It began not with a hockey game, a figure-skating contest or a ski-jumping competition. The Calgary 1988 Olympics began with the biggest festival of music, theatre, dance, visual and literary arts ever staged in conjunction with a Winter Games. It was also, as you would expect, the biggest cultural bash in Calgary history. We will never see the like again.
It cost $10 million to produce. It ran for five weeks, before and during the Games. More than 3,000 artists took part. I didn’t get to see all of them, but caught enough to be spoiled for the rest of my life. When the last curtain call was taken, I happily retired from arts criticism. Everything in the future was bound to pale by comparison.
The preparations had started more than two years beforehand. Even at that early juncture, it was already too late to try booking the likes of Pavarotti or Baryshnikov. Such heavyweight performers kept their datebooks full for at least three years at a time.
Then there were the disappointments. Placido Domingo looked like a definite possibility for a while, but couldn’t get released from his Metropolitan Opera commitments. West Germany’s famed Pina Bausch dance company sent regrets after landing a movie deal. The Stratford Festival pulled out citing a scheduling conflict. A rock concert featuring Neil Young had to be cancelled when only 3,000 of 15,000 available Saddledome tickets sold.
But there were compensations. Instead of Pina Bausch, we got Peter Brook’s riveting La Tragédie de Carmen. Instead of Stratford, we got a stylish performance of the Shaw Festival’s You Never Can Tell. And we enjoyed Calgary’s first literary festival; an event so successful it sowed the seeds for WordFest. More than 400 attended a sold-out Glenbow Theatre reading by W.O. Mitchell, Marie-Claire Blais, Robert Kroetsch and J.P. Donleavy; then an unprecedented turnout for a literary event in Calgary. Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton and June Callwood were some of the other Canadian literary lights who attended.
After the five-day Olympic Writers’ Festival, the first to be held anywhere in 40 years, there was talk of a “draft Trevor Carolan” movement to sustain the momentum. Carolan was the Vancouver-based leprechaun who had persuaded 60 published authors – 40 of them from Canada – to take part in the festival. He wasn’t available to organize a sequel, but an experienced Calgary arts pro named Anne Green was ready to answer the call. Eight years later, she launched WordFest with a sparkling lineup that included Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Wayson Choy, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Sheri-D Wilson.
The newspapers and the airwaves are filled this week with recalled memories of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Elizabeth Manley’s surprise silver medal, Brian Orser’s disappointing silver medal, Katarina Witt, Matti Nykanen and “La Bomba.” I remember those, of course, but I also remember the great Oscar Peterson, the first Canadian production of Porgy and Bess, the multi-talented Andre-Philippe Gagnon, the Spirit Sings, the National Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens dancing on the same stage together, the Calgary Philharmonic’s haunting “Verdi Requiem,” the Joffrey Ballet, and Robert Lepage.
And, as I look through one of my old notebooks, I recall some of the more memorable quotes:
“We didn’t want him to do “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” again.” (Arts festival boss Michael Tabbitt explaining why Brian Mulroney wasn’t asked to sing a duet with Games organizer Frank King during the Olympic Eve gala.)
“We felt like one of Liz Taylor’s husbands. We knew what was expected of us but we didn’t know whose turn it was.” (Jointly attributed to Games co-organizers Frank King and Bill Pratt.)
“The biggest media event since Ronald Reagan’s polyp removal.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Don Ferguson.)
“Edmonton didn’t think of it first.” (The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Roger Abbott explaining why Calgary got the XV Winter Olympics.)
“Edmonton isn’t really the end of the world – although you can see it from there.” (Mayor Ralph Klein spreading a little neighbourly goodwill for the benefit of Olympic Writers’ Festival visitors.)
“When this is over, I’ll either get a job as an NHL commentator or go to work for McDonald’s.” (Writer’s festival coordinator Trevor Carolan modelling the aquamarine blazer issued to him as part of his official Olympics uniform.)
“A Chinook could cause great havoc here.” (Competition organizer Gordon Taylor nervously checking the skies on the first day of the outdoor Olympic snow sculpting contest.)
“Canada is the cry of the loon, Gretzky worship, rye and ginger in a paper cup, vinegar on the fries, and talking gas pumps.” (Satirist Nancy White getting all patriotic at the Olympic Folk Festival.)
“Let the eastern bastards publish in the dark.” (Nancy White’s comment on OCO 88′s attempt to prevent Maclean’s magazine from putting out an unofficial Olympic issue.)
“Is 68 too old?” (A visiting pensioner from Zimbabwe wondering if he could play a walk-on role in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Petrouchka. He got the part.)
“Science fiction is the only genre I’ve discovered which assumes there’s going to be a future.” (Author Spider Robinson explaining why he made his living out of fantasy literature.)
“It’s very hard on the knees.” (Edmonton’s John Pichlyk describing what it was like to be a Shumka Dancer.)