Of all Fen Watkin’s musical accomplishments, perhaps the most extraordinary was the fact he conducted the orchestra for Anne of Green Gables – The Musical in Prince Edward Island every summer for 40 years. The show, based on the classic children’s book by Lucy Maud Montgomery, has run at the Charlottetown Festival since 1965, earning the Guinness World Records title “longest-running annual musical theatre production.”
Mr. Watkin, who died last month at the age of 96, was a founding member of the Charlottetown Festival Company and provided musical guidance there for four decades. During this time, he also took its production of Anne on tour to Montreal, Vancouver, New York and Osaka, Japan.
His enduring commitment to Anne and to the Charlottetown Festival was part of a musical life that began when he was a boy watching brass players perform with the Salvation Army. He eventually developed a range of musical talents, playing trombone with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, accompanying Liza Minnelli and Vera Lynn on piano in concert and writing out scores for top composers.
His greatest passion, though, was for musical theatre, which led him to work on more than 200 original Canadian productions at the Charlottetown Festival, including Anne.
Joseph Fenwick Watkin was born on June 22, 1922, in Toronto to Frieda (née Knight) and Fergus Henry Watkin, both Salvation Army ministers. The family grew to include his two younger siblings, Fred and Catherine. Fen started playing piano at 4, and his mother tutored him for two years before he began formal studies with a piano teacher in Oshawa, Ont., where they were living at the time.
“The teacher couldn’t believe what he heard,” Mr. Watkin’s son, Paul, said.
When the family later moved to Midland, Ont., Fen’s music teacher offered him free lessons if he would make the trip back to Oshawa, so he travelled back and forth for lessons for a few years. He earned his Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto (ARCT) diploma in piano in 1939, when he was 17.
“Twenty years later, when my dad was making it [as a musician],” Paul said, “he sent a cheque to the teacher to pay for all the lessons.”
After a couple of years working at General Motors in Oshawa in his late teens, Mr. Watkin enlisted in 1942 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force Band.
He spent most of the war in Gander, Nfld., which was considered “overseas” at the time.
When he returned home to Toronto, Mr. Watkin embarked on a professional musical career, picking up various jobs. He worked on CBC Television variety shows, conducted and played at the Royal Alexandra Theatre and the O’Keefe Centre, and arranged and copied music for various ensembles. Composers R. Murray Schafer and Michael Colgrass put him in charge of full score preparation for their new orchestral works.
By 1955, he was playing trombone with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Ernest MacMillan, and he stayed there for three years.
Mr. Watkin also worked with noted conductor Howard Cable for eight seasons on General Electric’s Showtime, as well as industrial shows for General Motors and Weston’s Biscuits.
It was a job he took in 1965, however, that led him to Anne, the show that would define the rest of his career. Director Mavor Moore hired Mr. Watkin to be musical director of his Spring Thaw revue for a tour that began in Victoria and concluded at the inaugural Charlottetown Summer Festival at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in PEI. Mr. Watkin then stayed on to work on Anne and become assistant musical director for the festival. He served in that role for 12 summers, then became musical director for the rest of his tenure, taking his family along with him each summer.
Mr. Watkin took Anne on tour several times, including a stint on Broadway in 1971. He hired a local orchestra there and was initially concerned that the musicians weren’t giving the show the reception it deserved.
“The orchestra in New York was looking down on this little show from Canada, but by the third night, the musicians who could were coming up to stand by me during dialogue to see the show," Mr. Watkin wrote in his autobiography. "One night, the concertmaster asked me where we do this show; I told him in PEl; and he said ‘You really mean there is a PEl?’ He thought it was made up for the show!”
Although he was not from PEI, Mr. Watkin became a champion of its chief cultural export, the Anne of Green Gables story.
“Working alongside Fen you immediately realized that he was at the heart of those who had built the Charlottetown Festival,” Dean Constable, general manager of theatre at the Confederation Centre, said in a statement. “He had a wonderful, gentle demeanour, and a terrific sense of humour, but rest assured if you were doing something wrong musically, he would see it corrected. The Canadian musical theatre community has lost an instrumental member and friend and we are grateful for his many contributions.”
One of those contributions was mentoring generations of musicians at the festival. Don Fraser, who was a teenager when he became Mr. Watkin’s assistant in 1984, called him a musical genius.
“It almost didn’t matter what he played or conducted, it had the same musical integrity,” Mr. Fraser said. “He was just the perfect model.”
Over the 20 years that the two worked together, Mr. Fraser says, he was often astonished by Mr. Watkin’s work ethic as well as his speed and precision when writing out orchestrations.
“Sometimes I’d drop something over at his house at 5 in the morning and he’d be up and writing charts out," Mr. Fraser recalls. "He could work all night and sleep a few hours and then get up and spend the whole day rehearsing and do the show at night.”
Mr. Fraser took over as musical director when his mentor retired in 2004.
Mr. Watkin was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2005. The next year, the University of Prince Edward Island granted him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Mr. Watkin was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy, and brother, Fred. He leaves his daughter, Beverley; son, Paul; five grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and sister, Catherine.
“When he turned 96, last June, he was already planning his 100th birthday," Paul said. "He wanted to conduct Anne of Green Gables on opening night for his 100th birthday.”
Mr. Watkin was diagnosed with cancer, however, and his health began to deteriorate last fall. He died on March 21 of multiple organ failure.
“I feel so very fortunate to have been able to spend my life doing what I love,” Mr. Watkin wrote in his autobiography. “Everyone should be so lucky, and I’m sure it helped to keep me young.”