even heard anything more from Hirsh." I went home that night and I think it was the first or second day of rehearsals in Toronto. There was a contract from Stratford but it said absolutely nothing about the transportation. Doug told me that he and Martha had already negotiated a fee to cover the driving cost from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Stratford. I said, "Jolly good luck with that," and told him I hadn't even bothered to respond. About the third or fourth day of rehearsal, I got a call from John Hays, the manager at Stratford. We knew each other as of old. "What the hell are you doing, Sandy," he said. "I sent you a contract five days ago.. You've got to get it back." I said, "I told John Hirsh I would not come to Stratford unless I flew, and I assume that's out of the question so what more is there to discuss?" He said, "Have you any idea what it would cost?" I said, "No, I don't, but I'll find out." I was amazed how cheap it was, even by that day's standards. One of the local companies that flew private planes said it would fly me there and back for $60 or $70. I told John Hays, but he was between John Hirsh and the board so he insisted on swearing me to secrecy over the phone. How can you fly a plane into Stratford airport, such as it was, and keep it a secret? Martha and Douglas did a dummy run by car up to Stratford one day just to see how it would be and decided no, they couldn't do Arms and the Man and Hirsh's rehearsals in the same day. So they dealt in and settled for whatever they had negotiated for automobile travel and made up the difference themselves, I guess. And Heath also decided at this point that he wanted to deal in. So all four of us flew back and forth on an Aztec executive-type plane, which just accommodated us with the pilot, and it was very pleasant. He was a splendid fellow. He fell in love with Martha Henry. It even got to the point that on those days when he could, he would take the plane in and leave it and wait at Stratford for instructions if he had to go somewhere else, and prayed he wouldn't because he would sit at the back of the hall and just adored Martha Henry. I don't blame him.
In 1967 I came down early and got myself a very nice house on Lake Ontario at Port Dalhousie. My wife could come with the three kids in the station wagon and they were there for the whole time I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake—I think it was about six weeks. We had a lovely time. She would drive in and pick us up at the airport on Niagara Stone Road when we came back from Stratford.
I found myself at Stratford the following year doing The Seagull, directed by Jean Gascon. That was the end of my Shaw experience for quite some time. Then in 1973 they were remounting The Philanderer to go to the Kennedy Centre, which was barely opened. Norman Welsh, who was playing one of the fathers in The Philanderer, was unable to do it because of another commitment and they wanted me to go in for him, and I did. I went to Washington with them and did the performance in the Kennedy Centre. I was invited to come back a number of times, certainly during Paxton's era, but was never able to do it because of other commitments. It was not until 1979, when Les Yeo wanted me to come down and do You Never Can Tell, and that same year I did Captain Brassbound's Conversion. Much had changed, including the housing situation, although it was still pretty dodgy. That year, Chris Newton came down and saw You Never Can Tell. Then, to my delight, while I was playing in Theatre New Brunswick, I got a cable from my agent saying Mr Newton wanted me to play Tarleton in Misalliance, which was going to open the festival in his first year here. This was the role Barry Morse had asked me to play in 1966 and I decided I wasn't really ready for. I'm glad I did, but in 1979 I felt I was ready for it and I couldn't believe my good fortune that Chris was asking me to do it. We hadn't seen each other, I don't think, in a good many years. The last time I had seen him was at Stratford in 1967 when he was playing in The Three Musketeers and I was in Colours in the Dark. Although I was following his career with a good deal of interest in Calgary and Vancouver, we hadn't really been in touch with each other. I know I had seen him long enough to shake hands and wish him well when he was down here in 1979 watching You Never Can Tell. I think that probably my most delightful memory of the Shaw Festival is getting that telegram while I was playing at Theatre New Brunswick. I was enjoying it, but this was unbelievable news that I was going to get to play Tarleton and I knew I could play it. I also met Paul Reynolds, who was acting as a sort of administrator in the company. I had known him before; we had some Equity connections. I think there are maybe three or four of the seasons since that Chris has been involved in that I have not been in the company; in the others, I have.
My connection with the Shaw Festival has been a very happy one because I've got to play in a lot of the Shaw productions, which is just exactly what I've always wanted to do and they've always been rewarding—and in a good number of the others, which were interesting and still are. My wife will agree that we've made a lot of happy connections in the theatre, but I think the happiest was that horrendous year when we came down to Niagara-on-the-Lake to do The Apple Cart and found ourselves living in Port Colborne on Lake Erie. To have been a part of the growth of the festival and to have enjoyed all that Niagara-on-the-Lake has to offer, and we've come to know many people here, has been one of the most benevolent things that ever happened to us.
Another thing I've enjoyed is the connection with Harley Granville Barker. I've been in not all of the plays we have done by him but I was in The Voysey Inheritance, The Marrying of Anne Leete and The Secret Life.
The Court House in 1966 was much more of a court house, so to speak. When I first came down, I got here in time to see a performance of Man and Superman. I heard from many of the actors who were in it what getting that show on under Barry Morse had meant. They were playing in the proscenium, of course, which was just that little stage at the front of the main courtroom. It was a long time since the place had been redecorated. It had been decorated in the thirties or whatever and was not very attractive. One thing Barry felt they all had to do was to make the theatre itself. All they could do really was to repaint the walls. They were all up on scaffolding with rollers just hours before the opening performance. But the place did look a lot brighter, they felt. The seats were not very comfortable; they were pretty hard. And GBS never runs less than three hours it seems so saddle sores were part of the deal. We played The Apple Cart there, which was extremely difficult to do in that relatively small hole in the wall that constituted the proscenium. The Apple Cart, with all the other ancillary characters, involved the entire cabinet of the king and prime minister, something like 16 actors. Just to get them on the stage was an exercise. What it amounted to mostly was that the cabinet sat in a large semicircle with the king, when he was addressing them, poised at one end. There was no place else to go. When there had to be some interplay, they might get out and get excited and come down and face each other in the centre, but then you went back to your seat, and this was not what a designer or a director would have wanted ordinarily, but it was all that could be done in that limited space. But the thing was nevertheless tremendously well received. They were selling out all the time. I think the run was two weeks. At that time, 1966, one of the leading and most-read literary journals in North America was the Saturday Review of Literature. By a happenstance, the man who wrote its drama reviews happened to be in the neighbourhood and was drawn to a performance of The Apple Cart early in the first week when we opened. He was bowled over and wrote a glowing review that made an issue of the Saturday Review that came out about the Wednesday or Thursday of the first week. He sang the praises of this production and urged everyone who considered himself a Shaw aficionado to make the effort to get there. So in the second week, I counted the licence plates on Queen Street and I think about 25 states of the Union were represented. But hardly any of them could get seats because there were no seats. The production had sold out. On the strength of the Toronto reviews, the Canadian audience had gobbled up the seats. It just astounded me, the power of that review, although the Saturday Review of Literature was not your average literary review in North America, but still. I find myself, when I'm walking through the parking lot here, still examining the licence plates, but there has never been the bonanza there was for The Apple Cart in 1966.
In the Court House we were, as we are now, crowded into one comer of the second floor. It's still a bit of a problem. We now have two washrooms, but at the time we were doing Arms and the Man, the only way we could get to a washroom was, once the play was under way and the audience was all in, we could go downstairs to the washrooms on the first floor. If we happened to meet one of the audience who had left the auditorium, so be it, but that was the only option. During the intervals, tough luck: you couldn't go out and you couldn't go to a washroom, so we all arranged that whenever we were offstage to attend to those duties. I saw a lot of performances between then and 1973 when the Festival Theatre opened and most of them were good and engaging performances. Heartbreak House, I remember, though it was well done it ran about VA hours and sitting on hard seats for that length of time—you were aware of it.
I came down once and they were offering me a place on Queen Street which was small and not very clean with no place to park a car. I just said no way. I went up the road to Niagara Falls and found a guy who had taken over a three-storey house on the Parkway going into Niagara Falls which overlooked the gorge. He was an entrepreneur of the first water and had bought up one of these old houses that looked like a ramshackle place from the outside, but inside he three apartments, one on each floor and the second one was fortunately available. It was superbly equipped; everything was new. It also had this nice view of the gorge. I paid $400 a month for something that would have cost me $500 in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I had that place for two years. He moved on and sold the place to somebody who wasn't interested in renting to somebody for four or five months, so I shifted my locale to St Catharines and lucked out again. I found a wonderful place for still less than you would pay for a bit of a borderline accommodation in Niagara-on-the-Lake. So I stayed there for four or five years until I broke my ankle and couldn't commute, so they found a place for me here.
Brian Doherty was always in theatre. In the thirties he wrote a very successful Broadway comedy called Father Malachy's Miracle. He was a trained lawyer but he had this penchant for theatre. Father Malachy's Miracle, by the standard of the day, had quite a successful run on Broadway. When he came back, I don't know whether he was practicing law or not. Somehow I associate his name with a touring company that a fellow named John Pratt was involved with. The McGill students did a production called My Fur Lady, a revue type of thing which sort of picked up on My Fair Lady, and they toured that and I think Brian must have assisted them in that. Anyway, I associated him with a touring company out of Montreal. It did things like Ten Nights in a Barroom and sent them up in such a way that they would not offend totally the sensibilities of those who thought they were really going to see Ten Nights in a Barroom. He showed a certain genius for meeting the needs of all levels of the public. When I found we were office mates in this building that the Spectator owned in Hamilton, we got to know each other better, although we were more concerned at that time about the problems of FM radio and television respectively. Neither of us knew very much about television. We used to go and have a drink together. I wasn't probing him very carefully. To me, he was just a person who had a great interest in the theatre and had gone beyond the point of mere interest and had taken on a few things and pioneered a few things. He had mentioned to me that he had this notion about the Shaw Festival as something that might work because there was a playwright who really was a playwright and who had enough of a repertory that he could give Shakespeare a good run for his money. This turned out to be quite right. I always enjoyed the contacts I had with him and Calvin Rand in those early years. They were both wonderful, very fine people. He was a very skillful person at getting and keeping people moving in the same direction and certainly did us all a service when he pioneered this venture. And I would say the same for Calvin Rand, although I hadn't known him as well as Brian.