- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Apr 1980, p. 333-349
- Harron, Don, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- A humorous, anecdotal address with many references to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
- Date of Original
- 10 Apr 1980
- Language of Item
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- Full Text
- APRIL 10, 1980
Getting Away with It for Forty-Four Years
AN ADDRESS BY Don Harron, ACTOR, PLAYWRIGHT AND RADIO HOST
CHAIRMAN The President, John A. MacNaughton
In reviewing the career successes of Don Harron, our guest of honour today, one experiences an uncharitable competition of reactions: on the one hand, an unbridled admiration for the man and, on the other, one is embarrassed to admit, a barely submerged feeling of envy that one individual could have so many publicly recognized accomplishments in such a wide variety of activities. For those who spend their lives labouring in one profession the versatility of Mr. Harron is potentially vexatious and the ease with which he moves from acclaim in one career to further successes in another is enough to break the spirit of all but the most self-confident.
The easy winner in this competition is, of course, admiration because Don Harron's activities are all ones that he shares directly and regularly with millions of Canadians, Americans and others from around the world who have the opportunity to enjoy his works.
In his most recent career, Don Harron the radio host has been the cornerstone of the CBC's popular weekday program Morningside where his interview skills, his humour and his insights into the issues of the day have enabled him to build a growing audience of listeners and admirers.
Over the years our guest has also been a writer--of screenplays for motion pictures, of a musical adaptation of a novel and, under the pseudonym and guise of a rural philosopher, of Canadian history and geography, and of homey wisdom and theology.
As playwright and lyricist of the stage version of Anne of Green Gables our guest combined the perfectly measured portions of laughter and tears that are necessary to create a memorable production--one that is played every year by amateur and professional companies and continues to appeal to people of all ages and many languages. It opened in Japanese in Tokyo just last week. Sales of his series of Charlie Farquharson books, which include a Histry of Canada, a Jogfree of Canada and a Korn Allmynack have demonstrated that he has his finger firmly on the pulse of our nation's sense of humour.
Finally, Don Harron is an actor and comedian. On the side of serious drama he has played leading roles in Stratford, Toronto, New York and the West End of London, and also before the cameras in television and in film productions. His opposites in these roles have been such actors and actresses as Alec Guinness, Lorne Greene, Maggie Smith, Katherine Hepburn and George C. Scott.
Without wishing or intending to diminish any of these considerable accomplishments it is fair to say that the best known Don Harron is the likeable farmer from Parry Sound who first came to the stage for four minutes during the 1952 version of Spring Thaw. Charlie's following has been growing ever since to the point that he is now seen by the thirty-five million watchers of the television program, Hee Haw, broadcast weekly from Nashville, Tennessee.
The durability of Charlie Farquharson, the fact that he has survived for twenty-eight years both as a character and as a farmer is remarkable. Given his successes one might have thought that Charlie would have left the financially unrewarding life on the farm for something easier. But he obviously shares the love of the land exhibited by the second of two farmers who each won a million dollars in a recent lottery. When they were asked what they intended to do with their money the first replied, "Sell the farm, buy a Cadillac and a condominium in Florida and take it easy." The second, after reflecting for a moment, said, "Well, I like farming pretty much, so I guess I'll just keep doing it, until all the money's gone."
Ladies and gentlemen, it is our good fortune that Charlie Farquharson has continued his role as a farmer for so many years, just as it is our good fortune that Don Harron is part of our community. Through them we are able to see ourselves in the mirror they hold up to us; we are able to benefit from the therapy of laughing at ourselves and we are able to refresh ourselves with the exhilaration that comes from attending a professional presentation by a performing artist.
Mr. Harron has stood on stages around the world and it is our privilege this afternoon to welcome him to that of The Empire Club of Canada. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Don Harron who will address us on the intriguing topic, "Getting Away with It for Forty-Four Years."
Thank you, John. I always feel guilty when people use the word "versatility." Last Friday night, my wife was doing a concert and after wards she called me, as she always does, to talk about what the audience was like. I was opening our place in Barrie, which Catherine calls "Barrie Sound." We don't get there as often as we should. In fact, we hadn't been there since last July when we did a play together in Barrie.
I was talking to her about this and that, saying that I was going to have an Easter egg hunt the next day for the neighbourhood kids and our own Kelly, and that I had been on a mouse egg hunt--to get rid of those little things that bother her. While I was on the phone I was swatting flies at the same time. So I said, "Just a minute," and I reached over to swat a fly. Well, I got the fly, but the phone hit the kitchen floor and didn't function any more. It didn't function until Catherine came up the next day and fixed it.
I'm sure Catherine laughed when John talked about versatility, because I don't really know very much about anything. That's why I'm on Morningside--I know a little bit about everything and nothing much about anything. If I didn't get away with what I've been getting away with for forty-four years, I would be unemployed.
When I was told that I was going to speak to the Empire Club, I thought "That's an anachronism. I can't speak to an anachronism!" My father was never a member of the Empire Club. He was a thirty-second degree Mason, a veteran of World War I, and a member of the Progress Club, which he joined in 1929--a rather unfortunate year. I think my father quit about 1934--he lost hope.
But there still is an Empire Club--when even the Commonwealth is in danger. Although I hear that Maggie Thatcher, known otherwise as Attila the Hen, is thinking about reviving it.
This program that I do every morning is interesting because I deal so much with the future. I never know what people think is going to happen in the future. I'm going to interview Alvin Tofler on Monday. He's the man who wrote the book Future Shock. I don't know anybody who ever finished that book--they were so shocked. But Tofler has a new book now called The Third Wave. I can only tell you that this one is an optimistic book. He thinks everything is going to be great. Don't worry about the future--it's going to be just like the past. So, Empire Club, hold on. It's like Charlie Farquharson's fashions--just stand still and you're back in style.
Charlie waited all the way through the era of bellbottom trousers and his cigarette pants are now back in style. As for roll-top sweaters, as Charlie says, "Now you see them in Harpie's Brassiere and Vague Magazine."
But the interesting thing about this book, which I have just finished reading, is that Tofler talks about the "electronic cottage," where everyone will live and work. Right now you can never find anybody home--they're all out at the local Ponderoso or McDonald's. But he says that's all going to change in the next fifteen years. The nuclear family, that means a wife, a husband, a child (and their marriage counsellor and possibly a divorce lawyer) is out. The extended family is back in. We will solve the gasoline problem by not commuting. Ninety per cent of all work will be done in the home. No more factories. It's just you, the wife and your computer. If you take away the computer, and add a hired man, you've got the family farm--the way we've lived in this country for hundreds of years.
Do you remember those visions of the future? Do you remember a film called Things to Come? It was a British film, made in about 1934, and Raymond Massey was in it. It was based on H. G. Wells' book, which he wrote around the turn of the century, about what it was going to be like in 1950. They sometimes show it on television. It has people walking around in white vinyl suits, gleaming white buildings, space ships that go straight up. And that's supposed to be 1950--thirty years ago.
I don't believe in any of this visions about the future. Just look around Toronto. I know we have the Royal Bank building which gleams like Eldorado when the sun is out. But this building that we are in is part of my past. The people who do futuramas forget that the residue of the past is still around.
My child said to me the other day, "Daddy, why is everything made in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Grand Island, New York?" I didn't have any answer for her.
The CBC is now involved in discussions about pay TV Do you remember a vision from a few years ago--we were all going to have wall-size television screens? The only place you'll find a wall-size television screen is on Grey Cup night in some sleazy bar. Do you remember the idea of the phones with a screen so that you could see the person you're talking to? I used one in Expo 70 in Japan. But there is no demand for that. Who wants to come to the phone in curlers? That's why radio is so popular. People don't want to see what other people look like, particularly at 9:13 in the morning when I start to work. I don't have to shave. I can wear anything I want. It's like being home. Which is what Mr. Tofler says the future is going to be.
You have to learn to communicate with your mate. Well, if you have fourteen cows to milk you know how to communicate. "If you've finished that one, I'll strip this one." That's communication. A farm plus a computer is the future. The man who wrote How to Face the Coming Bad Years (I can never remember the names of these authors) said go to a place with a population under 100,000 and start a victory garden. Is that the future? That's also the past.
Charlie Farquharson thinks a computer is somebody who lives in the country and works in the city. They told him it was a machine that thinks almost like a human being. He said, "That's the kind of person we were having trouble with in the first place. I don't want one of them around. There's only three kinds of computer. There's yer burrows, yer honey well, and yer one-b-m. But I've dug a hole out behind the house fer all that. All that's taken care of."
I started my career in 1934. I was ten years old. I was part of a show in this hotel at a banquet given by the Tippet Richardson Cartage Company. The pay was fifteen dollars. My father, who always wanted to be a cartoonist, taught me how to draw caricatures. I don't imagine they were very good, but I suppose it was unusual for a ten-year-old kid to do them. Like a dog standing on its hind legs and whistling through a keyhole--it's something to watch.
When I was eleven, somebody came up to me at one of those banquets and said, "Can you read what's written on this paper?" So I read it. She said "Fine. Come tomorrow and you'll be in a radio series." So I did a show, three times a week, for the CBC.
It was 1936--CBC's first year as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was called the Canadian Radio Commission until then. The CBC had a small corner of a building up on Davenport Road--the Eveready Flashlight Building.
Charles Jennings, a most beautiful, intelligent man, was my announcer. We had a sound man. If you needed a fire, he would take the wrapper off a Sweet Marie chocolate bar and crackle the paper--there were no records or tapes in those days. He made rain from dried peas in a sieve. If there was snow, he'd punch a bag of corn starch as we walked through the woods, and he literally would take off his shirt and pound on his chest with coconut shells to make the sound of horses.
One time, the lady playing my mother was going to a formal dance and she asked me to zip her up. So the sound man in the corner zipped up his trousers. Talon fasteners had just come in that year--we were very up to date.
My sponsor was not Exxon or Redpath. It was the Ontario Government. Even then, I was in the midst of socialism. The Department of Highways sponsored our show, which was about two boys in the northern Ontario bush. At the end of the show, I had to disguise my voice and give a safety message. I used an Irish accent--a lot of our neighbours were Irish. I got $2.50 per show, and nothing for the rehearsals, which were on the in-between days. I wasn't too happy about that, because I couldn't play hockey in the afternoons on the street with my friends. But I bought a CCM bicycle with my first month's salary.
I didn't know how to ride the bike at first, so my father took me out, after dark, and taught me. Finally, I was able to ride it to work, but the first day I tried that I flew down the hill in Wychwood Park and went careening into a cab because I didn't know how to put the brakes on. Fortunately, he just clipped the rear wheel. He stopped and picked me up. Then I had to drag my wounded steed down to the station and go on the air. The program was fine. I didn't miss a line. But at the end I had to give the safety message, and the rest of the staff were choking with laughter behind the velvet curtains as I told all the little boys and girls to be careful crossing the streets.
That was the end of my career for about ten years. I quit the series. I never tried to be an actor again until I came back from World War II. Well, that's not quite true. I spent one year at university, at Victoria College, before I joined the Air Force. And I tried out for the lead in the class play. I got a non-speaking role--I played the corpse in Riders to the Sea. And I did a role in Shaw's The Devil's Disciple.
Shaw's play is about the American Revolutionary War, and a man is on trial for his life as a traitor. I played a German officer, one of the mercenaries who helped the British troops. Again, I had no lines. They gave me a wig which must have belonged to Apple Mary that made me look like somebody's great-grandmother, although I had smart white pants, black boots, a scarlet coat and lace at the throat. There were no rehearsals for the extras--we just went on and did the show. So I went on the stage and just sat there.
The director was Earl Grey, God bless him, who said that art is long and life is short, and that we must give our all. He was furious.
He said, "My dear chap. The man is on trial for his life. Can't you react?"
So I said, "But I'm supposed to be a German--at least that's what the script says."
He said, "You must be curious. That is the secret of drama--curiosity."
It was a three-night stand. The next night they gave me a different wig. They decided that my Dame May Whitty wasn't quite appropriate, so they gave me a wig that was all curls. And they added a little more lip rouge. By the time they'd finished with me, I looked like Harpo Marx.
So out I went for the trial scene in the third act. This time I ad libbed in high-school German and reacted like mad. I was the centre of attention. But not because of my acting. My white breeks began to split--so that a murder comedy became a suspense drama. I was asked not to return for the third night.
The only other thing I did that year in college was a role--I got a speaking part this time--in a one-act play. One of the senior students, Ralph Hicklin who became the drama critic for the Telegram, wanted to play Hamlet. Who doesn't? So they decided to do the first act of Hamlet. And another student, who later became a distinguished economist, wanted to play Macbeth. In between, they wanted a little light relief, so we did a one-act play of Chekhov, The Proposal, in which I played a hypochondriac. It was not a restrained performance. I showered with water all the people sitting in the front row.
What I didn't know was that this was a drama festival. And they were going to award a college letter for drama. Afterwards a lady came on and awarded this letter to me! Hamlet and Macbeth walked off in disgust to the King Cole Room.
That was one of the two awards that I have won in my life. (I was at the ACTRA Awards dinner last night, and I didn't win.) The other time was in second form high school when I debated that we should return to Germany her former colonies. The only reason I won was because my partner was brilliant. This Jewish boy won the argument for Germany--and this was in 1937!
But I have always cherished that letter for drama that I won at Victoria College. When people ask me, "Did you get a B.A. at college?" I say, "No. I got a B.D."
So I had a distinguished career in drama up to that point.
Then I joined the Air Force. Before lunch, I was comparing notes with Reverend Chote. He really did do something in the Air Force. But I did daylight sweeps over London, Paris and Brantford.
In those days, if you were too young to join up and too scared to write your senior matriculation, you joined the Farm Service Force. Anybody here do that? How much did you get? I got twenty dollars a month and as much as I could eat between the house and the barn. I went to a place called Wick, near Greenbank.
I remember the first day. It was a harrowing day. I mean literally--that's what they were doing in the fields. I got there about 2.30 and they told me what to do, which was to go along beside the horse. By 4.30, I was faint with exhaustion. I was a city boy, not used to that sort of stuff. So they let me sit down while they did the chores. After about a month, I was out of bed at 6.30 and off to get the cows. Then I noticed that the barn didn't smell anymore. When I went to the city for the weekend, I wondered why people stood so far away from me.
We talk about our Canadian identity problem. Mine was solved that summer. There was a radio program from Vancouver called Stag Party with a brilliant comedian called Alan Young. Bernie Braden played a farmer, but he didn't sound like the men in the fields that I was working with. They don't say, "Pttt, by crackie." They say, "Wull, d'yuh mind the time when ... she was a Leech. She was a Leech on her father's side . . ." I was fascinated with all those family relationships, and from that experience, starting at twenty dollars a month, I have earned money ever since.
The man I worked for was a cousin of mine whose name was Charles--I would never call him Charlie. He had a roll-top sweater and a peaked cap and glasses. He didn't speak like my creation--I think that dialect came from the hired men I worked with. But I never saw him again from the year I worked for him, 1942,
until 1975 when he came to my mother's funeral. At first I didn't recognize him, and then I recognized his wife. I thought, "Ouch, I wonder what he thinks of me after all these years." Charlie had been going for about twenty-five years then.
At the funeral, he was very dignified and gentle, paying his respects to my mother. But later, we were invited to dinner at the farm. And I found out from his son that we were invited because he was a rabid Catherine McKinnon fan.
I found my way up to the farm without a map, and as Catherine can tell you, I can get lost in a turnstile. But somehow that place implanted itself in my mind. The farm looked basically the same, although much extended. There was a swimming pool on the lawn, but beside it there was a Massey Ferguson tractor.
On the way I said to Catherine, "I haven't seen this man for thirty-four years and when I worked for him I don't suppose I was worth twenty dollars a month. But we're going because he loves you. So don't, please don't, mention Charlie Farquharson."
It was early May. When we got there he came out of the barn, wearing his rubber boots. He was positively radiating towards Catherine. He had all her records.
I said, "Charles, I would like you to meet Catherine McKinnon Harron."
I know he was about to say something, but before he had a chance Catherine said, "By gol, Charlie, yuh got the Massey-Fergoosin right there on the lawn!" I couldn't believe my ears. After all, Catherine is a sensitive woman!
I don't quite remember exactly what happened after that. Somehow we ended up in the barn. He told me about going to Russia to see milk cows. Our daughter Kelly got a kitten from the barn--we still have it and it's named after him. That night Catherine sang for him, and his eyes glowed.
But later, going home in the car, I shouted, "Why did you do that?" and she replied (in a small voice), "I was nervous."
Charlie started in Spring Thaw in 1952. Mavor Moore said we needed four minutes to fill and I'd have to do it. Well, I can't sing, I can't dance, so I wrote a monologue about a farmer visiting the C.N.E. Because the real part of the C.N.E. is the guys who bring the cattle down. Those are the people who keep this country together. They keep saying that ninety per cent of this country will be urban, but food doesn't come out of cans, it comes out of the ground. And the family farm, believe it or not, is going to come back. Not yer agri-business.
We worry about political separation, but the whole world is separating. It's a kind of atomization, a trend towards getting things into smaller units so that we can handle them, believe in them. It's not just Quebec. It's people everywhere saying, "I can't handle that concept--it's too vague, too abstract."
There's an article in the Globe and Mail today about pay television. Would you pay to watch the TV you're watching now? I don't know. It seems to me that pay TV is really about the Canadian film business. Canadians don't seem to worry about Canadian content much--it's only the people in charge of the CBC who do, and wonder how they can compete.
But we worried about it in 1948. We did a series of Canadian plays and we asked ourselves, "How do you compete with the Royal Alex?" In those days there was no O' Keefe Centre--where they send all the empties. So we asked, "What does the Royal Alex do?" It had big shows from Broadway, it had chorus girls. Then we asked, "What hasn't it got?" And the answer was that it didn't have any jokes about Yonge Street. That's how Spring Thaw started. The only way it could compete, to get your attention, was to tell you things about yourself. It worked for twenty-two years, and now it's coming back. It'll be at the Royal Alex next month.
I have spent a lot of time outside this country. I left first in 1950, and most of the next sixteen years, give or take a Stratford season and a television show, I spent outside. That gave me the perspective to appreciate this country. And it's very simple. People do want to hear about themselves. They say, "How did you sell half a million books?" It's because they can see themselves in them. They read them, not because they feel better, not because it's a duty, but because they are interested in themselves.
On the program Morningside, which goes back to 1968, I get a lot of family audience, and as the unemployed rolls get larger, my audience gets bigger. But we believe that the people in this country are interesting. They are worth talking to, every day, for three hours. The more I do the job, the more fascinated I become with this country.
I have had interesting times abroad. I've done theatre in London and New York. I spent some time in Germany doing a television series called "The Man Who Never Was." This was not the one about Viscount Montgomery. This was about escaping from East Berlin to West Berlin. Donald Sutherland was an extra in one episode. I didn't last--I'm not the heroic type. The sponsor who had asked for me, said when he saw me, "Who is that? Get rid of him! "
But I remember filming in West Berlin, against the Wall, with the Volpos, the East Berlin police, about twenty-five feet, not yards, away--with their submachine guns, ready to plug me if I made a move in their direction.
Berlin, in 1964, was fascinating. I was in both East Berlin and West Berlin. Then we had to go to Salzburg in Austria to do the difficult scenes, where I had to vault over a railway barrier and throw myself under the wheels of a moving train and lie there, while it ran over me.
The director said, "Don't worry. You have a stunt man."
I met him. He was about my build, and he looked like a good double. So we got to Salzburg and on the morning of the shooting, he's not there.
I asked, "What happened to that man who looks like me?"
They said, "He's got chicken ... pox." I wasn't so sure about the pox part. They said, "Tomorrow morning, you have to do it yourself."
I said, "W-h-h-hat am I going to do? Give me some advice."
And the director said, "Get yourself a jock strap." So there I am in Austria with my high-school German and I go to a department store. I wandered around till I saw what looked like sporting equipment. I knew the two words for "I would like--Ich muchte" but from then on I did Marcel Marceau. The guy brought out a haversack.
Obviously I was overacting.
Finally he gave me to understand that I should try a specialized store. They have seven-storey sporting-goods stores in Germany and Austria. So I went to one. The first floor seemed to be full of sixteen-year-old girls, smiling, ready to wear. But I would have none of that. I ended up walking up seven flights of stairs, right to the top to the manager's office.
He said, "Can I help you?" in perfect English.
I said, "I don't know what you call it. We call it a jock strap."
He said, "It's a suspensorium. First floor."
By the time I got down, I'd forgotten the word. I said, "Ich muchte eine condominium."
The girl said, "You want an apartment building?" I said, "No, I want a ... uh . . ."
She said, "Suspensorium."
I yelled, "That's it!"
She pulled open the drawer and said, "Ve haf three sizes--ze big, middle and liddles."
I said, "Uh ... the middle ... I think."
Then she said, "Oh, ve haf only ze liddles. Ha, ha." So I said, "Well, I . . ."
She said, "You try."
I later learned that the sizes referred to the waist bands, but I didn't know that at the time.
She took me behind a screen, like a place where you go to vote. I said, "You go."
I put it on and it fitted, which depressed me entirely. She said, "Is it all right?"
I said, "Yes, yes."
She shouted, "The liddle fits!" all over the store. It was a shattering day for me.
I went out to dinner, still wearing the condominium-suspensorium. At one point, I decided I had to take it off. So I went to the washroom. In Germany, they are called the "Herren" and the "Damen." I knew where to go--to the Herren. That's my name. There was a little lady in a black dress, smiling at me. I smiled back. I didn't know I was supposed to tip her. So I am standing there, in the washroom, when suddenly there is a tug. It's the little lady with the tray. I think I must have given her twenty marks, just to get rid of her. By that time I was in such a catatonic state that I couldn't do anything. I wasted the twenty marks. So I decided to wash my hands, but I couldn't find the taps. In that part of the country, they are on the floor. But by then I was so paranoid I didn't know what to do.
Suddenly a hand grabbed the back of my thigh and moved my leg all about until I hit the tap on the floor and the water spurted out. It was the little lady, showing her gratitude for the twenty marks.
The next day, I did my stunt willingly. It was nothing to jump over a railing and roll under a train.
Now I have been back in Canada for thirteen years. I came during that glorious summer of Expo. I suppose we've never seen its like before or since. I have never regretted coming back. I am now a celebrity. I was in a supermarket the other day and a woman said, "Who are you? Don't tell me. Let me guess."
But she didn't guess, so I said I was Don Harron. "Oh, my favourite," she said.
Then she went over to another department and started to talk to a lady (I could see them through the soup cans) and she said, "You told me that was Uncle Bobbie."
That is fame indeed.
The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Harron by Reginald W. Lewis, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada and Treasurer of The Empire Club Foundation.