Ginette Reno, superstar, was throwing an intimate little luncheon for the editors and star writers of Montreal’s better entertainment pages. Settled cozily around a vast, honey-colored pine table, nestled among the foot-thick fieldstone walls, and basking in the heady atmosphere of exclusivity, the journalists chattered gaily about Chinese astrology and the relative merits of the Year of the Horse, Boar or Dragon.
But in quiet complicity, they were really celebrating the Year of Ginette Reno. Quebec’s favorite daughter had been welcomed back into the bosom of the family. In a crush worthy of a Rolling Stones concert, mobs of patrons had crammed the spacious lobby of Place des Arts on Sept. 19, the day tickets for Reno’s show went on sale. The brave souls who insist on being first in line showed up at 5:30 a.m. complete with camp stools, novels and knitting. By 8 a.m., the crowd had spilled out onto the terrace outside. At 9.30 a.m. nervous officials opened the ticket windows, a full 2V2 hours early. Within a half-hour, tickets in the first five rows for all 14 shows in the 3,000-seat Salle Wilfrid Pelletier were gone. Surly patrons further back in line suspected that good seats were being held back for VIPs. Some mumbled about lawsuits. A woman fainted. By closing time 10,826 tickets had been sold, a record. “The only time I can remember a scene like this,” said box-office manager Gaston Morin, “was the first time Harry Belafonte or Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck played here.”
But this is hardly Ginette Reno’s first appearance at PDA. You can count on her showing up once every 18 months. And she’s been doing one-woman shows in Montreal since 1968. “I can’t explain it either,” beams Ginette, tucking into a third crusty roll as we await the rosbif au jus. “But it fits with something I’ve learned over the years. When you really want something to happen, it won’t. And when you’re least expecting it— bam! there it is.” She shrugs, spreads the butter thick on the roll, pops it in her mouth and turns to another question.
Once again she’s defying gravity, breaking the rules, doing the unex-
pected. She’s overweight. Five-foot-five, she weighs in at about 200 pounds, and bears not the slightest physical resemblance to the prototypical female singer that rolls off the assembly lines in Las Vegas. Her laughter is a roar, not a chuckle. Punctuating a story, her booted foot stomps the floor. Explaining a segment in her upcoming show, she bursts into full-throated song—clicks, whistles and thrums indicating the orchestra’s parts. When she talks, her dark eyes bore into yours, flashing and darting as she barrels through barriers. If you’re a male, the
gaze is bluntly sexual, trying you on for size. She commands, regales, argues and instigates, a vibrant cross of prodigal daughter, earth mother and sexy-sophisticate-next-door. A cylindrical tomboy in designer mufti. Where the Vigneaults and the Juliens go for the hearts and minds of their audience, Reno goes for the gut.
Or as she puts it: “I fill my audience. I fill their souls, their bodies, everything. J'suis impliquée.” It’s a phrase that almost defies translation: implicated, involved, enmeshed; a combination of all three. Every contradiction, all the ups and downs are charted faithfully by the show-biz tabloids, the TV talk shows, even the daily papers. A new lover, a new house, losing weight, gaining weight, an appearance on Johnny Carson, plans for a movie, the death of the family pet, it’s all noted. The public is proud, shocked, titillated, forgiving. “They know I’m honest,” she explains. “They see me warts and all.”
Reno is also a master of the toughest of all balancing acts for a Québécois performer—attempting to conquer new worlds without turning one’s back on the old. She attempted to launch an English-language recording career from England, guided by the people who conjured up Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. She took a prize at the Tokyo International Song Festival in ’72 and a Juno for outstanding female performance in ’73. She’s spent the last couple of years flitting between Montreal and Los Angeles, studying with Lee Strasberg, sharing a stage with Don Rickies in Las Vegas, and guesting on Merv Griffin, Dinah! and The Tonight Show.
The L.A. experience was important to her, especially the classes with Strasberg. “I no longer had to live up to being Ginette Reno. I was just the fat kid in the class. I learned to listen to myself, to trust myself. I’ve matured. I’ll follow my instincts, not someone else’s.”
Instincts for the moment have taken her back to Montreal for the stint at Place des Arts (till Nov. 4). After that she branches out with a Canadian tour, to be followed by a world tour. But if the natives back home get restless, she’s fully capable of coming home to knock ’em dead like she did back in ’75. She found herself a part of the St. Jean Baptiste celebrations atop Mount Royal, facing an audience high on nationalism and various intoxicants, a crowd wondering where she’d been for the last little while and amazed at her bulk. Reno quietly launched into Jean-Pierre Ferland’s Un peu plus haut, un peu plus loin. Slowly, she built and built and built. The 100,000 on the mountain quieted and the millions watching at home edged a little closer to the TV screen. As she swung into the final chorus of this simple, almost banal song of going further, climbing higher, tears were running down Ginette’s face. She was wide open, exposed, singing from the toes up. As a script, it was pure soap opera. As it happened, the moment was transcendant. A standing ovation, jammed switchboards, rave reviews, and her position as Quebec’s pre-eminent female star was reclaimed. It wasn’t a comeback, because she’d never really been away.
So three years later, with Indian summer pouring through French doors, baba au rhum digesting nicely, no one would raise an eyebrow as Ginette Reno quietly explained: “I’m one of the five best female entertainers in the world. If you haven’t seen me on stage, then you don’t know. You simply don’t know. You don’t know what I’m capable of. I give them a show.”
The facts ma’am, nothing but the facts. Wayne Grigsby
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