Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Victoria's colourful history of sex for sale

A Victoria police mug shot of a woman arrested for prostitution, circa 1900.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 27, 2010


In April, the Victoria police chief delivered a shocking report on brothels to city council.

Seven had been identified along a short stretch of downtown’s Broad Street. Others could be found on adjacent streets, as well as in Trounce Alley.

The report also identified brothel owners, including the proprietor of a nearby hairdressing salon who had once signed a petition calling for annexation by the United States.

The barber also happened to be an alderman, so the police chief’s report did not surprise him.

Another was owned by a former mayor.

Among the Broad Street brothel owners was Simeon Duck, a prominent manufacturer who properly deserved to be addressed as Honourable for he was serving as the province’s finance minister.

The sex trade flourished in downtown Victoria in April, 1886.

While the Victorian era is recalled in the popular imagination as an age of repression, prostitution was not only widespread but indulged by the burghers of the provincial capital.

You might even call Victoria the city of brothel-y love.

The historian Patrick Dunae has immersed himself in the colourful story of sex for sale in a place whose very name recalls images of high collars and ankle-length skirts.

He recently won a prestigious prize for an academic paper published by the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. Its unsexy title: “Geographies of sexual commerce and the production of prostitutional space: Victoria, British Columbia, 1860-1914.”

By studying census forms, tax assessment rolls, and police charge books, Mr. Dunae has managed to recreate a lively trade that at the time was quietly acknowledged. The occasional police raid and subsequent fines were seen as little more than a minor nuisance in an otherwise profitable enterprise.

“That was the cost of doing business,” he said.

At the time, Broad Street was an important commercial thoroughfare bookended by a swanky hotel at one end and a Methodist church at the other. The four-block-long stretch included the YMCA, the Victoria Stock Exchange, and the editorial headquarters of the rival daily newspapers, the Times and Colonist. Not to mention seven brothels.

Some of these were owned by Margaret Doane, a widow. The best brothels included piano players and Chinese cooks, ever more profit to be made from the sale of food and drink as male customers lingered.

A much less favourable circumstance faced those women unlucky enough to be plying their trade in what were known as “cribs,” one-room shacks.

“I don’t think they enjoyed the same comfort and security as their brothel sorority,” he said.

Newspaper reports of police raids described the brothel women as “inmates,” while they were also described as “sporting women,” or “women of gay character,” or, with a reference to the ancient worship of Aphrodite on Cyprus, “Cyprians.” The male customers were called “frequenters.” A frequenter strolling along Broad Street had many alibis for his presence.

The sex trade was tolerated because outfitters and others feared their business would be lost to Seattle or Vancouver if gold-rush prospectors could not patronize brothels.

Mr. Dunae, a researcher associate at Vancouver Island University and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Victoria, unlocked a secret to the business at the provincial archives some years ago. The chief census officer encouraged a field enumerator to use “dressmaker” as a euphemism for prostitute while conducting the door-to-door survey in 1891.

By cross-referencing the census forms with police charge sheets, he was able to separate the needle-holding dressmakers from the (wink) “dressmakers.” (Among some of the other professions noted by women charged with prostitution — singer, actress, florist, seamstress, and typewriter, as stenographers were once known.)

Exorbitant downtown rents, a commercial move towards tourism, and a change in public attitude — “the moral winds blew more strongly” — made the business less prominent in the years before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Brothels became known as nettles in the city of gardens.

Mr. Dunae’s own fascination with the past may have been initiated during a boyhood in which he played with a box of badges and medals given to his grandmother, a nursing sister, by soldiers recuperating from wounds suffered on the Western Front. He had a summer job as a tour guide at Fort Rodd Hill before gaining a history degree at UVic and a doctorate from the University of Manchester in England.

Even today, downtown Victoria has several sites whose shady past are known by but a few. The parking lot for Capital Iron? It was once the site of brothels and cribs, many destroyed during a major fire in 1907.

A three-story red-brick building occupies much of the 1300-block of Broad Street. A chiseled inscription high over the main entrance reads: “Duck’s Building, A.D. 1892.” The finance minister had replaced a wood building housing his brothel with this still handsome structure, home over the years to a succession of brothels.

The professor has looked through many contemporary mug shots. He finds it striking the women are carefully dressed and made up. They do not look in the least embarrassed, or remorseful, a striking difference from male mug shots of the time, in which men appear sullen, their clothing askew.

These photographs were distributed among police departments, ostensibly to aid sharp-eyed detectives in spotting women of ill-repute as they alighted from steamers. Instead, one suspects, they were held as collector items, forbidden icons of desire.

Professor Patrick Dunae stands on Broad Street in Victoria, across from the handsome Duck's Building (left), built by a former provincial finance minister in 1892. It long housed a brothel. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Accident brings friendship to a tragic end

Ivan Polivka (right) and Jo-Ann Fuller were killed when their ambulance went over a cliff into Kennedy Lake on Vancouver Island.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2010


Garth Cameron remembers “a big punchy day” of stiff winds and crashing waves on Chesterman Beach near Tofino 10 years ago.

He splashed out on his surf board.

In the churning water, he got knocked into the air, landing awkwardly atop the board, breaking his left leg in two places.

Another large wave began rolling in. He clambered onto his board, riding into the sandy shore on his belly.

An ambulance drove him the 200 kilometres to hospital in Nanaimo. Filled with the painkiller Demerol, he drifted in and out of alertness. An attendant talked to him during a drive along Highway 4 lasting more than two hours, cracking jokes and making light banter. In that time, the beginnings of a hearty camaraderie formed between Mr. Cameron and Ivan Polivka.

A week ago they came together at the scene of another accident — one that brought their friendship to a tragic conclusion.

The men liked to fish. Mr. Cameron, now 46 and the building inspector in nearby Ucluelet, used to dig up worms for bait from the compost heap maintained by Mr. Polivka, 65. The older man would be repaid with trout.

Mr. Polivka, a recent widower, placed for sale the beachfront home he built in the 1960s. He planned to retire on an isolated acreage he owned on Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse in the Yukon, a fly-fishing paradise.

The plan was for Mr. Cameron to drive his friend north to the territory, staying for a few days to enjoy the abundance provided by the Yukon River.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Cameron, a senior search-and-rescue volunteer, was working on his diesel truck when he got an emergency page. A vehicle had crashed down a cliff along a treacherous stretch of Highway 4.

While driving to the scene, he was told the missing vehicle was an ambulance from Tofino.

He knew all the paramedics. These were going to be friends in distress.

Fifteen minutes later, he was told who was in the ambulance — Mr. Polivka and Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, whom he met years ago when she taught a first-aid course. She, too, liked to fish, though had a reputation for hard luck on the water, snagging her line on seaweed. They teasingly called her the Kelp Queen.

He knew them also as able professionals.

“They brought people back from the brink of death more than once,” he said.

At the crash scene, a debris field led to a steep drop. The ambulance was nowhere to be seen, meaning it was submerged in the icy waters of Kennedy Lake.

Mr. Cameron approached Francis Bruhwiler, a BC Parks ranger, one of the famed Tofino surfing clan.

“I cannot run this show,” Mr. Cameron told him. “I’m too much emotionally connected to the people in that ambulance.”

He had one other request.

“You have to look after me,” he added.

Mr. Cameron rappelled the cliff, searching for bodies, hoping one or both had been ejected from the vehicle during its terrifying descent in the predawn darkness. He found nothing.

After RCMP divers reported discovering the bodies of his friends in the water, Mr. Cameron went home. He figured there was nothing left for him to do.

He mourned the loss of two friends.

He also had to acknowledge it was not the worst case he had ever faced.

Two years ago, Mr. Cameron headed the search for William Pilkenton, a curly-haired, seven-year-old boy from Washington State out for a walk along the shore with his father. The lad simply disappeared. For days, Mr. Cameron organized a small army of volunteers.

“I looked for William as if he was one of my own,” said the father of four. “The only thing I didn’t do was I didn’t drain the ocean.”

In the end, his bereft parents had to be told no trace could be found. It is assumed the boy fell, striking his head, before being swept out with the tide.

“That poor little guy,” he said.

On the terrible Tuesday when Tofino lost two fine paramedics, Mr. Cameron realized there was a last favour he could do for a lost friend.

He went to Mr. Polivka’s waterfront home, climbing front steps too steep to make code. “Ivan, you’ve got to fix these stairs,” he used to tell his friend. “This house is haywire.”

He fed the cats at a home offering spectacular views of the waters on which he broke his leg a decade ago.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hollywood Theatre a Kitsilano landmark for 75 years

The Hollywood Theatre in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood has been a beacon for 75 years.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 21, 2010


The red neon cuts through even the gloomiest Vancouver evening, promising a world of fantasy.

The Hollywood Theatre stands as a beacon of entertainment at 3123 West Broadway, a Kitsilano landmark whose name burns overhead.

Above the entrance, a smaller neon sign in cursive letters promises, “Pick o’ the Best Plays.”

A ticket booth of black and gold tile juts from the facade. Inside the glass, the original Automaticket dispenser still works, though it is in disuse. On some weekends, the booth is staffed by Alice Fairleigh, the widow of the original manager.

The Hollywood opened its doors 75 years ago this month. In all that time, through Depression and world war, the advent of television and the introduction of the videocassette, the rise of the video game and a future of live streaming, it has continued to show films on a large screen, a 19th-century innovation seeking an audience in the 21st.

It is believed to be the oldest family-owned theatre in the land.

To buy a ticket is to vote in favour of the simple pleasures of the past. Inside, a deco sign reading “Loge” indicates a stairwell to the balcony. The 651 red plush seats have wooden armrests, the end seats on each aisle sporting grooved modernist patterns.

Theatre manager Vince Fairleigh 
To take a seat at the movie house is to visit the Fairleigh family living room, to indulge their passion (and their livelihood), now shared by a fourth generation.

If the fixings seem dated, it is a sign of the hard-scrabble life of the independent theatre owner.

“It could use a little TLC,” acknowledges Vince Fairleigh, who has been the theatre’s manager for 18 of his 42 years.

He has been busy in recent days preparing for a three-day celebration this weekend to mark the anniversary. Klieg lights will be set up on the street to illuminate the night sky, while volunteer actors dressed in costumes featuring pillbox hats like old-time ushers will serve wine and canapes. A candy girl will circulate.

The Friday to Sunday double bill features “The American” (a thriller starring George Clooney) and “Casablanca,” the romantic drama released seven years after the Hollywood opened its doors.

On Oct. 24, 1935, which was Thanksgiving Day, moviegoers flocked to Vancouver’s newest cinema to watch a program featuring shorts and two features — “Lightning Strikes Twice,” a comedy starring Ben Lyon and Thelma Todd, and “Life Begins at Forty,” featuring the humourist Will Rogers as an easygoing newspaper publisher battling heartless bankers, undoubtedly a popular storyline for Depression audiences. (The beloved Rogers had died in a plane wreck in Alaska two months earlier.)

Tickets cost 10 cents with another nickel charged to sit in the balcony.

Competition for entertainment dimes was fierce in Vancouver in the 1930s, as some 26 cinemas battled for customers. The downtown Orpheum promised “more stars than the milky way,” while the Strand combined a movie (“The Girl Friend” starring Ann Southern as “huggable, kissable Ann in a giddy gaiety city”) with a live stage show such as “Brown Skin Models,” promising “41 scintillating sepias hot off Harlem!”

Earlier, the city’s neon skyways gave West Hastings a reputation as the Great White Way. By the 1930s, Granville Street was known as theatre row. The new Hollywood was one of eight neighbourhood cinemas. In those days, Kitsilano was thought to be suburban.

The Hollywood was opened by Reginald and Margaret Fairleigh on the day their son David turned 19. Reginald was a pioneer in the local industry, having opened a movie house in 1914 during the era of silents. The Hollywood, with its modern look of clean concrete lines, was built on a vacant lot near the intersection with Balaclava. The Walburn Neon Co. company proclaimed the Hollywood’s red sign with blue trim to be the first in the city to be permanently attached to a building, eliminating unsightly wires and cables.

In time, teenaged David Fairleigh, the original manager, became known as Mr. Hollywood, a popular figure who was known to dress in top hat and tails to welcome patrons to his bijou.

When he died in 1998, aged 82, one newspaper obituary noted the idiosyncratic double bills he booked. He inexplicably paired “Great Expectations” with “The Big Lebowski,” while brilliantly matching “Yellow Submarine” with “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” (In the latter, a Soviet sub runs aground.) Apparently, he once also misspelled “Beattles” on the marquee.

His namesake son took over and continues booking intriguing double bills to this day. The top ticket costs just $8 (and $6 on Mondays).

Vince Fairleigh, a son of David II, a grandson of David I, and a great grandson of Reginald, wooed his future wife, Heidi MacKenzie, while she worked the candy counter. Vince is also a carver of note, having twice been an artist in residence at the Museum of Anthropology. (His mother, the former Thelma Cornell, is a Nisga’a.)

This weekend’s festivities will begin with a traditional welcome from the chief of the Squamish Nation.

Mr. Fairleigh expects to instruct the servers to cut off appetizers before the guests get stuffed.

Otherwise, he explained, “we’ll lose too much in popcorn sales.”

Double bills for a dime
The Hollywood Theatre opened for business on Thanksgiving Day, a Thursday, in 1935. On the first bill: “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Life Begins at Forty,” starring Will Rogers, the humourist who had recently been killed in a plane wreck. The bill for the Friday and Saturday shows: “I’ll Fix It” and “George White Scandals.” Tickets were 10 cents and 15 cents for a seat in the balcony. A Saturday children’s matinee cost just 5 cents.

The opening of Vancouver’s “newest suburban theatre,” as it was styled, gained a favourable reception by Vancouver newspapers. “Overflow Crowd at Hollywood Theatre Opening Thursday,” read a headline in the Daily Province. The News-Herald gushed about the chairs installed in the theatre. “They would grace an expensive home so stylish, sturdy and comfortable are they of steel construction, the frame is covered with a rich, dark upholstery. Watching a film from one is as comfortable as sitting at home listening to the radio.”

Mr. Chips meets To Sir With Love
The Hollywood Theatre has long been a popular retreat for students and faculty from the University of British Columbia. It was the subject of at least one masters thesis. The title: “Understanding the Significance of a Neighbourhood Movie Theatre as a Cultural Resource.”

Bijoux and burgers
The Hollywood had stiff competition when it opened its doors in the Depression year of 1935. Among the other cinemas eager for patrons: The Capitol, the Orpheum, the Strand, the Dominion, the Lyric, the Rex, the Globe, the Stanley, the Colonial, the New Broadway, the Maple Leaf, the Alma, the Grandview, the Kerrisdale, the Kitsilano, the regent, the Victoria, the Windsor, the Olympia, the Fraser, the State, the Marpole, the Kingsway, and the Music Box.

A favourite after-show dining spot was The Aristocratic Hamburgers with restaurants at Kingsway at Fraser and 10th at Alma. “Kleen, kozy, kwick,” it promised.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mother's search for missing daughter comes to an end

Frances Ann Young went for a walk on Easter weekend 14 years ago and never returned.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 18, 2010


A paid obituary typically includes a list of survivors, as well as predeceased family members. How, then, do you cite a missing daughter?

Michael Young, a marine pilot, recently wrote a farewell notice for his mother, Patricia Cowan, who died in Victoria earlier this month after suffering a stroke. “Pat can finally be at peace,” he wrote, “from her relentless search for her eldest daughter Frances Young [who] went missing in the spring of 1996.”

A world of heartache is captured in that simple sentence.

On Easter weekend 14 years ago, at about 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Fran Young donned a long leather coat over a green sweater her magnificent auburn curls cascading past her shoulders. Her boyfriend later said she told him she was going for a walk.

The 36-year-old pastry chef never returned.

On Monday morning, her boyfriend informed the family. Pat Cowan immediately reported her missing to Vancouver police. Their response was less than what she hoped. The police noted Ms. Young’s history of depression and heroin use. She would turn up.

Pat Cowan 
A mother, brother and two sisters tried to generate publicity to help them in their search. They issued a news release. Mr. Young remembers hearing a brief mention on a Vancouver radio station, but, later that day, Premier Glen Clark called an election and the travails of a desperate family were overwhelmed by more urgent matters.

The family posted flyers on telephone polls in the Kitsilano neighbourhood she had called home for a decade, as well as in the downtown eastside.

They learned she was not the first woman to go missing, nor the last. The seeming indifference of the police in her whereabouts at the time was also, tragically, not unique.

A determined mother never eased her search for a daughter who vanished. She contacted politicians, gathered signatures on petitions, networked on social media sites. She launched a website, as well as a Facebook page, both called “Find Fran.”

On the latter, she posted a picture of a small wooden box inside which was a slip of paper like that found in a fortune cookie. “Every night at bedtime, the dream box is held and I think about my dream of finding my daughter,” she wrote. “Legend has it, if done faithfully, my dream will come true.” The slip contained just two words: “Fran found.”

She died never having abandoned hope her daughter might one day come home. It was a faith all the more admirable for her having endured tragedy at a very early age.

As a girl, Pat Cowan lived in Saanichton on Vancouver Island with her mother and three sisters. Her father, Major George Paxton Cowan, a prominent sportsman, was serving overseas as a battery commander of a Royal Canadian Artillery field unit. He had been mentioned in despatches. In 1944, he was killed in action while fighting to breach the Hitler Line near Monte Cassino in Italy. Pat was aged six when she lost her father.

She did well in school, becoming a stenographer and, later, a licensed practical nurse. A first marriage, which ended in divorce, produced four children — Michael, Peter, Lynda, and Frances Ann.

She was indefatigable in the hunt for her daughter. “It was 24/7 with her,” her own sister said. Much of a significant inheritance was spent on private investigators — some genuine, some fraudulent — in her desire for clues.

“My mother spent a lot of time, money and effort to find her,” Mr. Young said.

“She did what she could.”

Eight years ago, Robert (Willie) Pickton was told by police that he was under investigation in the disappearance of dozens on missing women. Fran was included on the list. He was convicted of killing six women and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. He was not charged in Ms. Young’s disappearance.

Fran Young makes a cameo appearance in the book “On the Farm” (Knopf Canada), the journalist Stevie Cameron’s harrowing account of the case of Vancouver’s missing women.

“Fran loved doing embroidery, she could paint and draw beautifully, she enjoyed her cats and dogs, and she got a kick out of life,” Ms. Cameron writes. “Best of all, her family was behind her. She had a big, happy smile that disarmed everyone who met her.”

Her brother told me: “I think she just got into the wrong crowd. The party never stopped.”

He added: “Somebody somewhere must know something.”

He buried his mother’s ashes this weekend next to his grandmother’s grave in the cemetery at Savona, overlooking the western end of picturesque Kamloops Lake.

“A beautiful spot,” he said.

Pat Cowan will be remembered for her fierce advocacy on behalf of a daughter whose own sad fate remains a mystery.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The enigma of Lillian Alling, the woman who walked across North America

Lillian Alling and her dog photographed by a telegraph operator in British Columbia in 1928.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 13, 2010


Here is what we know about Lillian Alling — not much.

She arrived in New York in 1925. Give or take a year.

She was Russian. Or Polish. Or Estonian. Or perhaps some other nationality.

She worked at low-paying jobs, likely as a domestic cook. Or as a maid.

She frequented the public library, where her lack of English did not hinder cartographic studies.

She mapped out a route across North America. And then, in the winter of 1926, or the spring of 1927, she began an epic journey — on foot.

Along the way, she was asked her destination by those whose path she crossed. Her invariable answer: “I go to Siberia.”

She is thought to have trekked through Chicago and Minneapolis before turning north to Winnipeg and west again through Edmonton. Her slow, determined march eventually took her over the mountains into British Columbia.

It was here that she ran afoul of the law, spending time in jail, before resuming her quest.

Her story — a mystery with a beginning but no certain end — has inspired novels, films, and an opera, which is to debut in Vancouver later this week.

It is as if learning about her eccentricity causes madness

“Everyone who hears about Lillian gets obsessed with her,” said Susan Smith-Josephy, who has spent the past two years researching the story.

The Quesnel author is completing “Lillian Alling: Walking Home,” a non-fiction account to be published by Caitlin Press of Halfmoon Bay.

A far more difficult task confronts those who wish to separate fact from fiction and truth from myth.

What intrigued her about Alling?

“It’s a long way to walk,” she said. “I wanted to see where she goes, and did she get there?”

Her research has given her some insight into a character who fascinates us more today than she did her contemporaries.

“I think she was eccentric and I think she didn’t handle crowds very well. Being in New York was the wrong place for her. When she’s around a lot of people, she tends not to be terribly reasonable. Crabby. Swearing. Snapping at people.”

Ms. Smith-Josephy, who has a history degree from Simon Fraser University, worked as a reporter until recently for the Cariboo Advisor newspaper which has since closed. A few years ago, she curated an exhibit for the Quesnel and District Museum’s “River of Memory” project. She traced the family tree of Jean-Baptiste Boucher, a Metis interpreter and guide who arrived in what was known as New Caledonia in 1806. Known as Waccan, perhaps a derivative of “watchman,” he had a reputation as a fair policeman and a fierce trader. He died of measles in 1849 and was buried in an unmarked grave. His name, including such spellings as Bouche, Bouchie, or Buschie, can be found gracing place names through the Quesnel area. As well, hundreds of his descendants still live in the Cariboo.

This earlier work gave her valuable experience in tracking down archival information, as the story of Lillian Alling has frustrated others.

In 1927, Alling reached Hazelton, where she turned north to follow the Yukon Telegraph Trail. She collapsed in exhaustion at an isolated cabin on the trail. An alarmed telegraph operator wired the police, who arrested her for carrying a concealed weapon, either a handgun, or a metal bar she used for protection. They feared she would die if she continued on foot in winter. A justice of the peace sentenced her to a few months in jail and she was sent south to do her time at the Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby.

George Wyman, a constable with the B.C. Provincial Police, said, “She was the most determined person I ever met.”

The next spring, she resumed her journey, tramping northward.

The historic evidence shows she made it to the Yukon, where she sailed a boat solo along the Yukon River. She is next heard from in Alaska, where she could have hired a boat to take her the short, but sometimes treacherous, journey across the Bering Strait.
But then what happened?

“She could have froze to death,” Ms. Smith-Josephy said.

“She could have kept walking.

“We don’t know.”

The author will make a journey of her own this week from the Cariboo to Vancouver, where she has prime seats for the opening night of the Vancouver Opera’s “Lillian Alling.” She wants to see how others interpret a story of compelling ambiguity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mike Shaw, professional wrestler (1957-2010)

Mike Shaw wrestled as the hated Makhan Singh (below, centre) and the grotesque Bastion Booger.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 12, 2010

The family’s paid notice announced the death of Michael P. Shaw, aged 53, a family man who worked the pits for his truck-racing son and encouraged his daughter to become a nurse.

The ordinariness of his midlife was all the more surprising given his youthful career as a professional wrestler, during which he portrayed deranged and dangerous villains.

His gimmicks were many. He portrayed Makhan Singh, a turbaned bad guy; Man Mountain Mike, a hillbilly; Norman the Lunatic, an asylum escapee; the Mad Monk and Friar Ferguson, unsympathetic holy men; and, infamously, Bastion Booger, a grotesque character with a name to match.

As the latter, he wore skimpy, stained tights, the grease spots said to be remnants of spilt food. The costume barely contained his reported 401-pound (181.9 kilogram) mass, ample bosoms hanging over straps crossing his chest.

With a shaved head, a fuzzy goatee, and eyebrows shaved to half their normal length, he presented a fearsome image. He was said to stink “like old stale chili” in the memorable description of one television announcer.

Bastion Booger also possessed a lump between his shoulder blades. During one match, the female wrestler Luna Vachon rubbed the protuberance, an affectionate gesture that caused the fleshy monster to become smitten. Alas, Ms. Vachon had professional and romantic ties to Bam Bam Bigelow, so Bastion Booger’s unsubtle advances were parried. The rejection fueled his ill temper.

(Ms. Vachon, who possessed one of the most impressive mullets seen outside a hockey rink, died on Aug. 27 in Florida. She was 48. Born in Georgia, she was raised in Quebec after her mother married the wrestler Paul Vachon, known as the Butcher.)

Fans remember such capers as Booger stealing an ice cream from a spectator at ringside to rub the frozen dairy treat into the face of his opponent.

His trademark move was called A Trip to the Batcave, a humiliating attack in which he dropped to both knees over a supine victim’s face. The hold was not unique to the pro rassling repertoire, where it is described as a Crotch Squash, or a Sitdown Splash, or, more descriptively, a Stinkface. For Booger’s hapless opponents, the ensuing olfactory unpleasantness was likely a secondary concern to the real danger of suffocation.

Though he often portrayed bad guys, known as heels, in the ring, the wrestler never felt comfortable with his best-known gimmick.

“I think the Booger character would have worked if I got over as a heel, but my heart wasn’t into it,” he once told wrestling chronicler Scott Teal. “I didn’t like the character. I didn’t like the outfit.”

Like many pro wrestlers, his career began in sporting arenas with less choreography.

He was born on May 9, 1957, to Josephine (nee Robinson) and Edward Shaw at Marquette, Mich. His father worked as a labourer for a lumber company. Mike was raised in Skandia in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he was a star athlete for the Modeltowners of Gwinn High School. He earned varsity letters in football, track and field as a shot putter, and wrestling. He won a regional heavyweight title as a senior. On graduation in 1975, he was hired as the school’s wrestling coach.

In summer, he was a slugger for the Milwaukee Schlitz, a professional slo-pitch softball team playing on a circuit in the American Midwest. The uncertainty of employment in a sport yet to find its niche led to a decision while at spring training in Florida to abandon softball. Instead, he enrolled at a wrestling academy in Massachusetts headed by the famed Killer Kowalski (obituary, Nov. 4, 2008), a Canadian-born heel whose professed vegetarianism did not prevent some fans from believing he had once bitten off Yukon Eric’s ear.

With a brawny 275-pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame, Mr. Shaw wound up being promoted on the All-Star Wrestling circuit out of Vancouver. The newcomer fought as Klondike Mike, a bearded Yukon prospector.

It was while fighting as Man Mountain Mike on the Grand Prix circuit in the Maritimes that he briefly left the wrestling ring to present a wedding ring to Kelly Crosby in a ceremony at Guysborough, N.S., on May 2, 1987.

After joining the Stampede Wrestling stable in Calgary, Mr. Shaw joined forces with the villainous Great Gama Singh with whom he battled as a team known as Karachi Vice. The despicable, rule-flouting duo were jeered in public even away from the ring, and were so despised, the Calgary Sun once noted, that they generated vile chants from enraged spectators. Mr. Shaw wore a turban and billed himself as Makhan Singh, his pale complexion and American birth certificate no distraction for those eager to vilify Indo-Canadian scofflaws.

As a solo fighter, his chief rival was up-and-coming Owen Hart with whom he swapped the North American heavyweight championship belt in a series of much-appreciated bouts. (During one match, Mr. Hart bushwhacked Singh by beating him over the head with the heavy, bejeweled belt.) During this period, Mr. Shaw developed great skill at ballyhoo, whipping crowds into a frenzy with his patter on the microphone.

Even on the street, he was a target, as open cans of pop were hurled at him and his wife. The intense animosity his character generated only eased after he took part in such community events as flipping flapjacks during the Calgary Stampede.

“He walked a fine line between love and hate,” Kelly Shaw said recently.

A move stateside led to the adoption of a new gimmick — Norman the Lunatic, a wild-haired asylum escapee who wore an institutional smock with the number 502 stenciled on the chest. Originally a heel, Norman became a babyface as fans showed sympathy for a character taunted even by his own manager, who waved an oversized key as a threat Norman might be again incarcerated if he did not perform well.

Sympathetic fans showered Norman with stuffed teddy bears, which he donated to local children’s hospitals.

The World Wrestling Federation offered him a tryout, saddling him with unsuccessful religious gimmicks before conjuring Bastion Booger, who was supposed to be a sewer-dwelling creature but found a following as a simple slob.

In a career that saw him fight in all 10 provinces, Mr. Shaw also performed in Mexico as Aaron Grundy and in South Africa as Big Ben Sharpe.

It was widely thought that Mr. Shaw suffered from never having a character to match his ability in the ring. Pro Wrestling Digest summed up his career as being one when “bad gimmicks happen to good wrestlers.”

Mr. Shaw operated a wrestling school, did promotional work for a casino, and, most recently, supervised security of Michigan mines and ports for the General Securities Corporation.

Michael Paul Shaw died of a pulmonary embolism at his home on Sept. 11. He leaves Kelly (nee Crosby), his wife of 23 years; a son; a daughter; a brother; his mother; and, a grandmother.

Owen Hart beats Makhan Singh in a classic clip from Stampede Wrestling.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Furniture pitchman fills the table with turkey

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 11, 2010


Gordy Dodd, the king of the furniture pitchmen, will be dishing up a feast on Tuesday, a day when others tuck into leftovers.

On the menu: “Turkey, stuffing, potato and gravy. Some carrots and some vegetables. Cold drink. Coke or 7-Up. Pumpkin pie after that. Coffee and tea, too.”

On the guest list: About 1,000 hungry people, none of whom are likely anytime soon to be customers of his eponymous store.

Mr. Dodd, 65, is playing host to his 12th annual complimentary Thanksgiving dinner, a red-letter date for the city’s poor. At the inaugural sitting, he served 200. Tomorrow [Tuesday], he’s prepared for 1,000.

He has built a family fortune on the store’s slogan, “We won’t be undersold.”
Gordy Dodd won't be undersold.

He promises his guests won’t be underfed.

Dodd has a goofy smile, a broad nose, and crinkly eyes, his friendly visage topped by a pair of eyebrows like inverted chevrons. It is easily the best known face in the city.

He can be seen in print and bus advertisements, but most memorably in a series of wacky television commercials.

He opened the doors to his store 33 years ago this month. For 25 of those years, customers have been lured in by spots featuring cheesy acting, inexcusable puns, and a jingle incorporating the store’s name. The owner, as wooden as his furniture, stars in roles borrowed from popular culture.

He wields a sword as El Gordo, a Zorro figure in cape and mask “restoring order and justice to furniture buyers everywhere.” He dons a ridiculous toupee in a spoof of The Apprentice (“Dodd’s Furniture will trump all others”). He swings on a vine as Tarzan (‘you’ll go ape over our contemporary selections”). He sports a pith helmet as an adventure hero in Hindiana Dodd and the Temple of Savings (“Let me whip up some savings”).

Perhaps the silliest of the bunch is one in which he turns green and angry like the Incredible Hulk. Instead, he’s “the outrageous, overstocked Bulk” with — you guessed it — low prices because everything must go.

Others include a Superman parody and a Bollywood number, an homage to the beloved films of a youth spent in his native India.

Mr. Dodd was born to a Sikh family in Jalwerha, a village near Phagwara in the heart of the Punjab, at a time of slaughter and bloodshed, as the region was partitioned at the end of British colonial rile. The boy was aged two when India’s independence was declared in 1947.

As a young man, Mr. Dodd, the son of an educated man who became a high school principal, farmed fertile soil watered by runoff from the Himalayas. To this day, he owns a modest acreage on which is grown rice, corn, carrots, wheat, sunflowers, sugar cane, and mustard seed.

He came to British Columbia in 1968, working in Terrace and Prince Rupert for five years before returning to his homeland, where he married Ravinder, a teacher. He tried farming for four years before bringing his family, including his parents, to Victoria. His mother still lives with them, aged 94.

Mr. Dodd opened a modest 2,500 sq. ft. (232.2 square metres) furniture store in 1977. His showrooms now boast 35,000 sq. ft. (3,251.6 square metres) of display space. His son, named Love, handles the day-to-day operations. Mr. Dodd finds it amusing when women call the store looking for Love.

Mr. Dodd has helped ship school supplies to Africa and relief aid to flooded Pakistan. Earlier this year, he spent 12 cold hours suspended by a crane 15 metres above the entrance to his store to raise awareness about earthquake victims in Haiti. The stunt raised $35,000.

On Tuesday, he will supervise volunteers at the dinner, also lending a hand in serving food and clearing the tables.

To hear Mr. Dodd tell it, in an accent still heavy with his homeland’s rhythms, his generosity is not so much selfless as selfish.

“”We get internal happiness,” he said. “I belong to (the) Sikh religion. It is in my blood. Sharing and giving to the needy people, or the poor people, gives you satisfaction. The more we give to the poor people the more God will give to us.”

It has been a busy week, as dinner plans were finalized and he taped yet another commercial. This one has a Star Trek theme about which he is reluctant to reveal details. He portrays Captain Kirk, boldly going where acting has never gone before.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The case of the misplaced service medal

Constable Jonathan Sheldan of the Victoria (B.C.) police department tracked down Rob Squires, a retired senior constable of the Victoria (Australia) Police, to return a 10-year service medal. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 7, 2010


A blue, hand-sized presentation case found its way into a Canada Post sorting facility.

It had no packaging. Couldn’t be delivered.

A worker flipped opened the lid. Inside, nestled in felt, was a silver medal.

The obverse bore a legend in embossed lettering: DILIGENT AND ETHICAL SERVICE.

It also read: VICTORIA POLICE.

So, the post office sent the case to the Victoria Police Department, where it wound up on the desk of Constable Jonathan Sheldan.

The 18-year veteran is a forensics expert. At a crime scene, he is a “front-line examiner” whose responsibility it is to gather evidence, whether fingerprints, or DNA samples, or digital photography of the still or video variety.

It is not as glamorous a specialty as portrayed on the CSI television series. A crime is not solved in 44 minutes (or an hour, counting commercials).

A history buff, Mr. Sheldan has become the police department’s go-to guy for questions about the past. He has solved more than one historical mystery.

Sometimes, you have to do detective work even when there’s been no crime.

Many promising clues were on hand in the Case of the Misplaced Medal Case.

Mr. Sheldan examined the case. It included the medal, a miniature medal, and a ribbon to be worn on non-ceremonial occasions.

Mr. Sheldan, not unfamiliar with police honours, immediately recognized the item as a service medal.

He held the medal in his hand. He noted the royal crown. He also noted five stars.

He knew this medal was not from Victoria, British Columbia.

Where from then?

Crown? A member of the Commonwealth.

The five stars? The constellation of the Southern Cross, which appears on the national flag of Australia.

The medal was from the state of Victoria.

On the reverse was a name: ROBERT MILES SQUIRES.

The constable had plenty with which to work.

“I just started hunting this fellow right away,” he said.

He tracked down a last-known email address, as well as a membership in a private pilots club.

He learned Mr. Squires had moved to Canada.

The search was proving more fruitful than some of his earlier efforts. Eight years ago, he came across a reference in a book to the murder of a native police constable in 1864.

A warrant had been issued to search for alcohol aboard an American ship in the waters off Metlakatla. The bootleggers wounded three constables, while a fourth went overboard and was lost. The body was never recovered and his name was unknown.

With the invaluable assistance of staff at the B.C. Archives, the hunt for the fallen officer began. One possibility was eliminated when a document was found indicating the person had been issued equipment after the date of death. After five years of research, baptismal and widow’s pension records eventually led to the naming of Reuben Cowallah/Cowaltah Onslow. (Two spelling variants of his native name existed in official records.) He was added to the Bastion monument on the lawns of the Legislature in Victoria, a permanent memorial to fallen officers. Earlier this year, his name was added to a national monument in Ottawa.

Of his many criminal cases, Mr. Sheldan is most proud of having been the lead forensic officer handling the 2006 knifing death of a man whose body was found on the grounds of Central Middle School. To this day, he thinks of the victim every time he drives past the school, which is sandwiched between two busy streets.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Sheldan’s contacts in the immigration department solved the current case.

He called a telephone number in Quispamsis, a town on the Kennebecasis River in New Brunswick, near Saint John.

“I can’t believe it,” said Mr. Squires, 49, an airplane mechanic who married a Canadian woman last June. “I had no idea what had happened to it.”

The retired senior constable guesses the medal fell out of his bag, or was left in a hotel room, one of his travels between Canada and Australia.

“I think it might qualify for frequent flyer points,” he quipped.

He will be watching the mailbox for the medal’s arrival later this week. Here’s hoping it makes the journey.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dave Barrett: A former B.C. premier as grand old man

Former premier Dave Barrett likes to garden at his waterfront home in Esquimalt. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 4, 2010


To his enemies, Dave Barrett was the vanguard of a socialist horde.

To his friends, he was a bulwark against the ravages of unfettered free enterprise.

Hard to be neutral about a guy the Press Gallery referred to as the “little fat guy” who in turn self-deprecatingly called himself “fat li’l Dave.”

The oldest living former British Columbia premier turned 80 on Saturday. He planned to celebrate the august occasion in quiet fashion with his family. A restaurant meal, but no gifts.

His voice once inflamed great passions, pro and con. Now less bombastic, re retains his bonhomie.

He lunches in the city, attends movies, greets well-wishers with a politician’s seasoned touch. He lives a comfortable life in an historic waterfront home in Esquimalt with Shirley, his wife of 57 years. As is not uncommon at his advanced age, dates and details are now lost in the murky soup of failing memory.

Not that he can’t still rouse himself.

“I’m retired,” he said the other day. “I read. I garden a bit. But I’m not retired when it comes to the issues, or the people, or the future.”

This is a year of significant anniversaries for Mr. Barrett. He was first elected to the Legislature 50 years ago last month. He lost the government and his own seat 35 years ago.

He returned to the Legislature, but never again to power. He then worked as a radio host before winning a seat in Parliament, but lost a contest for the federal NDP leadership. He wrote a ribald memoir.

In three tumultuous years as premier, his government protected farmland (Agricultural Land Reserve), made prescription drugs affordable (Pharmacare), changed the car insurance industry (Insurance Corporation of B.C.).

As much as his political enemies decried these innovations at the time, they remain on the books today.

His government also banned pay toilets and corporal punishment. It also ordered full Hansard coverage of debates.

It was a busy time. Too busy for some.

His government had its ups and downs — more downs if you self-identified as a running dog capitalist. To this day, his name evokes anger in some circles. The mining industry in particular seemed keen on finding a very deep shaft in which to place a taxing premier.

As for being a Marxist, there was always more Groucho than Karl in Dave Barrett.

The youngest son of a Jewish fruit and vegetable peddler, he grew up on McSpadden Avenue, off Commercial Drive, a bright but indifferent student who expressed himself on the rugby pitch and on stage. After getting a Jesuit education in the United States, he returned to his home province as a social worker, only to be fired from the civil service for being politically active.

He proved to be a spellbinding orator, a skill best appreciated in an overcrowded union hall, but less successful on the cool medium of television.

In the 1972 campaign, Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett charged him with belonging to a radical wing of the NDP known as the Waffle. Mr. Barrett flipped the accusation by replying that his opponent was a pancake.

In 1983, the Socreds aired a television commercial in which a man in a pinstriped business suit was revealed to be wearing red shorts. The unsubtle message — the NDP were pinkos in disguise.

Mr. Barrett told a rally on Vancouver Island that he believed the ads were the responsibility of a prominent female Cabinet minister.

“I didn’t come here to discuss the colour of my underwear,” he told the crowd. “I’ll leave that to your imagination. But I understand Grace McCarthy is behind this idea.”

He paused, adopting a tone of faux gravitas.

“I want to assure the people of British Columbia that Grace McCarthy is one woman who will never see the colour of my underwear.”

The veteran political reporter Tom Barrett (no relation) recalls an anecdote the NDP leader told as he stumped from town to town by campaign bus.

Each night, he’d tell the same story: the Vancouver Sun hired an astrologer to prepare horoscopes of the party leaders. The stargazer determined that Mr. Barrett’s sun sign meant he was a great lover.

Dave was on the road, so he didn’t see the story on publication, he told the crowd. That night, he called home, as always, to check on the kids and to talk to his wife.

“Anything in the papers?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, Dave,” Shirley replied. “Just the same old lies.”

Never failed to bring down the house.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The burning ambition of a 20-year-old fire chief

When the fire chief's post became vacant at Port Rendfrew, waitress Chelsea Kuzman stepped up. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 1, 2010


Chelsea Kuzman works as a waitress. She slings 35-cent chicken wings on Wednesdays and serves $2.50 Lucky Lagers on Fridays.

If her pager goes off, at any hour on any day, she swaps her apron for a fireproof jacket.

Ms. Kuzman is chief of the 12-person volunteer fire department at Port Renfrew at the western terminus of Highway 14 on Vancouver Island.

She is 20.

Not a 20-year veteran.

Twenty years old.

In an emergency, the 300 residents of Port Renfrew and the neighbouring Pacheedaht reserve, as well as the visiting surfers, park-goers and motorists who frequent this spectacular stretch of coastline, rely on Ms. Kuzman and her crew to deliver prompt rescue.

Her territory, which stretches to such places as Lost Creek and Lizard Lake, includes some of the isolated beaches that fleck the shore.

“We had one just the other night down at Sombrio,” she said. “A 16-year-old boy ate a granola bar that had peanut butter in it. He had an allergic reaction. He could hardly feel his legs, so he couldn’t walk.”

After clambering over rocks slick with seaweed, the crew placed the youth in a clamshell stretcher to haul him back to the highway. He recovered.

Ms. Kuzman is the new chief of a volunteer department counting 12 members — four men and eight women. Their names are posted atop lockers in a firehall for which the ribbon was cut two weeks ago — Lori, Amanda, Chelsea, Pam, Kate, Ryan, Freddy, Pat, Tiffany, Jody, Leah, and Brett.

She is the youngest, having joined at age 16, a high school “adrenalin junkie” attracted by the excitement of attending calls.

“I thought it looked like fun,” she said. “I thought it was cool. So, I joined.”

The first jacket she was issued came down to her knees.

Ms. Kuzman stands just 1.6-metres (5-foot-3) tall. She is dwarfed by the massive pumper truck that is the department’s pride. At first intimidated by the sheer bulk of the machine, she now adroitly maneuvres the 330-horsepower, diesel-powered vehicle as she might the family car.

The pumper was built by the Austrian-based fire-truck manufacturer Rosenbauer. The crew call it Rosie.

Happily, it was a quiet summer.

“We’ve done more practice fires than real fires,” she said.

The most serious incident involved an all-terrain vehicle that crashed on a logging road. The victim’s buddies rushed the unconscious man to the fire hall.

“That one was critical. The ambulance was an hour away. We got him into a basket and got him out to the field.”

A helicopter picked the man up from a nearby landing pad.

The chief has earned several certificates, which she recites like an undergrad enumerating completed prerequisites.

“I’ve done a Hydro course for power lines. I’ve done a flagging course. I’ve got my air brakes. Live fire. A pumps and pumping course to operate the pump on the truck. A Jaws-of-Life course. I’ve done my First Responder twice. I’ve got my CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and AD (advanced defibrillator) endorsements, as well as my spinal endorsement.”

The ascension of so young a woman to a chief’s status has not been greeted with uniform respect by fellow firefighters. She attended a training session near Victoria in street clothes, earning derisive comments from full-time firefighters from a wealthier districts, who wore matching department T-shirts. As well, the instructor seemed unwilling to address her directly.

Such snubs do not fluster her. When you live at the remote end of a winding, washboard highway populated by more bears than people, you learn to be resourceful. In winter, the road washes out, cutting off access to Victoria 110-kilometres to the east. Cellular telephone service remains a science-fiction fantasy. You make do.

So, when the chief’s post became open, a Botticelli brunette with Winona Ryder eyes stepped forward at an age when her peers might be more interested in dating a firefighter than in being one.

As chief, she receives an honorarium of about $2,000 for her efforts and she gets to wear five stripes on her formal uniform.

She offered a recent visitor a tour of a facility built to replace a decrepit fire hall that happens to be in a tsunami zone.

The chief donned a bulky Securitx firefighter’s jacket.

“Do I look huge in this?” she asked.

She is only 20.