Saturday, December 1, 2012


“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” With those words the late Andy Williams introduced what would become one of the most famous songs of his career, and created a holiday classic into the bargain. Written for his Christmas 1963 television special, it went on to appear on every one of his holiday shows and albums thereafter.

Television was an ideal medium for Christmas entertainment and the 1960’s and 70’s were the heyday of TV holiday specials. Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch all made their TV debuts back then, and they clearly have no intention of leaving us any time soon.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the live variety specials that also used to air every year. No December was complete without a festive visit from Andy Williams, Perry Como and Bing Crosby; add in the occasional Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra show, and you had hours of the most wonderful seasonal entertainment readily available. Crooners all, they each had a style and sensibility that lent itself to wonderful spectacles of music, dance and the occasional weak attempt at comedy.

There was something about those specials that just radiated Christmas. Sure they could be hokey, with lots of twinkling lights, fake snow, happy family dinners and bizarre guest stars – I for one never believed for a second that David Bowie would drop by Bing Crosby’s house to sing a duet. And for sheer holiday hilarity nothing can top the year Dean Martin performed his opening number with opera great Beverly Sills, country star Mel Tillis, pop singer Andy Gibb and CHIPS actor Erik Estrada.

But these shows were enveloped in the warmth and charm of a perfect Christmas, the kind of holiday we all long for. An unrealistic expectation perhaps, but beloved songs, traditional carols and beautiful arrangements all combined to show us a Christmas we could aspire to.

How sad that by the 1980’s these annual shows had fallen into disfavor, with most networks echoing the sentiment that, “Variety is dead.” Ironic, given the fact that these shows achieved a level of viewership that any network executive would sell their soul to accomplish today.

Perhaps television networks no longer see the value in paying star entertainers to perform. Of course the concept of “star” has changed, with precious few of the celebrities appearing on today’s multitude of reality shows truly qualifying for that title.

Or maybe the mixture of abilities these performers shared, singing, dancing, telling jokes, all performed with a knowing wink that tells us we’re all in on the fun, just seems old fashioned.

Still, New York’s Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular sells out months in advance; Andy Williams’ own 2,000-seat Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri continues to pack in audiences 7 shows a week for its Christmas show. Clearly it’s television, not the audience, which deserted seasonal variety shows.

For two years I was fortunate to be part of the holiday specials for my friend David Gale’s popular TV series, “Loving Spoonfuls.” As most TV shows are produced months in advance of airing, we shot these shows in the middle of the summer. The audience might have thought it was it was a cold, wintry day but in reality we were sweating in the 35 degree Celsius July heat.

In some small way these episodes made me feel connected to all the wonderful shows that I watched while growing up. I kept hoping that Bob Hope or Jack Benny would walk through the door and join the fun.

Although Christmas music has pretty much been banished from television, radio stations are still awash in holiday songs each December. Unfortunately many modern Christmas songs seem sadly devoid of much joy. Lyrics about dying parents, broken relationships and holiday traffic jams have taken the place of snowfalls, horse-drawn carriages and candlelight. It’s as if “the most wonderful time of the year” has morphed into the most depressing.

I used to think “The Little Drummer Boy” was a sad Christmas song until I heard “The Christmas Shoes,” a morbid ballad about a little boy’s dying mother. It seems we’re no longer dreaming of a White Christmas; we’re now in a contest to see which holiday sentiment can be the most tragic.

Thankfully we live in a time of easy access to virtually every recording and TV show ever produced via CD and DVD, with many just a click away online. Enjoying the songs and specials of Andy, Perry, Bing and so many others couldn’t be simpler, so they can forever remain a joyful part of a Merry Christmas.

Just as Dickens made us all believe in the redemptive magic of the Christmas spirit, those TV specials gave us the hope that in spite of crowded malls, overcooked turkey and soused relatives, maybe a perfect holiday really was within our grasp. They simply made Christmas merrier.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


    As November arrives so does the annual flood of reprint requests for my father’s poem, JUST A COMMON SOLDIER (A Soldier Died Today). 2012 marks the 25 Anniversary of this poem’s original publication.          

     A. Lawrence Vaincourt was a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran of WW II, who spent his later years writing a popular Quebec-based column. Rushing to meet a deadline for his 1987 Remembrance Day edition, he composed the words that would go on to become his defining work. His poem was published then relegated to his ever-expanding collection of scrapbooks.

     A few years later, Ann Landers (who had contributed a blurb for the back cover of my father’s first book) reprinted a portion of his poem in her syndicated column; that’s when the floodgates opened.  We started receiving requests to reprint from all over the world.  Our website received so many hits that year, it crashed the server. These requests have grown with each passing year and to date the poem has been reprinted in publications throughout Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Singapore.

     For years the poem has been broadcast nationally every Memorial Day on U.S. radio. The American Legion has posted it throughout their many branches, the Australian Legion included it in their video tribute, “Victory in the Pacific,” and it was a central part of the 2009 Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.  In 2008 it was carved into marble for an American Veteran’s Memorial.

     It has appeared in thousands of newspapers, magazines and websites around the world. A composer and writer myself, I used it as a central part of “Born Lucky,” a stage musical I wrote and toured in 2008-09.     

     Most movingly it has served as a eulogy at hundreds of funerals over the years, including my father’s own in 2009.  Although we miss him terribly, what greater gift could he have left his family than the knowledge that his poem, the words of a Canadian veteran, live on and continue to inspire people around the world.

(A Soldier Died Today)
by A. Lawrence Vaincourt

He was getting old and paunchy and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion, telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he had fought in and the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies; they were heroes, every one.

And tho’ sometimes, to his neighbors, his tales became a joke,
All his Legion buddies listened, for they knew whereof he spoke.
But we’ll hear his tales no longer for old Bill has passed away,
And the world’s a little poorer, for a soldier died today.

He will not be mourned by many, just his children and his wife,
For he lived an ordinary and quite uneventful life.
Held a job and raised a family, quietly going his own way,
And the world won’t note his passing, though a soldier died today.

When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,
But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.

Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land,
A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?

A politician’s stipend and the style in which he lives,
Are sometimes disproportionate to the service that he gives.
While the ordinary soldier, who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal and perhaps, a pension small.

It’s so easy to forget them for it was so long ago,
That the old Bills of our Country went to battle, but we know
It was not the politicians, with their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom that our Country now enjoys.

Should you find yourself in danger, with your enemies at hand,
Would you want a politician with his ever-shifting stand?
Or would you prefer a soldier, who has sworn to defend
His home, his kin and Country and would fight until the end?

He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us we may need his like again.
For when countries are in conflict, then we find the soldier’s part
Is to clean up all the troubles that the politicians start.

If we cannot do him honour while he’s here to hear the praise,
Then at least let’s give him homage at the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say,
Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.

©1987 A. Lawrence Vaincourt

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I have come to the conclusion that the world is basically divided into two camps: those who love Disney theme parks and those who hate them and everything they stand for. Ever since I was seven years old and my mother brought home the 45 rpm record of IT’S A SMALL WORLD, I dreamed of visiting this magical place called Disneyland.

I have yet to make it to Anaheim, but have been to Florida’s Disney World on three occasions. On one trip my brother and I stayed an entire week in a hotel within the park, completely immersing ourselves in the experience.

My first trip, however, was a different story. I had just played a New Year’s concert in Miami and had a few days free, so I decided to head north to Orlando. I recall the thrill I felt when I first saw the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and once inside I was determined to completely immerse myself in the glow of this wondrous place.

I felt a little conspicuous, a single man enjoying the Dumbo ride and the Country Bear Jamboree on my own, but I had been anticipating this visit since I was seven and was not going to miss the chance to fully enjoy the Disney experience. After several hours of glory I emerged from Cinderella’s Castle and heard, faintly in the distance, the siren’s song that had first ignited my burning desire to visit this place.

There it was; the “It’s A Small World” ride. Excitedly I joined the line of riders, noting that I was the oldest one there by a long shot, which I imagine was the reason the ride operator seated me by myself in the front row of the boat once we finally boarded.

For those who have never experienced this ride, let me paint a picture. A large boat with several rows, each seating numerous people, floats through various tableaux of what the 1950’s Disney designers assumed to represent the world’s many cultures. Creepy animatronic dolls, all of them frighteningly identical other than their skin colour, move around clumsily while the well-known Sherman Brothers’ song, “It’s A Small World After All” plays endlessly.

Of course this is magical to the average 7 year old, and I revelled in the memory of the hours I had spent playing that old 45. This ride might be old and outdated, but its very simplicity harkened back to a simpler time.

Then unexpectedly our journey came to a grinding halt. Something was clearly wrong with the mechanism that moved the boat, but I assumed it would soon be corrected. I then became acutely aware that I was the sole adult on the ride, sitting alone in the front row with dozens of small children behind me.

I turned around and found several kids already in tears, no doubt terrified that we would be stuck in this terrifying place forever. I attempted to talk to them but, as most kids today have rightly learned, one never talks to strangers - especially creepy guys sitting all by themselves on a children’s ride. I was beginning to feel like a Disney villain, kidnapping frightened children and spiriting them away to my evil island.

Miraculously the sound system had somehow managed to escape any breakdown, since the song continued to play. Incessantly. Relentlessly. The minutes ticked past. 10, 15, 20...all the while a chorus of hysterical children sobbed along with the mocking lyric, “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears…”

How had I never realized how insipid this song was? The United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have both banned the use of loud music in interrogations; the U.S. military even uses the term “music torture.” How had any evil-doer not yet discovered the power of this single recording?

Almost a full half hour into this ordeal, the boat finally jerked back into motion and headed toward the exit doors. As we emerged into the sunlight I dreaded what the mobs of panic-stricken parents were about to see. There I sat, front and centre, the evil Captain Hook with my crew of weeping children, waving feebly as we returned from Neverland.

Shortly thereafter Disney decided to revamp this ride. Perhaps they discovered that not everyone in the world looks the same, or that their song could far more easily be used for evil than good, or maybe they decided to no longer allow solitary adults to take a boatload of kids into a dark building for half an hour.

I’m not sure. All I do know is that, should I ever again visit It’s A Small World, I will be certain to take along two things. Another adult and earplugs.

Goofy and I share a tender moment.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


“Sumer Is Icumen In.” So starts one of the oldest songs in the English language, a medieval round that simply means, Summer Has Arrived. And sorry Christmas, but summer is really the most wonderful time of the year.

I remember the final days of school each June, sitting in classrooms that baked in the heat, counting the minutes until the day was over. Back then the June heat was such that you could barely focus on schoolwork. I can only imagine how today’s kids must suffer now that the sweltering summer temperatures seem to start in May.

A few years back an Ontario PC government floated the idea of year-round schools, never giving any consideration to the fact that most of these buildings have no air conditioning. Thankfully, for this and many other reasons, that idea was a non-starter. I would hate to imagine anyone enduring a childhood bereft of the magic of summer vacation.

Not only was summer the most miraculous of times, it truly seemed endless – at least at the beginning. The 2 months stretching out before us offered a series of endless possibilities. We could sleep in (although what kid would ever do that), spend mornings down by the lake, or wander through the woods at the top of our street – as long as you were careful to avoid the mythical farmer and his rock salt shotgun.

For me the highlight of summer was always the family camping trip. As we were a family of seven, no doubt it was the most affordable kind of vacation we could take. My parents were not prone to leaving the kids behind and going somewhere on their own, most likely because they anticipated the kind of havoc 5 boys could create in their absence.

So we’d pack up the big 8-cylinder Pontiac, hook up our tent trailer and head off on an adventure. We travelled around Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the northern U.S. on those trips. We loved the woods and the mountains, although I recall my mother saying that the only time she was ever warm was the year we went to the beach at Atlantic City.

Campgrounds back then were always a gamble. Without the benefit of the internet one never knew what to expect upon arrival. You might bask in the splendour of the most glorious U.S. National Park or end up at a private place in Cape Breton run by a fellow (and here I speak from experience) who was usually drunk by breakfast. Some locations were idyllic, while others we took to referring to as, “Cow Pasture Camping.”

One Quebec campground had a converted chicken coop for a washroom. Only after our stay did we discover that the provincial government had long since condemned the site and deemed the water there unfit for either drinking or swimming.

We usually split our time between enjoying the outdoors and visiting various attractions, some noticeably better than others. Of course sometimes the cheaper attractions were the most enjoyable. One of my favourites was an absurd place in northern New England called “Mystery Crater.” It claimed to be the landing spot of a mysterious meteor that left behind strange forces that caused all manner of unusual events to occur.

Most of these “mysterious” happenings were obviously accomplished through tricks and optical illusion, plus we never really did see any crater. The final insult came as we were leaving and discovered they’d stuck a bumper sticker on our car, apparently with some sort of non-removable super glue. In spite of many valiant efforts it was still there when my folks sold the car a few years later.

Ontario’s African Lion Safari allows visitors to drive through an actual game reserve full of exotic animals that roam free. This might be a fun experience in today’s vehicles, but back then many cars did not yet have the luxury of air conditioning. I recall feeling like I was going to pass out, while witnessing the sight of baboons snapping off our car’s antenna and displaying their backsides to us through the windshield. To be fair, perhaps the heat stroke has clouded my memory.

The end of each afternoon found us back at camp, preparing dinner then enjoying the evening’s fire. I can’t count how many nights we sat around those campfires, revelling in (or choking on) the fragrant smoke of our crackling fire. I learned the basics of campfire building back then: how to stack the wood, the proper use of kindling, and that no matter where you sit the smoke will always blow in your face.

Then those dark nights sleeping in the tent trailer, hoping you wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night for a trip outside. The strange noises in the night that caused me to tell my mom there was a bear in the tent, which thankfully turned out to be my dad snoring. Waking up to the absolute peace and quiet of the woods – all part of those magical summer trips.

Unfortunately the allure of camping has lessened a bit for me in recent years. In Oregon I found myself wrapping plastic bags around my feet to avoid succumbing to hypothermia in the night; a trip through Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains alternated between freezing temperatures and torrential rain; and did I mention the tornado?

So this summer I’m leaning towards enjoying the outdoors from the relative comfort of a cottage. I know it’s not quite the same experience, but I’m certain it will be preferable when the inevitable tsunami hits.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012


“Philately: the study of stamps, postal history and other related items.”

I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain most people have never given the subject of philately much thought. I have always been aware that it had something to do with stamp collecting but one summer day in 2007 I was destined to discover much, much more.

As a performer I spend quite a bit of time on the road. I’ve always enjoyed greeting audience members after my shows; I run around the building and appear at the exit to shake hands with people as they’re leaving. Of course saying hello to so many people every evening means that eventually many of their faces blur together.

This particular July had taken me, for two and a half weeks, to a beautiful town on the shores of Lake Huron. It was my first Sunday off, following a week of performances where we had shaken lots of hands and exchanged pleasantries with many people.

This afternoon I was walking along the beach by myself, just enjoying the peace and tranquility. I came to a small road that wound its way through a few rows of small cottages, so I decided to wander along and have a look at them.

Suddenly a jovial fellow appeared from the front door of one of the cottages, smiling and waving. He shouted to me, “How great to see you! What are you doing here?”

Based on his immediate familiarity I assumed he had been at my show the previous evening. In fact I was so sure of this that I convinced myself I recognized his face.

“Why don’t you come around back, “ he continued. “My wife and a few friends are there and you can say hello.” 

Secure in the belief that I’d also met his wife at my show, I gladly accepted. His backyard was set up with a BBQ, lots of folding chairs and a cooler of drinks. Clearly they were settling in for a relaxing afternoon. I was more than happy to be a part of the festivities, and immediately went to introduce myself to everyone. Fortunately my host got there ahead of me, and quickly shouted out to everyone there.

“This is Kevin Leblanc. We met at the philately convention in New Jersey about a year ago.”

I froze. I now realized that this fellow had not been at my show. My name is not Kevin Leblanc  and as I was fairly certain I had never been to a philately convention in New Jersey, the obvious fact was that we were two complete strangers. I knew I had a few brief seconds to make a very important decision. 

Should I tell him he’s mistaken and cause the poor fellow embarrassment, or should I simply play along? The answer became clear when he turned to me and said, “Kevin, can I get you a beer?”

It was hot and sunny, and if he wanted Kevin the Philatelist to have a beer and perhaps partake of a few snacks, then it seemed cruel to deny him that pleasure. After all, I’ve played lots of different characters on stage; how much harder could this be?

Within a few minutes “Kevin” was sitting on a lawn chair, happily enjoying a drink and pleasant conversation. The job of being a phony philatelist wasn’t that difficult after all. Until...

“Would you like to see my postcards?” my newfound friend asked.

“Why not?” I thought, feeling more than a little relieved. I had been a bit worried that we were going to spend the afternoon looking through hundreds of stamps. Thankfully his area of interest seemed to be stamps that arrive on interesting cards from exotic locations.

 It was at this point that I discovered what separates the true fan from the mere dilettante. My expectation of a handful of postcards was shattered when he instead produced a dozen scrapbooks, each one jam packed with hundreds of cards, all with their own captivating, extremely lengthy, story.
I wasn’t sure what surprised me the most; the fact that he maintained such a massive collection of postcards, or that he felt the need to bring them to his cottage. Still, as I hadn’t yet finished my drink I felt I owed him my feigned interest, so we proceeded to discuss, in great detail, the various histories of each postcard.

When I say “discuss” of course I mean that he chatted away excitedly while I, with absolutely no knowledge of the subject, soon discovered that a few head nods and the occasional, “Oh yes,” or “Fascinating!” convinced him that we shared the same burning passion.

After what felt like hours, although it was probably only 30 minutes, he asked, “So Kevin, will you be at the next convention in Kingston?” As I had clearly made a real commitment to this charade, of course I agreed.

“Great!” he enthused. I’ll email you tonight and we can arrange a time to meet up.” Not wanting Kevin to overstay his welcome I figured this was my exit cue, so I thanked him for the drink, promised to see him at the next convention, and left.

I laughed to myself about what was eventually going to happen when he contacted the real Kevin and mentioned that they’d shared a drink in his backyard. I really wanted to hear that exchange as Kevin denied being there, followed by utter confusion as both men tried to figure out exactly who the interloper had been.

As I walked back up the hill to the place I was staying, something started bothering me. Was this a pang of conscience at having misled an innocent group of people?

No. I suddenly realized I was still here for another week and a half. How was I going to leave the house each day without running the risk of bumping into a potentially irate philatelist?


Thursday, January 12, 2012


“Like a Rhinestone Cowboy…”

The well-known lyric rang out over the warm late August evening as we all stood, hundreds of us, listening to Glen Campbell perform the kick-off to his Farewell Tour. The 2011 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto was the beginning of his final international tour, one that will see him perform dozens of dates throughout several countries.

Earlier in 2011 Campbell announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Although otherwise in good health, his memory is fading, which is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, including folks who make their living remembering lyrics.

When you watch Glen Campbell pick a guitar you know you’re seeing a master at work. Every note placed exactly right, his hands fly across the fret board at lightning speed with an ease and grace that almost makes the instrument an extension of his body.

50 years in show business and over 70 albums have seen him take 74 trips up the charts, with 27 songs hitting the Top 10. Add in the hundreds of songs on which he performed early in his career as a session musician (everything from “Tequila” to “The Unicorn”) and toss in his time touring as a member of the Beach Boys, and his talent has been a major part of the soundtrack of the past half-century.

I recall watching “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” on television, listening to his countless records, and seeing him in the original film version of “True Grit.” During his concert he joked that it was probably his acting skills that helped win the Best Actor Oscar for John Wayne.

I noticed the other day that Tommy Hunter is also on a Farewell Tour. Canada’s Country Gentleman is taking one last opportunity to tour the country and perform for the thousands of people who love and remember his music.

What a great idea. Farewell Tours offer the chance to share memories one more time with people who love you. It doesn’t necessarily have to suggest that you’re getting ready to leave anytime soon. I mean, how many times did Frank Sinatra retire?

Everyone dreams about leaving behind a legacy, something for which they’ll be remembered long after they’re gone. Artists are in a great position for this sort of thing, as the act of producing a painting, song, poem or novel automatically means you’ve given a small piece of yourself over to immortality. Whether anyone enjoys what you’ve left behind is, of course, another matter altogether.

We have a natural need to feel that we’ve left that footprint, something that shouts to the world, “I was here. I made a difference.” Most of us barrel thorough our lives, never thinking of keeping a record of who we are or what we did. But nothing is more important, or easier, than leaving a legacy.

One example we have in Canada is an amazing effort called The Memory Project ( The goal of this project is to create a record of Canada’s participation in WWII and the Korean War, as seen through the eyes of thousands of veterans. If you are a vet, or know one who hasn’t heard about this endeavor, I urge you to check it out and share your memories.

For the rest of us who didn’t fight Hitler, this website can be an inspiration. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all started writing down our memories, our personal histories, our unique recollections of events we’ve lived and people we’ve known? If writing is too difficult turn on a recorder or video camera and recount your stories in your own words. This way our personal histories won’t be left to others to interpret, because only we can relate our own story first-hand.

The stories don’t have to be amazing; they don’t have to be about curing diseases or ending wars. Just share the simple tales, the funny anecdotes and family histories.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows the feeling of wishing we could have just one more conversation together. Leaving behind our unique lives in our own words is the greatest gift we can offer.

Glen Campbell knows his memory is fading, so he’s making the gargantuan effort of touring one last time, to share his music with his fans. Tommy Hunter has decided it’s time to hang up his guitar but also wants one more opportunity to perform for his audience. Most of us don’t have the knowledge of when we’re going to leave this world, which makes it all the more important to tell our own story while we can.

This could be a good New Year’s resolution, to take the time to write or record the story of your life so far. Think of it as your own Memory Project because, let’s face it, none of us wants to think that we’re taking a Farewell Tour anytime soon.

And take inspiration from the words Tommy Hunter used each week for almost three decades to close his show, “And be the Good Lord willing, we’ll see you again real soon.”