THE GREAT FRIDOLIN
Montreal’s Fridolin writes his own revue, backs it, produces it, stars in it . . . and nets $50,000 in a nine-week season
EVERY NOW and then an insignificant little man — a certain M. Gratien Gélinas of Montreal, whose name means nothing in New York— turns up at the stage door of one of the Broadway theatres, pen and book in hand, waiting for the autograph of a star. In a tight-fitting navy-blue serge topcoat and a hard-rimmed homburg, tilted cautiously on one side, he looks like a little clerk, not too well off or too well nourished, and serious to the point of pathos. Sometimes he waits for hours in the cold and rain only to have the star sail by him in a whirl of mink and orchids. When that happens, M. Gélinas shrugs his thin shoulders, goes on his way. He didn’t get the autograph but he got something he wanted much more - the knowledge of what it feels like to be the little guy who waited in the cold and rain only to get the brush-off.
To M. Gélinas, who has built a career that many a Broadway star would envy, by being just a little guy,
such treatment by the great of the moment must bring a chuckle of amusement. In his own city of Montreal he is not plain M. Gélinas, he is “The Great Fridolin,” the mime who packs them in at the rate of 1,400 a performance, who plays for only nine weeks in the year, after which he retires to his country place at Oka, Que., with a rumored $50,000 in his pocket.
Although this figure is possibly fabulous to the extent of a few thousands, M. Gélinas’ success is not. For eight years now he has been producing an annual revue written by M. Gélinas, directed by M. Gélinas, backed by M. Gélinas, starring Fridolin— who is also M. Gélinas.
To produce this show M. Gélinas takes a risk that most theatrical people would prefer to split several ways—he puts up $75,000, a fair price for a show, even on Broadway. For this he hires 20 or 25 actors, a line of 12 beautiful girls, an orchestra of 20, two managers and 14 stagehands; provides a glitter and gorgeousness in costumes and settings that might be described as supercolossal. What he is really doing is betting that $75,000 on a little guy named Fridolin— a grubby gamin in the ragged blue-and-white striped sweater of Les Canadiens, with short trousers held up by suspenders, running shoes on his quick feet and a cap on the back of his impudent head.
For it’s not the tinsel or the cheesecake that brings out the French Canadians but Fridolin. As the undersized and not very handsome fellow who wants only to be loved but never gets the girl, he makes them laugh,
laughter that comes very close to tears. As the tough street Arab with the slingshot, who cracks down on politicians, cracks down on the French-Canadian people and the weaknesses he sees in them, he makes them laugh again, the laughter that leaves a bitter taste behind it.
To Canadians who do not know French and do not know Fridolin, he might best be compared to Charlie Chaplin of “Modern Times.” He has the Chaplin wistfulness, the Chaplin genius for pantomime, the later-Chaplin urge to put over a message of social significance. But Fridolin is no copy of anyone. In nationality he’s pure French Canadian, so much so that he’s regarded as something between an actor and a national institution. In personality he has two facets. One is the rough, tough street urchin of Montreal’s East Side, the other the wistful little chap of whom M. Gélinas says with a smile, “I guess that part must be myself.”
Before he was Fridolin M. Gélinas was in the insurance business, first as an accountant, latterly in publicity, and there has been much speculation as to how Fridolin came into being. One story is that he sprang full grown, at an insurance convention, out of a couple of unaccustomed glasses of something or other which M. Gélinas had been persuaded to drink, and that M. Gélinas, who had hitherto been quiet, circumspect and serious, was suddenly recognized as a wow. This occasion may or may not have been the
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springboard for Fridolin, who did make a semiprofessional appearance on a show staged by a couple of newspaper men and from there got a two weeks’ engagement at a night club, which closed down shortly after.
Actually Fridolin is no such creation of a moment, but the offspring of the life and thoughts of a man who took things more seriously than most, worked harder than most and managed to see a bright thread of comedy through it all. Another story told of him is that M. Gélinas went on a pilgrimage to Ste. Anne de Beaupre to obtain divine approval for devoting his life to the theatre.
Meet The Man
The man, M. Gratiën Gélinas, is something of a disappointment to meet. Eight years in the theatre have left no smear of grease paint on him. In appearance he’s still the accountant, expressionless of face, meticulous in dress. He’s small, five feet three and 118 pounds, which wears down to 112 while he’s doing a show. He’s colorless, with light-brown hair, grey-blue eyes and a Gallic darkness of skin that gives him the unreal effect of a photograph in pale sepia. If he sees anything funny in life M. Gélinas does not show it. His long upper lip and protruding lower lip combine to give an effect of heartrending gloom, his eyes have no sparkle. Only his short turned-up nose indicates any comic possibilities.
How M. Gélinas became a comedian is a long and rather sad story. He first felt the dramatic urge at the age of four on hearing a friend of the family recite. “I could have listened to him for hours,” he recalls. When he was six an unthinking aunt fanned the dramatic embers to a flame that would not be put out by taking him to the theatre to see a love-triangle murder melodrama. “I can still see the knife going into that poor man’s back,” he says, with a shiver of delight.
From then on the theatre was his one great pleasure. The Gélinas were poor but respectable. From his window little Gratiën could see the rowdy East Side boys in their blue-and-white Canadien hockey sweaters, but he wasn’t allowed to play with them. At the College de Montreal, where he took a classics course, he studied hard to make something of himself. In those years his big joy was being allowed to take part in a school play; his big sorrow that he was never cast in the role of the hero. “I wasn’t very handsome,” he explains with a smile.
When he graduated, with the equivalent of a senior matric, he had to earn his living, and it was 1929. Seeing no great prospects in the theatre he took a $10-a-week job in a department store selling blankets. Two months later he joined an insurance firm as an accountant at $70 a month, decided that was not enough and that he should take a business training. To do this he applied for and got a scholarship for the School of Commercial Studies, the first qualification for which was “being poor.” For the next three years he worked for the insurance company, went to night school five evenings a week, sold shoes Saturday afternoon at 50c an hour for the first two hours and 25c after that. Occasionally he managed to read a part on the radio, take a role in an amateur play. “At the same time,” he says, “I was courting my wife for a couple of hours a week.”
After three years of commercial school M. Gélinas got a raise and got married. Still regarding insurance as
his career, he began an actuarial course. “This was punishment for me,” he says “but it’s not only what you like that you must do.” After a year he gave it up, being “unable to face dealing with figures all my life.” The experience is one he does not regard as wasted. “It’s a good thing for an artist to know how to count.”
Fridolin Is Created
Looking back Gratiën Gélinas realizes he sacrificed the years between 18 and 25 when “I knew I was going somewhere but didn’t know where.” His dramatic activities had risen no higher than readings in drawing-rooms, which gave him very little satisfaction because he saw that people weren’t interested. “I could have stopped and it would not have changed anything,” he admits. In an effort to gain a hearing he turned to comedy, found that people were beginning to listen. At first he took his material from digests of humorous stories and adapted stuff from other books. Cautiously he began inserting jokes of his own making, found they were getting a laugh. Then he wrote his first Fridolinesque monologue: “Le Bon Petit Garçon et le
Méchant Petit Garçon.” It was at this point that the two newspapermen picked him up, gave him a spot in their show.
From then on Fridolin began to grow, a little guy made up of the yearnings of a not very happy small boy and the humor of a man who was able to look back with a smile. Even his name came from a childhood memory from “The Good Little Fridolin,” a story which M. Gélinas has long forgotten but whose name flashed back into his mind when he was wondering what to call his stage creation.
At the same time M. Gélinas picked up what acting experience he could. He played with Little Theatre groups and still looks back on his Dr. Caius in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with the Montreal Repertory, as one of the great moments of his life. He took any radio jobs that were offered him with or without pay. The first of these was lecturing on French poets and illustrating them with recitations. His opinion of this is that culturally and dramatically it was “of no importance whatsoever.” Then he played small dramatic roles in radio adaptations of French - Canadian novels, “always small parts at $5 a shot.” His first commercial spot was on “Le Cure de village,” a high-class soap opera of rural life, which he still regards as good. This established him as a radio actor and he was offered a comedy program at $30 a week. This he turned down, partly because the money wasn’t good enough, partly because he felt he wasn’t ready. A year later a commercial firm made him a better offer, his own show to be written by himself for himself. This was the turning point for M. Gélinas. He had to choose between radio and insurance, between an assured livelihood and taking a chance on something he wanted to do. “I had a wife and child to support,” he explains his hesitation. “I asked my wife and she said go ahead.”
As he says this he looks around his sleek and modern green and ivory studio lined with pictures of The Great Fridolin and seems a trifle surprised and relieved to find himself there. “She might easily have said no, and I could not have blamed her.”
The First Revue
That was in the fall of ’37 and six months later, in the spring of '38, M. Gélinas put on the first Fridolin
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revue in Montreal. It ran for three weeks that year, a little longer the next and in 1939 M. Gélinas, who had been voted the most popular program on the air by a popular poll of Radio Monde, felt he could afford to give up the microphone, concentrate his talents on “Fridolinons.” Last season his show ran for eight weeks in Montreal, 11 performances in Quebec City. This season chances are it will run even longer, but M. Gélinas, like everyone else in show business, is aware that there’s no such thing as a sure-fire production, will rent the theatre, hire his actors for one week only under option.
To almost anyone who earns a living, doing it on a five-figure scale in a period of nine weeks looks pretty much like finding a pot of gold. With M. Gélinas his revue means 10 months of hard work, marked by creative crises when he stays locked in his studio for as long as three days and nights at a time, almost without sleep or food, and rehearsal periods which continue in length and intensity till members of the cast have been known to faint from exhaustion. In the summer M. Gélinas takes a couple of months holiday at his summer place at Oka with his wife and five children. Here he keeps two saddle horses and a sailboat, has the time of his life, gets to know his family all over again. While he’s there newspapers and periodicals pile up to the size of a small haystack but remain unread. “It’s only in retrospect,” he is convinced, “that an event assumes its rightful importance.” In September his holiday is over and he goes back to Montreal to clip his way through two months of news. From this he gets the material on which he bases 50% of his show, sometimes picks the main theme, as he did last year, using the Quebec Conference.
That done he is faced with the task of building a three-hour show, less 10 minutes for intermission. “They wouldn’t feel they had their money’s worth,” he thinks, “if the curtain went down before 11.30.” This means working out 20 acts with 20 changes of set. It means monologues for Fridolin, each with a blowoff punctuated by a slingshot that must result in a house-wide roar of laughter. It means dressy acts for Fridolin in his dreamworld of beautiful girls whom he must always lose. It means dances to be created, costumes to he designed, music to be adapted. In a New York revue the list of credits for such a show would make an impressive line. In /‘Fridolinons” they all go to M. Gélinas.
Although he is neither dancer, singer nor scenic designer, M. Gélinas has a feel for all these arts, sufficient power of expression in them to put over his ideas. His dance numbers are fresh, original, typically French Canadian, worked out from such material as old square dances or a Montreal scene of girls flirting on the street corner. His music consists mainly of FrenchCanadian folk tunes in modern arrangements. His settings are made from rough sketches of his own, done on the blackboard built into a wall of his studio. His book is entirely his own, written with such agonizing care it has been rumored he sometimes takes a week to write a couple of lines. Speediest part of his show is the rehearsal period, which never runs longer than three weeks, and is all done in the evening because most of his cast have other jobs. The reason he can get through in so short a time, he says, is that “I know the people I’m writing for; I tell them what to do and there are no changes.” He also believes that for comedy it’s possible to rehearse too long and take the freshness out of it.
Meet The Artist
When a show is in the process of creation M. Gélinas can neither be seen nor spoken to. His telephone is a private line, his door remains locked, his nerves are on edge. He tries not to be temperamental, or “bad-tempered,” as he calls it, because he doesn’t believe in it; has the walls of his studio a soft almond green, not for art’s sake, but because the color’s soothing and restful to the nerves. By the time the show goes on he’s almost a nervous wreck but even then his worries are not over. The failure of a single gag at any one performance throws him into a state of gloom, gets him working it over to see wherein it missed.
The type of audience he attracts, in seats that run from 25c to a $1.65 or $2 top, is said to represent a complete cross section of French-speaking Montreal, and comprise 50% of the entire adult French-speaking population. At first, they say, the snobs wouldn’t come hut now everybody comes. “Writing a show for them,” M. Gélinas explains, “is like trying to build a’ concert of everything from boogie-woogie to Bach.”
The explanation of his popularity is that he, as Fridolin, expresses what the people feel and can’t express, that in him they hear themselves speaking.
To put over his ideas Fridolin has in his revues published a newspaper, staged the founding of Montreal with the ancestors of Fridolin, done a takeoff on the Quebec Conference. In the latter, his 1944 revue, he took the role of Mackenzie King to satirize the relationships between Canada and L’oncle Samuel and Jean Bouboule. Under his very eyes the big boys divide a cake in half, leaving him scraping for the nonexistent crumbs. When he goes to take his turn at the microphone they snatch it away from him. When he goes to add his signature to theirs on the treaty the scroll disappears from under his pen. Even the most platitudinous remarks are denied him. When he pleads for national unity a tap on the shoulder from Uncle Sam turns him from oratory to the humble apology, “I forgot, we have no national unity.” When he urges loyalty to the flag John Bull stops him in his tracks and he recalls with dismay, “We have no flag.” At their proposal to abandon the conference and go fishing he has to really humble himself, “I must have the conference for the elections.”
Montrealers say that at one time his show was in danger of being banned because the politicians were afraid of Fridolin. M. Gélinas himself discounts that rumor. “It’s a compliment to be joked at,” he believes. “And since we are a democracy and ourselves part of the administration we keep our right to ridicule those we have legally made our rulers.” Frequently people ask him to take up a cause hut he always refuses. “My conception is I don t belong to any idea, principle or party— I am Fridolin. My only aim is to shoot at the big ones.”
Whether he admits it or not M. Gélinas has another aim, to awaken the French-Canadian people, not by presenting them as hard done by, but by throwing the responsibility right back on them. Through the impudence of Fridolin he portrays them as unbusinesslike, easily exploited, oversheepish and believing too readily in politicians who fill them with empty phrases. “That,” says one of his compatriots, “is going to give him immortality.”
When he talks about show business M. Gélinas begins to come alive. His blue eyes grow larger and brighter. His dead-pan face suddenly reveals an amazing * number of expression lines
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across the brow and down the cheeks, which on the stage deepen into the grimaces of Fridolin. His smile has an unexpected charm. His laugh provokes a feeling of hilarity.
Serious Young Man
Fundamentally M. Gélinas is a serious young man about a good many things. He’s serious about his children, so much so that he never plays with them in the outdoor theatre he built for them, for fear one of them might go into show business merely for the sake of following in father’s footsteps. He’s afraid of them growing up with the idea that he might leave them any money, because “that would be the worst thing that could happen them.”
He’s serious—about the situation between French and English Canada, hopes that too many people don’t think like Premier Drew of Ontario, believes that French Canada is undergoing a revolution and that the Bouchard affair and the boys coming home from overseas are going to make for a broader outlook. He himself is thoroughly and proudly French but speaks English with no more than an appealing trace of accent. Knowing English, he says, has given him many pleasures enjoying plays, reading books and meeting people which he would not willingly have missed. He would like to play his show in the English-speaking cities of Canada because he feels it might be a great bond if two peoples could find themselves laughing at the same thing—but he doesn’t think they’d come to see him.
Most of all M. Gélinas is serious about the theatre, which he regards as an indispensable national institution. From his own experience he believes French Canada is rich in dramatic talent which has nowhere to go because there are no Canadian plays. When Canadian actors do Broadway or Hollywood hits, he claims, they can only copy Boyer and the other stars, w;‘l always be compared to them. That, lie maintains, doesn’t give them a fair chance. “A theatre must be made ot a proportion of things people own> he is convinced. “We can take the bes' from other countries but must havé something of our own for a beginni
Although he thinks somethi n should be done about a theatre ir French Canada he does not take tJO dark a view of it. “See what it wa; ^ years ago,” he points out, “compire(^ with what it is today. If the same progress is made in the next 25 years i; woa t bfj sobad.” He feels strongly abd1*, la -dian talent staying in Cañad. ~~ ‘I don’t think anyone who goes away enjoys it very much,” he says. If he himself got a chance at Hollywood or New York it would be “to go only for a short while to bring back experience that would allow me to make something here. Being one of 1,000 in Hollywood would mean so little compared to what could be done here.”
The thing he wants to do here is write a play and hopes by the time he’s 40—he’s now 34 he may have learned enough about the theatre to do it. He doesn’t know whether it will be tragedy or comedy but he wants it to be “the play that will remain—that will go on the shelf.”