Once a month profiles of people and places on Prince Edward Island on the new Red Island web site: http://www.redislandpei.com.
Once a month profiles of people and places on Prince Edward Island on the new Red Island web site: http://www.redislandpei.com.
“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.” Barachois
The Stanley Bridge Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Community Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.
A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.
The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.
The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.
“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.
“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.
“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.
Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. When it was the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.
The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.
“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”
The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.
The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel’, an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.
“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”
The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.
The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.
“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.
Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.
“Massachusetts,” a man called out.
“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”
“Wellington,” another man called out.
Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.
Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.
“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.
“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”
Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.
“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me’, a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.
“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.”
“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.
Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler’.
“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.
“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.
The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19th century, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter’.
Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown’. Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.
“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.
“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”
Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.
“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”
She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.
“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”
The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.
“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.
Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.
Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.
Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”
At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.
The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.
The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel’. The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.
“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”
“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”
“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”
The name stuck.
Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.
Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine’, inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”
After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.
“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.
Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a kid in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.
“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”
Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.
“It’s called ‘The Family Song’,” said Helene.
Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.
“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”
“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.
“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”
After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.
“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”
Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.
Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.
“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.
Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.
Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”
A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”
They played an arrangement on four fiddles of the ‘Tennessee Waltz’, a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.
“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”
Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special’.
Laisse les aller!
The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.
“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”
No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.
“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”
The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.
“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”
It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.
“To live is to keep moving.” Jerry Seinfeld
“My grandfather had a 16mm camera,” said Julia Sauve. “He walked around taking home movies of everyone, all the family, our real relatives and our adopted relatives, all the kids. Everybody would come, it was like a party house, their house in Brooklyn.”
While visiting New York City recently and at a family reunion she watched film footage, transferred to a DVD, of her childhood. “I watched myself as a baby, a toddler, and a little kid. I was an active child, always running around, very physical. I thought, oh, yeah, that’s why I am the way I am.”
Coming around the corner from her house in the small town of Victoria on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island the block-or-so down Howard Street to the family-owned Landmark Cafe, where in the summer season she works with her son, daughter, and ex-husband, she is the easiest person on her feet on the walk.
She is footloose over the cracks in the pavement.
“I started ballet when I was 7-years-old,” she said. “I took my first modern dance class when I was 16.”
She ‘s been an artist dancer performer choreographer and teacher ever since. Dancing might be the only walk of life whose aim isn’t to get anywhere, but is rather a process of the steps along the way. It’s not a discipline whose ambition is to be better than anyone else, either, but one whose purpose is simply to dance better. It’s a kind of solitary self-mastery nevertheless done in public.
“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made,” said Ted Shawn, one of the pioneers of modern dance. There may be abstract art, but there is no such thing as abstract dance.
Growing up in Spring Valley, just west of the Hudson River and just northwest of New York City, Julia Lachow grew up in a family invested in the arts.
“My parents were both artsy,” she said. Her father Stan was involved with community theaters and was in the original cast of “On Golden Pond” at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway in 1979. Her mother Barbara transitioned from stay-at-home mom to dance teacher to psychologist, still practicing in NYC.
“They were always supportive of my brothers and me in the arts.” One of her brothers is a musician and the other one is a filmmaker. “They never pushed us about how much money we were going to make.” Never mind that Andy Warhol once slyly said, “Making money is art and the best art is good business.” When it comes to Andy Warhol, however, sometimes it’s better to simply believe in his art, not necessarily his bank account.
She was on the swim team at Suffern High School when she saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company, a troupe of 32 dancers founded in 1958, first performed at the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association, otherwise known as the 92ndStreet Y. They are credited with popularizing modern dance in the United States. Their signature choreographic work “Revelations” is the best-known and most often seen in contemporary dance.
“The lights went on,” she said. “That was it. That’s what I want to do.”
She started taking modern dance classes at a local studio. She kept it up at a nearby community college. When she transferred to the State College of New York she majored in dance. After graduation she moved to New York City.
“That was where you were going to get the best training.”
For the next nearly four years she got the best training.
She studied with Joyce Trisler, who was keen on the technique of Lester Horton, the West Coast dancer whose demanding style featured fast small steps and spirited ups and downs, combining elements of jazz and ballet and contemporary hoofing. Alvin Alley once described Joyce Trisler as “just a crazy floppy girl from down the street.”
She studied with Milton Myers, who since the early 90s has been the director of the modern program at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. He routinely stole shows in the 70s and 80s coming out of corkscrew actions with quick vertical jumps, always active, always strong. He subscribed to the Horton technique of training, describing it “like physical therapy in its approach to creating a balanced body, training and freeing the body through constant movement.”
She studied with Matthew Diamond, who at the time was with Jennifer Muller and the Works, and went on to become the director of the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”, which has since won seven Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography.
“It was great when he got that gig,” she said. “Dance is hard to film since it’s so fast, and he was a dancer.”
In late 1977, while working with the New Dance Group in Manhattan, she took a few minutes to talk to a fellow dancer
“I just got back from Prince Edward Island,” said Cathy Cahoon. “I danced with a fellow from there.”
“Wow, if you ever go back, I’d love to go with you,” said Julia, even though she barely knew Prince Edward Island from the man in the moon.
The next year the two of them joined Don Burnett and formed the Montage Dance Theatre. They wrangled free space at Trinity United Church in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. They stayed for five weeks. “We danced 25 hours a day, no kidding,” she said. They put on a show at the end of their residency.
“I fell in love with the place when I first came here,” she said. “There was so much space here.”
The next summer she went back for the whole summer. “We danced, gave demonstrations, and did a series of lectures. Don was cast in the Charlottetown Festival and we performed in the Maud Whitmore show.”
In the fall she went back to New York City.
“I was sad.”
The following January she got a call from Don.
“Meet us in Charlottetown,” he said.
“Yay!” she said, happy.
She packed a suitcase and moved to Prince Edward Island in February 1980. When she left New York City she moved from where there were 27,000 people per square mile to where there were fewer than 70 people per square mile.
Artists may starve for their art, but there’s no starving for space on PEI.
She moved to Charlottetown, working with the Montage Dance Theatre, teaching and performing in their studio theater, and soon met her husband-to-be.
Eugene Sauve, recently arrived from Montreal, was helping the troupe as their technical director. Julia and he hit it off. She even got him on stage, dancing, once or twice. “He was so nervous,” she said. “He’s got good rhythm, but I was leading, so all he had to do was rock back and forth.
Two-stepping led to high-stepping. They got married, Julia light on her feet, Gene trying not to rock back and forth. They soon had a son, Olivier. They started looking for something bigger than their cramped apartment in Charlottetown. Gene was working at a new theater in Victoria, on the Northumberland Strait 20 miles away. Julia drove out to the small town.
“I’ve lived here before,” she thought. “There’s something here, a past life regression. It was fun and creepy. I felt like I needed to live here again.” They bought a house across the street from the fire hall and moved in on June 1st. Two weeks later her daughter Rachel was born.
“Everybody tells you never move when you’re about to have a child,” she said.
Some people say, now that you’re eight-and-a-half months pregnant, you’re going to give up the house-moving thing, right? Some women say, I’m not crippled. I’m only having a baby.
“We did it box by box.”
She has lived in Victoria ever since, except for two years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire. “The kids grew up in that house.”
When the family moved from the capital city to greener pastures in the mid-80s they moved from where there were 15 thousand-some residents to where there were about 150 residents. Even though in the biggest cities everybody still lives in a neighborhood, Victoria is so small the whole town is the neighborhood.
Julia Sauve had moved from the jam-packed Big Apple to a minor-key metropolis to a seaside village.
The next year Montage Dance Theatre’s building burned down. “That changed everything,” she said. In the meantime, she, a modern dancer, met Peggy Reddin, whose background was ballet. They started getting together, “in a secretive way, in coffee shops,” talking about starting a dance school. “It was all just talk.” Several months later the secret was out. They decided to become business partners.
“We just did it.”
Their business venture, dance umbrella, opened its doors in 1989 in a second story rented space above Froggie’s, a used clothing store somewhere in Charlottetown. Since then they have become one of the best and brightest dance schools in the Maritimes.
“We are not a ‘line ‘em up and shuffle ’em through’ school,” said Peggy, while Julia added, “We’re proud of our students. They are getting to be very good dancers.”
In 2006 dance umbrella merged with the Confederation Centre of the Arts, expanding their programming, and last year rounded out their 28thseason with their annual end-of-the-year showcase in the Homburg Theatre. “We had everything from a Tragically Hip tribute to ‘Dance of the Snowflakes,’” said Peggy Reddin.
Juia Sauve has long been involved with Act Community Theatre, helping stage their showcase shows, worked with the Colonel Gray High School for two decades choreographing their school musicals, and has taught at Holland College School of Performing Arts. She founded the Luminosity Black Light Theatre, the only black light performing company in Atlantic Canada.
Many of Luminosity’s themes were environmental. “Water is a life force that is in us and all around us,” she explained. “Water has no sense of itself. It just is. It doesn’t sit still.” You dive into the water, but most of the time you can’t tell how deep it is.
“I used to pretty much take every gig I could get,” she said.
“There’s no escaping it. I was the person in my grandfather’s home movies who had to be a performer and a teacher. That’s not so off from who I am now.” She even attempted the improbable back in the day, trying to teach ballet steps to her two young brothers. It was a daring if doomed effort.
Although she hasn’t settled back into a rocking chair on the back deck of her house, she has recently retrenched.
“When did I stop teaching like a crazy person?” she asked herself. “It was maybe five years ago.” She continues to teach a class at dance umbrella. “But I let the younger dancers do the heavy work.”
Rocking chairs may give you something to do, but they don’t get you anywhere. Where she has gone the past three years is where many stroke survivors have trouble going, which is getting out of their chairs. What she has done is rolled up her sleeves on a project of helping restore some liveliness to lives that have been impacted by a cerebrovascular accident.
“How do you take someone that is so compromised, where maybe one side of the body is just not working, and help people feel better in their bodies,” she asked. “How can I get these people moving?”
A stroke is a brain attack. It happens when blood flow to a part of the brain is cut off. When cells lose oxygen they start to die and whatever the affected parts of the brain control, like memory or muscles, are then bewildered, or lost. It can happen to anyone at any time. It can be catastrophic. Most survivors suffer from some kind of disability.
Some survivors turn the disability to their advantage.
“When you have a stroke you must talk slowly to be understood,” said Kirk Douglas, the actor who appeared in more than 90 movies and won Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Emmys, and who suffered a severe stroke in 1996. “I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen. They think I’m going to say something important.”
He wrote a book about his experiences, calling it “My Stroke of Luck”.
It was a book called “Move Into Life” that got Julia Sauve going. She was volunteering at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an educational retreat center in New York north of Poughkeepsie, when she met the author. Anat Baniel, a former dancer and clinical psychologist, developed her method of treating chronic pain and physical limitations by emphasizing activity and becoming aware of the entire body, how it feels and moves, so that the brain can map the body anew and evolve a person’s ability to feel and move again.
Back home in Victoria her life partner Reg Ballagh suggested she talk to his brother-in-law, the head of the stroke unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. He in turn introduced her to Trish Helm-Neima, the Provincial Stroke Coordinator for Health PEI. They started working together at community centers.
“We did our first session near the end of 2015,” said Julia. “It was just a once-a-week thing.” Once a week clears away the rust of the rest of the week.
“We do 75 minutes, a combination of seated and standing exercises. Everyone spends time in a circle after that integrating what we’ve done. I pass around handouts. It’s when people work at home that you really see results.”
Her goal is to help stroke survivors help themselves rewire their bodies and brains. “It’s about creating plasticity, developing the neural activity in your brain,” she said. “These people had big lives. Stroke just knocked them over the head. Our goal is for them to have success. From a teacher’s standpoint it can be very rewarding.”
Except when it isn’t.
“Some people will give up,” she explained. “One of our participants, she was doing well, and then I heard through the grapevine she succumbed. She succumbed to where she was, succumbed to the idea that she was just going to sit around.”
One of the reasons efforts like Julia Sauve’s efforts are important is because it’s not just about exercise or therapy. Stroke support groups challenge survivors to get past society-imposed doctor-imposed self-imposed limitations. It’s about feeling connected, about being in the same boat with others, about having a can-do attitude, sailing the waves, no matter how storm-tossed.
In time Julia Sauve created a program called “Moving Life Forward with Movement and Music” with funding from a PEI Wellness Strategy grant. One week, while the Festival of Small Halls, a series of music venues, was ongoing on Prince Edward Island, she played jigs and reels during class.
“Wow,” I told them. “You’re doing really good. That is awesome.”
“That’s because the music is so good,” said one man.
“It’s because the music is so familiar,” she thought. “You’ve been going to ceilidhs your whole life. You’ve been listening to fiddle music all your life.”
“In rehab we talk about the repetition of movement and the pattern of movement is what’s going to make you learn that movement,” said Trish Helm-Neima. “So if you can find a fun way to do that you are more likely to continue doing that repetition and gain that function back.”
Getting up in the morning is only the half of it. Having fun is the other half. It’s always fun to do what might seem the impossible.
The next week Julia cued the fiddle music again. “They did it so good,” she said. “I ask our participants all the time, what’s the first part of your body that dances?”
“Legs, arms, feet,” they say.
“No, it’s your ears,” she tells them. “You hear the music you get the beat. I haven’t had a stroke survivor yet who wasn’t able to key the beat to the music.
“Sometimes we have them do a kick line holding onto chairs. They astound me.”
Even though Julia Sauve has slowed down she has no plans of slowing down.
“There’s something you’re put on earth to do,” she said. “That might sound woo-woo, but we’re put here for a purpose. Where I’m coming from now is, I want to learn more and help people more.”
When you’re always coming or going somewhere, at the family’s eatery dishing out some of the best meat pies on the island, on the no-stopping dance studio floor, or unfolding a folding chair helping a stroke survivor get a groove on, every day is moving day.
The Yellow House on the south side of North Rustico on Prince Edward Island isn’t any different than most houses. It has a front door and back door, two stories, two gables, two chimneys, plenty of windows, and a latter-day addition The only difference is that it’s on a fishing harbor on the ocean, has its own parking lot, and isn’t strictly a family house anymore.
It’s a family restaurant, takeout, and catering house.
On sunny days the Yellow House looks like it is painted in sunlight. On its open to close days, if it’s overcast on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, light streams out of the windows brightening the gloom. On catering days it buzzes with energy and deadlines.
When Marie “Patsy” Gallant died in 2009, the home she had lived in on Harbourview Drive, next to Barry Doucette’s Deep Sea Fishing, went empty and dark.
“She let the town buy the house, but they didn’t have any money to renovate or turn it anything,” said Mike Levy. “They wanted a restaurant, something that would service the community.” Six years later he and his wife, Jennifer, recently become residents on the north-central shore of PEI, decided to give it their best shot.
“We had to fix it up so we started looking for funding. We couldn’t find any. Nobody wants to risk a restaurant, even though we had worked in finance and banking and worked in the food and beverage industry, been servers bartenders cooks managers.”
Between them they had two university degrees, two degrees from the Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College, and had already gotten a business, the Green Island Catering Company, off the ground. They had been catering the Prince Edward Island Legislature’s “Speaker’s Tartan Tea” for three years.
“It’s easier to get a loan for a food truck, since the truck is an asset,” said Mike.
Lenders are understandably skittish, given that 60% of eatery start-ups go out of business within a year and 80% within five years. Even though many entrepreneurs believe failure isn’t an option so long as their determination to succeed is strong enough, it is more often the case, as Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
No matter what your best shot is, doing almost anything worthwhile carries with it some kind of risk. It’s only when you don’t try, on the other hand, when you don’t play ball with failure as a possibility, you don’t take any risks. But, since Mike Levy getting to the Yellow House was, in the first place, only made possible by playing poker, he stepped up to the plate.
“Some friends and I were playing poker on-line,” he said. “I had written a paper in university about gambling sites. I loved poker because there is a way to play that isn’t just pure luck.”
A native of Unionville, a once-farmland suburb of Toronto, Mike was living and working in Calgary, Alberta, after graduating from nearby Lethbridge College. “The money we won that night didn’t split evenly, so I let my buddies have it so long as they let me have the ticket to get into the next tournament.”
He couldn’t lose.
“I knew enough to know it wasn’t skill. No matter what I did it didn’t matter. I made it up to twenty grand. Anybody tells you gambling isn’t an addiction is full of it. I could feel myself itching to go back to the computer and play more. The only thing that saved me was the thought, in the back of my mind, Jen will kill me.”
Jennifer Johnston, his wife-to-be, was finishing her degree at Leftbridge College. Mike was working at the Dockside Bar & Grill. A meat packing plant squatted next door to the restaurant. Working behind the bar, some of his tips were in lieu of cash.
“I’d come home with a box of steaks.”
After dinner – after watching “After the Sunset” – a movie about a master thief who retires to the archipelago following his last big score, Mike popped the question one night. “There was a song in the movie, the pineapple song, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I finally said, Jen, do you want to try the Caribbean?”
“What? Where?” Jennifer asked.
“I figured she was going to ask.” He had done his research beforehand. “The Grand Cayman Islands fit all of our requirements. The history was British, the laws were similar to what we were used to, and the currency was stable. It was safe and everyone spoke English.”
They parlayed their winnings into moving lock stock and barrel three thousand miles southeast of the Canadian Rockies, from where high temperatures in summer in Cowtown meant the mid-70s, to where low temperatures never fall below the mid-70s, summer or winter.
Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands. Hundreds of offshore banks and tourism drive the economy. Orchids, mahogany and palm trees, and many kinds of fruit trees dot the landscape, as do turtles and racer snakes. They are known as racer snakes because they tend to race away when encountered.
After living in town they found lodgings on the seashore. “A doctor who owned a beach house needed somebody to look after the property,” he said. They lived in the caretaker’s apartment. “It was only rented twice a year, by a nun who was a writer, very active politically. She drank me under the table twice a year.”
Jennifer found work immediately as a server at the Royal Palms on Seven Mile Beach. “She’s a cute blonde girl, she got hired in ten seconds.” The Royal Palms is the closest beach bar to the cruise ship port. She later worked as one of the managers at the Dolphin Swim Club, where tourists paid to swim with fish. “I’d visit her and a dolphin would go flying by her office window.”
It took Mike a few weeks, but he finally found a job as a junior bartender at the Westin. “You get all the bad shifts at first,” he said. “You get screwed. You make no money. I put in my dues. After a few months I got better shifts.”
Mike and Jennifer worked in Grand Cayman for almost three years. “It’s a very stratified economy,” said Mike. “You’re either very rich or very poor. But it was semi-affordable for us.” On off days they rode their Vespa around the island, taking martial arts and yoga classes on the beach. “Afterwards we’d swim in the ocean, go out for brunch.”
He learned to get along with his boss. “He had been down there for more than thirty years, from Saskatchewan. He was a bald-headed, serious-looking, aggressive-looking guy. Everybody called him Bitter Bob. When I found out why, I felt bad.”
Thirty-or-so years earlier, with his island sweetheart, visiting Miami where he planned to propose, she was killed in an accident in the street, run down by a city bus. He went back to Grand Cayman and never talked about what happened.
Many years later, shortly before Mike and Jennifer’s leave-taking of Grand Cayman, Bitter Bob and his friend Fabio Carletti came out on top.
“Fabio grew up in rural Italy, flamboyantly gay, and his village chased him out,” said Mike. “He and Bob bought a nothing-special plot of land on the west end of the island, except it turned out their little acre had the only deep-water well in the area. They sold it for millions.”
Fabio went back to Italy and bought his mother a car. He bought her a big house. He told off all the villagers, as well.
“Bob sorted himself out, was getting happy, but when I told him we were leaving he held a grudge for months. You get attached to people down there.”
The couple returned to Toronto to get married in order that both of their Ontario families could celebrate the nuptials. It was just in time for Mike’s grandfather to make it to the wedding, too. “He passed away a few months later on the only golf course he ever got a hole-in-one in his entire life.”
He suffered a heart attack walking up the hill to the green of that same hole.
Mike’s family has long been entrepreneurs and business people. They broke ground for Mastermind Toys, a 300-square-foot store, in 1984 in Toronto. It became a chain of toy stores that became Canada’s largest specialty toy and children’s books retailer. “I picked up our first shipment of Beanie Babies,” said Mike Levy, who was then a teenager. “I remember thinking, this is the stupidest thing ever.” By the mid-1990s Beanie Babies had become a craze. In 2010 Andy and Jon Levy collaborated with Birch Hill Equity Partners, masterminding the company’s national expansion.
After high school Mike joined the army. He was 18-years-old when he was sent on his first out-of-country mission. “They sent us to Fort Benning to train with the Rangers.” The US Army Rangers describe themselves as an agile, flexible, and lethal force. One of their beliefs is “complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.“
The only thing they’re afraid of, it turns out, are snow snakes.
Fort Benning is named after a Civil War-era Confederate States general and is ‘Home of the Infantry’ in the United States. The Canadians marched in the woods all day carrying nearly a hundred pounds of gear and rucksack. They went on simulated search-and-destroy exercises at night. They set up bivouacs in the dark, exhausted, in the middle of nowhere.
When they befriended a troop of American counterparts being posted to the far north, they warned them about Canada’s deadly snow snakes. “Heading up north, eh? The snow snakes are bad this year.” They were met with blank stares.
“What’s a snow snake?”
“They tunnel through the snow. They’ve got long fangs and can bite right through your boots.”
“My God! Are they poisonous?”
“You know the two-step? With those things, they bite you, it’s more like one step.”
The entrepreneurial Canadians offered the Americans their own down-home antidote. It looked like a can of tuna fish with a label that said “Arctic Snow Snake Bite Kit”. The reason it looked like a can of tuna fish was because it was a can of tuna fish with an improvised label the Canadians had designed and printed and stuck on the can.
They sold the antidote like hot cakes for ten dollars a can until they were caught. “Some moron had done it the year before, so they caught us in about twenty minutes.”
“Don’t be idiots,” their commanding officer said.
“They let us go even though they were mad.”
When Mike Levy boarded the plane back to Canada the following month he was told to never come back to Fort Benning. “I’m not sure if the ban is still in place,” he said. In any event, he was leaving the army. “I went off to university the next year.”
After getting married Mike and Jennifer flew to Prince Edward Island for their honeymoon. They stayed at the Inn at St. Peters. “We loved it.” They went to the Provincial Plowing Match and Agricultural Fair in nearby Dundas. Jennifer entered the Wife Hollering Contest.
“You literally had to call your husband to dinner,” said Mike. “I was wandering around a field when I heard my name shrieked out. I stood at attention. The guys around me, I could see them thinking, the poor bastard, I wonder what he did.”
Jennifer Levy won first prize.
“Many of the Canadians we knew in Grand Cayman were from Prince Edward Island,” said Mike. “They always said PEI had good people, good food, and was a great place. That is where you want to go.”
In 2011 the Levy’s moved to PEI and enrolled in the two-year program at the Culinary Institute. In the meantime they cut their teeth working in the kitchen at the Inn at St. Peters, the Orange Lunch Box, the province’s first food truck, and the Delta Hotel in downtown Charlottetown. On his first shift his first day at the Delta, the chef, Javier Alarco, asked him if he had ever shucked a lobster.
“A couple, at school,” said Mike.
“Oh, good. There is a dinner party for the Liberal party tonight. We’ve got 600 lobsters. The kitchen’s got three hours to shuck them.”
Shucking a lobster means twisting off the large claws, separating the tail from the body, breaking off the tail flippers, opening the body, and extracting all the meat. “My first thought was, that’s not going to happen. But, we got it done.” The next day a hundred pounds of potatoes, a hundred pounds of carrots, a hundred pounds of celery, and a hundred pounds of turnips were delivered to his work surface.
“Small dice, three hours, go,” said Chef Alarco.
“That hurt!” said Mike.
The politicians wining and dining in the ballroom at the Delta might have wondered, how hard can it be to boil a lobster? The work in a commercial professional kitchen is hard, hard keeping track of all the sharp knives and sharp edges of stainless steel, hard on your arms and shoulders and back from lifting all during your shift, hard on your legs from being on them all the time. There is nothing that requires a chair for the doing. There isn’t any time to sit, anyway.
There isn’t any time for explaining and complaining.
After finishing culinary school the Levy’s had a plan. Their plan was to work on privately owned yachts plying the high seas. “We were going to find a billionaire who wanted a private chef,” said Mike. “We had the connections from working in Grand Cayman. The pay is outrageous.”
Most super-yachts spend winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean. Sometimes they are chartered and other times they are anchored in quiet spots with their owner. Produce has to be bought in port towns, but fishermen often deliver fresh catch to the boat. Although chefs are disconnected from their family and friends for weeks and months, they accrue their wages since there is nowhere to spend it.
“When you’re done they give you a check and away you go,” said Mike. “I thought that was brilliant. That’s what we were preparing to do.” But, sometimes your way of life happens to you, not the other way around, or as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Before Mike and Jennifer could sail away they got a phone call from Ontario’s Child Protective Services. Jennifer’s sister, beset by problems with drugs and drink, and the mother of two children, emotionally neglected and in-and-out of care, was on the threshold of losing her children.
“We are going to adopt the children out, unless you, as eligible family members, take them, and agree to make PEI their home,” they were told.
“You have to declare your intent within 24 hours, yes or no.”
The children, Jacob and Madeline, were 7 and 12-years-old. “They had been moving from shelter to shelter, living in crappy apartments. They weren’t living, just surviving, no opportunities. It’s not that I love kids so much, but it was take it or leave it. I could never say no,” said Mike.
“No cruise, two kids, it was a hell of a change.”
They stayed on Prince Edward Island, buying a house in Rusticoviille, where the North Rustico Harbour meets the Hunter River. “My family strongly supported us, they helped us get our house, and a small allowance to take care of the kids, so that we wouldn’t just be scraping by, so they could lead a normal life.”
The Levy household turned on the lights.
“The kids were a stabilizing factor in our lives, too, even though they cost me years of idyllic luxury.”
Not only had they lost the life of Riley, now they had to support their newfound children. Their fledgling catering company was growing, but it wasn’t enough. “We needed a more solid income,” said Mike. When they found the vacant Yellow House, Jennifer Levy was dead set on getting it. “Ten years from now people are going to look back, how did you get so lucky and find a nice spot like this,” she said.
They still needed funding to bring it to life. They got it when they put the problem on the doorstep of Anne Kirk, the mayor of North Rustico. “She was so pissed, so incensed,” said Mike. “I’ve got three or four businesses like yourself and nobody’s helping them,” she said. “Come back in few days.”
The mayor went to Charlottetown, the capital of the province. “She lambasted everybody about helping small businesses in rural areas,” said Mike. “Sure enough, we got our funding.” They got some from the non-profit Futurepreneur, a loan from the Bank of Canada, and kicked in the balance themselves. They opened in July 2016.
The Yellow House is not a halfway house on the way to a sandwich.
“We had Lester the Lobster Roll for lunch,” said a man with his hands full of a lobster roll. “A wonderful taste of lemon zest on a fresh and flaky roll, yummy.”
“The best ever cod burger with homemade tartar sauce,” said a woman eating a cod burger.
It’s not duck soup, either.
“The service is limited, the menu is limited, but we would go back in a heartbeat,” said a man finishing a bowl of chowder. “The food is outstanding.”
The first year their menu was take-out only. “We didn’t have any indoor seating or a public access washroom,” said Mike. They fried with a small portable unit and lived without a commercial fume hood. Mike and Jennifer did all the work. Mike was the boss and Jennifer was the decision-maker. “We cooked all the food from scratch. It was exhausting.”
The second year they renovated their washroom, added indoor and outdoor seating, and added staff. “Jen and I still do a good chunk of the cooking, but we hired a young guy, Jake, who has the right temperament to work in a hot stressful environment with lots of people yelling around you. He’s ambidextrous, too. When he’s chopping vegetables and his hand gets tired, he flips his knife into the other hand.”
Their adopted family helps out, likewise. “Maddie does a great job maintaining the garden and cleaning up after us.”
They fill their larder locally as much as possible. “We’ve got an intense island focus,” said Mike. They procure garlic from nearby Eureka Garlic. It has a deep earthy sweet flavor. Their gouda cheese comes from nearby Glasgow Glen Farm. Their cured meats come from nearby Mt. Stewart. “They smoke them like they would have a hundred years ago.”
Moving into their third year, the Levy’s continue to cater, working out of the Yellow House, servicing weddings, meet-and-greets, and Buddhist retreats.
Even though fewer than a few hundred natives of the province identify themselves as Buddhists, there are two large religious communities on the southeastern end of Prince Edward Island. The Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society is for monks and the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute is for nuns. Monks and nuns typically study for fourteen years.
“They were having a retreat and Molly Chang, the coordinator, reached out to us. We had no idea about Buddhists. When I asked her how many people would be there, she said, oh, maybe five hundred.”
There was a pause. Mike Levy tried to downplay the numbers. “Oh, we do those all the time, no problem.”
”It’s got to be vegan.”
“Sure, no problem,” repeated Mike.
The problem was how to plan prepare lick into shape that much food in the limited space of the Yellow House, transport it an hour-and-a half away, keeping the hot food hot and the chilled food chilled, get it ready to be served on time, and then serve it. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety,” said Mike. “But they were great. When you watch TV and see the super wise calm thing Buddhists do, the first nun we met did that, and it all went well.”
At the end of the event the organizers showed their gratitude to the vendors and suppliers on hand by asking them to step up on stage and take a bow. “We had taken Jacob, our eleven-year-old, with us, and after the applause, leaving the auditorium, I looked around, where’s Jacob? I looked back to the stage. There he was center stage, alone, bowing to all the Chinese people, thinking he might be the next Buddha.”
He wasn’t the next Buddha, just that day’s Buddha.
“The nuns thought he was cute as anything.”
Buddhists take as gospel that we existed before we were born and we will have another life after we die. They believe the cycle of life and death continues endlessly, or at least until one achieves enlightenment, or liberation, losing the attachment to existence in the first place.
In the meantime, no matter how many times you’re born again, they believe in being mindful of what you say and do, mindful in your livelihood, and having care and concern in your heart for others so you can, in the end, understand yourself.
Once Jacob was coaxed off stage, however, it was back to work, loading up for the road back to North Rustico.
If kitchens are the heart of all houses, the Yellow House is all heart.
“What were we thinking?” Kate Doucette asked her mother, who was peeling potatoes in the kitchen of their eatery as they geared up for the second week of their new restaurant’s first season the summer before last.
“I know, we need fish-n-chips on the menu,” said Joanne Doucette.
On the Dock is at the far end of Harbourview Drive in North Rustico, around the bend of the harbor up from the lighthouse, catty-corner to Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing, on the north central coast of Prince Edward Island. The dining room is literally on the dock. More than two-thirds of the tables and chairs are outside, spread out over a big deck, on the edge of a square wharf on the ocean.
“I’ll go over to Doiron’s and get some,” said Kate.
She walked down the street and got five pounds of fish.
Doiron Fisheries, a fish market on the Inner Harbour, chock full of shellfish, lobsters, and fresh Atlantic seafood, is about a half-mile away, by way of a boardwalk, at the other end of the street.
“It wasn’t that much,” said Kate. “But mom wondered, what are we going to do with all this fish? Maybe we should freeze some of it, she thought, just to be safe. By the time she put it in the freezer, though, she had to take it out, since we were selling so much of it.”
When they sold out the fish-n-chips, Kate Doucette took another walk back down the street to Doiron’s, this time for more than just five pounds.
“It’s a simple menu, chowder, fish cakes, but it works,” she said. “We had lobster rolls from the beginning, because dad catches all of our lobster. After working here, me and mom go home and shell lobsters a couple of hours every night.”
The fish cakes are chips off the old block from her father’s handcrafted cakes. “On Boxer Day, Christmastime, parties, the whole family would come over for dad’s fish cakes. He served them with homemade mustard pickles.”
Joanne Doucette has made mustard pickles for a long time. “It’s a recipe that’s known around here,” said Kate. Every week is National Pickle Month when it has to be. “We make batches of them for the restaurant.”
“It’s hearty home-style cooking with the freshest seafood,” said Megan Miller, sitting outside in the sun on the seaside, pushing back from her table and empty plate of fish and pickles.
Kate’s father, Robert Doucette, is Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing. He ties his 45-foot fiberglas boat up at the end of the dock outside the restaurant. He harvests lobster in season and takes tourists out to catch cod and mackerel in July and August. His brother Barry and he bait hooks for tuna in September.
“His boat used to be called the ‘Jillian Marie’, who is my older sister,” said Kate. “But, when I got old enough to realize my name wasn’t on the boat, I got a little ticked off. When he got his next boat he called it ‘My Two Girls’.”
Bob Doucette has been working out of the North Rustico harbor for more than 40 years. “He grew up in a little white house right here,” said Kate. “He hasn’t gone far. Their house used to be up Lantern Hill, but it was moved down here, on the back of a big truck.”
Joanne and Bob Doucette met when they were 14-years-old. “They’re both from here, North Rustico, born and raised.”
Kate and her sister grew up in a house in a thicket of trees a mile-or-so up the road, behind her Uncle Ronnie’s Route 6 Fish-n-Chips “We were so lucky to grow up where we were in the woods all the time,” she said.
There’s something about woods that you can’t find in books, at school, or on the infobahn. Moss grass shrubs insects birds trees will teach you what you can never learn from flatscreens. Trees wise you up to being grounded from the trunk down and limber on top from the branches out.
North Rustico is a community of about 600 residents. The bay is sheltered by Robinsons Island and houses a fleet of forty-some lobster boats. Fishing is the town’s main focus, although, since it has direct access to Prince Edward Island National Park, it has long been popular with vacationers.
All summer long kayakers launch their boats from Outside Expeditions at the mouth of the harbor, paddling up and down the north coast. It’s a way to get focused on the wide-open water. When you’re tucked into a kayak and paddling, there’s literally nothing else you can do.
“Dad used to bring me down here when I was a kid,” said Kate. “I was a huge little tomboy. He bought me a kit with a saw and hammer for my seventh birthday. He made me a miniature lobster trap to work on while he was repairing his traps.”
By the late 1990s the wharf was rotting. “Dad still had a slip for his boat, but you could hardly walk anywhere, it was just run down.” The wharf was rebuilt and a new red-roofed building, the front half housing the Fisheries Museum and the back half housing the Skipper’s Café, was built with provincial and town funding, built on the spot where Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing shanty had stood.
“They moved all the shanties to the side when they built this,” said Kate.
“We grew up down on the harbor. My sister Jill and I worked in the canteen from the time I was 12-years-old, in the shanty, where reservations were made. We sold chips and chocolate bars and soda, except Jill and I ate all the chips and chocolate until dad finally ended up only selling ice cream.”
Kate Doucette’s grandmother opened the first restaurant in North Rustico in the 1940s. It was the Cozy Corner, at the convergence of Route 6, Church Hill Road, the gas station, the post office, and the road down the harbor. Her grandparents later opened the Isles, a sizable seafood restaurant, up the road.
“My Uncle Ronnie was the guy who held the most ownership and mom served there for years. The whole family worked there. They had a bakery in the basement and I’d run over every afternoon and get fresh rolls.”
One day the restaurant burned to the ground.
“It was a pretty big upset,” said Kate. “We were lucky there wasn’t any wind and none of it got into our woods.”
Towards the snowy front end of 2016 Kate Doucette was living in Charlottetown, the capital and largest city on Prince Edward Island, taking business classes part-time at UPEI and working full-time, while her boyfriend Sam roughnecked oil rigs more than three thousand miles away in Grande Prairie, Alberta. One evening her mother paid her a visit. Joanne Doucette had a proposal for her daughter.
Kate was surprised by what her mother stumped for that night.
“I wasn’t thinking of doing a restaurant, for sure,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that was going to be our conversation.”
The Skipper’s Café on the ocean side of the Fisheries Museum in North Rustico was closing. The Port Authority was leasing out the space. She was being offered first crack at it.
Kate Doucette called her boyfriend in Alberta.
“Go for it,” said Sam MacLeod. “You’ve got to take a risk sometime.” Even though it was going out on a limb, it wasn’t necessarily risky, since most risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.
“It’s in our blood,” said Kate. “I’ve been serving since I was 16-years-old. I’ve had a hell of a lot of other jobs, but I’ve always had a serving position on the side.”
Her family and she began making plans.
“The guy who owned Skipper’s Café, he was closing since he wasn’t feeling wellish,” said Kate. “Then he told us, ‘Oh, I might run it for another year,’ but by the first of May he closed and took absolutely everything out of the place.”
Many of the restaurants on the north shore of Prince Edward Island are seasonal, opening roughly at the first sign of summer and closing more or less at the start of fall. From a business point-of-view, there are two seasons, June July August and winter.
“We started from fresh, but it was a crazy month. We had to get all our licensing, buy all our equipment, and design our menu. Our tables were made by a local carpenter. We rebuilt the kitchen, which is very small, and the first summer we worked with table fryers. It was insane. I don’t know how we did it.“
The difference in fryers is that the oil capacity of tabletop models might be seven or eight pounds. The capacity of commercial deep fryers, which can have two tanks, is often 50 to 85 pounds.
“The first thing we did when we closed in October was get a commercial fryer, a grill, and a seven-foot range hood,” said Kate. “We still peel all of our potatoes with a little hand cutter. There’s a machine that can do it, if we could find the space to put it. Right now, Sam does it. He calls it his corner office.”
The reason Sam MacLeod gives a leg up at the potato peeler back in the corner is that Kate Doucette called him one day in the middle of their second summer, when he was working in Alberta. He is on rigs twenty days in the oil fields northwest of Calgary, and then off ten days, which he often spends having flown back to PEI.
“I was crying,” said Kate. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either I’m going to kill my mother with all the work she’s doing or I’m going to have to close down.” After working all day, and after closing everything down at night, her mother was spending two more hours peeling potatoes for the next day, every day.
“It was just too much,” said Kate.
“I’m going to take August off and come back and help you guys,” said Sam.
Sam MacLeod and Kate Doucette met in a Subway on the eastern end of the island at the moment Kate knocked over her young niece. She and her sister, Jill, were distributing Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing fliers at tourist cottages. They stopped for lunch. She and Mila, Jill’s daughter, were walking across the dining room to the soda fountain.
“I had my hand on top of her head and I accidentally pushed her over,” explained Kate. “She fell down.”
Sam MacLeod, who had just pulled into the parking lot and walked in the door, stopped where Mila was lying on the floor in front of him.
“Is she all right?” he asked.
“I hadn’t even noticed it happened.” Kate looked down at her niece. “Oh, she’s fine, she just kind of fell over.” Sam gave Mila a helping hand up.
“He’s nice, he’s cute,” said Jill as they watched Sam drive away in his white knight white pick-up truck.
Six months later, on a Friday night, while in a bar and grill in Charlottetown with friends, she recognized a young man wearing a red hat at the bar. She walked up to him
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“You’re the girl who pushed that kid down on the floor,” he said.
“She survived,” said Kate, grasping at straws.
They exchanged phone numbers. Twenty days later, a few days after Christmas, Kate and Jill were loafing in their apartment in Charlottetown. “Jill and I were going to hang out, have a chill night.” But then, out of the blue, she got a text from Sam.
“Do you want to go out to dinner?”
“I told him to give me a second. He took me to Cuba the next month. We’ve never spent a night apart since then, except when he’s out west.”
The couple built a house in Stratford, outside Charlottetown, but then rented it out on Airbnb. They planned on building something in North Rustico, but in the meantime realized they needed somewhere to live. They considered buying a camper and parking it in her mom and dad’s backyard.
“We found a reasonably-priced one on-line. It wasn’t the nicest, though, kind of shitty, and I was thinking, at the same time, do I want to shower in a camper all summer?”
She showed a picture of the camper to her parents. They took a close look at it, retreating to the other end of the room to compare notes. “I could see them kind of talking. They knew we were trying to save money.”
“Just stay with us,” said her mom. “We’ll fix you up a room. We’ll make it work.”
What she meant was, since they were already all working together, if they were all living together, it would make seeing one another all the time sticky. It might be too close for comfort. That’s why, since God has given us our relatives, many thank God they can pick their friends.
It would take some sufferance, fifty-fifty payoffs. They made it work.
“We’re only there to sleep, anyways,” said Kate. “We don’t cook there, we don’t hang out there, we don’t do anything, really. We’re always working. You give up your whole life half the year when you work at the restaurant.“
On the other hand, if you’re doing what you want need and enjoy doing, you’re never actually clocking in to the daily grind rat race any day of your life.
“The one place I’d rather be in the world is down at the harbor,” said Kate. “It’s hard, you see everyone working so hard, but to be with the people you love the most, my mom and my dad, my sister, my boyfriend, I can’t think of anywhere’s else I’d want to be.”
Joanne Doucette runs the show in the kitchen. “You’re not going to have anyone in the kitchen who cares more about you than your mom.” Kate is the hostess server business manager, Jill busses serves odd jobs, while Sam and Bob run errands deliver seafood peel potatoes and take out the trash.
Kate’s niece Mila is in training.
One evening at closing time, looking for something to do, her Crocs at the ready, Mila asked if she could clear the outside tables.
“You can take the salt and pepper shakers and candles in, but leave the flowers,” Kate instructed her.
When Mila was done, two men were still at the last occupied table on the far side of the deck, their plates pushed to the side, kicking back at the edge of the ocean. “She went right up and took their empty plates off the table. They ended up giving her five dollars.”
“Kiki, Kiki!” Mila whooped, running up to the front counter, waving her five-dollar bill.
“She calls me Kiki. It just happened. She just one day decided,” said Kate. Since no one is allowed to give themselves a nickname, it might as well be your six-year-old niece. Catching a break, Kiki is better than, say, Pickles.
“I don’t work here, but I help out all the time,” said Mila on a warm breezy sparkly afternoon, with a broom a head taller than her in her hands, busily sweeping up around the chairs and under the tables on the deck, in the interval between lunch and dinner.
When you’re helping out it’s all hands on deck.
There’s no keeping Mila down.
Photograph by Vanessa Staskus
Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com
“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen
“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”
It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”
Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up about joining the Mounties.
When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald gathered up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard.
“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.
“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.
“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”
She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.
In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.
“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.
“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”
“Um, no,” she answered.
“Don’t worry,” her friends said. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”
In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur”. Todd Hennessey directed the two-person spooky sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.
The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which was only two hours from her family in Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.
“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard lived and studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.
Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.
“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”
A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.
Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.
Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.
Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming laugh.
She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”
Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.
“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”
No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a weird place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.
It is where Leah caught the acting bug.
“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”
She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”
Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.
“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”
Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”
Natives of ‘The Rock’, as the province is sometimes known, at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”
Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”
One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps”, accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off
“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”
Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.
It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.
Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theater Festival.”
She worked in a candy store.
“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.
She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.
“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”
Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.
“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked shape doing it.”
The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”
It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy.”
Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break. ”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.” In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur”. He has directed more that thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.
When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing on at the same time.
“Yes, please,” she said.
She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.
Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”
Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”
In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“
Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.
By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and as the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park”.
“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”
“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.
Some roles are more challenging than others.
“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.
“It was weird.”
In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs”, a children’s book true story about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional skills, language, land, and family.
Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory the past three summers.
Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.
“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”
Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.
“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”
Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another generation, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”
Moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, for the coming summer, as well, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”
She will be touring again in the fall with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs”.
“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not in Toronto desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 27. How wise can a 27-year-old be?”
It’s the sharp-eyed 27-year-old actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.
Photograph by Matthew Downey
Originally posted on http://www.147stanleystreet.com
Red Island: PEI Profiles