By John Swartz
The master plan study of what to do with the Leacock Museum unveiled at Monday’s Orillia council committee meeting had a curious item at the top of its recommendations.
Under the title Strategic Positioning TCI Management Consultants stated a name change should be considered. They think changing from Stephen Leacock Museum National Historic Site – which is a mouthful, but everyone calls it the Leacock Museum, a reasonable short form – to Old Brewery Bay National Historic Site is in order. Of course we’d all have to expend a lot of energy and time explaining what Old Brewery Bay is to the uninformed, linking it to Leacock anyway (which they do with a subtitle) and why that name is significant.
If council went with this suggestion it will be a great misstep. Littered throughout the report are comments from survey respondents about Leacock not being relevant anymore and an unknown quantity.
Maybe they should have asked for input from people who write for a living because Stephen Leacock is hardly unknown. His work is the model many writers try to emulate. His literary legacy is hardly dead. Even people who don’t write, but appreciate reading, know who Leacock is. I have heard personally from many who re-read his two most famous books, Sunshine Sketches and Literary Lapses, on a regular basis – just to remind themselves of what good writing is and of course, to laugh (Leacock’s best lines are immortal).
It’s true, for the masses Leacock may be a mysterious figure, but that’s largely our fault, and when I say our fault I mean our leadership over the years who didn’t understand the historical importance of Leacock’s work, didn’t charge the museum’s managers with devising plans to keep Leacock present in our education system, and failed to recognize the opportunity presented by the ownership of the museum and contents – his work.
Let’s pick apart each of those. Why is Leacock important? He single-handedly created a Canadian literary identity. We had no authors of importance before him. He was the first Canadian to be recognized around the world as a great writer. In fact, between 1910 and 1925 he was the most widely read author in the world.
Leacock didn’t just write humour. He was at the same time one the preeminent economic thinkers and teachers in Canada. He advised the government on economic policy and taught the subject at McGill University. I suspect his investigative abilities giving rise to his viewpoint of economy transferred to writing humour. His characters, who would have been our neighbours if we were living in his time period, served to illustrate common traits we can identify with. Those characters revealed to us something we never thought about before, who are we as Canadians? What makes us so? He gave us a collective identity, one that separates us, accurately, from our southern neighbours, and our overseas masters (at the time) by making us laugh at ourselves. He, in exaggeration, gave us something to be proud of being, to be Canadian. The laundry list of Canadians currently alive and famous around the world for lightening everyone else’s day runs to several pages. The list of those of the past is as long.
Which brings us to point two, Leacock not long ago was a staple in Canadian classrooms. I own an elementary school reader with several of his short stories in it, right alongside those by O. Henry, Jack London, W.O Mitchell, Edgar Allen Poe and many others.
Those stories weren’t chosen by accident. They weren’t chosen because they were funny. They were chosen because they were great examples of fine writing, of communicating ideas. They were examples of how to use the English language correctly and how to write a story. They taught us to think, and made us think.
Leacock’s absence from school curriculums in a travesty. Our council should, and can, charge museum management with working to get Leacock back into schools Start locally, expand to the county, then the province and then nationwide. It won’t be an easy process convincing a generation of educators who never had the experience of reading and dissecting a Leacock story, but as Leacock said, “success is ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” It applies here.
If the goal of the study is to shore up the museum, make it more attractive for tourists (and ourselves) and generally grab some pocket change to help with the budget, the best way to do it is to hook children. This is exactly the strategy used by the Orillia Public Library and put into motion in the early 2000s. Circulation was down, visits were down, but with the help of the City’s CAO, the board re-aligned budgets to bump up children’s programming. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually children’s programming lead to increases in all metrics at the library (oddly, waiting parents sometimes pick up a book) to the point of accounting for more than 1,000 people using the library ever day. Why this strategy will work with the Leacock Museum is plain to see, kids love humour, kids love to be entertained, their parents will spend tons of money keeping them happy with visits to events relating to favourite idols.
And it stays through to adulthood. Don’t believe me. Explain why 80s music is still popular with some people? Compared to the decades either side there isn’t a lot worth remembering, yet we must endure hearing that music today because the grown up 80s kids have no better frame of reference.
Through the City’s ownership of the museum and work there is opportunity to grab. Leacock’s works have never properly been capitalized. There was a plan to do so in the 1999 expansion of Swanmore Hall, which council rejected. Instead, publishers are getting the dough on reprints, they are capitalizing on rip-offs of his work. Orillia could have been, by now, awash with movie and television production money from Leacock’s works and derivatives.
There is the advantage of having a homestead like no other in Canada. Have you seen the former homes of Frederick Banting, Alexander Graham Bell and others. They’re missing the setting, the lake, the beauty. Then there’s the ones which haven’t been turned into museums, like Gord’s. If Orillia councils had a boat to miss, the Leacock Museum represents it.
The fundamental reason for the lackadaisical regard we have for Leacock seems to me he never had to leave town to achieve his greatness. Gord did, Glenn Gould did. We see those two as something bigger than Orillia because of it. Leacock was always around and wrote from the boathouse, he never was anything more than one of us, while Gord and Glenn seemed bigger than life. That in no way should diminish Leacock’s importance to us, but it does.
If we want to further diminish his importance, go ahead, take his name off the museum. It will be much harder to make anything of the place. If Leacock was the answer to a $200 question of Jeopardy, Brewery Bay would be the $1,000 answer because it’s harder to come up with for the average person. Leacock’s name is already on millions of books sitting at the back of bookshelves. Nowhere is Brewery Bay as prominent, except on a fine eating establishment marquee.
The return on investment of time and money pushing Brewery Bay will be less than resurrecting a memory of something once familiar. I think any mediocre marketing/advertising student would agree.
Instead of reinventing a wheel, maybe a council could breathe life back into something we already know.
Over the next weeks, the rest of the study will be examined.
Aaron Davis At The Opera House
If the Ontario government comes out with any changes to COVID-19 restrictions, it appears the changes will be for the Toronto and Ottawa areas, not for here. This means there won’t be a change in capacity at the Opera House of 50 people for this Saturday’s Aaron Davis concert taping.
There are still come tickets left. Since this is a City owned and operated space, protocols are established and enforced. You have to wear a mask while in the Opera House. You and your group of bubbled people will not be sitting close to others. The ticket issuing program automatically takes seats around you, or your group, off the market when you buy.
This will be a great gig. Aaron is part of Holly Cole’s band, works with Measha Bureggergosman and was in Manteca. He’s played with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Ron Sexsmith, Marc Jordan, the Art Of Time Ensemble, Ed Robertson, Steven Page, Alison Krauss, Natalie MacMaster, the Canadian Brass, Sarah Slean, and Molly Johnson. He’s also arranged music for the San Francisco Symphony, the Finnish National Opera and more than 100 movies, documentaries and TV series.
His band is bassist Ian De Souza (Sisters Euclid, Katherine Wheatley), John Johnson (Manteca, Boss Brass, Orillia Jazz Fest performer), Kevin Breit (been here so many times) and violinist Victoria Yeh (who is the brains behind this concert taping and the Travel by Sound online concert series).
To get tickets for the concert here, visit the Opera House ticket page. And when you go, bring a coffee or something with you, the bar is closed.
* Bleeker unleashed a new video this week. It’s for the song, Problems. They also released in August a new tune. Well, it’s not a new tune, but they covered Blind Lemon’s Rain. Give it a listen; they did a good job with it.
* Information Orillia has an online fundraiser happening right now. Part of the objective is to showcase Orillia businesses, so the items are donated from those people. The other is to raise some operating funds. You can see the items in the auction on their website, or their Facebook page. You can bid here. The auction ends Sept. 30.
* The Orillia Youth Centre has a fundraising concert, Roots North Music Festival Revisited, September 26th at Sunset Barrie Drive-in (Oro-Medonte Line 4 at Highway 11). Hawksley Workman is headlining, Terra Lightfoot The North River (Nick Keays, Kristina Skeries and David Kaye) are opening. Get tickets now. They are $35 each, a carload of 4 people is $125, which is a discount. The concert, is sponsored, this time by Dapper Depot and Harveys, so all the proceeds will go to the youth center.
* The Orillia Regional Arts & Heritage Awards are happening this year. Orillia Museum of Art and History and ODAC are running it. You can go here, to see the criteria and start assembling your nominating material. Nominations close October 2. The categories are Education in Arts, Culture and Heritage; Emerging Artist; Heritage: Restoration, Renovation and Publication; Event in Arts, Culture and Heritage; and Qennefer Browne Achievement Award.
* There are two youth center fundraisers happening to establish scholarship funds. One in memory of Jake Beers the Beers family calls hxmesweethxme. Check out their Facebook page for opportunities to contribute. Anitta Hamming also created an online raffle for two of the paintings created for the Metamorphosis project. You can get a ticket here, and you can also see, or buy, other art at that link.
* OMAH has another round of the QuarARTine, 6×6 pieces for auction here. OMAH also has a fascinating new article about Mazo de la Roche here, and has been posting videos on Youtube of the Speaker’s Night’s that would have been. The most recent is about Glenn Gould, and the one before is about a group of RCMP officers drowning on Lake Simcoe. See the whole bunch here. And the gallery is open by appointment, 705-326-2159.
* There are still some copies of the annual compilation album, music from the artists who would have performed at this year’s Mariposa Folk Festival, available. The vinyl is $40 and the CD $20. You can order them at 705-326-3655. Shipping and taxes are extra. You can save the shipping cost by arranging pick up. They also have some videos to enjoy on their Youtube page, or their website
* The Orillia branch of Dress For Success has a progressive, online, raffle called Toonie Tuesday. They’ve had some pretty significant jackpots. Tickets are $2 and you can buy as many as you like.. Check their Facebook page frequently for updates on the jackpot and weekly winners.
(Main photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia; Images Supplied)