Why Winnipeg?
The 1975 Phantom Phenomenon

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by Doug Carlson

Dream it Never Ends

It never ends.  Phantom ads, 1975-1976.

Anyone paying attention to the Phantom phenomenon would expect a certain amount of momentum at this point.  Paul Williams had just played two sold-out shows at the concert hall, and the city was still buzzing. Phantom was back on Winnipeg screens after a short absence and all systems seemed to be "go" for another lengthy engagement.  But it was not to be.

By July 4, Phantom of the Paradise was gone from the Park Theatre after a two-week run.  There was no lengthy revival. However, the film started popping up now and again at various theatres and drive-ins over the next couple of years--a weekend here, a one-nighter there--leaving the impression that it never really left.  It even returned to the Garrick in February of 1976, double-billed for four weeks with Young Frankenstein.  Whenever and wherever it played, right up through the 90s and onto the IMAX screen in 2000, it drew a dedicated audience.

whither Winnipeg?

So far, this article has chronicled the "what" in detail, but has perhaps pulled its punches when pondering the "why".  But here goes.  "Why Winnipeg?"  The answer to this question lies within our people.  We're a proud people.  Proud, artsy, and a bit eccentric. And we dig the rock and roll.  There will be a test on this later, so please pay attention.  I'm serious about the test.  Okay, here's the test right now (see? I was serious):

Behind one of these doors is The World's Most Famous Winnipegger.  Move your mouse over the correct door for the big reveal:

Okay, I tricked you. Wiseacre comedian David Steinberg, magician Doug Henning, and game show host Monty Hall are all equally famous Winnipeggers, and indeed representative of a long line of famously eccentric Winnipeg entertainers.  Marshall McLuhan.  Mitch Funk.  A. E. Van Vogt.  Hunky Bill.  Greg Klymkiw.  Ken Finkleman.  K-tel International.  Homer Simpson.  All Winnipeg.  All weird.  We squeeze them out like garlic sausage from a north end meat grinder.

Growing up with the knowledge that Monty Hall was from Winnipeg conditioned us into believing that hosting Let's Make a Deal was a badge of honour and a point of civic pride.  This led to even the most harsh or derogatory reference to our home town being accepted with misguided glee, because "they mentioned Winnipeg on TV!"  (Latest example here.)  Monty's legacy ensured a certain predisposition to the unusual, the ironic, the whimsical.  We embrace weirdness.  We revel in eccentricity.  Phantom of the Paradise was simply the right movie, at the right time, for the right people.

Mad Dog Vachon (L) and Baron Von RaschkeThe mid- to late-seventies were arguably Winnipeg's last golden age.  We were still the third largest city in Canada.  The Canadian dollar was strong, and nearly every major touring band paid a visit. Our symphony was making successful crusades to Carnegie Hall under the baton of maestro Piero Gamba. Our Jets were winning Avco Cups and dazzling hockey crowds with the now-mythic play-making of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. K-tel had built an international empire selling patty-stackers and greatest hits LPs out of their head office on Inkster Blvd.  Verne Gagne's AWA was in its prime, bringing bizarre characters like Mad Dog Vachon and Baron von Raschke to town to do battle along with the likes of Nick Bockwinkel and Bobby Heenan.  And The Bugs Bunny / Road Runner Hour played every Saturday night at 5 on CKND, seemingly forever.  The occasional blizzard, plague of grasshoppers, or bout of western equine encephalitis were mere nuisances to be shrugged off.  We took what Mother Nature threw at us, laughed, and asked if she had anything stronger.

But then came the eighties and the beginning of the Great Decline.  An entire generation of baby boomers sought oilier pastures in Alberta, and our population ranking tumbled from third to ninth.  Bobby Hull having retired, our once-mighty Jets joined the NHL, were emasculated in the reclamation draft, and became the laughingstock of the league.  Downtown movie palaces began closing as the inevitable trend to suburbia left the city core a vacant no-man's land after dark.  K-tel International filed for bankruptcy protection.  Entire blocks of unique specialty stores were razed for the construction of a massive generic shopping mall meant to reverse the downtown's declining fortunes (it didn't.)  And then the final indignity:  they took Bugs Bunny off the air and replaced him with the wretched Smurfs.

"We were born here, what's your excuse?" The Simpsons visit The PegSuddenly, Winnipeg became a punchline.  Canada's answer to Cleveland (with all due respect to Cleveland, of course). A better place to be from than in. Compounding this inferiority complex was a series of wretched booster campaigns from various chambers of commerce that, if anything, defeated their purpose by lowering our self esteem even further.  ("Love Me, Love My Winnipeg" was the prize-winning slogan from one of them.)  We have another problem.  We try too hard to be that which we are not.  We come up with meaningless comparisons and empty catchphrases when trying to define ourselves.  Chicago of the NorthParis of the PrairiesGateway to the West.  Ultimately, the most fitting slogan was bestowed upon us by a recent return visit from native son Homer Simpson:  "We were born here...what's your excuse?"  (Come to think of it, even this is better than the travesty that was "Love Me, Love My Winnipeg.")

Old Souls last forever...

But throughout all of this doom and gloom and decades of decline, the true heart of this weird, anarchic, alternative Winnipeg we grew up in has been quietly, proudly beating. Future civic image campaigns will no doubt repeat their past mistakes and focus on the generic things all cities have in common. The real Winnipeg is harder to find, but those of us who stuck around and choose to live, work and play here recognize it when we're bestowed with, say, the title of Slurpee capital of the world. We see it in the films of John Paizs, like Crime Wave, and in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg. In blogs like Winnipeg: Love & Hate and Winnipeg Cat. In the works of l'Atelier national du Manitoba, as they scavenge the buried treasures of Winnipeg's film and TV ephemera in Garbage Hill, or scrutinize the loss of the Jets in the take-no-prisoners Death By Popcorn. And in Matthew Rankin's masterful Negativipeg - exploring the trifecta of Burton Cummings, a beer bottle, and a 7-11.

So the next time someone questions our, ahem, "spirited energy", tell them to look no further than the above clip featuring Jessica Harper reprising her performance as Phoenix at Phantompalooza 2.

And dream it never ends...

December 26, 2006

A tip of the Phantom helmet to:  David Sanderson, Andy Mellen, Ari the Archivist at swanarchives.org, Andrew Boardman, Mike Navis, Russ Gourluck, and Deborah Znaty. Gene Telpner, R.I.P.

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