Living in a rural Atlantic fishing village with a population of under 1,000, I would discover early in my life that occasionally my family needed to venture outside of L’Ardoise to forage for its necessities – you know, major appliances, children’s clothing, a decent cheeseburger, that type of thing.
So, every few months or so, the Cookes would pile into the car and make the hour-long trip to that magical fantasy-land known as the city of Sydney. And as a TV-influenced child of the ’70s, I was enchanted by the huge glowing signs that towered over the streets of what was, at the time, a thriving industrial core, driven by the coal-mining and steel-making operations that fuelled Cape Breton’s urban centre. (I even tried to recreate Sydney’s streets in our house’s main hallway, using toy highway signs and corporate logos that I either pieced together on my own or cut out of the Yellow Pages.)
And while I had my favourite stops, particularly McDonald’s and Burger King (even though I was only consuming fries, pop and ice cream from those particular spots at this point of my childhood), I knew things were going to get exciting when we arrived at Woolco.
(Left: The actual Woolco in Sydney River, circa 1965. Right: This was a Woolco based in Omaha, but it bears a striking resemblance to the Sydney River Woolco that my family and I frequented in the ’70s and ’80s.)
See, at the age of five, I didn’t know there was actually anything bigger than Woolco – or its parent company, Woolworth’s, which had a location in Cape Breton’s southernmost town, Port Hawkesbury, during the ’70s. To me, this was the awesome store with the big shopping carts. And the huge toy department, where we never spent enough time during any given visit. And the clothing sections where Mom was always forcing me to try things on “for school” or “for church.” And the music section where we would get our Sesame Street and Walt Disney records.
Oh, and did I mention The Red Grille? It was a place where you could get a plastic tray and order real food, like French fries and Jell-O, and then sit and eat it. In a real restaurant! Inside a store! An actual restaurant inside an actual store!!! This was WAY cooler than eating at the table at home!
I wouldn’t find out until nearly a decade later, during my high school days, that Woolco wasn’t actually the land of haute couture or high-class cuisine, or that F.W. Woolworth had launched the Woolco brand in 1962 as a discount department store for North America’s sprawling middle class. And I certainly had no idea that Woolco’s original U.S. chain (and its 336 American stores) had collapsed in early 1983, a full decade before the remainder of its 120 Canadian outlets were sold off – most of them (including a 14-year-old Port Hawkesbury store) to Wal-Mart Canada, and others to Zellers Canada. (That must have felt like a kick in the teeth to the Woolco advertising geniuses that came up with this anti-Zellers ad – featuring none other than Canada’s own Alan Thicke – only a few years earlier.)
And as my excited five-year old hands pawed through the shiny new toys that had arrived for the 1977 Christmas season, I was also unfamiliar with the concept that Woolco’s employees might feel anything but absolute glee at the thought of working for this wonderful company that made sure its customers had such fantastic products and a steady supply of delicious Red Grille food to eat.
Elsewhere in Sydney, a ragtag collection of blues-rockers named Buddy and the Boys had other ideas.
Not nearly as enamoured with discount department stores as the five-year-old version of myself, two members of the six-piece combo – legendary singer-songwriter Leon Dubinsky (who recently played a supporting role in this blog post) and well-travelled guitarist-keyboardist Ralph Dillon – teamed up with radio host and comedian Dave Harley, soon to gain national fame via his alter ego General John Cabot Trail, to concoct the sardonic blues number “Workin’ At The Woolco.”
With deliciously sneering vocals from lead singer Max MacDonald, Buddy and the Boys earned such a positive response from the song that it landed on their 1977 debut album Buddy (above left). A 1980 live recording of the song resurfaced nearly two decades later on a compilation CD, which also included several tracks from Buddy and the follow-up release Live At The Moon, recorded at Halifax’s venerable rock venue The Misty Moon.
In the intervening years, “Workin’ At The Woolco” took on a life of its own. Several members of Buddy and the Boys were also cast in the musical-comedy revue The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island, which made its bow in 1977 and staged an off-island edition of the show the following year. That “Crossing The Causeway” series gave its entire second half over to Buddy and the Boys, who routinely opened their set with “Workin’ At The Woolco” (complete with Dave Harley playing coconut sounds on his teeth to kick off the song).
Max MacDonald cranked up “Workin’ Ar The Woolco” once again in 1981 for Cape Breton’s Greatest Hits, a music-only touring show featuring several Rise and Follies cast members. And he dusted off Buddy and the Boys’ “tribute” to The Red Grille and $1.44 Day (a Woolco promotion that saw several items sold for, you guessed it, a buck-forty-four) for the final edition of The Rise and Follies in 1985. That gave me my first opportunity to hear the song, as portions of the show were recorded in front of a studio audience at CBC’s Halifax building and broadcast to Nova Scotia audiences in 1986. (The third such broadcast is available here; “Workin’ At The Woolco” gets under way at the 14:18 mark, shortly after a Woolco-themed sketch that gets going at 10:03.)
“Workin’ At The Woolco” turned out to have a longevity outlasting even that of Woolco and Woolworth’s themselves. Max MacDonald musically groused about tinny Muzak, “phony flowers,” fluorescent lighting and “Attention, Woolco shoppers” as he slipped the number into medleys performed by the Rise and Follies’ successor series, The Cape Breton Summertime Revue (above), in 1986 and 1987 (somehow transforming it into a reggae jam for the latter show). He also revived it for the 1995 musical touring show Cape Breton Gold, replacing the second-last repeat line with “Workin’ At The Wal-Mart” as a nod to the stores’ new operators. By that time, I’d experienced the joy of singing “Workin’ At The Woolco” myself, playing it with a four-piece jazz combo during a 1992 coffee house at the University of King’s College’s H.M.C.S. Wardroom Pub.
Only a couple of years later, in 1997, Max MacDonald would embark on a dream few Woolco manager trainees could ever imagine – co-founding the wildly successful Celtic Colours International Festival with fellow Cape Breton music industry veteran Joella Foulds. Although he has left Cape Breton for the wilds of Sherbooke, where he and partner Barbara Cameron have operated the award-winning Beanie’s Bistro since 2014, Max is still active in the music scene, releasing the new solo album Songs of Home just before he won the East Coast Music Awards’ Stompin’ Tom Connors Award in 2015 for his dedication to traditional music and culture.
And while I can’t claim to know everything about Max – I’ve only shared the stage with him a few times between 1994 and 2003 – I just have the feeling that, if you caught him in the right frame of mind during a visit to Beanie’s, he might just serve up a few lines of “Workin’ At The Woolco.” Especially since the online reviews of Beanie’s suggest the food there is substantially better than the fare at The Red Grille, where “the spoons are made of plastic and the soup is kinda grey.”
Footnote: A lot of the links I’ve provided in this article wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of former Summertime Revue producer Stephen MacDonald, who has gone to the trouble of digitizing over a decade’s worth of Revue and Follies performances for his YouTube channel. Check it out yourself for a big old blast of quality Atlantic Canadian music and comedy. And once you’re done, head over to this channel for more of Buddy and the Boys’ amazing musical output. (My personal favourites: “Turn This Train Around,” “Josephine,” “Love The Night Away,” and “Gotham City.”)