Museum Musings – Prince Albertans on stage and screen

Prince Albert's Empress Theatre, seen here in this photo from August 1959, helped get a young William Henry Pratt back into theatre after the production company he was working for folded during a tour of Saskatchewan. Pratt is better known by his stage name, Boris Karloff. Submitted photo.

We recently hosted a focus group at the Historical Museum to look at the progress which the City has made over the five years since the Municipal Cultural Action Plan was established.   We were asked to consider our understanding of Prince Albert’s culture, how it has changed through the years, and how we could assist in moving it forward.

Long before this area became aware of European culture, the Indigenous peoples were sharing their culture on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.  In fact, not only was it known to the Cree as kistipananick (a meeting place), but also soomawin (a dancing place). It was not until recently, however, that we settlers have begun to feel comfortable allowing the First people to publicly perform and share their culture with everyone.  It is well worth experiencing, and I am thankful that I have been a part of this enlightened approach.

Also within my lifetime, Prince Albert and area has seen the arrival of many more cultures, including African and Asian culture.  I recall once being asked by Marj Nainaar, founder of the Prince Albert Multicultural Council, what I most liked about multiculturalism.  My immediate response was “the food”, although I must admit that upon reflection, I should have said the music.  Yet how can one talk about the music without thinking of the cultural dances and clothing?

Since attending the aforementioned meeting my mind has been revolving around my experience of Prince Albert culture.  I have already admitted that I find the food culture very attractive and, although I am not talented in the visual arts, I do enjoy and own the work of several local artists including Myles McDonald and Andree Martinson.  What really intrigues me, however, is Prince Albert’s contribution to dramatic arts.

Those of you who have been visitors to the Historical Museum in the past will likely be familiar with our community’s claim to cinematic actor Boris Karloff.  Our claim of Karloff being from Prince Albert may be somewhat tenuous, but I think that this community does deserve some credit for his successful career.

Like Archie Belaney, the Englishman who came to this area and established himself as Grey Owl, the man known to us as Boris Karloff came to Canada from England in 1909.  His real name was William Henry Pratt.  He worked his way across the continent, doing whatever odd jobs he could find in order to scrape together his livelihood.  In 1912, he saw an advertisement in Billboard magazine for a theatrical agent in Seattle.  Pratt introduced himself to the agent, Walter Kelly, and intimated that he had acted in numerous plays – in fact suggesting that he had acted in every play which he had ever seen.  He told Kelly that he had suffered ill health, forcing him to move to Canada, but that now his health had improved so that he could resume his acting career.  A few months later, while employed cutting trees in British Columbia, Pratt received an offer through his agent for employment with the Jeanne Russell Stock Company in Kamloops.  He felt fortunate to be taken on as an apprentice, and was soon traveling with the company across western Canada.

When the company arrived in Saskatchewan, poor attendance at its plays in Saskatoon and Regina resulted in the company going bankrupt.  Pratt was left unemployed and virtually penniless.  His fortune changed, however, when Regina was hit within days by a tornado.  Pratt found work with a company which was cleaning up the tornado’s aftermath, and during that time he met Henry St. Clair, whose company was touring the Queen City from the Empress Theatre in Prince Albert. Pratt managed to gain an offer of an apprenticeship with the company provided he was willing to come to Prince Albert.  He was soon doing what every good apprentice of the day had to do, like sweeping the floors of the theatre and working the ticket booth, and in a matter of months he was a permanent member of the troupe.

It was in Prince Albert that Pratt was able to use his stage name – Boris from the cold weather, and his mother’s surname Karloff – for the first time on a theatre billing.  In later years, Karloff would credit his work with the Henry St. Clair Players in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, as giving him his basic training as an actor.

Another famous Prince Albert son, a man who was born and raised here, was operatic tenor Jon Vickers. The sixth son of eight children, Vickers was born on October 29th, 1926 to William and Myrle (Mossop) Vickers. Vickers sang in his church choir and, although he had planned to study medicine at university, his leading lady in a semi-professional opera taped him and submitted the tape to The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto where he was awarded a scholarship. After studying there, he sang professionally across Canada from the early 1950s until his first international performance at Covent Garden in London, England in 1957. Other performances followed, not only at Coven Garden but at the Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera, among other notable opera houses.

Operatic tenor Jon Vickers got his start singing in a church choir in Prince Albert, but planned on studying medicine instead of music. That changed when he received a scholarship from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Submitted photo.

Vickers died in Ontario from Alzheimer’s disease at age 88 on July 10th, 2015.

It has not been only men who have gone on from Prince Albert to fame on the stage and screen.  In the late 1960s, representatives of the Provincial Youth Drama came to Prince Albert to conduct auditions for their drama school.  Two of my classmates asked me to assist them in their auditions by playing opposite them when it was their turn to audition.  One of these young women went on to an active career in drama in Vancouver, while the other, Janet-Laine Green, went on to a highly successful career in the performing arts.  This should not have been a surprise as her grandfather, Bill Halsey, had managed a theatre troupe in Weyburn back in the early part of the 20th century prior to moving to Prince Albert.  His acting genes were obviously passed on to his grand-daughter!   

Many of you will remember Janet-Laine in television shows such as She’s the Mayor, This is Wonderland, The Beachcombers, Seeing Things, and Chautauqua Girl.  You may not know that she has also voiced such animated shows as Jacob-Two-Two, Franklin, Little Bear (as the mother), and The Care Bears (the voice of Wish Bear).  She has also been a director, producer and teacher.

One other local product who is not as well known was Rick Ducommun.  Born in Prince Albert in 1952, as Rick Dukeman he hosted the television video show Rockin’ America, was Tom Hanks’ next door neighbour in The ‘Burbs, played the villainous monster Snik in Fred Savage’s Little Monsters, and was the barfly in Bill Murray’s comedy Groundhog Day.  His list of credits included many more movies such as Spaceballs, Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, and The Hunt for Red October.

Beating out Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas for the part in The ‘Burbs, Ducommun was considered by its director, Joe Dante. to have “knocked it out of the park.  “Lots of the funniest stuff he says was totally ad-libbed” according to Dante.

As well as being an actor, Rick was a stand-up comic, a writer, and a director.

Ducommun died due to serious complications from diabetes in Vancouver on June 12th, 2015 at the age of 62.

Our local museums have information about so many Prince Albertans who have made their mark in so many different fields of endeavour.  Why not stop by to find out more about them?