James de Beaujeu (Jim) Domville 1933-2015 R.I.P.

Written by  //  June 13, 2015  //  Absent Friends  //  1 Comment

James de Beaujeu Domville: Film and stage giant travelled the world
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jun. 09, 2015

James de Beaujeu Domville, who died in Singapore in April, parlayed his success as a composer in university into a career as a powerhouse in Canadian film and theatre, making his mark as a musician, composer, producer and administrator. He helped found the National Theatre School of Canada and was a senior executive at the National Film Board.

Jim Domville with reviews of MFLIt all began with My Fur Lady, a hit musical created by McGill students in 1957. Mr. Domville, in his final year of law at McGill, wrote most of the music and managed the production when it went on the road later that year, including stops in Toronto, Ottawa and Stratford, Ont., and a run at the old Her Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal. In all, it played 402 times in 82 locations.

In spite of the similar name, My Fur Lady had nothing to do with My Fair Lady, the musical that opened on Broadway a year earlier and was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. The McGill satire told the story of a fictional Inuit princess, Aurora Borealis, who wants to keep her island independent from Canada.

“The basis of the story is: To avoid having her island, Mukluko, revert to Canada, she has to find a husband and have a child,” said Donald MacSween, one of the writers. “The plot was based on the Prince of Monaco marrying Grace Kelly to have a son so Monaco wouldn’t revert to France.”

The success of My Fur Lady meant James Domville never practised law but instead embarked on a career in theatre and film. Many of his fellow classmates involved in the production also went on to spectacular careers, including Donald MacSween, who became director-general of the National Arts Centre, and Timothy Porteous, who went on to head the Canada Council. Galt MacDermot, who wrote just two and a half songs for the show, went on to write the music for Hair; and Brian Macdonald, My Fur Lady’s director, became an internationally sought-after choreographer.

After My Fur Lady, Mr. Domville co-produced the revue Spring Thaw in 1960, a commercial success, and produced other satirical revues, but none was as popular as his first effort.

Also in 1960, he became one of the founders of the National Theatre School of Canada, in Montreal.

“He was asked by the Dominion Drama Festival to set up the National Theatre School. When I joined, it was three desks, four chairs and a typewriter,” his first wife, Joan Keefler, said. “The school survived from hand to mouth. He was the one who raised the money from various government sources. And he fought hard to keep it bilingual, which it is to this day.”

Mr. Domville served as director-general of the National Theatre School from 1964 until 1968. Today it flourishes at a large campus in Montreal with 50 students in its 2015 graduating class: actors, playwrights, set designers and others who work in either English or French, or in some cases both.

He then became the executive director of Montreal’s influential Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, from 1968 until 1972 and at the same time was on the Canada Council’s Advisory Arts Panel. He was also involved in the design of theatres across Canada.

“James de B. Domville’s skills at the interpretation of successful theatre design led to his involvement in the planning of numerous theatre centres,” according to an entry in Archives Canada. “These included the Fredericton Playhouse, the University of Sherbrooke Theatre, the National Arts Centre of Canada and several centennial auditorium projects.”

In 1979, he was government film commissioner and chair of the National Film Board. During his time at the NFB he was involved in a film on the Arctic. At one stage, he and others dove under the ice at Resolute Bay and connected a phone line to put through a call to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in Ottawa.

James de Beaujeu Domville’s family history reads like something out of a stage play. His great-grandfather, James Domville, was an MP, senator and businessman from Rothesay, N.B. His grandfather, another James Domville, developed a hydro site for Montreal Light, Heat and Power, outside Montreal, near the property of the de Beaujeu Seigniory, a feudal land grant from the old French regime.

That James Domville married Adèle de Beaujeu and they had four children. One, James de Beaujeu Domville, died in the First World War as a 17-year-old cadet in the Royal Air Force. His younger brother, Henri de Gaspé Domville, was a bit of a playboy and in the early 1930s taught skiing in Kitzbuehel, Austria. He married Elsie Saltus, a rich American, the daughter of novelist Edgar Saltus. Their only son, James de Beaujeu Domville, was born in Cannes, France, on June 23, 1933.

The marriage didn’t last and the boy moved to London with his father. Elsie Saltus sued and made young James a ward of the English court, which outraged his French-Canadian grandmother, Adèle de Beaujeu. She sailed to London, kidnapped her grandson and took him back to Montreal to raise him, with the help of an English nanny. When he was seven, his father joined the Royal Air Force and was deployed to Hong Kong, where he was captured when the Japanese conquered the city in December, 1941. Henri de Gaspé Domville died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Young James went to Selwyn House School in Montreal and Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont. Among his early accomplishments, he was a star student at the piano. He studied at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, then earned a law degree at McGill.

In 1984, disillusioned with his experiences at the NFB, he dropped out and started sailing around the world on a 42-foot ketch with his second wife, Pat Michel, who had worked at the CBC. At first they stuck to the Caribbean, with a base in the British Virgin Islands. In 1986, they set out for Europe, sailing to Bermuda then the Azores. He told his daughter Andrea Domville of how in the mid-Atlantic they were becalmed, stuck with no wind in a placid sea. The ocean was like a backyard swimming pool and they swam while waiting for the wind to pick up.

jim domville02They spent several years in the Mediterranean, in particular on the coast of Turkey. Then they sailed to Kenya, crossed the Indian Ocean and ended up in Thailand, where they settled in Phuket. They rode out the deadly tsunami in 2004.

“When the tsunami hit, the boat was moored to a floating dock. They went up with the rising water, then back down again and were unhurt,” Ms. Domville said.

He didn’t just laze about in Thailand, but was involved in helping organize scholarships for local students, among other things.

“Jim, your service has resulted in 100 children going to school this year and for many years to come,” Bradley Kenny, president of the Rotary Club in Phuket, wrote in a thank-you note.

James de Beaujeu Domville died of melanoma at a hospital in Singapore on April 2, 2015. He was 81. He leaves his wife, Pat Michel; his children, Marc, Phillipa and Andrea; and his stepson, Sean

One Comment on "James de Beaujeu (Jim) Domville 1933-2015 R.I.P."

  1. Diana Thebaud Nicholson June 14, 2015 at 6:28 pm ·

    Michel Choquette remembers:
    I knew him quite well, having first met him in the mid 1940s when we were both attending Selwyn House. My first recollection of him is a very vivid one — he was performing Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” on piano at the end of moning assembly, as a special treat arranged by the headmaster.
    I ran into him several times over the years, and saw him quite regularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was Film Commissioner and Chair at the NFB.

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