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Artists & Entertainers

Theatre, literature and fine arts alumni

Not everything one learns at U of T requires a slide rule, thank goodness. Theatre, literature and the fine arts have always been part of life at U of T. Students have gone on to entertain, amaze and sometimes bewilder and shock Canadians.

The university has helped generations of young men and women to discover talents they didn’t always know were there. Jack McClelland, for example, arrived at U of T expecting to become an engineer, and Dennis Lee, a minister. We’re happy their original intentions did not come to pass.

Liona Boyd (BMus 1972) burst into tears during her first day at the Royal Conservatory while trying to harmonize “O Canada.” But the greatest challenge for the future guitar virtuoso was the requirement to play keyboards. She was the only student in her year with no piano experience and she was handicapped by her long nails which, though an asset for guitar, were a hindrance at the keys. Boyd played her first major concert while in second year.

Morley Callaghan (1903-1990) had a strong attachment to U of T, which is revealed in his 1948 novel, The Varsity Story, a thinly veiled depiction of life at the university. In particular, Callaghan (BA 1925 SMC) writes of his love for Hart House, where he escaped the “conservative” atmosphere of the campus to read modern literature.

While studying political science during the ’60s, novelist Matt Cohen (1942-1999) fought to ban the bomb and took pride in belonging to self-described “jazzy, New Left, new-style, all-movement-and-no-organization organizations.” When not studying or rabble-rousing, Cohen (BA 1964 UC, MA 1965) imagined a time when he could “string together enough big words to stun myself into believing it is possible” to be a writer.

Bill Glassco (PhD 1966) came to U of T in 1959 to teach literature and pursue a doctorate. Disenchanted with university life, he increasingly sought refuge in theatre and in 1964, together with Dennis Lee, started the Muddy York Theatre Club. He directed his first play in a student lounge at Victoria College. As artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre from 1971 to 1982, Glassco helped promote Canadian theatre and develop a host of new Canadian talent.

Phyllis Grosskurth (BA 1946 Trinity) is an English scholar and authority on psychoanalysis who has written a series of remarkable biographies on such figures as Freud and Lord Byron. Her brilliance was apparent at Trinity where she wrote poetry. One of her treasured memories is the “magical” moment come third year when she finally was allowed to freely roam the library stacks.

Student enrolment exploded in the late ’40s with the arrival of war veterans on campus. Among them was William Hutt (BA 1948 Trinity), whose “agreeable arrogance” quickly won friends. When he wasn’t acting at Hart House, he could be spotted leaving the Trinity residences in the early hours hauling bags of empty beer bottles. A fixture at the Stratford Festival, Hutt is regarded as one of Canada’s finest actors.

Jack McClelland (BA 1946 Trinity) claimed that his sole motivation for interrupting his studies to join the navy was the increasing difficulty for able-bodied men to get dates on campus. The comment is characteristic of the quick-witted former president of McClelland & Stewart Inc., who returned to campus after the war and there developed his love of Canadian writers. As a publisher, he nurtured our literature by consistently promoting homegrown talent.

Before receiving his bachelor of music degree in 1950, Elmer Iseler (1927-1998), director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir for 34 years, conducted the U of T student orchestra and the All-Varsity Mixed Chorus. Later, with his own Elmer Iseler Singers, he created a distinctive Canadian sound by blending British and American choral traditions.

Teresa Stratas (DIP MUS 1959) sang Greek pop songs at 13 before studying music at U of T. Auditioning for the Royal Conservatory, she sang Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Despite the unorthodox selection, the strength of her voice won the young soprano a place in the program. The year she graduated, she debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Ted Kotcheff (BA 1952 UC) joined CBC television after graduating. He was one of a handful of Canadian directors (including Norman Jewison, BA 1949 Victoria) who cracked the Hollywood scene and provided inspiration for young filmmakers back home. Kotcheff went on to make successful features including Rambo, First Blood and Fun with Dick and Jane.

Caroline Roe’s thesis, “Vernacular didactic literature in England in the 12th and 13th centuries,” may not sound like a best-seller, but it could be seen as the precursor to her series of mystery novels, which are attracting readers worldwide. Roe (BA 1962 UC, MA 1967, PhD 1974) publishes under the pen name of Medora Sale.

Uof T’s first great satirist was Stephen Leacock (BA 1891 UC), who became a famous economist, not to mention the English-speaking world’s best-known humorist of his time. These are astounding accomplishments, especially since during Leacock’s U of T days, he later claimed, English was barely taught (he received a C in the course he took in his final year), and economics “was conspicuous by its entire absence.” (He completed his PhD in economics in Chicago in 1903.) Co-education was new at the university, and uncertainty existed about how the sexes should mix. “The result of our timidity,” Leacock regretted, was that no less than three female classmates married professors.

The irreverence Leacock often displayed has been a hallmark of Canadian funnymen. That is especially true of Lorne Michaels (BA 1966 UC), who produced and directed the UC Follies. That experience came in handy in 1975 when he launched Saturday Night Live, the NBC comedy show.

Our most unlikely comic is one of our most recent. When Mark Rowswell arrived at U of T to study how to promote Canadian trade in China, he didn’t know he would himself become one of Canada’s best-known exports to the Orient. One of China’s most popular entertainers, he may even have surpassed Norman Bethune as the ultimate Canadian icon there. Rowswell (BA 1988 UC) took East Asian studies before winning a scholarship at the University of Beijing. There he stumbled into entertaining after being asked to act in a student variety show. On the strength of the huge number of his Chinese fans, Rowswell is no doubt one of the most famous Canadians in the world.

During its history U of T has always produced women graduates with forceful and articulate voices. Not the least of those voices belong to these three print journalists.

Columnist Barbara Amiel (BA 1963 UC) has always been political, and her days on campus in the ’60s were no different. As a self-proclaimed lefty, Amiel was a delegate in 1962 to the Communist World Youth Festival in Helsinki, Finland. After graduating she worked at the CBC, Maclean’s and the Toronto Sun, before life with Canada’s biggest publishing mogul, Conrad Black.

Rona Maynard
(BA 1972 UC) grew up exposed to the feminist ideas of her journalist mother, Fredelle. Although Rona’s fiction was published while she was still in high school, it was her sister Joyce who became famous as a writer (mostly for her confessions about J.D. Salinger). Maynard, who now edits Chatelaine magazine, married and became pregnant while still in university. All of these experiences led her to closely examine women’s issues.

Bonnie Fuller (BA 1977 UC) began her journalism career at The Varsity, but thought editing wasn’t meant to be her vocation – she was going to become a lawyer like her father. After a year at law school she was drawn back to print, and in 1982 at only 26, she became editor of Flare magazine. Today she is editor-in-chief of Glamour in New York.

Canada’s foremost poet during the first half of the 20th century was E.J. Pratt (1882-1964), whose school years successfully mixed academic excellence with a love of partying. Pratt (BA 1911 Victoria, MA 1912, PhD 1917) loved the combination so much that he once sold a gold medal he received for scholarship to pay for one of his famous “stag parties.” After graduation, he taught at Vic until the early ’50s. Legend has it that prospective college hires were vetted at Pratt’s house. The poet would ask worthy candidates to start a fire with pages from Pratt’s own thesis. If they hesitated they didn’t get the job.

Dorothy Livesay
(1909-1996) experienced little of the collegial atmosphere Pratt revelled in. After winning a literary contest in second year, she found herself shunned. Literary clubs at the university were still the province of men, and women writers were not widely accepted. Livesay (BA 1931), who published her first book of poetry, Green Pitcher, in 1928 while at U of T, became one of Canada’s most highly regarded poets.

Forty years after Livesay, another uncompromising woman poet arrived at the university. Dionne Brand (BA 1975 Erindale, MA 1988 OISE) moved to Toronto from Trinidad in 1970. Poet, novelist and community activist, she won a Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1997.

Dennis Lee (BA 1962 Victoria, MA 1965), who is beloved for his children’s works, especially Alligator Pie, arrived at U of T in the late ’50s uncertain whether to become a United Church minister or a magician. He took an interest in Acta Victoriana, Vic’s student literary magazine, and in 1958 became one of its managing editors. He and Margaret Atwood wrote satirical pieces together for Acta under the pseudonym of Shakesbeat Latweed.

Hart House has always played a leading role in the development of Canadian art. Among those who displayed their work there was Lawren Harris (1885-1970), who arrived at U of T in 1903 but did not graduate. Harris was more interested in sketching in his notebooks than working on his studies. On the recommendation of one of his math professors, he soon left for Berlin to study art. He later became leader of the Group of Seven and had a seminal influence on modern Canadian artists.

A direct line might be drawn from the Group of Seven to another grad known for her expressive landscapes – Doris McCarthy (BA 1989 Scarborough). As a teacher, McCarthy in turn influenced and inspired scores of young female artists, among them Joyce Wieland. McCarthy returned to school in the 1980s to study literature and earned her degree at age 79.

Two other well-known artists, Charles Pachter (BA 1964 UC) and Robert Bateman (BA 1954 Victoria), attended U of T 10 years apart, but a lot can happen in the space of a few years. Bateman, clinical and controlled, and Pachter, flamboyant and irreverent, reflect different artistic planets, not just different decades. Acknowledged for his realistic scenes of animals in their environment, Bateman received training as a naturalist at the Royal Ontario Museum after attending U of T. Pachter drew inspiration from Toronto’s bohemian artists, writers and musicians during the ’60s. A former classmate of Margaret Atwood, he has collaborated with her on many projects.

Research by Rebecca Caldwell.

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