A master of design, John Thomas, 60

TRIBUTES have flooded in for a unique personality who ''always left them wanting more'' whether a theatre audience or his family and friends.

Set design became the star of the show in the capable and creative hands of John Thomas whose death at the age of 60 stunned the theatre community.

The fact that he fell ill while working on what became his final stage set at the Hippodrome is apt for the man who routinely brought gasps and spontaneous applause from audiences before a word was spoken on stage.

A ‘‘John Thomas set’’ was a creative scene-stealer in its own right and became the reviewer’s phrase that spoke volumes for a man who remained contentedly outside the spotlight.

‘‘Always leave them wanting more’’ was often quoted by John when referring to a theatre audience and he succeeded in this with all his family and friends as well.

He was taken ill while working on the Gang Show set and died six hours later. Friends and family arranged an unusual service for him at the Hippodrome last Tuesday conducted by Baptist Minister Glenn Cannon.

His daughter, Justine, said tributes were made by many people and at 2 pm candles were lit simultaneously for him by friends in countries all over the world including Greece, Australia, the U.S., France and Denmark.

Known affectionately as the fifth Beatle for never seeking the limelight but inspiring much of what took place, songs in the service included ‘‘Let It Be’’ by the Beatles plus songs from various shows.

Mr George Mitchell, president of Todmorden Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society said: ‘‘John would appear with an aura of quiet, self-assured calm. Everyone would gather round in eager anticipation as he produced his miniature theatre with his set design and inspirational ideas. We were all spellbound.’’

According to Freda Kelsall, of Bridge Theatre, a set designed and painted by John was always a work of art which gave a thrill to the audience and enhanced the confidence of the actors.

‘‘John has been one of the youth theatre’s biggest supporters, encouraging us and quietly applauding when we try something new and challenging,’’ said Helen Clarkson, vice-chairman of TAODS.

Steve Clarkson said that John would always be with the theatre.

‘‘In the cloths that he has painted, the scenery that we will re-use and then adapt for the next show, but in the longer term the lasting legacy will be in our dedication to maintaining the standards that were so important to him,’’ he said.

‘‘I still remember getting designs for shows faxed from Greece and poring over them at the theatre thinking ‘it’s alright for him drinking Ouzo on a beach but we have to build this now!’

‘‘John has not passed from this life without touching so many people through his hard work in the theatre, his warmth as a friend, his talents as a husband and father and the sheer delight he took in being a grandpa.’’

John Leslie Thomas was born on June 9 1945 and grew up in Rawtenstall. While he was at Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, his interest in theatre began and through this he met his future wife, Sylvia, at an end of production party in 1962.

John began to train as an architect but changed to teacher training in the fields of art and drama, soon focusing on pottery and stage craft. On finishing his training he married Sylvia and they lived in Rochdale. Justine was born in 1973 and they moved to Whitworth. Becoming a self-employed potter, working from his studio at home, allowed John time to become closely involved in Justine’s day to day upbringing and he enjoyed being a house-husband. Moving his pottery business and home to Todmorden was an added bonus as the whole family were soon able to share their passion for the theatre through membership at the Todmorden Hippodrome.

They became involved when Justine took part in the society’s production of ‘‘Bugsy Malone’’.

Over the past 22 years John spent many painstaking hours working for the Hippodrome designing and painting sets.

One of his most amazing sets was for Peter Pan in 1988 which brought him to the attention of Freda Kelsall of Bridge Theatre and Peter Sandiman of City Varieties, Leeds, both of whom contracted him for professional work in their theatre companies.

From then on he worked full time in theatre design, often turning for assistance to friend Bill Ingham and his son Jonathan.

Meanwhile his daughter met her future husband through the Hippodrome and after Justine was married, John and Sylvia decided to follow their dream and made the move to Symi in Greece. They chose to split their time between Todmorden and their new home in Greece for the next nine years and they became a part of the Greek community very quickly. Many of the visitors to Symi from all over the world became good friends as well. In Greece he amused the locals by insisting on a sail for his small boat and a love for sailing was one of the many things he shared with Ian, his brother-in-law.

John carried on designing for theatres back in England but took on many different artistic projects in Greece including the interior work for a full feature film, located on the island. For John, seeing his name in the credits was another ambition quietly fulfilled. When grandchildren arrived, the desire to be back in Todmorden was great and John and Sylvia returned so they could spend as much time as possible with their grandchildren, Beth, Tom and Hannah and the rest of their family.

Described as a free spirit, a forward thinker and a source of immense knowledge, not just about the theatre and art world, but of science, history, current affairs and almost any topic you could think of, John was said to be ‘‘a vibrant creative force’’ by friends.

‘‘Being John’s daughter was an honour,’’ said Justine. ‘‘Just to be sat among an audience who were applauding his sets was enough for me. As my husband, Alan, says, Dad didn’t create a set, or a piece of craft or art, for the glory, but for the beauty and accuracy of it. The applause that sometimes came was the icing on the cake.’’