Jack Brezina: Remembering Canada’s storyteller
|By Jack Brezina - Contributing Writer | February 23, 2017|
Talk around the restaurant table last week quickly turned from the topic of the American President to the passing of Canadian broadcaster Stuart McLean. It wasn’t that Trump couldn’t have filled the lunch hour gabfest, but the broadcaster’s passing was actually more significant than anything coming out of Washington.
Everyone had a story about Canada’s storyteller. One recalled how he was a regular on the CBC Radio Morningside program with Peter Gzowski and how he would be sent on odd quests and report back with ad lib banter that kept listeners glued to their radios. It was funny stuff. Stuart recounted his fear-filled climb up a tower crane dutifully captured on tape, although he never completed the climb to the top. There was the successful search for the trailer park which catered only to barbershop quartet singers and, of course, the cricket Stuart had purchased as a pet, and the laugh choked discussion that ensued. The insect had departed this world before arriving at the CBC studio.
McLean replaced Gzowski one summer and developed his Vinyl Café concept that would serve as the format for the rest of his radio career. There are few in Canada who are not familiar with the cast of characters he wove through his stories: Dave and Morley, the kids, Stephanie and Sam and the dog Arthur; the neighbours Jim Schofield, Burt and Mary Turlington among others; and business associates, like Kenny Wong, who peopled his bizarre and funny tales. The Christmas Turkey story seemed to the most remembered, but everyone had others they wanted to propose as a favourite … the trip down east to meet an old friend … welcoming new neighbours … the Christmas pageant gone awry … dog sitting and so many more. One of the classics I recall with fondness is the story called The Jock Strap. It recounted how a single mother had enrolled her son in minor hockey for the first time. After having acquired all the gear, the struggle to figure out in what order the items went on. She was sure she had everything on the list including the athletic supporter, which she presumed to be herself.
Stuart’s voice had an instant warmth to it that put listeners at ease. Often heard was the comment, “I felt he was speaking just to me,” the ultimate compliment a broadcaster would want to hear. He also generated such loyalty that everyone around the table recalled being ‘driveway listeners’ … having arrived home before McLean was done telling a story, they sat in their cars with the motors running, to hear the end … even when they had heard the story before.
McLean’s stories were always gently funny, with an underlying current of truth that made the tale honest and real. In the tributes which poured out following his death last week many recalled when McLean quoted children’s writer E. B. White who described his job as “taking readers to the place where laughter meets tears. It was then that people would get close to the big hot fire that is truth.” That is what endeared him so strongly to Canadians.
McLean also provided a platform for Canadian musicians to showcase their music. The national exposure lifted many struggling musicians from obscurity and gave them a launching pad for their careers.
We will all miss his gentle style and whimsical tales. Canada is richer for his presence in our homes every week.
In one his last public appearance at the centennial celebrations of the city of Prince George, BC, he said: “And so, I would say today as we toast the last 100 years, our toast should contain certain humility. A modest acknowledgement of our stumbles and our quiet determination to try harder, to listen carefully, to be thoughtful of new ways, to be sure that we are on the right side of history.
“That is, to continue our coming together with open minds and hearts.
“And finally to ask ourselves from time to time how people will look back at us, 100 years from now. “Will they say of us we were tolerant and enlightened?
“Will they say we did the right thing at the right time?
“Will they find people among us who stood firm and inched things forward, who made the world a better place?”
Vintage Stuart McLean.
Jack Brezina is a contributing writer for The Highlander.