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Future home for the Pierre Berton Discovery Centre

We’ve been shooting an episode of “Escapes with Nigel,” my new television series, at the future home of the Pierre Berton Discovery Centre.

It’s in an historic old church on the main street in the pretty village of Kleinburg, Ontario, near where the famous Canadian author, journalist, historian and television personality lived for more than 50 years. There’s a way to go, his architect son Peter Berton tells me, before the doors open, but the building has officially been set aside for the Centre by its owner, the City of Vaughan. When it does open, it will make a nice companion to the popular McMichael Canadian Art Collection across the road.Waiting for Peter to arrive, I’ve been scanning the second volume of Pierre’s autobiography “My Times: Living with History 1947—1995” in which I make a brief appearance. I’m looking for a piece to read on camera and I find a delightful paragraph in which he describes how he came to buy his plot of land on the outskirts of the village. It’s a good tale, but I’ll leave the telling to the show.

Pierre 7Pierre was a remarkable writer and although some pundits decried his abilities as a historian, others felt that his skill in bringing unsung Canadian heroes to life and off the page, overcame any lack of academic footnotes. Certainly working with Pierre was an interesting experience. He had little small talk, so most of our conversations were to do with the details of the “Heritage Theatre” series I directed for him, but he knew what he wanted and he gave me a relatively free hand in achieving that. The series was written by Canadian polymath Lister Sinclair, who had originally lured him to Kleinberg. Using Pierre’s books as a starting place, Lister came up with 26 wonderful stories that could be compressed into half an hour, with the fewest possible actors and stylized sets.

Pierre’s long time producer was Elsa Franklin, an old friend, who’d helped me land my first freelance directing job back in 1972. She was the powerhouse behind the series, keeping us on time and on budget. She managed to get outstanding Canadian actors from the world of theatre to appear for modest fees, because the show was taped in the big new studio at CHCH-TV in Hamilton, halfway between the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford’s Shakespearean Festival. Since we always wrapped on time at five o’clock – no overtime for us – the actors could be back on stage for their opening curtains. I hope some clips from the show will make it into the Centre.

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Pierre Berton

Pierre wrote 50 books, Prisoners of the North being published just before his death in 2004, and survived as a panelist on the long running CBC panel show “Front Page Challenge” from 1957 to 1995. His own interview series spanned a decade, he was the editor of Maclean’s Magazine and a columnist at The Toronto Star. As you can imagine, over the years, he collected a vast number of souvenirs and artifacts at his house. The kind archivist at Vaughan has brought over boxes of these for us to feature on the show. Oodles of gold pans, spittoons, railway spikes, trophies and awards, top hats he wore at the Binder Twine Festival and even a remarkably lifelike marionette. I tried to get it to dance, but the strings were in a muddle. Perhaps it was just as well. Peter and I check them out and he wanders down memory lane, explaining that the house he grew up in was simply packed with stuff like this in every nook and cranny.

The Discovery Centre will be much more than just a place for Pierre’s stuff, interesting though it is. It will be a place where visitors can really discover Canadian history. Pierre brought it to life through his books and the Centre will keep it alive with interactive and changing exhibits. Let’s hope the fundraising moves along swiftly.

For the interview, I’m wearing Pierre’s fabulous deerskin jacket, designed by Linda Lundström and embroidered with colourful beads by a Northern Ontario aboriginal craftswoman. The jacket has seen a lot of life. There’s Pierre’s blood on one sleeve – he was always cutting himself, notably by putting his hand in a rotating Cuisinart on Peter Gzowski’s television show – and black ink from a pen that leaked in the inside pocket. This is emotional content and I’m glad the jacket has never been cleaned.

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After the auction, the jacket and I were a little worse for wear

Exactly a year after Pierre’s death, on November 30, 2005, I was one of the cohort of volunteers Elsa Franklin had gathered to run a fund-raising dinner to support another of Pierre’s initiatives, the Berton House. The jacket Pierre had worn the year before, for the annual recitation of The shooting of Dan McGrew, the Robert Service narrative poem about the gold rush in the Yukon where the Berton House provides a free retreat for professional writers, was to be auctioned. My volunteer work done for the night, I was sitting at a large table of convivial guests, drinking far too much and not eating enough of the dinner, when the bidding for the jacket began. There was a man in the front row, who quickly got the price up into the high hundreds, and in one of those alcohol fuelled moments of bravado, I thought that by bidding against him I could really get him to up his game. Plus I had a handsome bonus cheque in my pocket. He bid a thousand. I bid two. He bid three. I bid four. He bid five, but that was as far as my cheque and I were prepared to go.

Just then, one of my dinner companions leaned over the table and suggested that if we went in together we might get the bloke to go up to 10 thousand, so with her backing I bid six. Now I was only on the hook for three, so I knew I could go another round and I thought the keener in the front row would go all the way to a perfect 10. But he saw my game and left the jacket on the table at eight thousand dollars. And that’s how I came to be the half-owner of Pierre’s Linda Lundström jacket. Since it was already well marked, and she was at the dinner, I asked her to autograph the inside of the jacket, which she did. I wore it out occasionally, and my co-conspirator kept it on display at her house for half the year.

I suppose the moral of the story is never drink at an auction and especially when you’ve got a big cheque burning a hole in your pocket.

After the interview was over, I donated the jacket to Peter for the future Pierre Berton Discovery Centre. It seemed an appropriate thing to do.

Please watch “Escape to Kleinberg” on YouTube, where you can also find all 14 episodes of “Escapes with Nigel.”

This article was originally posted on April 12, 2014.

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