Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The Sokolov - Rusoff love letters

© 2019, Christian Cassidy

I love a good history mystery and saw one on CTV Winnipeg the other night. A cache of century old love letters found during construction at the Paris Building.

Much of the mystery was essentially solved in the story, but I thought I would dig back and see what more I could find.

The stash were wartime love letters from Hymen Sokoloff to Rebecca Rusoff. At the time, she was a stenographer in Winnipeg and he was a Tribune reporter serving overseas. When they first met is not known. Both were very involved in national Jewish organizations, which likely caused their paths to cross.

Sokolov went on to become a lawyer and from about 1935 to 1938 his firm, Sokolov and Co., was located in an office on the fifth floor of the Paris Building. What prompted him to bring the 20-year old letters there and how they got sealed into the staircase will likely never be known.

I'd like to think that this attention is the very reason Sokoloff put the letters where he did.

Here's a bit more about our love birds:

Rebecca Rusoff was born in Pavolich, Russia ca. 1899 to Samuel and Hennie Rusoff and brought to Winnipeg as a young child. She had three brothers and a sister.

The first mention of the family in the Henderson Directory comes in 1912 operating a small grocery store from their home at 40 Grove Street. (They may have come earlier but hadn't anglicized their name yet.)

According to street directories, the Rusoffs moved around a great deal and Samuel held various jobs.

In 1913, they are living at 44 Grove, also operating a store. By 1914, they are living at 254 Stella with Samuel working as a labourer with the CPR. In 1916, they were at 360 Church Street. Beckie is listed independently in the 1916 guide as a stenographer, though no place of work is given.

From 1917 - 1919, around the time the letters were written, the family was living at 264 Burrows Avenue. Rebecca worked at Rogers Shinier, a tobacco wholesaler at 925 Main Street.

In 1920, the family moved once more to 340 Alfred Avenue.

Hennie was now the head of the household as Samuel left to spend two and a half years in Mandatory Palestine building a Jewish homeland. He bought 2,000 acres of land near Halfa for settlement by 50 Western Canadian Jewish families. He returned to Winnipeg in June 1922.

As for Rebecca, in 1921 - 22, she worked as a stenographer and bookkeeper at Famous Players Film Service, first at their office on 445 Main Street. When Famous Players bought the assets of the defunct Allen Theatre chain in 1923, she was moved to the Allen Theatre, (now the Metropolitan), on Donald Street.

On August 24, 1922, Rebecca married Hyman Sokolofski (Sokolov).

Hyman Sokolofski (Sokolov) was born in Russia circa 1898. He went to elementary school in London, England and St. John's High School in Winnipeg.

Sokolov was a law courts reporter and editorial board member of the Winnipeg Tribune until World War I. He served in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine as a non-commissioned officer with the 49th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.

After the war, he returned to Winnipeg and the Tribune until 1921, when he resigned to attend law school at the University of Manitoba. He graduated in 1923, not long after he and Rebecca were wed.

Source: Manitoba Vital Statistics

The couple had three children David, Judith and Sheila.

Rebecca was a long-time executive member of a number of national Jewish organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women. She was a recipient of the Centennial medal for community service in 1967 and died in 1968.

Hyman had a long and productive law career. He was made Queen's Counsel in 1959 and his son eventually joined him in practice. He died in 1976.

Here are their respective obituaries:

April 19, 1968, Winnipeg Tribune

October 23, 1976, Winnipeg Tribune

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Remembering Len Fairchuk and TV's The Western Hour

© 2019, Christian Cassidy. Please respect my research.
Len Fairchuk (1932 - 2008)

I first wrote about Len Fairchuk back in 2008 on This Was Manitoba. It was just before tthe demolition of the old Rex Theatre on Main Street.

That short, incomplete post has been one of my most popular of all time, hovering around the bottom of the top ten most-read entries at thee nd of each year. Its popularity and the number of comments and emails I have received about it shows that there is still a lot of interest in the man who touched many lives.

As this is the fifteenth anniversary of Fairchuk's death, I thought it would be a good time to go back and dig deeper into the history of the man and his TV show The Western Hour.

This post has been pieced together mostly from newspaper articles spanning a forty year period. Sadly, none of those articles were truly biographical. Most contained tidbits about his life in relation to the latest project he was promoting. Because of this, there are gaps and likely errors in the details.

If you can fill in any information please feel free to do so in the comments section below or email me at cassidy-at-mts.net.

Capri Records still, ca. 1959

William Leonard Fairchuck was born at St. Boniface Hospital on June 2, 1932 to Mrs. Teenie Fairchuk. He grew up at Harod, Manitoba, near Onanole, and on the Keeseekoowenin First Nation. He was of Saulteaux and Ukrainian heritage.

Fairchuk apprenticed, then worked, as an auto mechanic for six years in Minnedosa. In the late 1950s he came to prominence in the Brandon area as a fiddler, performing at shows and winning area talent contests.

January 16, 1959, Winnipeg Free Press

The first mention of Fairchuk in Winnipeg newspapers comes in January 1959. He was playing fiddle at a Portage Avenue electronics store hoping to break his own "world marathon" fiddle playing record of 48 hours set the previous year. It was in aid of the charity March of Dimes.

The Free Press reported that he did break the record with a time of 48 hours, 35 minutes. It is unclear if it was an "official" world record recognized by, say, Guinness World Book or similar body.

Also in 1959, Fairchuk married Joan Marie Reid of Foxwarren, Manitoba in St. Vital United Church.

April 29, 1961, Brandon Sun

In 1960, Fairchuk was operating Fairchuk Enterprises, a commercial sign shop in Brandon. He told the Brandon Sun that he soon wanted to branch out into making store fixtures and novelty items.

Fairchuk ran afoul of city bylaws by operating the business from his home without a license and for mounting a 3.5 foot by 2.5 foot neon sign out front. In 1963, after more wrangling with the city, Fairchuk moved the business to an old air force hut located just outside Carberry.

The following year, Fairchuk took his sign making and artistic talents to Los Angeles where he found work in set construction and special effects for film studios. According to obituary, it is around this time in Los Angeles that he was given his Indigenous name "White Buffalo" by Chief George Pierre of the Acoma Nation of Washington State.

December 31, 1966, Winnipeg Tribune

As for recording, in 1960 Fairchuk operated Capri Records of Canada. In April of that year he released a 45 called Marathon Reel backed with Rock-n-Rhythm Polka that was sold in some Brandon shops. It is unclear if he recorded anything else under Capri.

In 1966, Fairchuk began writing and recording an album to celebrate Canada's centennial in 1967. It was also the year the Pan Am Games were held in Winnipeg. This time it was for his new Silver Spur Records label.

When the album was nearing completion he began advertising for pre-sales in Manitoba newspapers which prompted an interview in December 1966 with Ted Allen of the Winnipeg Tribune.

Fairchuk said he had taken a one year leave of absence to write and record the album and at that time had recorded six of what would be eight tracks. He admitted to being disheartened at the lack of attention the advertising had generated, "The reaction to my idea here in Winnipeg has been less than enthusiastic."

The album, called The Pioneers, was released in summer 1967. It contained songs such as A Centennial Prayer, Ballad of the RCMP and Centennial 67.

Fairchuk returned to Manitoba for six weeks in tthe summer of 1967 to promote and sell the album. He said he contacted the Manitoba Centennial Corporation, Pan Am Games Committee and "twelve other organizations" to request funding for him to do a torch-lit walk from California back to Winnipeg as part of the album's promotion, but "nobody even replied."

Thanks to his press releases the album was mentioned in some papers across the province but got little airplay. For the most part, Fairchuk promoted the album album by playing live from the back of a rented truck.

On July 28th, Fairchuk and his band mates, including Ray St. Germain, were arrested for creating a disturbance when they gave away 3,000 of his 4,600 copies of the album for free from the back of a ruck at Donald Street and Portage Avenue. They received a reprimand from the magistrate.

One Winnipeg columnist noted seeing him play from the truck at the side of the road in August 1967 to about 50 people assembled on the Legislative grounds. 

Disappointed with how the album was received, Fairchuk returned to L.A.

May 11, 1969, Associated Press

It seems that Fairchuk did not go back into the film industry. Instead, he created the White Buffalo American Indian Workshop. He says he invested his life savings of $4,000 into the venture while the couple lived off Joan's salary as a computer operator.

He described his venture in a 1969 Los Angeles Times story that ran in numerous newspapers across the U.S. as an Associated Press wire story, "It’s a small crafts and manufacturing shop, hopefully a ‘halfway house’ for Indians who have left the reservation without a job or a trade in the city.”

The idea was to have up to 15 Indigenous people living at the workshop and making and selling their crafts. The first project undertaken was the mass manufacture of "peace pipes" mounted on plaques to sell to corporations as promotional items. This was to have provided the working capital needed to get into more traditional art.

There is no follow up as to how things went with the White Buffalo Workshop.

March 2, 1979, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1979, Fairchuk was back in Manitoba for good. He created a company called White Buffalo Productions, initially based in Camperville, which he hoped would be a pioneer in Indigenous TV production in Manitoba.

In 1979 and 1980, CKND hosted a limited summer series called "Misquagumme-Seebee (Red River) Trading Post" produced and hosted by Fairchuk's White Buffalo that featured Metis performers on a trading post set.

Also in 1979, again as White Buffalo Productions, Fairchuk teamed up with the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood and Richard Falk, the new owner of he Rex Theatre - which he renamed The Epic, to recreate The Western Hour. (Most current sources claim the show began in 1977, but there are numerous newspaper articles and promotional ads to show that it was, in fact, 1979.)

The show's reincarnation garnered a fair bit of media attention as The Western Hour's first iteration was the popular CJOB Western Hour that ran on the radio station from 1948 to 1962.

October 16, 1959, Winnipeg Free Press

The CJOB Western Hour was initially broadcast from the Starland Theatre on Main Street before moving to the Dominion at Portage and Main. The host for much of its run was George McCloy, one of his first gigs at the station. He would go on to host other CJOB fare like The Shut-In's Show.

The CJOB Western Hour was not an Indigenous show, but many Indigenous artists credit it with giving them their first breaks. Ray St. Germain, for instance, became a regular guest.

In Musical Intimacies and Indigenous Imaginaries: Aboriginal Music and Dance in Public Performance performer Nelson Menow told the author that Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists competed on equal terms with no racism or favouritism shown. The winner of each week's show, crowned "King of the Saddle", was based on applause.

Other acts that performed on the CJOB show included Ron Mrozic, Sleepy and Swede (Leslie Frost and Nels Nielsen), Percy Stefanson, Wilf Cook and Wally Yanychki .

The new Western Hour at the Epic Theatre began its run on March 3, 1979. This time it was recorded for a television audience.

Fairchuk acted as the show's emcee. He and second wife, Sandra Swain whom he married in 1980, recorded and edited the show for rebroadcast the following Sunday on VPW, Videon's public access cable channel.

In May 1979, the entertainment editor of the U of M's The Manitoban described attending the taping of the Western Hour one Saturday. The cost was $3 to get in and the talent show was followed by an old Western movie.

The show and theatre rarely advertised, so it is unclear how long the Western Hour ran at the Epic. It was certainly less than a year and a half as the show was off the air from late 1980 to early 1981. During that span the Epic was converted into a XXX adult movie theatre.

May 12, 1981, Winnipeg Free Press

In March 1981, Fairchuk became a trainee communications officer with the federal government's department of Indian Affairs, (now called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada), in Winnipeg.

Not long after starting, he attended a sit-in led by the Greater Winnipeg Indian Council at the Indian Affairs office and a follow-up demonstration. He also did a sit-down interview with the CKY-TV Indigenous show Woodsmoke and Sweetgrass.

Fairchuk told a Free Press reporter, "I like my job but I don't agree with some of their (Indian Affairs') policies. I find it difficult to remain silent when native leaders bring up valid points and they aren't taken seriously."

For his efforts, Fairchuk was suspended by Indian Affairs and officially terminated in May. This prompted him to hold week-long protest outside of the department's offices.

In May 1981, Fairchuk set up an art store called White Buffalo Studio on Portage Avenue. It appears to have lasted for just a year or so. Licensing issues were again his downfall.

After this, Fairchuk turned his attention back to The Western Hour which ran on many local TV stations over the years.

October 19, 1985, Selkirk Enterprise

The Western Hour appeared on VPW off and on for three years. It returned to television on February 13, 1982 on CKND, (when it also began airing on Brandon's CKX around this time.)

It was noted by Fairchuk in one newspaper interview that, ironically, the show's quality would suffer by going commercial, "For the last two years, Red Wine backed up the amateur performers. It made for a higher quality program. We (now) can't afford to pay the union rates and the bands are not allowed to volunteer."

Without a home base to work from the show went on the road with the Fairchuks lugging 1970s-era camera and sound equipment by station wagon to all corners of the province.

When CKND cancelled the show in 1985, Fairchuk held a fiddle marathon at the Indian and Family Centre on Selkirk Avenue to raise awareness of the show's cancellation in the hopes that it would be picked up again. He told a Free Press reporter that during its run The Western Hour had featured 800 performers and visited 47 Manitoba communities.

In 1986, the show did return to air. Initially, it was back on VPW and then over to the new Manitoba Television Network (MTN) and CKX in Brandon. (The show was always produced by White Buffalo and sold to stations as local content.)

The Epic / Rex Theatre in 2008

In 1987, the Epic Theatre again became a home base for the show when a non-profit group called The Western Hour purchased it from Falk for $82,000. They planned to spend another $50,000 to fix it up.

"We're modelling everything almost identically on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville except on a  smaller scaled and using our own Manitoba and Canadian talent. We want to make it the hub of country music in Manitoba", Fairchuk told the Free Press shortly after the sale. 

He also expressed pride that an Indigenous-led group might help fix up the "Main Street Strip".

The theatre was purchased in January and in March the group applied for concert venue license. That is when a number of the building's failings came to light, such as a lack of ventilation and not enough working toilets. What little capital the group had ended up going into making these basic, unexpected repairs.

The Opry Grand stage in 2008

The venue began advertising shows in October 1987, but the support was just not there.

A Save the Opry concert was held March 19, 1988 from 10 am to 5 pm. Fairchuk said that as many as 400 people showed up, but it only raised half of the $3,000 they needed.

Opry Grand eventually did close, likely later that year, and the theatre sat unused until its demolition in 2008. A visit inside just weeks before the demolition showed remnants of The Western Hour and The Opry Grand still in place from the final show.

August 1, 1994, Selkirk Journal

The Western Hour didn't disappear completely. Fairchuk continued to stage live performances on reserves and at small town festivals. Some were recorded for rebroadcast on NCI-FM radio until around 1996.

Len Fairchuk died at Seven Oaks Hospital on April 4, 2004 at the age of 71. He was predeceased by his wife, Sandra, in 2000. 

In 2005, Fairchuk was among the five inaugural inductees into the Aboriginal Music Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Selkirk Avenue loses another tooth

Selkirk Avenue has yet another burned out lot after a fire destroyed the house at 502 Selkirk Avenue. It is one of a number of fires in the past couple of years that has been weeding out its mixed-use buildings.

Selkirk has had rough times since the 1980s as businesses began to leave and social services moved in to take their places. Despite infusions of government money, the losses continued. An interesting stat I found while researching this building's history is that, according to the Selkirk BIZ, between 2005 and 2011, 75 of the 125 businesses within its catchment area disappeared.

That trend continues as business owners retire and nobody wants to take over. This was the case with The Windmill closed in 2017. Its hard to imagine the Donut House or Ideal Lighting would continue on business on the street when the time comes.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Park Theatre shows a little skin

The Park Theatre is showing quite a lot of skin during its renovations.

Built ca. 1915, it was extensively renovated in 1933 and again in 1936 by owner Rudy Besler. Some of this work can be seen in building's current configuration.

This image shows where the roof was raised by four feet in 1930 to improve circulation.

This image shows the 25 foot wide extension added in 1936.

You can even see the bracket for the theatre's ca. 1930s sign.

You can read more about the Park Theatre's history here.

You can read more about the renovations here and here.

Friday, 8 March 2019

The day Sammy Davis Jr. came to town

© 2019, Christian Cassidy. Please respect my research.
Signing autographs in Winnipeg, 1957* (see "update)
(Image by Hugh Allan at Western Canada Pictoral Index)

Sammy Davis Jr. was a most remarkable entertainer. He was a gifted dancer, singer, stage actor, film actor, musician and impersonator. As one writer put it, "a jack of all trades and a master of all".

Born in Harlem, N. Y. in 1925, Davis Jr. began his career as dancer at the age of three with the Will Mastin Troupe which included his father, dancer and musician Sammy Davis Sr., and his mother, Elvira (Sanchez), the chorus leader. Despite criss-crossing the U.S. numerous times over the decades on the vaudeville circuit it seems they never made it over the border to Winnipeg.

In later years, the troupe became a singing and dancing trio featuring Davis Senior, Junior and Will Mastin.

The Will Mastin Trio (Right image source)

The touring Chez Paree Showcase was assembled by the legendary Chicago restaurant and night club Chez Paree through their Chez Paree Artists Inc. and was scheduled to tour "23 Midwest cities and Canada" from May 18 to June 10, 1957. The show boasted 36 performers, both black and white, including Ted Fio Rito (the club's house band leader) and orchestra, comedienne Tulara Lee, the Dancing Dyerettes and the Will Mastin Trio.

By this time, Davis was already making a name as a solo performer though multiple television appearances, on Broadway (Mr. Wonderful, which included the Trio in the cast), and the 1954 album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr.. Still, he never forgot his roots and made time to appear with the Trio. (In fact, even after the Trio was retired he continued to split his salary three ways with Davis Sr. and Mastin until 1970, which included his lucrative Rat Pack years.)

Davis Jr.'s manager told media at the time that he requested to go on he Showcase as it allow him to entertain fans in some of the smaller communities that he could no longer play in due to his rising success.

 May 11, 1957, Winnipeg Tribune

The Showcase was an entertainment format that had pretty much run its course more than a decade earlier with the end of Vaudeville and travelling musical revue shows and audiences didn't seem o keen to revive it.

The tour began in Youngstown, Ohio where ticket sales were a flop. It also made it to Columbus, Ohio where a KKK cross burning the same night, not directly related to the show, soured he proceedings. After Winnipeg on June 5, the show picked up again in Madison, Wisconsin three days later.

According to the June 4, 1957 edition of Variety magazine the sluggish ticket sales caused some cities to cancel their dates, including Fort Wayne and South Bend, Indiana. Other cities were hastily added to take their place. As a result, it is hard to tell if the show actually played in some of the originally scheduled cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Youngstown, Ohio, and Rockford, Illinois.

Top: June 1, 1957, Winnipeg Tribune. Bottom: May 28, 1957

Variety erroneously reported that Winnipeg was one of the cities that had cancelled. Despite slow ticket sales, local promoter Charlie Mazzone pushed ahead. The owner of Rancho Don Carlos dinner club was said to have invested $13,000 to bring the show to town and he wasn't about to lose it.

The issue with slow ticket sales here, many felt, was bad publicity surrounding the Winnipeg Arena.

The Saturday before the Showcase was to take the stage another musical revue headlined by Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine was in town. The Winnipeg Arena's regular sports sound system with its speakers embedded up in the rafters of the old barn was used and the result was 3,000 or so disgruntled fans who could not hear the music.

The bad sound was panned on the front page of the newspapers and reviewers and fans were in agreement that people should never spend money to see a concert at the Winnipeg Arena.

June 3 1957, Winnipeg Tribune

A panicked Mazzone talked the Winnipeg Arena management into hiring a $4,000 Hi-Fi sound system consisting of seven 200-watt speakers installed at stage level. J. J. H. McLean, the contractor, boasted that it was the "first Hi-Fi sound system in Western Canada".

To counter the bad publicity from the week before, the McLean ads ran adjacent to ads for the show and a banner "Special Sound System" was added to the Showcase's advertising directly above Davis Jr.'s head.

Another attempt to increase ticket sales could be seen in the way the show was advertised. As it got closer, Showcase Chez Paree ads gave way to the Will Mastin Trio. In the week before the show some ads ran showing just Davis Jr.'s face with a telephone number. ("Spruce 4-3568" appears to have been a switchboard service used mainly by real estate agents.)

In the end, less than 3,000 tickets priced from $1.50 to $3.50 were sold. Even if everyone paid top dollar, it is clear that Mazzone lost thousands on the venture.

Excerpts of the program for the Winnipeg show, June 5, 1957 (source)

The Showcase was divided into two 90-minute halves. The first was made up of short sets by the various singers, musicians, dancers, comedians and an acrobatic act. The Tribune reviewer, "J. H.", called it slow and noted that "dozens" could be seen leaving the Arena's hall part way through. The Free Press' Frank Morriss dedicated just three sentences of his review to he first half.

The person the reviewers and fans were there to see, of course, was Sammy Davis Jr. who took up the final 90 minutes.

Davis Jr. opened the show with Something's Gotta Give. Other songs included Begin the Beguine and Love Me or Leave Me. He then did a dance and comedy set with Mastin and Davis. Sr.. During the orchestral set he played solos on the drums, bongos and trumpet. The show ended on a lighter note with his spot-on celebrity, (both reviewers agreed that his Elvis Presley brought the house down.)

J. H. concluded, “Sammy Davis Jr. held a Winnipeg arena audience spellbound for the last 90 minutes with… exhibitions of talent that is one of the greatest today in show biz.”

Frank Morriss wrote,  "For anyone to take the cavernous Arena, as Sammy did, and turn it into a drawing room is a feat that only great entertainers can accomplish.... Sammy Davis Jr. has been called 'Mr. Wonderful'. That, in view of what happened at the Arena Wednesday night, is a modest statement."

Jun 6, 1957, Winnipeg Tribune

As for the arena's sound system, it required tinkering between acts in the first half but was working well for the second. When there was a brief crackle of static on Davis Jr.'s portable mic he quipped, "Wouldn’t you know it, I would get electrocuted just because I’m the only guy they could get to try out the new sound system. Frankly, I think I sounds good here. What do you think?” to which the audience responded with applause.

That, it seems, is the only time Davis Jr. played in Winnipeg.

Davis Jr. died in Beverley Hills, California on May 16, 1990 at the age of 64.

UPDATE: Actually, there was one other time Davis Jr. visited Winnipeg: September 20, 1967. It was when his 707 from London, where he was working on the film Salt and Pepper, to Los Angeles stopped at Winnipeg International Airport for a refueling stop. (That is when the above photo was taken showing Mrs. D.E. Belog, Mrs. S. L. Gratton and Lorna St, Marie.)

Tribune reporter Herb Legg and photographer Hugh Allan happened to be here. When he saw the men, Davis Jr. went up to introduce himself, “Hi, I’m Sammy Davis Jr.”. 

The entertainer spent only about 15 minutes at the airport but it was enough time to sign about about 30 autographs and buy some magazines at the gift shop. 

Legg asked Davis Jr. about his attire, a bright orange shirt and ornate wooden necklace, to which he replied, “I’ve started a campaign to do away with ties. The necklace? That’s love, man.”

Asked if he would come back to Winnipeg, Davis Jr. said, “I like working in Canada and look forward to coming back to Winnipeg soon. I’ve worked here before and it is great.” He said that as since his career took off he had less time to fit in places, lamenting that he had missed Expo 67 in Montreal. “You just don’t have time to do what you want. It’s not like when you’re coming up and can take anything….” 

After his re-boarding announcement the plane’s pilot stopped and asked for an autograph, saying “My wife’s a big fan of yours and she wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t get one". While signing, Davis Jr. quipped, “Thank you very much. I wish you liked me.”

Ironically, his stop came less than 24 hours before the Charlie Mazzone's Rancho Don Carlos burned to the ground. Both items appeared on the front page, though the June connection between the two men was not made.

Davis Jr. on the CBC:
Davis Jr. returned to Canada numerous times in the late 1950s and 1960s.

In July 1959, he hosted his own edition of CBC's Parade, a half hour arts show. It was a solo opportunity not yet afforded to him by networks in the United States. The recording gives a sense of what concert goers at the Winnipeg Arena would have been treated to. (More Sammy Davis Jr. on Canadian TV here and here.)

Also see:
Sammy Davis Jr. official website
Sammy Davis Jr. American Masters

Friday, 1 March 2019

Some outstanding Winnipeggers

For the February 15th edition of the Real Estate News, columnists were asked to write what they love about Winnipeg. I chose interesting people from the city’s the past. Those who interest me most are not found in history books or have anything named after them. They were just regular folks who did interesting and sometimes ground-breaking things as part of their everyday life.

It ended up becoming a two-part series.

Part One - Percy Haynes, Dr. M. Ellen Douglass, Kay Middleton, Joe Keeper and Cecil Francis Lloyd.

Part Two - Len Fairchuk, Frances Atwell, Ken Leishman and Harry Kirk.

I hope to squeeze in one more part of the series soon !

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Manitoba Black History: Alton White Jr.

© 2019, Christian Cassidy. Please respect my research.

Alton White Jr. of Winnipeg is credited with being just the second black professional hockey player. While there has been increased attention about pioneering black players in recent years, such as Willy O'Ree's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" campaign, White is usually left out.

The reason for the oversight, or snub as some consider it, is the fact that White's 145 game pro career in which he amassed 38 goals and 46 assists for a total of 84 points were played in the WHA, not he NHL which often considers itself as the only professional league of record. For instance, White does not even appear on the "Hockey is For Everyone" list of black players.

Here's a look back at the life and career of Alton White Jr..

Alton White Jr. was born on May 31, 1945 in Amherst, Nova Scotia, one of five sons of Alton and Stella White. In 1952, the family moved to Winnipeg where his father got work as a steward-porter with the CNR. By 1955, they had purchased a home at 663 Jessie Avenue.

Though they where likely the only black family in the neighbourhood, White said he didn't feel he experienced racism as a kid. He described Winnipeg in a Fort Wayne, Indiana News Sentinel article in January 2018 as "full of immigrants", saying, “We read about it (racism) in the paper, but you’d say, ‘Does that really happen?' I always hung around with my buddies who were all white kids and never thought anything of it. I was always treated pretty well.”

Aug. 3, 1959, Winnipeg Free Press. PONY champs. White is front row centre.

White first made the local sports pages as a baseball player - a pitcher for the "Braves" in the Winnipeg Optimist No. 2 Little League from 1956 to 1959.

In August 1959, he was a member of the South Winnipeg All Stars team that traveled to Brandon to meet their All Stars and won the provincial PONY league baseball championship and the Free Press Cup. White made two hits, including a triple, and stopped a line drive with a one-handed catch in the seventh to retire Brandon.

While attending Kelvin High School, (ca. 1959 - 1963), White played football for the school team and baseball for Isaac Brock Community Club. He continued with his baseball through his first year at United College.

White of the Rangers scores against the Winnipeg Monarchs on Nov. 29 1963

White learned to skate at age four but it wasn't until he came to Winnipeg that he was introduced to organized hockey.

He once explained to an American reporter that the East Coast was "not particularly known for hockey" and it was too expensive for many kids to play. In Winnipeg, he said, "People were very generous in supplying kids, black or white, with equipment and places to play." He continued, "I was just lucky, that's all. My family moved to Winnipeg when I was eight and here I really started to play, first in playground leagues and then in junior hockey. That gave me my chance"

Despite the relatively late introduction to competitive hockey through Earl Grey, White excelled at it.

White joined the Winnipeg Rangers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League for the 1962-63 season. The following year, he finished seventh best in the league's scoring championship with 22 goals and 29 assists in 44 games. In 1964-65 he was appointed the Rangers' captain.

White would be credited as the first black player to score a hat-trick in 1973, but he registered at least two as Rangers captain. The first came in Selkirk against the Winnipeg Warriors on February 17, 1965 and the second against the Winnipeg Monarchs on March 21, 1965 in Winnipeg.

Despite his scoring touch, there were a couple of things that dogged White. One was his size: just 5' 9" and hovering around 170 pounds, (measurements a reporter once referred to as "generously listed"). The other, as noted by Free Press sports columnist Stan Fischler, "a penchant for playing hockey on the clean side."

Size might have been a factor in January 1965 when White was checked into the boards and knocked senseless. The following day, Victoria Hospital reported him to be in "fairly good" condition with a possible concussion.

Fort Wayne Komets (From: eBay)

Despite his size, scouts took notice of White. In 1964-65 he got a three game tryout with the St. Paul Rangers of the International Hockey League (IHL). For the 1965-66 season, he was off to play for the IHL's Fort Wayne (Indiana) Komets.

Vince Leah noted in his column of November 20, 1965 that the New York Rangers "were taking a long look" at White and he was drafted into their organization.

In October 1966, White was picked up off waivers from the Des Moines Oak Leafs by the new IHL expansion team the Columbus Checkers. White played three seasons with the Checkers averaging more than a point per game, which was impressive considering that the expansion team was taking time to find its legs.

Each of those years White attended the Rangers training camp but didn't make he cut. He said at the time that "they must have thought I wasn't big enough."


The next  break for White came before the 1969 - 70 season when the New York Rangers released him and the Oakland Golden Seals sent him to play for the Providence Reds of the American Hockey League (AHL), one of their minor league affiliates.

White wasn't exactly a stranger to the team. He had been called up in April 1969 to play a handful of playoff games when one of their forwards got injured. It was noted a the time that White was the first, (and would be the only), black player to lace up for the storied franchise.

In each of his three seasons with the Reds, White finished second or third best in team scoring statistics, but his size was still an issue.

When he attended the 1970 Golden Seals training camp, General Manager Frank Selke Jr. told the Tribune: "He's an unbelievably hard worker. He checks well, skates well and has a super attitude. Its just that he's not very big." He noted that while White had managed to put on eight pounds in the off-season he still weighed just 170.


In 1972, the World Hockey Association (WHA) was created as a big-time professional league to compete with the NHL. It meant new opportunities for players like White who, it was becoming clear, was not going to make it in the NHL.

Aside from his size, was race an issue? In that 2018 Fort Wayne News Sentinel article he said of his time on the doorstep of the NHL: “I just never got the call. There were a lot of guys up there who I was a better hockey player than, but I never rocked the boat. I just played as well as I could.”  The reporter asked: "Was it because of racism?" White would only reply: “I hate to say that, but…”.

White was on the radar of a at least a couple of teams at the WHA's first draft. Ben Hatskin of the Winnipeg Jets had him on his short list 70 players that he wanted to draft, but in the end the 27-year-old ended up going to the New York Raiders.

AP wire story in Jun 1, 1972, San Bernadino (California) Sun

The signing garnered a great deal of media attention for White as the only black player drafted and only the second black person to play in the big leagues. (The first was Willy O'Ree who played for the NHL's Boston Bruins in 1957-58 and in 1960-61 and at the time was still bouncing around in the minor leagues.)

Some of that attention was in the form of U.S. wire stories out of New York that ran in dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers across the country, even in non-traditional hockey markets like Florida and Texas. Black publications that normally wouldn't cover hockey, such as Jet and Ebony, also wrote about White.

In a 1972 Associated Press wire story the reporter tried to make a comparison with Jackie Robinson, something White dismissed immediately due to what Robinson had to endure off the field: "He had to undergo all kinds of hardship. He couldn't eat with he other guys, he couldn't stay in he same hotels."

White went on to say in a CPI wire story a few months later: "(Robinson) opened the door for every black person in all sports. I would like to think I would have put up with what he went through but I don't know."

While his signing was celebrated, sadly his parents were not there to see it. His mother died in 1966 and his father in 1970. His wife, Linda, was there. They two met in Vancouver at a West Indian Independence Day dance and married in 1969. They settled in Vancouver.

By November 1972, White had only played 13 games for New York and most of that was spent warming the bench. He asked to be traded and later that month got his wish when he was dealt to the  Los Angeles Sharks, a new WHA expansion team.

Under coach Terry Slater, White got his ice time and in his first 16 games with LA he managed 12 points including the game winning goal against his old team a week after the trade.

White had played against Slater and said that he was one of the main reasons he wanted to go to LA. Slater called White a "good two-way player always hustling for the puck" and that he helped make up one the best forward line in the league.

Arguably the most famous night of White's career came on January 10, 1973 when he scored a true hat trick in the second period of an 8-5 win over the Chicago Cougars.

The Sharks started the 1973-74 season off badly and by late November were in last place in their division. Four players, including White, were sent down to he farm team in Greensboro, North Carolina. White returned to he lineup on January 8, 1974 and registered two assists and praise from his coach in a win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Nov 9, 1974, Syracuse Post-Standard

The Sharks, which became the Michigan Stags before the start of the 1974-75 season, tried to trade White to another WHA team, but the deal fell through. He ended up being sent down to one of their affiliates, the Syracuse Blazers of the minor professional North American Hockey League.

White played his first of 46 games for Syracuse starting on October 23, 1974. He was later recalled to the Stags to play out the remaining 27 games of the season.

After that 1974-75 season, White's WHA career was over. It is unclear if he toiled in other junior leagues, though there are a couple of April 1977 mentions in the Winnipeg papers of an Alton White playing for the Warroad Lakers of the Western Canadian Intermediate Hockey League.

According to the 2018 Fort Wayne News Sentinel article, White returned briefly to Winnipeg before moving back to Vancouver and getting into the construction business with his brother. He and Stella still reside there.

Also see:
Alton White career statistics
Alton White broke colour barrier Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
Rink Rookie Makes Hockey History Ebony

More of my Manitoba Black History Posts:
Percy Haynes (an expanded version of this post in the Winnipeg Free Press)
Jesse Owens at Osborne Stadium (an expanded version in the Free Press)
Swan River's Billy Beal (an expanded version in the Free Press)
Duke Ellington, Omar Williams and their 1946 Banning Street jam session
Behind the Photo: Railway Porters' Band of Winnipeg
The Craig Block