Festival founder pays tribute to Jerry Franken
Jerry Franken, one of the most familiar faces during 12 seasons on the Blyth Festival stage, is being mourned by the Canadian theatre community following his death in Mitchell Jan. 15, following a lengthy illness.
Franken last appeared on the Festival stage in 2006 and more recently has been a member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company before ill-health caused his retirement.
“Very, very few actors have walked as many miles on the stage at Blyth as Jerry did,” wrote Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt in an e-mail tribute. “Jerry was so popular with our audience at Blyth, that there was a time when we used to joke that people would probably buy tickets just to watch him sit in a chair and read out the Listowel phone book.”
Garratt directed Franken in Another Season’s Harvest in 2006 and acted with him in Powers and Gloria in 2005, a role that was created specifically for him by playwright Keith Roulston.
Franken first came to the Festival in the 1990s when Katherine Kaszas was artistic director and returned under Peter Smith, Anne Chislett and Eric Coates.
“There’s a real feeling of kinship there,” Franken told The Citizen in a 2005 interview. “I live in Stratford but most of the work I do is in Montreal, Ottawa or Winnipeg and Blyth. Although I don’t live there, I’ve been coming back for so long that it’s like working at home.
“Despite changes from year to year with actors and such, there’s a real communal effort to it that I enjoy and you don’t get anywhere else.”
As well as Blyth and Stratford he appeared at many theatres across Canada. He was closely associated with the stage work of famed poet/playwright James Reaney, particularly in his trilogy of plays on the Donnelly massacre at Lucan. He became such a family friend that he lived on the old Reaney homestead near Stratford from 1986 until the last few years.
Born in Edmonton in 1947, Franken studied theatre in San Francisco. He worked for three years at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg before he moved to Nova Scotia. He first came to prominence in Ontario in the 1970s as associate artistic director of Toronto’s NDWT theatre company which produced Reaney’s Donnelly trilogy.
Nationally, he is perhaps best known for creating the role of Morgan in Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999 (opposite another Blyth Festival legend, David Fox, playing Angus). The production would be one of the most successful in Canadian stage history, touring across Canada.
When The Drawer Boy was produced at Blyth in 2002, Franken switched roles and played Angus. That season he also starred in George F. Walker’s Filthy Rich at Blyth.
In 2003 he played the iconic role of Newfoundlander Jacob Mercer in Leaving Home by David French.
As well as acting on the Blyth stage, he also directed, including the premiere of Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! in 1998.
A visitation was scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Revival House, Stratford.
“His sharp wit, his natural charm, his innate crankiness and his amazing generosity were singular,” said Garratt. “Jerry loved Blyth and he loved this audience and every time he walked on stage he gave of himself, full bore, and he did it for us, for all of us. They just don’t make them like that anymore.”