Saturday, June 30, 2012

# 29 ~ Alexander Muir and the Maple Leaf Forever, Then and Now

A piece of historic Canadian patriotic music that has all but disappeared, except for when it is heard in the days leading up to the commemoration of Canadian Confederation each year, has several associations with Toronto.  The song, of course, is "The Maple Leaf Forever".  The composer of this traditional Canadian fanfare was Alexander Muir, who was a longtime resident of this city.  Like Canada's first Prime Minister, Macdonald, and Toronto's first Mayor, Mackenzie ~ indeed like so many others who formed the early backbone of both Toronto and Canada ~ Muir was a Scotsman.  Born in Lesmahagow, in south-central Scotland, in 1830, Muir soon arrived in the Toronto region, brought over by his family.   Indeed, he arrived here in 1833, just one year before Toronto became a city.  No doubt, he had little memory of the festivities that accompanied our incorporation into Toronto, and the passing away of the old Town of York.

Muir received his early education at home, from his father, but later graduated from Queen's College.  Muir would go on to become a model resident of Toronto, especially given the times in which he lived.  He became a school teacher, presiding over classrooms in central Toronto, as well as in what were then much more suburban areas like Scarborough, Parkdale, and Leslieville.  He served for a time in the Toronto based Queen's Own Rifles, and fought against invading Fenians at the Battle of Ridgeway.  Muir was active in the Loyal Orange Lodge, and was no doubt tempted to combine his philosophies as a member of this fraternal organization with his memories of active military service, by decrying the "evils" of Irish Catholicism in the classroom.  If he ever gave in to temptation, he would have been in good company.  George Brown, another Scotsman and one of Canada's founding fathers (as well as the father of the modern day Liberal Party of Canada and what is now the Globe and Mail newspaper) was known for his anti-Catholic views.  Most of Toronto, which had, after all, been nickamed "The Belfast of Canada" was staunchly and rabidly Protestant.

THEN : Alexander Muir, 1830 to 1906.

According to some accounts, Muir penned "The Maple Leaf Forever" while serving against the Fenians at Ridgeway in 1866.  According to other versions, he was inspired by a maple tree that stood on the front lawn of his cottage at Toronto's Memory Lane and Laing Street, while he was engaged as a teacher in Leslieville.  Some highly romanticized versions even have a maple leaf fluttering down on to the pages of his composition book, thus breaking up the writer's block that Muir was experiencing while trying to submit an entry into a patriotic song writing competition.  The song soon became popular, and was an unofficial anthem for years. 

THEN : John McPherson's 1907 painting of Muir's house in Leslieville.

A maple tree on the southwest corner of Laing Street and Memory Lane (located one block south of Queen Street) is stated by legend to be the tree from which Muir took inspiration for his famous composition. A plaque erected in 1958 by the Grand Orange Lodge of British America plaque is pictured here (as is the actual tree, shown in the second photograph below).

What kept Muir's ballad from every becoming official was the fact that the lyrics were seen as very strongly "pro-British", and therefore, anti-French Canadian.  The song did meet with unpopularity in French speaking Canada, despite the addition of a reference to the French lily in the lyrics.  Indeed there have been assertions that the lily was included in the original lyrics.  Muir himself lamented that there was such criticism to his song, and expressed his desire to represent the union of both French and English speaking Canadians under a national banner.  However, a desire to appease remained, and "The Maple Leaf Forever" never became an official Canadian anthem, although it was often a de facto one.  Officialdom for the song has been granted in its acceptance as the official regimental march for the Queen's Own Rifles, as well as for the Royal Westminster Regiment, from Westminster, British Columbia.

THEN : The original cover and (below) sheet music to Muir's "The Maple Leaf Forever"

There have been several alternative versions of "The Maple Leaf Forever" in the almost 150 years since it was written.  Fifteen years ago, in 1997, it was rewritten by Vladimir Radian, a mathematician-turned-songwriter who was originally from Romania.  Radian penned his lyrics in response to a contest held by CBC Radio, and his version was played in concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in June of 1997.  All those mid-nineteenth century references to our British traditions and "colonial" past were removed in this new version.

Radian's version was one of many revisions in recent years.  Anne Murray sang a modified version of Radian's lyrics at the final game in Maple Leaf Gardens.  Her version was used by Michael Buble at the 2010 Winter Olympics.  In 2008, a Scottish-Canadian celtic punk rock band called "The Real McKenzies" did a send up of "The Maple Leaf Forever," and even altered the name of the song to "The Maple Trees Remember"

Whatever happened to Alexander Muir?  He died on June 26, 1906, and is buried in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery. 

NOW : The gravesite of Alexander Muir, in Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

There are several commemorations of Muir in Toronto and across Canada.  The Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens are located on the east side of Yonge Street, just south of Lawrence Avenue.  Maple Leaf Forever Park is near Muir's Leslieville home, in the Leslie Street / Queen Street east neighbourhood.  Alexander Muir / Gladstone Avenue Jr and Sr Public School, on Gladstone Avenue, is just one scholastic commemoration of Muir.  Alexmuir Jr Public School is in Scarborough (on Alexmuir Boulevard) and Alexander Muir Public School is in Newmarket.  Outside Ontario, Albert's Mount Muir is another commemoration.

So, take your pick this Canada Day - original lyrics, later twentieth century remake, or punk lyrics, have a fun and safe Canada Day!


The "original" version of "The Maple Leaf Forever"

In days of yore, from Britain's shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm, Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast, our pride,
And joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf Forever!

The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf, forever!
God save our Queen, and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf forever!

At Queenston Heights and Lundy's Lane
Our brave fathers, side by side,
For freedom, homes and loved ones dear,
Firmly stood and nobly died;
And those dear rights which they maintained,
We swear to yield then never!
Our watchward ever more shall be
"The Maple Leaf forever!"


Our fair Dominion now extends
From Cape Race to Nootka Sound;
May peace forever be our lot,
And plenteous store abound:
And may those ties of love be ours
Which discord cannot sever,
And flourish green o'er freedom's home
The Maple Leaf forever!


On merry England's far famed land
May kind heaven sweetly smile,
God bless old Scotland evermore
and Ireland's Em'rald Isle!
And swell the song both loud and long
Till rocks and forest quiver!
God Save our Queen and Heaven bless
The Maple Leaf Forever!


Thursday, June 28, 2012

# 28 ~ Rich Little, John Diefenbaker and the Royal York's Imperial Room, Then and Now

THEN : A 1964 menu from the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel.

In recent months, I have enjoyed giving more frequent tours of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.  Opening on June 11, 1929, and replacing the old Queen's Hotel, which had enjoyed celebrity status on the same site for several decades, the Royal York has gone on to become an icon of Toronto hospitality.  What always intrigues me are the "big names" that have come and gone through the hotel.  Some have been guests, others have been on hand to film movie scenes in the hotel, while more still have played the Imperial Room, which served for sixty years as one of the top hot spots for night club acts across Canada.

The man who made the Imperial Room famous as a nightclub was Canadian band leader Moxie Whitney.  Moxie Whitney and his orchestra played the Imperial Room on a regular basis for a quarter of a century, from 1948 until 1972.  The only hiatus to the orchestra's regular appearances came over a twelve month period between 1960 and 1961.  Don't feel too bad for Whitney and his orchestra though - during this dry spell they played the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.

NOW : The entrance to the Imperial Room today.

NOW : The night club days may be gone, but the Imperial Room is still an impressive event venue.

Forty years ago, if you were a star in Canada, or wanted to be, you wanted to make a good impression on Moxie Whitney.  He was put in charge of booking all the talent in the grand palace hotels that Canadian Pacific operated across Canada.  Anne Murray, Doug Henning, and Rich Little all got their start under the patronage of Moxie Whitney.  Times were changing, though, and by the early 1970s, television had been eroding live entertainment in Canada and around the world for twenty years.  The first big spike in television purchases in Canada came in 1953, when it was announced that the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II would be broadcast across the airwaves.  Live event venues and movie theatres suffered from declining attendance from that point forward.  Any gimmick to draw audiences back into night clubs and theatres was given a shot, but the writing was on the wall.  With the changing times, Canadian Pacific and Moxie Whitney could not hammer out a new contract, and their long association came to an end.  The Imperial Room would carry on as a night club until about 1990, and although it continued to bill big acts, its time as Canada's hottest night club eventually came to an end.

NOW : The star on the door of the Green Room, which served as the dressing room for some of the biggest acts of the twentieth century, when they played the Royal York's Imperial Room.

NOW : Inside the Green Room today.

THEN : Moxie Whitney and his Orchestra on stage at the Royal York's Imperial Room.

Even in the 1980s, the Imperial Room was still drawing some big name acts, and with a cover charge of only $20 for some of the hottest names in entertainment, the hotel didn't make much money on operating the night club.  The only man who turned a profit was Louis Jannetta, the long time maitre d' of the Imperial Room.  Slipping the right amount of money across his palm ensured the best seat in the house - the room seats about 500 and if you did well by Jannetta, you could get a table right by the stage. 

THEN : Louis Jannetta, the long time maitre d' of the Imperial Room.  He first job at the Royal York was working as a busboy, and to land it, he lied about his age.

All the big names in mid-twentieth century entertainment - Marlene Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Peggie Lee, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt and even a young Jim Carrey - appeared on the stage at the Imperial Room.  Tony Bennett played the Imperial Ballroom, as did Canadian born Guy Lombardo.  Rex Battle was a famous conductor, composer and performer, who was a child prodigy. He died in Toronto in 1967. Buddy Rich, often billed as the “world's greatest drummer”, drew crowds to the Imperial Room as a jazz drummer and bandleader.  Another act was Nelson Eddy, the American singer who made nineteen musical films in the 1930s and 1940s, and who was also a big name in opera, in concerts, in international night club venues, as well as in radio and television. He was one of the first "crossover" stars, a superstar appealing both to shrieking bobby-soxers as well as opera purists, and in his heyday was the highest paid singer in the world.  Another act at the Imperial Rooom was Al Martino, who is remembered by many for his singing career, but who also made a cameo as the Italian-American crooner, Johnny Fontane, in "The Godfather".  Other big names sometimes showed up to sit in the audience and watch the show.  They didn't always get in - Janetta famously denied entry to Bob Dylan, because he wasn't wearing a tie.

On June 28, 1964, Rich Little - one of the greatest mimicks of the 20th century - was officially censured, when the Canadian government ordered him to drop his impressions of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker from is act at the Imperial Room.  Rich Little was born in Ottawa in November of 1938, and got his start in entertainment as an usher at the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa.  On a side note, this was the same theatre where Canadian theatre magnate  Nat Taylor added a second screen, and thus opened the first cinema in the world where you had to specify what movie you were there to see.  Little began practicing his impressions of big stars at the theatre, and while still in his teens, he formed a comic partnership with a friend, and began to do impressions of famous Canadian politicans like Diefenbaker and Charlotte Whitton, the mayor of Ottawa.

THEN : Long before the Rich Little Show aired in the mid-1970s, Little was regarded as one of the most entertaining comics to ever take to the stage and screen.  It was Moxie Whitney and the Imperial Room that helped Little get his start.

The rest was history.  After auditioning for Mel Torme, Little won a spot on the "Judy Garland Show" in 1964, and stunned and entertained American television audiences with his ability to do impressions of famous American politicians and celebrities.  Through the 1960s and 1970s Rich Little made countless appearances on regular television series, variety shows, and in films, where he made a career out of lampooning notable luminaries.  Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson were popular targets for the talents of Rich Little. 

Not as much has been heard from Rich Little since the climax of his career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he has continued to appear sporadically in various television specials.  Perhaps his most recent cameo appearance has been in the animated television series "Futurama", playing his own celebraty head - and introducing himself as "Rich Little here, as Howard Cosell."

Today, Rich Little is living in Las Vegas, and still going strong at the age of 73, where he still gives frequent performances.  He became an American citizen in January of 2008, but it was 48 years ago today that his act at the Royal York was censured for his lampooning of Canada's government leaders.