Monday, April 22, 2013

I Remember Rita McNeil

As part of my duties as TV critic for 38 years at three great Canadian papers (The Globe And Mail, The Spectator, The Toronto Star) I was expected to interview Rita MacNeil from time to time.
How I came to dread those initial encounters --the awkward silences, the desperateness of both of us as we failed to connect.
Rita was extremely shy at the best of times and usually gave me back one word answers.
Undaunted I sat down and read everything ever written about her. Her distrust of prying interviewers was at the top of her "hate"list.
And then I discovered a common bond.
We had both worked at Eaton's mighty department store in Toronto. I had toiled there 1964-1970 in the summers and as a part timer the rest of the year. She'd been mainly in customer accounts, also in the Sixties.
And that became our bridge over troubled conversational waters.
I floored her the next time by casually mentioning my Eaton's experience --at the Hayter Street delivery depot interspersed with sorting parcels deep in the bowels of Eaton's Annex and all night stints sorting parcels out at Eaton's Scarborough delivery depot.
"I worked at Eaton's too!" Rita chirped in. And that's when I knew I had her.
And then we'd go right at it --the terrible day-old sandwiches in the employee lunch room in the old building on Bay Street which has since been demolished for Eaton Center.
The sight around Christmas time of aged John David Eaton tottering around tipsy as he wished employees all over the building a Merry Christmas.
"My favorite times were being rushed up to the sortation floor at College Street," I blurted out.
"The building with its Manitoba limestone finish had been voted the most handsome department store in North America but it attracted so few customers that I could sit around most days and read.
" On a busy day we'd send out fewer than 200 parcels to be delivered the next day compared to a few thousand from the downtown store."
"The food was always so much better at College Street," chirped in Rita who spent her time mostly in customer accounts at the downtown store. "The furniture floor was heaven, I'd walk around during my breaks."
After that Rita would open up to me as to an old friend. She always remained indiscreet but she did talk about her continuing weight issues, how she felt she was plain. About other Canadian singers she'd offer expert commentary on what they were doing that was right and where they were making mistakes.
In other words she came to trust me.
And it got so that every time I'd phone Rita would deluge me with news about "our" department store.
When the whole shebang closed I instantly wondered what Rita was thinking --but this was a period she wasn't on TV as much.
Both CBC and CTV programmers did not know quite what to do with her. When she was singing it was glorious. The specials always hit home for Canadians posting huge ratings.
But any banter with the other guests made her cringe.
So a weekly show like Tommy Hunter's was out of the question. I once spent an evening with Tommy out at his Oakville home and we even went out shopping for lamps for his new den. Tommy couldn't stop talking. Rita would avoid conversation if she could get away with it.
Then there was the time Eric Malling on CTV's W5 kept pressing her about her continuing weight problems.
And finally Rita had had enough and for the first time I can remember she snapped back.
"So why do you drink?" she suddenly asked Malling who looked lost for words.
I saw the rough draft and when the interview ended that retort had been cut out.
Eric died oh so very young aged 52 in 1998 from alcoholism.
And Rita could never win her own battle of the bulge --she passed last week after an operation at 68.
But it's funny as I was sorting out boxes of effects this past weekend I suddenly came across an Eaton's flyer guaranteeing sales on all items all the time.
And I immediately wondered : what would my fellow Eatonian Rita MacNeil think?

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