The comedian the who made House of Commons

John Pratt wasa smash hit in the NavyShow, a moneymaker as an architect, and a “mayor in a million.” Now he's an MP and he isn't clowning any more

Ken Johnstone September 28 1957

The comedian the who made House of Commons

John Pratt wasa smash hit in the NavyShow, a moneymaker as an architect, and a “mayor in a million.” Now he's an MP and he isn't clowning any more

Ken Johnstone September 28 1957

The comedian the who made House of Commons

John Pratt wasa smash hit in the NavyShow, a moneymaker as an architect, and a “mayor in a million.” Now he's an MP and he isn't clowning any more

Ken Johnstone

With a number of eminent exceptions the most surprised man in Canada when the federal-election returns were counted last June was probably an architectmusical revue star - theatre manager - small-town mayor and lifelong Liberal named John Pratt, who had just become a Conservative MP.

Six months earlier Pratt had no interest at all in federal politics. A day earlier his chances of filling the Jacques C artier-Lasaile seat in the Commons wouldn’t have sold for a plugged nickel. In a country that likes its politicians hewed to a drab pattern Pratt was the first actor—and a comedian to boot—ever pressed into service as a candidate by a political party. And in a traditionally Liberal riding that had elected an unbroken string of French-speaking members since Confederation, he was bucking an entrenched opponent who had piled up a whopping ten-thousand majority in the last election.

Pratt ran his underdog campaign like the showman he is. He hustled out to the commuter-train platforms betöre seven in the mornings to pump every hand in sight, and wowed the lady electorate at three coffee klatches a day. Every time he had a captive audience he hit them with a singing commercial in the voice that made him famous during World War II. When fifty thousand voters filed to the polls in Jacques Carticr-Easalle, Pratt squeaked into parliament by a majority of 143.

This wasn’t the first time Pratt had won a losing game. As an architect during the Thirties, when other architects were driving taxis, he laid the foundation of a fortune large enough to give him a lifetime of leisure. But instead of taking it easy he devoted his time to the things he really liked. He followed up an early bent for acting—made movies, wrote, directed and

acted in stage revues, became the comedy star of the wartime service revue, Meet the Navy (memorable for Pratt’s lugubrious song. You'll (íet Used to It), turned to television, and even financed and managed a summer theatre at Toronto's Centre Island. He became interested in civic affairs and in 1955 was elected mayor of Dorval, a rapidly growing satellite city just west of Montreal.

Pratt was busy with his summer theatre last year at Centre Island when he got his first hint of a stillunborn interest in federal politics. He read a gossip item in a Toronto tabloid predicting that he would be the Liberal candidate in the next federal election for the Jacques Cartier-Lasalle riding, which embraces Dorval. Pratt got a chuckle. He knew the Liberal incumbent. Edgar Leduc, a professional politician who had won the seat two times and was not likely to step down for a political tyro. He also knew that his own

faith in the Liberal party had been lost over the con-

tentious pipeline debate. Pratt dismissed the item as typical tabloid hot air. and went back to counting ticket stubs at his theatre.

But last November Pratt received a scries of Tory visitors who apparently had taken the column item

more seriously than he did. The visits culminated in an interview with William M. Hamilton, who at that time as member for Notre Dame de Grace enjoyed the distinction of being the only Conservative MP from the Liberal island stronghold of Montreal. By this time

Pratt had agreed to run as a Conservative. Hamilton told him. “The only way you can win is to get out to the bus stops and talk to the people on their way to work in the morning."

Jacques Cartier-Lasalle riding embraces roughly the whole western part of the island of Montreal beyond the city itself. It includes the city of Lachinc and a group of smaller communities like Dorval, peopled largely by commuters who make their living in Montretd and consequently set out for work in the early hours after dawn. "Bus stops," for Pratt, translated into railway platforms around seven a.m. The hour was better known to him as a time for retiring than one for setting out to work. But Pratt, who had amazed friends by his tenacity when he campaigned for a “clean-up” municipal government in Dorval, proceeded to astound them with the vigor of his campaign in the federal election. A born actor and comedian, he utilized the satirically whimsical tune of You'll (jet Used to It as his campaign song, with a new verse written for the occasion:

There's something in the spring, but you'll get used to it.

You'll get used to it, you'll get used to it.

When vour income tax is due, there is nothing you can do,

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He keyed his campaign to a revamped version of a comic-song hit, then stuck to local issues

Just send them all you’ve saved for years

And even then you're in arrears.

It's wonderful! It’s marvelous!

The way the tax department seems to swell.

You'll get used to it. you’ll get used to it

And when you’re used to it

They’ll put a tax on deficits as well.

When John Diefenbaker spoke in Montreal at West Hill High School. Pratt appeared on the same platform and concluded his speech with this verse. It was practically his only reference to national issues, however, as he confined his own campaign platform to five local issues about which he felt very strongly. He called for federal-government action to curb the pollution of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, which he called “open sew'ers on your own doorsteps.’’ He demanded the abolition of level crossings: his own father-in-law had been killed on one. He called for more bridges to eliminate the chronic traffic bottlenecks at all exits from Montreal island. He termed the government’s civil-defense policy as applied to his own district, “inadequate and inconsistent.“ And as mayor of Dorval he called for a larger share of the tax dollar to be returned to the municipalities.

Pratt faithfully followed Hamilton's advice about tackling voters on their way to work in the morning. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes and fastening a bright smile of greeting to his face, he managed to cover all fourteen railway stations in the sprawling riding with its hundred thousand people. And at most of them, when the commuters had recovered from their shocked surprise, he was accorded a friendly reception as he pressed pamphlets on them and pumped their hands. His first debacle occurred at the Convent station in Lachine. Afterward Pratt ruefully told the story.

“When I got there. Í found the station deserted. Enquiring, 1 found that everybody went to Montreal by tram in that district. There was even a tram waiting just down the street. 1 hurried down there, and sure enough, the doors were standing open. So I stationed myself strategically right in front of the open door. I got my literature ready and braced myself. Two buses pulled up and spewed out a mob of passengers who charged madly across the open space to the tram and nearly trampled me underfoot as they fought each other for entry into the tram. I managed to thrust one pamphlet into the unwilling hand of a tail-end Charlie who squeezed into the tram just before it slammed its doors in my face.

“1 was badly shaken, but fighting mad. I recovered my hat, straightened out my tie. and didn’t even bother to go back home to get the missing button on my coat replaced before setting out to trace the bus routes and catch the voters waiting at the stops. But it didn't work out any better that way. As soon as 1 spotted a couple of people at a stop, by


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the time I had parked my car and rushed over to them, a bus, obviously chauffeured by a Liberal henchman, would appear out of nowhere and whisk them away. Finally 1 got disgusted and went back home to breakfast.”

Pratt also tried all the orthodox methods of campaigning. He spoke at organized meetings to as few as five people and as many as two hundred. He challenged his Liberal opponent to an open debate, but the campaign-wise Leduc was

much too cagey to accept the challenge and provide his challenger with an audience.

Only when Pratt pointed out that 1 educ had made just five speeches in eight years at Ottawa, drawing in that

time a salary of $80,000 or roughly $16,000 per speech, was Leduc stung into rebuttal. He ran a large newspaper advertisement pointing out that Pratt was exactly $11.862.11 wrong in his total figure. Pratt gleefully admitted that he might have been slightly out. but that a total of $68,137.89 still represented $13.627.58 per speech, which was a lot of hay.

Pratt hammered away at his favorite subject of water pollution, a hot issue among the communities that border on Lake St. Louis and the St. Lawrence River, with each community dumping its raw sewage into the river to pollute the water of the communities below and have its own water polluted in turn by the communities immediately upstream. He admits a momentary setback to his convictions when he met one old-timer of eighty-five who had bicycled five miles to attend his rally and who carried a flashlight to light his way home. “When I saw him,” said Pratt, “I wondered if I was all wrong about pollution of the St. Lawrence. He’d been drinking that water all his life, and I never saw anybody in better shape.”

But it was the Women's Committee, Pratt is convinced, that eventually swung the voting tide in his favor. Organized by his good friend, the Hon. Hazel Ballantync (daughter of the late Lord Shaughnessy) it provided an unending series of house meetings where Pratt was able to reach the hand that rocks the cradle. “1 attended an average of three coffee klatches a day,” he recalls. “I drank coffee till it was spewing out of my ears and began to taste like wartime key. the stuff they served in the navy that was generally considered a mixture of coffee and tea. Those women came at you with the damnedest questions. Education was their favorite subject. And education is not a federal subject. In Quebec it isn’t even a subject. If you discuss it, you are in hot water. If you don’t you have no guts. Either way, you’re in trouble.”

When Pratt ventured into Leduc’s Lachine bailiwick (Leduc had been mayor of Lachine) to hold a monster rally, he was neither surprised nor perturbed to discover the school hall he had rented in total darkness, the doors locked and the caretaker absent. “It was raining, so I figured on a poor house anyway,” he said later.

On election day Pratt’s scrutineers were stationed at all 279 polls in the riding. Chicken lunches had been arranged for them, but in the afternoon when hungry scrutineers began to phone campaign headquarters Pratt discovered to his horror that the taxi company engaged for the lunch delivery was working for his opponent. Emergency transportation was secured, the lunches finally reached their destination, and no incidents were recorded in that riding to mar a clean election.

When the results began to come in. Leduc took an early and commanding lead. Then a curious thing happened. While the official returns showed Leduc well in front, reports to Pratt’s headquarters showed him gaining. By ten p.m. Leduc had been declared the winner. Yet Pratt’s figures showed Pratt in front by a narrow margin. The mystery was finally resolved when someone introduced the returning officer to an adding machine. Pratt was driving to the Conservative headquarters at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel with the radio going in his car when at eleven p.m. a program was interrupted to announce that John Pratt had been elected by a majority of 143 votes. “I nearly went through the roof of the car,” he admits.

At headquarters he found that he was the first winner to arrive, and a drink was pressed into his shaking hands. But before he could taste it, someone snatched it from him while a news camera flashed. This process was repeated until Pratt thought his tongue would reach his knees. “It took me over a half hour to get my first drink,” he recalls bitterly.

At fifty, federal politics is the fourth field that John Pratt has successfully invaded. The first was architecture, which he tackled when he graduated from McGill University in 1933 with his bachelor of architecture degree. Canada was in the depth of the Depression then, so Pratt became his own customer by se-

lecting building sites, designing the buildings and, together with his father, who was a building contractor, erecting them. Then he either sold them or operated them himself. By this method he could rent or sell at going rates with a handsome return on the investment. The most impressive of these projects was a double block of sixty-four apartments in the Town of Mount Royal, which he built in 1938 and still owns. By the time he was thirty-two Pratt had enough regular income to retire from business and devote himself to his favorite medium. the theatre.

Pratt’s theatre debut, in the McGill student Red and White Revue of 1931,

is still vividly remembered. He agrees that he has never been able to top it. He had decided to make a Douglas Fairbanks - inspired entrance swinging from a fifty-foot rope. The rope was obtained only on opening night, so there had been no time for rehearsal. Pratt came whizzing on stage at a terrific speed while other actors dodged desperately left and right. The flying body cut clean through a cardboard castle, up-ended a papier-màché tree and careened into the scenery on the opposite side of the stage. The pendulum-like return was equally effective and the stage was a shambles before the dazed Pratt was able to drop and crawl off amid wild acclaim and insistent demands for an encore.

Pratt wrote, produced, directed and played comedy leads in the McGill Revues of 1931, 1932 and 1933. His “straight man” in a comedy team was a young fellow named Hume Cronyn. Pratt didn't think much of Cronyn as a comedian, but thought he had possibilities as a straight actor.

When the Montreal Repertory Theatre was formed in 1934 Pratt became a charter member; his favorite field was revues and musicals. In 1936 he began to work on short films with Associated Screen News. Meanwhile, in 1935, he married Dorothy Ward, the first and only girl he had ever dated.

Pratt had joined the ROTC at school, mainly because he wanted to ride a horse, and he finally obtained a commission in the 6th Duke of Connaught's Royal Canadian Hussars in 1936. Shortly after, the outfit was converted to armored cars.

When World War II broke out, Pratt expected his outfit to be mobilized, but nothing happened, and with the rank of major he spent nearly four years lecturing to troops on map-reading and field engineering during the day and entertaining them at night in the MRT Tin Hats Revue, the first troop show to be organized in Canada. The comedy of the show was carried by the team of John Pratt, Robert Goodier and Lionel Murtón.

This team got its big chance when the navy revue, Meet the Navy, was formed in 1942. Alan Young had been scheduled as the show’s comedian, but he received an offer to replace Eddie Cantor in the New York radio show that opened up his comedy career in the United States. The team of Pratt, Goodier and Murtón was engaged as a replacement. Pratt resigned his major’s commission and all three joined the navy as able seamen. Eventually they received commissions, but meanwhile they learned there was nothing in navy regulations to cover a troop show.

The company of eighty men and forty girls traveled across Canada in a thirteencar train run according to navy regulations, exactly like a ship. When the train stopped at a station, members of the cast had to obtain shore leave to buy a bottle of pop. Under navy discipline Pratt, who regularly got to bed at three-thirty a.m., got up again two hours later to wake the cooks. “It made it tough to give a decent performance on stage,” he recalls wryly. Navy regulations were finally relaxed to allow the company to sleep in during the mornings.

Meet the Navy was a hit in two crosscountry tours from Alaska to Labrador, played to standing room only throughout Britain, performed for front-line troops of the United States, Britain and Canada in France, Belgium. Holland and Germany, and was filmed by British National Films at Elstree. Pratt enjoyed a great personal success as a lugubrious

sad sack, and his song. You'll Get Used to It, was widely distributed in sheet music and record sales.

When the show disbanded in 1946 Pratt returned to Montreal. Booming real-estate values had made him a wealthy man. and he continued to concentrate on the theatre. There was some speculation about making a film around the Sad Sack, but the project was shelved. Then Pratt became involved in the postwar Canadian film industry, designing the sets, acting and coaching in Quebec Productions' film. Whispering City, which starred Helmut Dantine and Mary Anderson. He wrote, narrated and starred in a series of comedy shorts.

In 1948 a Toronto producer named Brian Doherty persuaded Pratt to head up a Canadian company in a musical version of The Drunkard. The show ran eight months to cover every major city in Canada, with several weeks in Minneapolis and Detroit, winding up with a three-month stand in Chicago sponsored by Canadian Ace Beer, a Capone-founded enterprise which regulativ filled the stage and dressing rooms with cases of its product.

In the following year Pratt co-starred with Murray Matheson in a nine-month run of another successful Canadian revue. There Goes Yesterday. He crowded a multitude of theatrical ventures into 1950, producing, writing and starring in five musical revues in nine weeks of summer theatre to develop the talent and material for the Canadian tour of One tor the Road, in which he also starred. He helped produce a series of television Westerns and made a series of television guest appearances. But he never enjoyed the success on television that was his on stage and screen. On the subject he is philosophical.

“The trouble with me is that I was born too late for the music halls and too early for television." he sums it up.

Between 1953 and 1956 he co-starred in a bilingual show. The Sweet Cap Players, that performed for the troops in Korea and Japan; produced six stage shows and made numerous TV guest appearances; was featured in the television series. So This Is French: judged Pick the Stars; starred in the National Film Board film. The Barrier: and produced a season of summer theatre at Toronto’s Centre Island.

Meanwhile another career had opened

up. In 1950 Pratt bought an old FrenchCanadian stone house on the shore of Fake St. Louis in the town of Dorval. The house had been built in 1666 by one Jean Morin, who was killed in the 1 achine Massacre of 1689. Shortly after Pratt bought the house, he noticed that the town-supplied water tasted brackish. Hearing that a newly formed Citizens’ Committee was holding a meeting to discuss the shortcomings of the town administration. Pratt went along and raised the subject of the brackish water. He w'as promptly elected chairman of a committee to investigate it, and his report led

to immediate steps to purify the water. It also led to an invitation by the Citizens’ Committee to Pratt to run for alderman, and he was elected in 1952, together with another “reform" candidate. an insurance man named Charles Turner. Together they made life miserable for the Old Guard; Pratt's combination of architectural and business training together with his ease on the platform made him a popular figure in civic affairs. “We really began to pack them in,” is the way he describes the boom in attendance of the public at council meetings.

In 1955 the new group ran a full slate of candidates, which swept the elections and installed Pratt as mayor.

Pratt’s graduation to the federal field is viewed with mixed feelings by his admirers in Dorval. René Leblanc. Dorval’s chief engineer, best summed up that feeling: “He’s a mayor in a million, and we are not likely to get another like him in a hurry. Where can you find a mayor who can read a blueprint at a glance, analyze an estimate and spot the weak points, figure out interest rates and tax charges in his head? We would be sorry to lose him.”

But Pratt has no intention of deserting Dorval. When the mayor of a neighboring community offered a saw-off to Pratt in the election provided Dorval gave up its claim to a piece of disputed property, Pratt told him flatly: “I’m mayor of Dorval first. You do what you like, but we need that land and we'll fight for it.”

MP John Pratt, who was born in London, England, on February 28. 1907, is a much more sober and solid figure than the gaunt 150-pound bean-pole of the Navy Show. He weighs around 180 pounds now. and the gauntness has dis-

appeared from a face that still retains the droopy-lidded grey-green eyes and humorous mouth of his stage days. Six feet tall, he wears his well-cut conservative clothes with English ease, and his quietly relaxed manner sometimes gives strangers the impression of snobbishness.

Pratt’s marriage, after more than twenty years, ended in a divorce last year. He wryly admits that it was a casualty of his hectic life in the theatre with its constant travel and frenetic atmosphere. His former wife is remarried. His two sons, twenty-year-old John Stuart and seventeen-year-old Robin, live at Dorval with Pratt.

The change in John Pratt, from the happy-go-lucky comedian with a wisecrack for any occasion to the serious man of affairs who still has a sense of humor, has puzzled and delighted his friends. Hazel Ballantyne, who has known Pratt most of his life, says, “I never knew Jc\..i could be serious about anything until he got interested in Dorval. Anyway, he surprised all of us who knew him in his early theatre days. Lots of his friends kidded that he did his early-morning canvassing on his way home from a party, but John wasn't fooling about the election any more than he was about Dorval. He’ll make us a fine member; you’ll see.”

Pratt himself states that he intends to push for the program he announced as a candidate. He figures that if he can get some or any of his points through in his first term as a member, he'll be doing all right. He also says he has strong views about both the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He thinks they both do a good job. and if Pratt's voice is heard in Conservative councils, they will both have a good friend in court. ^