Robert Fulford's column about Bruce McCall

(The National Post, September 26, 2000)

In 1973 the National Lampoon, then an engaging American humour magazine, ran The Shame of the North, a mock report on a Canadian border town. It brought something fresh to Canada's image, an endearing celebration of the bland. The National Lampoon implied that if Americans sought wickedness in Mexican border towns, they found the opposite by crossing into Canada. A two-page drawing showed the attractions available: the Kit-Kat-Klub, with shuffleboard, a live organist and free mints; a movie theatre advertising "Eskimo Love Orgy: Nose Rubbing"; a chapel ready to perform quickie baptisms; and a snack bar where the only ice cream sold was vanilla.

This portrait of Canada was of course grossly unfair, defamatory and delightful. It was also my introduction to Bruce McCall, a New York cartoonist, adman and writer who was then starting to carve out a place of his own in American published comedy. McCall has become better known since the publication of his memoir, Thin Ice, in 1997, and will be better known still when the National Film Board releases its sparkling film adaptation of that book, with the same title, directed by Laurence Green and produced by Gerry Flahive.

In the film we glimpse McCall's great comic illustrations, the best of which also appear in the book Zany Afternoons. Three years after the border-town item, Esquire published his seven-page Mementos and Memories of the 1936 Cairo World's Fair. There was no Cairo world's fair in 1936, but McCall's account was so true to the Expo spirit (his imaginary fair had history's first giraffe rodeo) that it seemed entirely credible. That piece established his unique talent for depicting, with straight-faced plausibility, incidents in history that never happened and pastimes that never existed.

Over the years he has reported on polo played in surplus tanks from the First World War, Zeppelin shooting as a sport, the string quartets that used to play in the New York subway, and American stamps issued to celebrate inventions such as cheese-flavoured dog food and static-free socks. In August, 1998, he imagined that we had become a blimp-flying society, so his New Yorker cover showed a blimp parking lot, advertising "self-park U-moor-it." (Blimps, Zeppelins and dirigibles are a McCall obsession.) In May, 1999, he did a New Yorker cover showing Times Square as nostalgia mongers of today imagine it existed in the past, with high-toned artists like Sophocles dominating the theatre billboards.

His illustration style owes a little to Art Deco and a little more to the advertising of the 1940s. He developed it for magazine comedy, but now his paintings are on the walls of the James Goodman Gallery in New York, priced at US$6,500 or US$7,500.

Some years after I saw that feature about the border town, I learned that McCall is a Canadian, as we might have suspected. Later I heard that he had grown up in Southern Ontario, and somewhat later discovered that for a few years we had attended the same Toronto high school, Malvern Collegiate. We never met, but it seems we unknowingly competed to establish the worst academic record of our time. It's unclear who won, but both of us dropped out.

When Thin Ice appeared, reviewers focused on McCall's dislike of Canada: "I had been a failure as a Canadian ... The patience, the mildness, the taste for conformity that seemed prerequisites for a tolerable life were beyond me." But in the book his disappointment with his native land means far less than his profoundly unhappy family life. He was one of six children of T.C. McCall, a Simcoe, Ont., newspaperman who became deputy minister of travel and publicity for Ontario and then a Chrysler public relations man. T.C. (his family as well as friends called him that) was an absentee father, either literally out of town or emotionally unreachable; his wife, Peg, was a sad, defeated alcoholic with no talent for mothering.

As history instructs us, the sun never shines for a humorist: James Thurber was a congenital grump, S.J. Perelman saw nothing funny in his own life, Stephen Leacock was no treat, and Groucho Marx was wretched. So why should we expect anything but a sad story from Bruce McCall? But if his story's sad, it's also witty and self-knowing, in both book and film. T.C., while a horrible father, is more interesting than the fathers in the last half-dozen novels I've read. He lived without ambiguity or irony, believing totally in everything he did. But the energy he exhibited at work became something ugly and demanding at home: He was a selfish tyrant. Sad to say, McCall tells us in the film that even now his father (dead for four decades) visits him at least once a week in his dreams: "His approval seems to be the crucial missing part of my life." Even so, he acknowledges that all this unhappiness and isolation made him a writer and an artist. The film, unlike the book, brings us up to date and emphasizes his literary humour in The New Yorker. Steve Martin appears with a striking testimonial: "When I first started writing, he was my god." Martin says he hoped someday to write as well as McCall.

Anyone can imagine the melancholy of McCall's childhood, but only music lovers will appreciate the true horror of T.C.'s taste: The man adored Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Easily the worst of all big bands, the Royal Canadians (the phrase still makes me wince) began their life 40 miles west of Simcoe, in London, Ont. T.C. played their records at top volume, which for Bruce was like "musical slivers under the fingernails." Worse, T.C. loved Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music Makers, and would sing along with their atrocious TV show -- while the children watched and listened! (This was before the stringent laws against child abuse.)

Guy Lombardo, dead since 1977, has not been forgotten here in Canada. Last winter we put his face on a postage stamp. When that stamp arrived in my mail, I took a few minutes to recover from my horrified shock and then pinned it on my bulletin board, as a way of keeping my patriotism under control. No doubt McCall would see it, rightly, as proof that the Canada he fled hasn't changed as much as it likes to imagine.


Last week's column on painter brothers William Ronald and John Meredith elicited the following letter:

Dear Mr. Fulford,

I work at the National Arts Centre, where part of my responsibilities include the care of our permanent collection of art. In 1967, both Ronald and Meredith were commissioned to create new works for installation in the NAC complex, opened in 1969. As the (apochryphal) story goes, no one at the time knew that they were brothers when the commissions were awarded.

Ronald created, true to the character you describe vividly in your revealing article (Notebook, Sept. 19), a huge, flamboyant mural spanning three storeys of lobby space in the NAC, called Homage to RFK. Meredith submitted a much smaller triptych, untitled and painted in the recognizable style of much of his work from that period.

In 1997 I had the opportunity to meet Ronald for the first time. We had just finished restoring and cleaning his mural at the NAC. The artist was invited back for a re-dedication. To say he was still larger than life would be an understatement. Ronald regaled the assembled audience with stories of how he and his assistant Rob Kirkpatrick had painted the numerous individual panels that constituted the massive mural in his studio on Brunswick Avenue in Toronto and then brought them all to Ottawa for assembly on-site. "It was a miracle they fit together," he said.

I never had a chance to speak with John Meredith, but have always considered his painting for the NAC one of the finest we have on display in the building.

A visitor to the NAC's Fountain Room, on the third level of the complex, will get a superb full view of the Ronald mural. A few years ago we placed our Meredith triptych in the Fountain Room, as well as a Meredith painting on loan to us from the Canada Council Art Bank. I pass through that room a number of times every day in the course of my work and always pause a moment to admire the art of these remarkable brothers, together in the room in a way that they apparently weren't in life.

-- Gerry Grace, National Arts Centre, Ottawa

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