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A theatrical love affair with Niagara-on-the-Lake


Keith Elkins and Jennifer Fitzery in the Playhouse of American Classics production of "The Heiress."

For my story on Friday about a production of "The Heiress" at the Playhouse of American Classics, I interviewed a fascinating woman by the name of Judy Goetz Sanger. Late last year, she had e-mailed Terence and Lorena McDonald, founders of the PAC, to let them know that the author of "The Heiress" was, in fact, born and raised in Buffalo and, what's more, that he was Sanger's father.

Because of space limitations, I wasn't able to fit in all of Sanger's fascinating stories about her father's upbringing in Buffalo, or her somewhat incredible journey to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Fortunately, the Shaw Festival, which drew Sanger to Southern Ontario in the first place, published Sanger's account of her love affair with the theater-crazed village. It follows after the jump, or you can download the PDF version.

Judy Goetz Sanger's account of her introduction to the Shaw Festival and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.:

My first visit to The Shaw Festival was in May of 2006. My only other visit to Canada was to Toronto, during a cold wet autumn ten years ago when my husband, Sirgay Sanger, attended meetings of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.

Out of the blue in 2005 I received a letter from the Dramatists Play Service telling me that The Shaw had requested permission to mount a production of The Heiress, a wonderful play written in the late 1940s by my parents, Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The Goetzes were a unique couple – they wrote plays and movies together, including the screenplay of The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, which is still often shown on movie channels. They had one child – me – late in their lives. I thought they were perfect parents. They adored each other – and they certainly seemed to adore me. When I was still quite a little girl, the major tragedy in our lives was that my father died of heart disease at the age of 57, cutting way too short his contribution to the theatre. His close friend Moss Hart died soon after – also of heart disease. These were the years of heavy smoking and before heart-bypass surgery.

My mother died just five years ago, but over the last three decades I have overseen and safeguarded their intellectual properties, including of course, The Heiress. So, seeing the request from the Shaw Festival, I asked a friend who had been there and she said, “Oh, it’s a lovely place. They really only do Shaw, so that’s very flattering that they want to do ‘Goetz’.” The necessary contracts were drawn up. I had no plan to go “up to Canada.” I thought, “how nice, another road company of the play.” Then I read the contract and I could see that ‘These Shaw People’ intended to open the play in May and keep it running until October. I said to Sirgay, “Who could be the audience? For it to run that long, obviously the mayor must force each of the residents to go to the play at least ten times.”

I signed and forgot about it. Months passed. Suddenly an invitation arrived that was nothing less than Vice Regal. Opening Night. Black Tie. Forms of Address. Dinner. I emailed The Shaw in stunned curiosity: yes, I would like to see the play. And, I would be delighted to come to the last rehearsals and help in any way (considering that I had had an involvement with the great revival at Lincoln Center which won four Tony Awards). Ah, yes, well that would not be at all necessary, came the reply – but I was more than welcome to come to dinner! My curiosity grew.

I flew to Toronto, was picked up by a charmer in a stretch limo and driven to The Charles Inn, where I was met with a glass of champagne and a log firein the guestroom.

I could write on and on about my delighted amazement. My first night was the opening of Arms and The Man, the second night was the opening of The Heiress. Both productions were of a superb quality. The casts, the direction, the designs – I could not believe what I was looking at. A large bubbling audience, all savoring the very best serious writing to be found in the theatre. And the main street! The flowers! The warm, amused welcome of the people! The safety – walking back alone at midnight down the empty main street. I kept phoning Sirgay to tell him that it was the most enchanting, kind, mannerly, coherent, charming place I had ever been.

My second morning, I asked someone at the hotel desk if there was a lake nearby. “Ah yes ... Lake Ontario.” Really? Where? “Turn Left.” I had never seen Lake Ontario. My father, Augustus Goetz, was a favoured son of Buffalo at the century’s turn; a dynastic family of bankers, brokers, even a famous Mayor, so he started as a stockbroker and then sort of jumped tracks to become a playwright. I was never taken to Buffalo; all these relatives had died before I appeared. I had never seen a Great Lake. I turned left. I found a large white house on the water, which seemed to be empty; I sneaked onto the lawn, sat on a grassy bank and gazed at the lake, and at the Fort. I was so moved by the beauty of it and the atmosphere of kindness and intelligence of the place that actually, if this doesn’t sound too hideously soppy, I was teary. I phoned Sirgay again and said I thought I had found a haven for our family unlike any of the other places where each of us had lived.

I went back to New York and thought I had invented the whole adventure. In September I took Sirgay to see the play before it closed and to thank Jackie Maxwell so very, very much and to thank the cast, who were all excellent. Sirgay and I drove up from New York City. I kept thinking … what if it’s different? What if all those flowers were just for that week-end? What if the Inn has closed? What if I’m insane?! Six and a half hours later we drove down Queen Street and Sirgay said, “This is unlike all the places we have lived ... maybe it would be a mistake to not buy a house here!” We dropped off our bags at The Charles, “Welcome home, Mrs. Sanger,” and I pulled my husband down the street to “see The Lake.” We stood in the driveway of that empty house and I said, “This was where I stood when I phoned you.” He said, “So let’s try to buy this house.” I said,“ That’s insane – people live in it – they’ve done it up – it’s not for sale!” And Sirgay said, “Oh yes it is.” He was standing in front of a For Sale sign.

Last summer two huge moving vans, carrying among other things, 4000 books, arrived and I moved us in. We had our first Thanksgiving, our first New Year’s Eve, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, at the magic house we call ‘Toots’ Shore’. And I have finished a play of mine called Close Harmony and a book of story poems called Love in Our Language.

Am I surprised? Yes indeed.

What am I looking forward to when I return to Niagara-on-the-Lake in May? Hugging my new found dear friends. Being amazed again at the perfume of fresh jam in the main street at 4:00 in the afternoon. Going to the Festival Theatre and seeing the installation of Al Hirschfeld’s drawings there. He was one of my parents’ greatest friends and a second father to me. When Sirgay and I married, Al ‘gave me away’. His work is genius. And he would be so thrilled by this whole crazy story! But then, ‘The Theatre’ always makes and remakes our lives. It heals us and leads us. But you have to know when to keep very still – and wait for it to beckon! --Colin Dabkowski



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