Remembering Joe Shoctor, 1922–2001

Posted by on Dec 16, 2017 in Brian's Blog, Theatre | Comments Off on Remembering Joe Shoctor, 1922–2001

The New York Times reports that Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre has become an “unexpected new stop on the road to Broadway.” But Edmontonians with long memories will remember that a local impresario named Joe Shoctor did the same thing with the theatre more than forty years ago.

In the early 1960s, Edmonton theatre fans referred to him scornfully as “Broadway Joe” because Shoctor took the proceeds from his lucrative law practice and real estate investments and spent them co-producing plays in New York. However, when he founded the Citadel Theatre in 1965—and thus gave Edmonton the only professional theatre between Winnipeg and Vancouver—they hailed him as the man who made flowers bloom in the desert.

Without Shoctor, professional theatre in Edmonton would never have evolved the way it did. The Edmonton Fringe Festival is just one of the many events to flower as a result of his trail-blazing efforts as an audience builder. His initiatives are commonly seen as responsible for the growth of dozens of spin-off theatre companies and a highly regarded theatre program at the University of Alberta. With Shoctor’s Citadel at the centre of a ring of satellite theatres, Edmonton today boasts more theatres per capita than any other North American centre.

His theatrical bent was evident early. Edmonton-born Shoctor was the son of an immigrant Russian street peddler who sold second-hand goods from a stall located where the Edmonton Art Gallery now stands. Shoctor produced and directed variety shows while attending Victoria Composite High School and wrote its school song. He performed as a comedian and as a song-and-dance man. By the time he completed a law degree at the University of Alberta in the early 1940s, Shoctor was convinced he was destined for a career in show business. He went to Hollywood thinking he might act in films, but was told by casting agents that he didn’t have the right look for leading roles.

Joe Shoctor

After playing a few small roles at theatres in California, Shoctor returned to Edmonton to practise law, make some money, and try to get into show business on his own terms. “I didn’t have the guts to struggle,” he said. “I just wasn’t prepared to starve and suffer for my craft.” He continued to do some acting and directing while building up his law practice and growing rich on real estate investments. He also served as a local impresario for such touring acts as the Happy Gang, Johnny Otis, and the Ink Spots.

As his business interests flourished, Shoctor started drifting toward New York where he invested in a few Broadway productions and thought he might eventually establish himself as a full-time producer. However, after losing money on a succession of Broadway flops, Shoctor decided to remain in Edmonton and continue his involvement from afar.

Some Edmontonians didn’t like that. One man called an Edmonton radio hot-line show and asked why Shoctor was wasting time trying to make a splash in New York when he might be doing something useful for Edmonton by putting on plays in the Alberta capital.

“That really spurred me,” Shoctor said. “He was right—why didn’t we do them here?”

With the help of three friends, he bought a run-down Salvation Army building and converted it into a 277-seat theatre for a combined cost of $250,000. This is how the Citadel was born in 1965.

A more cautious promoter might have been daunted by the fact that a previous attempt to start a professional theatre in Edmonton had ended in failure two years previously. Shoctor could certainly see that finding professional talent was going to be a challenge for him. “I couldn’t get Canadian actors to come from Toronto,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Oh God—what if I miss a radio commercial?’”

Shoctor hired an American artistic director, John Hulbert of Philadelphia, and launched the first Citadel season with an intentionally controversial production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a corrosive drama about the emptiness of marital relationships. The play got lots of media attention and achieved Shoctor’s goal of filling the theatre with curious spectators. However, Edmonton wasn’t quite ready to support professional theatre on an ongoing basis.

After a couple of shaky years, marked by weak artistic leadership, no government funding, and low standards, the Citadel finally hit its stride in 1968 with the appointment of Sean Mulcahy, a thirty-six- year-old Irish-born director who announced ambitious plans to turn the Citadel into “another Abbey Theatre.” Mulcahy doubled the subscriptions in five years and paved the way for future directors such as Britain’s John Neville and Peter Coe to realize Shoctor’s dream of making the Citadel “an outpost of Broadway.”

This didn’t sit well with cultural nationalists who felt Shoctor should be hiring Canadian directors and using his government-subsidized theatre to further the development of Canadian drama. Shoctor, however, wanted his theatre to have an international identity, and he wasn’t about to let the nationalists limit his scope. “We’re not a regional theatre,” he insisted. “We’re a theatre of national and international significance.”

After an explosion of activity during the 1970s, when the Citadel moved from the old Salvation Army building into an elaborate downtown theatre complex, and attracted wide attention with shows imported from or bound for London and New York, the Citadel started to falter. One reason for this was Shoctor’s insistence on exercising his right as executive producer to reject plays that he didn’t like. This resulted in frequent clashes with his artistic directors.

Neville left in 1978 to take over Halifax’s Neptune Theatre and later become artistic director of the Stratford Festival. His successor Coe quit in 1980 in a dispute with Shoctor over programming. Then came a decade-long creative drought when the Citadel incurred criticism for being the only major regional theatre in Canada to operate without a full-time artistic director. Shoctor was unrepentant about this. “After you’ve had Neville and Coe, you don’t just settle for anyone,” he said.

Shoctor served as de facto artistic director himself for part of the 1980s. The Citadel mounted a number of spectacular and costly failures, including musical adaptations of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. During the same period the Citadel building grew to include five performance spaces and a large indoor park, prompting one Edmonton critic to comment, “The Citadel represents an achievement of real estate more than theatre.”

The tide began to turn in 1991 when Shoctor appointed former Stratford Festival director Robin Phillips as artistic director, and the Citadel began to regain national prestige with a series of well-received productions. The success pattern continued into the twenty-first century under directors Duncan McIntosh and Bob Baker, when the Citadel offered a combination of popular main-stage programming, second-stage experimental dramas, educational programs, touring shows, and festivals for young people.

Shoctor, meanwhile, consolidated his reputation as Edmonton’s “Mr. Downtown,” participating in a number of development initiatives, not all of them associated with theatre. Always an Edmonton booster, he had helped revive the Edmonton Eskimos in 1949 and served as the club’s first secretary-manager. He chaired the downtown development committee for five years, and during that period spearheaded such projects as the Jasper Avenue improvements, the Old Town Market development, the establishment of the Edmonton Concert Hall Foundation, and the acquisition of land for Grant MacEwan College. “It’s my home,” said Shoctor. “It’s given me everything I have, and I want to give something back to it.”

In July 2000, at age seventy-seven, Shoctor closed his law practice and accepted a volunteer position as a resource person at the theatre that he had founded thirty-five years previously. “I’ve been the ghost of the operation for a long time,” he said. “I’m still with it enough to know what’s going on in the theatre world and what the Edmonton public likes.”

He died in April 2001, at age seventy-eight, after suffering a heart attack. Premier Ralph Klein was one of the many to acknowledge his contribution: “Great cities are built by people just like Joe Shoctor—people with vision, with humour, and with remarkable abilities.

(This profile of Shoctor was first published in my book, Alberta Originals: Stories of Albertans Who Made a Difference, available both as a paperback and as an ebook.)

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Copyright 2017 Brian Brennan - Author