From Vegas to Zombies to Simon Brault to Arts and Culture in Guelph


What did you choose to listen to, see or read as a preteen and a teenager?

That’s a question posed by Simon Brault, CEO of Canada’s national theatre school, in his 2009 book No Culture, No Future.

Introduce arts and culture early to kids, and you might help youngsters not only to widen their palate as kids but also to keep on broadening their tastes for the rest of their lives.

I read Brault’s book recently. I also found my own reading horizons expanding through a chance encounter with New York writer Colson Whitehead — first through a magazine article about Las Vegas, then through his zombie novel Zone One.

Never been to Vegas myself. Never been much for zombies — in film, TV or books. But interesting what happens when you’re treated to unaccustomed topics through a new and engaging authorial voice.

I riffed on early and not-so-early cultural influences, along with an interview with Marie Zimmerman, ED of this past weekend’s Hillside Inside festival in Guelph, Ontario, in my column last week in the Guelph Mercury here:


Dark Knight of a Modern-Day Gotham City Re-issues John Galt’s Novel The Omen

Gotham City in Guelph, Ontario? David J. Knight, editor of a re-issue of John Galt's The Omen, sees Batman's hood -- and part of Guelph's Gothic-Dantesque soul -- in the Petrie Building facade downtown.

Gotham City in Guelph, Ontario? David J. Knight, editor of a re-issue of John Galt’s The Omen, sees Batman’s hood — and part of Guelph’s Gothic-Dantesque soul — in the Petrie Building facade downtown.

How do you describe the soul of your town? “Gothic” is how David J. Knight views the soul of his hometown Guelph, Ontario.

Last night David spoke during an event held to re-release The Omen, an 1825 novel by Scottish writer and Guelph founder John Galt.

A decent-sized and varied crowd came to Silence for the launch. The downtown arts venue is home to Publication Studio Guelph, a books-on-demand venture that has published The Omen as well as Sound Guelph, Knight’s earlier history of alternative music in this city.

Knight talked about Guelph’s roots not just in Gothicism but maybe in Dante as well. For more on a city’s Dantesque-Gothic soul, read my Guelph  Mercury column from this week, here:

The event also featured a dramatic reading from The Omen by local schlock-meister The Great Orbax and hurdy-gurdy music by Ben Grossman, owner of Silence.

Not quite Notre Dame but Church of Our Lady in downtown Guelph evokes something old-worldly on a grey early December morning.

Not quite Notre Dame but Church of Our Lady in downtown Guelph evokes something old-worldly on a grey early December morning.

Arts in Guelph, Ontario: Strengths and Challenges: Guelph Mercury Column

“I just decided to pretend I’d been doing it all along.”

That’s the best line I’ve heard so far since I moved to Guelph, Ontario, this fall.

Ben Grossman might be talking about any number of ventures. The topic is his decision to launch a new arts and music venue downtown a year ago.

Silence offers experimental and alternative music in a former auto mechanic’s garage.

Friday night will mark its first anniversary with a concert featuring Toronto trio Alaniaris, and Neil Ballantyne and Ted Harms from Kitchener, Ont.

Along with Scott McGovern, head of Ed Video in Guelph, Ben Grossman discusses good and bad about the local arts scene in my Guelph Mercury column today here.

Cinema History Subject of Walking Tour, Museum Exhibit in Guelph, Ontario

Quick: What does Nickelodeon mean?

Five cents if you guessed “five-cent theatre.” That’s the rough translation. It cost a nickel back in the early 1900s to get into the first indoor theatres. “Odeon” harks back to the Greek name for indoor theatre.

That’s what I learned during a walking tour this weekend of the history of the cinema in Guelph, Ontario. About six of us braved the rain and wind to trek around downtown with David J. Knight, local historian, writer, archeologist and musician.

The tour was an early taste of this year’s Festival of Moving Media (FOMM), Guelph’s annual international film festival to be held Nov. 7-10.

We were in Guelph, but much of that history likely echoes what played out in countless towns and cities across North America as movie houses evolved.


The oldest Nickelodeon in Guelph opened in 1908 on Carden Street across from the market square at the south end of downtown. The original building vanished about half a century ago. But Knight has done his homework in newspaper and museum archives. So he can pinpoint the former location today — along with sites of other ghost cinemas.

The earliest reels had no real story — just footage of, say, beaches in Italy. Early titles at that Carden Street Nickelodeon: When Women Vote, Dr. Wright`s Invention (about the Wright brothers and flight).

John C. Green (aka Belsaz the Magician) was involved with several Guelph theatres in the early 1900s. He didn’t start out with film. From his mid-teens, he toured with sideshows and circuses. He bought a projector and began touring with a combined magic and movie show. In 1896, he scandalized Ottawa audiences by presenting The Kiss, a short (less than a minute) and silent clip with Canadian actress May Irwin.

David. J. Knight leads walking tour of history of cinema in Guelph, Ontario

David. J. Knight leads walking tour of history of cinema in Guelph, Ontario, on a rather “liquid” Saturday.

Other early movie houses in the southern part of downtown Guelph were the Capitol (also known as the Capitol Regent), the Palace and the Royal. The photo above shows the original facade of the former Royal. Confusingly, today it’s the home of the Palace, not the early-1900s cinema of the same name but a nightclub on Macdonell Street.

Early films shown in those cinemas included The Dark Side with Clara Kimball Young; The Affairs of Anatol directed by Cecil B. DeMille; The Fall of the Romanoffs (released only seven months after the abdication of Russian tsar Nicholas II in February 1917); Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino; and The White Zombie with Bela Lugosi.

Up at the northern end of downtown, four movie houses came and went across from the old Wellington Hotel at Wyndham and Woolwich streets: the Apollo, the Castle, the Odeon and the Royal Opera House (later called Griffin’s and then the Capitol).

The Apollo opened in 1911 as a music hall. Its gold fibre screen gave films a warm glow. Those pictures included The Voice on the Wire, Mutt and Jeff, and The Diamond Queen.

A week after the Apollo shut down, the Castle opened next door. It operated from 1922 until 1928, when it burned down. A silent projector rescued from the basement is part of a new exhibit at the Guelph Civic Museum linked to this year’s FOMM.

Fires were a common cinema hazard, says Knight: all that celluloid and nitrate.

He grew up in Guelph and frequented the Odeon during the 1970s. That’s where he saw The Sting, Star Wars, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Those theatres are all gone: demolished, converted or paved over. Today the oldest running cinema in Guelph is the Bookshelf Cinema. The Bookshelf (bookstore) celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; the cinema is 35 years old.

More information here.

Siberry to Perform in Guelph: Guelph Mercury Column

Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry

Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry

Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry is the subject of my inaugural arts and culture column here in the Guelph Mercury, published Oct. 16.

Gearing up for a concert at Guelph’s River Run Centre Oct. 19 along with singer-songwriter Marc Jordan, she talked to me last weekend about her musical and waitressing roots in this town.

Also called From the Second Storey, the column will appear weekly in the Mercury.

And my radio show of the same name airs Mondays at noon at CFRU 93.3 FM at the University of Guelph. Topic for Oct. 21: The soul. Check it out live or on the station archive.

Global Warming Threatens Life and Art, Says A Green Reef Author

“However horrible the billions of deaths that await us may be, humanity’s most enduring loss in the long term may be that of its artistic heritage.”

Under the threat of global warming, things don’t look good for any of us or our art. That’s the view of Stephen Henighan, writing in a new book about climate change from the perspective of the humanities.

At about 60 pages, A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change is actually an extended essay. A Hispanic studies professor at the University of Guelph, Henighan was asked to write a humanist-eye view of climate change after publishing an essay in Geist.

His book will be launched this evening at the Bookshelf eBar in downtown Guelph, Ontario.

Think of global warming, and most of us — at least those who subscribe to the view that we are near if not past a kind of tipping point — think of flooded coastlands, melting ice caps, human populations on the move and ice floe-stranded polar bears.

Indeed Henighan begins by writing about changing landscapes, species extinctions and invasions, reduced harvests and dwindling water resources. Much of this grey terrain has been covered by many writers already. Henighan moves over it quickly to get to his point: It is already too late to ward off cataclysm.

We need to stop imagining that there’s no problem, says Henighan. We are in a kind of climatic phony war. Keep calm and carry on shopping, is the slogan for our consumerist mindset. “The consumption mantra has permeated our beings so thoroughly that it is no longer permissible not to consume,” he writes. Emo ergo sum: I buy, therefore I am.

He’s disgusted with humans, including his own hypocrisies. “My own claim to environmental virtue is that I have never owned a car; this pretension is nullified by my habit of making long trips on airplanes half a dozen times a year.”

Unless you’re a masochist, self-flagellation and jeremiads can become wearisome. Henighan lifts his argument at this point to ponder cultures, civilizations, art and languages — all threatened by our failure to acknowledge what he calls “the inevitable rise of global temperatures.”

He also laments the North, or our mostly southern Canadian idea of it captured in a 1967 radio documentary by Glenn Gould.

His solution? Love. Not love of self but love of our species. If we wish to preserve culture and civilization, we need to alter our conception of love. “As corny as it sounds to cynical, know-it-all, twenty-first century ears, think of the human family.”

Co-operation and self-sacrifice and the bonds of community — as well as technology — are what we need to deploy. Whether these things will be enough to persuade us to throttle back consumption is an open question. But Henighan believes it’s the only answer for our continued existence.

Sounds like a tough assignment. Where do you start? He doesn’t really say.

At the same time as I picked up Henighan’s book, I was reading another volume: Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Abundance begins in the same place by acknowledging our problems.

But where Henighan sees cause for pessimism, Diamandis and Kotler see reasons for optimism (their subtitle: The Future Is Better Than You Think). They point to the human propensity to imagine and innovate ourselves into a better world through technology, and note our tendencies toward volunteerism and co-operation.

Past different views of the half-full-half-empty glass, both books discuss many  of the same things.

Look to A Green Reef for reminders of what we stand to lose through neglect and lack of love. But you might have to look elsewhere for details of the remedy for what ails our heart.

Stephen Henighan will read and speak about A Green Reef at the Bookshelf eBar in Guelph Oct. 8, 8 p.m.