This Canada

Laughing in the rain

Suzanne Zwarun June 23 1980
This Canada

Laughing in the rain

Suzanne Zwarun June 23 1980

Laughing in the rain

This Canada

Suzanne Zwarun

On this June morning, Calgary is masquerading as Vancouver. The foothills city, usually so high and dry, has grown sodden after two weeks of almost daily rain. The woods on Prince’s Island are lovely—damp and dewy. The footbridge connecting the small island park in the Bow River with downtown high-rises is awash. Trees, shrubs and grass shiver and quiver in the mist. The tang of rich, loamy soil is delicious.

The little group of Calgarians and Vancouverites, huddled in rain slickers on top of picnic tables, is not impressed by the earthy aroma, so rare in Calgary it’s exotic. They’re trying to set up decorations and tents for a children’s festival, the largest children’s festival ever mounted in Alberta. First, there was a teachers’ strike. Now, a two-monthlong drought has ended with a flood.

Festival co-ordinator Mary Gazetas is sounding slightly hysterical. She had 8,000 tickets sold to Calgary public schools when the teachers walked out. She got the tickets returned and there are now 12,000 rush seats available for the five-day festival. Gazetas sees two dire possibilities. Either 83,000 idle children all show up at the same time or no one does. “It would have been so easy, a piece of cake, without the strike,” Gazetas moans, longingly

imagining neat lines of schoolchildren, with a teacher at their head, and another bringing up the rear, controlling them. “Now, it’s going to be a real shemozzl.”

But the tent-raising is as slick as the streets a stone’s throw away across the Bow. A crane on a flatbed lifts, a tow truck tugs and two 80-foot-long, 27foot-high, red-and-white tents snap upright. Two small boys on high-handled bikes materialize from the mist just in time to watch the operation. The elephants that used to raise the big tops must have been more mesmerizing than today’s sight of half a dozen men hauling on guy ropes. The boys pause briefly, then pedal off through the puddles. That night, the organizers and the six acts slated to perform have dinner in one tent while the rain drums down and washes in. People can get their feet wet but electrical equipment shouldn’t. If it continues to pour, Gazetas is warned, Tuesday’s opening will have to be postponed. Ron Wagner, The Happy Trash Picker from Halifax’s Merrytime Clown and Puppet Company, comes to the rescue, launches into his clown act and coaxes chuckles from the chilly group.

The rain pauses and the show begins on Tuesday morning. Crowd control is not a problem. Three children waiting in the 300-seat tent for Sukay, a Bolivian music company, are ushered out

again and added to the sparse crowd gathered in the other tent to see Merrytime. The Happy Trash Picker and Bonzo (Linda Dauphinee) keep their act going long past their scheduled 45 minutes since they have an audience made captive by showers. Their second show of the day draws only a half-filled tent with mere minutes to go before the show starts. The Happy Trash Picker bobs outside to assess the weather and sees, shaking across the wet grass, a long line of children, dozens of children, shepherded along by nonstriking separate-school teachers.

“Holy Smoke! Oh wow, look at the kids,” he yells, and dashes back into the tent to order tarps laid, seating not needed until now. The children are ecstatic at the notion of being seated on the ground, front and centre of the stage. A teacher is a little miffed. “I’ve had these tickets for a week. I don’t understand why they didn’t expect us,” she scolds. No one tries to explain that no one else has shown up as expected.

Tarps laid, children seated, Merrytime has a full tent. “Isn’t this fun?” exclaims a Grade 1 teacher as youngsters scream stage directions to the clowns. She’s damp but serious. “I am having fun. Of course, you have to be a bit sunburned in the head to do what I do for a living. But it’s so nice to see them excited. They’re too controlled all day.”

The arrival of the separate-school children seems a turning point. Calgary’s third annual children’s festival is finally under way with enough children in attendance to make it seem festive. By the end of the first day, 1,800 youngsters will have seen entertainment ranging from mime artist David Glass to folk musician Paul Hann.

As the week went on and the rain showers grew more widely scattered, the crowds continued. The children’s festival idea was born in Vancouver three years ago when Heritage Festival Society put together the first weeklong extravaganza under tents. This year, says Heritage Festival Society’s Lorenz von Fersen, 53,000 children turned out for the Vancouver party and the Vancouver group was hired to produce the Alberta Festival for Young People, mounted as part of the province’s 75th anniversary celebrations.

The Alberta festival started touring

the province in May, hitting 16 towns and cities and performing for 49,000 children at 238 shows. Tour director JoAnne James says the festival played places as small as Winfield, population 229, and as large as Calgary, where 18,000 children were originally expected. After a month on the road, travelling in two separate troops with four tents in two trucks, James and company are tired, happy veterans of a modern circus. They’ve sat down on the grass and talked with children about performing, they fought off a tent caterpillar epidemic, they’ve had the help of a rock band in putting up their tents and danced themselves silly at a party in their honor afterwards.

Calgary would have been the climax of the tour—12 shows a day at $1 a performance, plus a variety of free strolling acts. But if the teachers’ strike and the weather combined to lighten the crowds, two previous, smaller children’s festivals were remembered and parents and children made their own way to Prince’s Island. They had their choice of entertainment. Fourand five-yearolds, names and phone numbers firmly glued to the backs of their raincoats,

lined up and kicked along as folk-singer Ray Waddell led them through Knees Up Mother Brown. “Higher, higher,” sang Waddell, and had adults stomping along, too, if only to keep warm. The Loose Moose Theatre Company, towering 12 feet high on stilts, drew a knot of children, their faces painted with stars and diamonds, thanks to Le Cirque Alexander. Art as an Experience, set up under the trees, was instantly set upon by older children. “We scrounge materials,” explains Kathy Sydor, “and let the kids do whatever they want with them.” Some boys pretended that Styrofoam packing slabs were rafts and

rowed them across the grass. Other youngsters were stringing miles of old videotape around trees. “They’re not used to thinking of art this way. They’re too confined in schools.”

Parents, more accustomed to having teachers contend with unconfined children in groups, looked harassed. They pleaded with children, identity tags strung round their necks, to line up and stay put for a minute. There were a lot of orders to sit, to eat, to button up their coats and quiet down their yelling. But once the youngsters were corralled in a tent and the shows started, adults hooted and hollered as loudly as any five-year-old. They all, adults and children, clucked like chickens, hopped like rabbits and roared with laughter at cream-pie gags that weren’t young when the oldest of them were children. A park character splashed through the puddles, buttonholing people to demand to know whether they’d noticed the plight of the mallard drake. “He’s all alone on the pond,” the man explained worriedly. Parents, not sure that he wasn’t part of the entertainment, waited in vain for the punch line. But if the duck had gotten separated from his flock, the children’s festival had rallied and Prince’s Island was rocking in the rain.