I have one less Facebook friend than I had a week ago, and the world has one less genius. Don Harron died last Saturday.
Don and I were friends for over forty years, a friendship that began when Don, as his alter ego Charlie Farquharson, and I, as myself (the only role I’m capable of playing) did a CBC television special entitled What’s New In The Act? I’m sure when it aired there were many disgruntled viewers who, after settling down to watch what they thought would be a racy show written by Masters and Johnson, found out it was a show about Canadian income tax written by MacInnis and Harron.
There are two distinct aspects of that show that I will never forget. The first is the five or six hours that Don and I spent writing it (mostly in the MacInnis living room), during which I rarely stopped laughing. Whether it was Don or Charlie talking (and he even occasionally slipped into another of his characters, the dowager Valerie Rosedale), the suggestions, comments, puns and asides were pointedly witty and always original. The second occurred immediately after we finished taping the show. The producer said a writer was working on a fifteen-second and a thirty-second promo for the special and asked Don to stick around to record them when they were ready. Don said, “Let’s just tape something now.” Then, with a pause of only a few seconds between them, he ad-libbed the two spots. The producer checked the tape and told Don they were fine. I asked the producer how long they were. He replied, “Twenty-eight seconds and fifteen seconds.”
In addition to always being original, Don’s wit (especially his puns) was practically non-stop, and often very subtle and nuanced. Here’s an example. From about the age of nine until I was in my mid-thirties I sported a crew cut. A couple of months after I let my hair grow to a normal length, Don and his then wife, Nova Scotia songstress Catherine MacKinnon, had dinner at our place. I was a bit surprised that throughout the evening Don didn’t mention my new hair style. As this was the first time we’d met Catherine, she wouldn’t have noticed anything different. Later, as we were bidding them farewell at the front door, Don said, “You probably know by now, Lyman, that parting is such sweet sorrow.” As I said, his humour was often subtle and nuanced.
Don and I didn’t do any more TV together, but for many years we were both commentators on radio station CFRB in Toronto and we were often asked to do commentaries on business and political stories. These dialogues were usually live on the station’s incredibly popular morning show hosted by Wally Crouter. (At the time, Wally’s show had a larger morning audience than any other radio station in North America). One ill-fated day (from my standpoint) I decided to take on Charlie.
An interesting aside here: Don always performed on CFRB as Charlie, and always insisted that there be an audience of three or four people in the control room. And even though it was radio, he always wore the ubiquitous raggedy sweater and cap. He told me that in order to be Charlie at his best, he had to wear his trademark costume and have an audience, no matter how small, that he could actually see. Anyway, back to my downfall.
We were talking about the federal budget, which had been brought down the previous afternoon. Charlie asked me if there were any provisions in it for “bank ruptures.” I was sure I was finally going to one-up Don. “Charlie,” I said, “you have it all mixed up. You mean ‘bankruptcies.’ A bank rupture is when somebody blows up a vault.” I didn’t even have time to smile smugly before Charlie retorted, “That wouldn’t bother me, I have no-vault insurance.”
One of my former partners, the late Russ Disney, was a philosophy classmate of Don’s at the University of Toronto. (Both had their university time interrupted by the war – Russ in the navy and Don in the air force.) Russ said that Don was by far the smartest person in the class. He said that even back then Don’s wit was unmatched, but was always gentle and intelligent.
Although Don is probably best known for his Charlie Farquharson character, his talents ranged well beyond comedy. Along with Norman and Elaine Campbell, and Mavor Moore, he was one of the creators of the fabulously successful musical Anne of Green Gables. Don hosted CBC’s very popular morning radio show, Morningside, for a number of years, and his acting career took him to Broadway, Stratford, the London stage and a couple of U.S. television dramas. He also wrote a few best-selling books.
Many people don’t realize that Charlie Farquharson, due to his many years as a mainstay on the widely popular cornpone TV show Hee Haw, is as well known in the U.S. as he is in Canada. Don was also a writer on the show. Hee Haw had a heavy Canadian content. Hamilton’s Gordie Tapp was another writer and regular performer on the show, and it’s creators and producers, John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt, were both from Toronto.
Don and I often got together during our summers in PEI. We won’t this year, though. I’ll just have to remind myself that parting can be sweet sorrow.