The street behind Winnipeg’s Ashdown Warehouse where I live is named after an orphan from Hungary whose father was shot in Germany and whose mother and brother were gassed at Auschwitz.
John Hirsch Place honors one of the founders of the Manitoba Theatre Centre. John Hirsch came to Winnipeg in 1947, at age 17 as a war orphan and was taken in by Alex and Pauline Shack. He remained a close member of their family till the day he died of AIDS in 1989.
Hirsh who is immortalized in this statue outside the Manitoba Theatre Centre was in the drama club at St. John’s High School and directed plays at the University of Manitoba. John’s adoptive family, the Shacks were skeptical when he said he wanted to have a career in theatre, but realized how serious he was when he got a grant from the Junior League of Winnipeg and created a puppet show to take to schools and community clubs.
He and a friend convinced the City of Winnipeg to sponsor them to put on three musical comedies at the bandstand at Assiniboine Park one summer, and then John landed himself a gig as the first paid artistic director of Winnipeg’s amateur Little Theatre. This led to a job with CBC television when it was launched in 1954.
After studying in London John came back to Winnipeg in 1957 and founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) with Tom Hendry. Hendry is sitting on the chair in front of Hirsch in an art piece called Imagine created by Ruth Abernathy. It can be found just outside the present-day Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre building. MTC is where well-known Canadian actors like Martha Henry, Len Cariou, and Gordon Pinsent had their start.
Globe and Mail writer Keith Garebian quotes Hirsch as saying he was part of four mafias, Jewish, Hungarian, homosexual and Winnipeg. Garebian says Hirsch often behaved like a ‘godfather’. He had hot-tempered outbursts, was incredibly demanding of his actors and skillfully manipulated events for his political and financial advantage. Despite this some people admired him. In an interview for the Theatre Museum of Canada, actress Martha Henry calls Hirsch a genius.
John Hirsch eventually went on to jobs at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, The Lincoln Center Theatre in New York and directed plays at the Shaw Festival, and at theatres in many Canadian and American cities. He was accorded numerous honorary doctorates and was an officer of the Order of Canada.