MACLEAN'S REPORTS

How one “robe” fooled all those city folk out there in radioland

SANDRA PEREDO May 1 1969
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

How one “robe” fooled all those city folk out there in radioland

SANDRA PEREDO May 1 1969

How one “robe” fooled all those city folk out there in radioland

THE ASSIGNMENT started out as a story about a type of vanishing Canadian: the kind of true rustic whose closeness to the land can still bring forth the simple truths that most city folk have forgotten or never knew. The particular man was Fred Dobbs, a farmer in Beamsville, Ont., who last summer started phoning in to Gerussi!, the sophisticated morning radio show hosted on CBC by actor Bruno Gerussi.

Dobbs had opinions on many subjects and expressed them in a rough old weatherbeaten voice, punctuated by a wheezing laugh. “Hello there, Bruno,” he would almost shout. (It’s a long way from Beamsville to Toronto as the crow flies.) “I seen an ad fer an uplift brassiere,” he remarked one day. “It said ‘It holds them up but keeps them apart.’ That’s like Ottawa and the provinces. If you kin think of that old brassiere you might have the key to her.” Wheeze.

“I seen where they’re cornin’ outa the Dark Ages in Ontario,” he commented when the province abandoned a rule requiring liquor-store customers to sign for their purchases. “When ya stop makin’ people feel guilty about havin’ a drink, yer on the right road.” Wheeze.

Soon, listeners across the country were writing in, describing Dobbs as an “outstanding Canadian.” Apparently it was comforting to believe that down there in Beamsville, Ont.,

the good basic un-rat-racey values still prevailed. Meanwhile, Fred Dobbs didn’t have time to mess with city folk. “A lot of people are trying to get hold of you,” Bruno told him on one show. “I tell them you have an unlisted phone number.”

“Now yer doin’ the right thing,” answered Dobbs. “They said there was somebody cornin’ around to see me. If it’s not a policeman, we’re all right. Hah hah.” Wheeze.

The staff of Gerussi! said they didn’t know how to get in touch with him either. “He just started phoning in last summer demanding to talk to Bruno,” said Diana Filer, the show’s

producer. “Because he was pretty funny, we finally put him on the air.” Determined to interview him, I checked Beamsville telephone information, the Beamsville post office, the Beamsville police, and the Ontario Provincial Police for the Niagara area. No Fred Dobbs. “For a prominent farmer, he’s unheard of,” said the constable. “He’s non-existent.” The vanishing Canadian had, indeed, vanished. Could it be that Fred Dobbs, that homespun, combatively honest old man would deceive Bruno Gerussi and the radio audience of Canada by taking a phony name? Surely not. Or could it even be that

there never had been any farmer, of any name, phoning in from Beamsville? No, that couldn’t be, for the Gerussi staff would have had to be in on the deception, and these were the ones described in a CBC press release last summer as “people with total respect for listeners.”

One evening, several phone calls later, I sat in the coffee shop of a Toronto hotel, discussing with a tall, dark, unsmiling 35-year-old man named Michael Magee his career as a sportscaster. He was your compleat urban man, born in Toronto, nine years in Vancouver as an actor, back in Toronto working as a freelance broadcaster.

“I do no acting in Toronto,” he said, with a trace of a familiar bucolic

twang. “Actors have to act every day to achieve expertise, but in Canada they don’t have the chance to develop.”

It seemed the right moment. “How long did it take you to develop the character of Fred Dobbs?”

Magee’s face didn’t change. “It was not developed,” he said curtly. “It’s something I don’t discuss. If I did, I wouldn’t be employed.”

Well, that’s sort of an admission, as the crow flies, and Magee recognized it, too. “If you have something good, like a character you do,” he said, “it may be an extension of you. You’re not developing it. I look on the job as an outlet, not bucks.”

The CBC, I gathered, was understandably uneasy about the whole setup, and now it seemed possible the corporation might decide any day to tell all. If that meant removing Dobbs from the airwaves, it would disappoint a lot of his fans. How important is it, really, whether a Fred Dobbs actually exists in Beamsville or exists within Michael Magee?

The way Magee is going, anyway, he might just turn into a farmer in rural Ontario.

“I like to think,” he twangs, “that some day I will be a vinegary old man sitting in a hotel lobby waving my cane and getting mad at the government.” SANDRA PEREDO