EVERYBODY HERE LOVES Charlie Chamberlain
Carping critics claim he can't sing, dance or act. But when this rough-cut, trouble-prone, carefree bear of a man steps before the TV cameras and sings Danny Boy or Trees, he tears the heart out of a million and a half contented Canadians, who hope he'll never change
CHARLIE CHAMBERLAIN, who is watched by one and a half million Canadians a week on Don Messer's Jubilee TV show, was himself watching TV with me early one afternoon in a Halifax bar. Mr. Lucky, a traumatic Cary Grant-Laraine Day thrash-about, was on the afternoon movie. Cary, looking cruel and unyielding, stood on the deck of his gambling yacht as it pulled into the darkness of the harbor. He was leaving a stricken Laraine on the pier, forever brokenhearted.
Laraine's eyes were not the only wet ones in the house. Sitting at the bar, watching this 1943 wrencher and matching Laraine sob for sob, was the hefty, gentle, brawling legend of the Maritimes, Charlie Chamberlain.
"Darlin', darlin'," he said, shaking his head and turning to me and trying to hide the tears, "it's just so dreadfully sad."
The whole world, seemingly, was built for Charlie Chamberlain to get emotional about. And it's this quality, more than anything else
that first made him a favorite in the lumber camps and has kept him a pillar of the Messer company since 1934. This country-music show has a top rating, but very plain ingredients—old-time eastern-seacoast reels, quadrilles, polkas and toe-tapping tunes,complemented each week with popular ballads.
Charlie's role through those years has been to sing the sentimental Irish, sweetheart, mother, father and religious songs so many love to hear. The viewer has only to look at his moonlike lugubrious countenance to realize that Charlie means every word of those songs. In fact, he was hired to sing with Bruce Holder's Fundy Fantasy band in Saint John, NB, when he began his career, because Holder's regular singer couldn't put sufficient sentiment into Trees, Danny Boy and Sylvia.
Conversely, Charlie is the kind of man the whole world can become emotional about. He's as simple as a child and as straightshooting as Marshal Dillon. He has, in abundance, the qualities of the wayward bachelor uncle. Like my great Uncle Jack, who often landed in a little trouble, who drank a little too much, who spent his money almost before he earned it, Charlie combines his black sheepishness with an innocent, affectionate charm that could melt the frown on any disapproving relative's face. Where Walter Mitty
imagined himself the hero in all the magnificent endeavors possible to man, Charlie is proud to know only about the things that nature gave him—a voice and a heart.
His multitude of fans reject any criticism of Charlie as an entertainer. Then they admit that he's not a great singer, that he forgets the words to songs he's been singing for years, that he's not yet learned to relax on television, that he really can't dance. But, they conclude, he's a great entertainer. Charlie explains his not-so-mysterious appeal this way: "The audience know me. I'm just plain old Charlie and they seem to like me. Maybe it's because I'm not going around trying to fool anyone."
Charlie, at fifty-four, is the same man who walked eighty miles into the lumberwoods and built roads in the relief camps near his northern New Brunswick birthplace of Bathurst in the hungry 1930s. He's naive, massively ingenuous, entirely physical—yet still a success in a league that'sfull of sharpies and promoters. He's proud of his FrenchCanadian ancestry—for Charlie, like Bathurst, is half Acadian French and half English—and in a league where he should be playing with poodles and driving hopped-up sports cars, he lives in a cottage by a trailer camp eight miles from Halifax
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and talks about his legendary skill with an axe: “They used to say when Charlie swings his axe, the tree takes its bow.”
He has little to say about his success as a singer. Rather, his conversation turns easily, if somewhat emotionally, to those “root, hog or die” days. Charlie loved lumbering: the years of physical prowess and hard labor, of real work and real men. And those days look mighty virile compared with his present weekly exercise, getting duded up with makeup and hair spray so he can sing before a bank of lights and TV cameras. His life as an entertainer, then, is completely foreign to the woods life he
was born to — and that kind of life he understands. He says in a husky voice that even now, even after thirtytwo years with Don Messer, “I get a feeling about the woods every fall . . . I still get a feeling.”
Charlie’s first memories are of a little house built on logs over a pier at the bottom of the Village Hill in Bathurst. “You'd wake up in the morning with the house so cold, you’d think rigor mortis had set in.” Charlie’s father, a policeman in Bathurst. NB, died when Charlie was nine. Charlie remembers him as a big quiet man, six feet four, about two hundred and eighty-five pounds, and a real softy: “He'd bring a criminal home rather than arrest him.”
Charlie’s legendary attitude of mak-
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ing sure his job never interfered, too much, with his joie de vivre probably throws back to his uncles. (Though not all of them are as boisterous as Charlie. Dennis Fournier, eighty-three, and a grade-school graduate, specializes in common sense in his weekly column for the Bathurst Northern Lif>ht. Like any good newsman, he gets his material from firsthand observation. On his way home from a recent trip to Detroit, he stopped off in Montreal to take a close look at the postal strike. The next week. Fournier. a retired railroader, thundered out from the pages of the Northern Lif>ht, blasting royal commissions and arguing that MBs should settle such disrupting disputes: “The Lord knows, they have time enough and are paid enough.’’ )
Charlie remembers his uncles as “rowdy fightin’ men. real men — you’d beat 'em today and they’d be back askin’ for more tomorrow morning.” The cavorting may have come from his uncles, but Charlie's present physique is straight from his father — except that Charlie’s two hundred and sixty pounds arc mounted on a five-foot-ten-inch frame with a size-twenty neck and ten-inch wrists.
The lean years came after his father died in a car accident, leaving Mrs. Chamberlain teaching school and raising their six children. There were no pensions then.
Charlie had made it to grade five but his scholastic career was already undistinguished: “They near had to burn down the school house to get me out of the first grade,” he says proudly.
The police were soon regular visitors to the Chamberlain household, except that their visits were now on business, not social. Charlie was the scourge of the neighborhood, the Huck Finn who filched chickens, vegetables and, along with his one-hundred-and-
ten - pound German Shepherd - cumNewfoundland dog Tony, poached fish and stole coal from the railroad. Mrs. Chamberlain, today a tiny, saintly eighty-nine-year-old lady who appears yearly on the Mother’s Day Messer show, in the old days backed up all of Charlie’s patently false alibis.
Charlie first earned an honest living building timber roads through the swamps in the Rose Hill relief camp. His three-dollar-weekly wage went to Kent’s store in Bathurst where it was cashed for food for the rest of the Chamberlains. Big Tony accompanied Charlie to the camp, wagging scraps from the kitchen for his food.
Two years later, Charlie walked eighty miles into the Bathurst lumber company’s camp and began logging. For the next ten years, he worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, ate molasses, salt pork, beans, gingerbread, tea boiled in lard pails, and
he slept on spruce-hough mattresses.
The men would often make music in the evenings, with an assortment of Jew's harps, guitars, mouth organs and fiddles, and here began Charlie’s fondness for the old quadrilles and step dances. He also remembers chewing Goldenrod Tobacco, which w'as so strong the men used to call it “the floating axe.”
It was when he was down from the woods for a holiday in Bathurst that Charlie first met his wife-to-be, Lydia—or as he sentimentally nicknamed her Ti-Belle. short for petite helle. Charlie was about twenty, a lithe, hard, hundred-and-sixty pounder and, as his memory serves him. he cut a dashing figure on the dance floor. “I could burn the rubber right off the soles of my boots doing the oldtime reels,” he claims.
One boast that has lived through the years is that he could jump, from a standing start, right over Don Messer's head when he joined the band in 1934. Once. too. his brother Buddy, who w'as a Maritimes boxing champion, fell ill the day of a fight. Charlie replaced him on a whim, and Ti-Belle claims he nearly killed the challenger.
Charlie’s musical career began at five through a combination of hunger and boyish craftiness w'hen he started serenading the troop trains coming through Bathurst during World War I. He'd rake in a load of pennies and nickels from soldiers for his soprano renditions of such tear-jerking tunes as Good Luck To The Boys Of The A Hies.
About two years later—he had now reached the advanced age of seven— Charlie managed to cop a front seat at the John R. Van Arman minstrel show. The great John R. called for a singsong, and the big voice coming from the little boy in front row' centre stopped the show'. Van Arman brought Charlie onto the stage, had him sing a song, and immediately launched an unsuccessful campaign to persuade Mrs. Chamberlain to let young Charlie join the show.
Almost all of Charlie’s boyhood stories are cloaked in a disarming shroud of emotionalism. To earn the SI.50 for his first musical instrument, a ukelele, Charlie, driving a horse and buggy for three w'eeks, picked up the mail from the night trains and took it to the post office. Yet in telling the story, Charlie takes the listener almost letter-by-letter through his labors of those early days.
Charlie remembers paying the money to Bob Doucet, the local music teacher, and taking the instrument: Was I ever something proud
going home with that,” he recalls wñth enormous enthusiasm. “It weren’t even wrapped up or nothing!” May Hachey (pronounced Hashie). who was know'n through Bathurst for her skill w'ith the instrument, tuned it for Charlie, and. he says, “I took it down to the end of the bridge by the old pump and started plunking away on it. It all started from there.”
Later he graduated to a six-dollar guitar and, three months after he started courting Lydia, he had a big heart painted on it. and put her name right in the middle. “I could have beat the world that day,” he now happily recalls.
Ti-Belle. tired of Bathurst, moved to
Saint John in May 1933 to live with Charlie's cousin. This move altered the course of their lives. It forced Charlie to write his first letter, which said simply: "Sweet lemonade heart: I'm going down and I w'ant to get married, love Charlie.” So they did. and formalized the ceremony with an engagement ring made from a piece of aluminum pipe Charlie got at the pulp mill in Bathurst. The pipe was pared down at the mill's machine shop, and in its diamond-shaped setting
Charlie placed a topaz (Ti-Belle’s birthstone: she was born in November).
Alter a two-day honeymoon in November, Charlie returned to the woods. In February he came down with a severe cold and decided to go to Saint John to recuperate. His professional singing career began right then. Swilling rum in a car on the "Dungarvon Whoopcr,” the train that runs through the Miramichi River Valley and is named after a famous
lumberwoods ghost, supposedly that of a murdered camp cook which whoops at night like the Whooper's whistle, Charlie began to sing. Lansdowne Bclyea, a Saint John chartered accountant and fellow passenger, was so moved by Charlie’s rendition of Danny Boy that he urged the young lumberjack to audition for Bruce Holder and Don Messer when the train reached Saint John. Charlie did. and after singing Lonesome Valley Sally, was hired
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by Messer to work on a Maritimes network show for the CBC. He was also engaged to help out Holder every two weeks with Danny Boy, Sylvia and Trees. At the same time, he was sent to Agnes Forbes, a Saint John singing teacher. There he had his only singing lessons. She made him wiggle his mouth and breathe from the diaphragm, Charlie’s reaction after two lessons was blunt: “I told her, if I have to do this to sing. I’ll go back to the woods.” He didn’t. He still can't read music but is probably the only Forbes' pupil who has made a living singing professionally.
In 1937 Don Messer’s New Brunswick Lumberjacks (Charlie was the only member of the group who could lay legitimate claim to the title) went on the CBC network for twenty-five dollars a week each. But the big money didn’t last. In 1939 their contract expired and Don and Charlie
set out for radio station CFCY in Charlottetown. There they became Don Messer And His Islanders, and their show rejoined the national network in the late 1940s.
The group made much of their money through these years playing dances on what was called the “kerosene circuit” in the Maritimes—named after the lamps that lit the dance halls. In addition, Charlie picked up odd jobs — for a time he washed cars at a garage — because by now there were six young Chamberlains to feed.
But the children, and Ti-Bclle, had also influenced Charlie’s thinking on other opportunities that came up through the years. In 1936, when the group traveled to Boston and New York with the New Brunswick Sportsmen’s Show, Charlie was spotted by a Hollywood scout who wanted him to go to the west coast and take a screen test as a singing cowboy. “No,” said
Charlie, “I’m going home to Lydia and the kids.” And he did.
But by the early 1950s Charlie began having visions of wild success and an itch for independence. He went to Messer one day to say he was leaving the show. “I'm going to Montreal, and I’ll come back with a car so big it won’t be able to turn corners,” Charlie told him. It didn’t work out that way, and within a year Charlie was back singing with the Islanders. Charlie says he disliked Montreal because it was too big; others claim that Montreal was just too big for Charlie.
Then in 1956 came local television. The show, produced in Halifax, was carried on the Maritimes network for two years, and in the summer of 1 959. the big break came; Messer was named the summer replacement for Country Hoedown. The show was renewed in the fall and has been rated in the
top-ten Canadian TV shows ever since — in fact, this last year it was second only to hockey in Canadian-produced shows and ranked fifth after Bonanza, the Beverly Hillbillies and the Ed Sullivan Show.
In some ways, though Charlie has made a considerable success of his life, he resembles Al Capp’s cartoon character, Joe Btfsplk, the disasterprone little man with the dark cloud dogging him. It seems that almost every time Charlie climbs into a car, something dreadful happens. So far there have been four major accidents, any one serious enough to kill an ordinary man. Don Wile, a Halifax automobile salesman, says he crosses his fingers every time he sells Charlie a car. In one mishap, the car ended up in the ditch, with an unconscious Charlie clutching the steering wheel with such force that he claims ambulance attendants had to break his wrists to release him and get him to hospital. He exhibits scars on his arms to back up his story. That accident nearly ended the legend of Charlie Chamberlain. Then, about eighteen months ago, Charlie fell out the car door as his wife was driving up to their cottage. The episode resulted in a week in hospital and a summer recovering at home.
But the legend goes on, begun in the poaching days when men were chasing Charlie in the hope of getting a cigarette butt and a pull of his Catawba wine. Now he’s chased for his autograph. “If they don’t ask for it,” he says philosophically, “then I’m in trouble.” After following him around for a week. I’d say there’s no trouble for Charlie yet.
We first met at the cramped CBC studio in Halifax where the Messer show originates. Charlie, dressed in a lumberjack’s shirt, khaki trousers and flashy white sox, was to do three songs on the show: When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, the Messer trademark Smile Awhile in duet with Marg Osborne and a swinging quiet-time song: “My religion is old-fashioned but it’s real gen-u-ine.”
Charlie was given the words to the revival song at the rough rehearsal the night before the show was taped. Yet, when it came time for taping, he still hadn’t learned them, relying instead on a cue card. Max Ferguson, another famous Maritimer, is credited with the remark that “for Charlie, God is a little to the left of the camera.”
Messer was strictly business handling the rehearsal, chiding the singers for not being able to read music, complaining, in passing, to me, and somewhat resembling Leonard Bernstein trying to make a group of lumberjacks turn out presentable and serious Bach.
After the taping we all went to the Halifax Curling Club, where the show’s dance director, Gunter Buchta, and Messer threw a party. It was still swinging when I left at 2 a.m. Charlie and Ti-Belle didn’t get home until six, but he arrived at my hotel looking fresh and raring to be interviewed at nine the next morning. After paying a visit to the liquor store, which Charlie and other Maritimers call the “powerhouse” (and where I was allowed to buy a bottle without a permit just because T was with Charlie), after exchanging jokes with the cop on the
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powerhouse beat and waving to the school children as we drove to his home, we went to work.
We sat at the kitchen table through most of the day, Charlie and Ti-Belle drinking Bloody Marys (which quickly became known as Red-Eyed Susans) and talking. Ti-Belle, a lanky rawboned North Shore French Canadian was my steady companion; Charlie drifted off for his daily afternoon nap. There’s a special warmth about the Chamberlains, from the memen-
toes — including Charlie’s partridgefeather cap — in the vestibule, to their continual invitation to eat and drink, and their effort to lure the unsuspecting visitor into a special massage chair that sits rather menacingly in one corner of the living room.
Bill Langstroth, the original TV producer of the show, calls Charlie “an uncluttered man,” and adds, “He’s a completely emotional guy, with all the pride of a self-made man who’s come out of hard times.”
So that’s Charlie. Earning about fifteen thousand dollars a year, but not knowing where it goes, soulful as a basset hound, a beefy brawling sweetheart of a singer who has come straight from the woods and is heading for your heart. Singers claim he can’t sing. Dancers say he can’t dance. Actors say he can’t act. But the one and a half million Canadians who look in on Charlie and the Messer family every week don’t seem to mind. They love him just the same. ★