Monday, April 20, 2015

It is with great sadness that I let you know the passing of Bob McNea's beautiful wife, and my sweet mom, Frances Kay McNea this past Friday, April 17th at the age of 83.
I'm having trouble finding the right words to describe the privilege I have had being the daughter of this brilliant, gifted woman. It's going to take some time because my heart has to mend a little.
She was so proud of the life work her and Dad accomplished in bringing joy to children of all ages throughout the world. Her passion and tenacity to live life to the fullest have been an inspiration to so many.
She is now with the love of her life. Together their spirits will live on forever.
Sincerely,
Kathy Lynn McNea

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bob McNea and Mary Pickford

In June 1943, sweltering summer heat enveloped South Western Ontario earlier in the season than usual. At that time, there were no public swimming pools in St. Thomas where a young lad could dip into cool refreshing water during the hot, hazy days. Never the less, Bobby and his best buddy Paul found a perfect place to skinny dip; Dod’s Pond. It was well known in the community that the Dod cattle bathed in that water hole. When their horrified parents found out about the swimming escapades, they warned the kids to stay away from the contaminated water.  

One unbearably muggy day, after languishing around Paul’s house, the boys snuck down to the waterhole to swim anyway. Bobby was worried sick that his mother would find out that he had disobeyed her. On the way back home, the boys stopped by Paul’s backyard where they picked an enormous bouquet of lush, fragrant lavender lilacs for Bobby to give to his mother. On the way home, instead of the usual shortcut, Bobby walked down the main street of town cradling the flowers in his arms so those who saw him would bear witness to the wonderful gift.


As he neared the Grand Central Hotel, he noticed a crowd had gathered outside the main doors. A man wearing a fedora with a camera slug around his neck approached and asked
“What’re you up to son?”
“My name is Bobby and hey, you’re not my dad!” he snapped.
The man chuckled “Oh, I see.” Where did you get those beautiful lilacs?” 
“Ahh..ummm” Bobby stammered. “They’re for my mother”    
“I see, well did you know that America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, loves lilacs too?”
“O-K..and, who is she?” Bobby asked as he contemplated whether to tell the man the shenanigans he and Paul had been up to that day.
The man abruptly responded with “now look Bobby, Mary Pickford is a famous Hollywood movie star and will be coming right through the lobby of this hotel any second now. If you just walk right up to her to present this bouquet of lilacs, I will take your picture for the newspaper”. 

Well, it didn’t take much to convince Bobby that it would be a great headliner to add to his hall of fame, so he agreed. Next thing he knew, the man pushed him by the shoulder and guided him up the walk and into the entrance of the hotel lobby where the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement. Through the crowd, Bobby could see two burly men in suits walking on either side of a tiny, fragile lady as they lead her toward the door. Assuming this was the movie star; Bobby stepped up and held out the armful of lilacs. Miss Pickford bent over to smell them, raised her head looking Bobby straight in the eyes, then in a sweet, soft voice asked “Why, young man, are these flowers for me?”
The crowd applauded and flash bulbs popped all around them as she gathered the flowers into her arms, smiling broadly to the cameras. Then the entourage pushed Bobby aside, continued out the door of the hotel, with crowd in tow, and climbed into an idling limousine. 

Dazed, Bobby awkwardly stood still in his spot, all alone in the sudden deafening silence of the hotel lobby. Glancing down at his hands he realized a small handful of brilliant fuchsia sweet pea blooms tied onto an elastic wristband were clenched between his fingers. He vaguely remembered Miss Pickford sliding them from her impeccably manicured hand and squeezing them into his sweaty palms in exchange for the lilac bouquet, but his mind hadn`t fully registered the surreal incident until that very moment. 

As he walked home pondering the events of the day, it occurred to him that, if asked, he had a perfect alibi for being late for supper.

The big news “Mary Pickford Gracious Guest” appeared the following day in the Women`s Activities section on page 10 of the local newspaper. When Bobby walked into the kitchen for breakfast, he noticed mother Pearl sitting at the table quietly reading the article. She glanced up, slowly rose out of her chair and asked “Bobby, what were you up to yesterday afternoon?”  He stammered “Oh, Paul and I were just goofing around at his house; just talking ‘n stuff..ya know”. 

Pearl picked up the newspaper, turned it toward Bobby pointing to the article and asked “were those supposed to be my lilacs?”

Canadian motion picture star Mary Pickford appeared in St. Thomas on June 3rd 1943 to help raise money for the St. Thomas Lions Club, which had volunteered support to 15 child war victims through the Lions War Funds `Waifs and Strays Society` in Britain and the Isle of Malta.  Miss Pickford donated Toronto property located on Glenwood Crescent at O`Connor Drive, where a small home was built for the sole purpose of donating the net proceeds of “share” sales to the cause. Valued at $15,000.00, the home was raffled off through $1.00 share purchases.
For information on America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford go to the Mary Pickford Foundation at www.marypickford.org 


For photos and stories about Canadian motion picture star go to The Rob Brooks Mary Pickford Collection, Toronto at http://www.211university.ca/

For information about Lion`s Club activities in St. Thomas, go to   

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Big Break

On Saturday mornings during the warm weather, Bobby’s escorted his mother Pearl to the bustling farmer’s market located on Manitoba street, which was closed to traffic those mornings. Ten year old Bobby would follow her around, red wagon in tow, while she loaded it with produce, cheese and meat. He loved the sights, smells and sounds. On mornings when Pearl couldn't make the trip, he wandered over anyway, charging shoppers to haul purchases to their cars and houses; 5 cents for a short trip, 10 cents for 2 blocks and 25 cents for a long haul. Sometimes he got a tip.


On one of these solo ventures, he decided to take a breather and spend his hard earned cash on a 5 cent candy apple. Near the vendor’s stall, a crowd had gathered around a man who was dressed as an Indian Chief, wearing a floor length beaded and feathered head band and leather attire. In one hand he spun a long, thick rope; around and around it went. Bobby squirmed though the crowd and stood in front to watch.

The Chief cracked the rope like a whip, spinning it into a loop as if about to lasso a steer. Bobby was mesmerized, standing with his mouth gaped open. Before he realized it, the loop over had been flung over him and tightened around his waist! Hand over hand, the Chief slowly pulled him nearer. Bobby was scared to death. All he could hear was the crowd laughing and hooting. He let out a silent “H-E-L-P M-E!!” as he closed his eyes and shuffled toward the Chief.

In what seemed like an eternity, Bobby opened one eye, then the other, dust still swirling between his legs and all that rope. He blinked and spat as the Chief spun around in front of him; back to the audience. The Chief bent down to untie the rope and quietly asked
“What’s your name?”
Gasp; “Bobby”.
The Chief continued to whisper, lips hardly moving, as he loosened the rope
“Bobby, I’ll give you two bits to help me out for a couple of minutes. Just stay right here, keep your arms at your side and stand still”.

The Chief turned around to face the audience, which had grown substantially, and said he was about to show them how to “hog-tie a dowgie on the range”. Bobby glanced around to see where the doggie was; next thing he knew, the Chief had thrown another loop through the air, which landed on Bobby’s head and rolled down his body like a slinky. Once it reached his ankles, The Chief flipped his hands over and over, making, what seemed to Bobby like a zillion loops, each rolling down the rope and piling one on one to cover Bobby’s body with the last loop landing just above his eye brows.

Bobby had been hog-tied from ankles to neck; he couldn't flinch. The Chief stepped closer slipping the lose end of the rope on Bobby’s forehead as it dangled down between his eyes.

The Chief let out a blood curdling howl, then chanted, skipped and danced in circles around Bobby. After endless moments he stopped to take a bow. Bobby tried to take a bow too, but keeled over like a felled tree.

The audience went wild! The Chief held up his arms to quiet the crowd. After a considerable pause, he announced that he was going to demonstrate how to unravel Bobby. 

“But first, ladies and gentlemen…”. Bobby was left standing like a jute wrapped mummy for what seemed like an eternity, while The Chief pitched his wonderful, secret remedy cure all for warts, gout, hair loss; you name it. When he finished his spiel, he stepped over to a small folding table to sell the 2-bit wonder cure. 

People swarmed the table. Once in a while he would point at little Bobby and exclaim “We’re not done yet! DO NOT GO AWAY FOLKS!”

After he had sold as many bottles of wonder juice as possible, The Chief boomed, “STEP RIGHT THIS WAY FOLKS, IT’S TIME TO UNTIE THE LIL' DOWGIE!” Stepping in front of Bobby, he loosened the forehead rope, held the end piece, backed up, moving faster and faster, while Bobby spun out of control. Realizing that his ankles were tightly lassoed, Bobby started to panic, but The Chief grabbed him just in time, threw his arms in the air, and yelped “WAAAHOOOO!”

The crowd loved it! The Chief turned to the frightened little boy, bent down, loosened the ankle loop and quietly said “you can step out now”. One foot, then another; Bobby staggered a few steps anxious to be on his way. But, The Chief grabbed his overall straps at the back saying “Hang around kid, you did a good job!” Shoving him aside, he started his spiel again booming “ladies and gentlemen, I still have just a few bottles of elixir for those of you who did not have an opportunity to purchase one earlier.  Step right this way!”

Slowly, the crowd dispersed. In spite of the nonsense, Bobby hung around because he wanted to collect his 2-bits. After what seemed like an eternity, the Chief stepped out from behind his sales table, clenching a bottle of joy juice in one hand, the other curled into a fist.

As he pushed the bottle toward the young boy he said, “You say your name is Bobby, right? How would you like to take this home to your mother?” Bobby just stared at the ground, kicked a stone and gathered all his nerve responding “Mister, you said 2-bits”.  The Chief towered over the flinching, small boy. Then, without saying a word, he grunted and poked his closed fist on Bobby’s shoulder, then opened his fingers to reveal a 25 cent coin. As Bobby reached for it he closed his fingers around the quarter saying “Will you be around here next Saturday?”  Bobby looked up, raised his right hand to his forehead to block the glaring sun which was hovering above the giant man, creating a strange, silhouetted, feathered creature. “Ya. Sure. Probably. I guess”. 

The Chief lowered his fist and handed Bobby the quarter asking “Do you live around here?” “Not too far away. I haul groceries with my wagon… Auugghhh!” It suddenly hit him; during the excitement he’d forgotten about his wagon! “Where’s my wagon?” he cried. The Chief pointed to a nearby stall table and asked “is that it?” “Pheww! Yup, thank you!”. Bobby ran over to retrieve it, the Chief calling after him “See ya next Saturday kid. Come early and we’ll do it once in the morning and then again in the afternoon.” 

That was Bob McNea’s first big break into show business.

For the next few weeks, Bobby wandered around the farmers market hauling groceries, stopping twice a day to assist The Chief, whose routine was pretty much the same, over and over again. One morning, he didn't lasso and pull Bobby out of the crowd, instead he asked for a volunteer. Bobby was puzzled. He raised his hand, jumped and yelled, but The Chief walked right past him. He stopped abruptly, swirled around, looked at Bobby and exclaimed “Ah ha! We have a volunteer! Step right over here.” This time, the routine had changed. No rope. The Chief had a newspaper which he ripped and folded into shorter and shorter pieces, placing most strips in young Bobby’s hands, one in Bobby’s mouth and another folded another under his chin. The Chief circled around, bent down, tore off the piece sticking out from Bobby’s mouth, which prompted Bobby to spit out the wet piece. Then The Chief stuck another dry strip back into Bobby’s mouth, whispering through clenched teeth “do it again” as he sauntered away. Bobby did what he asked. The Chief circled back, tore off another strip, whispering “not this time”. As he backed away, he cracked the whip proceeding to cut the dry paper off Bobby’s face with the tip of the whip.

The audience howled. Bobby was stunned!

The Chief picked up another piece of folded newspaper, bent over Bobby and whispered “this time, bend over and stick it out between your legs. When I crack the whip, you jump around as though I've hit your bum.” He backed away, cracking his whip as Bobby followed his instructions. The crowd continued to laugh and clap. What an exciting new routine!

Bobby returned to work the act the following Saturday, but was disappointed to learn that The Chief had left, never to return.

After his big break into showbiz, life in the small town went on as usual. To look more professional, Bobby enclosed the top of his wagon with a wooden crate, which he painted and drew signage on. He made a deal with the local newspaper distributor to sell Saturday papers on Talbot Street, hamming it up just the way The Chief had taught him in order to draw a “tip”. That gig mushroomed into live, paid bookings where the pre-teen performed slap stick comedy at birthday parties, picnics and other local events.


Bob was determined to make a name for himself, and for the rest of his life, he never looked back.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Swimming anyone?


Old Man Smith

In 1938, the Easter Bunny brought Bobby a brand new red steel wagon. For few days, the McNea kids spent their school holiday frenetically tearing around the house, taking turns pulling each other in and around the rooms of the main floor. Once they banged up the doorways and furniture, not to mention the non-stop shrill, vocal hullabaloo of “My turn!”, “No, it’s my turn!” the wagon was relegated to either the basement play area or outside. After that, riding around in it didn’t hold as much appeal for them, so young entrepreneur Bobby found work helping people cart groceries home from the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. Once the market days had wound down in the fall, he procured his crate gathering job with Old Man Smith. After each delivery, Bobby imagined that the guy must have had a big movie theater in his basement. He probably had every Charley Chaplin movie filmed in the 30’s!

One particular chilly Saturday afternoon, Bobby had a great run, piling his wagon sky high with more than half a dozen crates! When he arrived at the bottom of the Smith’s Roseberry Place driveway, the old man was standing on the front porch, a newly lit stogy perched between his lips, waving and yelling “That ‘a boy! Good job!” Bobby struggled to pull the wagon up the slippery driveway gasping “Ummm, Mr. Smith, can I help you carry these down to the basement sir?”

Old Man Smith stopped, pulled the stogy out of his mouth, squinted and with a curious semi-frown asked “Why would we want to do that son?”

“Well, I was thinkin’ I could help you to set up your theatre seats. Ya’ know, I have experience.” Bobby squirmed shyly as he glanced back at the wagon full of crates.

Now as it turns out, Mr. Smith knew all about Bobby’s previous home-theatre venture. A smile grew on his face, he started to chuckle, then as usual, he bent over at the waist coughing, hacking, belly laughing, and trying to talk all at the same time. “Why Bobby, that sure is a terrific idea, but the Misses would be pretty damn upset if all you rascals started tromping through her beautiful house to watch movies! Common; I’m gonna’ show you to make real money!”

As is turned out, Old Man Smith had a green house out back where he grew celery in the crates, harvested them, and then sold them to the local general store, as well as at the St. Thomas farmer’s market when it was open for the season.


Bobby, on the other hand, realized he wasn’t very interested in growing celery, and definitely had no inclination to garden whatsoever. He did help stack the crates in the Smith yard, collected his wages and went straight to the five-and-dime where he bought a handful of black balls, then strolled home, contemplating ways to get into show biz. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Art of Reinvention

As with most kids, Halloween was a favourite time of the year for the McNea brood. Every year, they would dash around in a tizzy trying to figure out what they wanted to be for the night. But, Bobby knew. He’d run from room to room gathering together oversized odds and ends of clothing, mismatched socks, size 12 shoes that his dad didn’t wear anymore (a different one for each foot), and of course, a jacket just like Charley Chaplin’s. He’d gleefully rummage through his mother’s makeup drawer collecting stubby, neglected eyebrow pencils, creamy rouge pots that had seen better days and gaudy red lipstick which was no longer fashionable, mumbling to himself  “Someday, I’ll save enough money to buy real greasepaint!” Never mind; with a little baby powder, coal dust and imagination he had all the trappings he needed transform into a comedic character. He’d clamor down to the kitchen carrying all his paraphernalia, lay the garments on the floor, line up the cosmetic booty along the counter, climb up on a stepping stool next to the sink and glare into the cracked mirror that hung on the wall. In the late afternoon, if he was lucky, the sun’s rays would blaze through the back door window, hitting his face at just the right angle. With pencil in hand, he’d steadily outline the tip of his nose, and then carefully fill it in with rouge. His mouth, with an outline drawn far beyond his natural lip line, received the same treatment. Of course, he knew if he wasn’t careful, both the rouge and lipstick would create a shadowy facial aftermath that his friends would taunt him for, so he’d slather on a generous layer of Ponds Cold Cream before “painting his face”. The pre-pubescent crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes received a trilogy of black lines; then a dimple dot on his chin completed the look. Brush on a light layer of baby powder, a couple of strategically placed coal smudges and voila! Bobby would reinvent himself into Popo-Nay.  


Once the war started in 1939, a daily 9:00 p.m. curfew was implemented for anyone under 16. The only exception to that rule was on Halloween, when the YMCA held a party allowing the costumed kids to stay out past the clampdown.

 All the miniature witches, ghosts, ghouls and goblins in town went to the bash to show off their costumes, play games, drink pop or Krim-Ko, eat candy and generally goof around. When the contest for best costume was over, which Bobby won that year, the kids frantically poured out the front doors of the Y to trick or treat their way through the nearby neighborhood. An hour or so later; cotton ticking pillow cases overflowing with goodies, they ran home, stashed their loot, then wandered back out into the darkness to door knock at the big houses on Roseberry Place.

Mr. Smith lived in that neighbourhood. He was a loud, gregarious guy who always had a cigar hanging out of his mouth and enjoyed kibitzing with the kids. Trick or treater’s were expected to perform before he’d give them any goodies. When it was his turn, Bobby took off his coat, gave it a shake, brushed it off, folded it neatly, placed it on the floor and then wiped his feet on it. “Taaa-Daaaa!” He took a bow and held out his pillow sack. 

Old man Smith yanked the stinky stogy out of his mouth, bowled over coughing and belly laughing at the same time, and then threw an extra candy in Bobby’s bag. “You’re good kid Bobbie. Come on back tomorrow. I have a paying job for you.” Old man Smith must have been so impressed with his shenanigans that Bobby imagined that the next day would be spent show casing his comedic talents with his Charlie Chaplin routine on that very porch while an audience of adoring admirers applauded wildly. As his mind started to wander into a fantasy world of fame and fortune, Mr. Smith added, “Oh..um, Bobby, make sure you wear warm work clothes. Maybe a hat, gloves…and bring your wagon with you. Hope that lipstick wipes off when you get home tonight! Try rubbing it with a little vegetable oil.” Quickly catapulted back to reality, Bobby was still curious to see what was in store for him the next day. “Yes sir, see you after school.”
 
As it turns out, he was hired to wander up and down the town alleys, gather discarded wooden crates and haul them over to the Smith house where he was paid five cents apiece.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Charlie Chaplin, Bob McNea and the Elizabeth Street Theatre

The McNea children’s father, Bill was an accountant for the liquor control board in the 30’s. Unfortunately, when the Conservative government lost power to the Liberals back then, he and several other employees lost their jobs.


Bill McNea



No worries, Bill changed careers, becoming a professional milkman complete with a horse drawn wagon. One of the products he delivered for a dairy in town was a chocolate milk flavoured drink sold in miniature glass bottles called “Krim-Ko”. The dairy promoted the beverage by offering a prize for whoever saved the most bottle caps. Of course, the McNea kids had an advantage over the other collectors in town.


Not only did their dad quickly became the local #1 salesman for the Krim-Ko brand, but the kids acquired enough of the bottle caps to win top prize; a genuine hand crank 16mm movie projector with focusing lens. The projector speed could be adjusted depending on how fast the crank was turned. 



The prize also included Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin’s 1914 silent film “Dough and Dynamite” in which Chaplin and Conklin work as bakers. One hilarious scene in particular stood out for the kids. Chaplin waddles into one of the “oven” scenes, hastily (yet delicately) removes his coat, brushing and neatly folding it. Suddenly he throws it on the floor and proceeds to wipe his shoes off on it.

Decades later, Bob and his son Mike would use this particular film character as inspiration for developing “Billy Baker” in the Oopsy the Clown TV show.

Well, word spread fast in St. Thomas that the McNea kids had won the Krim-Ko prize projector, with the neighborhood gang around Elizabeth Street wanting to see the film. After a bit of brainstorming, Bobby determined that it could be lucrative to turn the McNea basement into a movie house. He gathered up wooden orange crates from the neighbourhood, dragged them down the stairs, and created a seating area.

Getting to the basement was a challenge to say the least since the entrance was through a trap door located on the pantry floor inside the house. Bobby knew that his mother Pearl wouldn’t think of allowing line-ups of kids to wander through her kitchen, so he had to figure out another way to get the audience into his “theatre”. As fate would have it, a mountain of coal, which was designated as furnace fuel, was soon delivered through the basement window creating a marvelous, albeit rocky, slide down to the dirt floor. After a few test runs, Bobby knew he could turn that coal into diamonds because movie goers would enjoy such a dramatic entrance!   

Bobby announced to his chums that the movie would be shown on specific days for a one cent admission fee. Kids came in droves, shimmying down the filthy hill of coal onto the damp basement floor. Interesting that his parents never said anything negative about the enterprise, nor did the young audience members get into trouble from their parents for arriving home with head-to-toe dirty clothes. After a few movie showings the coal heap dwindled in size and was eventually used up. Not to be discouraged, Bobby simply reconfigured the orange crates into a window staircase, but then they were used to start the furnace.

While recounting this childhood story decades later, Bob was asked what he did with the money he made from his first business venture. “The home theatre business was quite lucrative for a few weeks; until the neighborhood kids realized that I only had one film, which they’d all seen. What did I do with the money? Why, I spent my hard earned cash on black ball candy and then stood in front of a mirror making faces while watching my tongue change colour when I popped them in my mouth!”