ELECTION '79

The vast hurrah — not your usual gig

Angela Ferrante May 21 1979
ELECTION '79

The vast hurrah — not your usual gig

Angela Ferrante May 21 1979

The vast hurrah — not your usual gig

"Oh wow! Oh wow!” rock star Lisa Dal Bello kept saying. There she was standing next to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and folk-singer Sylvia Tyson—both ladies wearing Liberal red—and singing O Canada. It sure wasn’t your usual gig. Out there in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, "jammed to the rafters” as Trudeau put it, were 16,000 frenzied Liberal party supporters indulging in carefully simulated Trudeaumania. About 70 buses had piled in from Metro’s 23 ridings; at least 3,000 people had to be turned away at the gates and were only somewhat mollified when Trudeau emerged to give a quick speech from a flatbed truck. Inside, party workers looking to be goosed for the campaign homestretch were primed up by the rock of the Good Brothers, the raunch of the Downchild band and by Ms, Dal Bello’s intriguing alabaster breasts, delicately traced in black lace, which heaved noticeably when she cooed her dedication to the man of the hour. "Nobody does it better,” she sang. "You’re not even tired.”

If the hilarity seemed somewhat strained, as was much of Trudeau’s appeal to the troops, there was no doubting the success of last week's big Liberal rally—the biggest

by far of the campaign. Toronto may be "soft,” as the Tories proved last fall when they picked off four Liberal seats in the byelections, but the vast $35,000 hurrah certainly "showed who can get the crowds

out,” as Ontario Liberal Campaign Chairman Royce Frith put it. His team had timed the show for early evening so that the television networks could get film on air and to the nation for the 11 o'clock news, and was rewarded with prominent news clips— 2:52 minutes on the CBC and 1:47 minutes on CTV. As usual, the bash, ordered up by

Trudeau’s office the first week of the campaign, drained local organizations and kept workers off the streets for several nights. But the end value won’t be known until voting day when, as Frith says, “a whole bunch of intangibles will translate into the ultimate tangible of votes.”

Rallies have been heavily jazzed up since the 1880s when Sir John A. Macdonald attracted mobs of Torontonians out to the village green of Markham on specially scheduled trains to mix picnics with politics. Later, until the Gardens were built in 1931, the rallies were held among the potted palms of Massey Hall. Right through the Mike Pearson years the bashes were rather light on entertainment and heavy on speeches, an excellent platform to spell out issues. But with the advent of blitz campaign reporting, the mass Toronto rally has become a big gamble and now only the Liberals take up Harold Ballard’s offer to all parties of a free night in the home of the Maple Leafs. The Tories gave up trying to wow Toronto in the days of the Diefenbaker era and the NDP decided after Tommy Douglas somewhat less than filled the Gardens in 1965 that the effort simply wasn’t worth it. Says Peter Lowry, a Liberal party volunteer who has been involved in every rally since 1963, "The nightmare is— suppose nobody comes. The Liberal party is the only one with the guts to do them."

The Liberals haven't always been successful, of course. In 1957, as Louis St. Laurent was momentarily blinded by televi-

sion lights, a young man holding a poster ran onto the stage and was about to knock him over the head with it when the chairman wrestled him to the ground, causing him serious injury and leaving bad memories all around. In 1965 when organizers decided to get Pearson out to where the “real” people were hanging out—in those days the suburban Yorkdale shopping plaza was given the honor since it was the largest indoor mall in North America—the public address system refused to work and instead of a stately speech from in front of Simpsons, Pearson had to shout through a bullhorn. Stories later abounded that political opponents had sabotaged the system. The store owners never forgot nor forgave the chaos. And few Liberals will forget the ill-advised venture of 1974 when about 12,000 partisans looked lost in the 21,000seat Varsity Stadium and the over-ambitious scheme was invevitably judged a flop—although the party cleaned up in Metro that year anyway.

All of last week’s professional razzmatazz doesn’t compare with the outdoor lunchtime party thrown at the height of Trudeaumania in 1968 when the man alone drew more than 40,000 people to Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. Liberals have no qualms about using big-name rock groups to be certain of drawing big crowds now. As Frith put it, “I’d rather have you guys writing about how we filled the place than about how we emptied it.”

Angela Ferrante