Tibor Feheregyhazi, 75
Young actor fresh from the Budapest uprising of 1956 sailed for Canada to become a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and Saskatoon
F. F. LANGAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 25, 2007 at 8:50 AM EDT
NOWLTON, QUE. — Hungarian actor Tibor Feheregyhazi's accent kept him off the stage in Canada, but his production skills put him at the forefront of one of the most vigorous and determined theatre companies in the country.
A refugee from the street fighting in the 1956 Hungarian revolution, he spent 25 years reviving and rebuilding Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre.
"He was dynamic and seemed to take people over. You might even call him imperious," said Jeremy Morgan, executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. He gave an example of how Mr. Feheregyhazi expected to be obeyed. "He wrote to an actor saying, 'I am doing The Tempest and you will be Caliban.' Even though the man didn't know him, he accepted."
In Saskatoon, everyone knew him by his first name. Few people could get their English tongues around the Magyar density of his family name.Tibor Feheregyhazi spent 25 years as artistic director of the Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon.
Tibor Feheregyhazi grew up in Budapest, where both his parents worked for Hungarian National Radio. His mother was executive producer of music programming for the national broadcaster; his father was an economic journalist.
The family lived just a few blocks from the radio studio, and when a child actor was needed, Tibor often fit the bill. His first public appearance was at 21/2, when he made a presentation from the children of Hungary to Tibor Mahan, head of Hungarian Radio. His first radio performance as an actor occurred at 4, and with a year, he was a regular on a drama series.
He attended a private Jesuit school on the shores of the Danube. The school catered to the country's elite, including at least one future prime minister. He excelled at Latin, a skill that got him in trouble at least once: The school had suffered damage in the Second World War, and students were excused from class if they volunteered to clear up the rubble. One day, they found a personal diary in the rubble. It belonged to a priest, who, as a confessor for some of his fellow priests, had detailed his colleagues' secret sins and desires. Obligingly, Tibor translated the Latin text for the benefit of his friends. Inevitably, he was found out. After that, the Jesuits failed him in all his exams and saw to it that he was expelled. The incident left him with an anti-clerical and even anti-establishment attitude that stayed with him all his life.
He switched to a public high school and enrolled in a five-year program at the National Hungarian Film and Theatre Academy. He continued to act on stage and on radio throughout his time at school.
He graduated in 1956, just in time to join the fighting against what he called a corrupt regime. He wasn't so much anti-Communist as he was against the Soviet-controlled government. After two weeks, the Soviet tanks arrived and resistance soon collapsed. Tibor and his friends left the country hidden in the back of truck.
"He used to tell the story of how he got out of the truck at the Austrian border to go back and get a handful of Hungarian soil to take with him," said his wife, Rosalie Woloski. "He was spotted by a Hungarian guard, who said he should shoot him, but let him go because he'd risked his life to go back for the soil."
He kept the dirt, and the clothes he escaped in, packed in a suitcase for the rest of his life.
In Austria, he was expelled after he was found with a gun. He went to nearby Italy, where he found work as an extra on the Rock Hudson movie, A Farewell to Arms. He even appeared in some of the promotions for the film. His wife said Mr. Hudson offered to sponsor him as an immigrant to the U.S., but the handsome young actor turned him down.
Instead, Mr. Feheregyhazi went by ship to Canada in 1957, getting off in Quebec City. Even though he spoke some French and no English, he was sent to Ottawa. He arrived on July 1 and found everything inexplicably closed. He soon located work in a camera shop and cleaning floors in a hospital, plus a menial job in a theatre.
After three years in Ottawa, he moved to Montreal to study at the National Theatre School, taking his classes in French. His first job after graduating was as a stage manager for the Canadian Players Company in Toronto.
In 1969, he joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as production manager. Two years later, the company was invited to be the first Western ballet troupe to tour the Soviet Union. Logistics difficulties immediately arose. The huge wooden crates the company normally used to carry costumes and paraphernalia were too heavy and too big to stuff into Air Canada's DC-8s, so Mr. Feheregyhazi solved the problem by reinventing the luggage. Finding a suitable lightweight material, he designed new luggage to fit the shape of the hold and was so successful that the company had money left over from its touring budget.
It was on the Soviet tour that Mr. Feheregyhazi showed the fiery spirit that endeared him to many but enraged others -- especially the KGB minders assigned to shadow him throughout the tour. One day, in what was then Leningrad, he gave them the slip completely. When they caught up to him, they countered by taking him on a tour of the Hermitage. To better keep an eye on him, they then had the place closed to foreigners.
Then there was the dramatic departure from the Soviet Union. First, a fight erupted over the Spanish passport of one member of the company (the Soviets boycotted the fascist Franco regime in Spain). Then there was the last-minute seizure of a male dancer - authorities were in the act of taking the man into custody at the airport when Mr. Feheregyhazi leapt over a barrier and provoked a major scene. After all, he spoke some Russian, and could yell in three other languages -- English, French and Hungarian.While all this was an embarrassment to the Canadian delegation, the ballet company and the Soviets, it had the desired effect. The authorities released the dancer and all ended well.
In 1969, Mr. Feheregyhazi became production manger of the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. He then worked as a freelancer for several years before going to Thunder Bay in 1978, as artistic director of the Magnus Theatre.
Four years later, Mr. Feheregyhazi went to Saskatoon to join the Persephone Theatre. Founded in part by Janet Wright, now famous as the woman who plays Brent Butt's mother on the TV program Corner Gas, the company had lively ambitions but was in rough shape. He worked so hard at improving its performances and raising money that the Persephone is now the city's favourite charity.
While Mr. Feheregyhazi put on many plays, from Shakespeare to local productions, his eye was always on the audience. At many performances, he would sit on the stairs in the back of theatre to watch the audience's reaction. Afterward, he would buttonhole patrons and ask, "What did you think?"
In 2004, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his work at the Persephone. He died just months before the company was to move to a new 450-seat home on the banks of the Saskatchewan River.
Tibor Feheregyhazi was born in Budapest on Feb. 14, 1932. He died of prostate cancer on July 10, 2007, in Saskatoon. He was 75. He was married twice. He is survived by wife Rosalie Woloski and children Tony, Steven, Sara, Andrei and Natalie.
© Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
globeandmail.com and The Globe and Mail are divisions of CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc., 444 Front St. W., Toronto, ON Canada M5V 2S9?Phillip Crawley, Publisher.