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Master storyteller McLean delivers profound, hilarious truths

December 2011

He is a master raconteur, and his own story is not unlike that of Dave, the anti-hero Stuart McLean created for the Vinyl Café, the beloved CBC radio program now in its 18th season.

Dave is the owner of a tiny, second-hand record store. Its motto: “We may not be big, but we’re small.” He’s a guy with a huge heart. He loves his family and country. His efforts to do good deeds, like cook a turkey for the family, will often end in near-disaster, much to the amusement of his wife, Morley, and their kids, Stephanie and Sam.

Dave’s stories start simple and become funny and poignant: Dave gets stuck in an elevator with Mary’s special cake; Dave offers to walk a neighbour’s dog and ends up with six mutts, all with their own peccadilloes; Dave’s old electric razor sets off alarms as he passes through airport

Those who have followed Dave since McLean first imagined him in 1994 will get the chance to hear yet another side of the character—McLean’s alter ego—when the Vinyl Café brings its annual Christmas show here. It will be recorded before a live audience at Théâtre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts December 19 at 7 p.m. Musical guest for the cross-Canada tour is Canadian singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman.

That show marks a triumphant homecoming for the Montreal-born McLean, 63, who was raised on Brock Ave. in Montreal West and attended Lower Canada College. His 90-year-old mother, Pat, will be in the audience.

With his curiosity, journalistic skill, eye for detail and sense of timing, McLean has succeeded in touching Canadian and American listeners with stories that take the small things in life we ignore, or take for granted, and unearthing from them profound thoughts and eternal truths, delivered with a delicious sense of humour.

With the show attracting about one million listeners weekly, McLean’s career puts him in the same class as such CBC broadcasting icons as Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum.

On paper, the Stuart McLean story looks and sounds idyllic. The son of an Australian insurance broker, the senior McLean chose to settle in Montreal for the skiing. Weekends and summers were spent at the family cottage in the Ste. Anne des Lacs area of the Laurentians, where young Stuart’s love of the land became ingrained.

But life is not always as it appears. McLean was at a school where students who excelled in athletics or academics were prized. He excelled at neither, and, strangely for a writer/communicator of such uncommon skill, had to repeat Grade 11.

“I didn’t fit in. I always felt like an underdog, a bit of an outsider.”

He found himself, and reconnected with his beloved Laurentians, while working at the YMCA’s Camp Kanawana. “I found a place where I could contribute to the greater good.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in applied social science at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), McLean worked in student services at Dawson College until he decided to follow his dream by trying his luck as a freelance writer.

“I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have enough self confidence to join the school newspaper.”

In the fall of 1974, he got a serendipitous call from Dawson political science teacher Bob Keaton.

Keaton had decided to run for city council for the Montreal Citizens’ Movement and asked McLean to take over as campaign manager for journalist/boulevardier Nick Auf der Maur.

Stuart McLean’s December 19 show marks a trium- phant homecoming for the Montreal-born raconteur. Photo: Ilia Horsburgh

Timing is everything in politics, the city was fed up with Jean Drapeau’s one-man rule, and Auf der Maur trounced the establishmentarian John Lynch-Straunton.

“I had the wind in my sails after that campaign, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with me at all, it was just the time, the pull of the whirlpool, and it gave me great confidence. People sort of saw me and said, ‘Who is this kid?’

“Nick, with all his contacts, then got me through the door at CBC.”

After a few items for CBC TV and radio, McLean moved to Toronto and worked for Sunday Morning as a producer and eventually took over the show from Mark Starowicz, another Montrealer who moved his huge talent from radio to start The Journal on TV, featuring Barbara Frum.

McLean then began teaching radio journalism at Ryerson University. But Montrealer Gloria Bishop, who ran Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning/Morningside radio show, saw McLean’s talent as a writer and hired him to do an occasional column on the radio, in a conversational vein.

“It took me a while to find my voice, and these columns became a regular Monday morning feature. I would go and tell stories about quirky little things, things that came out of my mind, like In Praise of the Popsicle, or In Praise of Rubber Boots, or In Praise of the Lead Pencil. I wrote about a guy who made a living taking pictures of cows for auctions, a chap who had a miniature NHL arena in his attic, where he would re-create the entire NHL season for friends. I did a thing about people who loved to discover caves, and in the winter, when they couldn’t make it down to West Virginia, would wander through the sewers of London, Ontario.”

The creation of the Dave character goes back to 1989, when a CBC producer named David Amer envisioned a show where he would choose the music and McLean would introduce it. McLean felt it needed something more and came up with Dave, and the music coming from his imaginary record store. Five years later, it was accepted as summer replacement in 1994, ’95 and ’96, with some concerts thrown in during the final season.

“I thought I was going to replace Peter, but suddenly this Vinyl Café thing took off. People were enjoying it, talking about it, and suddenly I had my own show on the network. We found our sea legs. I was lucky. I was able to find my voice again over a few summers.

“Slowly Dave and his family elbowed themselves into the centre of the stage.”

Collections of his stories have become best-sellers, with a total of seven published, including McLean’s essays, and another two from Morningside, collections of his essays and profiles of small towns.

“I ended up being what I wanted to be, a writer working on the radio,” he reflected. “I am very lucky.”

The Vinyl Café Christmas show plays at Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts, Monday, December 19 at 7 pm. $51-$56. 514-842-2112.

Canada brings up “big feelings”

Stuart McLean says his feelings for Canada are tied to the land.

“Recently I was in the Ottawa Valley, and I saw the mountains again, and I was filled with big feelings. The land speaks to you in ways that I don’t think you understand.

“I have a visceral memory of autumn afternoons in the mountains, in Montreal, of a winter night walking west from Guy to Atwater, what Montreal looks like after a snowstorm at 5 in the afternoon, the glitter, and crunching through the snow, with snow banks beside the road.

“Then spring in Montreal, the weather and geography. All that has provided the lens though which I look at Canada.”

When it comes to our bicultural reality, McLean sees the city as “the cauldron in which French and English come together.”

“I have a profound understanding of what the Canadian experiment is because of where I was raised.”

This would not have been possible, McLean said, had he been raised in Halifax or Calgary.

“Montreal is where the idea of Canada began, the heartbeat of Canada began in the coming together of the English and French in Montreal.

“I am very grateful for that upbringing because it has let me speak from the heart when I speak about Canada, because I came from the heart.”

—Irwin Block



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