Ed Harrington passes away

Long-time New Westminster resident and icon on the theatre scene in the city Ed Harrington has passed away at the age of 80. - Mario Bartel/NewsLeader file photo
Long-time New Westminster resident and icon on the theatre scene in the city Ed Harrington has passed away at the age of 80.
— image credit: Mario Bartel/NewsLeader file photo

Ed Harrington was suffering from an awful lung disease—idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis—and doctors don't know the cause of and don't have consensus on how to treat it. He knew his time was up and he was at peace with it so he began planning one last production, the celebration of his life.

"You know, I should really be there to direct this," he said to his long-time collaborator, friend and partner Dolores Kirkwood.

"You know," she replied, "I have a feeling you will be."

The New Westminster theatre scene icon, who was born in the Royal City 80 years ago and stayed his entire life, passed away April 26.

Harrington was bitten by the acting bug, even getting a masters in theatre from the University of Oregon. To augment his professional and amateur gigs he began teaching drama and English at Port Coquitlam secondary, which was later renamed after Terry Fox, in 1963. One time, he took his students to see a musical choreographed by Kirkwood at Burnaby South secondary.

"His kids desperately wanted to do one too," said Kirkwood. So he raised $500 and began putting on musical productions. He became so good at them, Port Coquitlam gave him a key to the city when he retired in 1989.

James Bryson arrived at the school in 1980 to teach music not knowing much about Harrington, although he knew of his reputation.

"I knew when I moved there I would undoubtably be engulfed by the expectation to be a part of that, which I didn't mind because we had six good years together," said Bryson. "His ability to put on a great production at a very high level with high school students [was legendary]."

In their heyday, there would be 750 people sitting on rickety chairs filling up the gymnasium to watch the musicals.

"They were sold out before they even started," said Bryson. "They were unique in high school theatre."

It was difficult to find boys willing to sing and dance, but that didn't stop Harrington. He went to the football coach to find recruits and got half the team involved, said Bryson.  "It was quite funny, but at the same time it worked."

When Harrington retired he co-founded the Royal City Musical Theatre group, becoming its artistic director for 16 years. When they started, he gave Bryson a call and he came on board.

"Little did I know it would be 24 years and counting," said Bryson, who continues to be the organization's musical director. "Most of all he got the job done. He was able to look at other people's work and take from them the best they had and incorporate it into the way he wanted things done. He knew the theatre, he knew what worked, he knew how to do all the various parts of the production so that he had the end in mind when he started. He did good productions. He was uncompromising. He made sure knew what he wanted and worked hard to achieve it."

Harrington, Kirkwood and Bryson were a team that produced top-notch musicals. The productions were so good the 1,200-seat Massey Theatre would be packed for a run of 10 shows or so.

"No one was doing musicals when Ed was, and suddenly there was this out-of-the-way place like New Westminster filling Massey Theatre for every show," said Kirkwood.

The RCMT was so successful the group took some productions to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. Busloads would come in from Bellingham or the B.C. Interior to the Massey for the show.

"Other directors who were struggling noticed the way to go was with musicals. So even the professional theatres started doing musicals to pay the bills. People love music," said Kirkwood. "It made people happy. For the seniors in town, that was one of the events for them every year."

Along with teaching, acting in films and television, Harrington was also heavily involved with the Vagabond Theatre, including a stint as its president, and was the first recipient of the Bernie Legge Cultural Award from the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce. He also toured the province helping others put on productions.

When an application was being put together for him to be inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame last month, Harrington said, "I appreciate your interest in me, but I'm not of that calibre."

"But of course he was," said Kirkwood, who accepted the award on his behalf April 19 during RCMT's performance of Oklahoma. "His whole life was given to the theatre, and he did make a difference."

Kirkwood said Harrington's most lasting legacy is likely the effect he had on so many kids, whether it they were in the business or other pursuits because he had given them a grounding in discipline and work ethic.

"He got such a thrill when someone who he had worked with performed. He'd sit at the back of the theatre with a big grin on his face because he was just so proud of them," said Kirkwood. "The notes and phone calls have just flooded in. It's been such a moving experience for me. I've known everybody loved him, but this is very special."

Harrington will be centre stage, or at least his memory will be, at his celebration of life. It will be held, naturally, at the Massey Theatre on Saturday, May 11, 1 p.m. It will end, said Kirkwood, with the Lullaby of Broadway because that's what he did, "he brought Broadway to B.C."

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