At the fireworks with a hundred thousand friends (West End Times)

At the fireworks with a hundred thousand friends

Guy MacPherson gets lost and discovers he’s at the Symphony of Fire

The West End Times, August 9, 1994

I had always thought there were two types of people in this world: those who would go out of their way to watch fireworks, and those who wouldn’t. After attending last Saturday night’s premiere of Symphony of Fire, along with a couple hundred thousand of my closest friends I concluded that maybe there’s only one type.

People came from all over the Lower Mainland to experience this many-times-in-a-lifetime event. Come to think of it, I was there – and I always considered myself in the second group, thinking fire flower spectacles were a big waste of time and money (to produce the four shows in Vancouver, the cost will be over one million dollars and takes producer Frank Furtado a full year of planning. Need I say more?). Although, in my defense, I was there under false pretenses. I was certain I read it was going to be a Symphony on Fire.

However, there was no symphony. Not in person, anyway. There was music, including a rendition of the Spanish national anthem, also known as Requiem for a Dictator, sans whirlwinds of tempestuous fire. With the militaristic march aside, the program began. The competition between the countries is partly judged on the ability to synchronize skyrockets to a musical score. Now, if you can get explosives to detonate expressively during the slow movements, you’ve got yourself a pretty good trick. I heard the music and I saw the pyrotechnics, but I failed to experience the synchronicity.

In fact, the whole exercise reminded me of something I learned in some film class in university. The great Russian film maker Eisenstein – or was it the great Life photographer Eisenstadt? It definitely wasn’t the great German brainiac Einstein because he had more important ideas on his mind. Whoever it was used the same picture of an expressionless person to convey different emotions, i.e., depressed, loving, angry, satisfied, etc. The same picture suited each description. We saw what we expected to see.

In other words, fireworks explode the same way in the fast, exciting passages as they do during the slow, beautiful parts.

“The joy of colour,” the narrator narrated. “The colours of our land.” Hey, ours too! Turns out there are only six different basic colours that can be used in fireworks. The Spanish firm of Pirotechnia Caballer, which was featured last Saturday, burst some beautiful bombs in the air that looked like giant weeping willows of yellow, red, green, blue and orange or squiggly white paisleys. Did you know that there are only 100 top fireworks firms in the whole world and that each company’s formulas are closely guarded secrets? That’s why if you saw Italy or Japan on Wednesday or Saturday you would have spotted much different weeping willows of yellow, red, green, blue and orange or different squiggly white paisleys. You don’t spend four months planning and designing a 25-minute show to do what everybody else does. That’s why I’m sure it’s only my untrained eye that makes these extravaganzas look like every other fireworks display I’ve ever seen, from Disneyland to Butchart Gardens to Canada Day to the ones my grandfather used to let off in our backyard on Halloween.

The mass of humanity seemed to enjoy itself. People parked themselves on the beach at English Bay hours ahead of the 10:15 start. Streets were closed off by police officers, who showed remarkable restraint by not shooting tear gas at the crowd. Maybe it’s a good thing Canada is not competing in this year’s contest. There’s no telling how the Vancouverites might react if we didn’t bring home the prestigious Benson & Hedges Inc. Gold Trophy.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the exhibition. It brings people together in a way that only hockey playoffs had been able to do. And in a much more peaceful fashion. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford $13.95 for 25 minutes worth of entertainment, or you happen to be in the media, you can enjoy reserved seating, along with free cookies, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Blis, the “ultimate dessert.” It was to my deep regret that free Benson & Hedges smokes weren’t handed out because I’ve always wanted to take up the habit. I resigned myself to breathing really deeply and getting the full effect of the fireworks.

Artists bring magic into stations (West End Times)

Artists bring magic into stations

Chinese ‘erhu’ brings smiles to faces of harried commuters at SkyTrain stations

West End Times, January 26, 1994

They perform every day for thousands. They are probably seen live by more people than most major pop stars. They’ve also probably trained and studied more than your average pop star. And yet nobody knows their names.

They are street musicians. Buskers. Call them what you will, but don’t call them beggars. Often times, these are very gifted musicians.

Take Blaine Waldbauer and Ji Rong Huang. You can hear them at a SkyTrain station near you.

Each year SkyTrain hands out 25 licences to musicians with styles ranging from folk to rock to classical to flamenco. In order to get a licence, the musician must pass an audition, undergo a security check, and pay $50. That seems like a lot to go through just to play your fiddle for passersby. But Waldbauer doesn’t object.

He has been a street musician for 12 years and is a seven year veteran of the SkyTrain circuit. “This is a craft,” he says. “Just like if you had a plumber, he would have to be expected to know how to do the plumbing. We’re making a living.”

Waldbauer’s been performing on the streets for so long that nothing phases him. But that first time was a little scary. “I came from the prairies,” he said, “and with busking there was a perception of begging. Even now, people come up to me and they confuse the word ‘busker’ and ‘beggar’. They say, ‘You’re panhandling.’ I say, ‘I’m not. I’m busking. Look it up in the dictionary. It means in itinerant musician or actor that plays or performs on the street for gratuities. That’s in Webster’s Dictionary.”

Given these musicians’ obvious talents, some people can’t understand why they’d opt for a life on the streets.

Waldbauer is a violinist with a Bachelor of Composition degree from the University of Victoria. By the age of 19 he had received his associate diploma in violin and piano from Mount Royal College. After graduating, he played with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, where he was principal second violin and played in the first violin section. On any given day you can hear him play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart’s concertos, Irish jigs, country music, movie themes, and even children’s songs. And when he’s performing with his partner, singer/guitarist Cathleen Kolba, they play original folk music.

Huang plays a two-stringed ancient Chinese instrument called the ‘erhu’, known to westerners as the Chinese violin. “Actually, it’s not a violin, but it’s as popular as the western violin in China,” he says. “It’s used in orchestras, for opera, for everything.”

He has been playing the instrument for more than 20 years, since he was a little boy in Shanghai. Huang received his B.A. from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He is a sessional instructor at the school of music at UBC and is also the co-director of the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. At his SkyTrain post, Huang plays classical music, traditional Chinese music and western tunes accompanying himself through the use of modern technology. “I arranged it and played using a keyboard and transferred it to Midi, just like a computer,” he says. As he plays, he sits on a cooler, a smile etched onto his face.

Says Waldbauer, “One of the questions I asked in our master class at university was, Canada produces probably 200 violinists per year, given all the conservatories and universities. There are only 23 openings or so in the symphony orchestra. What are we going to do for work? And the master violinist said, ‘Good question.’

“There’s a perception still in society,” he continues, “that if you’re playing on the street and you’re any good, you should be on stage. I take exception to that because I say music is for people. And the people are on the street.”

Huang agrees. “It’s not possible for everybody to go to concerts because people are busy working or studying. This way they can hear music and can relax after working or studying.”

While a few people do not appreciate street culture, most have been very supportive. Huang has produced two cassettes, which have proven popular with his audience. One tape is Christmas melodies, while the other is a mixed bag of well-known traditional Chinese music, hits like Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Zhivago, and selections from Chopin and Bach.

Says Huang, “Most people enjoy my music very much. That’s why I’m happy doing this job.”

Comedy Boy at night, West Ender by day (West End Times)

Comedy Boy at night, West Ender by day

West End Times, November 3, 1993

By day he’s a mild-mannered residential caretaker. By night he’s a wise-crackin’ standup comedian. Look! Up on the stage! It’s the Bard! He’s insane! No, it’s Comedy Boy!

Vancouver comic Billy Mitchell headlines comedy clubs throughout western and northern Canada. He’s also performed in the U.S. and even Cambodia and Thailand for Canadian Peacekeepers. But his true love remains managing his West End apartment building… Well, not really. But for the time being, his “sunlighting” job helps pay the bills while he continues his climb up the comedy ladder.

The 34-year-old comedian has been entertaining crowds professionally for about five years. Mitchell started hanging out at Punchlines Comedy Club in Gastown shortly after graduating from Richmond High School. He worked in restaurants and wrote comedy with his buddies before his boss told him, “I need a waiter not a comedian.” He finally screwed up the courage to step up to the mike on amateur night. That first time in the spotlight is still fresh in his memory.

“We’d been drinking in the afternoon and shooting pool at the Cecil,” he recalls. “By the time I got there I was pretty well lubricated. I got up on the stage and just blanked. Mind went dead. I think I stood there completely silent for about two of the five minutes I had.”

Mitchell found that it’s a lot easier to make your friends laugh than to make a group of strangers laugh. “My friends can have me in stitches and I can have them in stitches. But to translate that to an audience, where it’s a group of unknowns – a big demographic pie slice – is a very, very different thing. When you’re funny with your friends, it’s dealing with something that’s occurring at the time. So it’s a very situational situation.” Pause. “Situational situation? That sounded really clever. But with an audience you have to create scenarios in their minds.”

He worked at his craft, constantly adding to his original five minutes of material. Mitchell keeps a notebook with him at all times, recording any humorous thought that comes to mind. The daily routines that we all do unthinkingly is the basis for his jokes. “Some of the best observational comedy is some of the simplest,” he says. “You train yourself to look for stuff that’s normal yet bizarre. It’s pointing out the bizarre in the normal.”

For instance, we’ve all seen the ads for dairy farmers. Mitchell wonders why they have to advertise staple foods. We know about eggs. There is no competing product. He envisions an ad campaign that states, “If you don’t use eggs… your omelet’s gonna suck.”

Throughout the years Mitchell has amassed about four hours worth of material. For each new joke he will try it out on his friends or down at the club on amateur night. But ultimately it will have to get past one tough censor – his wife. “She’s really critical,” he says. “She’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s funny, but no you can’t use that. That’s not politically correct.’”

For the most part he agrees with his wife. “I don’t want to offend any particular group,” he says. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. Also, I think any time you take the piss out of any particular group of society, you’re reducing your potential audience.”

While he won’t tell racist or homophobic jokes, he was once accused of being a sexist and that his material was male-biased. “I look at life from a male point of view because I’m male,” he says. “If I say ‘women do this’ I’ve usually got something slightly worse that men do, as a direct parallel. Equal time.”

He’s not a bland, whitebread comedian, however. He will on occasion poke fun at less recognizable targets. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. When they come to his door he tells them, “Yes, I’ve heard the word of God… and it’s ‘Get off my porch.’” Or how about cancer? “April is cancer month. Geez, just when you’re over cold season… If I had only six months to live, I’d buy a shipload of furniture from the Brick. Then with my luck, they’d find a cure.”

One of the fringe benefits of being a professional yukster is the travelling. And in that regard, his highlight to date occurred this past summer. An agent rang him up and asked if he was available for ten days, then informed him that he had a couple of gigs for him in Cambodia. Mitchell thought he must have said Campbell River. “It was wild,” he says now. He and a seven-piece show band were there for three days and in Thailand for six. It’s certainly a lot more glamorous playing to plastered peacekeepers in Phnom Penh than playing to pickled patrons in Prince George.

Just back from a week in Calgary, Billy Mitchell can be seen headlining at Punchlines this week, November 4, 5, and 6. And, of course, by day he can be seen raking the leaves outside his apartment building.

Emo wins over audience (West End Times)

Emo wins over audience

West End Times, October 20, 1993

Emo Philips peers out from behind the curtains and slowly takes to the stage. The tall, gangly man-child surveys his audience, unsure of what to make of them.

The audience at Punchline’s Comedy Club in Gastown is already laughing. They know what to make of the 37-year-old comedian from his numerous talk show appearances, HBO specials, and comedy albums. Emo Philips is no ordinary comic.

With his distinctive look and manner – his bowl-cut hairdo, sad, elongated face, arched eyebrows, wide eyes, pale skin and bodily contortions – Philips easily could have made it as a physical silent movie comedian like his idols Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But to concentrate solely on his appearance and comedy persona is to miss the point. Philips’ material is damn funny. Put him in a suit and tie, give him the delivery of your standard standup, and he’d still succeed. You don’t stay in the business for 17 years, like he has, on the strength of a goofy look and strange delivery.

Philips’ jokes are largely one-liners, not unlike Steven Wright’s. But while Wright stands motionless and recites his work in a monotone, Emo prowls the stage, his limbs pointing in all directions – his knees up to his ears, arms stretched over his head, straight out behind him, or fidgeting with his hair. He speaks slowly, enunciating each word, and his pitch rises and falls like a diva warming up for her aria.

The difference in styles aside, the jokes are similar, relying on turns of phrases and literal takes. On the way to the gig, for example, he apparently had an asthmatic attack. “Three asthmatics jumped me. I know, I know… I should have heard them hiding.”

And when his girlfriend told him she was seeing another man, he suggested, “Well, try rubbing your eyes or something.”

See if this doesn’t sound like it’s from the Steven Wright library: “I lent a friend a couple of thousand dollars for plastic surgery. Now I don’t know what he looks like.”

Philips generally works clean. And while there are a few sick jokes, he, himself, is the butt of most of them.

The unathletic Chicago native, who weighs 140 pounds naked (“That is if you can go by the scale in the bus station”), was called Mr. Baseball in his youth. Not for any physical prowess, but “because of the stitches in my face.”

Just looking at him you might think he’s led a sheltered life. “But I’ve tried my hand at sex,” he says. “I held my own.”

While playing Manitoba (“an Indian word meaning ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’”) in February, it was so cold, he said, “that I seriously considered contracting gonorrhea just for the burning sensation.”

To truly appreciate Emo Philips, as the crowd at Punchlines clearly did, one has to see him live. Television does not do him justice. He needs time to develop his rather annoying offbeat character.

But over the course of an hour, he grows on you.