Monday, 26 November 2012


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        Apart from a little unit maintained by one of the railroads to make tourist films, one or two struggling independents, and, previously, a small government motion-picture bureau, the only production house actively making films in Canada at the time was the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), in Ottawa.  A federal government agency, it had been established in 1939 to take over all government film activities and make propaganda films and displays during World War II.  Modeled after the British Crown Film Unit, the NFB
not only produced many films, but took in and trained new filmmakers.
        Yet it didn't want me.  Ross McLean, with the title of Government Film Commissioner, was in charge.  Ralph Foster, his deputy, later headed the Australian Film Unit.  They didn't know what to make of me.  With Eaton's and some other work, I was earning about $6,000. a year.  Then, it was enough to keep a family on.  And roughly what the NFB's highest production people were getting.  They welcomed enthusiastic fresh college graduates, but I was considered seasoned, in the wrong sphere.
        After some weeks of back and forth, and as the head of the NFB's display department was leaving, I was offered his position.  I replied Why would I want that?  I've already got the biggest display job in Canada.  I want to make films.  The answer was But you don't know anything about making films.   And so it went.  Finally, perhaps to get rid of me, I was thrown, as it were, a salary of $1,200. a year.  I jumped at it.  It was September, 1948, soon after my twenty-second birthday.
        I hankered to do a film about Fred Varley, but kept my mouth shut about that, because I knew I would first have to learn the craft.  The NFB was divided into four production units, each headed by an Executive Producer.  Mine was Tom Daly.  He came from an establishment Toronto family, had studied English at university, and was a polite and refined person.  And an excellent film editor.  He had joined the Film Board in 1940 and had been taught by Stuart Legg, a legendary editor from the Crown Film Unit, and also still had memories of John Grierson, the first NFB Commissioner.
Tom Daly, National Film
Board of Canada
Marius Barbeau, Library and
Archives Canada. Photography by
J. Alex Castonguay, fonds/C-034447
        The Film Board was a congenial place.  As well, other than for ability, there was no taint of discrimination.  Tom Daly told me that he had recently been asked by a relative how many Jews there were at the Board.  And he had been able to answer, with complete truthfulness, that he didn't know.
        Tom was an instinctive and very good teacher.  He personally taught me editing, the bedrock of all filmmaking.  Then I was assigned as an assistant on several films, with various minor duties.  One was to cast, that is to find, someone to play the small part of a newsboy.  I noticed a lad on the street who interested me, and we went to his home to get permission from his parents.  They agreed, saying their son was anyway always humming and dancing.  He was about twelve years old, and later became well known as a singer and occasional actor.  His name was Paul Anka.
        Then came summer and with it Dr. Marius Barbeau's plans to spend it recording Iroquois songs.  Barbeau was the chief anthropologist and ethnologist of the National Museum.  He was a charming man, widely revered in anthropological and museum circles, and was already responsible for vast collections of folk art, stories and artifacts. He was said to have obtained, or arranged for, the large totem poles that stood in the stairwells of the Royal Ontario Museum.
        But the National Museum's recording devices were antiquated.  Barbeau was still using an Edison cylinder, which was like a toilet roll coated with wax.  It had been invented by Thomas Edison and had remained essentially unchanged since 1887.
        It was the era just before the coming of magnetic tape, when the Film Board was recording on vinyl disks, which yielded a quite good quality.  So Barbeau asked Ross McLean if he could supply him with the NFB's superior equipment and a sound man.
        McLean, when he had been an unmarried civil servant, and probably lonely, had often visited Barbeau's house, where there were two attractive daughters and a warm family atmosphere.  He was inclined to do what he could.  But even though McLean and Barbeau stood for two agencies of the same federal government, the assigning of a sound man for a whole summer had to be justified.  Therefore, for the first weekend a staff composer, Robert Fleming, was sent along to investigate whether the Iroquois music could be of benefit to the Board.  Fleming was no nonentity; apart from the Board he later composed a great deal of liturgical music.  And, largely as an afterthought, I was sent to represent the visual side.
        We weren't expected to be more than window dressing, and indeed Fleming found nothing of interest.  But in the Iroquois nature symbolism, and in what I could sense of their philosophy, I saw at once, excitedly, my four unfinished paintings.

Next: Testing the concept

Sunday, 18 November 2012


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        Before going on, I think I should explain how I came to be younger than most of the people around me.
  English wasn't my first language,  At home we spoke Yiddish.  My given name, like that of the brother of the biblical Moses, was Aron.  But it was pronounced with a soft aso its sound was Aarn.  When I began school the name was Anglicized to Allan.  Probably this simply resulted from the pen stroke of a teacher.  Public Schools in Toronto usually took the name of the street they were on; the first of which I have any memory was Huron Street School.  In those days schools didn't have portables.  If a class was too crowded the predicament was eased by taking one or two top pupils and moving them on a grade.  In that way I was skipped twice.
Huron Street School. City Of Toronto Archives.
  But the second time coincided with my family's move to a different district, and I was sent to Clinton Street School.  There I was confronted with an almost entirely new, unfamiliar curriculum.  Algebra had been introduced in the grade I had skipped and I had never been taught any such advanced math.  I was nine years old, and utterly bewildered.
        In the first school quarter I did poorly.  
  With my form teacher, Miss McKay, I was called in by the principal, Mr. Scofield.  He was a white-haired, sympathetic, kindly man.  Looking at my low marks, he said I think this year is too much for you.  For your own good I think we should put you back a grade.  But another chance was pleaded for by Miss McKay.
Clinton Street School. City Of Toronto Archives.
  (Her family name was spelt like that of Jim McKay's, mentioned in Episode 2, but the pronunciation differed.  His was Mc-Keye, while hers was Mc-Kai.  Miss McKay was a tall, dark, handsome woman, a spinster.  I had no clue as to why she was unmarried.  Perhaps she had lost her intended, or was looking after aged parents, or even, though it wouldn't have occurred to me then, had a female lover.  Or was still of easily marriageable age, and only looked older to a small boy.
  She was persuasive.  Mr. Scofield said he would wait one more quarter.
  By then my marks were much improved.  Having got the hang of the, to me, new subjects, I ended the year among the highest-marked pupils in the class.
  But near the end of that year Miss McKay gave us an art project: to draw and paint a picture or poster of a horse.  I was already fairly adept at drawing, and arrogantly whipped mine off quickly and rather carelessly.  We all handed them in and when the day's dismissal bell rang, Miss McKay asked me to stay after class.
  Her desk was on a dais and when called to it I stood below looking up at her.  She took my poster from a drawer and placed it before her.  Allan, she said this isn't like you.
  I was in love with Miss McKay, and totally crushed.  No judgment could have been more damning.  It made a deep and lasting impression.  I think all my life since I have been trying to please Miss McKay.

  (To provide a bridge to what's to come, I was in Miss McKay's form for only that one year.  The following one, my last grade in public school, was with another teacher, a male.  My mooning after Miss McKay, which gradually waned, was satisfied only by the occasional glimpse of her in the hall, or when I went by the open door of her classroom.    
        Then I went on to Harbord Collegiate, but at the close of the first year, not yet twelve years old, I decided to become an artist, and that ended my academic education.
        Thereafter I was admitted into the second year of the four-year art course at Central Technical School, and then again went into the the third year of the four-year course at the Ontario College of Art.  I was sixteen years old.)

Next: Tackling the Film Board

Monday, 12 November 2012


Visitors to the CNE. All photos by Everett Roseborough.
        In practice, Chief Designer of the Decorative Displays department became casually known as Chief Designer of Eaton's, though with rare exceptions the work was entirely for clients outside Eaton's.
        I took the job. It paid more, but that wasn't an incentive, because working for Cera had given me enough for my needs. It was the challenge. The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) was opening again (it had been used as a forces' base during World War II) and we were deluged with orders for large and smaller exhibitions, for a set, which I designed, for a skating club carnival in Maple Leaf Gardens, and a travelling exhibit for the federal Central Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC).
Skating Club Carnival Set
        I don't remember how many designers I hired, but the first of them was Gordon Collins, who at the College of Art had been an ally. He was competent and a fine person.
        During the war he had been an R.C.A.F. fighter pilot, and after Eaton's he went back to school, became an architect, and moved with his wife to England. And there were others.
        Most became employees of Eaton's, but I was too busy to get into that. We worked extremely hard. Often to late hours, and as I frequently had to be at the C.N.E. grounds and elsewhere, and hadn't a car, one of the younger fellows, Tommy, became my driver, and an ongoing, lasting pal.
He also later travelled across Canada presenting the CMHC exhibit, both because he was personable and had become very adept at dismantling and erecting it.
Gordon Collins (R) in the finished CMHC exhibit
Allan Wargon with model of the CMHC travelling exhibit
        Some jobs were unusual. I was asked to design a small building at the CNE as a kind of information and promotion centre for Eaton's. I realized then that my new bosses had overestimated my abilities. I knew nothing about construction. But I had a boyhood acquaintance, Irwin Burns, who was an engineer and successful builder. He built the Colonnade on Bloor Street and many other large developments. He gave me an overnight crash course about structure, and I acquired a book on Architectural Graphic Standards (which I still have) and turned in plans as if this were merely another piece of work. The building was put up largely as designed.
Model for General Motors accessories
        The Head of our department was a gentle, warm older man, Mr. Brown. He was called Father Brown, not because of excessive piety, but because he was so fatherly. One day, about six weeks after I started with him, he came to me, red-faced and obviously upset, and said Allan, General Burnside wants to see you. Burnside wasn't the name, but it was something like that. He had been a general in the Canadian army during the war, and after it had taken on, or resumed, a high position at Eaton's.
        Told where to go, I went to his office, which was on the Sixth floor, overlooking Yonge Street. He politely asked me to sit down, and then said What I must say to you does not necessarily reflect my own opinions. But I have to tell you that Eaton's does not employ Jews.
Photo mural for Canadian Car & Foundry
        I was surprised, but not really shocked. Those were the days of private club and property restrictions, and of quotas for Jewish law and medical students. My four closest friends, Harry Trosman, David Wasser, Bernard Cowitz and Harvey Gurian, all of whom graduated from the University of Toronto as doctors, and then wanted to be psychiatrists, had to go to the United States for their further training, as they had been told, in no uncertain terms, that there was no future in Canada for Jewish psychiatrists. Harvey, who was a whiz at math, had been offered a free full university scholarship if he would go into Mathematics, but he said he wanted to help people. All four of them became American citizens, university professors and eminent in the various branches of their field.
        I was thinking of them when the general went on. However, he said everyone speaks very highly of you, and we don't want to lose you. So would you mind continuing as a freelancer, and billing us monthly?
        It was a nicely-put command, rather than a question.
        I stayed on that job until the revelation from George Dunning. Then I immediately applied to the National Film Board.
        They refused me.

Monday, 5 November 2012


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        At the next exhibition Cera called me aside and gave me a special piece of work.  In a few months I was managing those exhibitions.  And undertaking all kinds of other tasks.  For some public event Cera wanted an original design in a nationalistic theme for drapery to use in the show windows.  He had me draw the design and then transfer it by silk screens to bolts of blank cotton.  I hired a former Art College classmate, Harold Town, to do the actual printing onto cloth, in a workroom at Eaton’s.  Like most artists, he needed the money.  Later he became well known for his paintings, posters and drawings.  Then he died, too soon, of cancer.
        Cera even gave me an assignment to do outside the store, on my own time, as it were: to design the superstructure of a large furniture delivery van that would be exclusive to Eaton's.  He seemed to like my design, but as with the architectural projects, nothing came of it.
        I was paid regularly, but on a freelance basis.  Yet often I had lunch in the employees' cafeteria.  No one ever questioned it.  The servers got used to seeing me and assumed I was on staff.
After 32 years at Eaton's, RenĂ© Cera devoted himself entirely to painting. Here he is
pointing to a mural he painted at the Centre of Culture and Technology, University
of Toronto. Behind him are Professors Marshall McLuhan and Arthur Porter.
University of Toronto Archives. Photograph by Robert Lonsdale.
        As a youngster, with my new importance, I was feeling rather full of myself.  But I soon learnt humility.  Right across the main floor ran an elaborate display that I was in charge of.  It consisted of large frames, about four feet wide by eight feet high, within which mannequins and other objects were placed.  Eaton’s had excellent drapers, painters and woodworkers, each team with its own ample workshop.  Apart from a small number of Europeans, these very skilled craftsmen were drawn mostly from Scotland and England.  I was going down the line of that main-floor display, checking the frames, when I saw one that didn’t look square.  A short, elderly, grey-haired, very experienced carpenter was up on a stepladder securing it.  That’s not square! I said.  Of course it’s square he replied, in his English dialect. But to humour me he measured it.  Across, it was exactly right, but one vertical side was an eighth of an inch short.  You see I said.  He looked down at me in a kindly, amused way and said Son, an eighth of an inch don’t mean nothing.
        It meant, I immediately understood and have since remembered, don’t fix on a detail when you might miss the overall.  Whenever I haven’t heeded that it’s been to my sorrow.
        Another time I desperately needed to see Cera for a decision that involved a lot of time and money.  Stewart stopped me.  He’s not seeing anybody he said.  I have explicit instructions not to admit anyone.  Blocked, I said But I have to talk to him.  Can I phone?  Stewart said No.  He’s not taking any calls.  I caught my breath in frustration.  The draftsmen were bent over their drawing tables, the girls had their backs turned and were painting.  There were only two; one, blonde and rather beautiful, as they all were really, had left and had not yet been replaced.  But the matter was urgent. Pushing around Stewart, who was left with mouth agape, and hurrying past everyone else, I went swiftly down the room and knocked on Cera’s door.  There was no answer.  I knocked again, waited, and then knocked once more.  Finally the door opened to a tiny slit, through which I could see a bit of Cera’s eye.  Oh, it’s you! he said, cracking the door just enough to admit me and then quickly shutting it.  Before I could speak, he touched my elbow and in a thick whisper said I feel you are closer to me than anyone else here, because you too have a Mediterranean background.  Yes, I thought, a few thousand years back.
        I tried to explain my problem, but he wasn’t interested.  Do what you want!  he said.  He was just back from New York, where he had gone to visit the young woman artist who had left, and had moved there to pursue her career.  I love her he said.  But I don’t sleep with her!  If I sleep with her it would drive me crazy, wondering who is she sleeping with now!
        It was the only time he ever spoke of it.  Cera was married.  Occasionally his wife came to the store.  I was never introduced, but once, in the Fine Arts department (Eaton’s also sold paintings) someone pointed her out: tall, composed, attractive, accompanied by their son, a quiet boy about nine.  Afterwards, Cera said to me My wife is a very good woman, but she is only an Anglo-Saxon . . .
        Months later I was summoned to his office.  Sitting behind his desk, he told me to take a chair opposite him.  This time he was formal and precise.  We have been getting a lot of requests from outside companies he said.  The design and craftsmanship of our work had been noted and looked on with envy. Eaton’s is starting a new department he went on.  It’s to be called the Decorative Displays department, and do work only for outside clients.  There will be up to ten designers.
        I let this sink in.
        They want a Chief Designer he said.  And I’ve recommended you.

Next: Singled out