Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering three giants at the end of 2008

It is New Year's Eve as I write this (yes, I know, I don't get out much anymore...) and a new year is less than two hours away. As we prepare to usher in 2009 with whatever measure of optimism we can muster in these tough economic times, I wanted to salute three individuals from three different areas of the media we lost within the last couple of months. All three made an imprint on your humble scribe...

Toronto media giant Ted Rogers died in early December at the age of 75. He was, of course, head of the media empire that bears his name, as well as owner of the Toronto Blue Jays. He was also my very first "Big Boss" in radio; when I started at CHFI-FM in Toronto in 1973 as a young hotshot producer, making the princely sum of $ 3.00 an hour (then the minimum wage, believe it or not!) he owned a small but lucrative chain of radio stations in the province. His empire has since grown by leaps and bounds, of course, but back in those days it was not unusual to see the Big Guy around the halls of the radio station. I vividly remember one occasion when the entire station staff was taken out to a swanky Yorkville restaurant for a Christmas lunch one year and I was introduced to him as one of the young weekend producers of the various programs we had on air at the time. I must have made an impression on him, as the music director at the time took me aside afterwards back at the station and said Mr. Rogers told him to watch me, as I was going places. Hmmm, all the way to St. Catharines, it seems! Honestly, though, that brief meeting had an impact on me, when I realized the Big Guy noticed me amongst a group of the station employees. I don't know if I ever really fulfilled his promise, but I have always been grateful for the encouragement he offered me that day many years ago.

Musician and broadcaster Bob Sprott passed away back in October of kidney failure at the age of 82. Bob was a real gem and certainly a bit of an enigma. Bob was a trumpeter who fronted his own band in his teens, filled in for an ailing trumpeter with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when Glenn Miller actually lead the band, and then shunned it all to get a real job and raise a family when he realized big band music was on the way out. Bob returned to his native Toronto and eventually found his way into a radio studio to host a radio show about his one true love: the big band music he knew so much about. He has been called Canada's greatest authority on big band music, and I don't doubt the claim. I first met Bob when he was doing his show at CKTB Radio here in St. Catharines many years ago. He didn't drive, so he would take the bus from Toronto to St. Catharines, lugging his big box of LPs (never CDs!) and taping his show before catching the next bus home. He did it all for free, never receiving a dime for his work, which was exceptional in its thoroughness. He eventually ended up at AM 740 in Toronto, where I caught his show one night quite by accident when I left my evening shift at CKTB early that night. It was great to hear that craggy old voice again, talking with the utmost authority about the music he loved the best: big band music. I always remember his salutation on the show: a cheery "Hi, there!" was always at the ready. Bob never performed as a musician regularly after he got out about 1954, but you'd never know it by the passion he displayed for the music he played each week. Bob was more than a little eccentric, to be sure, but it just added to the charm of this grizzled old musician doing the show for love, never money. Take care, Bob, and may heaven swing a little more now that you're there.

Singer-actor Eartha Kitt died Christmas Day at the age of 81. Of the three, this is the one person I never met, and I sure wish I had. Reading her biography is a lesson in how to rise up from the most humble of beginnings to become a giant of television, movies and recordings for decades. It is her star turn as "Catwoman" in the 1960's era Batman TV series that introduced her to a whole new generation of fans, of which I was an enthusiastic member. Let's face it, a slinky woman in tight leather with a sexy, gutteral voice...I became interested in women at that point in my life, what can I say? Thanks, Eartha, for that! Of course, her lengthy career went all the way back to the early 50's with her first recordings for RCA Victor. Incredibly, her debut disc from 1954 is out of print now, but the follow up is available. I can't quite figure out the logic in that. But a number of good examples are available, including her landmark live recording from 1965 recorded at The Plaza. Any and all of her available recordings are obtainable through my website, A Web of Fine Music, which you can fine at Any of them will introduce you or re-acquaint you with a voice so unique and a style so sexy that you'll wonder where the sexy screen sirens of today are. Eartha Kitt knew she was viewed as an extraordinary character: Orson Welles, no less, once dubbed her "the most exciting woman in the world." Yes, for a time she was, and for a long while yet, she will be remembered fondly for her rich repertoire on stage, screen and in nightclubs the world over. And oh, that voice!

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for sharing some moments with me every week in 2008; here's to a thoughtful and interesting 2009!

December 31st, 2008.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Tis the celebrate!

So here we are, the Saturday before Christmas, and I was busy...shovelling snow. Ah yes, a true Canadian winter, to be sure! I must admit I enjoy a white Christmas as much as the next person, but please, we have enough already! Oh well, it it helps to put people in the mood for the season that is very much upon us, all the better.

The wonderful thing about this Saturday for your humble scribe is I officially finished my Christmas shopping today. It was not without some drama, of course, as is almost always the case. But all things considered, being out in the fray this afternoon was not really all that bad. Thankfully, I was not under time constraints and most of the shopping was already done, so I didn't have the proverbial "deer in the headlights" look about me...well, no more than usual, let's say. I found most people to be in a reasonably good mood, despite the economic times we find ourselves in, and the store staff actually attentive and not too frazzled.

What I found most appalling today were the drivers. Patience and intelligence don't even take a back seat at this time of year: it is likely locked in the trunk of the car with the Christmas gifts! I really don't understand how people drive the rest of the year, given the haphazard examples I saw this afternoon. That being said, I arrived home in one piece and none the worse for wear, so I can't complain too much.

The next few days will be busy for me, as I keep on top of orders for my business, A Web of Fine Music, which is why I wanted the shopping done and out of the way before the final critical days for taking and processing orders before Christmas. I was worried going into this Christmas season, given the economic climate lately, but so far I have not seen a huge change from past seasons, which is good. I won't know the final numbers until the end of the month, of course, but my gut feeling at the moment is the season will be at least as good as last year, and for that I can't complain. Incidentally, I still have a good stock of Christmas music available to purchase. Just go to for a complete list of titles I am recommending on my Mike's Picks page, or if you don't see it there, send me an email at I can't guarantee Christmas delivery on special orders this close to Christmas, but I might have what you are looking for in stock or be able to get it reasonably quickly if we're lucky.

Beyond the shopping and such, do remember to take some time to give back to the community if you possibly can, and don't forget the less fortunate in our society. A donation to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold, for example, would be useful and very much appreciated. At the Superstore at 4th and Louth, for example, you can donate five dollars to the food bank right at the cash as you check out; it's that easy. Let's work together for a better Christmas for everyone!

Although pretty well all the Christmas concerts are done now, there is one coming up Tuesday evening I will be involved with, if you have some time in the evening. Laura Thomas and I have teamed up to present a Christmas concert at St. Catharines Place and The Heatherwood Retirement Homes, on Scott Street in St. Catharines this Tuesday evening at 7 pm. It will be about an hour, and although it is for the residents, everyone can attend. It promises to be an enjoyable evening of Christmas music, stories and fun hosted by yours truly. Hope to see you there!

In closing, this will be my final entry before Christmas, so let me take this time to wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas, and may all your dreams come true. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

December 20th, 2008.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Performing Arts Centre coming to downtown St. Catharines?

It has been quite a week, busily preparing for Christmas, while digesting the information that finally, wonders of wonders, our learned city fathers might actually be getting the ball rolling on building a new performing arts centre in downtown St. Catharines. Let's hope it's true!

There is a fair amount of skepticism out there, as we've heard some of this before, of course. The difference this time is the participation of Brock University and their desire to build a new school of fine and performing arts as part of the complex. If it were not for that, this idea would still be nothing but an idea. Another big contributing factor in all this is the recent announcement Marilyn Walker was contributing 15-million towards the school. This is a very generous donation from a family known in this area for more than their share of generous donations. The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts will be a fitting tribute to a most deserving family.

So, what does it all mean? Well, it means we are a lot closer than we've ever been, and likely within reach, even with these tough economic times we all now face. A major infrastructure project like this will often be viewed favourably by most levels of government, providing they are not footing the whole bill, of course. In this case, with a 15-million donation already and other sources of funding at the local level seemingly falling into place, you have to feel good about the project's chances for survival.

Make no mistake, it is still going to be an expensive project, as we saw last week when St. Catharines City Council unanimously approved the 101-million project. One-hundred, one million! That is major league redevelopment, my friend, and just what we need in the downtown core. The spinoffs from this project are enormous, providing of course everyone remains on the same page and each level of support remains in place.

Now, I am not going to be one of those who says this will be the saviour of our crumbling downtown in St. Catharines, any more than two-way traffic will be. It can certainly be a catalyst to change, but more needs to be done if we are to turn the downtown around. More residential housing is needed downtown, and of course, more businesses catering to the crowd the centre will bring downtown. That won't be easy, given the economic times we find ourselves in, but at a slow, careful pace, I think we can do it. Another factor that will hopefully come into play in all this is hope, and pride in our downtown. These intangibles will help tremendously in the process of moving forward with this project.

As a New Year beckons in less than two weeks time, let's all work together to make this happen. It is an exciting new chapter in the redevolpment of downtown St. Catharines that will ultimately serve the entire peninsula. Everyone in the region will benefit from this; indeed, far more than the proposed summer venue for the National Arts Centre and Toronto Symphony Orchestras in Niagara-on-the-Lake ever could. Like the River Run Centre in downtown Guelph, this has the potential to anchor the downtown as a destination for many groups both within and outside the arts communities.

Let's be careful, but diligent in proceeding on this. But let's be positive as well. Good things can come from working together to bring this dual venue to the downtown, so let's get started. The future awaits!

December 16th, 2008.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Christmas, buy local!

As the Christmas shopping season shifts into high gear for the next three weeks, I thought I would take a few moments to comment on something I have always believed in, and hope others will pay heed to: the need to shop and buy local.

As orders come in for my business, A Web of Fine Music (, I have heard two interesting comments this past week. One, a customer didn't want to order online, but would rather order from a local business. When I told her she could do both with my business, namely order either online or over the phone, she was at first a little skeptical and then pleased. I have not secured her order yet, but I am working on it. The second customer asked if I could obtain a particular recording for her which she found on, as she would rather deal with a local business. I thanked her for doing so and said I would do my best to get the disc she wanted; she then said she would get back to me. So far I have not heard from her. Hmmm, did she really want to buy locally, do you think?

Often, I find people simply pay lip service to the notion of buying locally; they say they would if they could find what they wanted or if the price were better or whatever. I've heard all the stories. The fact remains, we need to support local business if they are to survive. I had one person call and ask if the former store I was associated with for ten years, Downtown Fine Music, was still around. It closed five years ago, when I started A Web of Fine Music! Now, if that is the first time the person has noticed the store no longer exists, and they want music, where have they been buying their music these last five years? And why, as I often notice at this time of year, do people contact me in December and not the rest of the year, fully expecting me to be there year after year, waiting for their next order?

The music business is not a healthy business nowadays, with music stores almost entirely a thing of the past due to digital downloading and shopping online. But a bricks and mortar establishment can only survive if you patronize it. Using it as nothing more than an information source will not put cash in the till and pay the bills. Still, people have the right to shop where they wish; in that case they should not be surprised if a business fails in between their yearly purchases.

I always try to buy locally in every shopping trip I make, be it for food or hard consumer goods. It isn't always easy, but the search is almost always worth it. You may pay a little more if you shop locally, but consider the cost if you don't: your dollars go outside your community to benefit others in another country. Would it not be better to keep those dollars here, investing in your own community? This Christmas I have made a concerted effort to shop locally whenever possible and even keep the products locally made if at all possible. With food, for example, I have purchased local granola that is simply the best around, from Happyspoon Gourmet Granola produced right here in St. Catharines, and chocolate candy apples from Moyer's Apple Farm in Vineland. Just two examples of supporting the local economy while finding unique gifts you won't likely find in a mall.

It is always interesting and often fun to make these new discoveries; many times I have become good friends with the producers, and that is a wonderful feeling. You get a better sense of what you are buying, and you can see the benefits of what your purchases do first hand. So this year, whatever you are buying as Christmas gifts, try to shop locally. Even if the item is not locally made, even supporting an independent local merchant will help, thereby ensuring they will be there again the next time you come calling. And when you want music, your local sourse is A Web of Fine Music, and you can find our website at

Happy shopping!

December 6th, 2008.