Frank M. Masich and Margaret Krpan didn’t just visit the National Hotel, they were raised in it.
Their father, Frank J. Masich, bought the National Hotel in 1955 and remained owner and operator until his death in September 1969. On Monday, the two siblings were in Prince Albert to get a look at their childhood home before construction crews began demolishing it in the afternoon.
“We thought it would be here forever,” Krpan said during an interview shortly before the demolition began. “I don’t know why. You never think about these things.”
“It’s quite a shock,” Masich added.
The younger Masich sold the National Hotel in February 1970, just a few months after his father died. The two siblings moved away from Prince Albert 53 years ago, but returned sporadically for business or personal reasons. When in town, they always tried to check in on the National.
Earlier this year, they found out through media reports that the National was scheduled for demolition. They initially didn’t believe it, but after confirming the reports were true, returned in April for what they hoped would be one last visit.
“We were hoping to get a walkthrough and maybe another last drink in the bar, but the place was already closed up,” Krpan said.
“I haven’t been here that much in the last 53 years since we left here, but I was up for a funeral two years ago,” Masich added. “I went to (former National employee) Eddy Tash’s funeral—and went in and had a beer. The place was still going the same as ever.”
When asked about their memories of the National, the two siblings say the people were the highlights.
The hotel had a list of regulars who stayed with them whenever they were in Prince Albert. The list included travelling salesmen, construction workers building the Prince Albert mill, Elmer Diefenbaker, whose brother John was Prime Minister, a Canadian Wheat Board inspector named Eric Middleton, a blind guest named Clayton French who made a living delivering the Saskatoon Star newspaper, a bachelor farmer who would come stay the entire winter, and a Ukrainian night watchman named Alec who worked at the old Prince Albert Brewery and would rent a room every weekend to host a party for his friends.
They even, on one occasion, hosted an undercover RCMP officer, although Masich never found out about the man’s ties to the RCMP until several years later.
Then there were the employees, who became like family to the two siblings. Their fondest memories were of the three who worked at the hotel the entire 14-and-a-half years their father owned it.
There was Bert Chance, the night manager who looked after the boilers and desks, Marie Almer, the bookkeeper and morning desk clerk, and Ed Tash, the future prominent Prince Albert businessman who started working at the National right out of high school.
“(Tash) was a hard-working, ambitious young guy,” Masich remembered. “My dad liked him. He came to work for us and became just like another son to my dad.”
There were plenty of events at the National too. Masich remembered former CKBI morning man Jack Cennon broadcasting live from the lobby every year during an SGI convention. The National also started hosting an annual trappers’ festival.
“You get sentimental and think of these different things and different people in the back of your mind,” Masich said.
“You think back on a lot of people, at least I do anyway, who were there when we were there because the same people came in every day it seemed like. We had the same basic crowd of people who patronized the place.”
The rules around bars and hotels were different when Frank and Margaret called the National home. When the elder Frank Masich bought the hotel in 1955, women were not allowed in the bar. That law wouldn’t change until 1960.
Prince Albert also had a law stipulating all bars had to close from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The two siblings said it was intended to make men go home to their families, although they doubt it had any real impact.
“The bar closed for an hour, so they were supposed to go home for supper, but they’d take six beers and go sit in the car somewhere and drink,” Masich said.
While the two siblings did try and visit the National when they were in Prince Albert, those visits were few and far between. In reading about the demolition, they both learned for the first time about the National’s long history as a country music venue.
“We missed out on all that (music),” Krpan said. “I’ve followed Donny Parenteau’s (career). I saw him yesterday (Sunday) in Saskatoon performing and read the article about how he got his start there (at the National) when he played the fiddle one day. That was after our time, and I didn’t really realize that there was so much music going on in there, which is wonderful because I love music.”
Times have changed since the two siblings sold their father’s hotel. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was just one of many hotels situated in a vibrant and active downtown. Both Margaret and Frank can still name them today: the Empress, located on the site of the current downtown A&W, the Broadway and Lincoln down by the train station, and the Avenue across from the old City Hall.
The only hotel going is the old Marlborough, although it now operates as a Travelodge. Masich said it’s a sign of the times.
“Those downtown hotels, no matter where it is, PA or any place else, slowly declined,” he said. “They get neglected and then they finally just get the wrecking ball.”
Masich said it’s sad to see so many empty buildings in downtown Prince Albert, but notes it’s a problem every City is dealing with. He’s hopeful the owners of the property where the National once stood will build something that will bring the crowds back to the City centre.
His worst fear? That nothing will replace it.
“My hope is just that it’s not a vacant lot and something goes up there,” he said. “I hope to be able to come up here and see something new there.”
Margaret also hopes to see something that will bring more people downtown, but more importantly than that, she hopes people will remember the good things about the National.
Although she left Prince Albert after Grade 10, Margaret still has a strong connection to Prince Albert, and great memories of high school dances and coming home to hang out with friends on the balcony in their living quarters. She hopes the National will be remembered for good times like that, instead of what it became in its later years before it was torn down.
“It makes me sad when I tell people that I was raised in the National and they have such a bad opinion of it,” she said. “It wasn’t always like that. It was a great place. We had good friends and good people, and it’s gotten such a bad name. It’s so unfortunate. There are people who did not experience the National the way we did, and I just wish it could be remembered as a good place.”