Friday, May 12, 2006

Ottawa: The Unknown City

I've been working the past year on a book for Arsenal Pulp Press in their Unknown City series (due out in 2007, to help celebrate 150 years of Ottawa being named Capital by Queen Victoria), and have been discovering a bunch of pretty entertaining items. Ottawa isn't just the wholesome boring government town that gets projected out to the world (and sadly, projected in); that is only the beginning. And don’t let the current mayor fool you either, the City of Ottawa has been interesting for years… A mayor, I will remind you, who didn’t do anything useful to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa in 2005; we got a month of Alberta scene (for its 100th anniversary, which was extremely cool), but where was the Ottawa scene? What is it about Capital (and fourth largest populated city in the country) that is driven so hard to dismiss the local?

There are the obvious bits, such as Tom Green, Paul Anka and Rich Little, or where Alanis went to high school (Glebe, where her first gold album sits in the school's office), or the fact that , in the mid-1990s, Carleton University wanted to, but discovered they couldn’t name a building after their famous and former student Dan Ackroyd (because he dropped out, and they apparently have rules against that), or that Friends' co-star Matthew Perry's mother was press secretary for Trudeau (have to find out more on that), or that Tom Cruise (before he dropped his father's last name) went to school here, somewhere (need way more on that). Here are some of the other things I've been discovering:

Pure Spring ginger-ale: was not only invented in Ottawa right after the Second World War, but the name originated from a pure spring running under the family home of the man who started the company (with his father), behind a house that used to sit at Wellington and Preston Streets. If you can imagine, now all of that is just the first line of what has been for years an empty waste (and wonderfully open view). There seems something disappointing about any "what used to be here" consideration. Another would be that plaque at Percy and Gladstone, right beside the Laundromat, telling readers that one of the first games for the Stanley Cup was played at a rink that used to be there. And don't forget the plaque in front of that god-awful looking 1960s government building on Lisgar Street, just east of Elgin. I haven't read it in a while, but here's the jist: there used to be a big beautiful house here, owned by one of the Confederation Poets. We tore it down to build this. What a country.

Crawley Films: before the National Film Board existed, there was Ottawa's Crawley Films, founded by Frank Radford "Budge" Crawley (1911-1987) and his first wife Judith Rosemary Sparks Crawley (1914-1986). Called "an audacious rogue," a trail-blazing entrepreneur and a true pioneer in Canadian film, Frank Crawley is often considered Canada's answer to American film-makers Jack Warner or Sam Goldwyn. First housed in the abandoned St. Matthias Church Hall at 19 Fairmont Avenue, near Wellington Street in the Hintonburg area (in the 1930s, the church itself moved to Sherwood and Parkdale, just south of what is now the Queensway), the company was founded not just to make films, but to build a film industry. With the head office in Ottawa, and branch offices built in Toronto and Montreal, the two made Crawley Films into Canada's largest independent film company, and most successful of its kind in North America, rivaling the NFB in the production of sponsored films. In the forty-three years Crawley Films existed, it produced more than five thousand films -- including industrial films, features, documentaries, animation, television series and commercials -- and won 255 international awards. Not only his business partner, Judith Crawley was also an accomplished director, writer, editor, producer, camera operator, sound recorder and actress, working directly on numerous Crawley Films projects and winning awards, later serving as president of the Canadian Film Institute (1979-1982). Their first film, L'Ille d'Orléans (1938), was made during their honeymoon, and went on to win the Hiram Percy Maxim Award for Best Amateur Film of 1939. They went on to produce such films as The Loon's Necklace (1948), Newfoundland Scene (1950), Amanita Pestilens (1962), The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975), Hamlet (1973) and The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) from the Brian Moore novel, as well as the first animated series for television, The Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1962). Notable in their innovation, Crawley Films produced the first Canadian feature filmed in colour, the first shot simultaneously in English and French, the first in Canada to utilize 16mm synchronized sound, and the first Canadian feature to win an Academy Award (for the documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest). Some of the people that worked with Crawley early in their careers include director Irvin Kershner, British thespian Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Lorne Greene, animator Bill Mason and documentarian Pierre Perrault. As the company became more successful, a modern film studio was built to the church hall studio, and maintained its own laboratory, sound stage, animation facilities and engineering equipment, working to diversify the business as much as possible. The company was eventually bought out in 1982 by former employee Bill Stevens, the head of Atkinson Film Arts. Unfortunately, by 1989, Atkinson Film Arts fell upon hard times, and announced on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Crawley Films that all the old Crawley Studios and facilities would be sold. The old building is still there, across from the big church on Wellington Street West, a shadow of its former self. A few years ago, Artguise on Bank Street held a show of animation cells from the Crawley Films series The Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Even now, if you go into their gallery/art supplies store, you can get either of the co-owners, Jason or Brandon, to sing you the theme song from the series. For anyone my age or just a bit older, it will all come flooding back. (Oh, the Land of Oz is a funny funny place / where everyone has a funny funny face / and the streets are paved with gold / and no one ever gets old…)

Max Middle: I'm beginning to wonder about that Max Middle. There is someone in every community who seems to be a connector, or lynch-pin, so to speak. What they were doing with American History and Forrest Gump. You know that whole "six degrees of separation" thing… (Is Max Middle the Kevin Bacon of Ottawa?) What I am realizing more and more: the potential that poet Max Middle (pseudonym for Ottawa-born Mark Robertson) might just be the lynch-pin for everything there is about the City of Ottawa. He sent me an email a few days ago, telling me that he was in "a play with Matthew Perry. this would have been 1983ish when we both attended ashbury college. i think he was a grade ahead of me." A person I met in the early 1990s while attending readings hosted by Rob Manery and Louis Cabri, I keep finding out about connections Max has to other people I know, and other things going on not only around the city, but in other parts of the country. I even found out recently that he worked with my (not yet) ex-wife at the Wheat Berry during the summer/fall of 1990, during the time she was pregnant. He's done work with the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Fringe Festival, jwcurry, and his dad not only hung out with the Rolling Stones in London at the extreme end of the early 1960s, but intimate performances by the Beatles. One could even argue that Max himself is the Ottawa continuity between Manery/Cabri and curry. What the hell? Is Max the centre of everything that keeps this city together?

Ottawa Valley's wholesome image: you wouldn't think that St. John's, Newfoundland born Shannon Tweed (yes, that Shannon Tweed) had an Ottawa connection, but she does. A prolific actress and Miss November, 1981, for Playboy magazine (thanks to Canadian TV series Thrill of a Lifetime in 1981), later Playboy Playmate of the Year 1982, and involved with Hugh Hefner and Gene Simmons (they had two children), she represented the Ottawa Valley in the 1978 Miss Canada Pageant, placing fourth.

Pierre Trudeau's eyes: I'm still trying to get a fix on it, but for the first time in months, I've got some leads on the mural of two eyes that sit on the side of a building at the University of Ottawa. Rumoured to be the eyes of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the mural was done by the late artist and University of Ottawa professor James Boyd "around 30-35 years ago. He was an artist and designer, and taught for many years at Ottawa U. in the Visual Arts Dept […]." Other rumours are they were the eyes of Trudeau friend and rival Rene Levesque, or even the eyes of the artists' girlfriend. Will we ever know the truth? (If such a thing exists…)

Or in an email from literary historian and father of hundreds, Steve Artelle:

How's this for sensational: in 1882 a guy committed suicide in the cathedral on
Sussex Drive. It's been a while since I came across the info in newspapers from
that time, but if I'm remembering right, he put a bullet in his head after a
mass. They had to get a gang of priests to come in and reconsecrate the place
after. Nasty.

Best thing I can think of for the Parliament Buildings is the stuff on the origin of the Hall of Honour, which was a scheme to commemorate Archibald Lampman. And a few years before that scheme was cooked up, Lampman's wife actually died at her desk in the Library of Parliament. Could give you some details if you're interested.
If anyone else has any stories, suggestions or directions I should be including or looking into, please let me know. What are the best neighbourhood pubs? What about 24-hour hangouts around the city (if there are any)? The hole-in-the-wall clubs, unaddressed, on a need to know basis… There are so many stories that have yet to be included anywhere. I've tried to address a version of such in the creation of ottawater, including folk that are not only currently here, but who were here or are from here (working to get Gary Barwin, Margaret Atwood, Sara Cassidy (youngest of Carol Shields, an exceptional writer out there in Victoria) and Colin Browne in future issues…).

It's about time someone bloody celebrated our fine Capital in a useful way. About time some of the things around here got acknowledged.

1 comment:

jessrawk said...

you have no idea how stoked i am for this entire project. i am seriously going to pick up a copy for everyone i know in ottawa and anyone i know in other cities who spends their time bashing ottawa for being boring/a politician's town. a million kudos to you for pulling this project together. xoxox.