One of the brightest lights in the constellation of contemporary Canadian culture throughout the tenure of the boomer generation has faded from our ken. Stuart McLean, consummate storyteller and beloved patron of Canadian arts, whose weekly channeling of Dave, the fictional owner of the Vinyl Café (an equally fictional used record store) and a cast of characters that included Morley, Dave’s wife, his children, dog, neighbours and, in his most classic tale, a Thanksgiving turkey, captivated his CBC audience each Sunday afternoon.
Who among us has not found themselves trapped in the car after reaching our destination, unable to tear ourselves away from the tale emanating from the radio or eliciting stares from passersby as we laugh until the ache in our sides our eyes with tears.
For those of us who ply the trade of words, writers, journalists, lyricists, and so may other storytellers, Stuart McLean was a giant, a veritable god amongst wordsmiths.
Stuart McLean is best known to most of us as that voice emanating from the radio, or as the gifted host of the onstage productions of his radio program that visited every corner of the country. But he was also a teacher, passing on his trade to a new generation of storytellers.
“I first got a taste of Stuart McLean’s storytelling on my first day of his Introduction to Radio class while attending Ryerson Journalism school back in the 90s,” recalls Duff McCutcheon, of Little Current who now resides in Toronto. “As a ‘get to know you’ exercise everyone split into pairs, interviewed each other and came up with a brief story based on the results. Stuart paired up with a young woman (who later dated and married my roommate) and 10 minutes later regaled us with her story—woven from the fabric of her life, her immigrant parents from Yugoslavia, her dad’s job driving a Coca-Cola truck and her life growing up in Hamilton. It was delivered in his folksy cadence—that same easygoing, homey voice and rhythm that Canadians came to love on his radio show—and it left us all in awe. He was a really nice man and his was easily my favourite class during my time at Ryerson.”
Little Current’s Ed Bond describes himself as a loyal fan who tuned in every Sunday to catch the latest Dave and Morley story, or the amazingly talented young artists that he was showcasing that week.
Mr. Bond has seen Stuart McLean “two or three times,” including visits to Manitoulin, Espanola and Sudbury. “It was,” he recalled, “his ability to tell a story that drew you in. You just never knew where it was going to lead.” But you just knew you had to follow along to wherever it was he was taking you.
Like many of us, Mr. Bond was stunned when he heard the news. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t know he was sick.”
“He was a Canadian first,” said Mr. Bond. “He gave a lot of musicians a good start in life.”
MP Charlie Angus once cited Stuart McLean and the Canadian icon’s penchant for showcasing up and coming talent, in a stirring defence of a CBC threatened by budget cuts. It was the opportunity of appearing on the Vinyl Café that boosted Mr. Angus’ band into success, he recalled. An elevation into the limelight that Stuart McLean offered to countless budding artists and the storyteller made no secret of his delight at being able to offer that leg up to their careers.
This writer had an opportunity to interview Stuart McLean during his visit to Manitoulin, where he performed before a packed house at Manitoulin Secondary School. It was a daunting experience, even though he sat on the edge of a table, sweat pouring off of his towering frame, obviously drained from the intense performance that underpinned the laid-back demeanor that he projected on the stage, the storyteller was patient, kind and curious. Peppering the interviewer with so many questions that it became difficult to determine who was interviewing who.
Stuart McLean’s questions centred on Manitoulin and its environs. It was his first time visiting, and he revealed he had always wanted to come to the Island. He wanted to know the places to visit, the things to see, the places to eat, everything that would make up the experience that is Manitoulin Island. He had a day out of his busy schedule to explore and he wanted to make the very most of the opportunity to learn more about the people and the land.
Stuart McLean displayed a curiosity and humour in person, off stage and in conversation during that interview that remained entirely, naturally in character and will remain a highlight of my career. He delighted in discovery and exploration. His authenticity was all of that—real and unaffected—it was an honesty that played a large part in his consummate storytelling. He was first and foremost, real.
His was the quintessential Canadian persona on the airwaves. With his quiet, self-effacing manner and the gentle compassion that infused his storytelling he proved beyond any reasonable doubt that there is a distinctive Canadian culture, we saw ourselves reflected in his tales and their distinctive manner of delivery.
Although there will be no more Dave and Morley stories, at least not told in the inimitable style that was Stuart McLean’s, he will remain with us in his timeless body of work. For, in the unerring mark of the true storyteller, we will never tire of hearing them time and again.
Baa maa pii Stuart McLean, you have enriched us all during your all too short visit among us.