There’s no shortage of B.C. hockey players who have come up big on the world stage.
Goaltender Carey Price of the Ulkatcho First Nation earned his 14th consecutive win after backstopping Team Canada to a 2-1 victory over Team Europe in last month’s World Cup of Hockey final. “Burnaby Joe” Sakic wore the red maple leaf at seven different international tournaments, including leading the team to its first gold medal in 50 years at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Shea Weber of Sicamous has patrolled the blue line for his home country seven times so far and won gold at six of them.
But one name that rarely comes up in discussions of the best British Columbian to appear on international ice is that of Glen Foll, who laced up his skates for no less than 80 games.
If you’ve never heard of him, it’s probably because he played for Australia.
Foll first began his hockey career playing in North Surrey Minor Hockey Association midget league. He went on to play for the Surrey Saints and later in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, bouncing around between a number of teams including the Vancouver Bluehawks, the Langley Eagles and the New Westminster Royals. But, like a lot of young Canadians do, he had the urge to go walkabout in his early twenties.
“It was either buying an RV and travelling around the U.S. with some buddies or go to Australia on holiday,” Foll, 54, said over the phone last week while back in town visiting family. “But then someone told me that they played hockey down there as well and so I asked the ice hockey federation for more information. They ended up sending me an overseas player form, which helped fast-track my work permit, which was a lot easier to get in those days, and I ended up playing on a team in the premier league.”
The 5’10” defenceman soon established himself as one of the top players with the Macquarie Bears (now known as the Sydney Bears) during his debut season Down Under and stayed with the team for several years while still returning to North America to play in the off-season.
But after being cut after a two-game tryout for the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League, he returned to Oz for good. Foll became the league’s leading scorer in the 1988-89 season, which coincided with his first appearance playing for the Australian national team, known as the Mighty Roos, in an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship Group C tournament held at home in Sydney.
“I think it was probably the biggest crowds of any tournament I’ve played in, and lots of people came out to all the games, not just ours.”
The Roos lost all seven games but Foll was hooked. He went on to play in a total of 16 IIHF tourneys, ending his international playing career with a total of 22 goals, 46 points and one bronze medal after the Roos defeated Hungary 8-1 in the C division in 1992. Foll also holds the record for captaining the most world championships of any player with a total of 12 after first donning the C in 1990.
For most Australians, “hockey” means the far more popular sport of field hockey, where the national men’s team is currently ranked number one and the women’s team is in fourth place. (For comparison, the Canadian men’s field hockey team is ranked 12th place and the women 18th.) Anyone who has visited Whistler in recent years can attest that Australians have an affinity for winter sports, yet so far ice hockey has yet to catch on the same way as skiing or snowboarding has.
“It is a sport that is catching on but there aren’t a lot of arenas, and that dictates how much the sport can grow,” said Foll. “In Adelaide, the city where I live now, we only have one arena and this is a city of 1.2 million people. Nationwide, competing with public skating and then figure skating is our biggest competitors for ice time. In our arena, it’s broomball that is the big one.”
Foll said the sport is nonetheless making strides and pointed to the example of forward Nathan Walker, 22, a third round draft pick by the Washington Capitals in 2014 currently playing for their Hershey Bears AHL affiliate.
“He is the only true Australian who grew up playing hockey here to be drafted,” said Foll. “He wasn’t actually born in Australia, he was born in Wales but moved here when he was one-year-old or something.”
Oddly enough, while Foll has played the most games for Team Australia, the player with the most points also once skated on Surrey ice. Current Adelaide Adrenaline captain Greg Oddy, 36, of the eight-team Australian Ice Hockey League was briefly a member of the Surrey Eagles in his Junior A days. The 6″1′ centreman went on to earn 135 points as a member of the Mighty Roos over 14 years, donning their green and yellow jersey for the last time in 2012 playing in the IIHF Group B division, where the Aussies once again came in last place.
The Roos are currently ranked 36th, two places ahead of arch-rivals New Zealand and 35 spots behind Canada.
Although Foll never got to play for his adopted country at the Olympic level, he at least once got to see his homeland win gold on home ice. Foll, who now runs a sports store specializing in ice hockey gear and is frequently in Canada to pick up new equipment, was back in town for the 2010 Winter Games.
“My brother-in-law is the editor of a newspaper in Adelaide, and he was able to set me up as a correspondent,” said Foll, who remains active with the sport as both a coach and referee. “It was pretty amazing to be able to see so many of the big games. I was really lucky.”
While the press box may be as close as a captain of Team Australia ever gets to a Winter Olympics gold medal game, there’s always the chance if broomball somehow becomes an Olympic sport.
People move to the Sea to Sky Corridor for a lot of different reasons. Easy access to one of the world’s best ski resorts is, of course, a big factor for many new residents, but for others it might be for career advancement, the stunning scenery, proximity to a major urban centre, to take advantage of the red-hot real estate market, and/or simply because it’s a great place to raise a family or retire.
Few people have come here because they are fleeing their home country due to a bloody civil war, but this is soon about to change as corridor communities prepare to welcome an unspecified number of Syrian refugees.
Nobody is sure when exactly they are going to show up. Or even where they are all going to stay.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has changed his campaign promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the calendar year. Instead, the federal government will be shooting for 10,000 new arrivals by Dec. 31, with the remaining 15,000 to be settled by the end of February. Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, roughly 12 million people have been killed or displaced, more than half of the Middle Eastern country’s pre-war population.
Four hundred are expected to arrive in British Columbia in December.
“We’re still waiting for the details,” says Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSBC), adding the first wave of new arrivals will be split roughly half-and-half with government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees. “Two hundred are going to be government-assisted and coming mainly to the Vancouver area, while the other 200 we don’t really know yet which communities in B.C. they’ll end up in.”
The Lower Mainland cities of Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam, which all have robust and diverse immigrant communities, are expected to be the top choices for most of the new arrivals. Metro Vancouver has seen 3,346 Syrians settle there in the past five years, according to ISSBC. The process will see Syrians held first in temporary reception facilities before being transferred into the communities where they will live.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says she hopes her town will end up being to home to some of them.
“When the word is out that, yes, Whistler is going to receive some families, there is an expectation that people might say ‘hey, I’ve got a house that I use two weeks at Christmas. It’s available,'” says Wilhelm-Morden. “We are a small but very caring community and have significant resources that I think we can offer.”
The Resort Municipality of Whistler is hosting a meeting beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 16 at the library for local residents to discuss how they might be able to lend a hand. The issue is a something of a personal priority for Wilhelm-Morden, who successfully introduced an emergency resolution at the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting in September requesting immediate action from the then-Conservative federal government to increase aid to Syrian refugees.
“It is so cliché that this is a country full of opportunities and blah, blah, blah but it is true,” she says. “For those millions of people who are so desperate that they’d leave their homes, they’d leave their extended families, leave their jobs, they’ve put their children in dangerous circumstances to escape their country, it is just ridiculous for us not to welcome them in.”
However, not all residents share her enthusiasm for bringing Middle Eastern troubles to the Whistler bubble. While local resident Stu Wild supports Canada’s efforts to bring in refugees, he questions the role of the municipality in this process, as well as Whistler being the best place for a Syrian refugee.
“Does council know the true cost to bring a family to Whistler and support them?” asked Wild via Facebook on the Whistler Politico page. “This is not what you have been elected to do. Those on council that feel it is their pet project to adopt a family from the Middle East, perhaps they should open their wallets and personal homes first.”
The post prompted a heated debate with dozens of replies about the potential pros and cons of resettling refugees here, with many pointing to the town’s perennial housing problems.
Wilhelm-Morden acknowledged that finding permanent accommodation in Whistler can be difficult at the best of times, let alone during the beginning of ski season and shortly after 21 units were lost in a Nov. 10 fire at an Alpine Meadows residential complex.
“Certainly housing would be one of our biggest challenges, but I have had people contact me and tell me they’ve got room. The Alpine fire displaced a certain number of people that obviously have to find houses as well and that will be a challenge. On the other hand, Whistler has welcomed people from all over the world and there is no reason why we couldn’t welcome some Syrian families, if, for example, we had maybe five families here in Whistler and five more in Squamish.”
But while Whistler’s stock in trade is welcoming newcomers to town, they are normally well-heeled tourists or expats rather than shell-shocked survivors of a civil war.
Carole Stretch, an ESL teacher and faculty member with Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach department, has spent the past eight years helping immigrants find their feet in the Sea to Sky region and so far has only seen two refugee families settle here.
“We have worked with two families who did not land in the corridor but moved up here because there were jobs,” says Stretch. “Both families had significant language requirements. They are struggling with the language and trying to earn a living and I would say one individual was actually, apart from the language, he was quite clear that he had goals for where he wanted to get to and was working hard to get there. The other family really has longstanding mental health issues and struggle to support themselves.”
Neither of the two families originally came from the Middle East, although Stretch said she is aware of some Syrian-Canadian families living in the area who resettled here as economic migrants.
Stretch, herself an immigrant who moved to Canada from the U.K. a decade ago, points out this won’t necessarily be the case with other refugee families and that the first wave of Syrians to arrive in Canada will likely be made up of those who had both the means and foresight to get out of the country during the early days of the war.
“A lot of these people, as I understand it, who have been identified to come over, were among the first refugees from the Syrian war,” says Stretch. “They have been in camps for maybe two to three years. We are not talking about the people you are seeing on the news right now.”
She pointed out that many refugees will be suffering from psychological trauma, something non-profit organizations in the area don’t currently have the resources to adequately address.
“Mental health support is going to be key,” says Stretch. “Refugees do have a hard time resettling. It is not a one-year thing, it is a multi-year thing, and support in their own language — particularly on the mental health front — is absolutely key.”
Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman says that while the town doesn’t have the infrastructure and wider support networks offered in the Lower Mainland, the tightly knit community nonetheless offers things immigrants might not find elsewhere.
“It may actually be much nicer for them to integrate into a very intimate community as opposed to a big city that can sometimes feel alienating,” says Heintzman. “We are so close to the city as well, so they can always get down if, for example, they are looking for a mosque. We also do have a small Muslim community in Squamish with a few families, so it’s not like there is nobody. Fundamentally, we would like to have a few families so that they’ll be there supporting each other, but I think that a small town like ours, or a small city like ours, can really create the support systems to help them adjust to Canadian life.”
She pointed out that it wouldn’t be the first time the community has welcomed refugees and that Squamish took in a number of the so-called “Boat People” from Vietnam and Cambodia who appeared on Canadian shores in the late 1970s. Heintzman added that families coming to Squamish will be coming through the Group of Five (G5) program, which are made up of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee and have agreed to provide emotional and financial support for a period of one year.
“Squamish has been pretty active for a while and I’ve been working with them a little bit,” says Heintzman. “I think there are three different groups that have organized into groups of five to support a family. They are accepting donations, fixing up accommodations, getting all that organized, making sure all the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted.”
While most people are still waiting and wondering when refugees may arrive, one Squamish resident decided to bring some aid directly to Syrians still languishing in makeshift camps in Germany. Adam Greenberg recently flew overseas with three suitcases full of stuffed animals and an envelope full of cash after finding himself moved at an emergency community meeting in October at the Squamish Adventure Centre, organized to address the refugee crisis.
“There were two kids there who had heard about the war and the refugees and how there were so many children amongst the refugees,” says Greenberg over the phone from Toronto shortly before boarding a plane. “These kids got up and said they could imagine how scared these kids must be and that when they are scared at night, they cuddle up with a stuffie. They heard these kids had left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and so they took it upon themselves to go door to door to collect stuffies for these kids. Of course, when you are a seven-or nine-year-old kid, you have no idea how complicated it is to send these toys overseas.”
Greenberg had accumulated plenty of Air Miles points through his job as vice-president of a software company and volunteered to personally deliver the donations after it emerged the mothers of one of the children has a personal connection to refugee camps in Germany.
Greenberg, who is Jewish, also handed over 5,000 euros as part of a grassroots fundraising campaign to help the Arab refugees.
“The lessons from World War II is that, not long ago, Jews were refugees and the same sort of things were being said about Jews. I’ve heard it all and now people are saying similar things about Muslims: ‘They are dangerous, they want to take over the world, we can’t have them here.’ I look back at the stuff I heard growing up and think, ‘sheesh, here we go again.’ When you see people in such a desperate state and you have the means to help, you should.”
Greenberg says he had no idea if any of the refugees he’ll meet will ever end up in Squamish but he would love to someday introduce any who arrive to one of his passions.
“I’m an avid snowboarder and I admit to imagining having a new friend to go snowboarding with.”
An Arab and a Jew going up a T-bar together may sound like the beginning of a bad joke but may not be as far-fetched as it sounds given that the Syrian-Israeli border is home to the only ski resort in the Middle East. Mount Hermon is 2,814 metres high and is the largest mountain in either country. The southern and western slopes were captured by Jewish forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the resort — which is only accessible via the Golan Heights — opened for business four years later.
However, in 2005 Syria announced plans to build a $15-billion ski resort on their own side of Mount Hermon, which biblical scholars believe to be the same mountain where Jesus underwent his Transfiguration. The project, to be developed by an unspecified group of Syrian, Kuwaiti and Saudi investors, was to include hotels, shopping centres and various other sports facilities reachable by cable car. It’s probably safe to say the project is now on hold indefinitely.
Arabs and Jews may not be skiing or snowboarding together in their ancestral homelands any time soon. But here in the Sea to Sky, it could just be another day on the mountain.
It was a hot September afternoon when the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) held its party meeting for members to choose candidates to run in this year’s municipal election. Seeking to energize the crowd packed inside the Japanese Language School’s stuffy auditorium while a round of ballots were counted, a young woman stepped up to the microphone and asked for the audience to follow her in some stretching exercises.
It was the last straw for one elderly man in attendance, who earlier in the day had also been asked to stand and do the Chicken Dance. He slowly made his way to the stage with the aid of a cane to speak his mind.
“I’m an anarchist,” he said angrily. “I’m not here to be told what to do. I’m here for serious business.”
The incident was minor but seemed to hint at major divisions within the long-standing left wing party that has seen high-profile members depart in recent years and finds itself on the verge of irrelevance if it can’t elect any candidates next week.
Wong, who was first elected in 1999, said he has no hard feelings towards his former party but the decision to change horses in midstream wasn’t difficult.
“Mine was a very easy choice, it wasn’t by lightning, in that I’d worked with the Vision trustees even prior to the six years that we were on the board together,” said the 49-year-old father of four. “Vision and COPE worked very closely and many of the issues that I am associated with — the seismic upgrading of schools, public funding from the provincial government, the LGBTQ Pride — we’ve worked closely on a lot of those policies and directions and it was a natural move. After the last election, I felt like COPE itself had moved and changed. I think there was a lot more focus on [city] council as opposed to school board.”
Wong, who is seeking his sixth term on the VSB, said he is simply more interested in helping students reach their potential than he is in partisan politics or the business of running the country’s third largest city.
“There was a lot of infighting and more politics rather than having real support for public education and support for our students. Rather than spend my time on other things, I’d like to focus directly on issues of schools because this is what I am interested in and putting my energy into rather than go off and talk about things like ‘How many [candidates] are we running?’ ‘What is the organization?’ ‘We need to run someone for mayor.’”
COPE has five people running this year for school board — Diana Day, Ralph Fraatz, Heidi Nagtegaal, Kombii Nanjalah and Illana Shecter — but all of them are seeking the office for the first time.
“A lot of what I’m hearing about their campaign is that it sounds good, but the people with the long experience that are familiar with the issues and really are curious about the issues, and have shown this in the past, are the Vision trustees,” said Wong.
He also isn’t the only former COPE trustee running under a different banner.
Jane Bouey, who served two terms on the board, launched a new party called the Public Education Project (PEP) with fellow former COPE candidate Gwen Giesbrecht. Bouey and Giesbrecht came in 12th and 11th place, respectively, in a race for nine possible positions in the 2011 election.
“It was a little disheartening for me, a strong education advocate, how little opportunity there was to really talk about education,” said Giesbrecht, a former chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council and current chair of the Britannia Secondary Parent Advisory Committee. “You spent a lot of time talking about… my opinion of this council candidate or that mayoralty candidate.”
The three members’ abandonment of COPE, which has been the party of the working class in the city for nearly half a century, is far from the only recent example. Other prominent members who have left the leftist party include former park board commissioner Donalda Greenwell-Baker, former Vancouver-Kensington NDP MLA and B.C. Teachers’ Federation president David Chudnovsky, sex trade workers’ rights advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton and former park board candidate Brent Granby, who is running for Vision after former candidate Trish Kelly bowed out of the race. Two-term councillor Ellen Woodsworth, who lost her seat in 2011 by 91 votes to the Green Party’s Adriane Carr, was conspicuous in her absence at both the nomination meeting and the July annual general meeting.
Former executive member and B.C. Green Party leader Stuart Parker resigned in March, blaming internal party friction in a bitter letter to supporters explaining his decision.
“COPE’s toxic, meeting-intensive culture of interminable, acrimonious, incoherent nonsense that is politely called ‘debate’ would drive any sane person out of active participation within two years,” he wrote. “This is not an accident. This is the plan.”
Three-term city councillor David Cadman, the party’s mayoral candidate in 1999, also no longer has any involvement.
“I’m not actively a member but they still owe me a lot of money so I don’t know if they still keep me on the membership roll,” said Cadman, referring to money still outstanding from a $50,000 loan he provided in 2002 to help pay off party debts. “Basically, when I lost the nomination, I really haven’t had anything to do with them since so I don’t know what’s going on with them anymore.”
On Wednesday, Cadman distanced himself further from the party he once led by giving his endorsement for Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson to stay on as mayor for a third term.
Rafael “RJ” Aquino is the person who ended up taking Cadman’s place on the ballot three years ago, and it came as a shock to many people when he beat out a proven vote-getter to fill one of three spots on a council slate that was the maximum allowed as part of an agreement with Vision. Out of 614 ballots cast by party members, Woodsworth earned the most nominations with 534, former city councillor Tim Louis got 345 while Aquino came in third with 316, only seven more than Cadman. The decision by members to push out an incumbent in favour of an inexperienced candidate was widely perceived as a coup orchestrated by Louis, who is also running again this year. It’s a move that arguably backfired considering none of them ended up getting elected.
Aquino is again running for city council this year but opted to start his own party, OneCity Vancouver. He said COPE infighting played a big part in his decision.
“For me, the biggest frustration was I introduced a lot of people, especially from the Filipino community, not necessarily just to the party but to civic politics and to this layer of government that most directly affects their lives, for them to then be turned off from the process due to disrespectful behaviour or condescending remarks and that sort of thing,” said Aquino, a 33-year-old new father who works in the tech industry.
“I was drawn to COPE at the time because of its values, and the people I am working with now at OneCity were also COPE members and I loved working with these people because not only did we share the same values but they were just as motivated to bring about the change we wanted to see in the city. All I can say is there is still an appetite for an incredibly progressive party in this city that can work with people in a respectful way where we can work together rather than be acrimonious. It’s important that you are not afraid to bring your friends to an annual general meeting and having them be exposed to shouting matches.”
SWEPT FROM POWER
It seems somehow fitting that a party named “COPE” is facing a struggle to survive. The Canadian Oxford dictionary defines the word as “to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success,” but the party’s fall from grace with the electorate has been a particularly dramatic one given that, only a dozen years ago, it was voted into power by a landslide.
Mayoral candidate and political newcomer Larry Campbell, a colourful former chief coroner and inspiration for the lead character of the hit CBC drama DaVinci’s Inquest, won 59 per cent of the popular vote in 2002, nearly double Non-Partisan Association runner-up Jennifer Clarke’s 30 per cent. After running on a platform calling for a more open and accountable civic government, including the promise of a public referendum on hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, every single COPE candidate was elected with eight out of 10 city council seats, seven of nine school board trustee positions and five out of seven spots on park board.
But the honeymoon period was short-lived. Campbell, seeking to distance himself from what he once described as the party’s “wild-eyed revolutionaries,” formed an insiders’ sub-caucus with councillors Jim Green, Raymond Louie and Tim Stevenson that media and city hall watchers amusingly dubbed “Diet COPE” while the faction made up of Cadman, Woodsworth, Louis, Anne Roberts and Fred Bass became known as “COPE Classic.”
Campbell ultimately accepted a cushier and more lucrative job offer as a senator rather than run for mayor a second time but the splinter group moved on without him and gave themselves their own new name — Vision Vancouver — in time for the 2005 election. COPE opted to not run a mayoral candidate against them in the past three elections to avoid splitting the progressive vote. This time it’s different.
Mayoral candidate Meena Wong, who joined COPE in 2005 after relocating from Ontario, thinks splitting up the party was a mistake and that voters are fed up with being ruled by parties such as Vision and the NPA widely perceived to be more beholden to the interests of real estate developers than citizens.
“Vision came out of COPE, right, and I see that as a betrayal, but of course not everybody believes that,” she said in a recent one-hour livestreamed interview. “We can see the result when they are in government and they [are] obviously pro-developer. We gave them three elections without running someone for mayor to see if they would change and obviously we are very disappointed so that is why we decided to have a [mayoral candidate] and that is why I decided to run for mayor. I have 90 per cent of membership support because of what I believe in, because I am for having people work together.”
Wong earned 193 out of the 216 ballots cast to be the party’s candidate, a drop of nearly 400 from the number of members who voted in 2011.
Wong, a 53-year-old mental health services worker and activist who hopes to become both the city’s first female mayor and first Chinese-Canadian at the helm, believes the party’s platform — which includes creating a Vancouver housing authority, introducing a living wage policy of $15 per hour and legislation to stop “renovictions,” and holding a referendum on switching from a first-past-the-post voting system to proportional representation — will resonate with voters. Her proposal to levy a surcharge on absentee owners who leave their properties vacant for more than 12 months at a time — a hot-button and racially charged topic in Vancouver due to many owners being from overseas — also drew a lot of attention. Wong remains in a very distant third place in polls but she says this doesn’t faze her, pointing to the widespread predictions last year that NDP leader Adrian Dix was a shoo-in to be the province’s next premier.
“Do you trust polls even after the B.C. fiasco?” she asked. “So that’s one thing. And second, the polls show us going up. I’m very confident that the people of Vancouver will make the decision. Don’t let the polls tell you. Make the decision up for yourself.”
But while she may have widespread support within the party, the party no longer has the support of one its biggest traditional backers.
The Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC), which founded COPE back in 1968, instead endorsed Mayor Robertson and all eight Vision city council candidates. The only COPE candidates out of 16 running to receive labour’s blessing are prominent trial lawyer Gayle Gavin for city council and former commissioner Anita Romaniuk for park board.
Former COPEsters Aquino, Bouey and Giesbrecht all received endorsements from the influential labour council.
COPE’s cupboards are also considerably barer this year due to a reduction in union funding. CUPE Local 1004, for example, only offered $5,000 to COPE’s campaign — the same amount given to the newly launched PEP — while OneCity was handed $8,000 and Vision $102,000. The total donated amount COPE announced so far this year is $60,114 — $18,440 from unions, $41,474 from individuals and $200 from an unspecified corporation.
For comparison, the Green Party of Vancouver announced $46,387 in donations this year and OneCity slightly more with $47,286. Neither Vision Vancouver nor the NPA, who unlike COPE both accept unlimited donations from development firms, had announced the amount they’d received by the Courier’s print deadline, although Vision spent $2.2 million on its 2011 campaign and the NPA $2.5 million.
Gavin, whose legal expertise has been put to use recently by the Residents Association Mount Pleasant in its fight against the controversial Rize Alliance development, said being the VDLC’s only COPE council candidate out of eight to be recommended didn’t come as a true surprise even though she hasn’t run for office in more than 30 years.
“I have lived a long life and nothing much surprises me but I keep moving forward,” Gavin said over the phone Thursday morning. “I am running for COPE because I’ve been a longtime member and because I think politics is too important to be left to the politicians.”
Gavin said she was heartened by the Occupy movement of three years ago and believes growing wealth disparity and social justice issues are still very much on voters’ minds as problems that need to be tackled. She acknowledged that COPE has seen many members leave the party in recent years but that it continues to attract talented new members to fill the void.
“I see COPE not as something sacred but as a vehicle that the working people of this city have worked really hard to get up and running and to maintain. We can look at it maybe as a bus — there are different drivers at different times, different people get off and get on, but it is a vehicle for working people. Just by running for COPE, you’re going to get 10, maybe 20,000 votes, and we are working really hard because we want to get that 44, 45 [thousand] or whatever it is going to take this time for our council to be a COPE council as well as our school board and our park board. It will just be so good for the people. “
In his proto-rom-com As You Like It, the Bard of Avon famously declared that all the world is a stage. Several centuries later, some lesser writer suggested that, in fact, life is a beach. For the past twenty summers in Kits, both are correct.
The left coast’s outdoorsy answer to Stratford, Bard on the Beach has become one of the country’s biggest Shakespeare festivals and Vanier Park the place to see shows by the seashore.
Bard is the baby of a British thesp by the name of Christopher Gaze who decided what his adopted city needed most was solid servings of affordable Shakespearean theatre.
After scoring a modest Canada Council grant, Gaze founded Bard on the Beach as a non-profit equity co-op and staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a budget of $35,000 that attracted around 6,000 people over 34 shows. Two decades later, Bard boasts a budget of nearly $3.5 million, employs a veritable small army of actors, designers and technicians, and performs to nearly 90,000 souls a season.
It also now offers at least four plays for patrons to choose from; usually two tried, tested and true crowd-pleasers running in rep in the 520-seat open-ended Mainstage tent (which has ocean views, rugged mountains and regularly scheduled sunsets as the backdrop) and two rather more obscure selections from the canon inside a smaller tent.
“It is really two theatre companies, one that works the Mainstage and the other that works the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage,” Bard’s artistic director explained to in a recent meeting in the Elizabethan theatre troupe’s office in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex.
The current season sees The Comedy of Errors and the tragedy of Othello playing under the big top while Richard II and All’s Well That Ends Well take turns in the 240-seater.
The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s first stab at writing farce, is a perennially popular pick and one Bard has already performed twice before. “It’s big fun,” said the dapper Gaze, who still looks spry and has a twinkle in his eye at the age of 56. (Those of you with small children may also know him through moonlighting gigs voicing Turaga Vakama in the Bionicles cartoons or Fungus Maximus from the Barbie series.)
The latest version of this relentlessly goofy romp is directed by David MacKay, who called the shots behind last year’s critically-acclaimed interpretation of Twelfth Night, and stars Ryan Bell and Shawn MacDonald as a double-threat pair of long lost identical twins having various misadventures with unsuspecting spouses, would-be lovers, and disgruntled creditors. “It’s a great access point for people who either want a great night out or who are perhaps intimidated by Shakespeare,” said Gaze.
It is somehow surprising that this is only the company’s first staging of Othello, what the famous critic A.C. Bradley called “the most painfully exciting and the most terrible” of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
“There is simply a limited market of black actors on the West Coast,” Gaze admitted. “We generally cast about 95 per cent of our actors from the Vancouver area.”
Director Dean Paul Gibson had to head to Hogtown in search of a suitable Moor and came back with Soulpepper stalwart Michael Blake, whose recent roles on Toronto stages include a well-received As You Like It’s Orlando and George Murchison in A Raisin in the Sun. Naomi Wright plays the doomed Desdemona while Bob Frazer (winner of a Best Actor Jessie award last year for his turn as Petruchio in Bard’s A Taming of the Shrew) rounds out the leads as Iago, the streetwise scumbag skilled at playing the race card.
“There are extremely wonderful and able actors here. It’s a thrilling, dark, brooding, dangerous, magnificent piece,” said Gaze.
Meanwhile, in the smaller space, Rachel Ditor makes her Bard directorial debut with the somewhat smutty comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. The tale in a nutshell: Physician’s daughter Helena (Lois Anderson) magically cures the king of an illness and as thanks he rewards her with her choice of a husband. She opts for the reluctant Bertram (Craig Erickson), who announces he doesn’t have the hots for her and never will, unless she gets from him a ring he never takes off and gets herself with child by him as well. Shenanigans ensue.
Last but not least, Bard artistic associate Chris Weddell’s staging of Richard II, starring Haig Sutherland, will be the first installment in a three-year history series dubbed “The Kings” by Bard brass.
“Next year we’re going to do Henry IV I and II together and call it ‘Falstaff.’ I think it will be interesting for audiences to follow Hal and his two fathers – the Falstaff father and the Henry IV real father. The following year will be Henry V so audiences will see the progression of Hal. The following year again will be the Henry VI’s. We’ll probably call it ‘War of the Roses’ and we’ll squash that into an evening and then flowing in that same season into the great and astonishing Richard III.
Gaze expects to have completed the canon by 2025. “We could have done it sooner but this is a nice pace,” he said. There’s also the possibility of the odd production of works by playwrights not named William Shakespeare. In the past, Bard has put on both Tom Stoppard’s famous Hamlet offshoot Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shylock, Mark Leiran-Young’s one-man companion piece to the problematic The Merchant of Venice.
“So long as it is clearly and directly related,” said Gaze. “It won’t be an arbitrary thing, like ‘Let’s do Hay Fever or ‘Absurd Person Singular.’ I think down the road in the next few years you might see plays like The Lion In Winter, which would pair up nicely with King John. You might see A Man For All Seasons along with Henry VIII.”
Bard on the Beach is also more than just Shakespeare in the Park. The company has a variety of educational programs such as Bard in the Classroom – which sees an instructor visit 250 different schools during the off season in order to make Shakespeare “much more accessible, much more fun, and much more participatory” – and the popular on-site Young Shakespeareans programs, which sees several hundred kids between the ages of 8 and eighteen perform abridged versions of the plays.
The season is also peppered with such highlights as Bard-B-Q & Fireworks (which coincides with the annual Celebration of Light fireworks competition over English Bay), Chatterbox Tuesdays (featuring post-performance Q&A with cast members), several lecture series and even a wine & cheese night. Gaze, an opera buff and very much a believer in the “cross-pollination of the arts”, is particularly proud of the Opera & Arias nights, where the UBC Opera Ensemble, directed by Nancy Hermiston, and members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra will perform Mozart’s Così fan tutte on Aug. 31 and Sept 7-8. “[Hermisten] is sending out some of the best singers anywhere, who win the Met competition on a fairly regular basis,” said Gaze.
The million-dollar question for all arts-related organizations this year is how much effect the current recession is going to have on the bottom line. An unfazed Gaze seemed not to be overly worried about it.
“It’s not going to be bad for us but it’s not going to be as good as it was last year. We are seeing some slippage in corporate sponsorship and we’re seeing some advertising shortfall as well. Our tickets are on sale and so far we’re seeing everything keep up to last year and the year before that. So, God willing, the people will come. It would be easy to put another six dollars on the ticket price and have to worry much less about corporate support but that’s not what we’re about.”
While the strange times we live in these days have seen the once inconceivable fall of such titans as Big Auto and Big Banks, it still somehow seems impossible that – over four hundred years and counting – audiences will ever tire of the works and words of William Shakespeare.
Sgt. William Sullivan looks nervous as he addresses the camera. A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, he’s been tasked with delivering an urgent message to Canadians about a new virus first spotted in Japan that has now invaded our own soil.
He explains that exposure to the highly contagious virus is not only fatal but, even worse, only fatal temporarily.
“Due to some residual brain function which we’ve been unable to identify, the body of the deceased reanimates,” he says, his voice rising, in the recently shot video. “The resultant walking corpses are extremely dangerous. They are violent and seem to have acquired a taste for human flesh!”
Fortunately for us, Sgt. Sullivan is an actor named Raphael Kepinski wearing a soldier’s uniform, and the footage part of an online teaser for a new interactive theatre experience called The Zombie Syndrome rather than a particularly grim public service announcement.
The site-specific play is the latest offering from The Virtual Stage, an innovative local theatre company gaining a reputation for mixing digital technology into live performances.
While most plays require you to turn off your phone before a show begins, this one needs you to instead keep it on and use its GPS app to follow clues while racing around the city trying to find a missing scientist’s cure for the plague.
The Zombie Syndrome’s playwright and director, Andy Thompson, says it’s unlike any show the city has ever seen.
“The audience has to go around in a scavenger hunt type sense and follow the trail of clues that this mad doctor has put forward to make sure only the right people have access to his laboratory,” he told the Courier over coffee at a Commercial Drive cafe. “The audience is really the lead role of the show, kind of like a first-person shooter video game.”
Thompson was careful not to spill his guts regarding details of the show, but admitted staging a zombie apocalypse in public settings presented some unique artistic challenges.
“I have had quite a remarkable journey dealing with a variety of stakeholders, including the Vancouver Police Department. I originally wanted there to be zombie-killing in the streets but, in getting my special events permit, I had to go through a police department representative and there was a concern-and a completely valid one-that people would be upset. When I was talking with him, I was jokingly but also quite literally commenting that he was functioning as dramaturg because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. For example, there was a scene where a skateboarder kills a zombie with a skateboard in an alley and he said, ‘You just can’t do that.'”
The Studio 58 graduate is not a horror buff, but found himself drawn to zombie culture for its unique potential to blend tragedy and comedy.
“They are very terrifying, yes, but also completely implausible. There is always an element of ‘oh my god, this is so ridiculous’ but also it is so horrible at the same time, like some sort of comedic horror mashup.”
Thompson says the show, which runs several times a day until the end of the month at an undisclosed location, will combine indoor and outdoor locations while providing audience members with a rare opportunity to feel they’ve saved the world
“It’s simply about making people think and having a lot of fun in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.”
The tagline for George Romero’s classic 1978 horror film Dawn of the Dead claimed: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Things must be overcrowded down there lately as zombies are everywhere.
A study by 24/7 Wall St., a financial news website, found the zombie genre culture pumped more than $5 billion into the global economy last year alone and now goes far beyond movie ticket sales.
The ambulatory undead have seemingly won peoples’ hearts and minds by, well, devouring peoples’ hearts and minds (or any other available body part) and through sheer force of numbers have become a part of the 21st-century zeitgeist that refuses to lay down and die.
Nearly 11 million pairs of eyeballs watched the season premiere of The Walking Dead last Sunday night while the latest version of the video game Resident Evil shipped roughly four million copies in only its first two weeks on the market.
A production of Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller video is making its way to Broadway while an ongoing Marvel comics storyline features zombified versions of the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine and even formerly friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man chowing down on supervillains and fellow superheroes alike.
Even highbrow literature isn’t immune, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, “the Classic Regency Romance-now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem,” spending months on top of international bestseller lists. They’ve even invaded the lexicon; we regularly now hear about zombie computers and zombie banks, and some people believe the current bleak global economy is partly to blame for the fascination with them.
Max Brooks, the bestselling author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, sums it up this way on his website: “We are living in times of apocalyptic anxiety and we need a vessel in which to coalesce those anxieties. I think they reflect our very real anxieties of these crazy scary times. A zombie story gives people a fictional lens to see the real problems of the world. You can deal with societal breakdown, famine, disease, chaos in the streets, but as long as the catalyst for all of them is zombies, you can still sleep.”
A fear of the living dead fits with a lot of our current legitimate concerns, including the fear of epidemic diseases such as SARS or swine flu, military-industrial complex skullduggery, global warming and/or the basic helplessness of governments to solve anything. It also arguably speaks to some of our more base desires, including having something to put a bit of excitement back into our day-to-day lives and providing a guilt-free outlet for homicidal impulses.
While the Twilight vampire movies were primarily filmed in the Lower Mainland, local residents themselves seem to have far more appetite for zombies as their preferred creature with an infectious bite, and The Zombie Syndrome certainly isn’t the first time Vancouver’s streets were overrun with people pretending to be zombies.
Heather McDermid, a marketing manager for the Vancouver New Music Festival, didn’t realize she was creating a monster when she organized the city’s very first Zombie Walk back in 2005.
“I was involved in one in Toronto, which was the first one in Canada, and I think maybe there were six or seven of us for the first time,” says McDermid. “I moved to Vancouver the year afterward and thought it would be fun to do it here, but I wasn’t really expecting as many people as ended up coming out. The original intent was so it would be kind of surprising and flash mob-style, plus doing it not near Halloween would make it kind of unexpected. My original reasons for doing it were more centred around community animation-no pun intended-and just having a fun, kind of off-the-cuff event.”
Instead, about 400 zombie wannabes turned up to shamble through the city for the event’s debut and-not unlike the new fast-moving zombies seen in films such as 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead-the annual Zombie Walk shows no sign of slowing down. Vancouver is also becoming associated with the living dead in a number of other ways as well.
The Rio Theatre’s annual Dead on Film zombie short film festival has sold out for the past three years of its existence, and local filmmakers have produced both the world’s first feature-length zombie-themed rom-com (Fido, directed by Andrew Currie and starring Burnaby’s Carrie-Anne Moss) and stoner buddy comedy (Thomas Newman’s Bong of the Dead). Vancouver is the headquarters of the makers behind the hugely popular Plants vs. Zombies free online game, and the city is also one of the settings for a new Microsoft Studios Xbox game called Deadlight.
McDermid agrees with Brooks that part of the appeal of zombies likely has to do with living in such uncertain times.
“One thing about zombies is you can map a whole lot of different things on to them. You can project the apocalypse, end-of-the-world thing or you can look at it from a corporate perspective where people do the day-to-day, daily grind kind of mindless zombies or you can look at the possibility of science getting out of control like in 28 Days Later. There are a lot of different facets you can project onto, so that probably helps with its wide appeal and make it such a part of the popular imagination.”
People who would rather kill zombies than be chased by or dress up as the undead now have that option as well at the new Zombie Combat Zone. Located at the end of a dirt road in south Surrey, the sprawling complex provides an opportunity to shoot down armour-clad zombies with paintball guns as part of a scripted storyline involving dozens of actors.
Owner Ron McCall, a burly, biker-looking man with a long pointed beard, admits the level of demand there’s been since he opened up shop a few weeks ago surprised him.
“I was expecting to maybe make enough money to make it through the winter and the next show and it has suddenly become another career,” said McCall, a props master whose film credits include such straight-to-DVD splatter fests as Bloodsuckers, Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon and the final installment of the Hellraiser franchise. He’s already seeing repeat customers and has began adding extra nights midweek instead of weekend-only shows.
He believes the reason zombies have become such a pop culture phenomenon is they aren’t as far-fetched as we’d like to think.
“It has something to do with they are the most humanistic of all the monsters. I think this is why it is so scary and why people are so attracted to things that scare them is because it could become real. There’s no chance you’re going to ever see a vampire or a mummy or Frankenstein or a werewolf, but this has a higher probability of becoming a real thing. Everybody knows there are a lot of things that are kept from us, so why not viral infections that could do something like this?”
McCall adds he is currently in discussion with celebrity shock rocker and filmmaker Rob Zombie about expanding the business into other countries.
Danielle Dubé knows a thing or two about what it’s like play in big hockey games.
As a goalie for Team Canada, she has helped win her country four gold medals, including a four-game home ice sweep in Richmond at the 1996 IIHF Women’s Pacific Rim Championship, and silver at the Nagano Olympics. The 35-year-old mother of two has held her own scrimmaging with NHL players and, nine years ago while playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League, she became only the third female puckstopper in history to start between the pipes for a men’s pro league game.
Her biggest game, however, was literally the most epic one to date.
Dubé is one of 40 women who hit the ice early in the morning Aug. 26 at Canlan Ice Sports Burnaby 8 Rinks attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for playing the longest continuous hockey game. Playing four-on-four on rotating four-hour shifts and divided into Team White and Team Red, the women are calling the rink home for 10 days as they battle it out during what is essentially a giant overtime minus the chance of ending it in sudden death.
The existing exhausting record of 242 hours was set by a group of men (and one woman) last February at the northern Alberta homestead of the Edmonton Oilers’ inhouse optometrist, Brent Saik. Not only do these woman want to beat the men, they are hoping to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis (CF) while they are at it.
“If not the biggest game, it’ll certainly be the longest and the most memorable for sure,” says Dubé as she prepared for the time spent either inside the rink or asleep in one of several cramped campers housing the players in the rink’s parking lot they’ve dubbed RV World. “Unlike some of the girls here, I don’t have personal experience with CF, but the opportunity came up and hockey has given me a lot. I’ve travelled the world and done all sorts of stuff, and this was just an amazing chance to give something back. As a mother, I can imagine how awful it is for children and it’s a great cause to be able to play for.”
CF is the most common and deadliest genetic disease affecting Canadian children and young adults. Suffering with CF is commonly described as like drowning on the inside and most don’t make it past the age of 30. A degenerative disease that destroys the lungs and digestive system, it requires multiple daily medications and physical therapy.
The Longest Game 4 CF is the brainchild of Vallerie Skelly, a 43-year-old sales manager for a Ford dealership in Richmond who also plays centre for the Thunder A in the local Duffers Hockey League. Raising funds and awareness to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis seems to be something that’s in her own family genes-her father Bill has helped raise about $50 million through decades of work with the Kinsmen Club of Canada.
Her own first experience with the disorder came as a teenager working at a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation summer camp, and it profoundly changed her life. “I met a girl there named Lucia and she was about 18 years old,” says the Team White captain moments before the ceremonial puck drop. “We became very good friends. She unfortunately died at the age of 27 of CF. I told her I was going to do something big some day and this is what I came up with.”
Skelly says her friend taught her to appreciate the value of every moment and every breath, and she wanted to finally do something “truly epic” to help make CF instead stand for “cure found.” Being a good Canadian, she figured what better way to garner attention towards a little understood respiratory disease than through a lung-busting hockey marathon. She got in touch with the parents of Eva Markvoort, a vibrant young woman who recently passed away from CF and who has become the pretty face of an ugly disease.
Ironically, the stunning beauty whose image adorns the Longest Game 4 CF campaign posters and other promotional material was never much of a hockey fan.
“She wasn’t what you’d call much of a sports person,” says her mother, Janet Brine, while watching the game with her husband Bill and daughter Annie. “We tried to get her involved in sports really early because it was really good for her physically, but it just wasn’t her thing. She was really much more interested in the arts.”
Markvoort, a former Miss New Westminster and theatre major at the University of Victoria, was instead passionate about acting. Frustrated that she wasn’t landing many roles due to the fact many directors had concerns about casting someone whose health issues could potentially pose problems (a coughing fit, for example, in the middle of a monologue), she ended up starring in the story of her own life and, sadly, her own death.
The locally shot documentary 65_RedRoses follows her struggles as she desperately waits for a double lung transplant. The film, co-directed by her friends Nimisha Mukerji and Philip Lyall, became a hit on the international film festival circuit.
But while the film exposed her to a worldwide audience, many more people got to know her further through her highly personal blog of the same name. (The term “65 roses” is common shorthand in CF circles because of a child’s famous mispronunciation of the disease, and Markvoort, a romantic who frequently dyed her hair bright red, picked 65_RedRoses to be her online handle.) As a seeming added cruelty, CF patients aren’t allowed to spend time together for fear of sharing infections, and so Markvoort turned to the Internet for distraction and comfort, where she formed many close relationships with other young people living with the condition.
Her LiveJournal page also became an unexpected hit, with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe visiting the site to share her fearless descriptions of a life spent coping with the disease.
In the end, it was through a video posting on her website where, surrounded by family and loved ones, Markvoort announced she would soon be dying after her body rejected her new lungs two years after receiving them. A few days later, in February 2010, she passed away at the age of just 25.
Her family manages to draw a bit of solace that her memory lives on through a variety of fundraising and organ donation awareness campaigns.
“For a young person, she was very conscious about wanting to leave a stamp and have her life not be forgotten,” says Brine. “We miss her every single day, but this really is pretty amazing. Here we are today and she’s still a huge part of trying to put an end to CF. It’s just wonderful.”
It’s almost impossible to have had a glimpse into Eva Markvoort’s too short life and not be moved by it. Fortunately, plenty of people are also moved into action.
Sim Sunner, for example, decided to swap her figure skates for hockey skates when she heard about plans for the game. “I transitioned just over a year ago, so you might see the occasional twirl or some of the old Mighty Ducks moves from me out there,” she says with a laugh.
Sunner was fresh out of nursing school when she began working at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, the largest CF care facility in North America. Being around the same age as most of the patients there, she inevitably became friends with many of them.
“I’ve seen them suffer, I’ve seen the pager that is always next to them and I’ve prayed with them for it to go off because that means they can get a lung transplant,” says Sunner, who now works in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital. “I knew everything about their lives, they knew everything about mine, and they would be there sometimes for months at a time. It was very difficult when one of them would pass away, just like it would be for any young person whose friends would die. They are the reason I’m doing this.”
By Day 5, the game was already pretty much out of hand, with Team White leading Team Red 491 to 326 when the Courier checked in. (Although some would say the 165-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey.) The original plan was to have Dubé in net to make up for less experienced players on Team Red like Sunner, but she had surgery on one of her fingers two days before the game and was unable to continue in net because of the pain. “She just wasn’t able to stop herself from going after the puck with one hand,” says volunteer and longtime hockey fan Desneige Meyers. “The score is pretty ridiculous right now, but then again the score isn’t what’s important here.”
What is important to Meyers is finding a cure for her two-year-old son, Beckett. A professional artist, Meyers has created a heartbreakingly large sculpture on display upstairs at the rink that incorporates all the syringes, plungers and empty pill containers that have kept her young son alive. She has already lost one child, her second, from complications due to prenatal testing to see if the baby girl had her brother’s illness.
“She passed away the day she was born and since then my marriage fell apart as well,” says Meyers. “I’m sure we’re not the only people who have those kinds of stories, but we are willing to share them if it will help find a cure.”
Despite his frailty, Beckett is pulling his own weight around the rink by helping keep the players motivated.
“We’re having a few players who are starting to get a little bit down, particularly on the Red team,” says Meyers. “We stopped by the dressing room as they were icing their wounds and taping their blisters and looking exhausted. As soon as he walked in, everybody just lit up. He was running around giving them high fives and it seemed to perk them up-they went right out again and scored three goals. We also spent a little time on the bench yesterday and the girls were always really excited when they’d come off their shifts to hang out with him. He’s a big cheerleader, Beckett is.”
The weary women of the Longest Game 4 CF expect to finally put down their sticks Sept. 5 at 11: 05 a.m., which would beat the record by precisely, and appropriately, 65 minutes.
Financial donations to the cause can be made at the rink itself or online at longestgame4cf.com, while more drastic but equally important donations can be arranged at transplant.bc.ca. A lot of people will probably breathe much easier if you do.
Superman is widely considered to be the world’s first comic book superhero and Canadians get a lot of mileage out of the fact that co-creator Joe Shuster was born in Toronto. Despite Superman famously standing for “truth, justice and the American way” and Shuster having moved to Cleveland when he was only 10 years old, the CBC made a Heritage Minute video to remind us of our Kryptonian connection while Canada Post even put his image on a stamp.
It may come as a surprise, then, that not only was there another cape-wearing character with superpowers to hit the funny pages well before him, but this one was based on an actual Canadian citizen.
April 11, 2011 would have been the 100th birthday of the late Leon Giglio, who later changed his name to Leon Mandrake but is better known by his stage name, Mandrake the Magician.
An accomplished illusionist, mentalist, ventriloquist, escape artist and fire-eater, Mandrake was once one of the most famous magicians in the world and also known for being one of the nicest guys to ever saw a woman in half.
Along with dazzling countless crowds around the world over a career spanning seven decades, he also found the time to inspire a comic book character of the same name that debuted a good four years before a certain strongman from outer space pulled on his first pair of tights.
The syndicated comic strip Mandrake the Magician, written by Lee Falk and illustrated by Phil Davis about a dapper crimefighter who could alter reality by “gesturing hypnotically,” first appeared in King Features newspapers in 1934.
There is, perhaps appropriately, still a bit of mystery as to how the two magicians first came together.
“From my understanding, they were both independent of each other, but the comic book character took on a close resemblance to my father,” said Lon Mandrake, Leon Mandrake’s oldest son, a retired science teacher and an accomplished stage magician in his own right. “I believe the one who wrote the comic already had the idea of a character who is a magician, but the person who did the drawings was familiar with my father’s act.”
Along with sharing the same name, the fictional Mandrake the Magician also sported the same trademark pencil moustache, cape and top hat, but copyright and intellectual property laws weren’t quite as stringent back in those days.
In any case, as Lon Mandrake points out, the matchup became mutually beneficial to both parties.
“They promoted each other. I’ve got letters from Phil Davis saying how there couldn’t be a greater character representation and vice-versa. It was a gentlemen’s agreement; nothing was ever written down or signing contracts or anything like that. This was back in the 30s, they did things differently then.”
Leon Mandrake first became interested in magic as a young boy. His parents were both vaudeville performers, but after the magic went out of their marriage, Leon and his mother moved to New Westminster to live with her sister in a house on Carnarvon Street known today as the Maria Keary Cottage.
His aunt, a postal worker named Mildred Wagner, gave him his first magic set for his seventh or eighth birthday and he was soon disappearing regularly into the backyard shed to practise his act.
Mandrake hit the stage for the very first time under the name “The Wiz” at age 11, filling in between vaudeville acts at the Edison Theatre (now the Paramount Gentleman’s Club). He soon began working for free backstage at the PNE, where visiting magicians would sometimes share some of the tricks of the trade and give him unwanted props or costumes. Having mastered fire-breathing before kissing his first girl, Mandrake joined a travelling magic company at age 16 and left home to tour the continent.
He soon became known for stunts such as mindreading, driving a car while blindfolded, hypnotizing people from department store windows, and making daring escapes and elaborate costume changes from tiny boxes.
He and his second wife and stage partner, Velvet (Lon’s mother, who also became a character in the comic strip), are also credited with being the first people to introduce magic acts with audience participation into nightclub settings after live theatres began turning into movie houses.
The comic itself, now written by Fred Fredericks, continues to live on today. When this story went to print, the stylish sorcerer was busy battling “dangerous hologram vampires,” the sort of tough crowd the performer himself certainly never had to deal with. The likeness to Leon Mandrake, however, is no longer as pronounced under the new artist.
“Everything was fine until King Features, who owned the strip, became worried about royalty rights and wanted to disassociate from having a direct relation,” said his son. “My dad and the cartoonist were good friends though. Right up until he died (in 1964), the character basically had my dad’s features, and then afterward they tried to change the character a little bit.”
But Mandrake’s legacy lives on in other ways as well. Some of his magic acts can still be enjoyed today on YouTube, and Roberston Davies even modelled the character Magnus Eisengrim from his book World of Wonders on him. Mandrake the Magician has also appeared in radio shows, television series, plays, musicals and movies (including a cameo in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine). Hayden Christensen, another B.C. performer (and, given that he is most famous for playing a Jedi, someone who should know a thing or two about gesturing hypnotically), is said to currently be in talks to star in a new Mandrake movie.
But his real legacy is continuing to inspire performers. Coquitlam resident Shawn Farquhar is one of them.
“As you can see from the photos, clearly I wanted to be just like Mandrake the Magician,” said the two-time world champion of magic over the phone from a tour in Florida. “He was just an awesome magician and such a wonderful person. He had the childlike sense right to the very end, he tried to create the magic in everything he did.”
Farquhar, 48, said he first met his idol after a disastrous early magic show of his own in Surrey. He said Mandrake’s warmth and encouragement played a big part in convincing him to continue performing.
Leon Mandrake passed away Jan. 27, 1993 at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and – coming full circle – the memorial was held at the same New Westminster theatre where his career first began.
Exotic dancers have long since replaced vaudeville acts at the entertainment at the old Edison, but Farquhar said the sendoff was a fitting final curtain.
“We took out all the posters and all the pictures of the girls,” he said with a laugh. “We changed the marquee to ‘The Last Appearance of Mandrake.’ During Velvet’s speech, she said we probably thought we hid everything from her so she wouldn’t know what the club is used for now, but she said it was really good to come back here and that Leon would like to know they are still doing tricks here.”