How to be a singing star the hard way

JUNE CALLWOOD August 18 1956

How to be a singing star the hard way

JUNE CALLWOOD August 18 1956

How to be a singing star the hard way

Where Wally Koster grew up in Winnipeg crime and sports were kids’ pastimes. He tried singing. Now he’s top pop artist on Canadian TV with fans everywhere including boyhood pals in the “pen”


Wally Koster, a baritone familiar to Canadian television viewers for the past four years, was once the vocalist with a dance band that paid a friendly visit to Stony Mountain penitentiary, just north of Winnipeg. As he stepped to the microphone for his first song, the audience erupted with shouts of “Hiya Wally!” and "Hey Koster, howsa boy!” Of the five hundred inmates of the prison, Koster estimates that he knew close to half by their first names. “I grew up with those guys.” he explains. He stood on the bandstand and waved back and thought to himself. "You’ve had a close call, Koster, a real close call.”

Koster grew up during the Thirties in a section of North Winnipeg that produced a bumper crop of thugs. He accepted crime as a natural adjustment to society, lived beside hunger and violence, and knew' the pain of the snobbery that was then aimed at the children of immigrants. "To get across the tracks you had to make good in cither sports or music,” he recently remarked. "It was also a good idea to change your funny name. The family changed our name; that left me the other two.”

At first glance. Kosters chances of getting across the railway tracks were not good. He was not a remarkable athlete, as sports writers ol the period recall, but he was dogged and courageous. He played centre on a football team that won a Manitoba championship and was a defenseman on junior and senior hockey teams. The alternative has worked out better. He taught himself to sing and to play the trombone well enough to join some of the best dance bands in the country. He later starred on a succession of radio shows and in 1951 was named by a magazine the best male singer of the year. He is now considered by many music appraisers to be the outstanding male singer of popular songs on Canadian television. His fortunes have improved since the days he walked miles to play games because he couldn’t afford streetcar fare; he drives a convertible now.

Few people meeting Koster today could guess the pressures he has overcome. He w'alks softly, thinks humbly and talks gently. In a profession of which it is sometimes said that the trademark is a shiv in the back, he is a phenomenon. When jobs were scarce for him (as they were a few years ago) he didn't snipe at more successful singers. When a friend criticized an indifferent singer who had just signed a fat contract. Koster said earnestly, "Don't knock him, he's-working.” When he reached the top he shook his head in wonder. There are a lot of good singers in this town who haven’t got a job. I’m real lucky, you know.”

He even has a kind word for a singer many adults detest. Asked in a recent television interview for his opinion of Elvis Presley, he answered seriously, “I think he has a good voice . . . he’s got a gimmick way of delivering a song, but you have to have that nowadays.”

The major legacy of Roster’s past is the hot intensity with which he goes about his business. uHe’s the hardest-working performer in the business,” says Peter Macfarlane. a CBC television producer. Macfarlane was one of the producers last winter of Cross-Canada Hit Parade, a variety show that starred Roster and to which he returns when the fall schedule begins next month.

When the program script required Roster to sing one two-minute song with a German accent, he practiced the accent for four days. When he was alone, driving his car, he spoke to himself with a German accent and scarcely noticed the stares of adjoining motorists in traffic jams. When he had a three-minute soft-shoe dance to perform in the show this June, he rehearsed the number for more than eight hours. One rainy afternoon a neighbor hurrying past saw Roster, singing to himself, dancing in his garage. "The floor in here is just slippery enough,” Roster shouted, by way of explanation. Another time he was asked to perform three feats of magic while singing The Great Pretender; he spent four nights at the home of a magician perfecting the tricks.

Almost as much as he respects the details of his art, Roster respects its end product, money, as the force that separates men from want. One of the producers of Hit Parade was a guest recently at a bar mitzvah, a Jewish ceremony that celebrates a boy’s coming of age. The producer wandered over to the small orchestra hired for the occasion and was stunned to discover his star baritone sitting in the second row blowing into a trombone.

He sings for a living but plays for his gas

"Wally Koster!” he cried, pointing a quavering finger in the style of a Gay Nineties’ melodrama. "You!”

Koster put down his trombone and smiled serenely. "You have a request?” he enquired.

"You’re a big television star,” moaned his producer. “A celebrity, a guy with fan clubs. You shouldn’t be doing this!” "So pay me enough to put me on an exclusive contract,” replied Koster imperturbably. "Then I’ll be exclusive.” Koster, who currently is paid close to two hundred dollars per song on television, quite often accepts jobs as a side man in a dance band for a fraction of that amount. Last winter he turned up once a week on television in a million Canadian homes and also appeared in person at a mixed bag of wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs and high-school dances. “It pays for my gas,” he says with a shrug.

A scarred face tilled with tears

Koster's interest in his income once provoked an exchange that many entertainers like to quote. Koster, in a hurry to return to a rehearsal after a coffee break, was tugging at a jammed door of a CBC building. Some men came up behind him and he heard one of them chuckle, "There’s one way to keep our performers in Canada—lock them in.” Without looking. Koster said grimly, "Have you tried money?” He turned and found himself nose to nose with three of CBC’s top brass. Miraculously, the door opened at that moment and he lied through it.

Out of the memory of the frustrations of his youth, Koster once provided Canadian television with unpremeditated drama. He was singing John Henry on the show On Stage about a year and a half ago, stripped to the waist and drenched with sweat that was only partly artificial. The song is about a steel-driving man who is determined to outdrive a machine and dies "with a hammer in his hand.” Koster, with his intimate knowledge of men who fight against long odds, began to cry openly during the closing bars of the song. The show almost collapsed. Technicians stood rooted and watched. A cameraman whispered hoarsely into his intercom microphone, "What’ll I do?” and producer Norm Jewison replied. "How should I know?” The camera moved in closer and the screen was filled with Koster’s anguished, hockey-scarred face streaked with tears. Afterward he sat apart, deeply embarrassed, with his face in his hands.

Koster's physique has been displayed frequently on television; he has the body of an active athlete. His face is a battered testimonial that he was once a lineman, a lacrosse player and a defenseman in a tough hockey league. His features appear to have been lovingly arranged with a sledgehammer, an act of fate and fists, but no real drawback in a profession overcrowded with weakly handsome men. Koster stands a half inch under six feet and weighs one hundred and ninety. His age is thirty-four.

His apparent strength is authentic, a fact the producers of the Hit Parade sometimes take advantage of. For one sequence last winter when he was supposed to sing Sixteen Tons, it was decided to have him hold a fake pneumatic drill made of plywood. During rehearsal, it was discovered that someone had forgotten to get the prop drill. A real one, weighing three hundred pounds, was substituted. Biceps bulging. Koster held the drill and sang lustily. When he finished, he handed it to a stagehand. The stagehand, drill and all. sank instantly to the floor. Later three stagehands managed to carry the drill offstage.

Koster’s friends are sure that not only the ability to handle a drill but also the happy state of his career owes much to the habit of striving he learned in his youth. Born with a complicated Polish name that the family later divided in half. Koster is the third and youngest son of Serge, a laborer who came to Canada from Poland, and his Russianborn wife, Dora. The couple settled in Winnipeg and bought a small home in the north end. "That’s the thing about Slavic people.” Koster explains. "They always get a home somehow because the first thing they have to have is a situation they can fall back on.”

Through the Depression years Serge never made more than twelve dollars a week, but the family always ate. "We ate well too,” Koster recalls. “In the winter a farmer used to come along the street in a sleigh and we’d buy half a hog and mom would put it in a barrel.” Not everyone on the street was eating _and the incidence of crime was high. Young Wally often wakened at night to the sound of police sirens. He learned to walk around street fights without even looking. One friend of his was killed in a streetcar accident. Another was crushed against a building by a drunk driver. On the way home from school, children gathered the latest news about the neighbor who had just robbed a bank or the brother of a friend who had just been given two years and the lash. "We used to say ‘tough’ when we heard about such things but it didn’t really bother us at all,” Koster says. "Everybody had it tough.”

The gang of boys with whom Wally played put their energy into sports. They walked to the Olympic Rink and back in forty-below weather to play hockey for an hour or two. Most of their equipment was stolen. “There was one kid who went down to the Hudson’s Bay store and stole skates.” Koster recalls. "When he got home he found he had two for the left feet, so he went back and got one for the right. He didn’t get matching sizes, but that didn’t matter. We used to get our sticks by going to Eaton’s. We’d pick out a good stick and then w'rap a piece of pink paper around the handle to look like a sales slip and walk out of the store. That was the easy part. The hard part was fighting to keep somebody else from stealing it once you got it home.”

One afternoon Wally and his two closest friends. Wally Stanowski who later made the National Hockey League, and Wally Chikowski who later played football with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, w'ere bicycling along a street. Some boys their age were playing football and the trio stopped to ask if they could join. One boy looked at them coldly and replied, “We're the Roamers. We’ve got a full team, thanks.”

The three Wallys continued along the street and saw sorçje more boys playing in a vacant lot. They asked again and discovered that this was a Young Men’s Hebrew Association team.

“Can we play?”

“Certainly,” they were told.

“Fine,” grinned the Wallys. "Just teach us the game and we’ll be all set.”

All three made the team and so did some other friends from the north end. The YMHA team that year won the Manitoba Provincial Junior championship —beating a team called the Roamers in the finals.

The YMCA and the YMHA in the later years of the Depression threw open their facilities to the boys from North Winnipeg, who were becoming the city’s best athletes. Koster indulged in a daily orgy of sparring, basketball, sprinting, table tennis, volleyball, wrestling and swimming. “We all did as much as we could cram in a day. We were really living.”

About this time, Wally remembers, other north-end boys of their age had begun to gather for corner crap games and to watch the girls who swaggered the streets swinging their purses. "We never saw that at all,” says Wally. "We were too busy getting to hockey practice.”

One day some friends stopped at Roster's house and invited him for a ride in their uncle's car. This was a big thrill but at that moment someone else came by to shout that there was a football skirmish beginning down the street. Koster promptly chose football. That afternoon the boys in the “uncle’s car,” stolen only a few hours before, were picked up by the police.

Koster took stock at that news. "I’d done a few things and hadn’t got clipped and I figured my luck was about to run out,” he says. “1 took a deep breath and after that I stuck to sports.”

But presently music began to intrude. Despite the jeers of his friends, he joined a school glee club when he discovered that singing "made me feel good.” At the YMHA football victory dance in 1938 some friends pushed him to a microphone and he sang a chorus of Mexicali Rose. The same friends later arranged an audition for him with Joe DcCourcy, a bandleader then playing a Winnipeg night spot called The Cave.

It took place while the band was taking a smoke break. DcCourcy called over the piano player, who helped Koster find a key. He sang nervously while his friends and the musicians sat silently in the shadows.

"Okay kid,” said DcCourcy when he finished. “You're hired for tonight. Have you got a dark suit?”

Koster flushed. “No, I haven’t,” he said. “But,” he added weakly, "my brother has.”

Roster’s news that he was hired to sing for money (thirty-five dollars a week) brought a mixed reception at home. His father, a self-taught accordion player who sang joyfully all day long, was delighted. His mother was not.

"All musicians are bums,” she said. "Why don’t you get a respectable job, like your brother?” A brother was then delivering coal.

Koster, wearing his brother’s oversized suit, sang for ten weeks at The Cave and learned to yawn with his mouth shut. He was fifteen years old and still attending school. John Kannawin. then a CBC producer, hired him to replace George Murray on the CBC network radio show Woodhouse and Hawkins which came from Winnipeg. Kannawin, now C'BC’s director of radio, recalls, "He was a scared kid but, bless his heart, he sang in tunc.”

Next summer Koster sang with the DeCourcy band at Jasper, where he learned to order a restaurant meal, to play golf (he now shoots in the high seventies, rare for a left-handed player), and picked up a cheap trombone. A musician with the band taught him to read music. When he returned home in the fall his mother refused to allow the trombone in the house. He kept it in a garage and practiced to the accompaniment of a hand-cranked record player.

Music, Koster still felt at this stage, was a happy sideline but he was determined to be a professional athlete. That winter he played junior hockey and sang at the supper dances in the Fort Garry Hotel. Each night he turned up in the musician’s uniform of white lounge jacket, dark trousers, bow tie and stiff shirt, to which he frequently added as accessories a hockey player’s bandages on his face or a heavy limp. Once he arrived with stitches bristling from one eyebrow and a square of adhesive holding together a cut lip. “Whaddya think I’m running here, a freak show?” complained the bandleader.

At this time Koster met Myra Symes, whom he married six years later. Myra had been a polio victim at fifteen and it left her with a triple curvature of the spine. Not expected to survive at first, she underwent a painful bone graft from her shin to fourteen vertebrae of her spine and spent three years in hospitals and in iron braces. She was once the subject of a sermon in a Winnipeg church when the minister found her, flat on her back on a stretcher, patiently teaching crippled children to read and write.

Most experts credit will power with the fact that Myra toalks normally today. "I looked out of the hospital window one spring and saw the lawn covered with new grass,” she recalls. ”1 decided that I was going to walk on it. in my bare feet. I didn't make it that spring, or the next. But eventually 1 did.”

Myra was excited about her first date with Wally. "He’s a musician.” she told her father. George Symes, a storekeeper.

"Great!" he replied enthusiastically. "What does he do for a living?”

Their marriage didn’t take place until 1946 when Wally had finished a season in Nova Scotia playing semiprofessional hockey with the North Sydney Victorias, and a five-year hitch in the army. He spent his entire service career in Winnipeg in the army band because hockey and football injuries had made him unfit for overseas duty.

Ten months after he married Myra. Koster was discouraged because his only job was singer-master of ceremonies in a vaudeville show between horror movies, five a day. Then he got an offer from Toronto bandleader Ellis McLintock.

"How about moving to Toronto. Myra?” Wally asked. "1 won’t be able to work for the first three months, because I have to establish residence with the musicians’ union, but after that . . .”

Myra considered a moment and then disappeared. She came back with a roll of adhesive tape and began sticking patches of it to the new furniture and wedding gifts.

"What arc you doing?” her husband asked.

“We’ll mark the prices on it,” she explained, “invite all our friends in and sell it. We're going to need the money.” A few days later the Kosters left for Toronto by bus with twelve pieces of luggage and a trombone. At first they lived in one room and cooked spaghetti every night on a two-burner hot plate. “It was the cheapest thing we could think of,” Myra recalls. "When we couldn’t stand it any more, I went to work.”

Eventually Roster’s union card arrived and he could work for McLintock. He stayed with him three years, picking up a few radio shows as well. He moved then to Mart Kenney’s band for a threeyear stint of touring the Maritimes and Quebec every spring, playing in Toronto every summer and touring the west in the fall.

His first trip back to Winnipeg was to play and sing in the Kenney band at a Beaux Arts Ball given by the University of Manitoba. He arranged for his father to watch from a balcony overhanging one end of the dance floor. The older Koster was deeply moved. “That’s my boy!” he shouted at intervals. “That’s my son Wally!” A lesser man might have been embarrassed, but Wally was just as proud of his father.

“He’s a remarkable guy,” Wally says of his father. "He suffered one really tragic frustration and never complained. All his life he wanted to be able to buy a piano accordion. He talked about it all the time and finally one day he succeeded. Then he discovered that his fingers were so thick from working that he couldn’t play it.”

After his Mart Kenney job Koster sang on radio series with Terry Dale and Howard Cable’s orchestra, and with Lucio Agostini. He and Myra were building, mostly with their own hands, a bungalow in North Toronto and Koster hurried from rehearsals to the site. Their combined efforts saved them thousands of dollars. For instance, Koster saved three cents a block on the cost of laying the foundation by mixing the mortar himself and carrying the 55-pound blocks for the experts to lay. Later Myra, with every finger bandaged because of her poor aim with a hammer, helped him lay the hardwood floors.

When television came to Canada, Koster starred on Pat Patterson’s Cue for Music, one of the first musical variety shows on Canadian television, and on The Big Revue, Matinee Party and On Stage. Miss Patterson recently said of him, “Musically he’s the absolute end, an ideal artist. He's honest, modest and unassuming and I’ve never known anyone who works so hard.”

Cross-Canada Hit Parade, the television show he did last year and will do again this fall, has brought Koster the first regular fan mail of his life and led to the establishing of two Wally Koster Fan Clubs, in London and Montreal. For a singer, Hit Parade is more of an obstacle course than a showcase. The show, an often-frantic half hour of currently popular songs that has a budget of twelve thousand dollars a week, is produced by two men, Peter Macfarlane and Stan Harris, and written by comedian John Aylesworth. Seen from twenty-eight television stations last year (thirty-one this coming season) it presents each song in a different setting loosely suggested by the lyrics. The show’s special effects have included smoke bombs, a merry-go-round, a treadmill that cost more than a thousand dollars, the entire 48th Highlanders Pipe Band and Wally Koster Junior, then aged two.

In the execution of his duties as one of the show’s two regular stars, Koster has been, among many roles, a spy (Lisbon Antigua), the owner of a harem (Only You), a baseball umpire (Blue Suede Shoes) and a second-story man (Band of Gold). One of his greatest problems is costume changes, most of which have to be made on the set. He had four minutes to change from his Captain Hook costume (See You Later, Alligator) to a Clark Kent business suit on top of a Superman outfit (The Great Pretender) and only two minutes to change from a cowboy ensemble (Wayward Wind) to an old-time vaudeville plaid suit (Standing on the Corner). Producer Macfarlane was concerned about his appearance after the latter change.

"Wally,” he said sternly after the dress rehearsal, "when Camera Two picks you up for that close-up, you’re sweating. On the show, don’t sweat!”

Over the thirty-nine weeks of the show. Koster sang more than ninety songs, including Hot Diggity eight times and The Great Pretender seven times. “Don’t you get tired of singing the same songs over and over?” he once was asked. “It's nice on paydays,” Koster answered.

For the first time in his life. Koster is financially secure. Last June, on his tenth wedding anniversary, he bought Myra a mink wrap. Their three-year-old son Wally Junior owns almost every variety of toy manufactured for threeyear-old boys. Koster recently turned down an offer of a high-priced job, working six nights a week as a night-club entertainer.

“I can’t spend that much time away from my family explains Koster, whose values acquired in a tough neighborhood have remained simple and uncomplicated. "Without Myra and little Wally, I'm nothing.” ★