Obituary: St John Terrell

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The Independent Culture
ST JOHN Terrell was a master showman who, every Christmas Day for 25 years, donned a tricorn and cape to re-enact George Washington's famous 1776 crossing of the Delaware river, and who made it his business to clear Richard III's blackened name.

Over the course of his career Terrell left his mark on American culture, establishing a playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1939 and, in 1949, a music circus in Lambertville, New Jersey, a summer theatre-in-the-round under a striped tent that became a model for similar summertime festivities across the United States and which continued to operate until 1970.

It was to attract attention to his music circus that Terrell conceived his Delaware crossing stunt in 1953. It proved so popular and effective that he sustained the routine for 25 years, long after the circus had closed. In 1978, he passed the role to a longtime crewman, Jack Kelly (Grace Kelly's brother), and it eventually became such a tradition that a historical society, the Washington Crossing Foundation, has continued it.

It is more likely to be myth than fact that Washington actually stood at the prow of the canoe, as Terrell did in his re-enactment. However, he was well versed in the creation of fantasy. Aged 16, he ran away to join the circus where he performed a fire-eating routine, and soon afterwards became the first voice for the hero of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio show of the 1930s.

His taste for a flamboyant life- style caused him to abandon studying for a degree at Columbia University in order to pursue a career in the theatre and he became a familiar figure in off-Broadway productions.

But it was his campaign to discredit Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III as a hunchbacked murderous villain that gained him greater fame. Shakespeare names Sir James Tyrrell, acting on the orders of the King, as the murderer of the young princes in the Tower of London. Tyrrell was one of Terrell's ancestors, and so, taking the matter personally, he undertook a campaign to clear the king's name.

Whatever the truth, Terrell used his expertise as a carnival showman to attract attention to the case. In 1983, on the 500th anniversary of Richard's accession, he arranged for a memorial Mass to be held in the king's honour at St Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Afterwards, he held a medieval lunch at a gentlemen's club.

Two years later, on the 500th anniversary of Richard's death on Bosworth Field, Terrell repeated the gesture, this time moving the feast to a famous Manhattan delicatessen, Sardi's, for a medieval lunch featuring wooden spoons, pewter dishes and a menu of quail, suckling pig, ale and mead.

St John Terrell, actor: born Chicago, Illinois 1917; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Trenton, New York 9 October 1998.

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