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Sunday, 14 April 2019

Remembering Len Fairchuk and TV's The Western Hour

© 2019, Christian Cassidy. Please respect my research.
Len Fairchuk (1932 - 2004)

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

That short, incomplete post has been one of my most visited year after 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 only 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. He came to prominence in the late 1950s in the Brandon area as a fiddler who performed at local shows and won 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 was successful with a time of 48 hours and 35 minutes. It is unclear if it was an "official" world record recognized by 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

Fairchuk also operated Capri Records of Canada in the early 1960s. In April 1960 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 the Capri label.

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

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 the 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. 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. 

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 truck at Donald Street and Portage Avenue. They received a reprimand from the magistrate.

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 syndicated Los Angeles Times story that ran in numerous newspapers across the U.S.: "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, Manitoba, 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 the 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 was originally a popular CJOB radio show 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 Theatre 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

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

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.

Fairchuk then 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, (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 suffered 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."

The show had no home base to work from, so it went on the road with the Fairchuks lugging 1970s-era camera and sound equipment by station wagon to all corners of the province.

CKND cancelled the show in 1985 and Fairchuk held a fiddle marathon at the Indian and Family Centre on Selkirk Avenue to raise awareness 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 two months later 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 closed later that year and the Rex 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.


ROBCAN said...

The year of his death is wrongly stated as 2008 at the beginning of this page. Then later in the story it is correct as 2004.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks. Correction has been made !

Unknown said...

I am in possession of a painting by Len Fairchuk titled MY KOOKUM by White Buffalo 1996. Looking for information led me to your blog which I find very interesting.

Catherine Buchanan said...

Hi. I'm doing research on the "Fairchuk" family tree. Len was not Saulteaux. Maybe he was made an honorary member at some point -- or just really wanted to be -- but his parents were both of Ukrainian (Polish) heritage. His father, Andrzej Fujarczuk (Andrew Fiarchuk) was a farmer in Horod, Manitoba and much older than his mother, Tecla/Tekla or "Teenie" Wojtowicz/Woytowich. Andrew immigrated in 1909 to Manitoba from what is now the western Ukraine. Teenie was born in Horod. They had six children, as far as I know, Len being the fifth. He was born in St. Boniface unlike his older siblings who were all born in Horod. I was wondering where you found the information on Len's first wife. . .
Thanks for all your work! I remember watching "The Western Hour" as a child in Winnipeg. I recalled Ray St. Germain, but not Len Fairchuk. Their work in documenting Metis and indigenous music and dance remains invaluable.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks, Catherine for adding this. Interesting about the Salteux thing. He had no Indigenous blood at all?

The research I did was probably 95% from newspaper articles. If you ever want to contact me, probably best by email cassidy at mts dot net as I get about a dozen spam comments on my blogs a day so don't check them all that often.