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Start Stratford: Unsung Heroes
As published in Start Stratford, Issue #36, June - July, 2013.

John Banks

article by Janice Middleton, photos by Ann Baggley, Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick

To see all the photos, please go to the Start Stratford website.

John Banks is a rather elusive character – for a man with such a high profile in Stratford. He's the city's 'man of the hour', you might say.

A James Mason type in a comfy sweater (a Watson to Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes), friends say Banks is courtly and pleasant to all, with a self-effacing personality that conceals a steel spine, a strong, focused mind and a rare talent for wordsmithing. Having made history and achieved a lifetime goal, presiding over the establishment of suitable meeting rooms and the city's first affordable apartments for veterans of the performing arts, he is stepping down with pleasure as President of the Performing Arts Lodge Stratford. Last month marked a milestone as he oversaw the official opening of 101 Brunswick Street, capped with a ribbon cutting by Plummer, PAL Stratford's patron.

It was a May morning to remember, sunny with a bite in the air to remind us of October, as someone said. A grand time was had by all, especially the select 50 who went on afterwards to lunch with Plummer at Rundles restaurant. John Banks could not stop smiling. On his watch, a derelict 6,000 square foot house regained its former glory to become PAL's official headquarters. A heritage home in a central location with spacious common rooms paneled in dark oak, a grand staircase rising to the third floor, and a full communal kitchen, it has five character-filled apartments for those in need of assistance because of income, age or disability.

Ask John to talk about himself, however, and he quickly defers. His comfort zone is to name names, albeit an illustrious list of household names Canadians know well. Names of those who've been part of the Stratford Festival story for many years and who've been there from the beginning and without whom there would be no PAL Stratford, he insists. That's true, for certain, and duly noted on the ​PAL Stratford website​ that John created to carefully document the story of how PAL Stratford came to be.

On this day, in his usual seat at the head of his dining room table, Banks first goes through the notes he prepared for the interview and then gets around to his story. One of three sons born to George Banks, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Grace, a nurse who served in the First World War, young Banks grew up in Erindale, a historic neighbourhood now in the central part of the city of Mississauga, west of Toronto. Graduating in the 60s with a masters degree in History from the University of Toronto, he began his working life in the Public Archives Record Centre in Ottawa. He sorted donated documents “where I was throwing away history”. That was not at all to his liking and he moved on, ending up working at various departments and institutions in jobs that often ended when he would procure the ideal candidate for his own position for his directors.

Banks' theatrical life started in 1970 when he came to Stratford “to see shows” and met his former partner and dear friend Eric Donkin, a senior member of the Festival company. Friends say PAL Stratford is Banks' salute to Donkin, an important figure in Canadian theatre, radio, film and television. Donkin, who died in March 1998, was one of Canada's best known comedic performers and character actors, appearing in many roles, most notably Gilbert and Sullivan. But the most fun for Donkin and Banks was a play they created together called The Wonderful World of Sarah Binks, in which Donkin starred as the literary journalist Miss Rosalind Drool who devoted her life to the study and appreciation of poet Sarah Binks, the mythical “sweet songstress of Saskatchewan”. Sarah Binks, by Manitoba writer Paul Hiebert, first published in 1947, is an entertaining satire of rural prairie life and winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. ​

Donkin and Banks took their play, which portrayed Drool as now having reached age 65, on the road “to raving success”. Acclaimed by critics coast to coast in 1979-80, the production was a highlight of their lives, Banks remembers.

Later on Banks would prove invaluable, if unsung, to the Stratford Festival, writing witty insights on current Canadian political events that were woven into the Festival's Gilbert and Sullivan hits of the 1980s. DVDs of these productions selling on Amazon get four star reviews.

Now, his table that has served so well as his boardroom with its green felt cloth and artful wooden armchairs created by Mennonite craftsman, can be a board of food and celebration. One that's long overdue, friends say. A carpenter will tell you the chair is the hardest piece of furniture to build. By extrapolation, being chair for 14 years of a volunteer board trying to build something lasting and without sufficient means is the hardest job, his fellow board members will tell you.

As it was in Ottawa, Banks defaults to spotting the talent rather than seeking any limelight. With PAL's new home now open, the heavy lifting is done. A couple of like-minds, namely John David Sterne, who has been co-ordinating the fundraising campaign, and actor Richard Fitzpatrick have been installed as the new president and vice-president respectively of PAL Stratford. Banks credits Fitzpatrick with turning the concept into reality. “He wrote it succinctly and we've followed it: 'Let's get four or five people living well and happily somewhere in Stratford and then we have a start. A place to petition and solicit from. A success we can point to in order to grow. A beginning. If we start it ... it will grow'.”

In the beginning back in the 90s, the PAL plan was “go big, big”, Fitzpatrick recalls in a telephone interview for this story. “John asked me to come on the board and I leapt at the chance.” But over time when Fitzpatrick's “start small” advice wasn't acted upon, “I quit”. Then, about a year and a half ago Banks agreed that small was the way to go and Fitzpatrick is back on board “with never an 'I told you so'”.

“I had the opportunity to live at PAL Toronto for about 18 months in the 90s. When I stayed there, it was home for Maureen Forrester, Frances Hyland and Murray Westgate. Paul Soles lives there now. There were some pretty big names and lesser-known journeymen. I saw how crucial, how crucial it was to their lives. I remember Cedric Smith saying 'Franny (Hyland) why are you here? You must have made enough?' and she said, 'Cedric, I never made more than $25,000 a year.' Many, most in the performing arts struggle, they love what they do and yet (under) the (federal) government, this government, in particular, we're treated with disdain, disregarded and abused.”

Fitzpatrick, who was in Global TV's hit series Bomb Girls (which was unceremoniously cancelled recently, despite great reviews and strong foreign sales) holds Banks in high regard. “John's methodical persistence has been Herculean in overcoming obstacles and resistance.”

Banks often refers to how long it took to find a property and find the money to buy it – a $750,000 affordable housing grant from the city was key – and the struggle to find supporters for the project from both government and the private sector. Always modest, he takes care to note the idea came from others: Herbert Whittaker, Critic Emeritus for The Globe and Mail and Tom Patterson, founder of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. On the waiting list to live in the PAL Toronto residence, Whittaker felt there should be a PAL in Stratford and Patterson saw the organization incorporated in 2002 and in 2006 it received charitable status.

But it was Banks and Banks alone who provided the necessary 'horse shoe nail,' that won this war, says Sterne.

“Tenacious” is the word that comes to mind when you think of Banks, Sterne said in a telephone interview. “Without his holding on and pushing forward, we wouldn't be where we are right now. I heard about the work of PAL long before I moved to Stratford four years ago,” Sterne recalls. Already a PAL member, Sterne was aware off the long years of meetings in friends' living rooms and “the jubilation of prospect” of places, properties that might fit and then “the letdown and disappointment” when they didn't.

Others with Stratford Festival careers behind them, like Vic and Amanda Ryan, were watching from the sidelines as Banks persisted. “He was criticized for being dreamy,” Vic said in an interview. However, “he hung in there and he got it done”. Vic, a local contractor who joined the union and went backstage in 1983 at the Festival as a carpenter and welder, building and taking down sets, knew Banks, then selling real estate. “He sold me a condo on River Drive.” Invited by Banks to take a seat on the PAL board, Ryan declined, offering to become his “clerk of the works” instead.

Under Banks' eye with his gratitude oft spoken, the Ryans set to work as a demolition team at 101 Brunswick in April 2012. Together they took out at least “ten tonnes of material, plaster dust and cast iron radiators,” Amanda recalls, as well as a plethora of dead squirrels and inches deep mouse droppings. “And, I saved two pedestal sinks, a vanity and two toilets that were perfectly good," she says. Retired from 26 years of working in wardrobe and and placing sets, Amanda has a lot of experience in seeking economy and efficiency. Both union members, they have pensions but know how hard it is for others not so lucky. “We believe in the concept of PAL,” Vic adds, and thought their best contribution would be to save PAL some money from the construction end of things. With the hours they put in it's “worth $50,000 but don't write that,” they laugh.

In a country where directors on boards of Bay Street firms routinely earn hundreds of thousands in fees and stock payments, it should be easy to raise the $400,000 PAL Stratford needs to pay off its mortgage on 101 Brunswick and move on to acquire its next property. After all, it's the Stratford Festival where these august people come for play.

As for John Banks, he's going to listen to music for hours, shop for art and read some books. There are plans for a kitchen reno, more time in Toronto and, at last, some dinner parties without purpose.

Thank you, John Banks.

Copyright © 2016 PAL Stratford (a chapter of PAL Canada)
Original web design and hosting donated in memory of former PAL board member Bruce Swerdfager.
Home page header images by Marg Boemer, Lynn Boehler, Amanda Ryan.
PAL Stratford logo design courtesy of Maxine Graham.