While the Vinyl Café is no longer the “must listen” program that it once was, when it comes to Canadian radio, you don’t get much bigger than Stuart McLean. With his passing, he joins a select pantheon that includes the likes of Peter Gzowski, Lorne Green, Barbara Frum, Bert Niosi, and Danny Gallivan. Over a career-spanning fifty years, Stuart informed and entertained Canadians in ways that had never been done before, and, with the advent of the internet, likely never be done again.
Listen, below, for Stuart sharing some very contagious laughs with Peter on Morningside.
While it’s become fashionable for the cool kids to dump on Stuart – and certainly his “Prairie Home Companion Light” style of programming could veer into the treacly, particularly in the latter years of the Vinyl Café – his passion for promoting Canadian musicians of all stripes placed him above such criticism. That he did so from a platform that introduced these musicians to millions of listeners across Canada should not be forgotten.
If that weren’t enough, he seemed to love nothing more than celebrating community – and particularly the often overlooked people who make communities so darned special.
He’ll mostly be remembered, however, as a storyteller and raconteur. Though his family-friendly (and family oriented) stories were not everyone’s cup of tea, I’d wager there aren’t many people who could make it through an in-his-prime McLean narrative without a guffaw, snort, or (in the very least) good long grin.
I remember, way back when, hearing the inaugural airing of his “Dave Cooks the Turkey” story while driving around town with a good friend. We had to pull over to the side of the road because we were both in tears and doubled over in laughter. I arrived at my parent’s house roughly the same time as my mother, who recounted the fact that she was caught in fits of uncontrollable laughter in a mall parking lot – dialed into the same story – fearful that people were going to think her nuts for visibly giggling while alone in her car.
That wasn’t the only instance where I truly, truly lol’d at a Stuart McLean story. There was the time Dave tried to toilet train the cat. And the time that Dave got his arm caught in the drug store heart rate machine. And the time that Dave tried to…. well, you get the idea. Stuart was capable of turning misadventure into comedic saga.
Looking back, I know I’m in pretty good company here – well, populous company at any rate. During the late 90’s, it seemed like half of Canada was tuning in to CBC Radio on Sundays at noon, just to get a fix of Dave and Morley.
Dude could be funny as hell – and the fact that he was able be so while keeping his tales well under the PG13 level of humour shows how much of this was based on craft. Any comedian will tell you that it is one heck of a lot harder to be funny while keeping it clean – though Stuart never claimed to be a comedian. No, he was a storyteller. A modern Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock (in fact, he won the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour an astounding 3 times).
Truth is, making people laugh through fiction is much more difficult than making them cry. And Stuart was capable of doing both.
As a guy who has done his fair share of radio (either writing for it or being behind the mic) – and as a guy who gets paid for stringing words together – I’ve got to say that Stuart was one of the true masters of both fields. He’ll go down as one of the Canadian greats, both as a broadcaster and an author.
I’ll be honest here: I haven’t listened to the Vinyl Café in a number of years – the shtick got a bit tired, even for me. But I have a soft spot for people who believe in community, who believe in shining the light on others, and who can make me laugh. Really laugh. So, yeah. I had a soft spot for Stuart.
Have, really. Particularly now, after he is gone.
So there you go: Dave’s cooked his last turkey. The biggest “small” show in Canada is now a podcast memory. And there’s a hole in an awful lot of Canadians’ Sunday noon-time schedules.
And, you know what? Stuart would have probably said the same thing as me on the subject of his critics: life’s too short to give a shit about what the cool kids think anyway.
On the air, though, it would have been softened to a “darn.”
It was a show for everyone in the community, after all.
Goodnight, Stuart. As you said at the end of every live show, “so long for now.”
The house lights are dimmed.