So we came to the night of the show, February 6 at 7:30.
As the whip-cracking Director of the show, Laura McLeod was tough on all of us who were going to appear onstage, insisting on everyone showing up for sound checks at 6:15. This allowed us lots of time to mingle in the Koerner Hall Green Room, where I got to meet Alex Gagliano, from Upper Canada College, the young man who was going to be reciting a Purdy poem from memory, on behalf of Scott Griffin’s poetry-promoting project. The room was loud with poets renewing old acquaintance, and there was an air of pleasure as well as the usual backstage excitement. We were all very glad to be part of this.
In my dual role, performer and front-of-house-greeter, I was able to roam among the audience in the drinks area, where I saw lots of friends, thanking them for coming, and pointing out the amazing silent auction items that Valerie Jacobs and her crew had spent much of the afternoon laying out. Later the Random House blogger for Hazlitt was to report that in the cocktail party crowd somebody pointed me out as “the bearded guy,” kindly describing me as “Al Purdy’s first publisher.” (Wrong! In fact, Sandra Campbell’s forthcoming biography of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, Both Hands, establishes that this grand old man, usually associated with poets like Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott, was actually Al’s first publisher, with a 1945 chapbook!) I even met Josh Knelman, who kindly recalled my days as a soccer coach for youngsters like him. Then I was able to join my family group (including my second cousin, Claire Caldwell, who as a young poet made the ideal guest) and enjoy the first half of the show.
Because I had seen the script, I knew the opening was going to be spectacular. With a black and white photograph of the A-frame filling the screen onstage, the house lights went down and Al Purdy’s voice filled the hall, reading the opening lines of “The Country North of Belleville.” After a few lines, the house lights slowly rose and Gordon Pinsent walked onstage. As Al’s voice faded away, Gordon seamlessly took up the poem with the words:
“Yet this is the country of defeat
Where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
Year after year up the ancient hills . . .”
Gordon finished the poem, to enraptured applause, and introduced the rest of the evening as a “ literary barn-raising.”
And we were off.
Marni Jackson’s brilliant script was based around two principles. Everything should centre around Al and his poetry; and there should be constant variety on the stage. So Gordon Pinsent was followed by Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, who read “At the Quinte Hotel” then sang a song and played guitar.
Steve Heighton turned the event into a fashion show by wearing one of Al’s distinctive shirts (and recommending other items at the Silent Auction) before reading “Necropsy of Love.”
It was time for a Greek Chorus, with Gillian Savigny, Leigh Kotsilides (no typecasting there!), and Moez Surani, led by Robert Priest. They sang and then produced a choral version of “In Search of Owen Roblin.” Then Robert introduced young Alex Gagliano, who recited “Thank God I’m Normal” with its ringing final line, “ Why — why the sonsabitches!”
Michael Enright then brought his CBC gravitas to the proceedings, telling us the story of Al Purdy’s life. Then, in the role of M.C., which he was to adopt increasingly, he introduced more music in the form of author-musician Dave Bidini, of The Rheostatics, here appearing along with Bidiniband and The Billie Hollies.
That rousing musical interlude led to the 35-minute intermission, where two of Patrick White’s friends, reluctant attendees, were exulting that this Al Purdy was clearly “the coolest guy ever!”
Here my account of the evening becomes scattered, because after the intermission I was backstage throughout (except for my moment in the sun, when I got to talk about my role as Al’s publisher, to pay tribute . . . very briefly . . . to George Goodwin and the organising committee — “You’ll find their names in the programme” — before praising Eurithe, and Jean Baird “with us tonight from Vancouver.” Then it was “on with the show,” and an introduction for Ken Babstock).
But from my perch in the Green Room, watching the fuzzy screen, or from the wings, I enjoyed the video produced by Brian D. Johnson, then Phil Hall and Karen Solie doing their duet reading of “Shall We Gather at the River,” George Elliott Clarke, as Toronto’s Poet Laureate, reading “In Cabbagetown,” and then the Skydiggers (Andy Maize, Josh Finlayson and Michael Johnstone), who filed off, brushing shoulders with me as the applause from their music still rang around the hall.
After Ken Babstock, Michael Enright brought Margaret Atwood onstage for a sit-down interview (hey, we haven’t had an interview yet!), which was great fun (as listeners to The Sunday Edition were to learn). It ended with Margaret reading “Wilderness Gothic.” Dennis Lee then talked briefly about Al and read “In My Grandfather’s Country,” which sounded even better from the wings, where the cast was assembling for the Finale, where George Bowering led us in “Say the Names,” with chosen poets hollering out “Lillooet” or “Nahanni” on cue.
For this finale, which turned into a curtain call, Michael Enright and I bracketed the poets ranged along the stage. Beside me was Gordon Pinsent, whom I had telephoned so many months ago to ask if he would perhaps be interested in helping with this event we were planning. To be with him as the waves of applause . . . no, more than that, the waves of affection . . . came washing over us from the audience was unforgettable. Then in an unrehearsed way we waved to the audience and walked off, dazed and delighted.
Later, when I was able to leave all the happy handshaking backstage, the audience was still filing out, and were clearly delighted, saying very kind things.
And, after the nail-biting lead-up, we ended up selling over 700 tickets! In fact, we ran out of programmes, because we had to set the number of the print run a couple of days in advance, when printing 500 seemed sensible. And we made money, and Duncan Patterson’s plans to fix up the A-frame can now go forward.
And, yes, as I had predicted to the Metro Morning audience, it was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime event where others will say . . . “You were there?”