Frontlines

Showtrain bound for glory

Ken Becker December 3 1979
Frontlines

Showtrain bound for glory

Ken Becker December 3 1979

Showtrain bound for glory

Frontlines

Ken Becker

This is a success story. It’s the story of one young man’s success. The emphasis here is on young. And, it’s a Canadian story. Canada, where overnight fortunes were once made off the land; now where everyman can use his head and nerve to mine the pocket-books of Toronto and Edmonton and Vancouver. It is the land of opportunity for young men and women with an idea, a scam or a scheme. This is the story of Sam Blyth.

In the early fall of 1976, at the age of 22, Sam Blyth left Europe for India and Nepal. Like Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edye, Blyth sought the mystical East and high Himalayas as his site of decision; unlike Darrell—who was seeking a higher truth and a meaning for life—Blyth was seeking higher income and an end to a means. Darrell eventually came down the mountain with an inner peace. Blyth came down with an inner verve and a sense of destiny. Then he booked passage to Toronto, where the kid showed up his elders, and did it with a new twist to an old-fashioned idea. This fall he ended his first full, successful season of organizing 3,000 miles of show biz on the rails.

Graham David Blyth—he picked up Sam at an early age, a reference to the

hero in a TV show called Cowboy Corner—was born Feb. 4, 1954, in Camp Shilo, a Canadian Forces base near Brandon, Manitoba. His father, David Blyth, was a career army officer. When Sam was 2, the family moved to Ottawa. Sam was later shipped off to Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario. But after 10 years in Ottawa, the Blyths picked up again, David Blyth switching from the army to the diplomatic corps, the family moving to England. Sam would not live in Canada again until late 1976. He went to Uppingham School in England, then on to Cambridge and the Sorbonne, where he abandoned a master’s program for Paris’ more earthy educational opportunities.

Down from the mountains of Nepal, with $500 in his pocket, Sam Blyth returned to Canada. He was well-educated, well-bred and extremely worldly for a fellow his age. He would surely be an asset to any firm looking for a young man ready to start out. But Blyth had other ideas: “I had job offers from banks, brokerage houses, accounting firms, but I had decided I wanted to be in the travel business.

“I had found the life in Europe spectacular, particularly in Paris. But I came to Canada because of the opportunities I saw here, enormous opportunities for young Canadians. In Europe, and even the U.S., there’s more duespaying. Here there is an ease of acceptance. Secondly, the establishment in Canada has for so long been in the established professions—finance, law, medicine—and the entrepreneurial field has been left to the immigrant. It’s always been open for people with talent, capital and ambition.”

He went to work for a travel tour

operator. He led bicycle tours of Europe; he initiated a very successful program for high-school students at a French school in Switzerland. In eight months, he earned and saved $10,000. He quit his job. On Oct. 12, 1977, Blyth and Co. was launched. At 23, Sam Blyth was working for Sam Blyth, still organizing tours. He made the pitches, he made the profits. Blyth and Co. never suffered growing pains. Five months after he opened shop, Blyth began to

seal his financial future (though he didn’t know it at the time).

In March, 1978, the Shaw Festival Theatre approached Blyth about putting together a cross-Canada cultural tour. The idea was to stop in major cities, taking in the ballet or a play at each stop. “They assumed I would organize it by flying them from Toronto to Winnipeg and then on to maybe Edmonton and Vancouver,” Blyth says. “But it occurred to me that flying from city to

city doesn’t engender a holiday. Businessmen do that all the time and airports are not something they look forward to. So I went to Via Rail and asked them if I could charter some train equipment.”

Blyth’s idea was luxury transcontinental train service with an emphasis on fine food and wine and front-line entertainment. He told Via Rail he wanted to convert a boxcar into a theatre. He wanted first-class accommodations and a club car. The railroad said it couldn’t be done, that it wasn’t economically feasible. They haggled for months. Finally, Blyth went ahead and advertised the tour. One 150-line ad in The Globe and Mail sold out the train (51 places) in three hours. Via Rail came up with the equipment. The Canadian Showtrain made its maiden run on Oct. 1, 1978. In 1979, it made 11 more round trips between Toronto and Vancouver, at $1,285 per person (one way), 10 days each way.

The train has attracted a very exclusive clientele. Most of its passengers are well-off; many are middle-aged and filled with memories of a more leisurely era; many have travelled the fabled Orient Express or the U.S. Sky Chief and remember the calibre and elegance of service. On the Showtrain they get the same feeling, especially at mealtimes (prime steaks, fresh salmon and Arctic char, French wines and champagne). They also get entertained by the likes of Tom Kneebone and Dinah Christie; not to mention the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and other theatre companies during overnight stops in major cities (where first-class hotels are part of the package).

Blyth has already sold 500 places on the train for next year, when he has 18 trips scheduled. And he has also branched out in a similar area, chartering the U.S. steamboat Delta Queen (the ship Jimmy Carter vacationed on last August) for a 14-day October cruise up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Cincinnati; top price, excluding airfare, $2,600 (U.S.) per person.

Blyth says he has grossed more than $1 million this year. He’s not a millionaire yet, but he will be soon. However, money is merely the first step in this ambitious young man’s career. Once he has conquered that he plans to go on to power, perhaps running Canada’s rail lines or starting his own airline. Then, who knows?

There’s a book out now by American writer Ward Just called Honor, Power, Riches, Fame & the Love of Women. Sam Blyth wants it all, though not necessarily in that order. Who’s going to tell him it can’t be done?