I reconnected later with Le Hibou when Pierre Paul Lafreniere, along with Daphne Birks, bought Le Hibou from John and Joan Russow. I knew Pierre Paul, since he had worked at the CBC for a number of years as a sound technician. In his last year at the helm of Le Hibou, I heard that the club was in grave financial difficulties. The landscape had changed. Le Hibou had never had a liquor licence and consequently, aside from getting the occasional banquet licence, never served alcohol. But now, the drinking age had been lowered to 18 in Ontario and many bars started to compete with Le Hibou with similar entertainment, but also serving alcohol. A person could sip on one or two beers and enjoy the music of a folk group or a rock band without paying a door fee. Wanting to help, I organized a benefit with many of the regular Le Hibou performers, Bill Stevenson, Sneezy Waters and many others. We did well, but it was not enough, and Le Hibou had to close for good.
Looking back, there was no time to reflect on what was happening then. It was, for me anyway, a time of whirlwind activity, rushing from one event to another, to Le Hibou, to work at the CBC, to pick up the kids at the school, to shopping for the coffeehouse, just trying to keep things together. But all of these activities can happen at any time. The times then were, as I saw them, quite unique. There was a sense of well being, an “insouciance,” a joie de vivre, and great optimism. Everyone seemed to live for the present, and the future was going to be rosy. People wanted music, folk, jazz and blues, theatre—avant garde or traditional—even fashion. There was creativity in the air and a desire to participate.
I think that Le Hibou’s last venue contributed to this atmosphere of creativity and optimism. The old building in an historic area—its high pressed metal-clad ceiling, the large pane windows in the front, the brick wall, the espresso bar, the mixed bag of tables and chairs, the proximity of the stage—they all contributed to create a truly unique atmosphere. People considered it their club, their haven, a place to communicate with the artist or with their friends. And all of this managed to stay together without the need of a liquor license.
I am quite proud to have created, with many dedicated and talented people, something so unique for Ottawa, and to have contributed to the city’s cultural life. I enjoyed those times immensely, and I think others did as well.
The transition from owner to spectator was somewhat difficult for me. After having started it, bringing it through transitions, setting its orientation, and living through the ups and downs, it was a shock to have to drop all involvement. I supported John wholeheartedly and John welcomed my presence. However, I felt superfluous, and I felt that any comments I would make could be taken as criticisms. I stuck around anyway for a while at least, ready to answer any questions be it for the bookings, suppliers or publicity. Gradually, my presence receded, but then of course my new job at the CBC became quite demanding. At the time, both English and French television stations were under one program director, and being francophone, I worked on both stations. For the English side, I produced “Reach for the Top” (Alex Trebek, Brian Smyth), and for the French side, I produced a music show appropriately called “Boîte à chansons.” And, of course, many performers I had at Le Hibou were part of the show, including Lise Masse and Aurele Lecompte.
A few years later I was asked to produce a show featuring local artists for the English network. It was easy to get it together since all the local artists had already performed at Le Hibou. So I did a half hour show with the MRQ (the Modern Rock Quartet with Peter Jermyn), another with Bill Stevenson; then Nev Wells, Peter Hodgson and Robin Moir, A Rosewood Daydream (Sneezy Waters new group with Susan Jains) and many others. I didn’t have Bruce Cockburn perform since he had left for Toronto, but sometime later, for another show, I did an interview with Bruce using Bill Hawkins, recorded at my home.
As time went on, I lost track of happenings at Le Hibou since my new job as documentary producer took me all over Canada and the United States with many forays to Asia. On top of all that, I was also National Vice-President for the National Television Producers Association, which sent me all over Canada for meetings and resolutions of crises, and negotiations. So I missed a lot of what was happening at Le Hibou. But then, one evening in St John’s, Newfoundland, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into A Rosewood Daydream in a small folk club near the harbour. It was good to see Sneezy Waters and Susan Jains again.
I had been a studio director for five years at CBC television while running Le Hibou at the same time. Since my work schedule varied, sometimes day and sometimes evening sometimes week ends, it allowed me flexibility. I could easily pop in at the coffee house in the evening after my shift which I did most of the time.
The last years I had at Le Hibou, John Russow was night manager. John, a Danish emigrant had married Joan, a long-time friend of my wife, Penny. Since he was trilingual, he spoke French fluently, and this was a bonus for the coffee house because I tried to maintain the bilingual aspect of the club. My goal at the CBC was to become a television producer. I would apply time after time, without success. I couldn’t understand why. I was a graduate of the University of Ottawa, was involved in theatre, even did some amateur films, yet no producer/director job offer. Frustrated, I went to see the station manager to discuss my situation. He seemed embarrassed about my query and offered as an explanation that they thought that my prime interest was Le Hibou and that at anytime I would quit the CBC. I quickly replied that on the contrary it was the other way around. On parting, he strongly advised that I should apply at the next vacancy. I did so and two months later, I became a television producer. But there was a caveat: I had to sign a letter stating that I had cut off any financial involvement with Le Hibou. The CBC didn’t want any conflict of interest since in the future I might be called upon to produce music television shows.
I signed the letter right away, glad to get the job, but then I wondered how I would dispose of Le Hibou. I knew that Harvey was not interested in buying, since in the last few years had rarely seen him. But then John and Joan Russow saved the day. He loved Le Hibou and was keen to buy it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the immediate cash. Not wanting to set the price too high, I set it at $5000.00 which just barely covered the furnishings and equipment. The goodwill value was also not factored in. John was ready to pay the full amount, but on a monthly basis—one half to Harvey the other half to me. In retrospect, I probably should have split in a more equitable way, something like 90% to me and 10% to Harvey, since for all those years, I was never paid for managing Le Hibou. But I just wanted it done, and I didn’t bring it up, and nor did Harvey.
Recalling my days in Edmonton when I was a student at the College St Jean and remembering spending my Saturday nights at the after-hours Yardbird Suite jazz club, I thought that we could do the same in Ottawa. So in January l966 the Peter Fleming Quartet launched the first After Hours at Le Hibou, from midnight to 4 a.m.
The transition from folk to jazz was always a hectic time not musically but audience-wise. We had to assure ourselves that the last set would not go too much past midnight, then wait and encourage the people to leave. When all had left, we’d let the waiting jazz crowd in. Strangely, it worked. To make it more fun food-wise, in addition to our regular sandwiches and hot smoked meat sandwiches, I added pizza and spaghetti with Bolognese sauce or a small steak with a baked potato on an oblong wooden steak plate. (Those plates are now banned by the health department.) Pizza proved a challenge. At first I made my own yeast dough, but that was time consuming. We started buying the dough from a bread maker but that involved picking it every weekend. Finally, a food supplier offered a prepared pizza dough—not the best, but adequate enough.
Most of the fine Ottawa musicians ended up playing at After Hours. What would start as a trio or quartet would invariably end up with seven or eight musicians on stage. We could always count on saxophonist Norm Clarke. I think he never missed a session—he loved it so much. Champ Champagne, Russ Thomas, Bill Stevenson, Bruce Cockburn, and Larry Crosby also played. For more diversity I also brought in groups from Montreal working with the Donald K Donald agency. Sonny Greenwich, that remarkable guitarist with a unique style came with his quartet, The Red Cats, the Ron Proby Quintet who, rather than drive back early in the morning to Montreal, would crash at my mother-in-law, Ethel Knight’s, house for a few hours sleep, and then drive back.
The National Gallery organized a special showing of contemporary artists from Toronto and invited some of the participating artists to open the show with their band, the Artists Jazz Band. So, of course, I invited them for the After Hours and they readily agreed. Graham Coughtry, Gordon Rayner, Nobuo Kubota and Robert Markle gave us a morning of free-form jazz. But it was not to everyone’s liking as some people gradually left.
On another occasion Archie Shepp was booked for a performance at Carleton University, so I called his agent William Morris Agency and booked them for After Hours. Archie Shepp came waltzing in at around l2:30 a.m., looked about, and in a great dismay blurted out loud “Where’s the booze? Where’s the girls?” He obviously had expected a night club. To calm him down one of our regular customers offered to take him to Hull for a few beers. So off they went. We waited, and we waited, and I was getting quite anxious, and so were the patrons, but nobody left. Finally, the band arrived after 2:00 a.m., jovial and relaxed, and played non-stop till the wee hours of the morning to the great joy of everyone.
With the advent of the hippie culture came marijuana. Of course this phenomenon greatly excited the media and engendered great discussion on the vulnerability of our youth. Not to be outdone, the local French newspaper Le Droit ran a front page article in one of their their Saturday sections with a large photo of what was unmistakabley Le Hibou. They discussed at length the infiltration of pot amongst the youth. To illustrate the point they published a photo of the front outside section of Le Hibou, showing our distinctive wide windows and a few letters of our sign. To make it even more sinister, they put a black rectangle over the faces of the people lounging outside.
Of course I was incensed and furious. Never at anytime was the sale of marijuana or any drugs tolerated at Le Hibou. I asked our lawyer to send a letter to Le Droit expressing our wrath and our intent on bringing them to court on a slander charge. Weeks passed without any news from Le Droit. Finally, I received word that the newspaper would pay us $2,500 in damages and publish a retraction. I was, of course ecstatic at being vindicated and receiving compensation, but I was considerably less so when I discovered that the lawyer was taking two-thirds of the money as his fee. Then I became even more outraged – two-thirds of the money for writing one letter? I asked Glen Kealey, another lawyer (who had organized the chess tournaments at Le Hibou on Rideau Street) to contest the fee. He took it up with a lawyers review board and they reversed the fee to one-third to the lawyer with Le Hibou receiving the other two thirds.
The finances of Le Hibou were always precarious. So much so that on many occasions Harvey and I had to top up the bank account to cover expenses. The first time we both put in $500, another time $700 and a third time, I believe is was $800. The amounts may not seem a lot today but at that time it was a considerable amount (considerable enough that I can recall the amounts decades later). I had to take the money from the family budget and this created a lot of tension and stress with Penny. It also caused her anxiety: What if Le Hibou went bankrupt? We were not protected. Any of our assets, be it the house, car, furniture , bank money were vulnerable. Nor could we set up as a private company. That would have been too expensive. Harvey’s investment was under Treble Clef Entertainment, so with a bankruptcy only Treble Clef Entertainment would be affected. (Penny was quite correct when years later the Treble Clef stores and the concert arm closed. They were under Treble Clef Entertainment designation.)
To the casual observer, Le Hibou seemed a roaring success. Large line ups for the likes of such performers as Gord Lightfoot, Pauline Julien, Joni Mitchell or B.B. King. But they were the exception. Generally, we did well on some, on others we would break even, and many times we would lose on shows. I never felt at any time that we had a comfortable financial cushion. It was always touch and go. We did not have a liquor licence and relied entirely on entry fees and food to pay costs.
At one time our landlord, the NCC, informed us that all the rents had to be increased since they had received complaints from the private sector implying that rents were too low. They were of course referring to beautifully renovated lofts on Sussex Drive rented at ridiculously low rents, apparently to good friends of the government. Those were the rumours. In any case, Le Hibou was part of the lot. I met with Mr. McLelland, the NCC property manager, and showed him the financial statements of the past years, some with break even points but more with losses rather than gains. He discussed our position with his bosses, and they agreed not to increase our rent. Perhaps they considered Le Hibou as part of their long range plan to develop Sussex Drive from a run down street to a vibrant people-oriented venue. If so, it worked in our favour.
Another government arm also became interested in Le Hibou, or more specifically my relationship to Le Hibou—Revenue Canada. Year after year, I would deduct on my personal income return losses incurred by Le Hibou . I would also declare as a deduction one-fifth of household expenses (rent, electricity, heat , telephone) since I used one room as an office for Le Hibou to do the management, the buying, the publicity, the bookings of artists, and at times the booking hotels for them. So one day I received a call from Revenue Canada. They wanted to have the books of Le Hibou for the last five years. Fortunately for Le Hibou and me, my mother-in-law had graciously offered to do our bookkeeping for free, a most difficult task because I was not always as diligent as I could be in the management of receipts.
My mother-in-law, Ethel Knight (Penny and Alan’s mother), worked for the federal government for Supply and Services and was a one of their top purchasing agents. Anything the government would buy, Ethel wrote up the contract, be it airplanes to office furniture. (I recall that six months before the opening of Expo 67, Ethel with a few other purchasing agents were sent to Montreal to solve a crisis. Expo 67 were running towards a catastrophe. They were so behind that Expo would open with a site half finished. Luckily, the intervention of the federal government purchasing agents prevented a diplomatic embarrassment.) Ethel applied her meticulous skills to make sense of our scattered and casual handling of receipts. Since Ethel occasionally had bouts of insomnia, she would divide her time working on the books or studying her stock portfolio, which she handled with great adroitness. On many evenings she was kept up by neighbourhood disturbances. She lived at 366 Daly and directly in front in the Philomène Terrace (now designated heritage), a beautiful, late 18th century, row of stone row houses where the Akroyd family lived. Dan Akroyd, their son was there, and for him it seemed that party time was anytime. Ethel was never a fan of his disruptions and antics. To her, he was just a nuisance and not funny at all.
One morning, at the appointed time, I received the visit of a Revenue Canada auditor to pick up the boxes of receipts, which were all in order, marked by the day and month, and held by rubber bands. Before he took the boxes, he glanced about the room, looking quizzically at my secondhand furniture and our antique tiger-striped oak round dining room table, a gift from Penny’s grandmother. He asked me if the second-hand beat up Volkswagen bus I had outside was my only car; it was. Satisfied, he took the boxes and left. I was told that when Revenue Canada would do an audit it was because they firmly believed that something was askew. Three months later, he returned the boxes and stated sheepishly that everything was in order, and that the books were particularly well kept. And of course I knew that, and so did Ethel.
But I was not quite finished with Revenue Canada or rather, the other way around. Some years later I received a letter informing me that all American performers had to pay income tax in Canada. Whenever I had artists from the United States, I would call up my official contact at Revenue Canada who looked after incoming performers. He quizzed me on their contract fee, their duration of stay, and the number of people involved. He would inform me that considering their low fee they didn’t need to pay anything. I would religiously call him every time and always give him the particulars on any outside performer or performers. A few years later I received a letter from a Revenue Canada auditor stating that they had reviewed our file and that we owed them over $6,000. I was shocked of course and immediately called my contact at Revenue. He was most apologetic and stated that the auditors saw things differently and they had the last word. He suggested to come and meet his boss, that perhaps something could be done. Assuming that two people representing Le Hibou would be beneficial, I asked Harvey to be there as well. It was quite the experience. We were at their mercy and they knew it. We went to my contact official’s immediate boss and needless to say, he was more than embarrassed. My contact’s boss gravely looked at the documents, asked a few questions, grunted a bit, and said perhaps so and so should have a look at this.
So we trundled off with the original contact sheepishly in tow to a higher floor, a bigger office and an even bigger boss. More grave looks, and more impressive grunts followed by another suggestion to see another boss. So off we went into another office, bigger again than the last one. Since all had trouped from one office to the next, the party was getting larger, and they had a very animated discussion using a vocabulary that I could not understand. Finally, they said they would review it, and let us know later. I was relieved that they decided not to go to the Minister. Later I received a letter stating that the amount was reduced by a third with the suggestion that the monies could be retrieved from the agents. Without great expectations, I sent letters to all the agents explaining the situation and stating the amount owed. Many never bothered to reply, and those who did commiserated with me, but could not do anything since it occurred some time ago. So I had to pay , and did so by sending monthly cheques to Revenue Canada. I often wondered if our location was a curse—there was a Revenue Canada building directly across the street from us. But that was not the building we had gone to, the auditors were in another building. I always thought that perhaps had we been in Moose Jaw, or Corner Brook, Newfoundland, perhaps I would never have heard from Revenue Canada.
As much as I wanted to be at Le Hibou all the time, my work schedule didn’t permit it. Since I worked on the production of different programmes at the CBC, my work schedule varied. Sometimes it was during the day, in the evenings or on weekends. This provided me with flexibility to do the buying, office work, publicity, and bookings for Le Hibou. When I had an evening shift, I would never go directly home, I would drop in at the coffee house to see how things went.
To cover the evenings, I hired a night manager who would manage the staff, do the night’s tally, as well as clean and secure the place before leaving. The number of people who worked there was considerable, from night manager, kitchen staff, staging when required, to floor cleaners. Over the years, I’ve had a number of people who would say “Hi, do you remember me? I worked at Le Hibou” and they’d provide the date. Sometimes I would recall and other times I had to admit shamefully that I barely recalled. Over the years I had some splendid and very dedicated night managers, such as Catherine Boucher, Lois Wraight and Carolyn Petch who, without a doubt, worked the longest time—along with my brother-in-law Alan Knight.
At one time, even Bill Hawkins pitched in for a number of weeks, in particular when Penny and I traveled to Central America in the Volkswagen bus for six weeks. I remember calling Bill from Mexico wondering if the coffee house was still there or if it had burned down. I was always concerned about fire since we had candles on top of Chianti bottles. That was one the important tasks to be done before closing: Check the candles and the ashtrays for fear of a fire starting in the middle of the night.
Many of these night managers even if they had stopped working would pop in on a regular basis. Local performers would also drop by. The most regular visitors were Bill Stevenson, Sneezy Waters (Peter Hodgson), Sandy Crawley and, of course, Bill Hawkins. They were considered part of the furniture, and they thoroughly enjoyed meeting the performers.
Harvey was quite happy with me doing the nitty gritty. I would see Harvey occasionally. He would pop in to see a set and on some occasions would bring a group of friends. I recall bumping into him once after not having seen him for some time. I was visiting Alan in New York city, and one evening we went to a jazz club to see Gary Burton. To my surprise Harvey, who I had not seen for a long while, was there. I often wondered why Harvey was not present very often. I presumed that with his store, The Treble Clef, he had to travel extensively, or maybe he was just afraid that I would ask him to work the door.
The large trunk on wheels which opened up into a mini-store called Chac Mool in the day time moved with us to Sussex Drive. But more than Guatemalan napkins and tablecloths or dress material came on the scene. Penny started designing and sewing more and more dresses. As it grew, more room was required and Penny found a small space for a boutique on the Sparks Street Mall two steps from Elgin Street. Her store was a walk down, with the Imperial Barber Shop on one side and her own shop on the other. The name changed as well. Penny had acquired an old Quebecois potbelly stove, which she painted a bright pink, and the shop was renamed the Potbelly Boutique.
The store was one, if not the first, boutique in Ottawa, and the link with Le Hibou remained as her fashion shows were always held at the coffee house. I tried to help by bringing visuals to the show. For one of the shows, I did a bit of film which would be shown concurrently. One segment featured a model (Carolyne) elegantly dressed in a long evening dress barbequing a hot dog on a long stick at the Centennial Flame on the front lawn of Parliament. While filming, a Mountie spotted us and rushed over muttering admonishments and banning us from the site. But we got the shot anyway.
On another occasion a newly arrived Vancouverite proposed a new type of light show that originally came from San Francisco and had quickly made its way to Vancouver. It consisted of an overhead projector, ordinary cooking oil and food colouring and a glass baking dish. Since the food colouring and the water didn’t mix with the oil, it created an interesting effect, the beginnings of the light shows. A few drops of various colours in the oil would produce beautiful globules as we tilted the glass dish and used the overhead projector to project the effect on the wall.. The globules danced on the wall during the fashion show. We thought this pretty exciting then, but it was a far cry from the computer generated light shows used for rock concert these days. Nevertheless, I still remember it with a smile. Others were impressed as well. The combination of large, loosely crocheted dresses on braless models, Mondrian style dresses, and the vibrant colours combined with the light show so impressed an Ottawa television producer that he did a half hour show, touting it as an “avant garde” fashion show for Ottawa.
Children’s theatre was important to me, not only for my children, but I felt that the children of Ottawa should be exposed to their own theatre. There were few venues for children’s theatre in Ottawa in the mid 60s. Noreen Young Puppets performed regularly at Le Hibou on Bank Street and then on Sussex Drive. Occasionally, Noreen would bring in guest performers such as Fred Little, Rich Little’s brother. Bob Delmer and Noreen’s brother, Stephen Brathwaite, were also part of the Noreen Young Puppets.
Noreen was a wonderful person to work with, always in good humour, very professional, and a very imaginative puppet maker. All the puppets were made in silicon from the scary ones to the very funny ones.
I met Noreen at the CBC when I was studio director of a children’s show called “Jack in the Box,” featuring Jack Pearce. Every weekend we would tape shows in various schools in the Ottawa Valley. It was lots of fun. Noreen had a puppet segment in the show. Later she developed her own television show, called “Hi Diddle Day” and “Under the Umbrella Tree.” When I became producer later on I actually produced some of her shows for a few months. The television crew affectionately named her puppets the “rubber people.”
Noreen’s workload on television was increasing all the time. She was also involved in a late night satirical television show where her “political” characters were quite hilarious. She had a particularly wonderful John Diefenbaker. Eventually, she was just too busy with the television shows to perform at Le Hibou.
So, I started a group called “Little Owl Children’s Theatre,” some plays were directed by George Bloom, others by myself. We even had a children’s puppet theatre using puppets made of felt. (None of us had Noreen’s silicone puppet expertise.) Luba Goy and Ed Hanna were regular performers along with Gail Luther and John Hodgson who performed folk songs. Even evening performers contributed. I recall that one time while the Jim Kweskin Jug Band was performing at Le Hibou, Jim Kweskin agreed to do a solo Saturday afternoon concert of his children’s songs.
Le Hibou was graced by performances from many fine actors, some amateurs , others well established, some of whom went on to become professionals. To name a few: Elsa Pickthorne, Pierrette Vachon, Johni Keyworth, Gerard Gravelle, who became a CBC radio announcer, Charlotte Gobeil, who hosted her own show on the CBC, Huguette Beaucaire-White, and George Tremblay, who worked at the CBC then went to London to work at the BBC. John Palmer came on the scene first as an actor, then went on as a director and script writer and attracted a strong following. Luba Goy performed regularly in John’s productions and even provided voice and hand for children’s puppet theatre with the Little Owl Children’s Theatre, though not with Noreen Young Puppets. I had the opportunity to direct Luba in “Three Actors and their Drama” by Michel De Guelderode as well as in “Play without Words” by Samuel Beckett.
Saul Rubinek was also part of the John Palmer menagerie, and he went on to become not only an actor in theatre but also a film actor in Hollywood. He was a teen when he first arrived at Le Hibou, and he took his newly found role very seriously. I recall an amusing incident when I asked the cast of the upcoming production to put up posters for the play. Saul countered haughtily that he was “an actor and actors do not put up posters.” I was of course shocked and could only reply that, if he wanted an audience for the play, he needed to put up some posters. He reluctantly took a few posters but I’m not sure if they were posted!
Always concerned about a balance between French and English, Le Hibou sponsored many French productions. Edgard Demers (who was also theatre critic for Le Droit) directed our first French play, “La Leçon,” by Eugene Ionesco. And of course, we had very good press at Le Droit, not only for theatre but for all of our other performances thanks to Edgard. Gilles Provost, actor and director, also mounted many plays for Le Hibou, some plays in English and some in French, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tenessee Williams and “Les jumeaux etincelants” by Rene de Obaldia. Later he became a full-time theatre director of Le theatre de l’ile for the City of Hull (Gatineau). Jean Herbiet, who taught theatre at the University of Ottawa, also directed many plays for us, such as “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg. He later became French theater director for the NAC.
In 1965 I brought in a Montreal satirical revue called “On le prend pas,” featuring a Quebecois comedian Gilbert Chenier, originally from Hull, but now quite well known on the Montreal scene. Clemence Desrochers was part of the group as well as Yvon Deschamps, and it was then that Yvon started to do his inimitable hilarious monologues, satirizing Quebec culture and all human foibles. He later became the most celebrated of Quebec stand-up comics.