Chapter Thirty-two

 

expo6A CBC producer who spent most of his time shadowing the fair’s organizers during those last frantic months before it opened offered a mock slogan for Expo ’67:

“Avoid The Crowds, Come To Expo.”

 

Too much seemed to be falling apart – or at least falling behind schedule; it didn’t appear reasonable that everything would be ready for Opening Day. Those reporters allowed on Ile Ste. Hélèn and its man-made twin island, fed the pessimism with stories of pavilions barely begun, colliding machinery, conflicting completion dates, etc..

It didn’t help that Montreal’s mayor-for-ever, Jean Drapeau, seemed to float off into a daze defending the project; as might be expected, he led the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” faction. There seemed to be only two others: a stubborn knot of detractors who insisted Expo was doomed, and a growing group that thought the fair would be postponed.

 

Expo ’67 was held in conjunction with the centennial of Confederation, the founding of what was then still called ‘the Dominion of Canada’. My employers, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, couldn’t escape a particular obligation to help publicize the event. It meant the resuscitation of a branch of the CBC that dated back to the days of J. Frank Willis and the Moose River Mine Disaster of April, 1936: the ‘Outside Broadcasts’ department.

Though Willis’ legend had faded from the scene by nineteen-sixty-seven, there were still people working for the Corporation who had covered the events most associated with Outside Broadcasts: Royal Tours.

Not every CBC region had an Outside Broadcast Department but Montreal’s had four members, a supervisor and three Announcer-Producers. One of the announcer-producers – Bob MacGregor – became especially active during Expo. Things soon got hectic enough for Bob to approach the Announce Department for help; and I was one of the lucky ones to be assigned to him.

Of grim necessity, it was radio work. Until a matter of days before the big fair opened, there was nothing on the work site the TV cameras could dwell on that wouldn’t turn prospective visitors away. But if your voice could be heard over the clamor of construction, a radio report could turn a tangle of steel girders and wood framing into the sparkling pavilion it was destined to become.

The day before the official opening of Expo ’67, the world press was offered a sneak preview. It was a frigid Spring day when they bundled us all on to the fair’s open elevated railway that swept past – and even through – all of the main attractions of Expo ’67. The characteristic cynicism of the Fifth Estate was still in evidence at first, but the last of the snide remarks came just before our train burst into the U.S. pavilion at ceiling height. From then on it was all stunned silence punctuated with gasps of amazement.

Expo’s solid success was evident on Day One when the fair’s computer system broke down trying to keep track of the Opening Day crowd: 310,000! And Expo ’67 must have established some sort of record for its total attendance, a staggering 50 million visitors.

 

One particular assignment from that Expo period has stayed with me all these years. I was sent out to interview the National Film Board producer, ‘Jeep’ Boyko, who, at forty-four, was at the height of his career.

Expo year was a triumphant one for cinema. Theatres on the fair site introduced techniques never seen before. My favorite of them was “Helicopter Canada” produced by Boyko as a Centennial tribute. The first full-length wide screen film ever shot entirely from a helicopter, it took the viewer on a breathtaking journey from one end of Canada to the other, employing camera-stabilizing techniques that predated Steadicam by nine years.

The scope of Boyko’s project was stunning: 18 months in production, 15-thousand miles of travel, 131,000 feet of 16- and 35-millimeter film. It made for a good interview. All that remained was the introduction, which I planned to write once I’d returned to the CBC building.

The handouts I’d been given by the National Film Board referred to him simply as “Jeep Boyko”. I wondered if he preferred his Christian name in the introduction, so I asked him: “What would you like me to use? ‘Eugene’ or ‘Jeep’ or both?”

Boyko looked surprised. “How did you know my first name?”

I shrugged. “Well: ‘Eugene the Jeep’.”

When he continued to stare, it came to me:

 

He doesn’t know! He really doesn’t know where his nickname comes from!

 

I had to explain it to him. How Elzie Segar, the originator of Popeye the Sailor, had introduced a strange little character to his readers when the comic strip was well established. The newcomer looked like a teddy bear and answered everything with just one word: “Jeep”. Popeye dubbed him ‘Eugene’ – Eugene the Jeep. Soon after the Popeye character made its first appearance on the comic pages May 3, 1936, every Eugene I knew suddenly became ‘Jeep’.

I remember one particular Eugene from my childhood in St. Boniface, Manitoba. Eugene Beaudry was one of my brother’s classmates, which would make him a contemporary of Boyko’s.

When Eugene Beaudry’s English-speaking playmates began to call him ‘Jeep’, he was non-plussed. There were no English-language newspapers in his home, so how could he know about the Popeye comic strip? Or the new character its creator had introduced?

 

Eugene ‘Jeep’ Boyko was a hefty, energetic person, so he may have thought his nickname came from the doughty little vehicle that jounced its way through the Second World War and emerged on the other side as the world’s first Sports Utility Vehicle.

And how did that Jeep get its name? From the same imaginative American G.I.’s who called the lifesaving flotation device a ‘May West’ because putting it on gave them the actress’ bawdy contours; and dubbed the portable anti-tank weapon a ‘bazooka’ after the jerrybuilt musical instrument introduced by the long-forgotten comic Bob Burns.

When what we now know as the Jeep first appeared on the training grounds, a number of other U.S. Army vehicles, big and small, had already been called ‘Jeeps’, probably because, like the comic strip character, they were asked to perform next to impossible tasks. But it was the omnipresence of the little four-wheel drive personnel carrier during World War II that gained it exclusive use of the name.

 

CBM Magazine arranged to do a program a week from Expo for the duration of the exhibition. And most of our other shows during those weeks were dominated by interviews with the fair’s officials or contributing artists, or the many celebrities who appeared at Expo Theatre and other venues in the city. One of the Ed Sullivan Shows originated from Expo ’67, bringing another bonanza of familiar names to be interviewed. Gloria Bishop and I were worked off our feet.

We interviewed as a team in the pavilions, and at some of the celebrity scrums; but some days Frances Egan split us up to handle the rush. It fell to me to interview Jack Benny, one of the prime attractions on the Fair’s entertainment calendar.

Benny had been entertaining crowds for more than a decade before a new invention, radio, made him a household name: that will tell you he was doing fine in the nineteen-twenties, the heyday of ‘the Orpheum circuit’, a vaudeville network that brought the best acts to most cities of any size on the continent – including the Orpheum Theatre in Winnipeg.

 

Allow me a necessary and very personal digression: my mother put her heart and soul into her laugh. No simpering into a scented handkerchief for my Mom; she exploded with a prolonged series of ho-ho-ho’s, each louder than its predecessor. Santa Claus in hi-fi.

Everybody remarked on it in one way or another. I can remember a Sunday morning in the ’40s when the family was returning from Mass in our beloved McLaughlin Buick. Dad had made a pleasant ritual out of what could have been a boring obligation for my brother and me. He was never happier than when he was behind that Buick’s steering wheel, entertaining us with the more suitable of the funny stories he had collected throughout the week at the St. Boniface police station and the nearby fire hall.

It was summer and the car’s windows had all been rolled down. We were about halfway home from St. Mary’s Cathedral, on a Winnipeg street that would have been crowded on a weekday but was all but deserted that Sunday morning. One of Dad’s jokes elicited the reaction my brother and I waited for so anxiously: mother let fly with her booming HO-ho-ho! – right through her open window and into the street.

It was just subsiding when a masculine voice from several blocks away mocked it expertly:

 

HO-ho-ho-ho-ho! HO-ho-ho-ho-ho!

 

Dad almost lost control of the car, and my brother and I rolled around helplessly on the back seat, trying to control our bladders.

 

What has this to do with Jack Benny and the Orpheum circuit? Or Expo ’67, for that matter?

Well, both of my parents were Jack Benny fans, dating from their courtship days. One night in the 1920s, Dad announced a special treat for his intended: they would go to the Orpheum Theatre and sit in box seats to enjoy their favorite comic, Jack Benny, who was making a rare appearance in Winnipeg.

Something the comedian said early in his act launched Mother’s incredible laugh, and when Benny tried to continue, Mom had just begun. Ho-ho-ho-ho! all over the Orpheum. And it brought variations on it from every part of the theatre, drowning out Benny’s repeated attempts to carry on.

All Benny could do was wait it all out; and then, as the last of the laughter subsided, he felt obliged to acknowledge the source of it all. He made a deep bow in the direction of Mom’s box seat.

She never forgot that bow, perhaps because her children wouldn’t let her. Whenever a visitor to our house as much as mentioned the comedian’s name, one of us was bound to interject:

 

“Tell us about the time Jack Benny bowed to you, Mom. You know, from the stage. Tell us again, Mom!”

 

Mom was very much on my mind when I struck out for the Expo Theatre the day Benny’s run was to begin. And when my turn came to interview him, I began by blurting out the Orpheum story. “I’ll have to take your word for it,” Benny chuckled. “It was so long ago.”

The next time I wrote to Mom I had a special enclosure: a scrap of paper with Jack Benny’s autograph. As I remember it, he wrote:

 

“Thanks for the laugh, Mary.

Sincerely, Jack Benny.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Among her souvenirs, Mother had kept an Orpheum theatre program dated September 10th, 1923. It was not for the night she stopped Jack Benny’s show, but close enough. The ‘programme’ (that’s the way it was spelled in 1923) came with the memorabilia Mother passed on to me a few years before she died.

 

orpheum5The ‘programme’ starts with a list of the theatre’s prices:

 

Matinees, 75 cents, 50 cents and 25 cents.

Evenings $1, 75 cents, 50 cents, 25 cents.

 

And then launches into these declarations:

 

“It is the constant aim of the management . . . to present vaudeville without the use of a single offensive word, phrase or situation.”

 

“Patrons are requested to report to the house manager any inattention or incivility on the part of an attaché of this theatre.”

 

“Physicians and others who may expect a summons are advised to leave their names and seat numbers with the box-office clerk.”

 

“Tickets are required for children. Those in arms will not be admitted.”

 

“Ladies are requested to remove their hats. The retiring rooms are at the right of the foyer.”

 

“The men’s smoking room is on left side of foyer.”

 

And this in boldface type:

 

NOTICE- This Theatre, under normal conditions, with every seat occupied, can be emptied in less than Three Minutes. LOOK AROUND NOW, choose the NEAREST EXIT to your seat, and in case of disturbance of any kind, to avoid the dangers of panic, WALK (do not run) to that exit.

 

The programme then lists the acts for September 10th, 1923:

 

Topics of the day; Aesop’s fables modernized. An animated Cartoon by Paul Terry. Charles McGood & Co. Society Equilibrists; Dixie Four A Quartette of Versatile Boys; Flo Lewis From Bernhardt to Heartburn; and Polly and Oz In Syncopated Comedy.

 

The vaudeville acts were preceded by a “Programme of Music” by the Orpheum Concert Orchestra, and followed by a “playlet,” the “Irresponsible Comedian, Jack Rose,” and “Snapshots of 1923” a song-and-dance act.

 

All that for 25-cents! Famous Players-Cineplex, take note.

 

And in a pitiful attempt to resolve the inevitable dressing room squabbles over billing, the Orpheum added this “Note” in fine print:

 

“The last Act on an Orpheum bill is selected with no less regard for its appropriateness and appeal than are the headline and feature attractions; not infrequently, in fact, the closing Act IS a feature attraction. Hence, we earnestly request our patrons to remain seated until this turn shall have completed its share of the performance. We bespeak this courtesy out of consideration for the artists whose efforts to entertain are otherwise seriously hampered, as well as for the audience at large, whose due enjoyment of the Act is impaired by the practice of early leaving.”

 

2 Responses to “Chapter Thirty-two”

  1. Alex MacGregor Says:

    My dad, Bob MacGregor was, as you say, very active during Expo. One Saturday morning, probably in 1966, he promised my mother, brother and I, our own ‘sneak preview’ of the progress made on Île Ste. Hélène. One of his many side jobs was testing cars, so we all headed out for a drive along the river in a rather odd looking car. Imagine our surprise when he said “Let’s go for a closer look.” and drove into the river and continued on towards the island. He always referred to that “Amphibian” as the vehicle that failed as a car and failed as a boat.

    • debunko Says:

      Hi, Alex,
      Thanks for the comment. It adds a lot to my blog. I admired your Dad greatly, as I hope my blog reflects. After all, how many CBC veterans could lay claim to having invented a network?

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