Diane Dupuy, President, Famous People Players
LIVING THE DREAM
Chairman: Harold Roberts President
Our speaker today is a very aggressive, determined and strong person. Although I had not met her until today, 1 introduce her by highlighting these good qualities based on a wonderful reputation which precedes her and on the two-hour television show "Special People."
I first heard of Diane Dupuy when the Honourable Pauline McGibbon was Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. As one of her Aides-de-camp 1 witnessed how captivated Mrs. McGibbon became by the wonderful performances of the Famous People Players. The First Lady of Ontario was their number one fan in the province and she was 100 percent supportive of Diane Dupuy and her company.
It was in the film "Special People" that I first saw them perform and I must say it was very moving to see how Diane had to push, cajole, hug, cry, laugh, shout, in fact use almost every emotion she had to draw out the wonderful talents of those young and not so young mentally handicapped people. The shows of and with Liberace were spectacularly colourful and exciting. The coordination and production must have driven Diane to the limit.
But limits are only the boundaries that Diane at a young age quickly learned, needed to be exorcised. Starting in 1974 in the basement of a church, the Famous People Players have since dazzled audiences throughout Canada, Bermuda, China and the United States. Their performances are acclaimed by all who see them. Some of their well known fans include Ann Margaret, Anne Murray, Tony Bennett, Hal Linden, Paul Newman and, of course, Liberace.
Her outstanding work with the Company has been widely recognized. In 1982 Diane was made a member of the Order of Canada. In 1981 she was named woman of the year by the B'Nai Brith. In 1984 she received the first Ernest C. Manning Award for Merit. Also, to her credit, she has received the Library of Congress Award, the Vanier Award and an Honorary Degree from the Faculty of Social Science of the University of Windsor.
In fact Diane is a rare species. She is a Canadian who has been nationally recognized for her good works. We welcome her to The Empire Club of Canada and invite her to address us now.
I am delighted to be here to share my story of a remarkable theatre company called The Famous People Players. The story takes us on a journey from a church basement in Toronto, Canada, to New York City's Great White Way. It's a story of success and struggle, discipline and dignity, cooperation and inspiration--the kind of stuff that's made up of big dreams and a little bit of magic.
I'd like to take you back with me to October 26th, 1986. That was the opening night of The Famous People Players on Broadway. I'll never forget that night as long as I live. It was raining cats and dogs, and boy, were we scared. I kept wondering, was that curtain going to rise on a dream or a nightmare. Because New York is surely the big time and as a familiar song says, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." The Famous People Players wanted to make it.
I remember watching all my performers as they moved about the stage presetting their props and putting everything in its proper place. The Famous People Players perform in a very unusual theatrical technique called Black Light. Now, that's where all the performers are dressed from head to toe in black velvet jumpsuits so that they're totally invisible to the audience. They manipulate life-size puppets painted in bright, fluorescent colours lit by ultra-violet tubes which make the puppets move magically about the stage in midair.
I've been working with The Famous People Players for 16 years and believe me, it took plenty of determination and resourcefulness to get us to Broadway. I remember how I gathered the group before me and told them, "You know, you're only as good as your last performance and this better not be the last." And then I watched them as they took their places on stage and I realized I had forgotten to tell them how much I love them. And as the curtain went up and the company went courageously into the future, I knew something about those invisible players that the audience in New York didn't know--the northern New York critics--and that was The Famous People Players were people who were once called mentally retarded and through hard work, discipline and dedication overcame their handicaps and said 'Yes' to life in spite of everything. As the company was performing, I went to my dressing room because I was too scared to watch the show that night for fear that, if I saw a mistake, I would pass out from fright.
So, as the music played below my feet, I started to go into the past and I started to ask myself all kinds of questions like, "What ever gave you the idea to start up this company?" and then the next thing you know, I saw myself as a little girl holding my mother's hand and getting ready for the very first day of grade one. My mother told me that education was going to be very important and today, at school, I was going to make all kinds of new and wonderful friends. Well, she said goodbye to me and I walked into a whole new room I didn't know existed I sat down at my desk and I don't know what I said or what I did wrong, but obviously I had done something very bad because the nun came up the aisle and slapped me really hard across the face. I was so humiliated and I didn't even know what that word meant. And all those strange eyes in the classroom just staring at you like a spotlight beating down on your face. And then when I went out to the recess yard I didn't have all the new and wonderful friends that my mother told me I was going to make at school, because if you're not a hit with the teacher, you're not a hit with the classmate. And when I went home that night and my mother asked me how my first day at school went, I was too scared to tell her because if she ever found out what it was that I did wrong, then maybe she wouldn't love me anymore.
Now, that was the very beginning of mental regression for me. Going through the physical motions of going to school, but never being mentally there. I remember sitting at my desk and the teacher constantly scolding me because I was never paying attention. I was too busy looking out those big windows and pretending that when I grew up, I was going to become the Lone Ranger.
When I went out to the recess yard and because I didn't have any friends, I tended to make up my own invisible friends and so then I galloped all over the recess yard on my invisible horse, Silver, screaming at the top of my lungs, " Hi Ho Silver." And then, one day, some kid called me a retard and that really hurt. We didn't know what that word meant in those days. I mean, all we knew was that it was someone that you locked away in an institution because they were crazy, And then the worst thing happened. I was told that I had to repeat another year of school. Now, that was really bad because when you repeat a year of school, that means you failed and you were considered a failure and that's what I was. My parents were so concerned, they immediately sent me to a private school hoping that would help. It was there that morning in the recess yard that I was talking to myself when this nun walked up to me and asked me who I was talking to. I looked up at her and I said," I'm talking to my horse, Silver." She says, "My, what a fine looking animal we have here. Now, why don't we just tie him up to this tree and you and I are going to go in and learn how to read." Well, she was wonderful, but you don't always have the same teachers and I really didn't like school. And then I was told I had to repeat another year of school. Well, when you know you're a failure and you know you're going to fail, you never bother trying and that was me.
And then, one day, something wonderful happened. A new kid came to join the class. Well, this made me feel really good, because she was a lot uglier than me and that made me feel good. Now, all the kids could pick on her and leave me alone. She was an epileptic. She used to have these terrible seizures where her skirt would wrap around her neck revealing her underwear and all the children would laugh. I would cry. I really didn't see what was so funny in all that.
Well, then grade eight came along and I discovered that I was now of legal age to quit school. That's what I did after trying to take a shot at getting into high school. Now, what does someone do when they quit school that young and they don't have an education behind them and they don't come from a family that has the financial means to support them? Well, when I was a little girl, my mother gave me my greatest gift--a pair of hand puppets. I believe that was probably the only time I ever had any friends in my life, when I went around putting on puppet shows.
So, I started to entertain people for a living. Then, one day, I got a phone call from an agency, the United Way agency, asking me if I would come and entertain some people who are retarded. I said no. Why? Well, that's what someone had called me and frankly, I didn't want to have anything to do with these people. But the lady was very persistent and she told me that a lot of great Canadians had given an awful lot of their time, people like Don Herron. "So why can't you give some of yours?" And the next thing you know, there I was setting up my puppet theatre, convinced that at any moment these crazy and violent people were going to come through the door and tear my puppets apart. I was so surprised when they walked in so normally, and then, during my performance, something happened. One of the people in the audience had a seizure and everybody helped. Nobody laughed. So, it was that day I started to ask myself just who was retarded here--and it's the normal people. I mean, did you know that it was normal people who wanted to institutionalize Einstein because they thought he was retarded. And yet it was Einstein who said that "Great spirits always encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds."
Well, that was 16 years ago and at that time, our Canadian government had started up a unique concept called Job Creation. And they came up with an idea called Opportunities For Youth. If anybody could come up with an idea that would provide employment or opportunities for people who are handicapped or minority groups, the government would give us a grant to start up our own business. All I had was my imagination and my puppets and I thought, "Wouldn't this be a wonderful idea, to start up a company with these people--a theatre company." And so I sent my application off to Ottawa only to get a response that they thought it was a great idea except "You mean a therapy project not a professional company." I said, " No, I didn't go to school. I'm not a therapist, but I am a professional puppeteer and I believe very strongly that no matter who you are, we all have a creative core inside us and if we could just unlock it and let it escape, we could contribute many wonderful things.
Recruiting the people to join in my project was very difficult. I mean, I went from one school to the next looking for people. It was finally when I got to the last school on the list that I found them. We started up our first day, June 1st, 1974, in a church basement. We called ourselves the Famous People Players. We had a lot of big ideas and a lot of big dreams. Now, we even believed that if we were really good at what we did, then maybe we could get Liberace to discover us and put us in his show in Las Vegas. Well, we were young and naive, and we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
In the group there were three people that I'd like to speak about today. One was a man by the name of Renardo who lived in a room for 15 years with a towel over his mirror because he didn't want to look at himself. Any time that he went out to play in the street, any child who saw him would say, "Hey, look at the man with the Hallowe'en mask" Then there was a young woman who had such violent temper tantrums that if you looked at her, just looked at her the wrong way, she could destroy this room in a matter of seconds. And then there was Benny, and Benny used to just sit on the floor and never talked to anybody. He was a man with no confidence.
Out of the people in the troupe were people who had all kinds of problems, from alcohol to drugs, to lying, to stealing, to keeping themselves clean, lack of confidence--I mean problems that normal people have. But there we were determined that we could make it all work The whole time that we were rehearsing our big dream, we wrote endless letters off to Liberace.
And finally, to make a long story short, when Liberace was on his way to Toronto to perform at the O'Keefe Centre he came to see the Famous People Players perform at a special luncheon in Toronto. And I'll never forget that luncheon as long as I live because when the curtain went up, the Famous People Players performed and a Liberace puppet recited the words of the Impossible Dream..."To dream the impossible dream, to be better far than you are, to try, when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star" and as the puppet recited those words, the whole stage just lit up in these bright fluorescent stars and only I knew the story about the people who held those stars--people like Renardo and Benny and Brenda and all the others. And before I had a chance to say anything to Liberace about who we were, because he didn't know, he immediately got up, went to the microphone and he said, "This show is so good, I've just got to take it to Las Vegas." I mean, wow, it was like a dream come true. I said, "Wait until he finds out who we are. I mean surely that would make a difference." And when the company came out on stage and took their hoods off and became visible to him, he looked at them and he went back to the microphone, and still looking at them, he said, "It's not because of who you are that you make people laugh or cry. It's because you're truly talented people who have the same right to be integrated as anybody else and you're going to love Las Vegas."
Well, before you know it, there we were standing in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and if you can imagine for a moment a group of people who have never been away from home in their whole life. Nobody could read or write, make change for a dollar, tell time. So, I volunteered to sign everybody's name for them at the front desk because they couldn't even write their name. The hotel quickly informed me of a policy that everybody must sign their own name. Well, two and a half hours later, everybody had signed their name. Then we had to teach the Players that when you go into the coffee shop at the hotel, you don't take the money that's sitting there on the table--that belongs to the waitress.
When we opened for him, boy, were we scared. I'll never forget hearing that drum roll--or was it the beat of my heart? I don't remember. And when we got a standing ovation from a Las Vegas audience, it was because we were truly entertaining. After all, they didn't know who we were. To win a rave review in Variety that said that the Famous People Players were the best new act in the business, that made us feel so good, because the critic didn't know who we were.
I certainly didn't recognize my Players as they boarded that Air Canada flight home from Las Vegas at the end of their run. There was Renardo walking down the aisle of the plane and everybody was staring at him--and it didn't bother him at all. There was Brenda sitting next to the lady talking to her about something that truly annoyed her and she wasn't ripping the aircraft apart. And there was Benny. Now, he was up there telling the pilot how to fly a plane.
It just goes to show you what cooperation and integration can do. That was the beginning of the next ten years of opening and closing more shows for this remarkable man. And many things happened. I mean Special People, the movie, and we were on the Phil Donahue Show and Good Morning America. And then all of a sudden we were reading our review and they're saying, "Wonderful work done by handicapped people." When we were with Liberace, we were never called handicapped, and that hurt us. So we decided we had to do something to change that. We were going to produce our own show and we were going to go to Broadway "because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." If we could win those rave reviews from the toughest critics in the world, then nobody could call us retarded again.
Now, how do we get to Broadway? Well, we needed to raise $1 million to produce our show there. How do we get a million dollars? We decided that we would sell Famous People Players buttons for a dollar each. So, we ordered a million buttons. You have no idea what a million buttons look like when they come in a delivery truck. We started in the streets of Newfoundland and we worked our way right across Canada I even had nightmares of buttons chasing me down the street. Then, when I returned home to my surprise I found a cheque from Paul Newman for $40,000. He told us to keep the buttons.
There we were. We were on our way to New York and we were prepared for the tough competition we'd be up against--shows like Cats and Chorus Line and 42nd Street. But when we arrived in New York, we had no idea that the real competition was the World Series Mets game. I mean, nobody was buying tickets to our show. New York had baseball fever. I can't tell you how much I hate the Mets. But there we are, it's opening night on Broadway and I forgot to tell my performers how much I love them. And then when the curtain came down, I could hear a standing ovation that drowned out the thunder storm outside and I realized that the real miracle was that the Famous People Players had made it to Broadway. When the Company took their final curtain call, becoming visible before the audience, I thought, "Life has meaning no matter what the circumstances." The Famous People Players had turned their handicaps into victory. Their message is to give more than you can give, to reach inside yourself to dream, to believe in yourself and dare to make the impossible dream possible. After all, the word impossible means it's just going to take a little longer; that's all.
I look back to opening up the New York Times and seeing that wonderful, glorious review that was so perfect that I really thought I wrote it myself and nowhere did the critic ever mention who we were because it didn't matter. What mattered was what he said and that was, "It was truly entertainment." The Famous People Players have certainly taught me a lot more than I could teach them and they showed me that I wasn't a failure and they too have given me so many wonderful gifts--the gift of learning and teaching me to forget about myself and to become myself.
So, my message to all of you today, is: Dare to dream, dare to be different and above all, dare to take chances. You know, when I was leaving the theatre at the end of the run, I had to walk past that same doorman, the same doorman who told me on our opening night on Broadway that this, the Famous People Players, would never make it on Broadway. He came up to me and said that this was the greatest show he's ever seen. I looked up at him and I said. "Dick you're slow, but you're worth waiting for." Dick handed me a telegram and when I opened it, it read, "For people who move around in the dark, you turned lights on in our heads"--Alan Alda. That ambitious dream I dare to dream--it really came true. Thank you.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Robert Watt, Partner, Hetherington, Fallis, Park, Watt and Carriere and a Second Vice President, The Empire Club of Canada.