Chapter Thirty-eight

Pat McDougall, Adaptation was still alive.

I had continued to write scripts for various Montreal ad agencies through all the tumultuous changes as the CBC. Most of the agencies operated exclusively in French and that’s where the ‘Adaptation’ came in: no matter what they threw at me – radio and TV jingles, film scripts, speeches, business letters – I was supposed to render them in everyday English. Sometimes I would be asked to take on an added role: narrating a script I had written, or finding someone who could. One such job led – quite coincidentally – to a bittersweet reunion with Gabrielle Roy.
The trail to Gabrielle Roy’s Quebec City apartment began in Montreal at a dinner party to which I wasn’t invited. A fellow worker at the CBC was, and he found himself seated next to the famous author with nothing to say. It was then he remembered what I had told him so often: that Gabrielle Roy had taught me in Grade One.
According to my CBC colleague, Miss Roy reacted by telling him she “loved to hear from her little pupils.” And before the dinner party broke up, she made sure that he had her Quebec City address to pass on to me.

I remember agonizing over my first letter to her: should it be in English or in my lumpy French? And how could I best express my admiration in either language? I decided to keep it short: just tell her that I had been in Quebec City once since that dinner party, that I tried to keep up with her writing, and that I was the host of Radio Noon. When I had finally composed something I thought was good enough to send her, I mailed it off with not much hope of a reply.

Within days I got this two-page handwritten letter in English:

Quebec, February 26, 1978

Dear Patrick,
If you come again please look me up in the phone book. We are listed under my husband’s name: Dr. Marcel Carbotte, and do ring me up.
I remember you very well as one of my endearing little pupils. If I let you do as you pleased, you were forever drawing, as it seems to me, speeding cars between high boulders, planes careening in a heavy sky, a sort of threatening world – our world of today as it happens – that you foresaw well ahead of time, small prophet of the future as gifted children often are.
I would have guessed then, judging from your most apparent gift, that you would become an artist painter. We seldom are right in our extrapolations of a child’s destiny according to what we can read and see in the early years. Yet, so many of my pupils turned out to be quite successful in the field of TV or the theatre that I wonder if my habit of forever having them dramatize the little stories of their primer did not have a certain influence in developing their talent along these lines. It would be nice to think so.
It was sweet of you to write. Your letter gave me great pleasure. I wish you the greatest possible success in your career and happiness in your life.

Avec mon souvenir très cher

Gabrielle Roy

The chance to respond to Miss Roy’s invitation came quickly enough. I had been working on the script for a travel film to be produced by a small studio located in Quebec City. As part of the assignment I was required to be on hand at the studio to handle any last-minute changes.
The film was meant to attract tourists to Quebec City with a series of scenes displaying the capital’s Old World charm at its best. Because the film was only to be shown in the United States, I decided on a somewhat risky approach: my script called for voice-over commentary by a woman with an American accent. She would have just returned from a trip to Quebec City, bursting to tell her friends what she had seen.
The producers liked the concept, but wondered where I would find an actress in Montreal who could do an American accent that wouldn’t lapse into stereotype. I had already made my choice: Jeanette Casenave. I had only recently met the young actress and what I remembered most about her was her broad Yankee accent; it didn’t seem to go with that thoroughly French name. As soon as Jeanette agreed to narrate my script, I phoned Gabrielle Roy so that the recording date could be set to coincide with a visit to her apartment. And so, on the morning of the first Saturday in March 1978, Jeanette Casenave and I set off by bus for Quebec City.

Jeanette and I spent the first half hour on the bus discussing the script and, in the lull that followed, I mentioned quite casually that I would be seeing Gabrielle Roy the same day. Jeanette’s reaction startled me:

“Gabrielle Roy? Really? Gabrielle Roy? She’s my father’s absolute favorite author! Oh, you’re so lucky!”

Then, for the first time, Jeanette told me something of her background – more than enough to explain that broad American accent. She had grown up in Los Angeles where her father taught French in a high school. No doubt the novels of Gabrielle Roy made it into the curriculum.
Miss Roy had instructed me to phone her as soon as I got off the bus to get directions to her apartment. After I had scribbled them down, I took the plunge: I told her about the recording date and Jeanette’s role, and then described how the young actress had reacted at the mention of her name.
“Why don’t you bring her along?” Miss Roy suggested. It was just what I had hoped for.

Gabrielle Roy lived in an apartment building on Quebec City’s impressive Grande Allée; it was old enough to have creaking floors and an elevator that grumbled as it did its work. Miss Roy greeted us at her door with that soulful smile so often seen in photographs, and led us into the living room.
It saddened me to see what years of failing health had done to the striking young woman she had been. The first few minutes of our visit were somewhat strained as the authoress told us of her most recent bout of illness and apologized for her appearance. Then, quite suddenly, she struggled to her feet, saying:

“I would like a beer. Who will join me?”

And when Jeanette and I both acquiesced, Miss Roy crossed in front of us and disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned, she was balancing three bottles of beer and three tumblers on a tray.
Once we were all seated again, filling our glasses from the bottles, I asked her how she felt about the coming attempt to turn her Bonheur d’Occasion into a movie. It would be the first of her books to be made into a film: fitting, because Bonheur d’Occasion was her first novel.
There had been talk in 1947 about a Hollywood film. That was the year the book came out in an English translation as The Tin Flute and won that year’s Governor-General’s Prize. It also sold 700,000 copies as a Book of the Month selection. All of which was enough to get Hollywood’s attention. Universal Studios bought the film rights for $10,000 but did nothing with them.
It was a common Hollywood practice back then to use such rights as bargaining chips, trading them to another studio for the use of a recognized star, or simply holding on to them to deny them to a competitor. Thinking it over, perhaps it was just as well Hollywood passed on the novel: every studio had gone into soppy tearjerkers about that time, and that’s probably the treatment The Tin Flute would have been given.
Talking about the coming movie version of her first novel had a noticeable effect on the author. Miss Roy became more animated as the discussion went on, rocking her chair hard until she had moved it more than halfway across the room.
I had one faint link with the coming production: I had met the director, Claude Fournier, who was Guy Fournier’s identical twin; Guy being my best freelance customer. I wanted to encourage Miss Roy, but I had heard very little about Claude Fournier – good or bad.
Because Miss Roy’s first love had been acting, she was able to overcome some of Jeanette’s awe of her by drawing the younger woman into talk of the theatre. I must have chimed in with my minor playwriting success: two radio plays and one that should have been on TV but had been ruined in production.
The conversation turned easily to Miss Roy’s five or more years teaching English Grade One at Provencher School in St. Boniface, Manitoba. During that period, she had taught first my brother and then – five years later – me. She remembered circumstances and relationships better than names, almost as though she had adjusted her Grade One students to fit future novels. I think Miss Roy was disappointed that I hadn’t become the ‘artist painter’ mentioned in her letter. It didn’t impress her much that I had a weekly political cartoon running in a community newspaper.

I have just consulted the book I brought to her apartment that afternoon to reread what she wrote on the flyleaf:

“A Patrick McDougall pour le plaisir de le revoir après toutes ces années depuis qu’il etait mon petit élève a l’Academie Provencher

Gabrielle Roy”

The book is Cet été qui chante in the original French. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read it. It would make a good New Year’s resolution.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The freelance writing that had kept me busy all through the 1960s and ’70s had all but vanished by 1984. Galloping nationalism in Quebec had its effect on advertisers and government agencies; they were no longer interested in catering to the province’s minority language. ‘Pat McDougall, Adaptation’ had been removed from any number of rotary files.
Which will explain why a telephone call from Marcel Lefebvre one morning in 1984 came as such a surprise. Marcel had been a consistent source of freelance income during my little sideline’s most active period.
Marcel’s English hadn’t improved since our last conversation sometime in the seventies, and neither had my French. It took me a few minutes to nail down what he wanted from me – and about as long to recover from the shock.

“I’m writing a musical about Brother André and the Oratoire,” Marcel told me, “and they want an English version.”

Brother André – born Alfred Bessette in 1845 – was the porter and barber at a Catholic boys’ school in Montreal for nearly 40 years. Thanks in large part to this poorly-educated ‘brother’ – traditionally the lowliest function in a Roman Catholic order – the property across the street from that school is now one of Montreal’s most prominent landmarks and still a mandatory stop for bus tours: St. Joseph’s Oratory. Brother André’s story is well known in Quebec. The little figure remains popular despite the sharp decline in religious observance . . .

But wait a minute! A musical about him?

My first reaction to Marcel’s announcement was a fit of laughter. What it brought to mind was a saintly little chap in a dusty cassock and worn shoes doing a buck-and-wing across the stage, singing “I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise.”
It was obvious that Marcel was used to having the project greeted with derision. He waited out my laughing fit and then said: “They are serioux, these guys, Pat.”
He meant the Congregation of Holy Cross or as they are better known ‘the Holy Cross Fathers,’ Brother André’s order.
“They want this thing bad, and they’ve got the money, that’s for sure.” And as Marcel explained the ‘musical’ in detail, it began to emerge as something more substantial – even saleable.

First of all, the end product was to be an LP of the sort released with a Broadway musical or a film, only the Fathers had no stage production or film in mind: all they wanted was a sound recording, andreprofessional enough to be sold as an LP or an audio cassette. Who would buy such a product in the quantity necessary to recover the considerable cost involved in its production? Then I remembered the thriving restaurant and gift shop the Fathers operate as an adjunct to the famous Oratory. That’s where the LP and cassette were to be sold, almost exclusively. And “The Shrine” – that was the English title it got – sold well over the years: the production cost has been regained and then some. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

When Marcel had completed a draft of the French text for “The Shrine,” he brought me a copy along with a cassette tape of the score, prepared by the composer, Paul Baillargeon. The name meant nothing to me at the time but I know now that his talents had already attracted some attention in Quebec and elsewhere. My job was to write English words to fit Baillargeon’s score note for note. My lyrics didn’t have to say exactly what was to be sung in French, but the sentiment had to be close.
I didn’t have to read more than a few pages of the draft before the complexity of the project became obvious. “The Shrine” was to incorporate Baillargeon’s music with Lefebvre’s pop history of Brother André’s life and the long and often frustrating struggle to bring the Oratoire project to fruition. Writing words to Baillargeon’s music was just the beginning: there was just as much to be spoken as there was to be sung: more than half of the recording was dramatic interludes.
Marcel seemed content to let Baillargeon be the judge of whether my English words were a good match to his music. I was expected to work closely with the composer – but we had never met. I was given a Montreal address, which meant little to me until my first visit, when I discovered that Baillargeon lived across the street from Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
I rang the composer’s doorbell and someone released the lock on the front door. From there I followed the sound of piano playing all the way to the right apartment. That first meeting was understandably a little testy, but when Baillargeon realized that applying my English words didn’t involve changing any of his music by as much as an eighth note, he opened up to me considerably.
As the French version of “The Shrine” began to take shape, I was asked to become more deeply involved in the project. Along with the translation, I took charge of assembling and rehearsing the English cast for the parallel dramatic segments. Still later I found myself in the recording studio, directing. I remember feeling decidedly queasy directing Neil Shee, the solid professional who took a number of key parts.
By then it had become clear to me that I had become part of something substantial. Baillargeon’s music was impressive; and he assembled professional singers and musicians to record it, and studio engineers who knew how to enhance their efforts with a myriad of audio tricks. It came as a pleasant surprise that the singers Baillargeon had chosen were equally proficient in both languages. A minimum of changes to my English lyrics was called for until very late in the game, when I was told the producers weren’t satisfied with the lyric I had written for the climactic song.
I had no choice but to bow to their decision to have one of the sound engineers, Peter Tessier, write the lyric for that one, his only contribution to the English adaptation. It was about then that it became a matter of ‘take the money and run.’ I was paid a total of a thousand dollars, and had to accept second billing for the lion’s share of the work. The credit on the English version of “The Shrine” reads:

“English adaptation by: Peter Tessier and Pat McDougall.”

“The Shrine” was to be my last collaboration with either Marcel Lefebvre or Paul Baillargeon, but not before they handed me another disappointment that grates to this day.
The same year “The Shrine” was recorded, Pope John Paul II visited Montreal. The city gave him an elaborate welcome that climaxed with a Youth Rally at Olympic Stadium with 65-thousand in attendance. Marcel and Paul were deeply involved in the preparations for that event which included the composition of a special song for the occasion. In keeping with the youth theme, the song would be sung by a sixteen-year-old who was gaining popularity in Quebec but was several years away from international fame. Her name was Celine Dion.
The original plan was for Dion to sing the song in both French and English. I agreed to compose the English words but before I could make a start Marcel phoned to tell me the song was to be sung in French only.

Ask Paul Baillargeon what it meant to be in on the Celine Dion phenomenon at that stage. Barbra Streisand is one of the few people to have recorded a duet with La Dion, and Paul Baillargeon is another. And he has written several songs for Dion that can be found on million-seller albums. I am left to wonder what would have happened if “La Colombe” – that’s what they called the song she sang to the Pope – had had an English version.

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