Chapter Thirty-three

They brought the 28-year-old Gordon Lightfoot to Expo ’67 and clearly aimed him at a younger crowd. All of his Expo performances were in a theatre set up at La Ronde, the brand-new amusement park adjacent to the big fair. The other acts to perform there were all of the “go-go” variety.
It may be hard to accept today, when Gordon Lightfoot is so solidly entrenched in show business because of hits like “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown,” but even after he had written the enduring “Early Morning Rain,” Lightfoot wasn’t that well known, except in Canada. And, as this account will illustrate, the singer had failed to impress himself on at least one of the people at work in the Expo Broadcast Centre.
Alec Bollini – like Bob MacGregor, an Outside Broadcasts announcer-producer – remembers his one and only encounter with Lightfoot. It happened just outside the Broadcast Centre, a sizeable building set aside for the Press and other accredited people working at the exhibition.
The Expo organizers had thought of everything: they even provided a shuttle bus that made regular circuits of the exhibition’s two islands, dropping off passengers along the way. It was available to anyone with accreditation on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, and each tour started near the Centre’s front door.
They must have slipped up that day because when Alec showed up for a ride; there was a replacement vehicle parked in the shuttle-bus’ spot. The regular bus was an enclosed van, but the replacement was a modified pickup truck with an enclosed cab in front – but an open box, fitted with bench seats, behind.
The vehicle was empty but unlocked, so Alec climbed into the enclosed cab to wait for the driver to make an appearance. It had turned chilly again, so he rolled up his window before he gave all his attention to the notes he had prepared for his assignment.
Suddenly there was a rapping at Alec’s window. Looking up, Alec saw that the rapper was a young Adonis dressed in denims and holding a guitar case. Rolling the window down about halfway, Alec asked: “Can I help you?”
“I’m Gordon Lightfoot,” he was told abruptly. “And I’m supposed to sit there.”
“Well, I’m Alec Bollini and I got here first, so I’m staying right where I am.”
A pause and then:
“Look,” Lightfoot said, with a nod towards the back of the vehicle. “I’m a singer and I can’t sit back there out in the open because of my voice.”
“Well,” Alec said, “I’m a radio announcer and I worry about my voice, too. Go sit in the back.”

I wasn’t prepared to treat Lightfoot any better. There was something about his voice I found irritating, and I wasn’t impressed with the songs he had written by the time he turned up at Expo. Let it be said immediately that there were several showbiz heavyweights who obviously were. His “In The Early Morning Rain,” for instance, had been recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.
One Lightfoot composition especially grated: I still find “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” boring, repetitious and far too long. All of which had me dragging my feet when I set out to interview the singer for CBM Magazine.
He had found an unusual place to stay for his run at La Ronde. It was one of the larger units of a motel on the other side of Montreal from the Expo site. There were just the two of us there for the interview, and I was surprised to see that Lightfoot had brought more and better equipment to his motel room than I had. A professional reel-to-reel tape machine and two large loudspeakers were ranged along one wall. Impressive. All I had was a CBC-issue portable Uher and a microphone.
I set up the Uher on the room’s only bed and tested it. Meanwhile, Lightfoot dragged two straight chairs into position for the interview. Once we were face to face, I decided to come right to the point:

“Tell me,” I began, “What makes you different from the any other cowboy singer?”

Then Lightfoot pointed to my Uher and said calmly: “Could you turn that off for a minute?”
When I did, he got to his feet and went to where he had put his own equipment, to activate the main unit.
“I’m going to play you something that ought to answer your question,” he intoned, and he selected a tape from the dozen or so stacked nearby and began to thread it through the playing head. “When you hear this, you’ll know why I’m no ‘cowboy singer’.”
What could I do? I waited him out.
In a moment, his voice came booming from the loudspeakers. I cringed. It was “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

By the time the dreary thing had played through, all the cockiness had drained out of me. “I see what you mean,” I said earnestly. And what the CBM Magazine listeners heard the next morning was a notably subdued interview with Gordon Lightfoot.

All these years later, I ask myself: What made you ask such suicidal questions? First with John Ford, and then with Gordon Lightfoot? Why couldn’t I have held each of those questions up to the light for a critical examination before blurting it out? The least I might have done is to answer them myself, before trying them on a Ford or a Lightfoot.
Or put it another way, how did I expect Gordon Lightfoot to respond when I asked: “What makes you different from the any other cowboy singer?”
“Gee, Pat! I’m glad you brought that up. The fact is I am just another cowboy singer.” To be followed immediately by sustained yodeling.

What – if anything – was going through my mind?

Both the Ford debacle and the Lightfoot bomb had been kept from the general public, thanks to careful editing, but my penchant for stupid, self-destructive questions was bound to catch up with me eventually, as it did, only days after I interviewed Gordon Lightfoot. It was then that Marlene Dietrich did her best to cure me of this odious habit. By my count, she dedicated only five words to the task.

Some background first:
Dietrich, like Jack Benny, was a headliner at Expo ’67. Huge newspaper ads for her appearance emphasized her svelte figure, full-length in a shimmering lamé gown. Dietrich was famous for her legs, first exposed in the 1930 film “The Blue Angel” for poor Emile Jannings to lust after, hopelessly. But that was thirty-seven years ago, when Dietrich was 29. Which made her, in 1967, 66 years old. Posing full-length in a clinging gown? That took guts – or something designed to hold them firmly in place. Or clever airbrushing.

Time for another of my stupid, self-destructive questions.

I got to pop it in front of more than a hundred journalists in the ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel in Montreal. It was a super scrum, with Dietrich up on stage seated at a desk with her Musical Director Burt Bacharach at her side. I remember she was dressed casually in the mannish style she favored.
Below her, ranged in uncomfortable folding chairs, were what had become known by then as “The Expo Press.” A microphone was being passed from hand to hand, and when it came my way, I seized it eagerly.
My first question was dumb enough, God knows. It had to do with Sammy Lerner who wrote the English lyric for her signature song “Falling In Love Again.” I wanted to know if he was related to the Lerner of Lerner and Lowe. Dietrich didn’t know and said so.
I tried to recover. “Here’s a question I thought someone would have asked by now,” I continued smarmily. “Tell me, how do you keep looking so young?”
Her answer came crashing back in that incomparable Germanic monotone :

“I am not that oldt.”

A few gasps, and the the room erupted with hoots of supportive laughter followed by stormy applause.
When it had subsided I was left standing there with the microphone still in my hand. All I could think to say was: “Ouch.”

The full impact of Dietrich’s reply didn’t hit home until about six hours later. I was at home, eating a late supper, the radio tuned to the CBC National News. And there it all was again: my question, her reply, and the tumultuous reception it had won her. The announcer only identified me as ‘a member of the press’ but anyone important to me would have recognized my voice.

The journalists and other camp followers who witnessed my embarrassment that day in the Shangri-La Hotel are more likely to remember another disaster in the same establishment. It occurred the same day at a cocktail party arranged in Dietrich’s honor.
As cocktail parties go, it was a grand affair, held in the hotel’s impressive ballroom on its main floor just off the lobby. The room had two entrances: we were herded through the one on the ground floor, but Dietrich was to descend on us from the floor above on a narrow spiral staircase.
Once we had been sufficiently fueled from the bars scattered around the ballroom, an announcement on the public address system drew our attention to the staircase.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join the Hotel Shangri-La in welcoming Miss Marlene Dietrich.”

And the Guest of Honor began to make her descent.

My guess is that Dietrich was myopic but refused to wear eyeglasses for her public appearances. She was soon having trouble negotiating the staircase’s many twists and turns, even with a lackey at her elbow for security. Misjudging one of the final steps, Dietrich lost her balance and went hurtling into the waiting crowd.
Fame has its drawbacks at moments like that: instead of rushing forward to catch her before she could hit the floor, everyone shrank back in horror, leaving her to sprawl full length and then struggle awkwardly to her feet.
A few excruciating moments passed before one or another exhibitionist emerged from the crowd, anxious for a chance to brag for the rest of his life that he had actually laid hands on Lili Marlene.

* * * * * * * * *

I had been a Mordecai Richler fan since “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” established him as a first-rate satirical writer. “Duddy” and many of the Richler novels to follow were set in Montreal’s Jewish quarter of his childhood, but I found that there was much in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” that this prairie Catholic could relate to. Let’s just say that Richler’s writing made Duddy come alive for me.
That’s why I welcomed the chance to interview Richler in 1971 even though it meant crash-reading his latest novel “St. Urbain’s Horseman.” It read well, making the task of plowing through it to a deadline quite bearable. When the day of the interview came, I thought I was prepared for Mordecai Richler.

After my Gordon Lightfoot and Marlene Dietrich experiences, I was determined not to ask him any stupid, self-destructive questions. Most of all, I wouldn’t try to take him by surprise.
Richler arrived at the studio looking awful: eyes red-rimmed and puffy, hair uncombed, his pallor frightening. His attitude during the pre-interview chat-up could be summed up as: “Go ahead and ask what you want to, but let’s get this over with.” After I had told him how much I enjoyed “St. Urbain’s Horseman,” I added that there were spots in the book that had stuck in my craw.
“Which ‘spots’?” he asked wearily.
Those that described the Jewish mother, I told him. I said I felt she was getting an especially rough ride of late, what with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and the unrelenting assault of Yiddish comics. She didn’t need, for instance, Richler’s crack that the kibbutz was invented to try to rescue Israeli children from her clutches.
I had booked the studio for an hour and asked the technician to put enough tape on the machine to cover that period, but I didn’t think the interview would take even half that long. As it was, the hour-long tape ran out while we were still talking. That could sometimes be a good portent, but not in this case. When I played the tape back, it was almost all me, struggling to get something resembling a conversation underway. The interview had been a disaster and I knew it. So did the technician who looked unhappy to have been a party to the sad affair.

Strap-hanging on the bus taking me home, the interview was very much on my mind: how could I possibly make even ten minutes worth of sense out of it? Then it came to me, and I ran most of the way from the bus stop to my front door.
The answer was Lee Fortune.

Lee started in radio about the same time as Monty Hall, though I doubt if the two men ever met. What they had in common was a name change. ‘Halparin’ and ‘Gluck’ sounded too ‘middle European’ to Radio Stations CKRC, Winnipeg, and CJAD, Montreal, respectively, back when they broke into radio. So ‘Monty Halparin’ became ‘Monty Hall,’ and ‘Lee Gluck’ became ‘Lee Fortune.’
Monty Hall went on to fame as the host of TV’s “Let’s Make A Deal” which ruled the TV games shows during the 1970s and had an incredible 23-year run; while Lee Fortune became a mainstay of CBM, Montreal, and my choice for the best all-around voice the station had.
It was Lee’s deep, thoroughly credible voice that I was counting on. And I knew, too, that he could lend authenticity to any of the Yiddish phrases that peppered “St. Urbain’s Horseman.”
I phoned Lee at home and asked him if he had read “St.Urbain’s Horseman.” He hadn’t, so I promised to lend him my publisher’s copy if he would give me his opinion of the sections of the book that had given me pause. Lee read the excerpts, found them insulting, and readily agreed that they called for some kind of rebuttal.
Here’s what I proposed:
– Lee would go into studio to record the excerpts in question just as they appeared in the book.
– The excerpts would then be spliced into the original interview in the appropriate places.

Here’s an example of what the CBM Magazine listener heard the next morning:

ME: Don’t you think it’s going a bit far to suggest that the kibbutz was invented to rescue Israeli children from the clutches of the Jewish mother?
RICHLER: I didn’t suggest any such thing.

“On Gesher Haaziv, the children were no longer brought up communally but lived with their parents. “We had hoped this generation would be different. They would be saved the curse of a Yiddish momma, but it didn’t work. Parents kept slipping off to the children’s house with candies for their own. If one of them caught cold, the mother was immediately there. Jews,” she said plaintively.”

It was an unusual technique for the CBC, and I thought it would elicit some comment. It didn’t. And it wasn’t until only recently that I was able to rationalize my rush to defend Jewish mothers: as a Catholic, I’m required to believe that at least one Jewish mother got it right.

By the mid 1960s, Hollywood was coming to Montreal from time to time to make a movie. Most of them are forgettable but “Wait Until Dark,” released in 1967, stands the test of time. The film brought Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin to town, and there was a pretty starlet called Samantha Jones who played a small but key role in the film.
The actor Mel Ferrer didn’t appear in “Wait Until Dark” but – as Audrey Hepburn’s husband – agreed to help publicize the film. Hepburn herself was something of a recluse while in Montreal, but I got to see Ferrer and Samantha Jones at a press conference that the starlet thoroughly dominated by wearing a see-through blouse and no bra. As far as the TV cameras were concerned, poor Mel might as well have stayed home.
So Hepburn had married Mel Ferrer, not to be confused with José Ferrar who was married to the singer Rosemary Clooney, George Clooney’s aunt, who . . .
Perhaps we should start again and take these film folk one at a time:
Mel Ferrer is best remembered from the 1953 movie ‘Lili.’ It was set in a fairground with Ferrer playing an embittered cripple and Leslie Caron a teenage orphan. Ferrer’s later work failed to attract much attention.
On the other hand, José Ferrar was still riding high in 1966 on the strength of his bravura performance of Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1950 movie, and his equally riveting portrayal of Toulouse Lautrec in the first film with the title “Moulin Rouge.” As the different spelling would indicate, the two men weren’t related, and all they had in common was acting deformed in one way or another, and being married to celebrities.
The potential for confusion that all this brought to mind led me to write the following sketch for CBM Magazine. I recorded each voice in turn so that the dialogue overlapped, and got a technician to add to bus motor background from a sound effects disc.

MADGE: No, honestly. He was here . . .
JOAN: Mel Ferrer? (she pronounces it FAIR-er)
MADGE: I heard him interviewed and everything. His picture was in the paper . . .
JOAN: Are you sure you got the right one? He’s got a brother, you know . . .
MADGE: I know. I know that. The midget there, in that movie . . .
JOAN: The painter. Cut off his ear …
MADGE: That’s the one!
JOAN: He’s bigger, isn’t he? Taller?
JOAN: The brother, What’s-his-name.
MADGE: Oh, yes – much.
JOAN: Funny about that.
MADGE: How do you mean?
JOAN: Well, here they are – brothers and everything – and one’s so short and the other’s . . .
JOAN: I guess it happens, eh?
MADGE: Which one is it that’s married to . . .you know . . ?
JOAN: Kathryn Hepburn.
MADGE: Is that her name? I thought it was . .
JOAN: Well, that’s one of them. I mean the other one’s married to that singer … Rose-Marie something.
MADGE: Yes, but which one? I mean . . .
JOAN: I forget his name. They’ve got a whole flock of kids, I know that.
MADGE: Rose-Marie..?
JOAN: Not that it matters, I guess. They’re divorced now.
MADGE: Who? Which one?
JOAN: I think they all are. I mean, who isn’t down there, eh?
MADGE: Isn’t it awful? Every time you look at those columns . .
JOAN: The Hollywood . . .
MADGE: Gossip . . .
JOAN: Somebody’s getting divorced or married or something.
MADGE: I know… I know …
JOAN: I’ll tell you, dear: It’s a wonder we can keep it all straight in our minds.
MADGE: Well, I should say.


One Response to “Chapter Thirty-three”

  1. M. Glouberman Says:

    Lee Fortune was a second cousin of mine. Remarkably, his name is synonymous with of ‘Leo Lachance,’ the name of a well-known Montreal French radio personality of the time (CKAC?). Then again, ‘Montreal’ means ‘Konigsberg.’

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