How they brought the Pops from Boston to Brantford

Lyle Slack March 19 1979

How they brought the Pops from Boston to Brantford

Lyle Slack March 19 1979

How they brought the Pops from Boston to Brantford


Lyle Slack

The bottom line is this: somebody in Brantford, Ontario, owes Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra $51,975. The assistant general manager of the Pops, Gideon Toeplitz, a likable man who speaks with a strong East European accent, sent Mayor Charles Bowen a curt telegram last Aug. 24 threatening to sue if the City of Brantford didn’t come up with the money.

Mayor Bowen says it’s actually Arthur J. Kelly who owes the Boston Pops their $51,975. After all, the mayor notes, it was the 56-year-old Kelly who got Fiedler and 102 members of his orchestra to come to Canada for the first time in 20 years. Which, he concedes, was feat enough in itself but a matter of

some note when you consider that the concert was held on an island in the middle of a river.

Exactly how the Boston Pops ended up in the peaceful, meandering Grand River last Aug. 3 is not a simple story nor one that can be told without some appreciation of Arthur J. Kelly—a man of vision, some in the community would say; a man who enjoys martyrdom, others contend; a former alcoholic, in point of fact, who quit cold turkey and became over the last few decades Brantford’s most notorious character and a man with a claim to being a minor Canadian legend. But first, the notoriety.

It all starts with the movies. Brantford has a 60-year-old theatre called the Capitol, which Famous Players Ltd. bought and added to their list of 400

movie houses in Canada. But this is the age of the small, economical movie theatre, and so Famous Players announced a plan to subdivide the Capitol.

Enter Arthur J. Kelly, concerned citizen, sometime playwright and compulsive organizer. In January of last year he announced plans for a “World Festival” to which he invited the Boston Pops; proceeds would go toward a down payment on the Capitol. But Brantford people have grown accustomed to Kelly’s grand schemes—gargantuan parades, huge musicals with casts of thousands, that kind of thing—so no one took it seriously.

As snow continued to pelt the ground and Kelly embellished the idea, it grew more ridiculous. Not only would he persuade the Pops to come to Brantford,

Ontario, 70 miles southwest of Toronto and a million miles from Boston, he would have them play on Kerby Island near the centre of town—11.9 acres of underbrush, dead trees and garbage. In fact, at the time Kelly proposed the site, it was under water.

“When Mr. Kelly first brought me by rowboat over to see the island,’’Toeplitz, the Boston Pops emissary, later confessed, “I thought we were all crazy.”

Nonetheless, the orchestra agreed to come (“I can understand and appreciate the need for a place like the Capitol Theatre in Brantford,” said a frail Fiedler when he arrived last Aug. 3) and Kelly went into action. He got Frank Drea, then Ontario minister of corrections, to allow inmates of the nearby Burtch Correctional Centre to help clear the island—“We had no idea that the islands would look like this,” Pops violinist Gerry Morvis said on the day of the concert. “You people have done an incredible job.”

He obtained permission to have three causeways bulldozed into position connecting Kerby Island with the west bank of the river. He got Hydro to string 50,000 watts of power to feed the 360-degree sound amplification system, and Trailmobile to loan nine flatbed trailers to form the bandstand.

On the day of the concert, a torrential rainstorm threatened to erode the new concert site, but Kelly took the matter firmly in hand. He called in truckload after truckload of gravel to replace the washed-out causeway, and on divine providence which answered thoughtfully with warm sunshine at 3:20 p.m.

“It was incredible,” Kelly later described the late afternoon scene. “Suddenly these thousands of people started to appear from nowhere. I never saw anything like it in my life, it was like the retreat from Stalingrad, on and on they came. The birds were flying above, the air was magnificent. And this | crowd, they brought champagne and 1 wine and they had these wonderful lunches. Fiedler arrived and then this wave of excitement swept through this vast crowd.”

Alderman Jo Brennan, wearing a yellow T-shirt with Kelly’s face stencilled on the front, told a reporter, “I hope Brantfordians will appreciate Arthur Kelly’s efforts more from now on.” Alderman Arthur Stanbridge declared that, “Some people talk about what they can do; Arthur Kelly delivers. On the credibility scale of zero to 10, Arthur rates a 10.” Mayor Bowen stood on the podium and told the thousands of

spectators that Kelly had accomplished a “miracle.”

And then the crowd chanted, “We want Arthur, we want Arthur,” and the Pops played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and You Light Up My Life and at intermission Mayor Bowen’s wife presented Fiedler with a jewel box carved by Brad Logan of Ohsweken and when it was all over everyone was asked to sit peacefully in the warm summer darkness while Fiedler and the orchestra left immediately for Toronto International Airport. Finally, around 10:30 p.m. after what was later described by many as a night of “magic,” the thousands left without, according to Inspector Gordon Stoneman of the Brantford City Police, causing any traffic snarls.

For the next few days reaction was one of unadulterated euphoria. The Brantford Expositor declared that, “Those who had doubted that the concert would actually materialize and questioned the suitability of the site were proved wrong and Kelly’s buoyant predictions were vindicated.” William Littler wrote in The Toronto Star that,

“Talking Fiedler into giving a concert on such a site represented an even greater coup. Under doctor’s orders, the octogenarian maestro has cancelled almost all his out-of-Boston concerts this summer and his physician told him not to come to Brantford.” Congratulatory letters flowed into the Expositor.

Then things began to fall apart.

On Aug. 9, Kelly confirmed that the total number of tickets sold was 10,752, which did not bring in enough money to


pay off the Pops. The prob lern, said Kelly, was that another 20,000 people had enjoyed the concert without paying.

An editor of the Expositor later described them as Kelly’s “lost division” and observed that, “They must have vanished into the river. I really don’t think there are that many dishonest people in the city, never mind who want to see the Boston Pops.”

The day after the concert, Inspector Stoneman told newsmen that “the officers on duty took periodic counts ” at the concert, “and most of them set attendance at 40,000.” (In the fullness of time, recent police estimates dropped as low as 18,000. The point is, a lot of people didn’t pay.)

How did the phantom gate-crashers get in?

The answer, according to Kelly, was that Mayor Bowen had promised to erect snow fencing along the west bank

of the Grand River to funnel the crowd into the hands of Kelly’s ticket-takers. Or perhaps he said “no fencing;” it didn’t materialize.

Bowen was adamant in response. “I never talked to Mr. Kelly about any snow fence, that’s totally false. He was responsible and there’s no point in saying someone else should be. And it won’t do the orchestra any good to sue the city.”

Which raises the question of just why Toeplitz and the Pops are planning such a suit.

Kelly confesses that he had agreed to

pay Toeplitz the remaining $51,975 the day of the concert. He also admits he didn’t have the money when Toeplitz asked for it. Kelly, Toeplitz, Mayor Bowen, and Alderman Bill Tovell were all standing on the west bank of the Grand River looking at the island full of people when the conversation took place.

One version of that conversation has the mayor promising that “the money will be in Boston tomorrow morning,” while another has him telling Toeplitz that Kelly would provide the money the next day, and admitting no responsibility for Brantford. While Kelly supports the first version of the conversation, he

maintains that it is his debt and he will pay it, though he is now “flat broke.”

Bob Horton is a tall, slightly skitterish free-lance news photographer for local TV stations. “What disturbed a lot of people,” he says, “was the way the mayor acted on the night of the concert. He got up there and acted like he was master of ceremonies. And that is why the Fiedler people took it almost for granted that the city would accept responsibility for the concert.”

On Monday, Aug. 11, city council met to discuss a proposal that council initiate a fund-raising drive to help pay the debt. It was defeated by a vote of 10 to 1.

Alderman Stanbridge, who on the day of the concert had given Kelly a credibility rating of 10, said he thought a drive should be conducted by private interests, and voted against the motion. Alderman Brennan, who on the day of the concert said she hoped Brantfordians would appreciate Arthur Kelly’s efforts more, said, “I have a great many reservations as to the city becoming involved in the fund-raising,” and voted against the motion. Mayor Bowen, who

on the day of the concert had praised Kelly for performing a “miracle,” voted against the motion.

In December a Toronto law firm representing the Boston Pops threatened legal action against the City of Brantford unless arrangements to reimburse the orchestra were started immediately.

Six weeks to the day after the concert, a tribute was held for Kelly at Brantford Golf and Country Club. One of the invited guests who did not show was Edmund de Rothschild. John Starkey, the polite, studious-looking alderman who organized the tribute, recalls with a smile how he had thought Kelly was reaching just a bit when he had sug-

gested inviting the British financier. That was before Rothschild replied saying his invitation had been delayed in the mails and that, “I regret that I was unable to be present and perhaps you would pass this on to Mr. Kelly personally.”

It turns out that Rothschild is an admirer of The Abbey at Monte Casino, one of the two documentary films Kelly made about the Second World War. It was in 1956, as he lay in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital suffering from a recurrence of the wartime back injury, memories of the European front flooding his mind, that Kelly decided to make his first documentary, an examination of the raid at Dieppe.

On Aug. 19,1942, Canadian troops assaulted the French coast at the small Normandy port; nearly 3,000 of the 4,963 men sent into battle were either killed or captured, and most of those who made it back to England were wounded.

Using an abandoned chicken coop in

Brantford as headquarters and a handwound Bell & Howell camera, Kelly produced what would now be called a docudrama, combining newsreel and fictional footage.

This Most Gallant Affair' charged that the invasion was riddled with blunders in the planning and, most damaging of all, that the Germans had been tipped off and were waiting for the Canadians when they landed.

Reaction was violent. Kelly was ridiculed in the press. The day of the film’s premiere in Toronto, police cleared and searched the Carlton Theatre because of a bomb threat. Stones were hurled through the front window of Kelly’s home, the tires on his car were slashed.

Eleven years later, ABC-TV ran a documentary about Dieppe, confirming the very things Kelly had been vilified for. “In effect,” Toronto Star critic Nathan Cohen wrote the next day, “the ABC-TV program simply is a formal acknowledgement of the truth of a film Kelly made 11 years earlier, and which was heatedly denounced at that time precisely because it told the truth.” The film is now in the Canadian National Film Archives.

After the souring experience with the Dieppe film, Kelly formed the Canadian National Theatre in Brantford and over the last 11 years has written, produced and directed 16 plays.

At the end of the tribute, Kelly rose to speak. Looking fit in a black suit and white boutonniere, he regaled the crowd with wit and sobriety. He thanked his “long suffering” wife Doris and the Canadian Legion and everyone stood to clap and cheer after he was finished.

The tribute was, in a way, a night of magic to match Aug. 3. But like that evening to music on the river, it was rooted not in some fiction of what men wish but in the kind of quietly heroic reality which is possible when men believe in themselves.

To be sure, the verdict is mixed. The nameless Expositor editor thinks Kelly suffers from delusions, but then there is no love lost between Kelly and The Brantford Expositor.

“Let’s be honest about it,” Kelly once said, “unless you have a sick mother to support, why the hell would you work at The Brantford Expositor?”

Kelly’s 22-year-old daughter, Susan, a poised girl with a classically pretty face, has an obvious deep affection for her father and a simple insight that may say everything there is, ever, to say about Arthur J. Kelly.

“As corny as it sounds, he’s not afraid to follow a dream. I mean, the things he does are the things most other people only dream of.”^