Canada 1986: Finding ‘The Follies’ and Relishing ‘The Revue’

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I was halfway through 1986 when I discovered – entirely by accident – a comedic and cultural phenomenon that would make a profound impact on my life, spark a long-running interest in writing, performing and directing local theatre, and change the way I saw sketch comedy, political satire, and even my native Cape Breton.

Up to this point, my education in grassroots humour and satire came courtesy of Dave Harley’s General John Cabot Trail, while my perception of the island’s traditional and contemporary musicians was formed mainly by John Allan Cameron, with the likes of Ryan’s Fancy and the Jimmy Flynn-led Finnegan aiding and abetting these efforts.

That all changed on the fateful spring day that my parents and I decided to keep our main TV set tuned to CBC after the Wednesday-evening supper-hour news. Suddenly, we got a face-full of sketches, songs, parodies and characters that seemed to have sprung up from our own backyard, rather than the more broadly-based material emerging from the likes of Wayne & Shuster, SCTV, or The Frantics: 4 On The Floor (more on the latter in my next blog post).

This was my first taste of The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island, courtesy of three half-hour CBC-TV specials taped in front of a studio audience at the public broadcaster’s Halifax location and later shown across Nova Scotia. (Here’s the first episode! Behold the second! And voila, the third! Go ahead, check them out. I’ll wait. I’m patient like that, you know.)

Little did I know that this was actually the last edition of The Rise and Follies – and that its core performers and creators were already revamping the concept for their first performances of the Maritime-institution-in-the-making known as The Cape Breton Summertime Revue. 

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By the time I finally discovered The Follies, many of its actors, writers, musicians and crew had sharpened up a format that first took shape with the original show in 1977. The Follies’ debut arose under the banner of the Steel City Players, a gaggle of delightfully-brash, fantastically-creative and deceptively-heartfelt twenty-and-thirty-somethings. Most of them were schooled in theatre by the duo of Liz and Harry Boardmore at Sydney’s Xavier College (now Cape Breton University) and/or veterans of amateur-theatre productions guided by Sydney’s Rotary Club from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.  Together, they launched a live show that alternately warmed the heart, tickled the funny bone, and went for the jugular, skewering everything from puffed-up politicians to the exodus of younger Cape Bretoners to the supposedly-greener pastures of Ontario and Alberta.

The 1977 show proved so successful that much of its material was re-purposed the following year into a province-wide touring show, “Crossing The Causeway,” which gave most of its second half to the burgeoning Cape Breton blues-rock act Buddy and The Boys. I’ve already devoted some blog space to the group’s enduring novelty hit “Workin’ At The Woolco,” which landed in several Follies shows including the 1985 finale; at one point or another, some or all of the Buddy and the Boys line-up – including singer/actor Max MacDonald, bassist Berkeley Lamey, and guitarist Ralph Dillon – would land in the casts of The Follies and, later, The Revue, with band-mate Leon Dubinsky contributing several songs and serving as The Revue’s musical director for its first 10 years.

 

With the original 1977 Follies format gaining traction and evolving in the “Crossing The Causeway” follow-up tour and new Follies shows that made their bow in 1980 and ’81, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the 1985 production broadcast on CBC the following spring was so colourful, self-aware and true to both itself and the island that it alternately kidded and embraced. But as a junior high student in the mid-’80s, I had never seen my homeland’s communities, residents, music and culture, public figures and way of life so completely and conclusively put on display for my amusement, either on a live stage, on TV or anywhere else.

So sketches like the game-show parody “Gimme A Job,” phony news stories about Cabot Trail traffic being required to drive in the left lane to attract British tourists (“if the plan works, it will be stepped up next year to include trucks”), and dialogues between people who sounded suspiciously like my grandparents in Ingonish caught my attention. They showed me, for the first time in my life, that one of the most enduring – and endearing – traits of Canadians in general, and Cape Bretoners in particular, was our ability to laugh at ourselves and find humour and fun in the everyday activities that others might see as mundane.

That also applied to the music, which celebrated the little joys in life. To this day, as a semi-professional musician, I still get requests for Rise and Follies ditties like “I’ve Got A Job” and “(Everybody’s Going To The) Bungalow.” The gregarious show-opener “Up And Down The Island” was a favourite for years at local house parties, and I recently came within a whisker of recording a cover of “Offshore Oil,” the Rise and Follies spoof of the mid-’80s Nova Scotia “oil boom” that never actually happened, despite the desperate hopes of our political leadership at the time.

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But it wasn’t all fun and games with the Follies. The early shows were a vital testing ground for several thoughtful songs that have become beloved staples in the Atlantic Canadian songbook, including Kenzie MacNeil’s “Bound For Alberta” and “The Island” (proclaimed as Cape Breton’s official anthem by then-Premier John Buchanan in the mid-’80s), Rita MacNeil’s “Working Man” and “My Island Too,” Ronnie MacEachern’s “Island of Islands” and “Go Off On Your Way,” and Leon Dubinsky’s “Every Mile” and “Rise Again.”

The latter song, written as a tribute to Dubinsky’s late father Norman, became an unexpected centrepiece of the final Rise and Follies show in 1985. It was originally slated to be a full chorus number but then redesigned as a solo effort for veteran Follies member Raylene Rankin, who would go on to record the song with her siblings in The Rankin Family. (For comparison’s sake, the original version is at the 20:55 mark of this YouTube link, and here’s the 1993 Rankin Family recording.)

Dubinsky still remembers the initial reaction to “Rise Again” – here’s a quote he gave me when I interviewed him for the Port Hawkesbury-based newspaper The Reporter in 2012:

“It was stunning – nobody except ourselves had ever heard it, so you’d be with 500 or 700 or 1,100 people who had never heard the song before and maybe never heard Raylene before. And there was this incredible reaction…People would jump to their feet. In retrospective, it was such a fateful pairing of that song with Raylene Rankin.”

So what would the Rise and Follies do for an encore? Only weeks after the CBC aired its repackaging of the 1985 show, several of the Follies’ writers, actors, musicians, and contributors reconfigured themselves as The Cape Breton Summertime Revue. Under the guidance of the non-profit organization Summertime Productions Society, the Revue took a breather from the Follies’ social and political satire and rolled out a fun warm-weather show, with such feel-good seasonal songs as “Give Us Some Heat/Give Us A Hit,” “Some Summer,” “Barbeque,” and “Sun, Surf and Sand,” along with heart-tugging ballads like “Seashells” and “Around The Fire.” In a great casting coup, the Revue also drafted Rita MacNeil – only a few months away from releasing her career-changing album Flying On Your Own – and the Big Pond songstress easily shifted back and forth from singing soaring originals such as “Sounds of the Water” to playing Mitzi, the long-suffering wife to Follies’ veteran Maynard Morrison’s well-travelled but dim-witted Cecil character.

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(Above: The original cast of the Cape Breton Summertime Revue in 1986. Left to right: Steve Gaetz, Doris Mason, Ralph Dillon, Maynard Morrison, Berkeley Lamey, Rita MacNeil and Max MacDonald. Other than MacNeil, everyone pictured here was featured in multiple productions of the Rise and Follies and/or Summertime Revue shows.)

I didn’t see the Summertime Revue in action until its third season, but by then I had nearly worn out my soundtrack cassettes of the ’85 Follies and the first two Revues, so it was inevitable that I would wind up in the audience for the ’88 show (at Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC Auditorium) and the ’89 edition (at Glace Bay’s Savoy Theatre.) By that time, these guys were my Cape Breton comedy superheroes, poking fun at everything from then-PM Brian Mulroney (played with deep-throated swagger by Max MacDonald in the occasional sketch and such songs as “Gucci Shoes” and “Free Trade”) to CJCB Radio’s weekday phone-in show Talkback, and even Wheel of Fortune.

Those laughs came courtesy of some big Cape Breton names. Following in their older sister Raylene’s Follies footsteps, Heather and Cookie Rankin spent two years in the Revue (with Heather returning for one more summer in ’89), playing characters ranging from mouthy teenage mall-rats to headline-analysing grandmothers to grouchy radio commentators. Bette MacDonald joined the show in 1987, and launched her signature busybody character, Mary Morrison – and the enduring catch-phrase “Good, Dear, Good” – the following year. And veterans like Maynard Morrison, whipping back and forth between Cecil’s inner-tube-wearing approach to fatherhood (“Daddy says ‘No,’ b’y”) and full-barrelled, bell-bottomed Elvis impersonations in such musical numbers as “Draggin’ Up The Past” (1988) and the casino-themed “Viva Lost Wages” (1995), delivered the goods with the comic timing of legendary Hollywood funnymen.

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Above: Maynard Morrison as “Cecil” gets songwriting tips from Max MacDonald as “Dwayne Lane, the King of Pain” and Bette MacDonald as “Jane” in 1988. 

In between the jokes, however, the Revue – like the Follies before it – often made pointed commentary on Cape Breton’s struggling economy, daily living, culture and diversity (or lack thereof). In the early ’90s, I surprised a few of my college friends by playing them Leon Dubinsky’s 1987 Revue song “Cape Town,” which describes the challenges faced – in South Africa and/or in Cape Breton (Dubinsky’s lyrics never clarify this) – by “a black man trying to sound like a white man on the radio,” a single mother on welfare, and “a gay man trying to act like a straight man at the factory.” The same Revue also featured African-Canadian actor Lucky Campbell and Cheticamp-born fiddler Marcel Doucet auditioning for “The Call of Cape Breton,” a fictional follow-up to the early-1987 CBC-TV movie Island Love Song. Campbell chuckled sardonically as he recalled how he “almost got the part that Ronnie MacEachern got” in Island Love Song, “but they said I was ‘too tall.'” Doucet, his Acadian accent on full display, didn’t miss a beat: “They said I was too short.”

Through it all, the Summertime Revue created a rich songbook that gave lesser-known Cape Breton writers the chance to have full-band performances – and, in turn, soundtrack-album recordings – of their creations. Among my favourites: One of the first keyboard players to ever truly inspire my own playing, Revue regular Doris Mason (“Together Again,” “Don’t Let It Slip Away,” “3,000 Miles,””The Bright Side,” “Feed The Fire,” “She Can’t Help It”); Sydney-area theatre and music veteran Ken Chisholm (“Brothers In The Saddle,” “Simple As Geography”); award-winning studio co-owner, producer and Revue stalwart Fred Lavery (“Atlantic Chorus”); “Song For The Mira” creator Allistair MacGillivray (“Away From The Roll Of The Sea,” “You’ll Be Home Again,” “Song For Peace”), part-time children’s entertainer, part-time roots musician, and complete genius Duncan Wells (“Home Again,” “As The Circle Continues,” “Tears of Joy,” “Small Town Wind,” “When Angels Brush Their Hair,” “Bras d’Or,” “From A Rocking Chair”); and the aforementioned Leon Dubinsky, whose other Revue gems included the ballads “One World,” “You Never Get Away” and “Remember The Miner,” the rallying cries “In The Pit,” “Stop Knocking The Cape,” “We’ll Get By” and “They Took The Train Away Today,” and such gut-busters as “Piper’s Lament” (sung from the perspective of a bagpiper employed by Nova Scotia Tourism and Culture to entertain visitors at the welcome centre located up the hill from the Canso Causeway), the “Coal Tones” and “Placebo Dominion” political song-spoof medleys, and “Ninja Tories” (better known around these parts as “Middle-Age Mutant Ninja Tory Dolls”).

And there were plenty of talented people to bring these songs to life: As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, a lot of famous Cape Bretoners joined the Revue cast, including blues-rock legend Matt Minglewood (1990-91), future Grammy winners Natalie MacMaster (1991) and Gordie Sampson (1995 and ’97), globe-trotting singer-songwriter Bruce Guthro (1996), Madison Violet co-founder Lisa MacIsaac (1997), beloved Cape Breton fiddler and comedian Howie MacDonald (1997 and 2003), award-winning composer, singer, instrumentalist and producer J.P. Cormier (1998 and 2003), fiddler and Beolach co-founder Wendy MacIsaac (1995), prolific fiddler and dancer Jennifer Roland (1998), and multi-talented singer, songwriter, actor, instrumentalist and jack-of-all-trades Richard Burke, who came on board in 1992 and remained with the show until its late-’90s/early 2000s’ hiatus.

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However, I can’t talk about the Cape Breton Summertime Revue without addressing two cast members that were part of what I consider a defining moment for both the show and my relationship with it. In 1992, a fellow member of the St. Peter’s District High School Class of 1990, Tara Lynne Touesnard of River Bourgeois (middle row, second from right in the above photo), came on deck and seamlessly fit into the Revue with her fiddling, singing, dancing and acting talents. She returned the following year, joined by her younger sister Krista (bottom left in the above photo), who began the first of her three consecutive seasons with the Revue. As good luck would have it, their 1993 performance gave the Touesnard sisters and the other Revue cast members a whack of exposure outside of Nova Scotia, as the Revue embarked on its first Ontario tour, filling up venues and selling out its merchandise in such cities as Ottawa, Hamilton, Markham, Brampton, and Kingston.

Inspired, Summertime Productions Society prepared to take the Revue even farther afield in 1994, on a western Canada swing that included Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina. And then the unthinkable happened.

On April 25, 1994, two weeks before rehearsals began, an auto collision on Nova Scotia’s Highway 101 took Tara Lynne’s life. I still recall my mother’s shaking voice as she called me at my newsroom job at CIGO AM Radio to tell me about it. Tara Lynne and I were friends at that point in our lives; we were both on the bill for a concert the following month in Halifax, and we were four months removed from a performance at a local seniors’ home that had ended with Tara Lynne excitedly planning a recording session for a Christmas album involving me and some friends who had been in a band with us in high school. And now she was gone.

Three days later, the entire cast of the Summertime Revue – these people that I had so admired all this time for their musical and comedic abilities and their commitment to Cape Breton – came to St. John The Baptist Church in River Bourgeois, put on brave faces and sang the Leon Dubinsky composition “Fiddler’s Bow,” performed in the 1993 Revue as a tribute to late cast member Marcel Doucet. And that’s how my first opportunity to meet two of my heroes, Richard Burke and Max MacDonald, happened through tears after Tara Lynne’s funeral had wrapped up.

Six months later, they were back in River Bourgeois – at the gathering space now known as the Tara Lynne Community Centre – as the marquee performers for a fundraising concert set up to launch a bursary in Tara Lynne’s name. I had the honour of MCing that show, and that gave me my first chance to work even indirectly with the likes of Doris Mason, Bette MacDonald, and Maynard Morrison, people that had informed my musical, satirical and cultural growth over the previous decade. They finished their set with a medley from that season’s Revue which included “Let’s Never Say Farewell,” a tender ballad written by Fred Lavery with lead vocals by Burke; it segued beautifully into Krista’s performance of “MacKinnon’s March,” the last original composition Tara Lynne put together before that tragic day in April.

It would be one thing to say that these kind-hearted people came to River Bourgeois on two separate occasions to help the community grieve and celebrate one of its own. But it’s quite another thing to point out that the 1994 Summertime Revue did indeed go on, and that Krista found the intestinal fortitude to stay with the production through this difficult time – including back-to-back tours of western and central Canada in 1994 and ’95. Over two decades later,  I still don’t know how she did it. But she did it.

Here’s how show producer Stephen MacDonald described it in the recent book The Cape Breton Summertime Revue – The Story Of The First 10 Years:

There was, you know, a shadow hanging over rehearsal. And yet, there was also a feeling, I think, that we had to do it, and do it right, for Tara. That we couldn’t let the grief overcome the show…And her sister right in the middle of it. Her sister, who made the very difficult decision to stay with the show. And who was just an inspiration to us all. Actually, their whole family is a pretty special group of people.

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Shadows of other sorts hung over the Summertime Revue in the mid-’90s. Stephen MacDonald is quoted as saying that Summertime Productions Society “lost our shirts” on the 1995 show’s national tour, which contributed to the evaporation of a nest egg of $150,000 that had built up over the Revue’s first decade of operation. Back in the Maritimes, local audiences weren’t sure what to make of newcomers brought in to replace long-running Revue and Follies regulars Doris Mason and Max MacDonald. (That’s a shame, because while I wasn’t initially sold on the final product, I do consider the ’95 Revue to have generated some of my favourite material from the series’ entire run.)

As a result, no national tours or soundtrack albums accompanied the 1996 Revue, which still presented a strong cast and some of the most inventive comedy the show had enjoyed in a few years. But the absence of two more regulars, Maynard Morrison and Bette MacDonald, contributed to sluggish ticket sales, a financial loss of $100,000, and the outright cancellation of some late-season shows – an unheard-of prospect for a Cape Breton institution.

How bad was it? According to this article by frequent Revue and Follies contributor Ken Chisholm, multiple writers for the show had the option of accepting a delayed payment or taking their wages in the equivalent value of Revue merchandise such as soundtrack cassettes. (No, not CDs, just the cassettes.) I didn’t discover this particular detail until three years later; it was bittersweet news as I earned my first, and only, Revue writing credit for a joke from one of my pitched scripts that wound up in the first half of the show’s run before being dropped for the second half. I didn’t really care about payment, or even the retention of the joke through the show’s entire run – I was just giddy about seeing my name in the official Revue program, despite all the show’s various woes.

In the meantime, with the show’s immediate future uncertain, I prepared a 10-minute radio documentary on the Revue’s ups and downs for the current-affairs show that ran at CIGO AM Radio in the back half of 1996. I interviewed Duncan Wells, Max MacDonald and Summertime Productions Society’s then-president Luke Wintermans for the endeavour, which would have been a thoroughly happy project at nearly any other point of the Revue’s history. All three were frustrated at the softening audience response and financial struggles for one of Nova Scotia’s flagship entertainment productions, especially since, according to Wintermans, those who did actually see the 1996 show (like me) actually enjoyed it:

They got a standing ovation after every show, but unfortunately that doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a very expensive show to put on – it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount the Summertime Revue, and if you come up $50,000 to $75,000 short, you can’t continue to do that for a few years in a row.

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The Summertime Revue did indeed resurface, with its 1997 cast featuring the likes of Maura Lea Morykot (who also appeared in 1995), Julie Martell, and Lisa MacIsaac (above) and returns for Gordie Sampson, Maynard Morrison and Bette MacDonald. The latter pair also stayed for the ’98 Revue, helmed by musical director J.P. Cormier. Audiences rebounded for these two seasons, allowing Summertime Productions Society to pay off its debts from the previous two years. This may have been the key factor in the society’s early-1999 decision to pull the plug on the show after thirteen seasons; I can’t say I blame them for wanting to cut their losses and close the book on an ultimately-successful endeavour, or to free its key participants up for new projects, tours, and other creative activities.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Cape Breton Summertime Revue’s wake and funeral: Somebody started playing tunes and cracking jokes again, and only five years later, it was back. A handful of Summertime Revue shows were staged between 2003 and 2012, with alumni such as Howie MacDonald, Marilyn MacDonald, J.P. Cormier, Kenzie MacNeil, Richard Burke, and Laurel Martell joining new cast members as diverse as Ciaran and Fiona MacGillivray – two co-founders of The Cottars – and Sydney-based singer, pianist, composer and producer Aaron Lewis. More recently, Revue alumni Heather Rankin participated in the first edition of The Cape Breton Summertime Revue: The Next Generation (below), which has introduced audiences to a wealth of new talent from the island, including Peter MacInnis, Jordan Mucycsyn and Stephanie Hennessey, under the watchful directorial eye of “Cecil” and “Martin MacKinnon” himself, Maynard Morrison. It’s now gearing up for its fourth straight season of performances across Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia; a punishing work schedule kept me from seeing the first three shows but I hope I’ll finally be able to check out the revamped Revue this summer.

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When the Revue took its “first farewell” in 1999, veteran contributor Ken Chisholm envisioned an island full of writers sadly putting funny skits, wacky characters or soulful songs into drawers, never to be seen again, with these Cape Breton creators lamenting that their output “would have been perfect for the Revue.” But he was only partly right, as the Revue – and the Rise and Follies before it – encouraged an entire generation of Cape Bretoners, as well as other Nova Scotians and Atlantic Canadians, to take a crack at telling their communities’ stories through humour and song.

And I’m glad they did, because from one-season wonders like The Rankin Family’s own Mabou Jig series and 1989’s Cape Breton: The Spirit Never Dies!, to the comedic musical productions launched by The Accents and that band’s alumni at the Savoy Theatre, not to mention the recurring Louisbourg Playhouse shows like Spirit of the Island, Cape Breton Lyrics and Laughter, One Night In A Cape Breton Kitchen, Keltic Drive, and The Fleur-de-Lis Trail Players (full disclosure: I directed and hosted the last one for four years), we’ve all been inspired in one way or another by the Follies and the Revue.

One final example: Port Hawkesbury’s Under The Map Theatre launched its Wicked Celtic Hoot music-and-sketch-comedy venture in 1998, the same year that the Summertime Revue ended its consecutive-season run. I come at this from a biased perspective as a long-time sketch writer, musical contributor and actor for the eleven years of Hoot performances in Port Hawkesbury and Mabou, but I’d like to think that we followed the Revue’s basic premise that there’s no part of the world too small to create a high-quality night of entertainment which also gives us a new perspective of the place we call home.

Or, as Duncan Wells put it when I interviewed him for my 1996 Revue radio documentary: “Here in Cape Breton, there’s always a community hall somewhere.”

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FOOTNOTE: I started this blog with links to CBC’s three broadcasts of The Rise and Follies. However, you really should check out the YouTube channel of former Summertime Revue producer Stephen MacDonald, who has done yeoman’s duty in transforming several years’ worth of Revue performances and soundtrack albums into online feasts of great Cape Breton music and comedy. He’s also got video retrospectives of the Sydney Rotary Club musicals that featured and inspired the folks who would go on to launch both the Follies and the Revue, and they’re definitely worth a look as well.

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