Finding Elusive Roy Tash

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 14 July 2015

This story began with a suspect memory and perhaps a vague word or two which had remained dormant in my mind for 48 years before popping up recently.

Back in 1967, while enjoying the hair-raising rides, the butter-doused corn on the cob, and the razmataz of the fairway at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, I had stopped—to escape the din–at an ornate jewel of a building where they were showing black-and-white  photographs of dramatic events in Canada’s history. Although the room was packed, it was hard to miss the tall and lean man with the debonair black mustache. He seemed to flow in the crowd in non-stop motion as he shook hands and smiled with his sad eyes. He was the star of the show: the photos were taken by him. His name was Roy Tash. I left the exhibition with an inchoate feeling that he might be Armenian, despite his name. I soon forgot him.

A few weeks ago, while flipping through an old book, I came across a folded clipping from the ‘Toronto Star’. I gently opened the yellowing paper and saw it was a 1988 news story announcing the death of Roy Tash. The headline said: “Roy Tash, 90, Canadian dean of newsreel photographers”. There was a recent photo which identified him as a film pioneer and newsreel cameraman known for his dapper attire, old-world charm and his ability to ‘move like an eel’ while filming. The photo was of an old man, with white tufted mustache, silver hair and glasses. He looked like the chairman of the board of a Bay Street (Canada’s Wall Street) conglomerate. There was also a photo of Tash photographing, in 1934, the famous Dionne quintuplets of Canada.

Although Tash had not crossed my mind for nearly 50 years, I decided to find out why I still held the suspicion that he might be Armenian.

Thus began the adventure to find Roy Tash and his roots.

I Googled and pored into the records of the Library and Archives Canada (“Ancestors Search”). In I found a Roy Tash. But he had died in 1989. There was also a U.S. Civil War veteran called John Tash. listed a Roy Tash who was born in Missouri in 1900. There was an R.M. Tash born in Brooklyn. In the JewishGen database of burials I found a Max Tash who was born in 1896. But Max had died three years after Roy. I read Canadian cinema photography magazines and books which talked about Roy Tash’ celebrated career. While there was a great deal of information about the photographer who had received more awards than Canadian photography superstar Yusuf Karsh, there was no mention of an Armenian connection. I checked with Toronto Armenian organizations, people active in the Armenian community, people who were third- or fourth-generation Canadian Armenians. No one had heard of Roy Tash, let alone have knowledge of his origins. I telephoned Onnig Cavoukian in British Columbia. He had worked with his father, the celebrity portrait photographer (Cavouk of Toronto) for decades. Onnig, the brother of children’s song writer Raffi, hadn’t heard of Tash. I spent several hours at the Toronto Reference Library and a day at the Toronto City Hall Archives. Nothing about Tash’s roots.

I contacted an Armenian woman who was born in Canada in the ‘30s. Through the Internet she found out that a daughter of Roy Tash lived in Toronto. She gave me the daughter’s phone number. I phoned the “daughter” and left several messages. I didn’t hear back.

Through the Canadian national archives I found an article, written in 1976, about Tash for ‘Motion’ magazine. There was nothing in the article about Tash’s origins. I contacted the writer (Michael Ryval). He said Tash’s origins had not come up during the interview.

Meanwhile, I learned a lot about his long career. He was called “Mr. Newspictures of Canada”. A life member of the Toronto Press Club and the Canadian Picture Pioneers, a year before his retirement (1967), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had aired a celebratory program about him.

Most articles repeated that Tash was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898 and grew up in Chicago before moving to Toronto in 1919. They mentioned he had been a major newsreel photographer. Prior to TV, images of world events were shown in theatres, before the cartoons and the feature. From the late ‘20s to the mid-‘50s the world had seen Canada often through the lens of Tash.

Royal visits and regattas, fires, floods and funerals were standard fare for him. Getting the news to cinema screens in the shortest time possible was of the essence. Deadlines never receded and competition was fierce. No one could beat Tash at the game. His motto was: “Never take no for an answer.”

In 1963 when Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) held a newsreel exhibition of 60 major Canadian events, more than 30 percent of the reels were that of Tash. In 1967 he received the Centennial Medal of the NFB and was inducted into Canada’s News Hall of Fame (1982). The Canadian Society of Cinematographers honored him with the Roy Tash Trophy, a gold-plated camera, which is awarded every year to the best Canadian news cameraperson.

The articles said he had moved to Chicago at an early age had worked, after school, at a nickelodeon, sweeping peanut shells off the floor. At 16 he had become assistant projectionist. Around the same time he had acquired an old camera and had taught himself the basics of photography. In 1918 he had witnessed 800 people drown when their ferry boat capsized at the Chicago dockside.

Tash told Ryval: “I came to Toronto in 1919 and joined up with some fellows called Irwin Proctor and Clifford Sifton. We set up Filmcraft Industries…We did a lot of work for the Ontario government, propaganda stuff for the ministries. Besides that we also did newsreels. Then we had a fire and were knocked out of business.”

After the company went belly up, Tash got a job with a tabloid as a still photographer. He then became the photographer of one of the earliest Canadian feature films. “Satan’s Paradise” (1922) was about a phony spiritualist. The silent movie had a budget of $2,000. A few years later he was director-editor of the federal government’s Arctic expedition to open up the north to winter navigation. The group travelled within 500 miles of the North Pole. They were nearly shipwrecked. As a result of his Arctic experience, he was hired the following year by Montreal’s Associated Screen News. The relationship, which lasted more than four decades, ended 1967 when he retired. His last assignment was the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto. During his long tenure, the company supplied news footage to the big American film companies—Fox Movietone News, MGM News, Paramount, and Universal.

Armenians know the story of how Karsh got his famous photograph of Churchill when (1941) he pulled the cigar from the lips of the British prime minister at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Tash also had a 1941 cigar story with Churchill in Ottawa. Churchill was flicking the ashes of his cigar in an ashtray when Tash grabbed an envelope and put the ashes in it.

“What are you doing?” a belligerent Churchill asked.

“Collecting the ashes of a great man,” Tash answered smoothly.

Churchill smiled and said that in that case Tash could have some more and he flicked ashes into Tash’s palm. “They were hot, but what could I say?” Tash told Ryval.

The adventure to find Tash’s roots continued. Google said the name might be Jewish, German, Scottish…and Tash was a corruption of the German “tasch” meaning bag.

Then I hit gold. At I discovered that his middle name was Haig. It’s English but also an  Armenian name. This Roy H. Tash had crossed, according to, from the Detroit border to Canada sometime between 1905 and 1963. A Roy H. Tash was on the Canada voting lists ten times.

A chat with Susan King at was the clincher. Tash’s father was Reteos/Retevos Taslyian, company documents said. He had immigrated to the US in the early 1890s. The first and last names of immigrants were often misspelled by immigration officers, especially if the immigrant was not Anglo-Saxon. Tash’s mother was Zanazan, also spelled Zanazar in some US government records. In different documents the family name was Tashfian, Tashijian, Tashian… Haig was spelled Haighk.

Through’s grave index, I found that a Roy H. Tash (born in 1898) and died in 1988. Where? They didn’t say.

Then Marc A. Mamigonian, director of academic affairs at the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont, MA, joined the search. Through him, I learned that a Reteos Tashjian (born in 1859) and Zanazan Durgarian (born 1863) of Sivas had married in 1878. A few years after landing in New York, they had moved to Chicago where Reteos, according to the Cook County 1910 census, worked as a rug weaver. The family was identified as “W” (white) in the race/color column. There were eight children.

The family was cursed and blessed when it came to longevity. Zanazan had died in Chicago at age 52 in 1915. Zarouhe, the eldest child (born in Sivas in 1880) had died at the age of three. Anna (born in Sivas in 1882) had died within a month. Nazelie (born in 1894) had also died within a month. Haig Jon (born in Sivas in 1891) had died at 26. Armenouhe (born in 1895) had died at 22. No reasons were given for the premature deaths. At the other end of the longevity pole, Dikranouhe (born in Sivas in 1884) had died in Fresno at 100. Vahan (born in Sivas in 1889) had died at 93. The youngest, Haig John (born in 1898), had died at 90. He is the one who became Roy Tash.

Why did Haig become Roy? Perhaps because Haig Nahabed was our first king, Haig or his father changed the name to the Ango-Saxon Roy. It means king. A long shot. Zanazan had died when her youngest son was sweeping the floor at the neighborhood nickelodeon and learning to become a projectionist. Two years after Roy lost his mother, his brother Haig Jon (27) and sister Armenouhe (22) died. Did Haig leave the country and change his name to flee his death-plagued family and start a new life? Was he insecure in an era when racism was rampant? But his contemporary Karsh didn’t hide his roots.

Haig-Roy married (Edna) in Canada and had two daughters–Norma McFadden and Bette Barrett. When he died, he had seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was buried in Toronto.

I still don’t know what made me suspect, back in 1967, that Roy Tash was Armenian.

  1. Intuitive

    Compliments to Mr. Tutunjian for an outstanding research and a fascinating article  he has written, to unravel the ancestry and the life of the Tashjian family. Having immigrated to U.S.A. in the 1890s, when a section of Manhattan until WW-II was known as "Little Armenia", with an Armenian Protestant Church there since 1896. This is when according to a book "Briefer History of Aintab", there were over 2,500 American Missionaries based in Aintab, facilitating the passage of most of the immigrants of "Little Armenia". Which is when also in the 1890s my grandfather's First Cousin Hrand Chekijian had come, became a Medical Doctor, changing his name to Henry Emerson. Then through a DNA match, I was connected recently with his grandson, who was not aware that he was of Armenian ancestry. Tash and Emerson must be only two small examples. Changing names apparently were not uncommon.  Speaking of names, apparently  the given name "Retevos" of the head of Tashjian household is an Armenian male name, as there is today an inventor named "Zhosef Retevos Panosyan" with a patent for a coating of solar panels.

    1. Reteos II

      I quote from Wikipedia: "Reteos Berberian (Armenian: Ռեթէոս Պէրպէրեան, 1848, Constantinople, Ottoman Turkey – 1907, Üsküdar, Ottoman Turkey) was a famed Armenian educator, pedagogue, principal, writer, poet, and founder of the prestigious Armenian school Berberian Varjaran".

      Apparently, Reteos is fully-fledged Armenian name and it could easily or inadvertently be changed to Retevos.

    2. Retevos Armenian Name

      Retevos seems to be a common Armenian name. During the '40s and the '50s I remember my grandmother speaking of two persons with the name–one a minister and the other a doctor.

  2. Too Bad

    Thank you Mr. Tutunjian for this research.
    Apsos, you didn't find him before he died. But perhaps you can follow-up with his surviving daughters… This may call for a follow-up article.
    When I was much younger, I met a gorgeous girl from Alberta. She had discovered that on her mother's side, the family name was Yazdjian, which they had changed to Clarkson (simple translation from the Turkish).

  3. Not Only Name Change

    What a superb narration.

    It seems that not only the change of the name but its sound also may obliterate any connection to being Armenian .

    Decades ago I served on the board of trustees of the Home for the Armenian Aged in New Jersey. I recall receiving a return envelope from our mass mailing with a note complaining that the family kept receiving mailings from Armenian organizations when they were Irish and not Armenian. The family name was Kelian.

    Not long after that, during my pre-teen son’s baseball came, a father approached me and asked if I was Armenian. I told him I was. He then told me that they are also of Armenian descent and that their family name was Kerian. His mannerism, the way he pronounced the name and my remembrance of the Kelian name lead me to believe there was something wrong.

    Then he told me that his grandfather’s family name was Shishmanian and that he had it changed to Kerian. Although I do not know Turkish I knew that Shishman is Turkish that is frequently used by Armenians as well. It means obese. The reason for the name change became abundantly clear but it seemed it had lost its purpose. Ironically, Shishmanian would have sounded more Armenian than Kerian.

    1. Kerian from Shishmanian

      Kerian from Shishmanian is very interesting. I know a Kanian from Kanagirmezian. I did meet a Killian once and started speaking Armenian to them…. learned that it is a popular Irish name, including the popular Killian Irish beer!

      1. Ker and Gal

        I could not relate Kanian deriving from Kanagirmezian.

        Kerian deriving from Shishmanian is indicative that the person was very conscious of having a Turkish derived family name and hence most likely seized the moment at his naturalization and adopted the Armenian word Ker (գէր=obese) having not altered the origin of the family's last name.

        I also know of another family, which at their naturalization, changed their last name from Kharmandarian (threshing flour in Turkish) to Galian.

        The U.S. naturalization process is a unique opportunity for an Armenian family to adopt an Armenian last name.

        1. Kan a Warehouse

          Kan (accented Khan) is a warehouse. Kanagirmezian was abbreviated to just Kanian. I have Buchakjian family relations who had changed their name to Cutler, which translates fully.

          I came across a book recently (published by Kayseri authorities) with the list of Armenians who entered or left Kayseri over each decade in the 19th century. None of the Armenians have a family name. They are all known by their first names and their features, whether they had beards, were tall, short, overweight or of average built. It was not until 1870 that the sultan required all Armenians within the remaining Ottoman Empire adopt a family name with "ian", to distinguish them from other people. With that, most Armenian family names were given Turkish names, and most descriptive of their traits… Shishmanian being such an example.

          1. Ouny vs -Ian

            Thanks  for the information, although I am inclined to believe that -ian is not a later addition as an Armenian family name given the famed Armenian family Mamigonian. Although family names ending in "-ouny" seem to have been equally prevalent such as Rshdouny, Pagradouny, Arshagouny etc., but seem to have been dropped out of usage in time maybe for the reason you give.

            I am under the impression that family names ending in "ouny",  mostly but not exclusively, implied belonging to a noble family given that "ouny" signifies possession. However, Vartan Mamigonian hailed from nobility as well.

            Our family traces its lineage for 10 to 11 generations in Kessab along the male lineage. Our family's founder is attributed to have been named Apel and hence the family name. However, the Apelian family name is associated with one of his children.  

            One of Apel's great-grandson's was named Bedir and from him the Bedirian family of Kessab is branched out to this day but is included in the family tree. Interestingly, as students they used Apelian as their family name only to adopt Bediran family name when needing official identity cards. The registering official may have used his name to designate his children. I make the point in associating Armenian family name with the founder of the family as well.

    2. Haig Tashjian

      Roy Tash is buried at the Parklawn Cemetery in Toronto. His gravestone reads:
      John Haig Tash 

      Jirair Tutunjian

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