FICTION

More laughs to the square revue

SPRING THAW'S fifteenth season looks like its biggest: same square actors, same square jokes and more square laughs than ever

John Gray May 5 1962
FICTION

More laughs to the square revue

SPRING THAW'S fifteenth season looks like its biggest: same square actors, same square jokes and more square laughs than ever

John Gray May 5 1962

More laughs to the square revue

SPRING THAW'S fifteenth season looks like its biggest: same square actors, same square jokes and more square laughs than ever

John Gray

"THE ONLY GILT-EDGED SECURITY in the Canadian theatre is Spring Thaw,” according to Mavor Moore, the Toronto actor, writer, composer, producer, critic, scholar, TV mogul, consultant, painter, husband, father (four girls), and gentleman. Acting on his own investment analysis, Moore and a group of friends two years ago paid $15,000 for the rights to the titile of the annual “review” which is now playin» in Toronto for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Spring Thaw is something of an enigma in Canadian show business. It makes money: this year Moore was assured of a run of at least three months in Toronto even before it arrived in town. This guarantee came from the sale of almost forty theatre nights. By being vigorously provincial and shamelessly Canadian, Spring Thaw has managed to become the longest running review — in English — by professional actors — in Canada. (There are great hazards to working out a reliable record of this sort. This one is constructed on the step-down, or multiple-qualification, method.)

When Moore bought the title in 1960 there were those who thought he w'as crazy. While Spring Thaw had over the years built up a wide reputation as an annual spoof of the country’s manners and morals, for some time the show had been going downhill. The decline began in 1957 w'hen Moore resigned as the show’’s pro-

ducer, following a fight with his mother, Dora Mavor Moore, the doughty founder of Toronto’s New' Play Society w'hich originated and owmed Spring Thaw. After the show achieved a record run of 171 performances in Toronto in 1957, Moore, in partnership with actor Lome Greene, made plans to tour it across Canada, and even take a version to England, in the following year. Mrs. Moore insisted that the energy and money go into the New Play Society’s educational work, which includes training actors and “the establishment of a living theatre in Canada on a professional but nonprofit basis.”

With Moore’s departure Spring Thaw seem-

ed headed for the ash can. The thousands of Torontonians who had kept the 1957 version running for those 171 performances began to stay away in 1958. Moore, who became a critic on the Toronto Telegram in 1959, himself advised the new producers to throw the old formulas — his formulas — away: “What w'ere once saucy attacks on cliches have now become clichés themselves,” he noted, “and clichés ought to be the target, not the weapon, of satire . . . Spring Thaw can best continue to serve the Canadian scene by dusting itself off, along with the local and national cobwebs.” (This year, Moore has dusted the show off by giving up its active direction and appointing twenty-nine-year-old Leon Major as his successor.)

The 1960 show threatened to put the freeze on Spring Thaw permanently. Mrs. Moore had farmed out the production chores to a bright young pair of foreigners from Montreal, James Domville and Brian MacDonald, the producers of My Fur Lady. Toronto didn't find it funny, and many Torontonians thought some of the material “crude” (about as devastating a criticism of a revue as you'll get in Toronto). The show left a bad taste in the stomachs of many of its fans, and a knowing smile on the faces of the many people who from the beginning have deplored the fact that Canadians laugh at the kind of jokes Spring Thaw so successfully

Spring Thaw

retails. It had become obvious, to those who couldn't stand its brand of gentle satire and endless parody, that Spring Thaw’s thirteenyear-stand in Toronto had been what they’d always suspected, a flash in the pan.

When the 1961 version of Spring Thaw, back in Mavor Moore’s hands, rolled into Toronto it had all the old faces — Barbara Hamilton. Dave Broadfoot and Peter Mews — and the old jokes, about Toronto, and culture, and the national anthem (lack of), anti the flag (also lack of), and prudery and

John Diefenbaker, and all the other subjects that appear to be dear to the Canadian middleclass heart. The show played for sixteen and a halt weeks in Toronto, earned back the $15,000 Moore and his associates had paid for the title, and a further $15.000 it had cost to mount the show, and a dividend to the backers of about fifty percent. To anyone who thought, as Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen did, that “the 1961 edition of Spring Thaw has a bad case of amusement frostbite,” Moore’s answer might well have been that, remembering his own remarks in the Telegram, he cried all the way to the bank.

When the theatre pays dividends this usually means that its public likes what it’s buying. This

is what really upsets the many Canadians who suspect that Spring Thaw is in fact an accurate barometer of what Canadians think is funny.

For example, when the sponsors of an Ottawa performance of this year’s show, which was on a four-week, 2,800-mile tour through seventeen Ontario cities and towns, invited the governor-general to attend the show, he declined. It was reported in the newspapers that his refusal was made on the grounds that 1962 may turn out to be an election year, and that it would he inappropriate for a governor-general to attend a satirical show which might (and does) contain political jokes; however, those close to the governor-general informed Spring Thaw that his absence was the result of

SHAKESPEARE: (conceding a point) Well, you’re paying the bills. Now what else have you got up your sleeves? .

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: (apologetically) Well, the play is awfully shon on sex, Will. Oh now, I know what you’re going to say ! You’re an artisti Okay, okay. We respect that, Will, and believe me nobody here wanm to interfere with the basic honesty of this play. But couldn’t you just sugged a coupla things—like maybe the Prince is secretly in love with his mother That’s always been - ^ A sure-fire.

This scene is from The Rewriting of Hamlet in the 1962 Spring Thaw. The skit originally appeared as one of Pierre Berton's columns in the Toronto Star. "The scene takes place in the Globe Theatre, London, circa 1602. A production meeting is in session. Present are the executive producer, the director, the assistant director, two beautiful and leggy script assistants and a playwright, W. Shakespeare." They are arguing about Shakespeare's latest script, Hamlet. Shown in the multiple-exposure photograph are Arno Gotthardt, Peter Mews, Barbara Hamilton, Don Francks, Bill Cole and Corinne Conley.

a previous engagement, and would they please stop circulating rumors.

The thought that any Canadian governorgeneral wouldn’t go to see Spring Thaw — in or out of an election year — because of the savageness of its satire is a considerably funnier joke than many cracked in the show itself. Spring Thaw’s satire is so gentle and so goodnatured that there is only one recorded case of a victim objecting. That was in 1950, when comedienne Jane Mallett did a take-off of a woman radio commentator. While every woman radio commentator in Toronto was tipped as the model, certain characteristics of style and delivery pointed in the direction of Kate Aitken. In the show Mrs. Mallett and her an-

nouncer did a broadcast from the stage of the theatre. At one point the announcer said: "What's next on the program. Marg? MARG: It’s statistics time, Howard, and tonight the figures are about Toronto's most popular game!

HOWARD: Hockey?

MARG: Oh, way off, Howard!

HOWARD: Bingo?

MARG: You're getting warmer. Howard! It's craps!"

Mrs. Aitken was unhappy with this lampoon and told Mrs. Mallett that it was "the unkindcst thing I've ever heard,” which so upset Mrs. Mallett that for several hours she vowed never to do satire again. But she bucked up when

she found that all the other women commentators thought it was a take-off on them. “Actually,” Mrs. Mallett said recently, 'lit wasn’t Kate Aitken's stuff we used at all. Why, if we'd used her own words we'd have crucified her.”

Ordinarily the humor is even gentler. In one show a mayor and a general were seen taking the salute at a military march past. Each time a unit came by the general would wink and dig the mayor slyly in the ribs. As the last unit was receding in the distance the general turned to the mayor and said: "Damn fine marchers, these Doukhobors!”

A typical Spring Thaw quartet written by Pierre Bcrton. commemorates the days when Toronto's leading

CONTINUED ON PAGE 52

SCRIPT ASSISTANT: Chief, to be honesty I just can't see this ending, We've simply got to hypo the ending.

SHAKESPEARE, You leave my ending alone. They walk out hand in hand into the sunset. It's sheer * poetry. *

continued from page 19

It's not just a “revue." It's a review of all the year's idiocies, uncovered by the melting snow

race track was dry: “You can lead a horse to Woodbine, but you cannot"buy a drink.” J. D. Kctchum, a Toronto professor, once sang for some friends at a party a song he had composed, and it later became one of Spring Thaw’s biggest hits. It was called Hymn To The Glory of Free Enterprise, and begins:

Of freedom this and freedom that the drooling leftist chatters.

Hut freedom for I ree Enterprise is all that really matters.

And there are those who hold fond memories of a blackout that was added to the 1957 show when the president of the Dominion Drama Festival suggested in a letter to Festival members that they might do worse than support the company that was picking up the tab for the DDF deficit — Calvert’s Distillery. In this number the various members of the company staggered on stage and took their places in chairs, waiting the beginning of a meeting. At last the president arrived, somewhat more stoned than his listeners, and managed to say only: “Friends of the Dominion Drama Festival . . before the laughter from the auditorium drowned him out.

Though humor of this kind has made Spring Thaw an apparently permanent Canadian institution, the show actually began accidentally, as a hastily assembled variety show. As its fifth offering in its fourth season in 1948 the New Play Society had scheduled a new Canadian play, an adaptation by Canadian writer Hugh Kemp of Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan’s Canadian novel. Two Solitudes. Two weeks before the first night Kemp had still not been able to deliver the script and to fill the gap Mavor Moore, then the Society's manager, decided to put together a revue.

His first thought was to project the company into the future, and show each member going off on a holiday, giving the mixture a title like Off On A Holiday. But when he discussed the problem with Andrew Allan (whose Stage series on CBC radio was then the biggest thing in Canadian entertainment). Allan suggested the company employ a format similar to that so successfully mined by comedienne Jane Mallett in Town Tonics, a series of satirical revues she and Freddy Manning did between 1934 and 1944. “You might call it Spring Thaw,” Allan added.

In recent years Moore has encouraged the semantic conceit that Spring Thaw is a “review” of the preceding year’s idiocies. “The idea behind the title,” a program note explained in 1952. “was that Spring Thaw each year uncovered a motley assortment of items, as the snow left and revealed what had been going on all winter. This gave us carte blanche to do a ’review’ of the Canadian scene, an accident which led to the show’s being called ever after a ’review’ rather than a mere 'revue.’ ”

In fact. Spring Thaw wasn’t called a 'review' until its third year. That first frantic incarnation was ‘a light-hearted revue with music.’ built around the fragile conception of a spring day in a department store. The attitude was somewhat self-conscious. “one effort to provide an opportunity to laugh at ourselves,” and the targets were fairly obvious: fashion, labor

troubles. Toronto, and even the larger world. The company serenaded Ontario.

Where the blood stream is blue

And the Sundays are too . . turned its attention to such workaday problems as Tommy Tweed’s It'll Never Get Well If You Picket, and even joshed Toronto, and Torontonians, in lines snatched

from Lister Sinclair's notorious radio satire, Wc All Hate Toronto:

Sing a song of money Pockets full of dough,

Out for filthy lucre Off to work we go.

The concoction was a great hit with the fourteen hundred people who in three nights squeezed themselves into the tiny theatre in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum where the NPS produced its shows. One review, written by Colin Sabiston of The Toronto Globe and Mail, insisted that “if laughter had been maintained at maximum intensity the entire audience would have gone home with lockjaw,” a sentiment so inspiring to Mavor Moore that he memorized it. and ocasionally quotes it—correctly—to this day.

The most astonishing thing about Spring Thaw, to Mavor Moore as well as everyone else, has been its success. Moore thinks it’s partly because the show is unique: “We give our audience what they can't get anywhere else,” he says. There’s no doubt it answers a need. “Canadians badly want to have a high old time with Canadian institutions and attitudes,” wrote Robertson Davies after he saw the 1961 show. “That is precisely what Spring Thaw offers.” But there’s more to it than this. No one gets eighty thousand people out to the theatre in Canada just by making them laugh. Moore also knows what to get them to laugh at, and the mood that needs to be established.

It is a mood of gentle affection. “We go to Spring Thaw,” says Toronto critic Herbert Whittaker, “and we see ourselves, and we smile.” Moore’s critics have maintained for years that his satire is a soothing sauce, that he does no more than pander to the prejudices of his predominantly middleclass audience, that he is bourgeois, and that he repeats himself year after year.

Moore’s technique is not so much to answer such criticism, as to confound it. He happily admits to ploughing the same ground over and over, quoting the flag and national anthem as examples of issues he likes to keep pecking away at. “I’m glad to say we try to get something in on both subjects every year, and will go on doing so until the country gets a flag, and an anthem. A lot of people forget I spent the war in psychological warfare.”

The most frequent criticism is that Spring Thaw, for all its pretentions, never really attacks anything. “It gives you a nice backseratch,” an old friend of Moore’s said recently, “but it seldom concerns itself with the human condition. And that, after all, is the focus of the deepest satire.”

Moore doesn’t agree that the show is just a backseratch. “The trouble is,” he says, “that a good many intellectuals arc more concerned with the taste of the purgative than with its effect. It would be quite easy to construct a review that appealed to one particular taste — but that’s not the idea of Spring Thaw. I want to get as many people in as I can to take a whack at them.”

Satire in Spring Thaw is therefore designed to josh, spoof, parody, tickle, chide, even ridicule on occasion, but never to destroy the subject it picks on — or the audience that buys all those tickets. “I maintain,” Moore says, “that the points wc want to make receive much wider attention because we don't make a practice of deliberately alienating our audience.” As an illustration of the technique he cites one of the most successful numbers from the 1961 show, his own look at the sub-

ject of church unity, which he called Togetherness. One enthusiastic supporter of this number was the Rev. F. Marshall Howse. a minister of the United Church of Canada, who described it for readers of his syndicated newspaper column:

“The characters were a Roman Catholic cardinal in his colorful robes; an Anglican archbishop whose expression could only be accounted for by piety or dyspepsia; an orthodox patriarch whose beard was subtropical in its luxuriance; and a United Church moderator who looked more like the chairman of an undertakers’ convention.”

These four worthies sang a song in which they preached Togetherness, though each held firmly to his individual view. The cardinal thought that

God allows others to go in their way

While ire are infallibly going in His; the archbishop insisted that

God is a gentleman through and through

And in all probability Anglican too; the patriarch explained that

It would take hours to chronicle (dl the canonical

Differences between us and the rest.

But we'll have you recall that though God made us all

H( incontrovertibly made us the best; while the United Church viewpoint was succinct :

Our flocks are enormous, and all nonconformist;

Our virtuous conduct (dl others' excels;

We've God's guarantee that our conscience is free.

And ire won't rake our orders from anyone else.

The number was staged so that the four clerics, who had begun their serenade practically in each other’s arms, were by the end very widely separated on stage. “The mirrors are not too much distorted." Dr. Howse wrote. "I am inclined to think that lay discontent (of which he thought the song was an example) may be more soundly Christian than clerical caution.”

*" Dozens of church groups have asked for copies of this number; it was quoted during a meeting of the World Council of Churches in India during the winter; on a recent edition of the Heritage TV series a rendition of it preceded a serious discussion of the issue of church unity.

“If we blunt the point of anything,” Moore says, “it’s only to deliver a better blow.”

• There is no doubt that this attitude is the basis of Spring Thaw’s success with Canadians, and it was never better illustrated than on the opening night of last year's show, when Mavor Moore once »again brought home the bacon.

“The point is," says Robert Fulford, w'ho with his partner James Knight has written some of the better revue numbers of recent years, “that we’re square. You’d never call Shakespeare square, or Mark Twain, or Leacock—but we are. And when Mavor came back last year that’s what he gave us — square jokes and actors and writers.”

It was an exciting opening night, Fulford says. The audience loved the show from the moment they realized it was once more what it had been in the past. Here, Robertson Davies felt, was "the most pointed and sustained satire on current Canadian affairs it has ever been our luck to see—on Mr. Diefenbaker, the Canada Council, the Eskimo art craze, police corruption, our pitiful whining for a ‘national image.’ our censorship and our educational system—not to speak of deficit budgets, our self-conscious Tittle’ magazines and the O’Keefe Centre." When the cast reach-

ed the show's traditional closing song.

In the spring when everything is bright and gay.

All the birds are singing, “It's a happy day,”

Yes the tune is merry and the words all rhyme

And «•<’ hope you're having a wonderful time . . .

the audience began to clap in time to the music.

"You could see what it meant." Fulford claims. "Most of the audience were in their late thirties or early forties. This was

their youth. This was what they used to do at the Museum Theatre — they were clapping to the school song. They hadn't heard it sung this way for several years— Mavor was back—it was OK—it was a very square Mavor Moore point of view again—a very lovable point of view working again. We used to think it was daring, but we knew better now. It was just us. It was tremendously touching. It was great!"

Or, as Dr. Pangloss used to say. it looked as if once again things were going to be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. ★