Sunday, July 12, 2009


I’ve literally been wandering the wilderness for the last two weeks, lost in the Badlands of Alberta and Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan, emerging yesterday to learn that I’d lost an old friend.


Others will remember Jan Rubes as the proudly protective Amish grandfather, Eli Lapp, in “Witness”, as the terrifyingly deranged psychiatrist in “Dead of Winter” (his own favorite role) or the singing coroner of “Due South”.

But my enduring image of Jan is of him standing in the wet pre-dawn, wearing only a slouch cap, underwear and cowboy boots, listening to his lush and infectious laughter as we both got into wardrobe for another day of work on “Lions For Breakfast”.

“Lions” was a Canadian film shot long before local actors could demand or local producers could afford trailers and motor homes for the stars of their films. So there we were in our skivvies, dressing off the tailgate of a station wagon.

The film we were making was about a misfit gypsy and two orphan brothers who form an unlikely family as they search for a better life. In many ways, its theme embodied Jan’s life.

Jan was born in Czechoslovakia, initially gaining notoriety as a featured singer with the Prague Opera. After winning his division of the International Music Festival in Geneva in 1948, however, he emigrated to Canada and Toronto, discovering to his horror that there wasn’t an opera house in his new home town.

So, like any gifted artist, Jan set out to find ways to share his gift in any way he could.

By the time I met him on the set of a low budget kid film, he had helped form the Canadian Opera Company, appearing in more than 1000 performances there as well as starring in or directing countless other pieces of theatre, films and television dramas and hosting his own radio and TV shows.

He had introduced thousands to music they had never heard before and never thought they’d like if they did hear it.

He had sung in drawing rooms and on internationally renowned stages.

He had taken roles in American Cold War potboilers, episodes of “Lassie” and countless forgotten plays.

He had brought his love of music into every living room in the country and given kids watching television the grandfather they never had.

He had done everything he possibly could to share the gifts he had been given with as many people as possible.

For Jan Rubes, there was no such thing as charting a career path, playing to a particular audience or feeding the needs of a cultural elite. There were simply people who needed to be entertained (whether they realized it or not) and all of those people were of equal value to him.

And so, despite those incredible achievements and the option to be appearing before the crowned heads of Europe and preparing for his work in the gilded dressing rooms of immaculate opera houses, there he was in the wilds of Ontario, waist deep in mud, working long into the night, enduring the BBQ lunches prepared by the producer and his kids to save a few bucks, in order to make a film he believed would reach even more audiences as yet untouched.

During one of those nights, we shot a sequence with an entire pride of lions. Across the compound, the crew, safely ensconced in heavy trucks, shot Jan and I in dialogue inside a rickety school bus as those Lions swarmed the vehicle, shredding the tires, cracking windows and trashing the horse trailer the bus was towing.

It was one of those moments when you realized you weren’t going to get a second take and everything had to be perfect – while also somewhat aware it might be the last scene you ever shot.

Jan never missed a beat, working as calmly and staying as focused as if he were in the cozy confines of a rehearsal studio. He was completely committed to sharing his gift, knowing the scene would thrill kid audiences all over the world and making sure it went without a hitch.

Around the same time, I appeared in a musical version of “Winnie the Pooh” produced by Jan’s wife Susan as she established The Young People’s Theatre Company.

Susan had compiled an amazing cast. Jazz and Broadway legend Don Franks as Pooh, Mark Connors (later of “The Nylons”) as Eeyore, soon to be a famous writer, Suzette Couture, as Kanga and Andrea Martin and I as Rabbits.

We did the whole show in life sized furry outfits, making the singing and dancing so difficult there were Oxygen tanks stashed in the wings for between number pick-me-ups. Jan turned up regularly to help those of us who weren’t great singers (or maybe just me) get better.

He instinctively knew that Susan’s brainchild would introduce theatre to countless numbers who could be infected with a lifelong love of the Arts and threw himself headlong into helping it succeed.

On opening night there was a fund-raising after-party where we all turned up in costume to meet the excited kids who’d been in the audience. Jan approached with a child clinging to each hand.

On one side was a shy inner city girl who’d never been in a theatre before. On the other was a six year old in a blue suit who boldly stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m John Labatt Jr.”

Jan beamed as they tugged my long ears and blackened nose. Who they were, where they came from or what they would become meant nothing to him. What was important was that for the last two hours they had laughed and cheered and sat in wrapt amazement as a story played out in front of them.

He knew they would both be back. And I think in that moment, watching his eyes dance as he watched them, I did too. His gift had been shared once more -– as it was meant to be.

Jan lived to a ripe old age, vibrant to the end. But a life is not measured by the amount of breath we take, but by all the moments that take our breath away.

By that measure, Jan Rubes, lived a thousand lifetimes, leaving everyone he met richer than they had been before. His is a legacy for which any artist would be proud.

1 comment:

Rich Baldwin said...

That was beautiful. Makes me really wish I'd met that man . . ..