NUREYEV email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-05-24 published
He ran O'Keefe Centre in its prime
Former accountant was an innovator: He booked a show using surtitles and a play about an interracial romance
By Carol COOPER Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, May 24, 2003 - Page F10
Late one spring night in 1963, a phone call awoke Hugh WALKER, the first managing director and president of Toronto's O'Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts. A police officer wanted to know if "we had a mad Russian called Nuri-something dancing at the O'Keefe Centre," Mr. WALKER wrote in his book, The O'Keefe Centre: Thirty Years of Theatre History.
After the opening performance of Marguerite and Armand, in which he starred with Dame Margot FONTEYN, Rudolph NUREYEV had danced up the centre of Yonge Street, attempting headstands on cars as he went. Police intervened in the interest of Mr. NUREYEV's safety, but after a scuffle, the dancer landed in jail for causing a disturbance.
Endlessly kind, courtly and patient, Mr. WALKER notified the Royal Ballet with whom Mr. NUREYEV was performing, and the dancer was released.
Mr. WALKER, the man who smoothed the way for the stars appearing at the O'Keefe as overseer of its operations and who had previously supervised its construction, has died at the age of 93.
O'Keefe Centre, now named the Hummingbird Centre, opened on October 1, 1960, with the first performance of Camelot in the country's first Broadway musical. The show starred Richard BURTON, Julie ANDREWS and Robert GOULET and played to a glittering crowd.
In The Toronto Star, Gordon SINCLAIR wrote: "A salaam to Hugh WALKER for bringing the O'Keefe Centre home on time after 30 months of strain on his patience, nerves and humour."
Mr. WALKER had, in fact, developed an ulcer during the centre's construction, and the strain didn't end with its opening. Shortly after the curtain, his wife, Shirley, smelled smoke. It turned out to be a burning escalator motor, and after the fire was extinguished, Mary JOLLIFFE, the centre's publicist, ran to a hotel across the street for air freshener. The audience came out at intermission none the wiser.
It took royalty to solve another problem. At the time, temperance sentiment remained strong in Toronto, and teetotallers criticized the fact the O'Keefe was funded by, and named for, a brewery.
Mr. WALKER set about to gain acceptance for the centre. Learning that the Queen was visiting Canada in June of 1959, he convinced her aides that she should stop briefly at the construction site and view a model of the building.
Before an audience of arts patrons and the press, the Queen inspected the model and showed such an interest that she overstayed her schedule, delaying the start of the Queen's Plate, her next stop, by half an hour.
Mr. WALKER didn't know that the Queen or the O'Keefe would be in his future when he became executive assistant to Canadian Breweries and Argus Corp. owner E. P. TAILOR/TAYLOR in 1955.
It was only after his hiring that he learned that Mr. TAILOR/TAYLOR had responded to a challenge made by Nathan PHILLIPS, then mayor of Toronto, for industry to build a desperately needed performing arts theatre in the city. For the project, Mr. TAILOR/TAYLOR gave $12-million and the services of his new assistant.
With the slogan "To bring the best of live entertainment to the greatest number of people at the lowest possible prices," the 3, 211-seat multipurpose theatre, designed by modernist architect Peter DICKINSON, quickly became a predominant Canadian venue, predating the Place des Arts in Montreal and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Pre-Broadway shows, musicals, ballets and plays from around the world came to the O'Keefe and it replaced Maple Leaf Gardens as the Toronto venue for the Metropolitan Opera. International stars such as Louis ARMSTRONG, Paul ANKA, Tom JONES, Diana ROSS and Harry BELAFONTE performed there.
During one of Mr. BELAFONTE's many performances at the centre, he experimented with a wireless mike. Accidentally, he tuned into the police frequency. "The O'Keefe audience had the unusual experience of listening in on a lot of police messages, while the police were able to enjoy hearing BELAFONTE sing Ma-til-da!," Mr. WALKER wrote.
Another O'Keefe story concerned Carol CHANNING. When the performer appeared at the centre in Hello, Dolly, she needed to make a number of quick costume changes. Since there wasn't enough time for Ms. CHANNING to run backstage to her dressing room, the crew put up a roofless tent in the wings.
From the fly bridge, the stagehands looked down on Ms. CHANNING, remaining quiet while they watched her change. After her last performance, she looked up at them and said, "Well, boys, hope you've enjoyed the show. 'Bye now."
Other more critical events are associated with the O'Keefe. In 1964, while awaiting her divorce from Eddie FISHER, Elizabeth TAILOR/TAYLOR stayed with Richard BURTON while he starred in Sir John GIELGUD's production of Hamlet at the centre. One weekend between performances, the couple stole off to Montreal and married.
And in 1974, ballet dancer Mikhail BARYSHNIKOV arranged his defection from the Soviet Union at the centre.
During the early 1960s, the O'Keefe became home to the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company. In his book, Mr. WALKER credits the centre with allowing the companies' artistic growth.
Still, not everyone spoke so kindly about the O'Keefe. Many critics denounced its acoustics and less-than-intimate size.
For that, Mr. WALKER had a ready answer. In 1985, Herbert WHITTAKER, then The Globe and Mail's drama critic, wrote: "Against the fading chorus of these ancient complaints, I hear an echo, the rather quiet British tones of Hugh WALKER: 'We know it [O'Keefe Centre] is too large for legitimate theatre, Herbert, but think of all the things Toronto would have missed if E. P. TAILOR/TAYLOR hadn't built it when he did?' "
Born on March 2, 1910, in Scotland to Brigadier-General James Workman WALKER, who fought in the Middle East during the First World War, and Jane STEVENSON, Hugh Percy WALKER was the middle of three children. After earning a B.A. at Cambridge University, he became a chartered accountant.
Mr. WALKER worked with firms in London, Palestine, Quebec, Scotland and Michigan before being employed by Mr. TAILOR/TAYLOR.
Although a great lover of theatre, upon his appointment as the O'Keefe's managing director, Mr. WALKER had little experience with its business side. This led to some innocent faux pas, such as when he booked a photo shoot with the Camelot stars at 10 in the morning, impossibly early for actors. In response, Mr. BURTON exclaimed: "What, in the middle of the night?" Ms. JOLLIFFE said.
Still, director and theatre critic Mavor MOORE said Mr. WALKER dealt with difficulties well. "He was very smooth," Dr. MOORE said. "He was very expert at handling people and situations. He was a calm man."
Mr. WALKER trusted his staff, Ms. JOLLIFFE said. "He was willing to take direction from staff people who had already been in the business, and that was unusual."
And he was gracious and courteous. "He gave great dignity to the performing arts profession and he treated people wonderfully," Ms. JOLLIFFE said. "He was a perfect model of a former era of English gentlemen."
Known for his hospitality, Mr. WALKER always visited the stars in their dressing rooms before opening night and entertained them afterward at First Nighters' parties with Mrs. WALKER.
When the WALKERs took Leonard BERNSTEIN to the Rosedale Country Club, Mr. WALKER tolerated Mr. BERNSTEIN's sending back the wine three times, Ms. JOLLIFFE said.
Along with bringing in commercial performances from the United States and Britain, Mr. WALKER showed some daring in booking shows. In 1961, Kwamina, the story of a romantic relationship between a white woman and a black man, played the O'Keefe.
Acknowledging Toronto's Italian population, Mr. WALKER arranged for Rugantino, the biggest musical hit in Italian history, to play at the O'Keefe in 1963. It was the first foreign-language attraction in North America to use "surtitles," and although plagued with technical difficulties, it played to 60-per-cent capacity.
Things changed for Mr. WALKER and O'Keefe Centre in the late 1960s. Initially, the centre had been a subsidiary of the O'Keefe Brewing Co., owned by Canadian Breweries, and was never intended to make a profit. The company wrote off its operating losses and property taxes.
When Mr. TAILOR/TAYLOR retired in 1966, directors of Canadian Breweries decided that they could not continue to pay the O'Keefe's high taxes. To resolve the situation, Metropolitan Toronto was given the centre in 1968.
A new and inexperienced board of directors brought a new way of doing things, and the centre's losses began to mount.
Mr. WALKER wrote that after the disastrous 1971-72 season, "what followed was not the happiest part of my 15 years at the O'Keefe Centre, and I would like to forget some of the things that happened."
In his final working years, Mr. WALKER dealt with both the centre's internal changes and rising competition from the Royal Alexandra Theatre, the St. Lawrence Centre and emerging alternative theatres.
After his retirement in 1975, he spent 10 years at the Guild of All Arts in Scarborough, Ontario, as the director of Guildwood Hall, curating former Guild Inn owner Spencer CLARK's historical architectural collection of artifacts, writing and illustrating a booklet on them, curating Mr. CLARK's art collection, making a film and lecturing.
He and his wife lived on the Guild's grounds for four years in the now-demolished Corycliff, where they hosted parties whose guests included many stars from the O'Keefe days.
Along with writing the O'Keefe Centre history while in his 80s, Mr. WALKER golfed.
Sue NIBLETT, who worked with him at the Guild, recalls seeing Mr. WALKER nattily attired in golf clothing and Wellingtons standing in two feet of snow driving balls into Lake Ontario.
"He had a love of life that I've never experienced or met in anybody before," Ms. NIBLETT said. "He didn't waste a day of his life as far as I could see."
Mr. WALKER died on May 2 and leaves daughters Katrina PARKER and ZoŽ ALEXANDER and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Sarah CHENIER/CHEN…, and his wife, Shirley, predeceased him.
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