On the 28th of May (last Saturday), I had a fascinating day. Let me re-phrase that. Most of my working days as a speaker are fascinating as every group has its own personality but this blog is about a gig in my hometown of Yorkton, Saskatchewan. It’s a place that most people have never heard of, unless you’re from there, or you are a Canadian film maker. More on the second part in a bit. I am from there and in my book, “Alvin’s Laws of Life”, I dedicate a whole chapter and all through the book, make references to what an amazing place it was to grow up. It sounds a bit contrived, I suppose, but I genuinely mean it!
Ironically, when I was 18 years old, I couldn’t wait to leave it but that actually salutes the place, not demeans it. There is an important point to be made here though and I feel very strongly about this; where you are in the world is made better by what you give it, not what you expect of it! Please let that sink in for a moment.
As you may or may not know, I was born in Yorkton. It’s located in the Eastern side of Saskatchewan, about an hour from the Manitoba border and has a population of around 15,000. Yorkton is farming country and a big chunk of farmers retired to the city from the area farms and it still has a “farm feel” to it! By the way, that’s a good thing! It is definitely a community that is built on and thrives from people working together to make it what it is. “What’s in it for me?”, would not be a sentence you’d hear very often in Yorkton. I learned that there. It has served me well!
I may have left in ’78 but I have remained connected to the place, especially since we bought a cottage at Crystal Lake forty five minutes north of Yorkton. My parents have both passed and the number of people we keep in regular touch with has dwindled (my bad) but I still consider it “home”. I am also viewed as a bit of a celebrity there, which by the way is not my ego talking and also not something I planned. A few blogs ago, I wrote about a telethon called “Telemiracle” that is iconic in Saskatchewan and I played a major on-air role with it for almost 25 years. But I was well known in Yorkton well before that for my involvement in the community. Let’s be frank…I kind of stuck out! But I wasn’t just “the freaky looking guy without arms”. Playing trombone and drums, being a singer and a tap dancer, being a part of school musicals and drama shone a spotlight on me and many others of course. If you are a performer of any ability, you’d understand that the attention you receive is a bonus, or at least it should be.
A few years ago, there was a survey conducted of teenagers in the United States. It asked many questions but the one that stuck out for me was this question: “What do you want to be?” The #1 answer was…ready? “FAMOUS!” Wow! I make this reference to connect the dots to what I want to address today.
I was invited back to Yorkton to host and be Master of Ceremonies of the 69th annual Yorkton Film Festival Gala Awards evening. It was a very flattering invitation. I am not a professional MC but I have performed the duty hundreds of time so it wasn’t weird or new, but doing it in Yorkton was! More to the point I want to focus on is did you know that there was a Yorkton Film Festival? Probably not. Better question; did you know it is the longest running festival of its kind in Canada? When I say “of its kind”, what I mean is the films can’t be longer than one hour so they are “short films”. What makes this festival truly special is it is viewed in the Canadian Film Industry as the starting point or proving ground for up and coming film makers. Why it started in Yorkton is a long story you can do your own search for but the appropriately “short” version is, a regional representative of the National Film Board whose job it was to provide grants and funding for budding film makers of the time that long ago encouraged a local group to put on a one day festival to showcase short, amateur films and the festival was born. I’m pretty sure nobody thought it would happen, and then succeed, and then thrive and then last sixty nine years and then become iconic inside the Canadian film making family.
I knew about when I grew up there. For reasons I can’t answer, I never went. Weird since it was open to the public and free to attend but I searched all my memory banks and “nothing”. I do remember one thing though. When the festival came along every May, the percentage of (this was my take) hippies, hipsters, and down right “odd” people in Yorkton shot way up. Perhaps the reason it kind of stayed under the radar was no movie stars came! Isn’t that what a film festival is for? You’ve seen them, right? Cannes, Sundance, even Toronto. The red carpets are rolled out, the paparazzi stampede, the fans flock, and “The Stars” show up! Trust me, there wasn’t any paparazzi stampeding in Yorkton. There was a “Red Carpet” though and it was with a serious tongue in the cheek event! In fact, it was a bit sarcastic. I loved it! I loved the whole evening! It was pretty low key but very classy. I saw two tuxedos and a couple of dozen beautiful ladie’s gowns but most were dressed “undramatically”, but authentically comfy! When is found out the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, Vaughn Solomon Schofield, was coming, that changed the status of the event. But I didn’t see anyone “famous”, except for me!
What I didn’t see though we’re the icons in the room. It was full of veteran film makers, producers, directors, television and movie executives. The energy was hard to describe. I hadn’t attended any of the screenings so I hadn’t gotten a sense of the people in attendance, a vital component of delivering my speeches! I also had very bright spotlights on the stage so I couldn’t really see the audience either. But I could “feel” them. My job was to “run” the show and introduce the people who would themselves introduce the categories, the nominees, and yes…”The Envelope Please”; the winners! It really was like the Academy Awards…in Yorkton! Every category, every nominee, every winner received enthusiastic applause…and I never heard of any of them. But I was alone in that. Clearly, everyone in the room knew everyone else and although these people were all competing for financing, production contracts, and on and on…they didn’t seem like competitors. Like I mentioned earlier, they were like a family. The evening was a resounding success and apparently, I got a standing ovation. I didn’t see it, I was already off stage, but I definitely heard it. I am no stranger to standing ovations (just being honest) but this evening wasn’t one I expected. I wasn’t there for me. I was there for them! Come to think of it…I live that every single day! On stage, off stage, everywhere I go. “It’s Not About Me!” is one of my mantras. I was taught it in Yorkton but I didn’t believe in it until a few years ago. It seemed ludicrous. How can it not be about me? That’s the whole point, isn’t it? What’s the point of living? It goes straight to the #1 answer of the teens…”I want to be famous!”. Me, Me, Me!
I was invited to the unofficial hospitality suite at our hotel so even though it was very late, I went. When I walked in, it was weird. The thirty or so people in the room actually applauded. I blushed, sat down and opened a beer. I was immediately surrounded by people I’d never met and people I didn’t recognize. Yet they were famous…in that room. Early in the conversation with those around me, I asked a pretty simple and obvious question of the five or six hanging on my every word. “Why Yorkton? Why do you come here. Not the town, this festival?” It was like they were all waiting to answer but too polite to be first (how Canadian). Then one guy said it. “This is where it all starts! Anyone who has ever wanted to make a film dreams of being a big star. It’s inevitable. They see Cannes, they see T.I.F.F (Toronto) they see the celebrities. It looks so fricking cool. Then they see how hard it is. How much work is involved. How little money there is. How much rejection they’ll experience. But if they stick to it, not quit, keep plugging away, they learn the ropes, they get their mentors and then they hear…go to Yorkton! It changes everything, man!” You should have seen his enthusiasm. His passion. He wasn’t alone. For he next thirty minutes, each film maker, male and female, had their story. In fact, they all sounded alike. One gal said, and this was my favourite line…”The big stars miss the point. They get all the attention, all the fame, all the money, the stardom. But without us, they don’t exist! But we are cool with that because we know who really matters in this business and they’re in this room!”
What a remarkably enlightening thing to hear. What does that make you think? Do you see yourself as “invisible”? Your job or career as “unmeaningful”? Did you have a dream that has been lost? Do you sit in front of your television or computer screen and wish you were famous? These are very deep questions but not judgmental ones. I would suggest that the majority of people are like you or those people in Yorkton. Not filmmakers exactly but hidden from the spotlight of life. I believe understanding the distinction is quite important. Not to get preachy here but do we focus our energy on the small things in our life. Family, friends, community? Even in a city of a million people, there is “community”. if you don’t do this, can you practice the mantra; “It’s not about me!”
I believe it’s one of life’s great ironies. When I started repeating those words to myself, they became part of my being and as a result, more came to me than I could have predicted. Blessing after blessing, just showed up. By the way, the bad things don’t disappear but even they take on a different meaning. Just when I thought my hometown had taught me all it could, another lesson learned. Another blessing given. Another experience to share and another blog written. This isn’t for me, it is for you!