Thursday, September 27, 2012

In the Presence of Greatness: Harry Belafonte

I always believed that if a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- ANY opportunity -- comes your way, you seize the moment and take advantage of it. Pass it up, and it may never come your way again.

In my nearly 50 years on this planet, I have done both seized and passed up those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I've had the chance to see Yoko Ono and George Burns up close in the flesh; I saw a rare stage performance of the Muppets; I bought a book autographed by my all-time favorite comedian Groucho Marx; I managed to be part of a private audience with the Governor-General of Canada -- Her Majesty's representative -- at his Rideau Hall residence; and I was a contestant on "Jeopardy!" On the other hand, I passed up a chance to purchase a first edition (in hardcover, with dust jacket) of Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel "For Whom the Bells Toll" at a second hand bookstore in Montreal nearly 30 years ago for -- get this -- $5! To put it mildly, I'm still kicking myself around the block!


Since I began writing my Grapevine column for the West End Times five years ago, I upheld the spirit of the above-mentioned lesson, and I'm glad I did. I have covered my share of fundraisers, gala events, festivals and even the 2008 Grey Cup when it made its way to Montreal (I even got the chance to see the game from the Big O press box). So imagine my excitement when I attended the press conference for the Montreal International Black Film Festival earlier this month, that I found out that organizers planned to have legendary singer and activist Harry Belafonte personally attend the festival not only to promote "Sing Your Song", a documentary about his storied life and career, but also to accept in person the festival's Humanitarian Award at its opening night.

Believe me, it's not everyday that you get the chance to see a bona fide show business legend live in the flesh, especially one who has made an impact on the music industry and the Civil Rights Movement like Harry Belafonte. And for me, this golden opportunity didn't happen once, but twice!

The first occasion was on the festival’s opening night on September 19. Belafonte, accompanied by his wife Pamela and festival president Fabienne Colas, came to the Imperial Theatre for the screening of the biopic “Winnie” to accept the festival’s Humanitarian Prize for his more than 50 years’ dedication in service to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a score of charities and non-profit community organizations.
When the 85-year-old Belafonte arrived at the Imperial and took his seat in the theatre’s front row, he was immediately surrounded by photographers (myself included) as they wanted to get good close up shots of him, in which he graciously and compliantly posed for. Then it came time for Belafonte to accept his award from Colas and festival spokesperson Sonia Benezra. He humbly accepted the honour, and then shared with the audience of how much Montreal has meant to him, as well as the first time he performed here during the 1940s, in a venue that was actually a burlesque house.
“I accept this award with great satisfaction. It’s an overture of validation of what I have done and it means a lot to me,” he said. “The late singer/activist Paul Robeson once told me that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. And the world is in need of artists for what they can do. I have enjoyed the world of celebrity, because it made me understand the power it has and what good it can do to inspire people.”
The following night at the Hall Building of Concordia University, at a screening of the documentary about his life and career called “Sing Your Song”, it made me fully understand why he was given this award.  Told in Belafonte’s own words (as well as colleagues and contemporaries such as Sidney Poitier and Desmond Tutu, to name a few) as well as plenty of rare film and TV footage, this is an excellent documentary that chronicles an impressive career in entertainment (in which he popularized calypso music in North America with such songs as “Day-O”), as well as using his celebrity status towards the many charitable and humanitarian causes that were close to his heart. 
It’s amazing to see what he has accomplished in this respect. He was one of the organizers of the famed March on Washington in 1963 (best known for Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial); he helped organize a fundraising concert on the final night of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965; he was one of the architects of USA for Africa, the celebrity group that recorded the megahit song “We Are the World” to benefit the victims of the Ethiopian famine in 1985; and although he doesn't perform as much as he used to, he is still involved with several organizations that help at risk teens in Los Angeles towards a better future.
After the screening, Belafonte spent another hour in conversation with Sonia Benezra and answered questions from a very eager and understandably star-struck audience. He patiently answered each question with his trademark soft, husky voice and fired off several humorous replies. One of my favorite replies was “If Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were still alive and things worked out, all of North America would be Canadian!”
He also had this to say about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “I get up every day and thank God for the presence of Mitt Romney, because the Republicans are delightfully burying themselves every day. So I encourage Romney to keep on talking!”
The Belafonte love-in continued after the Q&A wrapped up, as a multitude of those in attendance rushed up to him -- many clutching copies of his memoir "My Song" or original copies of his RCA Victor albums from the 50s and 60s, (including his live at Carnegie Hall record and "Calypso", the LP that earned him a gold record in 1958 for being the first album to sell over a million copies in a single year) -- in order to get a prized autograph from him on their respective collectible. I'll admit, I was also one of those autograph hunters. I had a review copy of "My Song" that I hoped he would inscribe, so that I could add to my growing collection of autographed tomes. Although I came quite close, it was getting quite late and after signing several books and LPs, Belafonte was quickly being ushered out of the auditorium. However, as he was being led out, I found a quick vantage point and snapped a final, up close picture of Harry Belafonte looking cool and confident amongst the swell of fans that surrounded him (pictured below).
Thus ended my encounters with Belafonte. At the very least, it was great to seize that rare opportunity and be within the presence of a legendary entertainer who was also a catalyst for social change, and wisely used his talent and fame to make sure that change happened. In a way, that's probably even more valuable than an autographed book.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Electoral Dysfunction: A must-see documentary for anyone who ever casted a vote

While covering this year's edition of the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), it gives me the chance to catch some interesting and offbeat documentaries from around the world, some of them tackle subject matters that are of interest to me that I wouldn't expect to get the documentary treatment. Then there are those docs that when I first glance at their respective descriptions in the festival catalogue, my immediate reaction is "gotta see this!". “Electoral Dysfunction”  falls into the latter category. 

This is a humorous, informative (and right now very relevant) look at how frustratingly imperfect the electoral system is in the United States. Political humorist (and correspondent for CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” program) Mo Rocca went on a four-year journey to discover how America votes, and the result is “Electoral Dysfunction”. With a style that’s influenced by controversial muck raking filmmaker Michael Moore, this documentary focuses on one of the 13,000 voting districts in the U.S. – in particular Jennings County in Indiana – during the 2008 presidential election from both the Democrat and Republican sides, and all the lengths their respective organizers go through to get people to the polls on election day. As well, it explained how some stringent measures prevent civic-minded citizens from exercising their right to vote, such as the Photo ID Law, which was dubbed as a “modern day poll tax”. It's amazing to discover how many voters in this district (not to mention the 32 other states that have this photo ID law in their books) -- and many of whom were dedicated voters every election day for years -- were turned away at the polls because they didn't possess the required photo ID that is prescribed in the law. Then they are instructed to go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) bureau to get a free photo driver's license (eventhough they never owned a car, let alone sit behind the wheel of one) in order to go back to the polls to cast their vote; however, if they don't have a valid photo ID at the DMV, they can't get that coveted driver's license. Talk about "Catch-22"!

Rocca, along with the film’s writers/producers/directors Mridu Chandra, David Deschamps, Leslie D. Farrell and Bennett Singer (pictured below), were in Montreal to attend the two screenings of the documentary during the festival (the first one, which I attended, was the final film that was shown at the NFB Cinema on St. Denis Street, before it closed down for good the following day thanks to federal government budget cuts) and explained that the film’s impetus was the 2000 presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court and gave Republican candidate George W. Bush the presidency over Democrat Al Gore.

The film has been shown at both the Democrat and Republican conventions (and will air on PBS on October 18), and they hope to have it available for high school and college students in order to open their eyes about the American electoral system and spark some dialogue amongst them about this sacred right to vote that’s not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. And with this year's presidential race between Obama and Romney becoming a tension-filled, tight race, "Electoral Dysfunction" should be required viewing by every eligible (and ineligible) voter in America to why casting that precious vote is important (oh, yes ... and how you can distinguish the difference between "voter" and "elector").
This prompted Mocca to quip during the Q&A session that followed the screening: “Maybe we have too much democracy in America!” 

Monday, September 3, 2012

My Memories of 1411 Fort Street

This past weekend an era in Montreal radio broadcasting ended, as CJAD, Virgin Radio and CHOM FM left 1411 Fort Street, its collective home since 1980. And with that, a new chapter began, as of September 1, CJAD began broadcasting at its new, state-of-the-art home base at 1717 Papineau Street near the Jacques Cartier Bridge; the area also houses a group of Montreal English and French TV and radio stations, such as CTV, RDS, CBC/Radio Canada and CKOI (CHOM and Virgin will be setting up shop by the end of the weekend).

I first set foot at 1411 Fort in September of 1984. At the time, I was a devoted listener of CJAD's "Trivia Show" and they had a contest where listeners would win a one-shot co-hosting gig on the show with host/creator Michael Libling. All you had to do was write to him and say why you would like to be a co-host, and what your area of trivia expertise was. Mine was (and still is) the Marx Brothers. Somehow, Libling was convinced, and I was one of the contest winners. I don't remember much of the show, but one thing that sticks in my mind is that I was completely calm in front of the mic and really enjoyed the experience of doing radio, live in studio.

Fast forward to April of 1985. After winning another prize from "The Trivia Show" (after waiting the required three months between prizes), Libling took the phone during a commercial break and wanted to know if I wanted the gig of "Igor the Screaming Screener" as of the following Sunday. Of course, I took it and for the next three-and-a-half years, I spent most of my Sunday mornings in master control of 1411 Fort screening calls and taking down information of the prize winners. But it wasn't all just answering phones and filling out prize forms (and piping in answers to Mike and Dave Fisher). I got a few fill-in gigs to host the show when Libling was on vacation to get some on-air experience. Then there was the time when Libling cracked up with laughter several times one morning when my friend Barry visited the station before taking off for Israel for the summer ... sporting a new blue hairdo! And then there was the embarrassing appearance on "The Trivia Show" by 15-minute celebrity of the day Mark "Jacko" Jackson, the loud, obnoxious Australian Rules Football star who was best known in North America for his TV commercials plugging Energizer batteries (OYYYYY!!!).

At the same time, I was contributing trivia questions for John Oakley, who was CJAD's popular late night host. I finally got on the air with him in early 1985, doing his "Friday Free-For-All" programs doing nothing but trivia with him and the listeners. We would do them from midnight to 5:30 a.m. and I took away from that experience two things: it was great to work with Oakley, who is a consummate radio pro who was just as well read and articulate as myself; and after doing several midnight to sunrise stints, I certainly appreciated the world of late night radio a whole lot more.

Which leads me to the longest serving gig I had with CJAD at 1411 Fort. In the fall of 1990, I pitched to then-station manager Rob Braide about a radio segment that was quite uncommon at the time: book reviews (normally, a host would interview the author about their book, but would never bother to review it on the air). Two weeks later, Peter Anthony Holder (a producer/announcer for CJAD and FM-96 -- and fellow trivia buff -- whom I first met at John Oakley's Christmas party broadcast in 1984), called me and heard about my book review idea and liked it, and as a result, invited me to make it a regular feature and his recently launched late night show on CJAD called "Holder Overnight". On November 15, 1990, "Book Banter" made its debut on "Holder Overnight", an association that lasted 19 years.

During its first two years, "Book Banter" aired once a week at 1:15 a.m., and we pre-recorded the segment earlier that evening. In 1992, when Peter's show moved to prime time (8-10 p.m.), after a busy night when he was busy scrambling to adapt to the new format, he had no time to record the segment. I suggested I come back later and do it live. And for the rest of the segment's run, it was always done live on the air. There were plenty of books read and reviewed during those 19 years (almost 3,000) and plenty of great (and funny) memories. Doing the show live from a phone booth at B'nai Brith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania (Peter was convinced the phone wires from Starlight were held together with duct tape), from the casino at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, or from third base line box seats at the Rogers Centre during a Blue Jays-Red Sox game (and in the middle of a Jays rally, which had Peter laughing hysterically back home at 1411 Fort ... I was alternating between book reviewing and play-by-play sportscasting) ; losing it while doing the "Kids' Korner" portion after Peter tore apart a book I just reviewed on the history of the TV series "Hee Haw!"; and Peter's "walk out" from the studio as I was about to review Kitty Kelley's latest celebrity bio.

In 1999, another phase of my CJAD involvement at 1411 Fort began with my involvement as one of the on-air regulars on "Freeze Frame", the entertainment-oriented show that aired every Friday night as part of the "Al & Era" show that aired throughout the week, which was hosted by veteran broadcasters Al Gravelle and Eramelinda Boquer. What I liked about doing this show was that everyone involved with "Freeze Frame" were entertainment junkies, which ended up with lively on-air discussions about classic and current TV and movies. I did everything from being a movie and TV expert, to "Survivor" authority, to comedy correspondent. I'll never forget doing a special Saturday night broadcast with Al about "Survivor" in August of 2000 ... while sick as a dog with bronchitis (yet I did a solid two hours on-air like a true showbiz trouper); letting Mark McKinney, of Kids in the Hall fame, do our weekly "Top Ten" lists that were complemented by his snarky comments ("BECKER!!! Who watches BECKER?!?"); and comedienne Lisa Lampanelli making us permanent fans of her when she demolished some arrogant members of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe during a live "Late Nite Laff Zone" broadcast at the Delta Hotel.

Being a "comedy correspondent" for CJAD during the 2000s had its fringe benefits. One of them was during the 2002 and 2003 festivals, in which Just For Laughs hired me to be a special festival correspondent when Ric Peterson hosted the morning show (2002) and the afternoon drive home show (2003). Basically, I was armed with my notepad, flashlight, stopwatch and several Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes to record several of the Club Soda shows (thanks to Club Soda's tech guy Yves Moquin's DAT machine), select some choice lines from the comics who performed that night and do a live 5-minute report on Ric's show the following morning around 7:30 (in studio, I might add). So during those two summers, my daily routine was to catch and record that evening's Club Soda shows, head back to the Delta and appear on "Late Nite Laff Zone" from midnight to 3 a.m., make a beeline to CJAD to edit and compile that night's selected highlights (based on my copious notes), go home to grab a couple of hours of sleep, and then head back to CJAD to do my live report on Ric's show. Exhausting, but a lot of fun (and all of my selections made Ric laugh out loud, so I guess it was mission accomplished).

The last time I appeared on-air at 1411 Fort was last summer. It was a sort-of "Freeze Frame" reunion, when Al, Era and myself did a couple of Saturday afternoon fill-ins and discussed the jazz and comedy festivals, and which shows were highlights and not-to-be-missed. It was just like 2000-2001 all over again, and I couldn't find a better way to make my CJAD swan song.

I always enjoyed coming to do radio at 1411 Fort Street, wander the halls after hours and revel in the laid back camaraderie with the on-air and tech operators, who were and are the backbone of the operation. Although like the previous generation of CJAD personnel who had fond memories of its previous home on Mountain Street, the 27 years I spent as a guest and regular contributor for CJAD at 1411 Fort Street will always give me great memories of how much fun radio broadcasting can be. And I am sure that the next generation of CJAD/Virgin/CHOM personnel will garner their fair share of memorable moments in their new Papineau Street digs.

And most of all, it was the numerous people -- past and present -- whom I encountered and befriended during that time that helped to make it such a joy to go to 1411 Fort, no matter which day or time of day it was.

First, there's the on-air personalities as Michael Libling, John Oakley, Peter Anthony Holder, Al Gravelle, Eramelinda Boquer, the "Freeze Frame Gang" (made up of Oliver Sedra, Jim Pacheco, Jason "Video Boy" Wiley and Wayne Appleby), Jake Lawrence, the late, great Mark Rennie, Abe Hefter, Ric Peterson, Dave Fisher, Chrys Goyens, David Edey, Shuyee Lee, Kathy Coulombe, Richard Deschamps, Jennifer Potvin, Laurie and Olga, Sharon Hyland, Pete Marier (the world's number1 Rodney Dangerfield fan), Too Tall, Billal Butt, Rob Kemp, Derek Lind, Rob Kemp, Dan Delmar and Mark Bergman.

And there's the unsung heroes of 1411 Fort Street, the technical operators who always pushed the right buttons and literally made the shows happened: Keith Tomasek, Peter Wilkinson, Earl Eichenbaum, Mitch Beim, Glen Wildemon, Mark Silverman, Peter Lopata, Leo D'Estrala, Shawn Starr, Anthony DiBiaso, Sheldon Fried, Corinna Vierek, Derek Stanbridge, Esteban Vargas, Matt Stone, Merv Willaims, Toby Goodfellow, Brandon Craddock, Tina Lullham, Larry Martos and John Collette.

Finally, there were the people who ran CJAD, Virgin and CHOM in its different managerial departments on a day-to-day basis: my sister Nancy (who spent five years in the commercial traffic department), Rick Moffat, Lisa Fuoco, Matthew Wood, Joanna Bennett, Pat Burke, Stewart Currie, Andrea Elias, Mickey from the mailroom (who always placed my bulky parcels filled with review copies of the latest book releases in a safe place for me to pick up, for which I am eternally grateful), and last but not least, Rob Braide who took the time to listen to my "Book Banter" pitch back in that fateful tete a tete at 1411 Fort in the fall of 1990.

Good bye, 1411 Fort Street. You will be missed. Hello 1717 Papineau.

Pictured below is a copy of a profile that was written about me in November of 1997. It appeared in the employee newsletter of CAE Inc., the flight simulator company where I was working as a technical editor at the time, and was written by Tech Pubs colleague and friend Craig McPherson (whom I have known since we worked at The Suburban newspaper in the late 80s). The photo of me -- taken by Craig during one of my "Book Banter" broadcasts -- is a rare one of me "in action" at 1411 Fort; the reproduction is not the greatest, but it did complement the profile).