Saturday, July 23, 2011



Obituaries often are more bland than enlightening, reciting accomplishments and survival times at various jobs, seldom giving you the racier side or the info that hey, this person was really different.
Yet when I survey this trio of victims from the latest sweep by the Grim Reaper, it's obvious they really stand out.
Elwy Yost, who died at 86, was an unabashed lover of movies and everything about movies. And Brian Vallee, the spinner of yarns, and Billy Jamieson, the collector of shrunken heads, were men who could have easily had their life turned into movies.
I grew up starved for movies. Since my Dutch grandparents banned the Saturday afternoon double feature, I had to sneak in late and leave early. It was only when I got to Weston and its two theatres, where Yost had honed his love more than a decade before, that I went to every movie they had to offer, with side trips to the theatres in Mt. Dennis and the Junction. By then the cost had risen from the dime Yost's father had advanced him, providing he came back and told the story.
I actually got to see the start and the finish of movies, and even could stay to watch blockbusters a second time.
It was with delight I saw Yost on TVO in 1974 with his Saturday Night at the Movies. I thought it was too good to last, that the boring educational station would discover the error of its ways. But he lasted as the most popular show on TVO for most of Toronto. He was just doing what his father had got him to do as a boy, telling the stories.
His replacement for me today is the TBS channel and its main host Robert Osborne. Many a quiet night is rescued by a movie that I've never seen before, or the repeat of a classic.  I know power couples who look forward to becoming couch potatoes and spending the weekend with TBS.
In the old days at  TVO, it was very much the show of that bald teacher with the funny name. It certainly became a confusing muddle after he left in 1999.
There are those who would scorn his approach, that avuncular passion for movies that never had him say a discouraging word. He was not of the school that believed movies had to have a redeeming message. Movies were there as an entertaining diversion from humdrum life. As someone who will watch a great musical, like American in Paris, no matter that I've seen it a dozen times, I agreed with the non-critical approach of Yost. I'm after pleasure, not instruction.
Brian Vallee, who died at 70, showed up in my life at the same time as Yost launched his movies show with those  friendly interviews with faded performers. What a character! Vallee strolled into Toronto journalism like John Wayne in Monument Valley.
He came from the Windsor Star, a provincial daily which certainly punched above its weight when it came to producing staff for the Toronto Sun, where we called them the Windsor Mafia, and indeed for all of the Toronto media.
We had an uneasy relationship because he was covering Queen's Park. I was writing a political column on Page 4 of the Sun five or six times as week. Since I was on this daily treadmill, I wandered from City Hall to Queen's Park to Ottawa in the hunt for material. He was the newcomer but there was an attitude that I was a poacher.
All this was passed over after a few drinks at the Toronto Press Club, one of his favourite haunts. Vallee kept talking and yarning and questioning at the bar, just as he did in his professional life. As Ron Base, a fellow member of the Windsor Mafia and a great writer himself, says about his old friend, he told "one heck of a story." (Although Brian also thought he played a heck of a piano. )
Vallee was a great digger in the finest tradition of investigative journalism, which is a difficult and often frustrating field. His work in TV and documentaries even made it to the Oscar stage.
Perhaps I'm filled with too much nostalgia for the good old days - which often weren't that good - but I miss the days when you could stand at the bar of Canada's press club and all the great characters, from Vallee to Norman DePoe to Duncan Macpherson, would give you the latest insult and jokes and all the gossip, including the stuff that got killed by "those idiot scared editors" out of the big story of the day.
But the press clubs of Toronto and Ottawa are no more, and so an interesting and raunchy side of journalism, right out of The Front Page, has vanished into the memory of old farts.
Billy Jamieson was a match for any character out of any press club. He was so eccentric, it was even mentioned in the obituary. Yost and Vallee would have found him as fascinating as the rest of the world did. The collector who sold the mummy of a pharaoh to an American university for a couple of million bucks. Who may have had a ghost floating over the fish tank he put in an old hearse.
All you had to do was wander his wonderful loft, carved out of an old downtown factory, with Billy holding one of his shrunken heads, listening to him in his reincarnation as carnival barker, or perhaps as an explorer finding a lost tribe, and you realized this was truly a character.
I wrote a blog last November about his Halloween party (Billy Jamieson And His Shrunken Heads). It was one of the best sites in the world for such a party with all the native artifacts and curiosities around you.  In 2009, I wrote columns about him and his weird collection in November and February which would also give readers a taste of a fascinating man who, as the obit said, was a friend of the underground elite.
These dashing Three Musketeers of Toronto life always made you feel as if you just had just accessed the hidden worlds of crime, explorers and Hollywood.
They were truly unique.

1 comment:

Lynda Schwalm said...

Great tribute to these great guys John. Hope you're doing well. I look forward to the 2nd installment today of your hospital saga.