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Jan Rubes brought a wide range of talents to stage, screen and radio

Having any kind of talent is a blessing, but Jan Rubes - opera singer, actor, writer, director and broadcaster - had a dazzling number of spangles in his artistic repertoire. Among them: soloist with the Canadian Opera Company; actor and director at The Stratford Festival; host of Songs of My People , a weekly radio show on CBC in the mid-1950s; actor on television and film, including playing the Amish grandfather in Witness with Harrison Ford, and scores of other films and television dramas.

He also created 80 episodes of Guess What , a television show for children.

Indeed, if he hadn't come here in the late 1940s, fleeing the Communists in his native Czechoslovakia, it is hard to imagine how our fledgling cultural organizations would have managed without an artist of his range, skill and experience.

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Mr. Rubes died after a stroke in Toronto General Hospital on June 29. He was 89.

As for firsts, he specialized in them. Besides singing while Glenn Gould played on CBC television in 1953, he performed on inaugural telecasts on rival networks, CTV, TVO and CityTV.

Was he an actor who could sing, a singer who could act, or a performer who could direct? The answer: all of the above.

Jan Ladislav Rubes was born in Volyne, Czechoslovakia, on June 6, 1920, the younger of two sons of Jan and Ruzena (née Kellnetova) Rubes. Growing up between the wars in an affluent family in a small town in southern Czechoslovakia, he had the skill sets and the opportunities to become a doctor, an athlete or a musician.

The Nazis made the choice for him after they took control of Czechoslovakia in 1939. He was 19, a medical student at Charles University in Prague, a champion cross-country skier and tennis player, and a mean pianist who made extra money playing in a dance band.

When the Germans shut down the universities, Mr. Rubes decided to audition for the Prague Conservatory of Music. Much to his surprise he won a place, made his debut in 1940 as Basilio in The Barber of Seville and quickly became a leading singer in the Prague Opera.

As the war ground on, Mr. Rubes was taken, according to his wife Susan Rubes, with a group of other Czech musicians to Dresden, where by day they lodged in jail and by night they sang in the opera house as replacements for the German singers who were fighting at the front.

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After the Allies defeated the Germans, he was repatriated and resumed his studies with Hilbert Vavra, graduating from the Prague Conservatory in 1946. Fewer than two years later, there was a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Coincidentally, he was selected to represent his country at the International Music Festival in Geneva, Switzerland, that year, where he won first prize in his category.

Following his older brother's advice - to not come back - Mr. Rubes applied for a visa to emigrate to Canada with the help of an uncle who lived in Toronto, and who had agreed to serve as a sponsor. After landing in Halifax, Mr. Rubes made his way to Toronto by train and, after settling into his uncle's home, went searching for the opera house.

Finding, to his shock, that there wasn't one, he searched out other singing venues, performing as Betto in Gianni Schicchi with the Royal Conservatory Opera at the University of Toronto, as a soloist on radio with the CBC Opera and as one of the original members of the Opera Festival Company of Toronto, which later became the nucleus of the Canadian Opera Company.

In the four decades from 1949 to 1989, Mr. Rubes, a basso, appeared in more than 50 COC productions, including 20 national tours. Indeed, he even directed Puccini's La Boheme , while serving as the Company's touring director for two years in the mid-1970s.

And of course he also built an international career as a guest soloist, giving concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as other venues in the United States, Mexico and Europe.

When The Stratford Festival opened in the mid-1950s, Mr. Rubes was on stage there as well, singing Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia in 1956, Pluto in Orpheus in the Underworld in 1959, Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro in 1964 and 1965, and Leporello in Don Giovanni , the following year. He returned to The Festival in 1975 to direct the operas, The Fool and Ariadne auf Naxos .

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His most famous collaboration, though, was with Susan Douglas Rubes, his wife of nearly 60 years. Although born in Austria, she is a Czech who fled with her parents to the U.S. in 1939.

She and her future husband met in Montreal in 1950 on the set of Forbidden Journey, a United Artists film made here during the Igor Gouzenko era. Mr. Rubes, who was imported from Toronto, played the role of a Communist spy; Ms. Douglas, who arrived in Montreal from New York, was cast as the female love interest.

Within a couple of days, he was smitten, although it took her until the end of the filming to realize he was the leading man for her. They were married on Sept. 22, 1950. Forever afterward, they affectionately referred to Forbidden Journey , the film that had brought them together, as Was This Trip Necessary ?

Ms. Rubes later became head of CBC radio drama, president of Family Channel, and the founder of Young Peoples Theatre in Toronto.

In his 60s Mr. Rubes, the natural athlete, demonstrated that his athletic prowess hadn't diminished by winning the Canadian National Senior tennis championship. In 1991, when he was 71, he was ranked second among senior competitive players across the country.

He leaves his wife Susan, his sons Jonathan and Tony, three grandchildren and his extended family.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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