Don Harron is finally talking.
After crediting alter ego Charlie Farqharson for 15 of his earlier books and drag queen character Valerie Rosedale for another, the theatre veteran is forthcoming about his life in a new book.
“It was time. I had retired finally and I thought, ‘I’ve got a 77-year career, and maybe someone in this country would like to hear about it,’” says Harron, the author of My Double Life: Sexty Yeers of Farqharson Around with Don Harn (Dundurn).
The actor/comedian’s story includes such high points as making money in 1935 as a 10-year-old cartoonist doing mother-and-son Scout banquets, winning an ACTRA award as the radio host for Morningside, performing in six stage shows on Broadway and three in London’s West End, as well as performing 10 years of Shakespeare in three countries, receiving a Gemini Award for lifetime achievement, writing the lyrics for five musicals, including Anne of Green Gables – The Musical and receiving a variety of special honours.
“After I got the order of Canada and the order of Ontario, I said, ‘I’ll take orders from anybody,’” says Harron, with a laugh, during a telephone interview.
With chapter titles like Anne with an E, which frames his time with the Charlottetown Festival; Tennessee Farming, which recalls Charlie’s 18 seasons with the television series Hee Haw; and Boarding the Bard, which details his time at the Stratford Festival where he worked with classical actors like William Shatner and Christopher Plummer — Harron spins story after story about his working years.
“I met Chris when he was a young actor, coming in from Montreal to do a radio show. At the time, Frank Perry and I were the standard Canadian juvenile actors, and we were worried about this new kid from Montreal. We were doing a comedy. Suddenly, we realized he was not a juvenile. He was much younger than either of us, (but he was already) a leading man with that wonderful, bumble bee-in-a-jug voice. So we knew he wasn’t going to be any kind of competition,” he says.
In fact, it wasn’t long before Harron became his friend.
“At the end of the rehearsal, when I met him, he smiled and he said, ‘Can you loan me 20 bucks?’ I said, ‘sure.’ He paid it back and immediately re-borrowed it .... I spent the next year loaning him money,” says Harron, with another laugh.
Such generosity doesn’t surprise P.E.I. theatre producer Campbell Webster.
“When we first produced Anne & Gilbert – The Musical, Don was extremely supportive and a booster of its success. He has been particularly kind to one of Anne & Gilbert’s writers, Nancy White,” says Webster.
And it wasn’t just short-term support.
“Don’s attendance at almost every Anne & Gilbert opening is all the more extraordinary, given that some had perceived (our show) may be competition for his musical, Anne of Green Gables. He never saw it that way. Good for Don, a generous, generous man,” says Webster.
At the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Wade Lynch praises another side of the showman.
“I am convinced that what keeps Don so active and productive is his boundless curiosity. His quest for knowledge is epic. It informs his comedy, his writing and his observations,” says the assistant artistic director who worked with him and his partner, Claudette, during the run of their hit show, Charlie Farqharson and Them Udders.
“Long rehearsal days tire Don now, and he can get frustrated, but the moment he is before an audience, his vigour and snap return,” says Lynch.
Reflecting on his energetic career, Harron has his favourite moments.
His most cherished ones include writing Anne of Green Gables – the Musical with co-creators Norman Campbell, Mavor Moore and Alan Lund.
“Why? Because it was easy. L.M Montgomery had given us all the details to work with,” says Harron.
Then there was creating Charlie Farqharson, whose career took off after he was featured in the 1952 Toronto musical revue, Spring Thaw.
“He’s wonderful. He’s my other self. He’s the guy that allows me to say anything I want,” says Harron, adding that ironically the creation of Charlie came at one of his lowest points.
Harron had been told he wasn’t funny.
So, on the advice of an actress friend, he went looking for a character or a mask to help him deliver his lines. His search took him to London, England, where he saw a comedy about a farmer who came on the stage with a flag covered with pigeon droppings.
“And I thought, that’s it. So, when I got back to Canada, I did a monologue about a farmer at the Canadian National Exhibition,” he says.
He based the character on the farmers he has worked for in Ontario and Saskatchewan and created a costume from a borrowed hat from Norman Jewison and an old sweater from Norman Campbell.
“The more of a show-off I became professionally, the quieter I became in person. So Charlie became my refuge and a strength for me. I love his laugh, “ says Harron.
The book also has some not-so-funny moments as Harron talks about his personal life and his three failed marriages.
“It was tough, but it was necessary. I couldn’t skirt around them,” says Harron, who talks about the affair that broke up his 34-year marriage to Canadian singer Catherine McKinnon.
“I wrote about my life ... to explain things. I had played this character in King Lear who was a rogue and it affected my life a lot. So, when I went on tour, I really became him. I became a rogue, someone who is not like me at all,” says Harron, who is happy with his current partner.
“Claudette (Gareau) is the best thing that ever happened to me. The joy I have working with her. — she has helped me recall things for the book,” says the 88-year-old.
And even though he’s retired from performing — because he has lost his ability to memorize 35-minute monologues — he has found other ways to be creative, such as writing.
“Don will keep creating until his last breath in 40 or so years,” says Lynch.
For instance, when he was in Toronto for the Charlottetown Festival auditions, Harron pulled him aside and explained his plans for a remount of his play, Turvey.
“The ideas are fantastic. I have no doubt he’ll pull it off. I just
hope he includes me and that I’m able to keep up (with him),” says Lynch.