Winnipeg’s Man of Theatre
By George Siamandas
John Hirsch, legendary cofounder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre was born in Hungary on May 30, 1930 in a small village called Siofok. Hirsch had been born to an upper middle class cultured Jewish family. He pursued higher education in Budapest were he lived with his grandfather. During WW2 they were confined to a Jewish ghetto which his grandfather did not survive. After the Russians released Hirsch, he tried to find his parents but discovered they had perished at Auschwitz.
He decided to leave Hungary in 1946 and ended up in a United Nations relief camp in Germany were he passed the time by producing puppet shows. Later he lived in a Jewish orphan’s camp in France before being brought to Canada by the Canadian Jewish Congress.
HOW HE CAME TO WINNIPEG
He chose to come to Winnipeg because he felt its central geographic location would make it safe from potential invasions. He was one of 1000 children refugees brought to Canada.
THE SHACK FAMILY
The Shack family had indicated its wish to take a young child. In fact they took in two teen-age boys. It was only to be for two weeks. John and David lived with the Sasha, Polly and Sybil Shack family and saw Sybil as his sister. He went to work as an office boy with Aronovitch and Leipsic a real estate and insurance firm. At night he went to school to learn English. Tutored by Sybil Shack a schoolteacher, Hirsch obtained his high school matriculation and went to University to study English.
Sybil Shack describes him as a genius. A man who knew what he wanted to do right from the beginning. A quick student. But somewhat emotional and hyper. He hurt many feelings. People either loved him or hated him. His explosive temper was not reserved only for actors. He once called Maitland Steinkopf the father of the Centennial Centre development “Moose-headed.”
Hirsch helped found the Winnipeg Little Theatre or Theatre 77 as it was known for its address at site where the Lombard Inn and parking lot is today.
Sybil had taught him to drive. And while he failed his first driver’s test, he continued to drive his old Hillman to his evening rehearsals at Rainbow Stage or wherever he needed to go. One morning two policemen came to the house and after enjoying coffee and cinnamon buns while he got dressed, arrested him for a large number of unpaid parking tickets. On another they came to the house about his illegal (at the time) relationships with men.
Hirsch lived with the Shacks the entire time he lived in Winnipeg. He was chided only on two occasions: once fore leaving out the dog all day and another time fore bringing unkosher sausage to the house. And he never once offered to do any snow shovelling.
WORK FOR CBC
Hirsch started to do television for CBC in 1954. His work would take him all over North America. But no matter where he was he would call home to his Mother Shack every Sunday. Hirsch died on August 13 1989 of aids at age 58.