I met Stuart McLean in 1975 at Camp Kanawana…
…. located outside the charming town of Saint Sauveur-des-monts, an hour north of Montreal, the city where Stuart and I both grew up, he 10-ish years ahead of me.
Stuart was the camp assistant director and unofficial, resident story teller, and I was the totally dweeby arts and crafts department assistant director….
I didn’t know it at the time, but both our positions foreshadowed our future occupations, Stuart as a journalist, teacher and story-teller and me as an interior design consultant.
This past week, for my husband’s birthday, I took him to Stuart’s Christmas concert, a tradition for Canadians going back about 20 years. If you’ve lived in Canada for any time at all, you probably know that Stuart McLean is our very own story-telling icon, featured weekly on CBC radio, author and performer of his fictional stories about Dave, the hapless owner of the The Vinyl Café second-hand record store (the slogan of which is, “We may not be big, but we’re small”), his wife Morley, their kids Stephanie and Sam, a menagerie of pets and a cast of colourful characters who live in their neighbourhood.
Every Christmas, families all over the country tune in to CBC radio and flock to theaters to hear the new Vinyl Café Christmas stories. Everyone has their favourites, like Christmas at the Turlington’s, Dave on the Roof and my personal favourite, Dave Cooks the Turkey, in which, predictably, we discover that Dave has managed to bungle the one responsibility he was given, when on Christmas day, he realizes he forgot to buy the turkey.
The predictability of Dave’s imperfections are partly what make the stories endearing. Even the brand new stories are somehow familiar, as though we recognize the characters as close family members, whose foibles and fables were relayed by another relative. This is the universal appeal of Stuart McLean’s stories and the Vinyl Café. The characters are us, warts and all, if not all the time, at least some of the time and we take comfort in their gentle treatment at the hands of McLean. The full house we were part of at the 3200-seat Sony Centre in Toronto, was made up of families from 3.5 to 89 years old. A fact I know, since McLean polled the audience and got the youngsters up on stage in a “awwww”-inducing bit of clever, calculated audience rapport.
Stuart McLean has been compared to the American master story-teller, Garrison Keillor, with a slightly sweeter view of the world. But growing up in Canada, we’re acutely aware of the dominant American popular culture, which can easily eclipse our own, so it’s a real tribute to Stuart McLean that his popularity has grown, not only in Canada, but in parts of the United States as well, especially since his stories have no violence or bad language, but recall a simpler, gentler time in our world, when whole families gathered around the radio of an evening to listen to their favourite programs.
In an online profile on The Montrealer website, he talks about going to school at Lower Canada College (LCC), which is a private school for boys which has strong academic and athletic programs. McLean says he felt like he didn’t fit in, since he was shy and awkward and always felt like an underdog. In an interview on the Our Kids website, he said he found refuge listening to the radio – and discovered an unexpected little place that was the spark of his success: Camp Kanawana.
Set on the shore of the pristine Lake Kanawana, a motor-free zone (or at least it was, back in the day), the camp was a place for many to come of age in an atmosphere of safe camaraderie, camp fires and sing-alongs, canoe trips, Lumbermen vs Voyageurs team event competitions, corny skits that even the kitchen staff came out to watch…
….art projects on canoe paddles…
….Mac and Cheese served with a side of white bread and butter prepared by the inimitable, “Mama” Wundel…
…and greaser-dances …
…with the highlight being the last song when hormone-engorged kids got to grope their partners for what seemed like an eternity during the 8 minutes and 2 seconds of Stairway to Heaven.
Apart from the Chapel, which was just a circular clearing in the forest a short walk from the centre of camp and the B.O. (short for Business Office, cue cascades of giggles here) down a shaded, rock studded path, the dining hall was the place where the camp community came together to share meals, sing those old camp songs, perform in all manner of skits, compete in team chants, receive important announcements and updates from the heads of camp, Derek and Stuart…
and to listen, enraptured while Stuart spun a good yarn after dinner.
In an article originally written for Toronto Life magazine by Trevor Cole, Cole brilliantly writes in Stuart’s voice (and if you’ve ever heard Stuart’s distinctive Canadian speech pattern, often compared to Jimmy Stewart, you can hear McLean speaking as you read the article) he gives us a glimpse of the beloved story teller behind the curtain, revealing that his personal life does not imitate art and that as charming as McLean is, his awww-shucks-persona is finely crafted and honed, as much as any of his stories.
I think that’s only partly true. I don’t know many people who don’t show their best game face to the world, whether they’re well-known or not. Most people craft a public face with varying degrees of success. It’s just that instead of polished and sophisticated befitting his success, the public face that Stuart shows, is a bit shy, a wee bit corny and folksy, but with a warm heart. And I can say from personal experience at camp, though it may be only one small part, it’s based on Stuart’s real personality, which perhaps he grew up and out of, but that he’s able to call back at will.
Back at camp, Stuart was a slightly distracted, bemused, sweetly geeky young man ( when I was 18 he seemed impossibly old, but he seems a lot younger to me now), with unruly, strawberry blonde hair, all of which was wrapped up a package of a kind of soft, shy, likability even if he was a bit aloof, and dash of loner thrown in…(I didn’t know anyone on staff who really knew him well. He didn’t seem much of a joiner) the sort of traits that bring out the maternal instinct in some women. And the very traits he has honed to perfection in the persona many know and love today as the creator and raconteur of the stories from the Vinyl Café, are among the ones that Stuart McLean seems to have been born with and displays in all their self-effacing charm when the lights go up.
I say, “Bravo, Stuart.” He is the consummate showman and gives the people exactly what they ask for. Would that we were all so smart, or lucky!
Stuart, “Glad to’ve known ye”, if ever so briefly.
Thank you to those who have bought Christmas gift certificates for home design services! There’s still time to buy one for someone on your list!