Dan Needles tells about his father, Bill Needles

February 4, 2016   ·   0 Comments

Credit: Mathew McCarthy, Waterloo Region Record

Credit: Mathew McCarthy, Waterloo Region Record

The community of theatres across Canada mourned the loss of William (Bill) Needles when he died on January 12.

Born in New York but raised in Kitchener, to which his parents moved when he was six, Bill Needles finally persuaded his high-powered father, Ira Needles, that he wanted a life in the theatre. Ira Needles was president of B.F. Goodrich Canada and later a founder and the second chancellor of the University of Waterloo. In due course, he also served as a member of the Board of Governors for the Stratford Festival from 1957 to 1960.

Determined that his son should have the best possible education, he sent Bill to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, following which Bill began his theatre life in Winnipeg before finally going back to Toronto. There, in 1940, his career blossomed with the lead role in a radio series, John and Judy, which lasted 14 years except for when he took a break to serve in the war.

Returning to Toronto in 1946, Bill married Dorothy-Jane Goulding, whose mother was a member of the famed Massey family. The couple eventually had five children: Jane, Arthur, Dan, Reed and Laura. However, theirs was not a typical arrangement.

Said Dan about his father, “He was not the sort to change diapers. He was a theatre cat. He called us and he wrote to me. I have a drawer full of his letters. After all, he had a woman, his wife, who took on all the responsibility of us.”

Dorothy-Jane Goulding was also a playwright and a broadcaster.

The life of the husband actor and his family seemed to work well for them all.

“He came home for high holidays,” Dan said. “My mother planted the flag in Mono Township in 1955 and declared that this was home and when he wanted to come home, this is where it was.”

A couple miles south of Highway 89, on the 7th Line of Mono, “the village of Rosemont was our village. Laura, Arthur and myself bonded with Rosemont.”

Before the move to the country while they were still in Toronto, Bill auditioned for the first season of the Stratford Festival. He was among the first members of the company at Stratford when it was just “a tent beside the river” in 1953 and continued to perform there for 47 seasons, acting in more than100 roles.

“In 1976,” Dan said, “my mother bought him a house in Stratford. She thought he would be happier if he were settled. They had a modern kind of marriage.”

Dan reflected on the comedy of those times. “When he got settled in Stratford, we got billeted there for a couple of weeks a year. If I was at my dad’s house, I was usually asleep under the table while the actors drank and argued. He was usually hosting homeless actors. When they were between shows, lots of them had nowhere to go and he took them in. He was very kind to strangers.”

This deep understanding of how hard an actor’s life can be led Bill Needles to help establish The Actors’ Fund of Canada in the 1950’s, which to this day, aids actors in need of financial assistance.

When asked about the one-to-one time any of the children spent with their father, Dan replied, “My brother Arthur travelled with him more than I did. My brother was interested in the personalities. My father was no threat to the lead actors because he wasn’t interested in doing lead roles.

“My brother used to say, ‘We went to the most interesting places.’ My brother would make him go and see things when he just wanted to go to the hotel to bed. Once my dad found his way to the theatre or the party, he would brighten up.”

Another relection: “He didn’t actually invent the afternoon nap ….”

Bill Needles loved the Rosemont neighbourhood, and was ready to do readings at the local hall or churches whenever he was there.

“I got my sense of humour from my dad,” Dan explained, “and he got his sense of comic timing from his father. His father loved music theatre and my dad would watch what made his father laugh. So, my dad became a mimic. My father, given two lines as a butler, made that character come alive.”

Tying the history, Dan commented, “I watched him and I liked making my father laugh. We do stand on other people’s shoulders.”

So many of Bill’s close friends were “uncles” to Dan.

“I was raised with my ‘uncles,’” said Dan of his own comic writing. “That’s where this stuff comes from.”

We talked about Dan’s work and the connection his father had to Orangeville’s theatre, where the Letters from Wingfield Farm plays were enjoying great praise.

“He was enormously proud of my work. He always said they were ‘wonderful, wonderful!’ If I asked him about something specific, he would just say ‘Wonderful, wonderful.’ But he would never get into a line-by-line critique.”

Bill eventually moved into a retirement home and it was still in Stratford. “That was Dad’s town,” his son commented. However, after a massive heart attack in December and a stint in Stratford General Hospital, he was moved to a hospice in Alliston, where he died.

The Stratford Festival is planning a tribute to Bill Needles this spring and has dedicated this year’s production of As You Like It to his memory.

Reflecting on those last days, Dan remarked, “He came home to the hospice – he stayed for six days, which was longer than ever. Then, he went.

“Yet, he’s always been there. He had all his marbles right to the very end. There wasn’t anything wrong with him – his knees and hips were all good.”

With a chuckle, Dan added: “He was very unathletic – he saved himself. He was a bit of a hypochondriac: ‘You have to be vigilant,’ he’d say, ‘if you want to be my age.’”

By Constance Scrafield

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