Withnail: Monty used to act. Monty: I’d hardly say that. It’s true I crept the boards in my youth, but I never had it in my blood, and that’s what so essential isn’t it? The theatrical zeal in the veins. Alas, I have little more that vintage wine and memories.
Somewhere in the ephemera of my collected life are boxes and envelopes containing the remnants of my public turn as an actor. I generally don’t think about them much, but occasions such as the 40th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Centre inspire one to dig out the boxes. I happened to find a couple of nuggets in a file folder here at the office.
Well, it’s a poor excuse for a blog post, but I’ll take it. It’s been quite a year, and it looks like 2010 will be at least as busy if not busier. Resolutions? Well, I’m not a big one for making them, but I can say that there’s going to be a renewed commitment to getting healthier, eating healthier and ramping the fitness level up a notch or to. Business-wise, it’s going to be more of the same: doing only the things I’m passionate about alongside the people that make me happy to be around them. Simple as that.
Finn's First New Year
We’ve just had a great visit to the North country, where the snow is hanging off the eaves like icing on a gingerbread house. It couldn’t be more gorgeous, although I’ve shoveled about two tons of snow.
I absolutely make no guarantees that this post will remain up for any length of time. Whether it’s my own discomfort with being completely transparent on the internet (a function of age, perhaps) or just the overall embarrassment over the cheesiness of the clip, I’m just not sure if I want this thing out there for too long. But I do want to share it with some friends and family, along with the rather unique story that accompanies it, so here goes.
Even those among my friends that know that I began my career as a performer don’t necessarily know that I started as a singer. I had a some success in theatre circles in Toronto and some regional theatres, performing in musicals and industrial shows. The corporate shows took me all over the world through those early years, and introduced me to my incredible missus—but that truly is another story.
This one revolves around the Canadian-prototype of the National Idol syndrome: few know that the Americans stole the idea from us. It was called DuMaurier Search for Stars (the cigarette sponsorship provides some carbon-dating on the episode) and I was a semi-finalist in 1982, I think it was. And now is as good a time as any to take you down Memory Lane. Don’t miss the terrific Marty Robbins and Touch of Scent ads at the beginning. They really give it context.
The video above depicts the first time I ever sang in front of an full orchestra. We shot it at the old CBC Studios on Mutual Street, where I would spend the next few years working on radio drama and comedy. But that day in the early eighties is remembered by players in town for much more than my cheesy performance. Here’s why.
I was singing two songs that day, and after rehearsing them both with the band, the sax player Bernie Pilch announced that he wasn’t feeling up to snuff and would sit out the first tune. While we recorded that fist song—another standard, As Time Goes By—he had a massive heart attack in the hallway at the CBC. He was taken away by ambulance but it was clear that they had not been able to revive him.
It was obvious to me that he had been a dear friend of all the players collected there that day; they had been playing live big band gigs at the CBC and elsewhere for many years. But the times were changing; this was the last days of big orchestras, the studios would soon be torn down and television would devolve from variety shows to reality shows, never to recover. In hindsight, Bernie Pilch’s passing that morning represented the beginning of the end.
I was a kid, and pretty nervous about the gig that day. I didn’t know what would happen next as people milled about the hallway, looking at their shoes, solemn and quiet. Finally, the pianist Garry Gross spoke up. He thought Bernie would want us to do the next tune, he said, and that was what we did. The ‘next tune’ was the version of I’ll Be Seeing You that is reproduced above. I usually smiled more when I sang it—but not that day. We did it one take, and I’ll never forget it.
I often think fondly of my old pal Don Wilder. Years ago, when I was a young actor, I worked shoulder to shoulder with Don on a series in Toronto. He was the Director of Photography, from Seasons 2 through 5, and spent much of the first year he living at my house. Moxy was a pup, and chewed every pair of shoes he’d brought. he spent that last few weeks of the shoot wearing his rubber boots. That was Don.
Don was the consummate DOP. He lived and breathed the film set, and although he was no spring chicken, his enthusiasm for film-making imbued a vigour in him that was contagious. He started every day in Port Credit by brewing the strongest coffee I’d ever tasted and chomping at the bit to get to set. He’d race to the massive Caddy that he had driven out from Vancouver, and then—big band music blaring—drive it at a snail’s pace into the city. It’s not that he wasn’t in a hurry, he just didn’t drive fast. It was as if he was savouring the anticipation of shooting. And maybe even timing his arrival so that he was metering first light, setting up his shots with the sun.
He was quirky and talented and brash; he was funny and fun, and not afraid of a fight. He would let you know what he thought, good or bad. And he was supremely talented. He had a long lineage in documentary and drama—he had shot everywhere and in all conditions and loved to share it. I could fill a book with stories he regaled us with and add a few more from our experiences together on set, but this post is about his past—and how I came to know it better.
I was reminded today of one of Don’s tales, one that he would mete out in pieces now and then when something on our set reminded him.
It had to do with a wild shoot that he had been on in the Yukon territories, working on a National Film Board documentary. I couldn’t remember the name, but he would often talk about how they had done fly-overs deep into the bush, dropping food caches and 12V batteries to run the cameras. He had all kinds of stories about how tough the shoot was, how beautiful the country was and how interesting the subject.
So when I learned that the NFB was releasing its docs to the web, I visited the site and did a search on Don’s name. I was rewarded with the beautiful film Nahanni. He shot it on 35mm, in an area of the Yukon that few ever see. His doc probably part of the inspiration for Pierre Elliot Trudeau to visit and subsequently protect the Nahanni river by declaring it a national park. It is a fitting legacy of rugged beauty, not unlike Don himself.
Hot off the hard drive, here it is. The watercolour is my first attempt at painting. An unapologetically blatant rip-off of a Tony Bennett masterpiece, it was just meant to be an exercise. His is three times as large, and a 100 times better (I can’t sing as well as him, either) but I was still pleased that mine manages to convey some of the serenity of a country Christmas. Click on the image for full-size view.