The man behind Jake and The Kid
With Jake and his side-kick due soon on television, people who’ve fallen for their prairie guile in Maclean’s and on radio are overdue for an introduction to their creator. This is W. O. Mitchell: part Kid, part author, part oddball
Toward the end of next year CBC-TV will probably begin screening the adventures of Jake and The Kid, whom W. O. Mitchell has made two of the best-known figures in Canadian fiction. For sixteen years stories of the homespun prairie philosopher Jake, and his sensitive twelveyear-old pal The Kid, have appeared periodically in Maclean's. For five years before the introduction of Canadian TV, in 1954, they were the subjects of a popular weekly series of CBC radio sketches.
The delay in bringing Jake and The Kid to the television screen has been occasioned largely by Hollyw'ood interests which engaged Mitchell in protracted and unsuccessful negotiations for the American TV rights. Now that plans for Hollywood production have collapsed, Canada’s National Film Board is making twenty-six halfhour Jake and The Kid movies which CBC-TV intends to exhibit over two winter seasons of thirteen w'eeks each beginning in the fall of 1959.
The gentle comedies are set in the mythical prairie village of Crocus. Around Jake and The Kid move many other prairie types such as Repeat Golightly, the gabby barber; Miss Henchbaw, the acerb schoolmarm; Way Freight Brown, the droll station agent; and Old Man
Gatenby, a septuagenarian who is addicted to love stories, food fads and vendettas. The tales reek of galluses, denims and long johns; of salt pork, chewing tobacco and linseed cake; of gophers, cowponies and combines; and of chinook winds swirling clouds of topsoil and faraway horizons. In the w’orld of Mitchells imagination city folk arc a fleeting phenomenon, a mere haughty blur set in a ribbon of amber light as the CPR transcontinental goes hollering through the prairie night.
William Ormond Mitchell, a forty-four-yearold native of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, soaked up prairie atmosphere during the depression, when he paid his way through the University of Manitoba by working as an itinerant laborer and door-to-door salesman. Later he earned his living as a schoolteacher and wrote fiction in his spare time. He was teaching part-time in High River, Alberta, in 1947, when his first published novel. Who Has Seen The Wind, was acclaimed by critics as a masterly panorama of life on the prairie. The novel rolled up lourtecn thousand dollars in royalties and ever since Mitchell has lived by the pen alone.
Another of his novels, The Alien, a brooding study of a part-1 ndian schoolteacher caught between two worlds, continued on page 46
The man behind Jake and The Kid continued from page 22
‘Mitchell writes by night, groaning and sweating. He writes tenderly but cuts back at critics”
won a Maclean’s five-thousand-dollar Novel Award in 1953. Last winter one of the CBC's most-lauded TV dramas was Mitchell’s The Devil’s Instrument, a compassionate commentary on the stern morals of the western Hutterite sects.
The author lives with his tiny, dark, pretty wife Merna in a modern ranchtype bungalow at High River, a small foothills town thirty miles south of Calgary. They have three children, fourteenyear-old Ormond, twelve-year-old Hugh,
and three-year-old Willa, and own four saddle horses, a retriever and a poodle.
Mitchell does most of his writing in a studio at the back of the house. Sitting here, against a background of shotguns, rifles and fishing rods, he looks at first
glance more like an off-duty infantry officer than a man of letters. He carries his slight, erect frame on a springy stride. His short black hair, flecked with grey, and his firm, well-tanned features, are embellished with a fierce military mustache. The impression of soldierly phlegm is heightened by a stentorian voice, an aromatic pipe, and a taste for thick tweeds, knitted ties and Edwardian waistcoats.
But Mitchell’s literary brilliance is betrayed by the big grey eyes he inherited from Scottish and Irish ancestors, eyes that are sometimes ablaze with his hatred of sophistication, sometimes abulge with his braying, galvanic mirth, and sometimes misted over by the drift of his creative reveries.
When he is abstracted by fiction plots he slips over the edge of reality. A couple of years ago he held a ladder while Merna, who suffers badly from vertigo, climbed valiantly to the bungalow roof to do some shingling. The plan was that Mitchell would climb to another section of the roof, allay Merna’s fear and share the labor. But as he was carrying the ladder around a corner of the house a plot began to simmer in his mind. He dropped the ladder to the grass, meandered away in a brown study, and left his wife “frozen” to the roof for two hours.
A varnished tale
If he is not brooding over plots Mitchell is usually hunting for new character traits and fresh expressions. He spends hours shooting the breeze on the steps of the High River post office with farmers, ranchers, horsemen, cowboys, storekeepers, mechanics, Hutterites, Indians, Chinese cooks and passing bums. During these colloquies he’s apt to take a notebook from his pocket and write down a bit of salty philosophy or folksy humor. Once an old cowboy, complaining of the drought, said to Mitchell: “It’s enough to make a gopher’s tail burn.” In his next story Mitchell switched the expression to: “It’s enough to give a gopher heartburn.”
He writes by night, groaning and sweating as he gropes for words. John Drainie, the Toronto actor who played Jake in the radio series, learned one night how exhaustively Mitchell explores the vocabulary. Dining with the writer he was puzzled to see a jar of varnish on the table. Throughout the meal Mitchell sniffed at it periodically. At first Drainie was too polite to comment but eventually he exploded: "Bill! What in hell goes on?” Mitchell explained: “I’ve been trying for a week to find words to describe the smell of varnish. And 1 can’t. And, dammit, it’s driving me crazy!”
Although he writes tenderly Mitchell reacts toughly to unreasonable criticism of his work. For years the CPR derived publicity from the fact that Mitchell set Crocus on that company’s transcontinental track. Yet once, after a Jake and The Kid radio show, a CPR official rebuked the CBC for permitting Mitchell to ridicule, in the sardonic words of Way Freight Brown, the “wood notes wild” of the company’s travel posters. From that day forth Mitchell set Crocus on the CNR line.
When Gordon Sinclair, the TV personality and columnist, suggested in the
Toronto Star that Mitchell was "drying up,” the author was stung to a quick revenge. He inserted into a Jake and The Kid radio sketch a character named St. Clair Jordon. In playing this part the Toronto actor Tommy Tweed imitated Gordon Sinclair’s brassy voice. The story presented St. Clair Jordon as a prodigal son of Crocus who had made a great name as a war correspondent. Yet during a patronizing return to Crocus St. Clair Jordon dismayed the inhabitants by proving too timid to stop a runaway horse.
On sight of Gordon Sinclair, Mitchell’s face still turns to stone. But his enemies are few. Writers, actors, musicians and painters, east - bound or west - bound through Calgary, drop in at the Mitchells' High River home in a year-round cavalcade. They find multifarious other guests, such as Ronald Brown, a millionaire stockholder in Home Oil Ltd., W. G. Hardy, head of the department of classics at the University of Alberta, Vincent Stanley, a High River men’s clothier, or Pete Dixon, an Indian chief, enjoying Mitchell’s hospitality and entertainment.
Peter Francis, who produced the Jake and The Kid radio series, has described Mitchell as “the sort of raconteur who soon has everybody rolling about the floor with laughter and pleading with him to stop.” Mitchell acts out his stories with vigorous mugging, arm waving, mimicry, ventriloquism and even choreography. To give force to an element of surprise or climax he may suddenly execute a spectacular back-flip.
At a party two years ago Mitchell did his imitation of the late Mackenzie King discussing family allowances with a French-Canadian habitant. Bruce Hutchison. the writer, laughed so much that he had to be revived.
What revived him was the odor of the goose that Merna was serving for dinner. Mitchell feeds his guests like eighteenthcentury squires. They eat massive helpings of deep-frozen wild fowl, venison and trout bagged by their host in a relentless exploitation of every hunting and fishing season.
On summer Sunday mornings Mitchell breaks his usual routine by rising early. On his back patio he fries pizza-like towers of pancackes and then bawls, in a voice that scatters local chickens, "Come and get it!” Every neighbor within earshot knows he’s welcome to breakfast. With Merna tending an enormous coffee pot, up to a score of guests will gather, feast, and then loll around until noon listening to Mitchell's inspired rantings.
"But it is impossible,” says Hughena McCorquodale, editor of the High River Times, “to think of Bill as an individual. He is always identified as one of a family. 'The Mitchells,’ as they are invariably known, not only love one another but they enjoy one another's company. Whether they are hunting, fishing, gardening, picnicking, riding or even kite lying they are as one.” When Ormond and Hugh participate in little-league baseball and hockey their parents are enthusiastic supporters. Mitchell, says Mrs. McCorquodale, is “a passionate and earsplitting sensation” while Merna "abandons her usual role of restraint and becomes startlingly vocal.”
As a family the Mitchells are amiably indifferent to time. There isn't a clock in the house. Mitchell claims he can guess the hour to within five minutes by the sun. But this talent is often dormant. A few years ago, when the Toronto author Marjorie Wilkins Campbell stayed overnight with the Mitchells, it was important that she should arise early to catch a morning train. Mitchell assured
“Two hours after landing in England Mitchell was doped and robbed by a ‘little dockside landlady’ ”
her she would be called. But in the morning Mitchell was oblivious to the sun. Mrs. Campbell awoke herself, with only a few minutes to spare before train time. She dressed hurriedly and crept out of the house, leaving the entire family slumbering blissfully. “You take the Mitchells as you find them,” she says, “and you leave them with a mixture of love and awe.”
For some years the Mitchells were as indifferent to city amenities as to time. After much goading by relatives, however, they installed indoor plumbing. When the equipment was ready for use Mitchell made the occasion ceremonial. He telephoned his mother-in-law, Mrs. S. N. Hirtle of Vancouver, and said, “You are now going to hear something that will do your dear heart good.” He
then pressed the lever, held out the receiver, and, at a distance of five hundred miles, let Mrs. Hirtie listen to what she regarded as a long-overdue gurgle.
Throughout his life Mitchell has displayed an uncommon temperament. He inherited artistic talents from his father, the late Ormond S. Mitchell, a prosperous Weyburn, Sask., druggist, who had raised his University of Toronto fees by
reciting poems on concert platforms. Mitchell senior died when William Ormond, the second of four sons, was six.
Mrs. O. S. Mitchell reared the family comfortably on her husband’s estate. But she had her troubles. In infancy Mitchell developed a tubercular wrist and had to carry his arm in a brace. He acquired his secondary education at a boarding school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and so lost touch with Weyburn boys of his own age. Unable to participate in vacation sports at home he took to wandering about the prairies alone. The solitude induced introspection and developed his imagination. Once he picked up a copy of John O’London’s Weekly, an English literary review, liked it, took out a subscription, and developed writing ambitions. Even in his late teens, when his wrist had recovered and he had become a high diver and gymnast of repute, he still dreamed of an author’s life.
While studying for an arts degree at the University of Manitoba he wrote a novel about a man who turned into a goldfish and communicated his plight in the bowl by blowing Morse code bubbles. A publisher’s letter of rejection advised Mitchell to shun the fanciful and stick to reality.
When Mitchell graduated the Depression was at its deepest and he couldn't get a regular job. So rather than sponge on his mother he tramped all over the prairies working as a casual farm laborer. Riding the rods to a distant harvesting he fell in with a hobo who earned a few dollars by making egg-stands out of baling wire. Mitchell spent many weeks with the hobo, helping sell the stands from door to door. Out of this experience flowered about a dozen short stories which were rejected, says Mitchell, “because I over-idealized the life of the nomadic bum.”
How not to tour Europe
In 1934 Mitchell decided his talent was in need of European inspiration. Armed with a tiny legacy he set off to tour Britain and France on an old motor bike. He soon proved himself unable to cope with the complexities of densely populated areas.
He tottered off a Greek cattle boat in London, green with the nausea that sprang from a trans-Atlantic diet of curry twice daily. Two hours after he landed he was doped and robbed of half his cash “by a little old dockside landlady straight out of Arsenic and Old Lace.” In Paris he was arrested for riding down a gendarme. In Soissons he collided with a streetcar. In Toulouse he pitched his pup tent on a foggy night and awoke next morning to find himself reclining in the middle of a crowded suburban.boulevard. After running out of funds and going without food for four days he got a week’s work riding behind contestants in the Tour de France bicycle race and throwing to the roadside crowds handbills advertising an athletic supporter. Next he kept himself by doing a dangerous high-diving act at Biarritz. Before his mother sent him the fare home he was reduced to helping a monkey pass the hat around for an Austrian organ grinder.
On his return to Canada he started writing stories about Russian counts who made love to mysterious blondes in luxurious Riviera hotels, and about hunchbacked spies who skittered, dagger in hand, along the alleys of the Place Pigalle.
He didn’t sell a line, so he planned to seek inspiration in South America. In Seattle, Washington, he tried in vain to ship aboard a south-bound freighter as a deckhand. While there he took an extramural course in short-story writing at the University of Washington. “This taught me,” says Mitchell, “that successful writers write about people and places they know.”
Early in the war, when he was keeping himself in Calgary by selling oil rights, life insurance, and radio-station ads, he harked back to his harvesting days and recalled an old homesteader whose hobby was “figurin'.” With the stub of a pencil the homesteader passed his evenings working out how many cups of tea it would take to fill the south cowpasture slough, or how many grains of wheat would be required to lay an unbroken line of them from Regina to Saskatoon. Out of this congenial old gaffer Mitchell developed his first conception of the younger, and wiser, Jake. As a foil to Jake, Mitchell settled for The Kid, an approximate re-creation of his own boyhood personality. The resulting story. You Gotta Teeter, he sold to Maclean’s in 1942.
That year he was also selling encyclopedias from door to door in Edmonton. While selling a set to the late Rev. S. N. Hirtle, a Baptist pastor, he made a date with Merna, the minister’s daughter, and soon afterward married her. Seeking security he started high-school teaching in Alberta, first at Castor, then at New Dayton and finally at High River. There he wrote more stories for Maclean's, limited his teaching to part-time substitute work, and finished Who Has Seen The Wind.
Published in 1948, this novel was described by the New York Times Book Review as “a piece of brilliantly sustained prose, a very beautiful, keen, perceptive rendering of human beings engaged in the ordinary, almost mysteriously meaningful, drama of every day.” With the fourteen thousand dollars in royalties Mitchell built his bungalow.
Then, turning against the prairies once more, he accepted a job in Toronto as fiction editor of Maclean's.
The Toronto cost of living stunned him and he rebelled by buying six-dollar suits at discount houses. In the office he wore what he called his smoking jacket, a thick black garment made of horse-, blanket material. Once he turned up at work in running shoes, and on another occasion, through absent-mindedness, appeared wearing one stout shoe and one bedroom slipper. He was notorious for giving the most hopeless aspirants to literature hours of encouragement and advice. Yet a procession of poets, trying to sell their work, merely amused him. He would greet them wearing a wide grin and a hideous theatrical wig that made him resemble a Witch of Endor.
For transport between the office and home he bought his first car and showed a preference for riding in the back seat while Merna drove. The traffic unnerved him. During a cross-city journey he would shout: “Merna! Are you blind?" “For God's sake woman, look where you're going!” "Holy Cow, this guy's coming straight at us!” “Merna! You’re up a wrong-way street again!”
Once, when he was reluctantly driving
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to the office himself, he set fire to a box of kitchen matches as he was lighting his pipe. The spurt of (lame ignited the upholstery and covered his face with soot. Zig-zagging violently Mitchell hurled the blazing matches out the window. They flew into the cab of a passing oil truck whose driver pulled up with a shriek across Mitchell's path. The ensuing argument with the truck driver, and the blare of motor horns in the traffic jam, so upset Mitchell that literally he staggered into Maclean’s office looking like Al Jolson in the last few bars of Mammy.
He went home that night to a beatenup old house in east-end Toronto, rented for thirty dollars a month. Among the battered furniture was a high Victorian desk of the type to which Bob Cratchit was chained by Scrooge. Because he couldn't find a high stool to go with it, Mitchell typed standing up.
In 1949, eighteen months after settling in Toronto, Mitchell sold Jake and I he Kid to the CBC. On receiving Jake’s part in the weekly radio episodes, the actor John Drainie predicted accurately that the scries would be successful. Drainie also anticipated the danger of a boy actor’s voice breaking before the show outran its popularity, so the part of The Kid was played lor five years by a woman, Billy-Mae Richards, a Toronto violinist and housewife.
In the early days of radio’s Jake and The Kid, Mitchell played a few bit parts himself, and then quit because he decided that such participation was unfair to professional actors. After this he returned to the mike only once—as the squeaky voice of a gopher.
Meanwhile Mitchell’s two sons, affectionately known to their dad as Ormie and Hughie, and to their dad’s many friends as "those little hellions,” were being transformed by the confinement of city life into wildcats. When Mitchell entertained he had to shout above the racket of Ormie and Hughie steeplechasing over the chesterfield, chickendancing around the table, or bashing out discords on the ancient piano.
During one party Mitchell persuaded the boys to go to bed by promising to tell them a story. Downstairs for more than an hour guests listened to Mitchell’s distant droning. Then there was a silence that was shattered by Ormie yelling for a glass of water. "I thought you were in bed," cried Merna. "We can’t get into bed,” bawled Ormie. "Dad's there, fast asleep.”
For three years Mitchell tried to come to grips with city life but was forever thwarted by a hex. Once he dropped Merna at the Medical Arts Building. He said he’d park the car and join her in the doctor’s office. But before he parked his mind began to dwell on a story and he "came to” in a strange part of the city. Two hours later he found his way baek to the Medical Arts Building. By this time he'd forgotten the doctor’s name and he began a vague search of the building. But Merna had seen the doctor and was hunting for her husband around the Bloor Street parking lots. Meanwhile Bob Needham, of the Toronto Globe and Mail, was making his way toward the Mitchell home as a dinner guest. He told his taxi driver to move slowly along the street as he was not sure of the house. Then he saw a crowd, a fire engine, and a dwelling in flames. Knowing of his hosts' vulnerability to disaster Needham cried: “That’s it. That must be the Mitchells’.”
From firemen Needham learned that Ormie and Hughie, fighting with wet towels in the bathroom, had shorted a faulty plug and set the place alight.
About eight in the evening Mitchell and Merna found each other and hurried home to the hungry Needham. As the power had been cut off Merna lit candles and prepared a cold meal. Just as the party was sitting down to dine, in a dimly lit atmosphere of smoke, acrid smells and dripping water, the fire broke out again.
A few weeks later Ormie and Hughie escaped into the street naked. The neighbors got up a petition protesting against the Mitchells' way of life. The Mitchells’ landlord asked them to move.
Merna realized now that in the city Mitchell was as unhappy as a wild pinto in a circus. Shortly afterwards he realized himself that the prairies wanted him back, and were exercising over him an unbreakable spell. He resigned from Maclean’s, recited a sparkling string of self-deprecatory anecdotes at his farewell party, and returned with his family to High River. At first the neighbors out there couldn’t understand why the Mitchells were all “eatin’ reglar.” When Mitchell explained that he was a writer
they said, “Yes. But what do you do for work?” After a time, however, the High Riverites realized that Mitchell works hard while they are sleeping. Now they are looking forward to Mitchell's latest novel, a yet-untitled work, about the battle between a prairie smalltown newspaper editor and an inquisitive social scientist from the city.
Mrs. McCorquodale, the editor of The High River Times, says: “If snatches of High River conversation pop up in Bill’s work there will be no sense of outrage or betrayal. The neighbors know that Bill has an honest liking for human beings without trappings or affectations and that when he brings them into his stories he is laughing not at them but with them.”
'The finest testimony to Mitchell’s place in the hearts of westerners was voiced a few years ago by the late Senator D. H. Riley, of High River, who, employing the understatement of frontier vernacular, said: “That Mitchell’s a bit on the clever side. But he’s a nice young fellow. He'll do to take along.” ic