Ontario Bi-Centennial Show – 30th Anniversary

May 16 this year is a special day for me. It marks the 30th anniversary of the first performance of the Ontario Bi-Centennial Show that I wrote back in 1984.  The show was commissioned by the Ontario government, produced by Humber College, and cast with Humber students. I wrote the entire show (words and music), and Ron Collier’s arranging students scored my charts.  Don Calderwood and Paula Gallivan directed and choreographed it.

The show premiered on May 16, 1984 in Bothwell, Ontario, and played again the next day in Petrolia. Then on a schedule of four locations per week (from May to Labour Day), it toured the whole province. The cast of 12 and the 8-piece band travelled in a large school bus. Two tractor-trailers were needed to transport all the portable stage, lights, sound equipment, props and costumes for this huge undertaking. The cast and musicians performed to a high standard, and I was proud of the show and everyone involved in it. I heard that the government and the college were pleased with the outcome as well.

Performers and musicians - Ontario Bi-Centennial Show 1984

Performers and musicians – Ontario Bi-Centennial Show 1984

However, all along the way the question kept getting asked: “The bicentennial of what?”  The truth is – to us at the time, the answer was immaterial.  We were performers, not historians. Give us a budget, a theme, and a venue, and we set our focus on the performance.

The official answer was that it was the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists in Ontario. I later heard that the province’s history had been “massaged” a little to provide a convenient promotional opportunity in a pre-election year. No matter. It was a feel-good event.  And it was built up to be so big that the Queen was even invited to come to Canada (about a month after our show closed) to participate in a tree-planting ceremony at the Legislative Building.

But back to our show – of which I am still very proud.  Do any of you have any memories of it to share?  Please leave a comment below.

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Gene Autry – Back In The Saddle, Eventually!

In my last post I wrote about Roy Rogers’ Grandstand performance and how wholesome his show seemed.  Now we’ll contrast that with Gene Autry two years later. I’m not saying Gene wasn’t a great guy, because he was, but let’s just say that our experience with him was a little less wholesome.

Young fans were elated that their cowboy hero was coming to Toronto. By this point in his career, the man (born, Orvon Gene Autry) had appeared in at least 93 western films and 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show television series. He was considered one of the most important figures in the history of country music, and was the first person ever to earn a gold record. (The hit was, That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.)

Our CNE version of The Gene Autry Show in 1956 featured some popular performers of the day — Annie Oakley, Barbara Bardo, The Cass County Boys, The Promenaders, and Carl Cotner & His Melody Ranch Orchestra.  As the show’s star, Gene always made a grand entrance – riding his horse, Champion, while singing his way to the stage.

The first few performances went without a hitch, but our producer, Jack Arthur, noticed a bit of peculiar behavior and suspected that for whatever reason, Gene had taken a liking to alcohol. Jack, who ran a very tight ship, didn’t tolerate any compromises to the show.

Gene Autry at the CNE

Gene Autry in 1956 behind the scenes at the Canadian National Exhibition. (Midge Arthur is on the right. I don’t know who the woman is on the left.)

 

On one particular afternoon, with the audience eagerly waiting their first glimpse, Gene and Champion began their entrance. Riding toward the stage with microphone in hand, Gene was singing his signature, “Back In The Saddle Again.”  But remember this is 1956 (long before wireless mics were in use), so there was a very long microphone cord dragging behind the horse. Suddenly, to the surprise of the entire audience, Gene fell off his horse. There he was, sitting in the dirt, looking quite dazed, while Champion walked on, dragging the microphone along with him.

What followed was a mad scramble by stage management — to get the horse, the microphone, and Gene (more fortunate than Humpty-Dumpty, luckily) re‑assembled.  Eventually after much ado, Gene was ‘back in the saddle again’ and the performance continued.  Fortunately Gene wasn’t hurt. Onstage he was playful, and when he brought Annie Oakley out, he removed his hat (as a gentleman did in those days) and kissed her on the cheek.

Later that day, I heard that management had received numerous complaints from mothers who were upset that their children had seen an intoxicated man.  But the worse was yet to come. Backstage a very feisty Jack Arthur tore up one side of Gene and down the other, for what he called ‘disgraceful behavior,’ and gave him a stern warning to ‘clean up his act.’ Jack then assigned a junior assistant stage manager to shadow Gene to ensure he would always be in an acceptable* state to perform. (*polite way of saying ‘sober’) The rest of the run was free of incident.

This story actually has a happy ending.  A few years later, Jack called me into his office saying that he received a letter from Gene Autry thanking him for being the motivating force that turned Gene’s life around. Apparently that episode in 1956 did cause Gene to make some changes. A few years later, he retired from acting and became a multi-millionaire from his shrewd investments in hotels, real estate, radio & TV stations, and the California Angels professional baseball team. What do you know – Jack’s tirade had been very effective!

* (Disclaimer:  Just to be clear, the author passes no judgment on drinking, nor drinking and riding, but definitely does not recommend falling.)

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Dressing Up For The Roy Rogers Circus

In my previous blog post I wrote about Roy Rogers’ performance at the CNE Grandstand Show in 1954. (Yes, the act really was called, The Roy Rogers Circus.)

I promised to locate the images of myself in the cowboy garb the orchestra and I were required to wear to match the theme of the show. Thankfully a few photos have surfaced. This first one shows my two daughters and I standing outside Trigger’s horse trailer.

cable daughters

With my daughters standing beside Trigger’s horse trailer at the CNE 1954

In this matching image of me with my two sons, I have put the cowboy hat on my head and you can now see the buckskin fringes. Thanks to the magic of Kodachrome, the colours are still vivid after all these years.

With my two sons beside Trigger's horse trailer at the CNE 1954.

With my two sons beside Trigger’s horse trailer at the CNE 1954.

I also wrote in that post about how Dale Evans signed all of her autographs with a reference to a bible verse.  My daughters were kind enough to share with me the 8×10 photo she signed for them. You can clearly see “Happy Trails, Dale Evans, John 3:16” at the top.

Dale Evans with Buttermilk - autographed photo 1954

Dale Evans with Buttermilk – autographed photo 1954

If you missed the original post, you can find it here.  If you are enjoying my blog posts and want more, please become a follower. The next post will talk about Gene Autry, the not-so-wholesome cowboy.

 

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Roy Rogers & The Whole Wholesome Family

Western movies were very popular in the early part of the last century. At first they portrayed cowboys as rugged gunslingers that fearlessly faced the outlaws in showdowns on the main streets of town. Then someone got the bright idea to add musical numbers to movies to broaden their appeal. This introduced a more personable “singing cowboy.”

The favourite of the time was Roy Rogers, and fans were delighted when he came to the CNE Grandstand Show in 1954. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, but I grew to like him because he was so open and friendly. He was great with the audience – especially children. The “Roy Rogers’ Circus” as it was billed, was wholesome family entertainment.

Roy together with his wife Dale Evans performed with the very popular harmony group, “The Sons of The Pioneers.” (There is a Canadian connection here. Bob Nolan was a founding member of the group and he wrote their most famous tune, “Cool Clear Water.”) In keeping with the theme of the show, the entire orchestra and myself were required to dress in cowboy gear. We were all directed to go to an outfitter on the NE corner of Church and Queen Streets to get fitted. (Think buckskin fringes, checkered shirts, neckerchiefs, etc.) For the duration of the show, it was a cause of much humour for the band. (In fact I’m chuckling now as I write about it.)

The thing I found interesting about this show is that every living and non-living component, had a name and personality. Roy rode a horse named Trigger; Dale rode Buttermilk. Roy’s comic sidekick, Pat Brady, drove a jeep called “Nellybelle.”  It was as if these were all members of the family.

Trigger, a beautiful golden Palomino, had a career of his own. He was known as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies” because of all the tricks he could do. I can remember two of them: One was walking on his hindquarters, and the other was his ability to count. Roy would ask, “Trigger, what’s two plus two?” and the clever horse would scratch the ground four times. It was obvious how much Trigger was loved by how well he was treated and how they dressed him. He was outfitted with a gorgeous saddle, which I later found out was worth as much as that year’s Cadillac.

Roy, Dale and Trigger   (1950s)

Roy, Dale and Trigger (1950s)

Roy’s theme song “Happy Trails” was actually written by Dale. She was not just a pretty face and may even have been the brains behind the act. She was also very religious.  Each time she signed an autograph, she included the reference to a bible verse from Mathew. I can’t remember off the top of my head which verse it was, but I’m sure my daughters have it in their autograph books.

P.S. If you are wondering what I look like in cowboy gear, as soon as I find the photo, I’ll post it.

*If you need some background (Find “Grandstand Show Introduction” here)
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The Magnificent CNE Grandstand Orchestra

The year was 1953 and I had just started my new role as music director of the CNE Grandstand Show. My very first task was to hire a new orchestra. I knew these musicians would have to be first class because of the tight time demands that would be placed upon them.

Rehearsals for the performers began in mid-July, giving them a month to get it right. But because the orchestra was large (61 players), there would be a high cost attached to each day of their rehearsal. To keep expenses manageable, the orchestra was brought in only 4 days before opening. Therefore, I needed top players who could sight read quickly and form into sections smoothly. Today, getting the best players all together in one summer show would be almost impossible, because they would be booked elsewhere. But two things played in my favour back in the 50s and 60s: The Toronto Symphony contracts didn’t cover the summer months, and studio work was mostly in hiatus. The best musicians in town were available for me to hire – and the resulting ensemble was spectacular.

How good were these men? The American agents (and the stars they booked for us) named it the best light orchestra in North America!

One thing that did not sit right with me at the beginning was the way the musicians were credited (or rather, NOT credited) in the Grandstand program. The audience could read the names of almost everyone involved in the show – the dancers, the vocalists and in one case, even the supplier of Jimmy Durante’s hat! But the musicians were only listed as “The CNE Grandstand Orchestra.” For players as fine as these, I had to get this changed.

Today, 60 years later, I still have a few old programs. The image below (from approximately 1956-57) shows how the musicians were finally listed.

Cut from a CNE Grandstand Show program (1956-57)

Cut from a CNE Grandstand Show program
(1956-57)

Do you recognize any of these great players? Leave a comment below if you have a memory to share about any of them.

*This is Part 2 of 2 (Find Part 1, “CNE Grandstand Show Introduction” here)
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CNE Grandstand Show Introduction

I was music director of the CNE Grandstand Show from 1953 to 1968. Since this is my first blog post of the Canadian National Exhibition series, I thought I’d give you an introduction, and explain the events that lead to my being chosen for this wonderful job.

Prior to my arrival, the Grandstand Show was practically an all-American production. The stars, producers, choreographers, lighting designers, etc., were all Americans. The only Canadians in the show were pit musicians and backup singers.

Toronto’s new mayor, Alan Lamport, who always had a strong opinion on how things should be, was not at all happy with that arrangement. In 1952, he set out to change the spectacle into an all-Canadian production, with the only American being the star headliner. “Lampy” consulted his experts and was directed to Jack Arthur (vice-president of Famous Players Canada) as the man who could bring a show like that together. Though Jack was eager to get back into producing, he planned to keep his position at Famous Players for the first few years “just in case”. (So it wouldn’t appear that he had two jobs, I heard that his salary for the first year at the CNE was one dollar.)

The first “Canadiana” show that Jack put together featured Alan and Blanche Lund, Max Ferguson (Canada’s lovable radio character, Rawhide), Evelyn Gould, Celia Franca with the National Ballet, the Malvern Collegiate Precision Squad, The Canadettes, and the RCMP Musical Ride. The American star for 1952 was Tony Martin.

With the move to the new format, they were also looking for a new music director for the 1953 season. It so happened that the assistant producer under Jack Arthur was Jackie Rae, who happened to be a good friend of mine. He was also the producer of three of my CBC radio shows, so he knew my work very well. It was because of the recommendation of Jackie Rae that I came to be music director of the CNE Grandstand Show. (If the surname sounds familiar, it is because Jackie was the uncle of former Liberal Party leader, Bob Rae.)

I am forever grateful to Jackie for recommending me. He was a great human being and I miss him.

In my next post I’ll write about what I think is one of the most important parts of the whole Grandstand spectacle — the orchestra!
You can find that post (here)

Jackie Rae 1959

Jackie Rae – 1959

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Ginger Rogers: Still Cheek-To-Cheek

In my time at the Imperial Room, I had the great pleasure of working with Ginger Rogers. She was one of only a few true iconic movie stars who appeared with us. We usually think of Ginger as one half of the celebrated dance pair, Astaire and Rogers. The two danced together on screen for 16 years (from 1933 to 1949) and made 10 films during that time.

It was now February of 1976, and she could still sing and dance amazingly well (even though she was in her mid-60s). Ginger was performing solo by this time, because Fred – who was 12 years her senior – had stopped dancing professionally and was devoting his time to acting.

Her show was well produced, and I could tell she had a good choreographer. Backed by eight dancers, it was an absolute class act.  Though I don’t know the reason, early in the run she decided to add a number. She asked me to write an arrangement of an Irving Berlin tune from one of her old movies.  I did so quickly, and she liked it so much I gave it to her as a gift.

Her show ran for two weeks, and I was very moved by the way she closed the show each night. After the final chart and after her final bow, she stepped up to the microphone, gazed out – as if peering off to a far away place – and sweetly said, “Good night, Fred.”

A partnership as close as theirs, did not fade.

Fred and Ginger in their movie, "Shall We Dance" (1937)

Fred and Ginger in their movie, “Shall We Dance” (1937)

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Imperial Room Performers of 1976

To give you some idea of how varied the headliners in the Imperial Room could be, here is the full list (in order) from January to December of 1976:

 Ginger Rogers

The Fifth Dimension

Nancy Wilson

Raquel Welsh

Phyllis Diller

Joel Gray

Catherine McKinnon

Trini Lopez

Jack Jones

The Mills Brothers

Julie Budd

The Smothers Brothers

Vic Franklyn

Guy Lombardo

Tony Bennett

Marilyn Michaels

Frankie Laine

Tessie O’Shea

Chita Rivera

Buddy Greco

The Righteous Brothers

Ray Charles

Pat Boone

 This list covers 9 months of actual shows. We had summers off, so there were no performances from mid-June to mid-September.  Some acts performed for one week, others for two weeks.  Keep in mind that there are 12 more years worth of performers in addition to this one.  I have a lot of writing ahead of me.

 In next week’s post, I’ve got a touching story about Ginger Rogers that I’d like to share. (find the Ginger story here)

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Count Basie & His Orchestra – Still Swingin’ At The Top

During my time as music director of the Royal York, ninety-five percent of the Imperial Room headliners were either solo acts, or stars with their own trio. In all of these cases, my orchestra provided the music. The exception to this was the rare occasion when the headline act was an orchestra. My band didn’t mind giving up the stage in December of 1975 — the week that the Count Basie Orchestra came to town. We were elated to have them. In my opinion, the Basie Band typified Swing.

By this stage, the legendary players (Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison) that came to prominence at the height of the Basie era, were gone. The one big name remaining was Freddie Green – an extraordinary rhythm guitarist. For over fifty years, Freddie was the “keeper of the quarter note” for Basie’s band. He perfected a style of playing “one note chords” which was so unique, it became known simply as the Freddie Green style.

Even with all the changes in players over the years, the band’s 40’s groove was still at the top. One of Basie’s secrets to success was that he knew how to hire good musicians. He also knew the value of good arrangements, and he brought with him his legendary Sammy Nestico and Neal Hefti charts. As his band played, the Count (most called him Bill) sat at the piano and added classy, yet very simple decorations. I’ll never forget the comment made by his manager as we talked about this great ensemble and its leader, “Bill don’t play nothin’, but it sure sounds real good.”

William "Count" Basie (left), Freddie Green (centre)

William “Count” Basie (left), Freddie Green (centre)

One thing that many didn’t know was that Bill was having trouble with his mobility. (Hey, I can identify with that.) He was in his early seventies and in a wheelchair.  With curtain closed, we would wheel him on stage and set him up at the piano. Then when they hit the opener (usually One O’Clock Jump), the curtain opened and there he was.  He played as well as ever and no one knew.

On Tuesday, the second night of their show, Basie was faced with an unexpected challenge that had the potential to undermine the band’s performance.  Their first trombonist, Al Grey, had to leave immediately to appear as a witness in court in New York. In a pinch Basie’s manager asked if I thought MY trombonist could cut the Basie book.  Our man was Jerry Johnson and I said “of course.”  Jerry filled in Wednesday and Thursday and his performance was spot on.  He had saved the day, and at the end of the week, Basie’s band players threw him a party.   To my knowledge, he is the only Canadian who could say that he played, in the Count Basie Band.

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Ella Fitzgerald: My First Encounter With The Great Lady of Song

I have worked with literally hundreds of great performers over the course of my career, and I often get asked the question, “Who was your favourite of all time?” Without hesitation my reply is always, Ella Fitzgerald.  So it is only fitting that I begin the “Royal York” series with my first experience with the iconic singer.

I had just started my contract when Ella was booked to appear at the Royal York in September of 1974.  As you can imagine, I was excited. When I read her contract, one of the requirements was for an 18-piece band (double the size of our house band). I also noticed that instead of the usual 2 ½ hours of rehearsal, she had stipulated that we must have four. Her charts were tough, and I heard that she had been less than happy with the previous bands she’d worked with. Ella always felt that her audience deserved a first rate performance.

On the afternoon of her arrival, we anxiously awaited the downbeat at rehearsal.  Ella always travelled with her trio, and on this day, they were the first to arrive on stage.  Tommy Flanagan was her music director, with Keter Betts on bass and Bobby Durham on drums. (My band later told me that Durham’s playing was so dead-on, they didn’t even need to count rests.) The trio ran through a few charts with us and then Ella’s manager brought her down from her suite.  She walked straight to Flanagan and they began a private dialog.  (It is customary for a music director to let the performer know what they are up against.)  I couldn’t hear what they were saying because they were speaking in lowered tones, but as he spoke I could see a smile come across her face.  That was a good sign.

Ella had us run through all the charts with her– which took under two hours.  Just when I expected her to start at the top and do it all again, she said, “That’s fine, boys. We won’t need to run through them again.” Everyone was dismissed to go home.  We had met her approval and didn’t need the four hours of rehearsal after all.  I was very proud of the band – they were some of the finest musicians in the country.

That evening after the guests had finished dinner, the band set up to play a half hour of dance charts.  These were pops charts that I’d written, and they were intended to get the audience up dancing before the headliner. The crowd that night was younger than the regular Imperial Room clientele.  The big band/jazz singers – like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee – always brought in a younger crowd.  As you might expect, the place was packed!

Everyone was abuzz with anticipation when the moment finally arrived and Ella was cued to enter.  She appeared classy and elegant in a long, beaded gown. There was no need for elaborate lighting or extravagance – her mere presence was enough to fill the room.  When she sang, her voice was captivating. She could really make you feel the mood of the song. She had flawless intonation and a wonderfully broad range.  She hit every note without the slightest hint of effort.  She was sensational.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

Her show ran for two weeks, and we were fortunate to have her appear five more times before she retired. Each time she returned I got to know her better.  I’ll be sure to add more stories about these shows in later blog posts.

If you have a memory of Ella Fitzgerald, please feel free to share it in a comment below.

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