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.

New Book Charts Alternative Music History in Guelph

David Knight and Scott McGovern

David J. Knight and Scott McGovern

Leave it to a sonic archeologist to dig up three decades’ worth of alternative music in Guelph, Ontario. David J. Knight launched his new book, Sound Guelph, about the city’s alternative scene during a reunion concert Friday night in town.

Spanning the late 1970s to 2000, the book documents what Knight calls “the strange underground of Guelph.”

Maggot Fodder. A Single Voice. The Trembling Mimsies. The Enemas. Love’s Ugly Children. Baby Turns Blue. Just a fraction of the groups and names that stirred things up on the University of Guelph campus, downtown at venues such as Ed Video and the Woodshed, and further afield including Toronto and Kitchener.

The book consists mostly of photos, along with concert notices and reviews and news clippings from the day.

Looking for material, Knight mined archives at Ed Video downtown, the CFRU radio station and the Ontarion student newspaper at the University of Guelph, and private collections. He also went to his own archives: Knight was part of the scene as front man for A Single Voice.

A Guelph fine art grad (1987), he got involved initially with performance art on campus and with Ed Video, established about a decade earlier.

He started thinking about writing Sound Guelph a couple of years ago.

Originally from this town, he’d spent years abroad working on archeological digs; his first book was a history of King Lucius of Britain, published in 2008 by The History Press. He’s especially interested in learning about the ordinary sounds created and heard in older civilizations.

Back in Canada, he spent almost half a year researching the music volume.

Referring to the deaths of several musicians from that time, he says “It’s an emotion of loss, but also the sense that things didn’t come to nothing.” Hefting the book, he says, “This exists — a cathartic gift to the community.”

Back then, he says, they played to small audiences. But there was something “particular and peculiar” about what they were all doing. “I can’t actually name it, I think that’s kind of cool.”

This weekend, Knight played with former bandmates and other groups during the reunion concert held this week at Silence downtown. Silence? Anything but. Sound and energy filled the space, opened last year as a concert and arts venue by musician Ben Grossman.

The event even attracted the fire department, after the fog machine triggered an alarm.

Sound Guelph is published right there in the Silence space by Publication Studio Guelph. Begun in the spring, that venture binds and prints books on demand. It’s run by an editorial committee whose members include Scott McGovern, program director at Ed Video, a media arts centre in town.

McGovern, lead editor for Knight’s book. says, “This is the first time that history has been collected and documented. It exhibits something that was almost at risk of being forgotten.”

Sound Guelph is the collective’s second and largest venture so far. Earlier they published Pop Art Poem by Toronto author Jesse Haines. For Halloween, PS Guelph will reissue The Omen by 19th-century writer and Guelph founder John Galt; Knight will serve as editor for that project.

About 10 Publication Studio franchises exist in Canada, the United States and Sweden; their books are sold in dozens of bookshops worldwide. PS Guelph carries titles published by its sister operations.

The book launch and reunion concert at Silence took place as part of the Musagetes Guelph Cafe held in Guelph this past week. The event aims to find better ways to use art and culture to foster community.

Musagetes Guelph Cafe: Changing Minds About the Arts

When was the last time someone made you rethink the arts?

First, here’s another question: Which contributes more to a rich, critical and vibrant arts scene: grassroots initiatives or big institutions?

That was the topic of a debate held last evening during the Musagetes Guelph Cafe in Guelph, Ontario. The debate was one of a number of events, including arts and culture discussions, tours, readings and concerts, taking place this week here in town.

Good question, if biased from the outset with that modifier “big.” Because you know what goes with big, whether it’s wolves or institutions.

There might also be a built-in bias depending on where you’re holding the debate. Guelph is not Calgary is not St. John’s, N.L. Guelph is home to an annual organic conference and a jazz festival. It’s a university town. Residents like to call the place progressive. There’s a rich and vibrant art scene downtown, especially a musical one where everybody seems to be separated not by six degrees but by only a semi-tone.

So no surprise that an audience vote before the debate turned up 27 in favour of grassroots initiatives as the primary drivers of the art scene. Only six plumped for institutions. (There were more people in the audience, but not all voted.)

After the debate? Still mostly a grassroots crowd, with 34 votes compared to only 10 for the institutional side. But proportionally speaking, the latter side had crept up, from 18 per cent before the event to 23 per cent after.

Nothing particularly scientific about those numbers and it was a small group, after all.

But here’s what mattered to me. I changed my mind. I went from the grassroots to  the institutions. Why?

A few arguments. The key one: We are the institutions and they are us.

We think about art and our responses to it as private, individual matters. It’s all about how I perceive this painting or your thoughts about that play or whether that singer moved you. No denying the immediacy and intimacy and emotional impact of the work: much art is meant to work on us one person at a time, even when we’re among a group at a concert or theatre production or installation piece. But that’s different from fostering and promoting and nurturing arts.

The grassroots side argued that without the constant churning of independent artists and collectives turning up fresh ideas and angles, you don’t get institutions in the first place. It’s the old chicken-egg thing. And we know what happens to institutions. The become big and heavy and cumbersome and stagnant and forget why they were made in the first place. One panelist on this side spoke about an intervention in his city that happened only because grassroots groups were able to move quickly, ahead of anyone else.

On the institutional side, a panelist countered with another example where an intervention relied upon the power of an institution to pull resources and people together, working with grassroots organizations. Institutions such as galleries, theatres and other centres hold our institutional memory. They ensure persistence of voice. They’re the places you take your kids because you want to expose them to art and culture and new ideas and things they might never otherwise encounter.

Mostly though, it’s about the idea of arts and culture as being larger than you or me and our individual agendas. That doesn’t mean big and bad. Musagetes itself is hardly a monolith, but arguably it’s an institution resting in a few places around the world. It’s the institution that made this particular debate possible, within the physical confines of the Guelph Youth Music Centre, another institutition. An institution whose foyer includes a glassed-in display of historical instruments. Artifacts of our shared artistic impulses and dreams  and humanity.

At the end of the debate, I held up my card for the institutions. My card. Our future.