Friday, December 24, 2010


   Her name was Billie Mae Richards, but to the world she will always be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  That's right, the voice of Rudolph on the classic 1964 Christmas TV special was really a girl; but unlike the famous outcast reindeer, everyone who met Billie loved her immediately.
    We lost Billie on September 10th  of this year, at the age of 88.  When I heard the news of her death on CBC Radio I was surprised the report didn’t mention her extensive work history at the Mother Corp.  She provided voices for dozens of radio shows throughout the 1950’s, most famously giving voice to The Kid on “Jake And The Kid.”  Yes, she was playing a boy long before Rudolph came along.
    I knew Billie and had the good fortune to work with her on several occasions.  Although I stood over a foot taller, I soon learned she had an unfair advantage in any performance.  You could labour like crazy to win over the audience, then all she had to do was walk onstage and say, “Clarice thinks I'm cuuute!” and she’d steal the show.
    Canada was not alone in feeling her loss; her death was covered in People Magazine, Variety, The Los Angeles Times – she was even eulogized by Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News.  Quite a feat for a Canadian entertainer.  Oddly (but not surprisingly) she received far more attention from the American press than she did here in Canada. This will be our first Christmas without her, so it seems an ideal time to remember this wonderful actress whose voice came to define the season.
    A child singer, dancer and accordion player in Toronto vaudeville of the 1920's, by the time she was 6 she was performing in a variety show called “The Merry Makers” alongside those Canadian icons of World War I, The Dumbells.  During World War II Billie decided to join the navy, and it wasn't long before she was asked to put her talents to use by becoming part of the “Meet The Navy” show, touring Canada and playing throughout Europe.
    After the War she embarked on a highly successful radio career at the CBC, specializing in providing voices for young male characters.   I doubt she ever imagined that her years of experience playing boys would ultimately lead to becoming the world’s most famous reindeer.
    Although the beloved holiday special was an American production, the producers came to Canada to record the voices.  Our radio drama industry was busy back then, and our voice artists were considered superior to their US counterparts.  With the exception of Burl Ives, the entire cast of Rudolph came from Toronto and included many popular (and still active) Canadian actors such as Paul Soles (Hermey the Elf, and the original voice of Spider-Man), Carl Banas (Elf Boss), Larry Mann (Yukon Cornelius) and the late Paul Kligman (Donner).  Soles in particular remained close friends with Billie and they later appeared together as husband and wife in the 1998 horror movie “Shadow Builder” where his character attacked her with an axe.  Yup, Hermey killed Rudolph.  Let that one sink in for awhile.
    Unfortunately “Rudolph” was produced prior to the days when actors began receiving residuals for their work, meaning they got paid a one-time fee for performing the voices.  In spite of the show’s continued success over the past four decades and the millions of dollars it has generated, the actors never saw another penny for their contributions.
    Billie provided Rudolph's voice for two subsequent animated specials, and went on to create voices for many other cartoons series including “Spider-Man,” “Captain Nemo” and “The Care Bears.”  She continued to be active in voice, film and TV work well into her 80's, only slowing down in the past few years due to ill health. 
    This Christmas as I indulge in my annual ritual of watching “Rudolph,” Billie will be front and centre in my thoughts.  She spent 80 years as a proud Canadian performer and left a legacy few can match, setting the bar pretty high for all the rest of us.
    So Billie, on behalf of everyone whose lives you touched with your friendship, humour and talent, you'll live on in our hearts always.  And oh yes, “I think you're cuuute!”

Thursday, August 12, 2010


“We’ll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday Night.” The classic Stompin’ Tom Connors song echoed in my ears as I flew into Sudbury, Ontario a few months ago, prepared to take on a conducting job at the local theatre.

The show was The Full Monty. Some may recall the 1997 British film of the same name, which told the story of a group of striking steel miners in northern England who decide to become male strippers. A subsequent Broadway musical transplanted this story to Buffalo, New York, and went on to win numerous awards.

I was on my way to Sudbury to conduct the music for this production. Our timing coincided with an extended miner’s strike against the very same Inco (now Vale Inco) that Stompin’ Tom sang about. The timing could not have been more fortuitous.

Now I’ve worked on many shows where the set design required the musicians be on stage rather than in a pit. This rarely proves to be a good idea, for surrounding musicians, instruments, chairs, music stands and a conductor, with dancers, actors, singers, technicians and set pieces flying in and out, is usually a recipe for total havoc.

In this production sets did fly overhead, and crew members ran around under cover of darkness making magical things occur for the audience. As the band was situated on stage under a staircase, behind a half-wall and next to a sliding platform with a bed on it, they had to run around us as well. Conducting an orchestra while your lead trombonist helps straighten the sheets on the prop bed can be a little distracting. However in this case the process worked and the production was amazing.

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling is getting to know the people in each town. I knew I had made an impact in Sudbury around week number three when I walked into the local “Stuff for a Dollar” store and the sales clerk looked up at me and hollered, “What the heck are you still doing in town?”

Privacy is cherished when you’re on the road with a show, and I had the good fortune to be staying in my own little apartment. The area I was living in could best be described as colourful; in the morning I would walk past people sitting on their front porches clad in nothing but their underwear, enjoying what I came to refer to as their “breakfast beer.”

For the most part my Sudbury neighbours were fine. The exception was the family next door who seemed to look upon me with suspicion, like I was some sort of “revenooer” sent to confiscate their moonshine. They enjoyed late night bonfires and drunkenly screaming off-color jokes while sitting around the abandoned freezer on their front lawn. One evening I was treated to a 1:30 a.m. performance that involved some irate individual shouting death threats at the owner of the house. In great detail. Including names, locations and exactly how he was going to commit this act. I felt certain the old freezer would play a role.

I’m no criminal mastermind but I assume that if you’re enraged enough to do another person bodily harm, screaming out that information for the neighbours to hear is probably a bad plan. I did take comfort in the almost certain knowledge that these particular folks would probably never be part of my theatre-going audience.

Our production was a success, and the show was extended two times. Six weeks later I was finally ready to return to my Toronto home. As the taxi arrived at my house to take me to the airport I waved a final goodbye to my neighbour, who responded with his usual suspicious scowl. I threw my bags in the back, hopped in and off we went.

As we drove away the taxi driver looked in his rear view mirror and asked with surprise, “What’s that guy doing?”

Suppressing visions of our vehicle being pelted with empty beer cans, I turned around. There stood my neighbour on his front lawn, reaching down inside the old battered freezer to remove something. The “something” turned out to be his infant son; apparently he was using the freezer as some sort of makeshift playpen.

I saw many amazing sights while in Sudbury, from the rugged terrain to the mines to the iconic Big Nickel. I feel fairly certain that even though I didn’t have the time to take a photo of that final moment, it will nonetheless join all the other highlights forever etched in my memory.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


     Air travel has become increasingly unpleasant over the past few years.  While we all understand the reality of terrorist threats, it seems to me that the air transport industry has become bogged down in surreal attempts to protect us.  I don’t pretend to understand how their decisions work, but I will dutifully carry five 100ml bottles of liquid on board rather than one 500ml bottle, and refrain from using the washroom for the last hour of flight.  I can only assume that our safety mavens have figured out a way to keep potential terrorists from a) mixing together said liquids, or b) using the washroom for their nefarious activities prior to the last hour.
     I recently found myself boarding a small plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.  My brother Scott and I were on our way to Savannah, Georgia, with a stopover in Atlanta.  We’d already cleared US Customs prior to boarding, so now all we had to do was enjoy the trip.
     As we sat on the tarmac watching the minutes tick by, we began to wonder why we were late for takeoff.  The answer suddenly arrived in the form of blaring sirens, flashing lights and several cars full of severe looking authorities swarming out little plane.  The plane door swung open and numerous determined officials piled aboard.  Their leader opened his mouth and uttered the words every air traveler wants to hear just prior to takeoff.
     “Is there a Mohammad Khan on board?” he inquired.  Silence on the plane.   Before anyone thinks our cause for alarm was simply because the person they sought was named Mohammad Khan, let me say that a quick internet check located 1,063 similarly named individuals in Ontario alone, all of them no doubt fine people. 
     However in my experience sirens, flashing lights and authorities banging your door open are rarely the result of anything good, like your table being ready at a restaurant.
      Eyes began darting suspiciously around the plane.  Everyone knew the drill, and began digging for their passports.  Our Inquisitor repeated his request.
     “Is there a Mohammad Khan on board?”  Still no reply.  My brother and I reached for our passports as well, assuming the entire plane would be searched.  Unfortunately such an extreme line of defense was not deemed necessary, because at this point the authorities simply exited the plane, apparently satisfied that if their prey had indeed been on board, their simplistic attempt at Soviet-era interrogation techniques would certainly have rooted him out.
     A palpable sense of fear settled over our little plane family.  A few minutes passed and the pilot’s voice came over the intercom.
     “Now that we’ve averted that crisis, we’ll be taking off.”
      Averted? Crisis? A perceived threat to our safety was thought to be aboard our plane and they decided to track him down using the honour system?  I’ve experienced more intense I.D. requirements when entering a nightclub.  Our subsequent flight to Atlanta, while comfortable and trouble free, was rather tense.
     Once on the tarmac in Atlanta we were informed that the American authorities would now be paying our merry little band of travelers an on-board visit.  In spite of our Canadian officials’ intense application of safety measures (show of hands, please) the Americans felt they needed to apply even more extreme methods. 
     “Please have your passports ready as you leave the plane.”  Apparently their terrorist identification training is a notch above ours, for unlike their Canadian counterparts they understood the value of actually requesting identification. 
     Although I would have preferred that this action been taken prior to heading 30,000 feet in the air, I showed them my passport and quickly proceeded up the ramp towards the terminal.  A few seconds later, I heard my brother’s voice behind me.
     “They took my passport!” he shouted as an official pushed him up against the wall.  It only took a split second for the magnitude of this situation to fully sink in.  How could I have been so blind?  It was all so clear now.  My brother was Mohammad Khan!  I was astonished; how had he hidden this fact from me all these years?  Did our parents know?
     Suddenly the real issue at stake became apparent.  Guantanamo Bay aside, I was more concerned with missing our connecting flight.  I briefly considered waving goodbye and yelling, “See you in Savannah!” but apparently I was raised better than that.  By parents who neglected to tell me my brother was a terrorist, but nonetheless...
      Strangely, the officials soon identified another suspect, then another; apparently there were numerous dubious characters on board, as within a few minutes more than 20 individuals were lined up against the wall, passports confiscated.  Men, women, children, people of every ethnic persuasion; it was a United Nations of Mohammad Khans. 
     A phone call to Toronto soon revealed the problem.  In spite of intensely rigid border regulations, the US Customs officials at the Toronto Airport hadn’t bothered stamping half the passports that morning.  If your passport isn’t stamped upon inspection, you are assumed to have entered illegally.  Our plane had been a flying galleon of potential security threats, all thanks to border officials who seemed confused as to the proper use of a rubber stamp.
     One by one each person was checked and cleared.  Sadly, no amount of shoe x-rays and full body scans can ever make up for the sheer inept attention to detail shown by the US Customs officials that morning.
     I’ve always thought that the worst part of any trip is the traveling.  I love visiting places, I just don’t enjoy the process of getting there; so kudos to the US Customs officials for providing a thrilling way to make an otherwise boring plane trip memorable. 
     However as each and every passenger on our plane was eventually cleared, one question continued burning in my mind.  Who the heck was Mohammad Khan?