Holiday weekend in Stratford
The home town of our most famous theatre lacks night clubs and exotic restaurants but offers other kinds of glamour and excitement — white swans, picnic tables under weeping willows and the high tragedy and broad comedy of Shakespeare
LEISURE IN CANADA
For a great many people, including me, the most glamorous and exciting place in Canada in which to spend a weekend isn't any of the big cities. Nor is it any of the luxury resorts. Instead, it's a curiously old-fashioned community with a population of twenty thousand, which hasn't a single cocktail bar or night club or gourmet restaurant yet attracts two hundred thousand visitors between the end of June and the middle of September.
This place, of course, is Stratford, which besides being a small industrial centre in Ontario's richest agricultural belt is a state of mind wrought by white swans, weeping willows, lazy river, arched bridges, formal gardens, strutting actors, enchanting actresses, magnificent costumes, immortal poetry, high tragedy, broad comedy and a wonderful building that is shaped like a circus tent and is the theatre of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.
My wife Chris and I have made a weekend pilgrimage to this place each year since 1953, which was the Festival's first season, and on a mid-summer Friday this year we set forth as eagerly as ever, our picnic basket and cooler full of pleasant foods and beverages and the two of us full of a titillating sense of adventure.
Stratford is a hundred miles west of Toronto, where we live, and we followed Highway Seven through gently rolling country. The sun shone on ripening winter wheat the color of burnished copper and the oats were jade green and as we drove along we caught fragrant whiffs of sweet clover. The brick and stone farmhouses, shaded by elms and maples, looked cool and comfortable, and we passed herds of fat cattle, fields covered by a snow of white hens, and rail-enclosed pastures in which aristocratic horses posed like grace-
ful statues. Occasionally we wound through the leafy streets of a town or village. At Rockwood, halfway to Stratford, we stopped, as we always do, at a little bakeshop that sells crispy fluffy sugary spicy doughnuts — undoubtedly the best in the world.
Munching one of them, Chris propounded the theory that we really went to Stratford to eat doughnuts at Rockwood. Later, when we met friends for dinner at the Walper Hotel in Kitchener, she insisted that we went to Stratford to eat at Kitchener. There was a grain of truth in her joking. Rockwood doughnuts and Walper Hotel meals do add zest to the trip. The Walper specializes in the delightful dishes of the Pennsylvania Dutch, Kitchener having been founded by United Empire Loyalists of Pennsylvania Dutch stock.
We had wiener schnitzel, which is a deliciously prepared veal cutlet garnished with lemon, hardboiled egg and anchovies, a spinach salad with diced bacon and sour-cream sauce, a Rhine wine tenderly decanted by a wine steward who was also from the Rhine, and Dutch apple pie. We lingered over coffee in the stately green and gold and ivory dining room until we just had time to head for Stratford, thirty miles from Kitchener, check in at a motel, and stroll a bit before taking in the first performance of the weekend.
Stratford’s streets in the early evening were crowded with visitors from every state and province and with residents who were out examining the visitors. Chris, buying cigarettes, struck up a conversation with a clerk who told her with a grin that Stratford folks can’t be dragged away from Stratford in the summer. “What,” he asked, “would we talk about in the winter if we missed the goings-on during the Festival?”
He was only partly kidding. Stratford people do, indeed, enjoy the Festival and the influx of strangers it brings. Their carnival mood is apparent even to the strangers. If this mood seems out of keeping with the architecture of the business section, which is solemnly Victorian and on the gloomy side, it suits to perfection Stratford’s principal feature — a hundred and twenty-five acres of gay picture-postcard parkland.
The Avon River cuts through the park and has been dammed and dredged so that this particular stretch of it is a sort of artificial lake with lagoons and tiny islands and a glassy surface that mirrors the swans and pleasure boats that float on it and the foot bridges to the islands and the willows overhanging its banks. The Festival Theatre, which, in the beginning, actually was the kind of circus tent it now resembles, is in the park; so are a couple of Festival exhibition halls; and so are scores of picnic tables,
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The ritzy and the rustic: The Stratford box office is a stone’s throw from the farm
Chris said, as we sauntered around, that she didn’t believe the story of Stratford and its park and its Festival — that the facts were too incredible. They certainly tax the imagination. How can you account, for example, for the whim that moved Thomas Mercer Jones of the pioneering Canada Company to change the name of the river from the Little Thames to the Avon a hundred and thirty years ago? Had he not done this the first set-
tler, William Sargint, would hardly have called his inn the Shakespeare. Stratford would hardly have been called Stratford, and, with another name, it would not today have a Shakespearean Festival.
Then take the park. Stratford, which started as an inn on a coach road, by the turn of the present century was a Grand Trunk Railway division point and had furniture, textile and other factories. As the population and prosperity of the town
grew, so did the stench of its river, which then was an open sewer meandering through a swamp. Stratford's filth was either emptied into it or piled on its banks.
Stratfordites, crossing their bridges, held their noses and hurried. It got so bad that they decided in 1904 to clean it up and, in the process, they created the park. Without the park, where would the Festival be?
Finally, where would it be if it hadn't been for Tom Patterson, the Stratford boy who dreamed, overseas during the war, of returning and making his home town the scene of an international Shakespearean theatre, and who did return and somehow manage, without experience or money, to do what he dreamed of doing?
"I can’t believe the Stratford story,” Chris repeated. “I can’t believe it.”
By now, playgoers were streaming toward the $1,500,000 air-conditioned Festival theatre, which seats 2,190. Our destination, this first night of our weekend in Stratford, was not the theatre but the Festival concert hall, for the première of a new English version of Offenbach’s comic opera, Orpheus in the Underworld. This version had been done by two young Toronto writers, Bob Fulford and Jim Knight, and they were in the audience, tense and pale, wondering whether they’d written a hit or a flop. Within ten minutes after the curtain rose they had the answer; the packed house loved the thing. And the enthusiasm continued to rise until the curtain fell on the last act. Because we know Fulford and Knight we waited afterward to congratulate them, and met the performers, still in their costumes and grease paint, and everybody was delighted with the success of the show and there was going to be a party, and almost before we knew it Chris and I were at the party.
We went to bed too late to do what we generally do on the Saturday morning of a Stratford weekend, which is to rise early and drive to Kitchener to prowl through the old market to which Mennonite and Amish farmers, among others, bring their produce. There, at stalls attended by bearded men with broad-brimmed black hats, and by prim-faced women wearing grey or black bonnets, you can buy homemade cheeses, smoked meats, jellied meats, cakes, cookies, bread, and a mouth-watering assortment of pickles, including pickled baby ears of corn. This market is the only one in Canada comparable to the famous Pennsylvania Dutch market at Lancaster in the United States. Shopping at it is a fascinating experience.
But, being too late for it, we dawdled over bacon and eggs at our motel, then drove to St. Marys, a few miles south of Stratford, for a swim in the clean sparkling water of what the signboards boast is “Canada’s biggest swimming pool.” Actually, this is an abandoned limestone quarry, a fifth of a mile long and eighty feet wide, flooded by springs, and if there’s a better swimming hole. 1 haven't found it yet. After our swim Chris and 1 lay in the sun, which is an ideal Saturday morning pastime. Chris said she was too lazy to unpack the picnic basket and the cooler.
“We’ll be hungrier after the show," she added, so we settled for a hamburger at a drive-in. Then we did a quick tour of the Festival exhibition halls, where we admired paintings by ten leading Canadian artists, pottery, weaving, carvings, metalwork, a puppet show, a vast assortment of Eskimo stuff assembled, complete with Eskimo demonstrators and plastic igloo, by the Department of Northern Affairs, and a collection of thirteen hundred books — fine art books, music books, theatre books and books by or about Canadians. We could have devoted the weekend to the books alone, but when we'd stared at their jackets for ten minutes we reluctantly had to depart.
At Stratford, the Festival trumpeters blow a fanfare when a performance is about to begin. They were blowing when we reached the theatre to see the matinee —Othello, with Douglas Campbell as the
jealous Moor, Fiances Hyland as poor Desdemona, and Douglas Rain as the fiendish lago.
With two thousand other playgoers, we poured into the cavernous foyer, thinking as we did so that there is no typical Stratford playgoer. Here were celebrities with autograph-hunters buzzing around them, teen-agers in rumpled slacks and sport shirts, immaculately groomed business executives, matrons with mink stoles, a Hindu girl in a silk sari, groups of bearded beatniks, a Negro couple with two children, a group of nuns, a kilted Scot.
One person in three was from Toronto and one in eight from Detroit, a hundred and sixty miles southwest of Stratford. More than seventy percent w'ere Canadians and most of the rest Americans. This much Festival officials could estimate from ticket reservations. But, apart from that, all they knew about the audience was its size — 2,190. or one person for every seat.
Within moments after the fanfare there wasn't a vacant space anywhere. Since there seldom is, most people order their tickets from the Shakespearean Festival by mail, well in advance. The best seats are $5 and the second best are $3.50. In the end sections, from which the view of the stage is not quite so good, there are a few balcony seats for as little as $1. Through the Festival organization, you can book overnight accommodations when you're ordering tickets. If you’re looking for a bargain, four hundred rooms in two hundred private homes are available at $4 for a single, $6 for a room for two with double bed. and $7 for a room for two with twin beds. Many of the Stratfordites who open their homes for overnight guests during the festival are. from all accounts, more interested in upholding Stratford's reputation for hospitality than in making money, and toss in free extras like midnight snacks and breakfast coffee. The hotel rooms in Stratford are from $7 up for a single with bath and $13 up for a room for tw'o with twin beds and bath. Motel rates are mostly $9 for a single occupant and $12 for two.
Waiting for the lights to go down in the theatre, in which the seats are arranged in semi-circles around the open and uncurtained stage and the aisles, radiating from the stage like the spokes of a halfwheel. are used by the players for entrances and exits. Chris and I reminisced. We recalled how the paper fans flapped in the Festival’s circus-tent period before it had an air-conditioned building, what a terrific job Alec Guinness had done as Richard 111 in 1953. how the smoke from overloaded incense pots, in 1954. had made everybody cough and almost wneck-
ed the première of Oedipus, the one Greek tragedy done by the Festival.
They do things with a dramatic flourish at Stratford. The din of a cannon, announcing that the show was on, that the doors were closed, that nobody could come or go until intermission, startled us. So did the suddenness with which we were plunged into complete darkness. Then actors were running through the aisles to the stage with sputtering torches, and for three hours the old magic of Shakespeare and the young magic of
Stratford held us more or less spellbound.
"How did you like it?" the girl in the seat behind me asked the girl beside her when the applause finally died after the last act.
“1 liked it fine but I didn't like that guy's haircut.”
“Yes. he should have looked like a devil but his hair made him look like an angel. It wasn't fair."
"Well, after all, he was supposed to be a smoothie."
They were still arguing when we left
for the parking lot to pick up the car and drive to a picnic table, and the table we found was by the water, surrounded by swans. Some friends joined us. and Chris unpacked small tender barbecued chickens and mixed a salad, and with this we had sparkling Rosé and sharp old Cheddar cheese.
I'm not too fond of the ordinary picnic with limp sandwiches and children tossing baseballs and the inevitable dog whining for tidbits. But at a rustic table on the carefully barbered grass under Stratford’s weeping willows,
“At Conestoga we were fed by a woman who once cooked for the Kaiser”
a picnic betomes an act of gracious living.
W'e ale until we could eal no more and then we fed the swans, thinking, as we did so. of the pleasure these beautiful birds have given people since a public benefactor. J. C. (¡arden, then superintendent of the CNR shops at Stratford, imported the first pair to his town thirtyfive years ago. Stratford now has fortyfive white swans, including sixteen hatched this year, and a pair of black swans sent as a gift by a couple of appreciative Festival-goers. Mr. and Mrs. John Stanton of Birmingham. Michigan.
Unlike us. the sw'ans didn’t eat until they could eat no more. They simply ate at our table until we had no more to feed them, then waddled to another table. We sat and chatted and told jokes and enjoyed the coo! of the evening and watched the paddlcboats —odd two - seaters with hand-propelled paddlewheels—skimming up and dowm. 1 promised Chris we wouldn't leave Stratford without trying a paddleboat. And presently it was time for the evening performance — As You Like It, with that fine actress, Irene Worth, as the charming Rosalind, Kate Reid as Celia, William Sylvester as Orlando anti Ted Follows as Oliver. It was. to say the least, a lot of fun. with Miss Worth having as much fun as anybody, which is one of the reasons for her enduring success. Then to one of Stratford's overcrowded cafes for a sandwich.
Stratford’s restaurants, to give them their due. do their best. The trouble is that they have little trade in the winter and have tremendous difficulty coping with the Festival throngs. With one or two exceptions, they have kept their prices reasonable, and if you want plain food and are not in a rush you can get value for your money. We waited and got a sandwich for the price of a sandwich. and once again went to bed late.
On Sunday many a Stratford weekender drives to one or other of the Lake Huron resorts that are within fifty or sixty miles of Stratford, but. to relax, we drove slowly along hack roads, through Mennonite and Amish settlements.
We wound up fairly near Kitchener at crystal clear Sunfish Lake, al the summer cottage of two good friends, Keith Staebler. who runs a Kitchener insurance firm and plays a hot piano, and his wife Fdna. who writes and does Waterloo County cooking — an Ontario variation of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
There, we swam and baked in the sun and swam again until Fdna. who had been making mysterious trips to her kitchen, said. "Come and get it." She served an incomparable ham smoked by Bill Ruetfer. a butcher who. in foodloving Kitchener, holds the status less enlightened communities reserve for portrait painters and musicians. She also served tiny new potatoes simmered in savory cheese sauce, dumplings steamed in ham juice with dried apples, greenbean salad with sour cream and onion dressing, a tossed salad, a cake a foot high tilled with strawberries and cherries, and three - year - old Cheddar cheese so strong it nipped your tongue.
We ate on the veranda and saw an eagle wheeling in the sk\ and a boy landing a bass and talked of an enormous turtle an aqualung diver said he had seen sixty feet deep in the lake a few days earlier. Dusk was gathering when we left for the motel to bed down early and we rose early Monday and went shopping for our daughters. Kate, who is seventeen, and Janet, who is eight.
The stores in Stratford, while they may he heavily stocked with English bone china, tinned toffee and similar tourist items, and while one of them offers such revolting canned goods as rattlesnake meat and fried grasshoppers, alleging them to be gourmet treats, have little you can’t find elsewhere. In one of them. La Boutique, a gift shop that moved from Toronto to Stratford in search of business from Festival patrons, pretty Barbara Smith, an Ottawa student who is working in Stratford for her summer vacation, helped Chris pick out tw'o handmade silver Festival swans, suitable for attaching to bracelets or necklaces for $3.95 each.
"And now,” Chris told me. "you can buy me that boat ride." So we walked to the river and met Jackson Wilson, a Scotsman, who is having the time of his life as the proprietor of three paddlcboats. four rowboats and eighteen canoes.
Wilson charges $1 an hour for a paddleboat. eighty cents for a rowboat and seventy-five cents for a canoe unless you are a student, in which event you can rent a canoe for sixty cents an hour. "We must." he chuckles, “encourage education." His chief problem formerly was obstreperous teen-agers w'ho would take his boats out and tip them. He solved that w'ith Scottish psychology by adding these items to his rate sheet: Upsets. $1; wet boats, fifty cents.
"That." he says, “stopped them."
He handed us into a paddleboat. told us we had honest faces and could pay when we returned, and we set off to see Stratford from the river and pursue swans. Stratford looks as beautiful from the river as the river looks from Stratford, swans can go faster than paddleboats. and paddleboats are easy to manage once you get the hang of pushing the port rudder pedal to go to starboard and the starboard rudder pedal to go to port. We stayed out the whole hour and enjoyed every second of it.
An explorer with a paddleboat might
never have penetrated the interior of this continent in pioneering days, but make no mistake about the fact that he would have worked up an appetite trying. When we had warped into moorings and paid and thanked Admiral Wilson, we took otf immediately for Conestoga, which is north of Kitchener and not far off the route home to Toronto from Stratford.
At Conestoga, we met and were fed by a woman whose kitchen artistry is a legend in her part of Ontario. She is Augusta Thiem, a plump amiable grandmotherly type who. as a young girl, learned to cook at an exclusive resort hotel in Germany and often prepared meals for the Kaiser, who took the hotel over for weeks at a time when he was hunting. Augusta Thiem. who emigrated to Canada after the First World War. has a garden in which she grows her ow n vegetables and she picks them just before they go in the pot. She also has sauce recipes she’ll share with nobody.
All w'e had at her modest restaurant in the village of Conestoga was a bowl of soup and German-style roast chicken and vegetables and salad and pickles and apple pie and coffee. But no soup or chicken except Augusta Thiem’s ever lasted like that and no vegetables were ever so fresh or perfectly cooked or marvelously seasoned and no salad ever had so much flavor.
"Have you eaten enough to get your strength up?" Chris asked.
"Yes.” I said, "I have. Augusta Thiem’s food has restored me, even after that struggle with a paddleboat."
"Well.” said Chris, "we’d better roll up the ground sheets. The Stratford weekend is over for another year." So we drove home and on the way we did some rough and ready bookkeeping. As near as we could figure it our three nights and days at Stratford had cost the two of us a total of $117. When we got home I climbed on the bathroom scales and had gained two pounds. I am now on a diet. ★