Holiday weekend in Calgary
With a station wagon full of kids and dogs, writer Bill Mitchell and his wife Merna invade Alberta’s oil-and-cattle capital to pack a surprising amount of cultural pleasure into one
w. O. MITCHELL
When we drive from our town of High River to spend a weekend in Calgary our station wagon rolls over thirty-five miles of the Macleod Trail. This was the old route from Fort Benton, Mont., used by fur men. by wolfers, by the whisky traders, and in 1875 by a detachment of North West Mounted Police sent to establish a post at the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers. What was a tent town eighty-four years ago took its name from the Gaelic, "clear-running water,” to become Calgary, Canada’s youngest major city.
For our forty-minute drive through dun foothills and chocolate summer fallow, the distant Rockies
reiterate their ageless detachment against the western horizon; white-faces graze in fields along the highway once used for the first cattle drives from the south. It is difficult to forget that Calgary was built on beef; we are reminded again as we drive down an avenue of clubbed poplars planted as a memorial to Senator Pat Burns, the meat-packing king.
This was open dairy and ranch country tw'entythree years ago, when I was drifting around during the depression and first saw Calgary, and it is a shock to see graders and high stacks of lumber among the blue spruce of the Earl of Egmont’s
former home. With a population of 223,500, roughly one fifth of Alberta’s people, Calgary has flowed south five miles to engulf the acreage of this Midnapore rancher’s son who fell heir to a peerage; it has been subdivided for suburban houses and the. cowboy earl has moved farther south to continue the raising of pure-bred Herefords.
Whisky traders, wolfers, cattle herders, mounted police of the past, all must have traveled the Macleod Trail to Calgary with more discipline than we do on a weekend to the city. Beside me my wife Merna is wearing the head of our minia-
ture poodle, Demi-tasse, on her shoulders like a black chrysanthemum. Beau, our Chesapeake behemoth, is leaning against the driver's seat after fumbling his one hundred and twenty pounds over and into the back seat to join the children: Orme, sixteen, busy with music theory notes; Hughie, thirteen, engrossed in Woody Woodpecker; Wilia Lynne, four, trying to gather up several hundred crayons spilled onto the floor.
Demi-tasse retires from Merna's shoulder and his vigil at the open car window to Willa's lap, for obviously we are entering neither Paris nor Montreal. Drive-ins and farm equipment areas, the Blue Nose Auto Court, a chick hatchery, used-car lots slip by and we are driving through Manchester, one of Calgary’s two great industrial areas, where over seventy-five types of manufacturing business are located.
Our first stop is at the Foothills Dog Kennels, a Ritz-Hilton among dog hostelries. We meet Jack Brooks, owner and general manager. At the end of a long hall of aluminum-painted booths with wire fronts we make out the dogs’ registration cards in a bedlam of barking and whining and yelping from already resident guests. Just as I am signing Beau’s more formal, out-of-town name, Conroy’s Golden Chief, Mr. Brooks fires a blank cartridge from a hand gun. The silence is instantaneous and complete. Every single dog is stilled. The dogs are installed in their quarters with wall-to-wall sawdust.
We drive to an Eighth Avenue that has changed and yet has not changed in twenty-three years. I used to think that Calgary had the most compact downtown district of any city I knew, I still have that impression, even though the business section has grown west many blocks and Seventh Avenue has become a street of magnificently functional office buildings and stores. It seems that no amount of marble-fronted and geometrically formal oilcompany and bank buildings can dim the informal air of this town.
It is a city possessing even more than the usual brightness of prairie cities, averaging over two thousand hours of sunshine in a year, and, because gas has always fed its domestic and industrial furnaces, presents its buildings with clean faces under a smokeless sky. Its two rivers may be part of its continuing charm. The residential areas have always been softened by trees, especially along Elbow Drive, where young girls and children still sun themselves on the grass boulevard along the river.
Many of the things that once meant Calgary to me are missing: Ernie King, in cream bowler and suit, standing before his tailor shop; the Tom Campbell’s Hat Shop’s five-times-larger-than-lifesize naked cherub in top hat; the glossy brown wooden horse (life-size) on the sidewalk before Riley and McCormick’s Harness Shop; the girls in wrappers, elbows on the window sills of Sixth Avenue East houses of ill repute.
We drive dowm Ninth Avenue East, which I knew as Calgary’s skid row in the heart of the depression, when lean and hungry alley-cat men swung down from the freights and headed for a fitteen-cent mission meal or the innumerable pogies and scratch houses for a ten-cent cot.
The men still lean against the Pekin Chop Suey, the Crystal and the Guest Cafe. They don’t look too different from the gay cats and scenery hogs of 1936. Perhaps the man on the corner, dinging passers-by for handouts, is no longer called a dingbat as he was then—or a dino if he solicited a free meal in a restaurant, but I am tolled back to the society of McGoof Hounds, gazoons, gazeets, gazats. Wolves and their Proosians, lump bums, mission stiffs and winter Christians. I remember how they were graded in the hobo hierarchy of the Thirties according to method of getting shelter and food or according to vice.
At First Street West and Ninth Avenue we come to our hotel for the weekend: the Palliser, grande dame of Calgary’s thirty hotels. Our dusty five-
HOLIDAY WEEKEND IN CALGARY continued
year-old station wagon pulls up behind two gleaming Cadillacs. Calgary may have been built on beef, but she has been nourished on a rich diet of oil; most of Alberta's thirty thousand Americans live here. Each spring a platoon of Washington government accountants comes to advise the expatriates in income-tax matters.
But now 1 am handing the car keys to a marooncoated doorman at the Palliser, then registering while Merna tries to keep family and baggage and dolls and coloring books and crayons from poltergeisting over the lobby. Just for a wild moment at the desk 1 wonder if the clerk holds a blank cartridge revolver beneath the counter, that might be fired without warning. In our room 1 realize that I have tipped the doorman, the first bellboy with our grips, the second bellboy about the television set, enough to have kept me in mission meals and scratch house beds for over a week.
We are finally settled, the children under Orme’s supervision to have supper in the rooms then to watch television while Merna and I go out to dinner. Willa has promised to go to bed right after Leave It To Beaver; when we leave, Orme is busy
`~tiII I1Ot~( \ ( JE\ iE al-~~ haiiiu-i au line food
over his music theory; Willa and Hughie lie on their stomachs watching Rifleman.
Years ago our choice of eating places would have been utilitarian and limited in number: the Palliser itself, McCrohan’s Restaurant, a White Spot, Tea Kettle Inn, but now we have a generous variety of choices: The Purple Dragon and Linda Mae’s for Chinese food just as excellent as Ruby Foo's in Montreal or the Lichee in Toronto; the Safari or the Beacon Hotel Caribbean Room for seafood; Barney’s at the Stampeder Hotel, specializing in fried chicken seasoned by special appointment with the mystic eighteen-spice recipe of a Kentucky colonel; Ging’s for pan-fried rainbow trout, the Isle of Capri and La Villa supper clubs for Italian dishes.
We decide on the Beacon, for they feature lobster flown in daily by TCA. We meet our friend, Norah McCullough, western representative for the National Gallery, who is in Calgary just for the weekend. The Caribbean Room is dim and it is Caribbean; already three men in baggy-sleeved satin shirts and ragged straw hats are busy with gourds, bass fiddle and accordian. At the doorway,
live lobsters lie on the bottom of an aquarium. Our little waitress shows Merna how to grab her dinner just behind the claws, about the shoulder blades.
We talk with Bill Forrester, who manages the restaurant and bar. He remembers Toronto when cocktail bars first came in, had expected the same frantic lining up and wild response by Calgarians when they got their bars last fall. But, he tells us, they just walked in as though they had always had them.
Our lobster, stuffed with mashed potato, dipped in melted butter, is sweet and messy as lobster should be, though we miss the generous bibs of Monsieur Neptune’s in Montreal.
Supper clubs and cocktail bars—the cow town of twenty-three years ago did not offer such sophisticated night life. In the old days it would have been the Palace Theatre for beautifully dentured Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy or Maurice Chevalier; an evening paddling a canoe on the lagoons of Bowness Park, followed by a jitney dance in the pavilion with poetry-writing Mushy Callaghan, the Riverside Wild Cat, as official bouncer; now and again the Palliser Supper Dance. There was little or no live theatre in those earlier days. Now hardly a week goes by that one of the five dramatic groups of the city are not presenting a play at the Jubilee Auditorium. Salad Days has been presented; seats are booked up for the visit this fall of My Fair Lady.
Saturday morning the boys and I let Merna and Willa sleep in while we go to see Demi-tasse, as we had made a beauty-parlor appointment for him. The Brooks Beauty Salon in a box of a building on Eleventh Avenue and Second Street East, is
finer really than our human beauty parlor in High River. More than anything else on our weekend in Calgary, it is demonstrative of Calgary's easy way with wealth. After his shampoo, Demi reclines in a drying booth to the left of a chihuahua that has come in from the southern Alberta town of Pincher Creek for a manicure; on the other side are two black cockers waiting for show clips. From beaneath him comes the spicy scent of Oriental Bouquet and he yaps a few' pleasantries with a miniature champagne poodle in Royal Dutch cut. This one has had a hair dye job—pink.
While waiting for Demi to dry, Orme and I go to the cosmetic bar at the front of the beauty salon, gleaming with bottles and jars of LusterFoam Shampoo, Beauty Treatment Shampoo. Kitty Kat Foam Shampoo, Eye Lotion, individually cut Pet Nail Files. Somehow' the bottles of Dog Repellent and Worm Capsules strike a rude note. Orme is showing a trace of amusement at the corners of his mouth.
“Look at this, Dad.”
He hands me a narrow cylinder of pills, rather like a widely advertised remedy for upset stomach and acid indigestion. These are called Peppies; the slogan says that “A Peppy a Day Keeps the Vet at Bay.”
At a pet gift counter we see “The Doggiest Gift —All Good Doggies Deserve This High Quality Terry Towel 20 x 40 Inches. The Hand Painting Makes it a Prized Personal Possession.” The cellophane wrapped towels come in blue and pink; on each is printed: “His” or “Hers.”
After Orme has bought Beau a chain collar studded with false pearls and zircons and Hughic has picked out a red one
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Holiday weekend in Calgary continued from page 23
"I find it difficult to fit the de luxe dog beauty parlors into Calgary's persona~ity pattern"
for Demi-tasse, we find that Demi is dry and has been returned to the table where a gibbet-like arm has dropped a plastic noose that will hold his head while he is clipped and manicured.
As we leave to meet Merna and Willa at Coste House. Calgary’s Allied Arts Centre, I find it difficult to fit de luxe dog beauty parlors into the pattern of Calgary’s personality. Perhaps Pat Burns, the semi-literate meat-packing king, would have had the same bewilderment; certainly it would be interesting to read what Bob Edwards might have to say about it if his Calgary Eye Opener were still being printed.
I am reassured as I see the broadbrimmed hats on the street; more noticeable now with the current flower-pot style in men’s headwear. These and the white Stetsons for visiting dignitaries and the annual Calgary Stampede have always underlined Calgary’s rather calculated determination to be known as the poor man’s Canadian Dallas. Knowing that one can have his dog manicured, shampooed, curled, dyed and perfumed in Calgary shakes one’s faith a bit. It does not help too much to remember that last year’s Stampede guest of honor was the Cisco Kid, for this year the honor was split three ways: Bat Masterson, the fastest cane on television; Frank James, the fastest gun alive (in real life and with a real gun) and Bing Crosby. Crosby led the parade, but it is possible that the lapse in tradition will not be repeated for another ten years.
Yet Calgary is still a genuinely horsey city, with well-attended horse shows in spring and fall, race meets in spring, summer and fall, and possibly the highest population in Canada of horses owned by people simply for the pleasure of riding them.
And it has other interests besides the Stampede and horses and beef and oil and pipelines. It is a city of well over one hundred churches, one hundred schools and colleges, more than one hundred various clubs and associations, the Institute of Technology and Art supplying advanced vocational and semi-professional training. There are nine golf courses. In the old days the city boasted only Andy Baxter’s Crystal swimming pool, a wild and merry Saturday hell of shouts and splashing, quite unable to handle all the July and August swimmers so that the overflow went outside to dive from Louise Bridge. Today there are six swimming pools and I see no boys’ jackknifed bodies hanging in mid-air over the race of the Bow River.
Merna and Willa are already waiting for us at Coste House, Calgary’s Allied Arts Centre, the heart of Calgary’s cultural life. In Coste House traveling art collections are displayed regularly, classes given in drama, creative writing, ceramics, sculpturing, adult and children’s ballet; film clubs meet here, as do the Calgary branch of the Canadian Authors Association, model train buffs, and highfidelity music lovers.
Saturday morning is children's time at Coste House, and as we enter the gabled old mansion with red tiled roof, little girls are already coming out with stringed slippers swinging. We are too late for the dancing classes but Archie Key, the managing director, takes us downstairs to a large bare room where eighteen
children crouch and kneel creatively over brilliant tempera paintings; they are surrounded by moist raw potatoes sliced in half and carved to form primitive printing blocks.
Willa has flown to the centre of the
room and is squatting beside a little girl there.
“I want to do some too.”
The little girl is polite but she is cautious and moves aside her painting of a green-eyed Indian in cerise leggings and
salmon shirt starred with purple potatoprint discs. She is a natural iittle mother too, showing Willa how to hold the potato block and press it firmly against the paper.
While Willa is engrossed we go across
the hall to a room where Mrs. Irene Lee supervises a class of six-year-olds. With gouging, caressing thumbs the children work each on a lump of blue-grey clay. They are doing self-portraits.
In order to get Willa away from her potatoes we have to promise her that her Calgary present will be “potato paints.” Wiila's instructor. Katie Ohe. gives Merna particulars on the paper and brushes and paints, tells us we can get them at the Canadian Art Galleries. We leave after we find Orme upstairs at the Coste House piano.
The Coste House Centre had no bureaucratic birth thirteen years ago when it was one of the first of its kind on the North American continent. A small group of what Archie Key has called “cultural opium - eaters’* contributed the twelve hundred dollars rent necessary for the old mansion which houses the centre. Now it is nourished by a grant of four thousand dollars a year from the city, has ougtrown Coste House and plans to move to a new four-hundred-thousanddollar home.
Wc go to lunch at the Palliser Hotel coffee shop, then on to the Canadian Art Galleries, where the proprietor. Mr. Turner, obligingly takes the lid off each tin of tempera block paint to show Willa its color. One is so vivid that she smells it since anything so brilliant and lovely must smell brilliant and lovely. Her face lifts from it with disappointment: no smell, just a Prussian-blue tip for her nose. She tries the softness of a brush against her cheek, which is perhaps as fine a way as any to assess the quality of paint brushes.
After a brief call at the Premier Cycle Store, where Orme buys a baseball and Hughie a light for his bicycle, we go east toward St. George's Island and the Calgary Zoo. Even before we park the car we can see the giant life-size dinosaurs rearing up from the trees and shrubbery at the south end. The children are racing ahead past the deer and buffalo paddocks
toward the children’s section of the zoo.
Now all the children are crowding at the entrance to the children’s zoo section as Stewart SI nth, the zoo keeper, enters with Cindy. Cindy is soft and fawn colored. her tail never stilled in its lazy sweeping. She is eighteen months old and weighs a hundred and forty pounds, an up-to-now playful lion cub. Tom Baines, the zoo's curator, tells us Cindy was orphaned three days after birth and raised in the Sluth kitchen. Hughie strokes her and says that he can “feel" her purring, then jumps back as she hugs his leg in her paws. Orme is fascinated by her eyes, dark wells of fearful innocence, reminding Merna of a little girl who has got into her mother's mascara.
We visit the dinosaurs originated by the late Dr. O. H. Patrick, sculpted in life size from concrete over iron reinforcing rods, metal and lath by John Kanerva of Calgary. Most salient is the brontosaurus, moss green, his yellow underbelly twelve feet from the ground, his lizard head lifting almost to the tips of the pine he browses on. This a onehundred-and-twenty-ton replica (roughly twice the weight of the real thing) has, from his armpits to his navel, such nonpaleontological data as a heart and cupid's arrow, Connie H. loves Mel J„ Harold Loves Claudette, Ewart Wilson. Great Falls, Montana, U.S.A., 1956.
Orme has finally coaxed Willa down from the brontosaurus’ seventeenth vertebra and we drive back to our hotel.
The children eat their Saturday dinner alone in the Palliser coffee shop. Orme leaves the Palliser piano to supervise dinner. ordering for Willa and Hughie, paying the check and tipping for the first time in his life.
While Merna baby-sits with Willa. 1 take Orme and Hughie to the Jubilee Auditorium. Tonight is a Celebrity Series night: violin and piano recital by Jascha and Tossy Spivakovsky, an event of great importance for the boys, since both play the piano—Orme with eagerness, Hughie
with the same stoicism he would reserve for the daily wearing of a hair shirt.
Hughie obviously approves of everything about this four-and-one-half-million-dollar auditorium constructed as a monument to Alberta’s Golden Jubilee: the great shallow crescent of the lobby with its fluted columns and light-studded ceiling, the lingering stir and anticipatory excitement of the concert-goers, the furstoled women, the great vaulting ceiling within, the acres and acres of curtain before the stage, the red velvet seats.
The house lights go out and we sit
back in the dusk which becomes filled with Beethoven. Brahms, Bach, Chopin, listen to sonatas and nocturnes and dances, imploring and melancholy and gay and wonderful.
When the curtain has swept together for the last time, we go to the green room to meet the Spivakovskys. Jascha is an electric-haired block of a man in his white tie and tails and has the most tremendous hands we have ever seen, much like those of our ranching friend west of High River who once killed a wounded grizzly with a fence rail.
The boys murmur that they enjoyed the concert.
“Which selections did you like?” asks Tossy Spivakovsky, the master violinist.
“The third and the fifth ones,” Hughie says.
“They were Bach.”
“You like Bach?”
Orme and Hughie nod. “Mother likes Bach a lot too," Hughie volunteers.
“So you like them because they were Bach?”
“Yes,” Hughie explains to the violin-
ist, “you see, they were piano solos.”
The hewn face of Jascha, the pianist, breaks suddenly into animated delight. He seizes Hughie’s face between his great hands. “Aha—aha—a pianist! The little boy is a pianist!”
“Not so much as Orme,” Hughie has the grace to explain. “He’s grade eight, Toronto Conservatory, and he can play Salute To The Dawn pretty good.”
Waiting for our taxi outside the auditorium, I see that Hughie is shivering under his light sports jacket. At 3,438 feet Calgary is Canada’s highest city and the evening breeze off the mountains is cold even in mid-summer.
Mema and I go to a late dinner at Hy’s Steak House, started by the brothers Bernie and Hy Aisenstat four years ago. Here we eat in the usual supper-club dusk, lit with occasional flares from the charcoal fire behind curved glass where steaks are being broiled.
Hy’s steaks have been picked from the finest foothills beef at the packing plant, set aside to hang for twenty-seven to thirty-five days. The onion soup has a sound foundation; the garlic bread and tossed salad conform to the excellence of the steaks. The service under Freddie Mastro, captain of the waiters, originally of Montreal and trained in the Bahamas, is deft and unostentatious. The steaks themselves start at $2.90 for an eight-ounce New York sirloin and go as high as $3.70 for a twelve-ounce filet.
Until a few months ago Hy’s listed a “gourmet steak”: forty-eight ounces at $6.50. We ask Ida Aisenstat if they ever sold any of these and she says, “A few.” Mema and I had not thought there were enough St. Bernards around Calgary to make such a listing worthwhile.
We sleep late Sunday morning and go out to the new Calgary Airport to have lunch but find that the restaurant is closed. We eat instead at the Cross Roads Motel nearby, one of Calgary's forty motels.
After picking up Demi-Tasse and Beau at the kennels, we turn south on the Macleod Trail to leave the city where William Aberhart breathed chalk dust and sweeping compound as he taught Calgary’s children in the days before he built the Prophetic Bible Institute on West Eighth Avenue or founded the Social Credit movement.
It is still the warm and informal city of twenty-three years ago: bigger, wealthier. as extroverted. Our weekend has been one for the children, really, and has achieved some sort of catharsis for them. Orme is busy with his music theory; Willa sleeps with her parcel of potato paints lovingly clutched in her arms; Hughie stares absently out at the Rockies.
In half an hour we will be back at Walden Pond. ★