In the winter of 2001, John R. Burrows proposed to a group of friends, whom he later dubbed the “Bear Team,” that they organize festivities for the week after the Fourth of July in Provincetown and call it “Bear Week.” According to Tom Quinn, John’s proposal was met with skepticism.
Even though some Bears from Boston met in Provincetown each February, and another group from Connecticut who called themselves “the Ursamen” came to celebrate “Spooky Bear” every Halloween, John believed the idea was appealing, Quinn said. His friends thought no one would want to come during the crowded summer season.
But John had a vision of a celebration emphasizing goodwill and inclusiveness, and his vision carried the day. That summer some 200 Bears came, mostly from around New England. “It was an amazing week,” said Quinn, and by its 10th anniversary Bear Week had become an international event where some 10,000 Bears found “a safe space to simply be themselves,” Quinn added.
This year, Bear Week, which starts Saturday, will miss its founder. On May 20, 2023, John R. Burrows died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Milton. He was 66.
The son of Robert Nelson Burrows and Marion Jauch Burrows, John was born on Oct. 16, 1956 in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Although he did not speak until he was three and a half, John made up for the delay both in speech and creativity. In elementary school he became interested in puppetry, which he pursued through middle school and into high school.
At 16, he won a summer internship at Pelham Puppets in Marlborough, England, and when he returned, his father built a stage where John could perform puppet shows, modeled on British marionette theater, at schools and in shopping malls. He also played the piano and pipe organ. He went to Grinnell College, where he studied art, architectural history, and Victorian culture.
After Grinnell, John did graduate work in architectural preservation at the University of Virginia. His first job, as South Dakota’s preservation historian, ended because of budget cuts, so he went into the private sector, working for Bradbury and Bradbury, a historical design company in Benicia, Calif. He began to design his own period wallpaper patterns inspired by the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement.
Having found his true vocation, John became a historical design merchant, establishing J.R. Burrows and Co. in Boston, specializing in Victorian furnishings: carpets, lace curtains, and wallpaper. He relocated his company to Rockland and nurtured a relationship with the Grosvenor and Wilton Company in Kidderminster, England, which uses original 19th-century looms and patterns to make wool carpets.
John went from success to success, advising and overseeing the installation of period carpets, wallpaper, and other furnishings in Trinity Church in Copley Square in Boston, the reconstructed Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Ill., and two rooms in the White House: the Blue Room during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and the Lincoln Bedroom during George W. Bush’s. He also did the carpets and lace curtains for the sets of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, “Lincoln.”
His many awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Victorian Society of America.
John’s deep engagement with Victorian material culture, particularly of the 1890s when William Morris’s wallpaper designs became the dominant aesthetic, took him to academic conferences such as Restoration 95, where he delivered a paper called “The Theory and Practice of Late Victorian Wallpaper.” In that paper, he identified himself as an “architectural historian and merchant,” a nicely Victorian formulation.
Victorian forms of leisure also appealed to him. Beginning in the 1980s, he participated in vintage dance events on both sides of the Atlantic, dancing at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan just a week before his death. He participated in Victorian balls in fancy dress as well.
The imagination and care he brought to his vocations and avocations were mirrored in the ever-changing activities pursued during Bear Week over the past quarter century.
John loved Provincetown, and he bought Tower House on Masonic Place as his vacation home. One of the reasons he established Bear Week, Quinn said, was that “he wanted to show the town off to the Bears.”
Bear Week developed from a couple of dance parties into a full week of parties and events throughout town. Because he had such an “inclusive imagination,” Quinn said, John guided it to encompass much more than parties. He organized a breakfast at the Masonic Lodge and arranged lectures on the history of Bears as a subculture within the gay community and on the role of gay men in world history. “There is even a sober Bears group,” Quinn added.
“The feel-good piece of Bear Week has been phenomenal,” he said, especially because “John strove for the idea that everyone, straight and gay, male and female, is welcome and should share in the community’s celebrations.”
Those celebrations extended to fundraising activities for the Provincetown Fire Dept., SKIP, and the AIDS Support Group, “things that matter to the folks who live in Provincetown year-round,” Quinn said.
“We will miss his guidance this year,” he said. But Bear Week will continue. “The Bears of Provincetown and its board have discussed the future of the club and Bear Week and are unanimous in announcing that we will carry on the legacy and wishes of our founder.”
John is survived by his mother, Marion Burrows of Whitewater, Wisc.; his siblings David N. Burrows of Oriental, N.C., Mark S. Burrows of Camden, Maine, and Linda Jauch Jennings of Falcon, Colo.; and his former husband, Christopher Ricciotti of Montville, Maine.
The Provincetown Inn and Monkey Bar will host a memorial barbecue for John on Sunday, July 9 at 11 a.m. Tickets are $50 per person and include an all-you-can-eat buffet. A cash bar will be available.
Memorial services are to be planned in Whitewater, Wisc., and Rockland.