Bob Edwards: Booze-loving newspaper satirist

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Bob Edwards 1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards
1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards was Calgary’s first media celebrity, a genuine pre-television superstar who put the frontier town on the North American map long before the cowboy showman Guy Weadick launched the Calgary Stampede or Mayor Don Mackay gave away his first white hat. “Calgary,” said a New York politician during the early part of the 20th century, “is, I believe, a place in Canada where the Eye Opener comes from.”

The Eye Opener was Edwards’s “newspaper,” a satirical publication that broke all the accepted rules of journalism by running gossip and satirical commentary instead of news, yet enjoyed the largest circulation (35,000) of any paper published west of Winnipeg.

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Billy Cowsill: Rockabilly singer

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Billy Cowsill 1948 – 2006

Billy Cowsill
1948 – 2006

Billy Cowsill was known across North America as the lead singer of a wholesome 1960s’ family band that inspired The Partridge Family television series. In Western Canada – where he lived for the last 27 years of his life – he was also remembered as a self-destructive boozer and drug addict who eventually found redemption and a cult following as a rockabilly singer. First in Vancouver and then in Calgary, Cowsill left his mark as a performer with a “voice from heaven” who conjured up the musical ghosts of the past with his pitch-perfect renditions of country and pop classics by Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and other greats from the 1950s.

He compared himself to a bird that was born to sing.

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A poem for a buck

It was the summer of 1969. I was working as a reporter for the weekly newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia. After covering an evening town council or chamber of commerce meeting, I would repair to the beer parlour at the Smithers Hotel, conveniently located across the road from the paper. I’d have a couple of drafts, play a couple of games of bar billiards, and then head for home.

One evening I found myself playing billiards with a friendly stranger, a guy of about 30, who told me he was a poet.

“Would you like to read a poem?” he said after soundly whipping me twice at pool.

The poem was hand-written on a single crumpled sheet of paper. I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember I was impressed.

“Do you like it?” he said.

“Very much so,” I said.

“Would you like to buy it?”

“Maybe, how much?”

“One dollar. A poem for a buck.”

I couldn’t go wrong. I handed over my dollar, put the crumpled paper in my back pocket, and then proceeded to forget all about it.

I wish I knew where that poem is now. The poet’s name was Patrick Lane. In 1978 he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

The once and future Calgary Public Library

The Calgary Herald, in three separate articles this past week, has come up with a stunning revelation: The city’s new central library will be “more of a community centre than a book depository.” One of the paper’s bloggers, David Marsden, is even moved to suggest, “please, call it a community centre, not a library.”

Well, folks, I have news for you. The Calgary Public Library has always been a community centre. It has never been just a repository for books. The first librarian, Alexander Calhoun, called it “a real civic and social centre.” With an art gallery in one room, a natural history museum in another, and a suite of other rooms set aside for meetings and discussion groups, the Calgary library of 1912 was a buzzing hive of social, educational and intellectual activity.

Full disclosure here. I don’t work for the library, but I was hired to write the centennial history of the institution. That’s how I learned what a vast array of services and programs the library has always offered for the edification and entertainment of Calgarians.

Before the advent of television, Calgarians went to the library to watch movies, for free. Before the arrival of Saturday morning cartoons, children went to the library for storytelling sessions. Before record players became common in city households, Calgarians went to the library to listen to recitals of recorded music.

When people could afford record players but had limited funds to buy records, they went to the library to borrow albums. They now do the same with CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. When immigrants wanted to practise their English, they went to the library to converse with other immigrants. They still do. When people had no access to personal computers, they went to the library to check their email. They still do. Just stand outside the central library on any weekday morning, half an hour before opening. You’ll see dozens of people waiting there to get in and use the computers.

Want to know how to give an effective toast to the bride? The library has a program for you. Want to know how to best prepare for retirement? How to do your own bicycle maintenance? How to get started on your family tree? How to achieve a better understanding of teen issues? The library has programs for all these and more.

You’re doing a research paper. Do you need access to databases you can’t connect to with your home computer? Do you want to find out what other databases are out there that might be of assistance? The library has a team of highly qualified reference librarians on hand to help you.  All you have to do is ask.

The Herald says there will be less emphasis on books than in the past. This needs explaining, because it is somewhat misleading. The library has always been a creature of time and circumstances. While remaining true to its beginnings – as a memory bank of human thought and action, and as a centre for the pursuit of truth and ideas – it has grown and evolved to adapt to a changing environment. If “digital first” becomes the mantra for tomorrow’s book publishing industry, as it already has for the newspaper and magazine industries, then the library will be there to ensure its customers have online access. It doesn’t exist as a hidebound literary alternative, hermetically sealed within a changing society. Having said that, there will still be plenty of books. This public library will continue to be one of the great knowledge institutions of North America.

The Herald is currently conducting a poll on the merits or otherwise of having a new central library. I don’t have to tell you which way I voted. Aritha van Herk put it well when she described the library as a “bright light centering this city.” It was, is, and always will be “home to Calgary’s book lovers and word purveyors, endless community services, and a tent full of information.”

The Calgary 1988 Olympics – 25 years on

It began not with a hockey game, a figure-skating contest or a ski-jumping competition. The Calgary 1988 Olympics began with the biggest festival of music, theatre, dance, visual and literary arts ever staged in conjunction with a Winter Games. It was also, as you would expect, the biggest cultural bash in Calgary history. We will never see the like again.

It cost $10 million to produce. It ran for five weeks, before and during the Games. More than 3,000 artists took part. I didn’t get to see all of them, but caught enough to be spoiled for the rest of my life. When the last curtain call was taken, I happily retired from arts criticism. Everything in the future was bound to pale by comparison.

The preparations had started more than two years beforehand. Even at that early juncture, it was already too late to try booking the likes of Pavarotti or Baryshnikov. Such heavyweight performers kept their datebooks full for at least three years at a time.

Then there were the disappointments. Placido Domingo looked like a definite possibility for a while, but couldn’t get released from his Metropolitan Opera commitments. West Germany’s famed Pina Bausch dance company sent regrets after landing a movie deal. The Stratford Festival pulled out citing a scheduling conflict. A rock concert featuring Neil Young had to be cancelled when only 3,000 of 15,000 available Saddledome tickets sold.

But there were compensations. Instead of Pina Bausch, we got Peter Brook’s riveting La Tragédie de Carmen. Instead of Stratford, we got a stylish performance of the Shaw Festival’s You Never Can Tell. And we enjoyed Calgary’s first literary festival; an event so successful it sowed the seeds for WordFest. More than 400 attended a sold-out Glenbow Theatre reading by W.O. Mitchell, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Kroetsch and J.P. Donleavy; then an unprecedented turnout for a literary event in Calgary. Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton and June Callwood were some of the other Canadian literary lights who attended.

After the five-day Olympic Writers’ Festival, the first to be held anywhere in 40 years, there was talk of a “draft Trevor Carolan” movement to sustain the momentum. Carolan was the Vancouver-based leprechaun who had persuaded 60 published authors – 40 of them from Canada – to take part in the festival. He wasn’t available to organize a sequel, but an experienced Calgary arts pro named Anne Green was ready to answer the call. Eight years later, she launched WordFest with a sparkling lineup that included Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Wayson Choy, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Sheri-D Wilson.

The newspapers and the airwaves are filled this week with recalled memories of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Elizabeth Manley’s surprise silver medal, Brian Orser’s disappointing silver medal, Katarina Witt, Matti Nykanen and “La Bomba.” I remember those, of course, but I also remember the great Oscar Peterson, the first Canadian production of Porgy and Bess, the multi-talented Andre-Philippe Gagnon, the Spirit Sings, the National Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens dancing on the same stage together, the Calgary Philharmonic’s haunting “Verdi Requiem,” the Joffrey Ballet, and Robert Lepage.

And, as I look through one of my old notebooks, I recall some of the more memorable quotes:

“We didn’t want him to do “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” again.” (Arts festival boss Michael Tabbitt explaining why Brian Mulroney wasn’t asked to sing a duet with Games organizer Frank King during the Olympic Eve gala.)

“We felt like one of Liz Taylor’s husbands. We knew what was expected of us but we didn’t know whose turn it was.” (Jointly attributed to Games co-organizers Frank King and Bill Pratt.)

“The biggest media event since Ronald Reagan’s polyp removal.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Don Ferguson.)

“Edmonton didn’t think of it first.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Roger Abbott explaining why Calgary got the XV Winter Olympics.)

“Edmonton isn’t really the end of the world – although you can see it from there.” (Mayor Ralph Klein spreading a little neighbourly goodwill for the benefit of Olympic Writers’ Festival visitors.)

“When this is over, I’ll either get a job as an NHL commentator or go to work for McDonald’s.” (Writer’s festival coordinator Trevor Carolan modelling the aquamarine blazer issued to him as part of his official Olympics uniform.)

“A Chinook could cause great havoc here.” (Competition organizer Gordon Taylor nervously checking the skies on the first day of the outdoor Olympic snow sculpting contest.)

“Canada is the cry of the loon, Gretzky worship, rye and ginger in a paper cup, vinegar on the fries, and talking gas pumps.” (Satirist Nancy White getting all patriotic at the Olympic Folk Festival.)

“Let the eastern bastards publish in the dark.” (Nancy White’s comment on OCO 88′s attempt to prevent Maclean’s magazine from putting out an unofficial Olympic issue.)

“Is 68 too old?” (A visiting pensioner from Zimbabwe wondering if he could play a walk-on role in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Petrouchka. He got the part.)

“Science fiction is the only genre I’ve discovered which assumes there’s going to be a future.” (Author Spider Robinson explaining why he made his living out of fantasy literature.)

“It’s very hard on the knees.” (Edmonton’s John Pichlyk describing what it was like to be a Shumka Dancer.)