Tribute to Betty

Tribute given by Philip  A. Burrows at the funeral of Betty Knowles
Christ Church Cathedral
March 22, 2014
 

 

First, in my best Betty vocabulary, I would like to say that I and Betty had a very interesting relationship over the past 33 years.

My first encounter with Betty Knowles was at the beginning of the Dundas Repertory Season, in 1981, when she was brought to the Season to work by Warren Jones. I knew that she was one of the helpers backstage but she really came to my attention when the renowned Jamaican playwright, Trevor Rhone, who was here directing his play Smile Orange, came to me after that production and said that Betty would make an excellent Stage Manager. He was quite impressed with how on the ball she was and he thought that she might have a future in some area of the theatre.

Winston Saunders and I approached Betty to run the Box Office for the Repertory Season and that is where she stayed for quite sometime. In 1985 I asked her to be my Stage Manager for a production of Sammie Swain. This was the production that took place at the then Bahama Rhythm Theatre and one of the evenings of that production was the command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. This of course was at that most historic Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. In the years to follow I would tell many stories about that production and Betty would feature prominently in them. Apart from being one of the directors of the production, I was also calling the show so I was in the booth with the lighting and sound technicians and I was communicating with Betty, who was backstage, on headset. Now sometimes in the theatre we say that the real show happens backstage and the audience never gets to see all of the drama, only the performance happening onstage.

Everyone who knows Betty will know how dry and matter of fact she could be so my first “distress” call from backstage went something like this: “Philip, Cleveland faint.” Now Cleveland Williams is a performer who puts his all into his performances and during the possession scene where Sammie Swain makes a pact with the Devil, Cleveland goes into a series of shaking and twisting on the ground and he begins to hyperventilate and indeed passes out. There is more singing to done by his character backstage but as an actor he would not have to be visible to the audience again until the curtain call. So after that “distress” call I told Betty to tell the men to get Cleveland off the stage and she should give a microphone to Ken Strachan and have him sing the rest of the role offstage. Needless to say that before Ken could utter his first note Cleveland had recovered.

The show continues and in a while I get a second “distress” call from Betty. I will now change the name of the actual actress involved in this part to protect the guilty. Betty calls on headset once again, “Philip, Sally drunk.” I said to Betty, “she will have to go onstage since there is no one else to play her part.” As she is due to be on stage in a few minutes, I wait with anticipation to hear what is about to happen because I’m not sure if I’m going to see this actress enter the stage and if she doesn’t what then? I soon get a status update from Betty, “Philip, Sally throw up.” I said oh, okay, still waiting on the final outcome. The actress enters the stage, on cue, gives a flawless performance and the audience was none the wiser. I later asked Betty what had happened backstage and she said, “After she puke, I cleaned her up, slapped her across her face and pushed her onto the stage.” I said to Betty, you slapped her for real? And with a smile on her face and her tongue planted firmly in her cheek she said, “Well I had to be sure that she was awake!”

There were many nights or weekends when I would be setting lights and sound and there would only be Jerry Smith, the late George Plakaris, Helen Walker and Betty Knowles working on the stage building some set that I had designed for the next production. It was a great crew who got along well and enjoyed working together far from the eyes of the public or even from the actors for whom they were building. Jerry and Helen remained extremely close to Betty right to the end.

In 1989 I decided that being Artistic Director and Manager of the theatre was too much to take on so I though that it would be a good time to just focus on Artistic Direction and let someone else take on the management duties. Winston and I agreed that Betty would take on that role and that began her 25 years as the keeper of the keys.

Now Betty had compartments for various people. Winston was the Chairman of the Dundas so he was in a category of his own. I was the Artistic Director and former Manager who showed her where everything was and told her how the job was supposed to go so I was up there with Winston, just not as high. All members of the audience were either honey, sweetie or darling and then there was the Management Committee. This is a committee that I had set up in 1987 to run the Repertory Season and Betty was a member of that committee as the Box Office Manager. But now that she was the Manager of the Dundas the Management Committee were in another category and they were not close to my level and defiantly not at the level of Mr. Saunders. This created some friction and my new role then became what the committee called, “The Buffer”. If they had an issue with Betty they would have come to me and I would take it to her and if she had an issue with one of them she had to bring it to me and I would take it up with them. In spite of this friction that happened at times, we all loved Betty and knew that in her heart the Dundas came first.

After my seventeen years as Artistic Director of the Dundas Repertory Season I accepted a job teaching Theatre Arts at Lester B. Pearson College and over the next two years the Season came to a close. Winston resigned as Chairman and the Management Committee and the Dundas Board parted company on not the best of terms. Betty continued her work at the theatre with the new Chairmen Ronnie Knowles, followed by Sean Hanna and then with the present Dundas Chair, Theresa Moxey-Ingraham.

There were a few things about which Betty was passionate, and the Dundas was at the top of that list. The PLP, and specifically Prime Minister Perry Christie, was also very high on that list. I remember a heated, but friendly, discussion that took place in the Dundas Box Office between Betty and Jeanne Thompson during the Third Force days. As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly, there was even a bet made but I never knew how much money was involved. Jeanne said that she did not think that Mr. Christie or Mr. Ingraham would be able to win their seats as independent candidates. Betty was adamant that Mr. Christie would win and win big. She said I can’t speak for Mr. Ingraham but Perry Christie will continue to be the MP for Centerville. Needless to say, Betty won that bet. She was a great defender of this Prime Minister. After the 2007 election she announced to us in the theatre, “After the Cabinet is in place Perry ga do something for us at the Dundas.” In 2012 she said, “Ya know I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get anything in the last government but I know Perry ga come through this time.” So Prime Minister, whatever Betty discussed with you about our needs at the theatre, we will gladly accept in her memory.

When Betty became ill she continued to work and work hard. I would go into the Box Office during a production in Shakespeare in Paradise and would see her in the dark with her head resting on the counter of the box office window. She was determined to be there to lock up when the show was over. We offered to lock up many times but that was her Dundas and we knew that she was not going to let that happen. Once Orchid Burnside came on board she became a great source of help to Betty and was one of the few people Betty trusted to oversee things at the theatre if she was not going to be there.

An offer was put to Betty where she would receive funds to help with her medical bills and she could then retire. Delores Adderley had also talked about organizing a banquet in her honor to commemorate her 25 years as manager but Betty said that she didn’t want anybody to do anything for her. We figured she knew that it would mean that she would be leaving the Dundas and that was not something she ever intended to do. I understand that after the money offer was made Betty said that others would run the Dundas over her dead body.

We were all very saddened to not be able to honor her while she was with us but that is what she said she wanted and the theatre will go on. The National Youth Choir opens at the Dundas in two weeks and James Catalyn and Friends will be performing in the theatre in May.

My last encounter with Betty was quite strange and she was extremely troubled that she could not go to the theatre to deal with the problem at hand. I received a call from Nicolette Bethel who had earlier received a call from Travis Cartwright-Carroll concerning a dead body in the Dundas yard. A person had been killed, placed in a car; the car had been driven to the back of the Dundas yard and set on fire. When I got the call I immediately called Betty, not knowing that she had been going rapidly down hill in her health, because I wanted to be sure that she was not the person in the car but she answered her phone and I told her what I had heard. She said that she would call the treasurer and I rang off. In about fifteen minutes she called me back and asked if I could come to her house to collect the keys for the theatre because the police were there waiting along with James Catalyn. As I arrived at her house so did James in a police car, with the police, and he and I proceeded to Betty’s front door to collect the keys for the theatre. This was quite a confusing and surreal moment and the last time that I would see Betty alive. She never did find the keys that evening but was very concerned up to end that the Dundas would be safe.

We know, as you all know, that over the past fifteen years, it was the work of Elizabeth Knowles that has kept the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts alive. Betty was at the Dundas when Winston Saunders retired and the Board of the Dundas changed the policy from an annual Season of shows to a year-round rental facility, getting rid of the Management Committee in the process. Betty was there as Manager under the three Chairs who followed Winston, and worked with three Artistic Directors and two Administrators. She was the one individual who had the institutional memory and brought it to the day-to-day running of the theatre. It was Betty who made the bookings, Betty who opened the doors, and Betty who stood behind the bar. In these last five years, it was Betty, together with Theresa Moxey-Ingraham, who made it possible for Shakespeare in Paradise to get what it needed in the theatre, although at times it was physically hard. We had our differences, but Betty always had our love.

Sleep now, Betty. We will take care of your Dundas. We promise it will be in good hands.

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