Seeking Sarah Cassell

Sarah’s Cafe at 218 E. Georgia St in 1960. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC VAncouver Still Photo Collection.

In 2013, I wrote about this photo (above) that I found while working at the CBC Archives. It was one of a series of images shot by CBC Vancouver contract photographer, Franz Lindner, in 1960 as part of an assignment to illustrate a CBC Times (programming guide) feature for a radio documentary on drug addiction in Vancouver. At that time, I focused my research on figuring out where this photo was taken (218 East Georgia Street) and if the building still existed (it does).

Wallace building (built ca. 1906) home to the Liang You Book Store and Convenience store in March 2013 . Photo: C. Hagemoen

This first pass at research/inquiry satisfied me at the time and I put the story on hold for a few years. However it was consistently on the back of mind and I was always keeping my eye out for and collecting any piece of information I could find on Sarah and her café in my research travels. I wanted to know who Sarah Cassell was and how did she, and her café, fit into the (hi)story of Vancouver.  This historic area of the city (Hogan’s Alley/Strathcona/Chinatown) is full of tales of strong women who had their own businesses – Rosa Pryor, Viva Moore, Leona Risby, to name a few. Well here is the story of another one – Sarah Cassell.

Sarah’s Cafe window at 218 E. Georgia in 1960. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

Around 1957, Sarah’s Cafe opens at 218 E. Georgia, a 3-story wood frame building built in 1906. Mrs. Sarah Cassell is listed in the directory as the proprietor. She operates her café here – serving “full course meals & de-luxe hamburgers” until around 1962/63. However, this is not where Sarah Cassell’s story in Vancouver begins. It starts a few years earlier, around the corner at the Stratford Hotel.

From the 1920s to the 1970s the Stratford Hotel (at the corner of Gore and Keefer) was a popular temporary home to loggers and other workingmen while they were in the city during the off-season. It should also be noted that for a period of time during the 20th C, the Stratford was one of only two hotels that admitted black guests in Vancouver.

1969 photo of the 600 block of Gore Street. Showing a portion of the Stratford Hotel (right) and the cafe that used to be called the Stratford Grill. The Stratford was built in 1912. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 780-333.

The Stratford Grill was a street level (619 Gore) café that was part of the Stratford Hotel building; serving both hotel residents and the general public. According to the 1951 City Directory the proprietor of the Stratford Grill was James M. Cassell who resided at 1152 Richards. Sarah Cassell’s death certificate (via BC Archives Vital Statistics) lists James M. Cassell as her husband at the time of her death in 1989. What is intriguing, however, is that this is the only time that James Cassell appears in Vancouver directories, he seems to completely drop out of the picture (almost as quickly as he appeared).  He does not appear to be living in Vancouver past 1951, nor prior to 1951 for that matter. James Cassell is also not mentioned in Sarah’s obituary in the Vancouver Sun. The following year, 1952, Mrs. Sarah Cassell is listed as the proprietor of the Stratford Grill and she stays as such until 1956 when she opens the self-named Sarah’s Cafe at 218 E Georgia.

1989 Vancouver Sun obituary for Sarah Cassell. This obituary was the first time I saw any mention of Sarah’s daughter Christine. It is likely she did not live in Vancouver, or its environs.

Sarah Cassell was born Sarah Jane White on January 10, 1910 in Tuitts village on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. How and where she spent the first 40 years of her life is not known. It is also not clear from the information I have gleaned so far, when exactly Sarah arrived in Vancouver. Sarah Cassell does not appear in the city directories prior to 1952. This, combined with the information about James Cassell from the 1951 city directory, suggests that Sarah Cassell did not arrive in Vancouver until 1951 or 1950 at the earliest. Her obituary states that she ran Sarah’s Café from 1951 to 1984. So it is likely she was running the Stratford Cafe along with James Cassell, and then took over the entire business after he left town for whatever reason.

1962 photo taken from Mclean Housing Tower (phase 1) looking west. Arrow points to location of Sarah Cassell’s home at 703 Dunlevy. Photo: CoV Archives , CVA 181-05.

From 1951/52 to around 1961 Sarah Cassell is living in a row of houses at 703 Dunlevy St., right across the street from McLean Playground. Also living at 703 Dunlevy is David White a CPR Porter and Sarah Cassell’s son. Eventually this entire square block (along with 3 others) was demolished to make way for the MacLean Park housing complex forcing residents to find alternate housing. In the early 1960s (around 1962), Sarah Cassell and her son David move from their home on Dunlevy to 239 Union Street, directly above Valery’s Chicken & Steak House (241 Union).

Ms. Cassell runs her cafe featured in the photo by Franz Lindner at 218 East Georgia for 7 years. When the restaurant space below/beside her home becomes available around 1963, Sarah’s Cafe moves to 241 Union Street. Prior to that time, this location had been the home of Valery’s Chicken and Steak house for about 12 years run by a woman named Valery Nechia (yet another story!). Curiously, for the last year that Valery was running the restaurant at 241 Union, it was called Todd’s Café. According to the city directories by 1962 Valery Nechia was now a widow, living in Mount Pleasant and was now working as a dressmaker.

Detail of City of Vancouver photo from 1971 showing the 200 block Union St. and Sarah’s Cafe during the construction of the Viaduct. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 216-1.23.

For about 20 years, from 1963/64 until 1984, Sarah Cassell runs Sarah’s Cafe on Union Street and lives above. During much of this time Sarah’s son David is also living with her and working at Canada Post (and helping out at the restaurant on occasion).

Fire Insurance map ca. 1950s/1960s mapping out Sarah Cassell’s neighbourhood. Click on image to view.

OK, enough of the tangible facts. I now knew how Sarah fit into her neighbouhood physically – living and working within a boundary of a few blocks starting in 1951. But what about the intangible facts? What was Sarah Cassell like as a person? What did she look like? And what was it like to eat at her restaurant? Surely, there would be more information out there? How does someone live and operate a restaurant in a neighbourhood for over 30 years and not leave an impact?

I started to scour online and printed resources about the area and the neighbourhood. No mention of Sarah and her cafe. Some expert assistance was needed.  I contacted writer Wayde Compton who, among many other things, co-founded the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project. While Wayde did not have any personal experience with Sarah Cassell or her cafe, he said that his mother recalled going there. He then suggested I contact Elwin Xie, who grew up on Union Street in the 1960s and 70s and who’s family owned and operated Union Laundry at 274 Union St. [Side note: Elwin’s father, Harry Yuen fought the City’s expropriation of his property until the bitter end]

Union St looking east at Main. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 772-1093.

Elwin told me that his first experience with western food was at Sarah’s Cafe, specifically he recalls he had his first taste of french fries at Sarah’s. Elwin said it was a really a treat eat at her cafe, as it was a big change from his mother’s Chinese home cooking. Elwin recalled that Sarah ran her cafe as a one-person operation, she took the orders and then went to the kitchen to prepare the food all to a soundtrack of county music (CKWX) playing on the radio.

Elwin remembers Sarah as a kind woman in a wig (not uncommon for many women of that era to wear wigs of convenience) who would always ask after his mother. Elwin told me that Sarah would get her cafe linens laundered at Union Laundry. Often, Elwin was charged with picking up or dropping off laundry for Sarah’s Cafe. Even after his father’s laundry business was expropriated and torn down to make way for the Viaduct, he still had contact with Sarah. He assisted her during her move from Union Street to Bill Hennessey Place housing on Jackson St. in 1984. This is the same time that Sarah closed her cafe business at the age of 74, likely due to health reasons.

Sarah’s Cafe in 1971 during construction of the Viaduct across the street. All of the buildings across the street were expropriated by the City and torn down. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 216-1.30

I recently participated in a Hogan’s Alley walking tour – part of the Heart of the City Festival – lead by Randy Clark who grew up in the neighbourhood in the 1960s.  He talked about Sarah’s Cafe which was located directly across the street from the house he lived in with his family:

“[His] grandmother’s place [Vie’s Chicken and Steaks] operated in the evening and Sarah owned the café and the only other person I ever saw working in Sarah’s café was her son (David). So Sarah ran that café , for the most part, on her own and it was quite a neat establishment for people who worked during the daytime and lived during the daytime. Whenever we wanted french fries during the daytime prior to the restaurant being open in the evening, we went across the street to get them from Sarah’s. It was a great place and obviously was impacted also by the transition of the new viaduct coming into this area.”

I am sure Randy is right in saying that Sarah must have been greatly affected by the stress of seeing her neighbourhood being ripped apart (literally). Starting with the development of the McLean Park Housing development, through to the construction of the Viaduct. It takes a strong person to continue carrying on in the midst of chaos and division. And that is exactly what Sarah did, running her business though the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Black Strathcona sign indicating the location of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House – behind the sign across the street, beside the little blue building – just down the block from Sarah’s Cafe. Photo: C. Hagemoen

After trying many different search phrases, and drilling down deep, I finally located other recollections of Sarah and her cafe online.  In 2009, George Lee made a comment on the Hogan’s Alley Project blog post on Vie’s Chicken and Steak House:

“Does anyone remember Sarah’s Cafe…? It was a one story house made into a cafe and her son worked for the Post Office. I used to have lunch there all the time and I’ll always remember her as a very jovial black lady. A lot of the police and city workers used to eat in the back rooms.”

Contemporary Cree artist, Judy Chartrand, lived on Union Street as a child in the 1960s. On the “Family” page of her website she recalls:

“Our house was located two doors down from Sarah’s Cafe, a small business owned by a Black woman who used to give us candy. I don’t remember ever going into her cafe to eat, probably because we were so poor ourselves.”

 

Rear of 218 E. Georgia in alley that ran north/south parallel to Main Street between E.Georgia and Union St. in 1960. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

So far we can establish that Sarah Cassell was a kind and friendly woman, who worked hard, was independent, strong and resilient. She had two children and was not only a grandmother, but also a great grandmother with many friends. Her long-running cafe served the residents of this working-class neighbourhood and those that worked in the area during the day (perhaps even the construction workers building the viaduct across the street?). Since her business operated during the daytime, it didn’t attract the lively nighttime crowd that a place like Vie’s did. Therefore, there are no mythical tales of a young Jimmy Hendrix coming in for a burger and fries, or late night visits from visiting Jazz musicians. It just wasn’t that kind of place. Sarah’s Cafe was the place in the neighbourhood to get, as Randy Clark said, your “daytime fries” and simple cafe fare served with a smile. But that doesn’t mean Sarah’s story is less worthy of telling than any other story from the rich history of this neighbourhood.

I am sure there are more stories and memories of Sarah and her cafe out there. I still have many more questions than I do answers. So if you have any memories or photos of Sarah Cassell or her cafe please let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

900 Block Station street (south of Prior St.) ca. 1960. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

It’s funny how one thing leads to another (and another, and another…) You are researching one topic, and then you are led down a completely different path of discovery. I love that! It is exciting, but it can also be time consuming. What started out several years ago with a single photograph from the CBC Vancouver Archives turned into another tale of Black Strathcona.

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Master Chef and the 1978 Vancouver Heritage Advisory Committee photos

Master Chef Cafe at 2400 E. Hastings Street  – 1978. What can I say about the shirtless guy in micro jean cut-offs?! (CoV Archives , CVA 786-83.19)

Oh man, how fantastic is this photograph?!  If you ever had the privilege of dining at Master Chef you would realize how special this image is. I had no idea that the restaurant I knew as a simple “old school” diner at one time sported a cool neon sign. This space is now home to “What’s Up? Hot Dog!”, but prior to that it was home to the best turkey club sandwich and home-cut fries that I’ve ever known.

Master Chef Turkey Club and “May’s world famous freshly cut fries”. (photo: C. Hagemoen)

In operation since 1953, and run by various owners over the years, the final version of Master Chef was owned and operated by Tony and May Fung ( Tony was out front and May did all the cooking) from 1993 to 2014. I first learned about Master Chef from a friend of mine around 2003. Ever since then, in my mind, it was the best place in the city for cheap & good old school diner food – and I miss it dearly.

My only wish with the 1978 image (top) is that the photographer had tilted their camera ever so slightly sky wards in order to capture the entirety of the billboards within the frame. Alas, it wasn’t one of those “Herzogian type” photographs, but part of a group of over 2000 recently described and digitized photographs from the City of Vancouver Archives. This inventory of heritage photos was part of a 1978 summer project by the Heritage Advisory Committee that was funded by B.C. Heritage Trust (acting as the project supervisor) and Young Canada Works (for students who carried out the work).

239 E. Hastings Street and 251 E. Hastings Street, Afton Hotel – 1978 (CoV Archives, CVA 786-49.31 & CVA 786-49.32)

Born out of the tremendous public outcry over the decision to demolish Vancouver’s iconic Birks Building, the Vancouver Heritage Advisory Committee was established initially as the Vancouver Heritage Advisory Board in October 1973. Despite the efforts of many concerned citizens, architectural professionals, and a committee of SOB’s (Save Our Birks Building), the Birks Building was demolished in May of 1974. The loss of the beloved heritage building mobilized the architectural preservation community in Vancouver.  By September 1974, the newly named Vancouver Heritage Advisory Committee (now Vancouver Heritage Commission) was working to advise council on a variety of heritage matters.

635-637 E. Hastings Street. The best part of this image is the sign beside the Shamrock Hotel that advertises horse meat roasts and steaks! (CoV Archives – CVA 786-45.11)

The photographs in this 1978 Heritage Advisory Committee survey were broader in scope and breadth than previous heritage surveys. The Committee wanted to include “buildings which had previously been considered of less social (and architectural) interest” and increase the survey breadth by attempting a more “thorough documentation of all areas of the city”.

House at 1843 E. 2nd Avenue – eventually replaced by a Vancouver Special (CoV Archives, CVA 786-73.10)

The Elcho was at  845 Davie Street, 1978. I love the garden space above the entrance. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-7.16)

The availability of these images is a boon to heritage professionals and amateurs alike. Not only as documentation of specific structures, but they are also valuable as evidence of how built Vancouver has changed over the years. Look at these images depicting the foot of West Georgia Street near Denman Street:

1729 W. Georgia Street, 1978. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-8.04)

1781 W. Georgia Street, 1978. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-8.03)

Without the inclusion of the trees of Stanley Park visible in the background of the image above, the area is virtually unrecognizable today.

Many images include aspects of social history (like advertising and fashions) which make them, in my opinion, doubly valuable. It’s hard to pick one’s favourites out of over 2000 photographs, but here are a few of mine:

2417 Main Street, 1978. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-61.18)

802 E. Hastings Street. Look closely and you’ll see a woman wearing the greatest pair of wide leg white jeans ever! (CoV Archives, CVA 786-45.07 )

628-630 Davie Street, 1978. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-7.12 )

1060 W. 6th Avenue, 1978. Now lost, this building if preserved would have been a most interesting warehouse conversion. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-8.11 )

1350 Nanaimo Street, moving east from Strathcona many Italian Canadians settled in Hastings-Sunrise. Look closely and you’ll see a banana seat bike leaning outside the store. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-76.06)

However, my favourite photo of the series doesn’t even depict a heritage building.

Clearly not a heritage building, but certainly worth documenting. Pontiac Firebird window display. (CoV Archives, CVA 786-62.19)

This photograph of a cool Pontiac Firebird window display was probably taken out of admiration by one of the student photographers working on the 1978 summer project. Clearly not part of the scope of the heritage building survey, I love that this image was included in the series.

Check out these great images on the City of Vancouver Archives website here.

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Eleanor Collins: Vancouver’s First Lady of Jazz

Several years ago I worked in the CBC Vancouver Media Archives on a film preservation project. The content introduced me to much of Vancouver’s moving image history as well as the artists and technicians who created that legacy. One of the most fascinating artists to catch my eye and ear was Eleanor Collins.

Publicity portrait of Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Photo Collection

Publicity portrait of Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Photo Collection

My fascination with this amazing woman all started with a single photograph (see above) from the CBC Vancouver Still Photograph Collection. I was mesmerized by her radiance. As a jazz fan, I had to find out more about this performer. Viewing some of her television work from the 50’s & 60’s, I was enthralled by her luminous appearance, her sultry sound, and her magnetic screen presence. But, there is so much more to this fascinating woman…

Known as “Vancouver’s first lady of jazz”, Eleanor Collins was a groundbreaking figure in Canadian entertainment history. She had a longtime association working with Vancouver’s leading musicians on CBC radio and television. Throughout her career, Eleanor was known as the consummate professional, able to take any song and give it meaning.  ‘Vancouver Sun’ nightlife and celebrity columnist Jack Wasserman once wrote about Eleanor- “She could start fires by rubbing two notes together!”

August 14, 1963 CBUT program,

August 14, 1963 CBUT program, “Showcase” production still – Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

Elnora (Eleanor) Collins was born on November 21, 1919, in Edmonton, the middle child of three sisters born to pioneering parents who came to Alberta in 1910 via the United States. They were part of a group of Black homesteaders drawn to Canada by advertising offering affordable homesteading opportunities in Canada’s west.

In the 1930s, when Eleanor’s father was incapacitated and unable to work, her mother was left to raise their three daughters on her own. To support the family, Eleanor’s mother Estelle boldly approached city officials to allow her to set up a home laundry business so that she would not have to rely on Relief,  but could earn her own money to support her family. It was a fearless move, which resulted in success.  Eleanor credits her mother for her own spiritual grounding and her ‘can-do’ attitude towards life.

A natural talent with a good ear for music, Eleanor was brought up with a tradition of family musical evenings. Each member of the extended family was expected to participate by either singing, playing an instrument, or reciting verse. Eleanor’s family was often asked to perform for their community and church. In 1934, at the age of 15, Eleanor won an amateur talent contest in Edmonton. These early experiences were her “music school” and laid the foundation for her future career as a performer.

In 1939, following in her sister Ruby’s footsteps, Eleanor moved to Vancouver. She was immediately smitten by Vancouver’s mild winters and almost year-round access to outdoor activities like tennis, cycling around Stanley Park, and Pro-Rec . It was on the tennis courts in Stanley Park where she met the man who would become her life partner of 70 years, Richard (Dick) Collins. They married in 1942 and settled into homemaking and rearing a family of four children in Burnaby.

The Collins family at home in the 1960s.

The Collins family at home in the 1960s. Photo: Franz Lindner

Moving into an all-white neighborhood in the late 1940s proved to be a problem for the Collins’ when neighbours started a petition against the family in an attempt to intimidate them from settling into their new home. Instead of getting angry, Eleanor and her family got busy. In order to combat the ignorance and misguided attitudes of her new neighbours, Eleanor and her family immersed themselves in their new community by participating in local activities, events, and organizations. By showing their new neighbours that they were “ordinary people with the same values and concerns as they had”, Eleanor and her family broke down barriers by inviting others to see beyond a person’s skin colour.

“Be at the right place at the right time. And wherever it is, blossom.”-Eleanor Collins

Eleanor’s career in radio began in 1945 when she accompanied a friend to the CBC radio studios in the Hotel Vancouver.  There she met Vancouver musician Ray Norris, who quickly put her to work as a singer on a radio show. During her radio career in the 1940s, Eleanor first sang with a group called The Three E’s and later with a quartet (that included her sister Ruby) called the Swing Low Quartet. She was also invited to join the Ray Norris led, CBC Radio Jazz series called Serenade in Rhythm.

Eleanor singing in the 1940s. Photo: Jack Lindsay, COV Archives, CVA-1184-1220

Eleanor singing in the 1940s. Photo: Jack Lindsay, COV Archives, CVA-1184-1220

Her work with CBC radio (CBU Vancouver) naturally evolved into working for Vancouver’s first television station CBUT (CBC Vancouver).  CBUT went on the air in December of 1953. In the beginning, CBUT broadcast very little local programming. Its programming scope increased considerably in 1954 with the arrival of the mobile television unit, and when the completion of the CBUT television studios permitted the first live broadcasts. The first live musical/dance broadcast out of Vancouver was a programme called Bamboula: a day in the West Indies featuring Eleanor Collins and the Leonard Gibson Dancers. Lasting only 3 episodes (August 25, September 1 & 8 1954) Bamboula featured the “music, folklore, voodoo ritual and popular music of the Caribbean countries”. Produced by Mario Prizek and choreographed by Len Gibson. Bamboula was groundbreaking – not only was it the first television show in Canada to feature a mixed-race cast, but also was the first (of many) musical/dance programmes produced out of Vancouver. Being involved in such an open and creative community, that were those early days of CBC TV would have been very exciting to an artist like Eleanor.

In this excerpt from the program she sings the jazz standard “Ill Wind (You’re Blowin’ Me No Good)“.

After Bamboula, Eleanor made guest appearances in other musical variety programs alongside musicians and singers from the local music scene such as Parade (1954), Riding High, and Back-o-Town Blues (1955). Her talent, professionalism, and charm were undeniable and soon Collins had her own national television series, The Eleanor Show. Alan Millar was the host for this summer of 1955 weekly music series starring Collins and pianist Chris Gage and accompanied by the Ray Norris Quintet. Regular performers on the show include dancers Leonard Gibson and Denise Quan. The show first aired on CBUT Channel 2, Sunday, June 12, 1955, at 10 pm. At a time when she “didn’t see a lot of my people on TV”, being the first black artist in North America to star in her own national television series was a significant milestone. Eleanor beat Nat King Cole’s achievement of being the first black performer to star in their own show on American television by over a year – The Nat King Cole Show debuted November 1956 on NBC. It’s also to her credit that she became the first Canadian female artist to have her own TV series. She is truly a television pioneer.

August 7 1955.

August 7 1955. “Eleanor” (l-r) Juliette Cavazzi, Alan Millar, Eleanor Collins. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

In 1961, Eleanor was joined by the Chris Gage Trio appearing in a program called Blues and the Ballad. Three years later in 1964, she was again starring in her own music TV series simply titled Eleanor. In this l964 Eleanor series, Collins was backed once more by the Chris Gage Trio. They performed their renditions of show tunes and popular music from the United States. Guests included local jazz musicians such as Carse Sneddon, Fraser MacPherson, and Don Thompson.

Eleanor Collins with the Chris Gage (Piano) Trio - Stan

Eleanor Collins with the Chris Gage (Piano) Trio – Stan “Cuddles” Johnson on bass, and Jimmy Wightman on drums, CBUT-TV studios. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

In addition to her extensive work on local CBC radio & television, Eleanor was also involved in local theatre appearing in several TUTS (Theatre Under The Stars) and Avon Theatre productions such as You Can’t Take it With You (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Finian’s Rainbow (1952 & 1954). Eleanor was able to introduce her children to the performing arts when they appeared with her in various productions for TUTS and on CBC Radio and Television. In 1952 Eleanor and her four children appeared in the TUTS musical production of Finian’s Rainbow at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. For this production “they put dark make-up on one of the ladies who could sing and used her as the Sharecropper–a bigger role,” Collins explains. When the show remounted in 1954, Eleanor accepted the offer to perform in it again, but on one condition: “I need to be doing the Sharecropper,” she told them. And so she did. Once again her personal strength and her belief in doing, what was right, saw her through.

Here is a clip of Eleanor singing “Look to the Rainbow” from Finian’s Rainbow on CBC TV in 1980.

Eleanor was committed to her family and community. As a result, she felt she “would have to limit my singing career to work in Vancouver”. There’s no doubt that Eleanor had the talent to go much further in her career, but fleeting fame wasn’t what she wanted out of life. So she turned down opportunities with American recording companies and glamorous nightclub engagements in the States. She did so without regret. Her work at CBC and her singing engagements around town in Vancouver’s vibrant jazz community kept her plenty busy. Vancouverites should consider themselves fortunate to have had such an amazing local talent like Ms. Collins in their midst.

Eleanor Collins publicity still

Eleanor Collins CBC publicity still, 1960s. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

The popularity of musical variety shows ebbed and musical tastes changed by the late 1960s and Eleanor’s performing career subsided. She kept very engaged by focusing her attention on her own personal and spiritual growth. Eleanor served as musical director at Unity Church.

She also managed to keep her hand in public performance during the 1970s. One of the most memorable was her performance in front of an audience of 80,000 for the Canada Day Ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1975. Performing for the largest live audience of her career, she recalls looking out from the stage at a mass of people holding candles. “Suddenly it came very clearly that I was Canadian,” Eleanor recalls fondly, “and to be proud of it.

In the 1980s her family was featured in a segment of a documentary called “Hymn to Freedom: The History of Blacks in Canada Series”. She was also profiled on the CBC television newsmagazine style programs Take 30 (1976) and Here & Now (1988).

In 2009, Eleanor turned 90. This event was celebrated on the long-running CBC Radio jazz show, Hot Air, with a feature on the fabulous Ms. Collins produced by Paolo Pietropaolo. In her 90s Eleanor Collins is still very active and engaged in the community. In the last couple of years, she sang at her friend Marcus Mosely’s “Stayed on Freedom Concerts” as well as performing at the memorial for legendary singer and performer Leon Bibb held January 10, 2016.

Video Feature on Eleanor at the age of 95,  with her singing at the Stayed on Freedom Concert.

Eleanor has received many honours over her lifetime. In 1986 she was recognized as a Distinguished Pioneer by the City of Vancouver. More recently, she was invested with the Order of Canada in 2014 for her pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th Century.  I asked her what it felt like for her to receive the Order of Canada award. She replied-

“You know, Christine, I am often asked how it feels to be given the Order of Canada and, of course, the bottom line is that I feel very blessed to have my life and work acknowledged by my Country. But the reality of the actual experience of traveling to Ottawa on my 95th Birthday, finding myself in the midst of a very grand event at Rideau Hall and standing before the Governor General and a room full of so many other outstanding Canadians being honoured for their excellence … well, it feels nothing short of surreal! Truly, I am still trying to process that whirlwind weekend of events.”

As an Order of Canada recipient, she is being further honoured with her inclusion in a new book celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Order of Canada along with Canada’s 150th Anniversary titled: “They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories”.  Out of the 7000 recipients of the Order, Eleanor was one of only 50 individuals to be featured in this book, a collection of inspiring stories showcasing remarkable individuals who reflect who we are and what the Order means to the nation.

Eleanor Collins in 2014. Photo: Ghassan Shanti , courtesy of Eleanor Collins

Eleanor Collins in 2014 looking fabulous. Photo: Ghassan Shanti, courtesy of Eleanor Collins

Now in her 98th year, Eleanor feels fortunate to have enough good health and vitality to live independently in her own home. She practices healthy living and carries a positive spirit as part of her daily routine, filling her days with “lots of good music, good television, good food, and good family and friends”. Ms. Collins explains, “typically you’ll find me preparing to tuck into a very nutritious meal while enjoying a favourite watch like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ or one of the other showcases for today’s young talent. That’s where it is at…ushering in the best of the new generations!”

“It’s all music, really. Life is.”-Eleanor Collins

Many thanks to Eleanor Collins and her daughter Judith Maxie for all their help with this post.

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Her name was Lulu, she was a showgirl

Lulu Island (Richmond)

Lulu Island (Richmond) – Detail, Map 879,  CoV Archives.

Ever wonder how Lulu Island (on which the City of Richmond now sits) got its “fanciful” name? Lulu Island was named after a showgirl, but not just any showgirl. Miss Lulu Sweet was a young stage actress from the US who, along with the theatrical troupe to which she belonged, performed in Colonial British Columbia in the early 1860s. Lulu Sweet appeared locally on stages in New Westminster and Victoria. Much praised in the press, her demeanor, acting, and graceful manners were so admired that even Colonel Richard Moody, Commander of the Royal Engineers stationed in New Westminster, was smitten. As it was he who named the largest island in the estuary of the Fraser River after her.

Miss Lulu Sweet.

Miss Lulu Sweet ca. 1860s.

Not much is known about Miss Lulu Sweet, but I was able to cobble together a little bit about her and the story of the naming of Lulu Island. The exact details sometimes vary or are vague, according to several sources (including Thomas Kidd, Chuck Davis, Chad Evans, Art Downs, Richard Wolfenden and the Daily British Colonist) the basic story is as follows:

Miss Lulu Sweet was a member of the Potter Troupe, an American Music-Hall troupe from San Francisco. The troupe “of fifteen Ladies and Gentlemen of acknowledged talent and respectability” first appeared in Victoria on October 8, 1860, at the Colonial Theatre. Miss Lulu Sweet (about 16 years old) and her mother Mrs. E. Sweet were in the cast that performed that evening. The troupe arrived in Victoria from San Francisco aboard the steamer, Brother Jonathan.

Arrivals in Victoria showing the Potter Troupe and Miss Lulu Sweet, Daily British Colonist October 8, 1861

Miss Lulu Sweet, something of a child star in San Francisco in the late 1850s, was a theatrical triple threat. In the press she was extolled as “the beautiful Juvenile Actress, Songstress and Danseuse”– who became the darling of the Victoria and the New Westminster theatrical scene (such as it was).

Praise for Miss Sweet in the press from the other side of the border:

Miss Lulu Sweet, familiarly known as “Sweet Lulu”, though quite young has already earned a flattering reputation as songstress and danseuse – Oregon Argus, June 16, 1860

 

Miss Lulu Sweet is well known to the people hereabouts; she has improved much since we last saw her, and grown womanly. Instead of seeing her as in days before, la petite Lulu, we see her as a grown and accomplished actress, with all the charms incident to her beauty – Red Bluff Beacon, 13 July 1859

 

I liken her popularity in colonial British Columbia to that of a young Mary Pickford, who was one of the most popular film actresses of the 1910’s and 1920s.

After a three-month theatrical run in Victoria, the Potter Troupe set sail on December 20, 1860, for New Westminster and the Pioneer Theatre. Capt. John T. Walbran, who wrote British Columbia Coast Names, noted that the Potter Troupe was the first Theatrical troupe to ever appear in New Westminster.

It is important to note at this point in the story that Colonial British Columbia was a rough and tumble place and mainly a land of men (and not necessarily gentlemen). With nothing of a society to speak of, I imagine having talented, young gentile ladies (actresses) coming to town would have been quite a big deal to those socially starved residents (like the officers in the Royal Engineers). Her appearance in the area, according to Thomas Kidd, no doubt added to “the gaiety of that part of the British Nation”.

New Westminster ca. 1863.

New Westminster ca. 1863, at least two years after Miss Lulu Sweet first appeared in the Colony of British Columbia.

This first series of appearances of Miss Lulu Sweet and the Potter Troupe in New Westminster ended January 11, 1861. According to Chuck Davis, Lulu Sweet became one of the favourite performers of the Royal Engineers, who were stationed in the Lower Mainland and built much of the infrastructure of the young colony on behalf of the British Empire.

After their successful engagement in New Westminster, the Troupe (including Miss Lulu Sweet) then traveled back to Victoria on January 12, 1861,aboard aboard the steamer Otter. It was on this trip that the tale of how Lulu Island got its name took place.

Daily Colonist January 15, 1861. Lulu Sweet arrives back in Victoria aboard the Otter.

Daily British Colonist January 15, 1861. Lulu Sweet arrives back in Victoria aboard the Otter – there is no mention of the Emily Harris*.

While the steamer Otter (some accounts name the steamer Emily Harris*) was en route to Vancouver Island. Colonel Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers (Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works in the Colony of British Columbia), was also on board the steamer. It seems that Col. Moody had been to several of the Potter Troupe’s performances at the Pioneer Theatre (in late December 1860 and early January 1861), where he had become quite enamored of Miss Lulu Sweet, “the lovely ingénue who had captured the heart of New Westminster”.

Col. Richard Moody

Colonel Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers.

The story goes that Col. Moody accompanied Miss Lulu Sweet on deck as the Otter (or Emily Harris) traveled the Fraser River on its way to Victoria. While he was pointing out various landmarks to her, they passed by a large island. Miss Sweet asked him what it was called. The Colonel replied that it had no name, “but in tribute to you we shall call it Lulu Island”. It has also been suggested that Colonel Moody exclaimed: “By Jove! I’ll name it after you”. Whether by Jove or in tribute, several accounts corroborate that Lulu Island was indeed named in honour of Miss Lulu Sweet. By 1862 (1863) Lulu Island was officially on the next British Admiralty chart of the area.

Col. Moody was only one of Lulu’s admirers. “Come back to us” noted the Daily British Colonist Newspaper, August 25, 1862. “Lulu Sweet or ‘Sweet Lulu’ as the Oregonians appropriately call her, arrived on the Oregon and will appear this evening as Pauline… Lulu is a charming little actress, and used to take Victoria by storm a year and half ago.”

Daily Colonist September 8, 1862. Sweet Lulu is back in town.

Daily British Colonist September 8, 1862. “Sweet Lulu” is back in town.

“Her conduct, acting and graceful manners gave great satisfaction” Lieutenant-Colonel R. Wolfenden (of the Royal Engineers under Col. Moody) assured Captain John T. Walbran, “and were appreciated to such an extent by her friends and patrons that the island was named after her”. Capt. John T. Walbran wrote British Columbia Coast Names originally published in 1909, reprinted in 1971.

Lulu Sweet (actress) is listed in the San Francisco city directories (1862-64) as living at 30 John Street.  Sweet stayed with the theatre until 1865 when she married Mr. Smith in San Francisco. She died in 1914 in Burlingame, California.

 

 

Fun Fact: Early residents (farmers mainly) of Lulu Island used to be known as Mudflatters. Much of Richmond was muddy and swampy, and their greatest concern was the building of dikes and obtaining potable water.

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Sidewalk prisms of Vancouver

I was a shy child. Consequently, I spent a lot of time avoiding eye contact by looking down at the ground. All this time looking down at my feet allowed me to regard the ground upon which I was walking. Thus it was as a child that I first noticed the purple squares embedded in sidewalks.

Have you ever been walking in an older part of the city and noticed a checker board grid of purple squares under your feet?

Sidewalk prism light mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

Sidewalk prism lights mosaic. Photos: C. Hagemoen

No, they are not simply sidewalk decoration [wouldn’t that be nice?] but rather a system to illuminate spaces under sidewalks called areaways. Sidewalk prisms, also known as vault lights (or pavement lights in the UK), are glass prisms set into sidewalks in order to reflect the natural light from above, safely illuminating these subterranean spaces. [Why are they purple? The answer to that is at the end of the post].

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Alvin Lesk and his Victory One Man Band

The first time I saw this intriguingly odd photo on the City of Vancouver Archives website, I was inspired to know more about the photo and Alvin Lesk and his Victory One Man Band.

Alvin Lesk with his dummies of public figures on the north side of the 600 block West Georgia Street. Photo COV Archives, CVA 1184-60 - Jack Lindsay, Vancouver News-Herald

Alvin Lesk with his dummies of public figures on the north side of the 600 block West Georgia Street. Photo COV Archives, CVA 1184-60 – Jack Lindsay, Vancouver News-Herald

The photo depicts Lesk and life sized effigies representing the leaders of the Axis and the Allies. The photograph, dated February 1942, is from a series of photographs taken for the Vancouver News-Herald newspaper by photographer Jack Lindsay.

I made a trip to the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch to search the historic newspaper microfilm reels to see if I could find the photograph in a February 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald. It wasn’t long before I found the image (or a version thereof) in the Thursday, February 19th edition of the Vancouver News-Herald. Unfortunately, the image that appears in the paper has cropped out Alvin Lesk and only focuses on his effigies.

Photo in the Thursday, February 19th 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald.

Photo in the Thursday, February 19th 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald.

Here is the caption that accompanies the newspaper photo:

Here’s Alvin Lesk’s ideas of how the war should end — Churchill, Uncle Sam and Stalin standing erect over the crumpled beaten forms of a cartoonist’s version of the Axis trio — a frustrated Japanese, a sobbing Hitler and a dour mouthed Mussolini. Lesk has built life-sized effigies to enact the scene and has them on display on Georgia Street, near Granville. He originally planned to put the fascist chieftains in a jail on a trailer, but couldn’t find parking space.

When I discovered that Lesk had originally planned to put the Axis leaders in a jail, the sign that the Churchill effigy holds then makes a little more sense:

This is where We would like the Axis Gang, Help put them there! Buy the new Victory Bonds!

The Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Victory Loans states that “Victory Loans were Canadian government appeals for money to finance the war effort in WWI and WWII” through the purchase of Victory Bonds.

Save to Beat the Devil - Canadian World War II Poster. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-1220

Save to Beat the Devil – Canadian World War II Poster. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-1220

Victory Bond sales were slow in Canada at the beginning of WWII, so after “the slow-moving second war loan of 1940, the Victory Loan returned with the panoply of colourful posters, patriotic pleas and vast sales apparatus which had become familiar in WWI”.  Alvin Lesk and his One Man Victory Band were just one example of a local patriotic plea for citizens to buy the “new” Victory Bonds.

Though I had some success finding the photo in the newspaper, I wasn’t very successful finding out anything about Alvin Lesk himself. The city directories of the time only listed a Vera Lesk, who was a musician. I suppose it is possible that they were related, but it would be hard to say definitively. I also checked the Vital Statistics for BC and could only find evidence of members of a Lesk family that lived primarily in New Westminster. Vera Lesk appears to be related to those Lesks. I found no evidence of Alvin Lesk in the BC Vital Statistics.

So for now, it seems that Alvin Lesk himself remains a bit of mystery. He must have felt very strongly about supporting an Allied victory to put so much energy in creating his effigies and promoting the sale of Victory Bonds. I wonder how many Vancouverites were motivated to buy Victory Bonds by Alvin Lesk’s Victory One Man Band and creative street display?

 

Fun Fact: Author Pierre Berton was the News-Herald’s first city editor.

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For the love of old buildings

I no longer live at the corner of 1912 and 1925.  I recently moved into a 103 year old brick apartment building. This was a big change coming from the mid-century (ca. 1960) time-warp apartment I left – wood paneling, pink bathroom suite, Formica countertops – all very Mad Men-esque.

I love old buildings; they often have special architectural details that you just don’t find in newer construction – high ceilings, claw footed tubs, odd little closets, built in furniture etc. This is the third time in my life that I have been fortunate to reside in a heritage building.

The first was an apartment building at 15th and Granville. Originally built in 1912, Shaughnessy Mansions (as it was then known) was designed by the architectural firm of Townsend & Townsend. They were known (infamously perhaps) for a “zig-zag” pattern in the brick work of many of their buildings. A fine example of one of their buildings (still standing) is Quebec Manor at East 7th Ave and Quebec Street.

Photograph shows Shaughnessy Mansions under construction at 15th and Granville, 1912. Photo: Cov Archives - Trans P89.

Photograph shows Shaughnessy Mansions under construction at 15th and Granville, 1912. Photo: Cov Archives – Trans P89.

Despite the noticeably sloping floors and other ‘wabi-sabi’ details that came with age, it was a sturdy old gal. Proving as such when a van smashed into the ground floor early one Sunday AM (at first I thought it was an earthquake).

When the building was sold several years ago it was torn down (save for the front façade) in yet another example of architectural taxidermy that has become popular in Vancouver lately. For those who don’t know, architectural taxidermy is the situation where developers literally “skin” the exterior of an old building and re-apply it to a new structure (stuffed inside). In my opinion, this practice of architectural taxidermy is a pathetic attempt by developers to fulfill their heritage preservation requirements. What is supposed to be seen as a nod to the history of the building is really only lip-service. It should not be confused with actual preservation.

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