TRENTON – The Ellsworth area lost a strong community supporter and a champion of the arts Sunday with the death of Harris Strong, 86, at his home in Trenton.
An artist in his own right, Strong was a driving force in two cultural traditions in the region: The Grand Auditorium and The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Hancock County.
Strong was born in Waukesha, Wis., in 1920, and after graduating from North Carolina State University in 1947, he made a name for himself in the pottery industry, working in several studios before founding Harris G. Strong Inc. with his wife, Roslyn, in 1950. He earned recognition for, among other works, a 30-foot-long, free-standing ceramic wall created for the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.
In 1970, Strong moved his business to Trenton and expanded its offerings to include printmaking, engravings, paintings, photographs and woodcuts. It did not take long for him to get involved in the local community and in the local theater scene. He performed in the 1971 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in the role of Lazar Wolfe and in other productions with the old Ellsworth Players.
“He was great to be around,” said Herb Mitchell, who played Tevye in that show and also served on the original board for The Grand. “He was always active in the community and always immersed himself in anything that would bring some good theater to the region. He really believed in the community.”
In 1975, Strong spearheaded a group of local residents who worked to save the foundering Grand Auditorium. He put up his own money, convinced others to contribute and convinced local banks to loan the group the funds needed to reopen the theater.
“If it hadn’t been for Harris Strong, The Grand would not exist in the current state it’s in,” said The Grand house manager Padraic Conroy. “It probably wouldn’t be here at all.”
Strong remained active with The Grand after it was reopened often as a performer and as a board member. For many, he was the man behind the auditorium.
“When I think of The Grand, I think Harris Strong,” said Ellsworth resident Jim Pendergist. “That’s how much he meant to The Grand. To me, they were one in the same. He was always there, always in the background, smiling and watching it work. He was the one who kept the doors open years ago, and The Grand will be forever grateful.”
As The Grand was reopening its doors, Strong and the late Betty Beatty were working together to found the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Hancock County.
“She [Beatty] said, ‘Are you, by any chance, interested in Gilbert and Sullivan?'” Strong recalled in a 2001 interview. “And I said ‘Yes, I cut my eyeteeth on it.'”
The rest, as they say, is history. A call for interested singers resulted in the founding group of about 35 members who performed “The Gondoliers” in 1977 in one of the newly refurbished Grand Auditorium’s first performances.
The society has produced the comic operas every year since then, bringing hundreds of local singers and actors to the stage of The Grand and attracting audiences from all over the country.
“Without him, hundreds of people wouldn’t have been able to have that pleasure,” said longtime Gilbert and Sullivan performer and director Dede Johnson. “I’ll always be extremely grateful that he and Betty gave us all the opportunity to have this much fun.”
A celebration of Strong’s life will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellsworth. Contributions may be made to an endowment Strong started for The Grand, 165 Main St., Ellsworth 04605.