Vancouver Impressions

Film Screening – Vancouver Impressions (The early 1960s) – A programme of archival films produced by CBUT (CBC Vancouver) between 1961 and 1965.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the CBC’s (English Services) Mass Digitization Project and their plan to trash all the original analogue media (16mm film, tape, transcription disc, etc.) once digitized.  Their reasoning behind this plan is that they will no longer need the original artefact once it is digitized, so why pay for the storage of this material? In their minds digitization equals preservation – end of story.

This is the height of hubris – CBC [mis]management are so confident in their digitization process that they aren’t even going to consider that anything could ever go wrong in the future, so they do not need to keep the analogue original?  Nor, it seems, do they need to take into consideration that this “plan” is against all archival best practices for digitization. They don’t even appear to be willing to discuss the possibility of working with an outside archival repository to see if a mutually beneficial agreement could be made – like the recent agreement between PNG and the CoV Archives for the Sun & Province newspaper photographs.

CBUT Station ID photo featuring the lights of Granville Street. Photo: Alvin Armstrong.

Sadly, the destruction of original formats is only the tip of the iceberg in this story. The inside scoop is that the selection process is also flawed, namely that much archival material that won’t even make it to the digitization stage of the project. The CBC is only interested in digitizing (saleable) complete programs and not interested in program inserts, individual news items, stox footage, etc.  This means the loss of much of Metro Vancouver’s and the Province’s audio-visual history. Check out my CBUT (CBC Vancouver) posts from a few years ago to see what kind of history could be lost forever: 60th Anniversary of CBUT part 1; Part 2 –All That Jazz ; Part 3 –  1954 British Empire & Commonwealth Games; and Part 4 – Drama from the left coast.

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Example of the kind of material (news film items & film inserts) in the Vancouver Archives that likely won’t be digitized nor kept.

It’s heartbreaking to me – someone who spent 7 years working in the CBC Vancouver Archives identifying, preserving, and cataloguing over 46,000 media artefacts – to hear that all my hard work and the hard work of all my colleagues that worked on the CBC Archives Preservation Project will, for the most part, be for naught. What a waste! This is a major (potential) loss to local Vancouver & BC Audio-Visual history.

It is important that the Canadian public is made aware of the kind of “crown assets” (the CBC is a crown corporation) that the CBC apparently is no longer interested in keeping and safeguarding for future generations. As taxpayers and citizens of this country, this is our collective history that they are putting at risk. This is not acceptable.

So, that is why this screening is so important.

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But, it is not all gloom and doom….this will be a fun and entertaining afternoon. So, I hope you can join me.

Early 1960s Vancouver: a city of neon signs, ‘ladies and escorts’ beer parlour entrances, and low-rise buildings. Vancouver today: a city of tech hubs, anodyne glass towers, and avocado toast.

‘Vancouver Impressions’ is a charming visual time capsule portraying a city much different from the one we know today. These five films represent early local television production when the CBC Vancouver film unit was a distinctive voice from a distinctive region of the country. They had the freedom to produce original stories from and about Vancouver, resulting in a rich catalogue of films that explored regional issues for a local audience. Not only are they illustrative of a lost time and place, but also representative of archives at risk, specifically the wealth of material housed in the CBC Vancouver Media Archives.

Vancouver is always changing, but in many ways stays the same- plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. These films not only document how much the city has changed, they also reveal that its residents had many of the same complaints and concerns we have today. It’s a Vancouver that we may not have known, but somehow are nostalgic for. ‘Vancouver Impressions’ focuses on the relationship between people and their environment and the interrelationships between the tangible and intangible aspects of the city.

Shot in glorious Black & White and featuring an entertaining jazz and folk music soundtrack, ‘Vancouver Impressions’ is an audio-visual collage that is a treat for the eyes and the ears.

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It’s going to be a great show. Most of the material hasn’t been seen publicly since it first aired over 50 years ago! Sadly, this may be one of your last chances to see this material, so don’t miss out.

Films to be screened:

Immigrant Impressions (1965) reveals not what Vancouverites think about the new Canadians in their midst, but rather what these new residents think about their Canadian-born neighbours and the west coast North American way of life. The voices of people representing 10 different countries are heard (but not seen) on the film as part of a montage of audio impressions, which are accompanied by candid views of the city and its people. 28 min. Producer – Doug Gillingham; Screenwriter – David Gray; Photography – Doug McKay; Editor – Mal Baardsnes

A series of short films on everyday people and their jobs produced for the CBUT current events programme The 7 O’Clock Show:

A Day in the Life of a Bus Driver (1965) This short documentary follows a Vancouver bus driver through the course of a working day. His day starts and ends at the Oakridge Transit Centre and we ride along as he travels his route in suburban and downtown Vancouver. 11 min.

A Day in the Life of A Postman (1964) The working day in the life of a Canada Postman is the focus of this short documentary. We follow a postman through a working day as he sorts and then delivers mail on his route (South Granville/Fairview). In voice-over, the unnamed ‘postie’ discusses the details and merits of his job. 8 min.

A Day in the Life of a Waitress (1964) Follows a waitress through a working day at a busy downtown Vancouver coffee shop, the Burrard Coffee Shop in the Burrard Building at Georgia & Burrard. 11 min.

City Song (1961) A “mood piece” about the city and city life depicted from several points of view: the “innocent eyes” of a little girl (Kirstine Murdoch) who wanders and plays alone in Stanley Park – the camera, which looks at the city without emotion, compressing time and distance – the narrators (Art Hives and Wally March), each with a different story to tell – and the folk group, (Joanne Thomas, Kell Winzey, Don Thompson, Clyde Griffiths) performing in the Inquisition Coffee House. The camera explores Vancouver by day and night, revealing both its appealing and alienating aspects. City Song is an unusual and effective synthesis of visual, verbal and musical impressions. 25 min. Producer – Jim Carney; Photography – John Seale; Editor – Arla Saare; Script – Barrie Hale

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Film Screening – Vancouver Impressions (The early 1960s) – A programme of archival films produced by CBUT (CBC Vancouver) between 1961 and 1965.

Vancity Theatre – 1181 Seymour Street

Saturday, June 2, 2018, at 2:15 PM

Tickets and information: viff.org

Trailer:

This screening is presented by Jeffery Chong, Christine Hagemoen, and Colin Preston in association with the Audio-Visual Heritage Association of British Columbia (AVBC), a non-profit society established to promote and facilitate preservation, conservation and public access to the audio-visual heritage of British Columbia and Canada.

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Matilda and Deni: subject & photographer

Mrs. Matilda Boynton poses for the camera in February 1960 just prior to her 103rd birthday. Photo: Deni Eagland, CoV Archives, Port P1622

This striking photograph of Mrs. Matilda Boynton was found in the City of Vancouver Archives. This compelling portrait has a definite Karsh-like quality to it – something I wasn’t expecting to find in the holdings of the Vancouver Archives.

Immediately I was intrigued by the subject (the person in front of the camera) –  a 102-year-old black woman, smoking a cigar. As well as, I was curious about the person who created this portrait, the man behind the camera, Sun newspaper photographer, Deni Eagland.

A note in the online catalogue record of this image indicated that there were notes on the reverse of the image, so I requested to see the orginal print:

Reverse of print. Photo: Deni Eagland, CoV Archives, Port P1622

This photograph was presented to Major Matthews at the CoV Archives by Reuben Hamiliton. In addition to some biographical information, Hamiliton reported that Mrs. Edward Boynton “still use no glasses, no hearing aid, does her own house work” she also “smokes the odd cigar and likes a drink of rum”. At a time when people rarely lived to 100 years of age (let alone 7 years over that) Boynton would have been a very noteworthy person indeed.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more about this rum drinking, cigar smoking, centenarian and more about the newspaper photographer that took this facinating image, Deni Eagland – both living and working in mid-century Vancouver.

First, the Subject – Matilda Boynton: Achieving the status of a centenarian is still considered a pretty big deal these days (even with more people than ever making it past 100 years), but in 1960, it was considered a really big deal!  Which would explain why Mrs. Boynton was being photographed in the first place.

Since Boyton was a bit of a local celeberity, I was able to find some newspaper clippings about her – including the newspaper feature that was the final result of her February 1960 Deni Eagland photo shoot:

The actual version of the Deni Eagland photo that appeared in the Vancouver Sun in 1962. Caption reads: Definitely unimpressed by Swedish campaign against smoking is 103-year-old Mrs. Matilda Boynton, 4135 Fraser. She still smokes four cigars every day, does her own housework. “Cancer?” she says, “if I got it I don’t know about it'”, her ambition is to better family age record of 110. “She will.” says 84-year-old husband, “as long as she gets odd tot of rum.”

Though the pose is similar in both photos – head tossed back, smoking a cigar – the published photo, in my opinion, is not as striking as the first, unpublished image. The rich tonal qualities and fine detail of the photographic print do not translate to the image that appeared in the newspaper. In addition, Matilda Boynton’s forward gaze, reminicient of Manet’s “Olympia”, in the original is directed towards the viewer making the first (unpublished) image more compelling than the published image. Furthermore, when I look at the Eagland print from the Archives I am reminded of the late singer, Cesària Évora, who was often photographed with a cigarette in hand, and those iconic “smoking glamour” hollywood headshots of the past.

Marlene Dietrich in a sultry “smoking glamour” portrait.

In addition to the newspaper clippings I found in the CoV Archives (see below), I was able to locate the following Canadian Press newspaper reference of Matilda Boyton from the Brandon Sun, Feb 15 1965:

Matilda Felt Snake Bite VANCOUVER (CP) – Matilda Boynton remembers being “snake bit” 103 years ago. A rattler bit her left thumb as she was gathering tree bark and she didn’t see or hear it “Felt it, though,” she said Monday in an interview. “They took a chicken, she recounted, beheaded it, gave her intoxicating liquor and put her arm inside the bird “I was ‘out’ for eight days “Guess it saved me,” she said.  – It did. For next Saturday Mrs. Matilda Boynton will be 107 ” least they tell me.” A Tennessee girl, born to slaves in Marion County, she, says her parents died when she was a child. Grandparents took on the chore of her. “Before 1910” she thinks, she came to Vancouver with money saved from picking cotton “Good money but hard, on you.” “I had travelling in my mind, so I came here”

 

Article from 1963 written by Aileen Campbell about Matilda Boynton.

Two newspaper clippings about Matilda Boynton from 1964 and 1965, on the event of her death.

These accounts reveal that, prior to her arrival on the West Coast of Canada, Matilda had lived a very different life compared to the average Vancouverite of the 1960s.  Her “matter-of-fact” account of her early life makes me believe that Matilda was a strong and independent woman, and quite the character. Nevertheless, there are some discrepancies in the newspaper accounts of Matilda’s life; some of the details don’t seem to sync. So, I decided to check some other resources to see if I could clear things up.

Digitized copies of Matilda’s 1965 death certificate, as well as the death certificate of her husband Edward Boynton (also 1965), were available online via BC Archives vital statistics. I was lucky, older versions of BC death certificates (like the Boyntons’) offer some extra genealogical information that isn’t available in the later versions. So, here is the point form “biography” of Matilda Boynton (and Edward Boynton) that I was able to glean from all the available resources:

  • Matilda Boynton was born Matilda Picket in Victoria, Tennessee on Feburary 13th, 1858. The same year that British Columbia offcially became a British colony. She died in Vancouver at the age of 107 on October 1965. She was Vancouver’s “oldest citizen” at that time.
  • Matilda was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Marion County three years before the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865). After her parents died when she was young, she was raised by her grandparents.* – Her father was apparently killed during the Civil War.
  • A page of the 1860 US Census – “Slave Schedule” shows that there was a slave owner named John A. Picket in Marion County, Tennessee. He owned 13 slaves ranging in age from 50 to 3 months. It is difficult to know if there was any connection to Matilda, but it was common at the time for slaves to be assigned the surname of the slave owner.
  • She arrived in Vancouver around 1908 at the age of about 50 *with Edward Boynton.
  • Edward Boynton was Matilda’s second husband. One newspaper account states that she was married while she still lived in Tennessee. It also stated that she had a son from whom she was estranged. *- She married a coal miner in Tennesse.
  • Unfortunately, it is unknown when (or where) the Boyntons married as there is no record of their marriage in the Vital Statistics records of the BC Archives. * – Matilda moved to Seattle and met Edward there around 1904, where she nursed him back to health. They married and moved to Vancouver.
  • City directories list the Boynton’s living at 4195 Fraser starting around 1924 until 1965.
  • Edward’s death certificate reveals that he lived in Vancouver since 1905 and worked as a labourer (mostly for the City of Vancouver) for about 40 years. He retired in 1945.
  • Matilda’s death certificate lists her occupation as “housewife”, a job she did (according to the notation on her death certificate) for 86 years! She also worked as a cotton picker in the U.S. prior to coming to Canada.
  • Edward Boyton died at the age of 92 in January of 1965. He was born in 1872 in Ontario and his death certificate states that his “racial origin” was “White”.

[Note: facts following an asterix ‘*’ indicate updated information ]

Well, that was an unexpected plot twist. Interracial marriages are a non-event these days, but one has to remember in 1960 (and earlier) it would have been a rare thing – Matilda and Edward would have certainly “stood out”.  Eventhough Canada never had outright laws against interracial marriage, at the time the Boyntons married (in the early 20th C) it still would have been considered by many as socially unacceptable and in many states in the U.S. – illegal.  It wasn’t until 1968 when the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state laws prohibiting miscegenation were unconstitutional.  Because of their racial differences, I have to wonder what their personal experiences were, living as a couple in Vancouver, during the first half of the 20thC?  This is the part of Matilda’s life story that I would have liked to been able to have known more about. I’m very curious about people’s life experiences and how they live within their communities.

Matilda Boynton certainly lived a very long, interesting, and somewhat mysterious life. I’m sure there is still more to her story, but that will have to be for another time.

 

Photographer Deni Eagland

The Photographer – Deni Eagland: Of course, we can’t forget about the person behind the camera – the man who took that wonderful portrait of Matilda – Deni Eagland.

Dennis (Deni) Eagland was born in 1928 in Essex and emigrated to Vancouver when he was in his 20s. He was married and he and his wife raised three children. Before he was hired by The Sun Newspaper in 1956, he was the proprietor of  “Deni” – Photo and Art Dealers at 2932 Granville Street. Eagland was initially hired as a wire photo editor, but soon joined the group of talented staff photographers at The Sun.

Among his colleagues, Deni was known as a master portrait photgrapher. The headline from Eagland’s own 1996 obituary reads: “Photographer was the ‘Karsh’ of The Sun”.   Fellow Sun photographer, Ralph Bower said, “as far as I was concerned, [Eagland] was the Karsh of the photo department, he was great at portraits”. The comparison to Yousuf Karsh, Canada’s most celebrated portrait photographer of the 20th Century, is high praise indeed.

An award-winning photographer, Eagland was responsible for numerous iconic Sun photographs of the 20th Century. Many of which have recently appeared in former PNG News Research Librarian Kate Bird’s  Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from a Decade that Changed the City and her latest book, City on Edge. Both books feature historic Vancouver Sun and Province Newspaper photos and were the basis for two exhibits at the MOV.

Two of Deni Eagland’s photos. L: Foncie Pulice – August 28, 1970 Deni Eagland (The Vancouver Sun 70-1931) and R: 1960 Portrait of John Koerner by Deni Eagland.

Eagland was much admired by his colleagues. Sun columnist, Denny Boyd, once called Eagland a “blithe spirit” and “a plump ball of sunshine warming the chilly newsroom all those years”.  In 1996, former Sun fashion reporter Virginia Leeming recounted her experience of working with Eagland as the Sun’s “unofficial fashion photographer” in 1983: “Our weekly sessions in the studio or on location were usually hilarious. Deni’s sense of humor was infectious and he had the model and me in stitches laughing”

Vancouver Sun reporter, John Mackie also worked with “Deni the great” and wrote this 2012 piece about the “hellraisers” in the “good old days” at the Sun’s photo department.  Mackie said that Deni was best buddies with Dan Scott, another Sun photographer, “the late, great Ian Lindsay used to tell all sorts of Deni and Danny stories”.

Mackie also got me in touch with Deni’s grandson, Nick Eagland, who currently works for both The Vancouver Sun and The Province under the PNG umbrella.  Nick told me he thinks his grandfather would “be in a laughing fit if he knew I’d ended up in the biz”. Proud owner of his “grandpa’s old Pentax 67 camera”, Nick says he loves “going on assignment with our photographers who still have all these great, totally unpublishable stories of my grandpa’s time at the old Sun buildings”.

Known for his great sense of humour, generous spirit, love of flying and many mischievous capers – there are many great stories about Deni Eagland out there, but apparently most of them are not fit to print in mxed company!  Some of the “PG” stories about Deni include him: fishing with dynamite, accidently eating one of his photo assignments ( a tomato that looked like Winston Churchill), and having free-range cows eat the fabric off the wings of his floatplane while he was off shooting wildflowers.

Eagland worked as a Sun photographer for almost 35 years before retiring to the Cariboo in 1990. Sadly, he died of cancer at the age of 67 in 1996.

Both Matilda Boynton and Deni Eagland are the type of “average joe” personalities from Vancouver’s past that I love learning about, and would have liked to have personally known.

UPDATE: So, Matilda’s story (and my story) were featured in the February 17, 2018 edition of the Sun’s “This Week In History” series written by John Mackie. After my blog post was published, he found a “Matilda Boynton file”  in the archives at the Sun. New personal information (and some great photos) found that file are presented in Mackie’s piece. I’ve updated my original piece with some of the newly discovered facts (indicated by an asterix ‘*’).

Matilda and Edward Boynton (with cat) in 1961. Photo: Chuck Jones / PNG

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Fellini

What do Christmas, Federico Fellini and my grandfather have in common?

This…

And it was the last Christmas he was away, shortly after this drawing was made my grandfather was injured and was eventually discharged and made his way home in April 1945. Drawing from the “Funny Face Shop” in Rome, 1944.

My grandmother received this charming drawing all the way from Italy in December 1944. Which, coincidentally, happened to be around the same time that my grandfather was injured at the Lamone River in Italy. For some reason, it was only recently that my mother noticed the information on the reverse of the image. According to the stamp on the back of the drawing, my grandfather got it from the “Funny Face Shop” on Via Nazionale in Rome.

Imagine our suprise we we learned that the “Funny Face Shop” was once a wartime venture of Italian film director, Federico Fellini!

Before he was world famous film director and screenwiter, Federico Fellini drew caricatures for a living during the chaotic period that followed the liberation of Rome in 1944. Fellini first came to Rome in 1939, ostensively to go to University. However, that was not the case. After a few missteps, he eventually began working for Marc’Aurelio, an Italian satirical magazine. During his time at Marc’Aurelio (1939-1942) Fellini connected with other writers and screenwriters, and he eventually began to write for radio and films. After the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, the situation in Rome became desperate – as portrayed in the film “Rome, Open City” or “Roma città aperta” [More about that later].

By June 1944, when the Allies liberated Rome there were shortages of everything. The social system had broken down, and there were people who didn’t have a place to live or food to eat. Federico Fellini struggled to find work. There was no work in film, radio drama or newpapers – all fields that Fellini had worked in previously. So Fellini decided to fall back on his “boyhood career” as a portrait artist when he and Demos Bonini opened a portrait shop called “Febo” in the Italian town of Rimini. Together with a few writer and film friends (among them Vittorio De Sica) Fellini opened a caricature shop (una bottega della caricatura) called the Funny Face Shop on the busy Via Nazionale. At the shop they drew thumbnail portraits and caricatures (by Fellini himself) of the Allied GIs for delivery overseas.

Though American soldiers were the shop’s main customers, soldiers from other Allied countries also visited the shop. One such Canadian soldier was my grandfather Pete, who was serving with the Seaforth Highlanders. Sometime in the fall of 1944, my grandfather was in Rome and visited the Funny Face Shop and posed for the drawing above.

Fellini outside his “Funny Face” shop on Via Nazionale in Rome. A sign placed by Fellini outside the shop said: “Watch Out! The Most Ferocious and Amusing Caricaturists Are Eyeing You! Sit Down, If You Dare, and Tremble!”

Fellini and the other artists at the Funny Face Shop created a series of vignettes or “scenes” of amusing situations: a soldier at the Coliseum that killed a lion, or in Naples on a small boat that fished a mermaid, or a soldier at the Trevi Fountain. Each situation was reproduced in multiple copies where the head of the soldier consisted of an empty oval space. The soldiers would arrive in the shop, choose a scene and then pose for Fellini to add the soldier’s caricatured features to complete the scene. In my grandfather’s case it was a sentimental Christmas scene that included a quick sketch of my grandmother.

Detail of drawing…an original Federico Fellini!

The shop became a meeting place for the soldiers – Fellini likened it to a saloon in the old west. One evening when the shop was crowded with soldiers in sauntered film director, Roberto Rosselini. He was here to talk to Fellini about his new film project on the life of Don Morosini. Rosselini wanted Fellini to collaborate on the screenplay and convince his friend, actor Aldo Fabrizi, to take part in the project. That film about the life of Don Morosini became the Italian neorealist film, Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City). The rest, as they say, is Italian neorealism history.

Shooting for Rome, Open City began January 1945. The film was possibly still in production by the time my grandfather returned home to Vancouver in April of 1945.

My grandmother and mother (3 1/2) greet my grandfather at the CPR station in Vancouver, April 1945. This photo was taken for The Province newspaper.

 

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any other “Funny Face Shop” drawings. However, more of Fellini’s later drawings and caricatures can be seen here.

Fellini’s drawing of Aldo Fabrizi, star of Rome, Open City (1945)

 

 

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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.

 

Postscript:

Removing streetcar tracks in the 200-block East Georgia at Main streets in March 1961. This view looks west. Note the old Georgia Viaduct in the background. Photo: Dan Scott / PNG

This photo was recently published in the Sun to illustrate a story about PNG donating its historical photo collection to the City of Vancouver Archives. It shows the 200 block of East Georgia and shows the neon sign for Sarah’s Cafe!

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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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