An iconic voice for Canada fell silent last week. Stuart McLean, storyteller and host of CBC’s Vinyl Café lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday, Feb. 15. He was 68.
I’ve never met Stuart McLean in person, but he has been a welcome guest in my home most Saturday’s for the past many years. His stories of Dave and Morley, their family and friends made me laugh, brought a tear to my eye, and connected me to hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, all tuned to the same radio show.
Mr. McLean told not only tales of his own creation, but those of others. His “Vinyl Café Story Exchange” invited listeners to share their own stories. “They had to be short, they had to be true, after that they could be anything at all.” And share we did. Stories of practical jokes, stories of reunions, days at the lake, small town happenings, poignant good-byes and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth when she was still Princess Elizabeth, and in uniform.
The stories were read on air, Stuart’s voice infusing the short paragraphs with a warmth and sincerity that gave significant to the commonplace. We heard stories from fellow citizens living thousands of miles away and they became our neighbour, just down the road. Part of Stuart’s enduring legacy is that drawing together of Canadians from all parts of this vast country and connecting them with each other. While provinces quarrel over tariffs and health funding and pipelines, Phil in Ontario and Kurt in Vancouver are having a chat about lost love and being a father. Clare in Vancouver and Glen in Atikokan wrote of canoe trips. Marlene in Sechelt and William in Brandon wrote of small miracles during a Christmas snowstorm, quintessential Canadiana, as told by our friends and neighbours. Listening to the Vinyl Café was like sitting around the kitchen table at home — with thousands of your best buddies.
Stuart had a raspy voice that wrapped about his listeners like a comfy old sweater, a little tatty, a little worn, but still the favourite garment in your closet, and a rambling style that happily drifted off on tangents. A style that would drive an editor to distraction, Stick to the plot, Stuart, but which appealed to his listeners so much that they wrote their own stories in the same way.
In an age when entertainers want to be edgy, Stuart was kind. He made us laugh until our sides ached, but it was humane laughter, laughter that recognized the failings and foibles of human existence, that held up a mirror to ourselves, but the laughter was never cruel. His Arthur awards, named after a fictional dog, celebrated small acts of kindness or generosity or citizenship. On “Arthur Day” he would telephone the recipients, on air, and explain to them about their prize. One time he got a wrong number. Instead of hanging up and getting back onto the on-air schedule, he started a conversation! Turns out the recipient of that wrong number was having a hard time of it. His father had been laid off, home life was bleak and the lad was sitting alone on Saturday morning. He’d never heard of the Vinyl Café. “Don’t worry,” said Stuart, “you’re in the majority.” By the end of the call, our lonely teenager had perked up and was looking forward to attending one of Stuart’s shows, with complimentary tickets, of course. All this was on radio, we couldn’t see facial expressions, but that young lad’s voice went from bleak and dreary to excited and enthusiastic, full of anticipation. That’s the kind of thing Stuart did. I thought he should have received an Arthur award himself, for that phone call.
Now, Stuart is gone and with him the cast of characters, Dave, Morley, Mary Tarlington, Polly Anderson, Eugene and a host of others who peopled our imaginations and enriched our lives. We’ll miss them all. When he announced his illness, Stuart said he didn’t want us to worry about him, he’d be back. He also told a story where Sam, Dave’s son, was assured by a Tarot reader that if things didn’t work out in the end, then, it wasn’t the end yet. So Stuart, cancer won and you lost, so this can’t be the end yet.
So long for now. Thanks for everything.