A Guest Column by Crawford Kilian
Ernie Fladell died in Lions Gate Hospital on Friday,
Dec. 8, 2007, aged 81. Many Vancouverites have never heard of him,
even when he was brightening their lives year after year. Not many
others have done so much for this town's performing artsand
for its residentsas Ernie achieved.
In retrospect, it was an unlikely achievement. He'd been born in
Brooklyn in 1925, grown up in the Depression, and served in the
U.S. Army in Europe at the bitter end of the Second World War. Returning
to New York, he worked in a TV repair shop while taking night classes
in writing, design and advertising.
His first job in advertising led to a sales-promotion
job with NBC, and then to his own ad agency. In the late 1960s,
he published a small bestseller, The Gap, written by himself and
his nephew Richard Lorber about their attempts to understand each
other. Life Magazine ran excerpts, with Ernie and Richard
on the cover.
Prosperous, enjoying his job and family life, he might have stayed
right where he was. Instead, in 1971, he sold his interest in the
agency and moved his wife Judy and their teenagers, Matthew and
Anne, across the continent to Vancouver. He opened a business in
Lower Lonsdale, framing pictures and selling art posters.
The Fladells were part of a little-noticed aspect of the Americans
who moved to Canada because of the Vietnam War. We think of American
émigrés as young single men, draft dodgers or deserters.
But in many cases, the whole family moved north to keep its sons
out of the war. That was the Fladells' motive.
My wife and I met Ernie and Judy when he and I were
both writing for a small North Shore paperI was doing book
reviews and Ernie was writing funny, readable ads for his framing
shop. We had a lot in common, and became good friends.
I jumped from being a technical writer in Berkeley to teaching
college in Vancouver, and there I've stayed; Ernie went from advertising
to a chain of remarkable jobs. The framing shop moved to Gastown,
where Judy ran it and made friends with journalists Jack Wassermann
and Jack Webster, whose offices were upstairs. Meanwhile, Ernie
went to work in the new Social Planning Department at Vancouver
City Hall. He was the city's first cultural planner responsible
for arts administration and development.
By now it was clear that Ernie had one remarkable talent: he could
get things done, whether it was running an ad agency or moving to
another country. He also had an ad man's understanding of the people
he was dealing with. At city hall, he got along well with mayors
and councillors, and with his fellow bureaucrats. The grin, the
bright blue eyes and the Brooklyn accent may have been part of his
charm, but they really loved his ideas and his follow-through.
So he got the municipal government to buy and display
artworks from Vancouver artists. He talked the city into celebrating
its greatest resource at the first (and only) Vancouver Rain Festival,
during which it predictably poured. He started Urban Reader,
a magazine about city issues still fondly remembered by planners
and community activists. That in turn led to a book, Vancouver's
It wasn't the last book Ernie inspired. In the mid-1970s,
he supported Chuck Davis, a local writer and broadcaster, in the
production of The Vancouver Book, published in 1976. This
urban almanac was a treasure of information about the
city, still valuable as a historical resource. Two decades later,
Davis created an expanded version, The Greater Vancouver Book,
and went on to create the Vancouver History website.
Making Vancouver a festival city
In 1976, Ernie also got the opportunity that would
transform Vancouver into a festival city. The UN held its Habitat
conference in Vancouver in 1976, and Ernie was in charge of organizing
a performing-arts festival to go along with the event. It was not
only a big successit made a $40,000 surplus. Chuck Davis tells
what happened next:
Maurice Egan, the director of social planning,
and his planner-cum-festival producer, Ernie Fladell, were urged
by music critic Ian Docherty to replicate its success. Renamed the
Heritage Festival and organized in co-operation with the VSO and
CBC Radio, in June of 1977 the event again succeeded in attracting
large audiences for music, drama and danceand yet another
surplus. Vancouver summer entertainment, which previously revolved
around the PNE and Theatre Under the Stars, was never to be the
By now, Ernie could pitch his ideas to federal, provincial and
municipal politicians, and the money flowed. In 1978, he launched
not one but two festivals: the Vancouver International Children's
Festival in May, and the Vancouver Folk Festival in August. They
didn't just succeed financially; as Davis says, they changed the
way we think about summer entertainment.
Without expecting to, the former ad man had become an impresario.
For a time he stayed at city hall while also acting as executive
producer of the Children's Festival, now a yearly event. He travelled
the world, looking for actors and dancers and musicians, and bringing
them to Vancouver's Vanier Park. The big red-and-white striped tents
became a familiar sign of spring.
'Might as well give them something good'
In the early 1980s, Ernie left city hall and moved
to CBC as head of regional communications, while still running the
festival. Then, in 1984, he became full-time executive director
of the Children's Festival, now a production of the Canadian Institute
of the Arts for Young Audiences. Recruiting some highly capable
administrators, Ernie ran the festival without commercial backing,
using a simple premise: Kids will watch anything, so you might
as well give them something good to watch.
He certainly did: the kids got to watch Sharon, Lois and Bram;
Raffi; Korean dancers; and astounding British and Japanese theatre.
Vancouver schools shipped their students to the festival by the
busload, seizing the chance to show the kids what the performing
arts could do.
Meanwhile, Ernie was also running simultaneous conferences for
arts administrators and educators. I took part in a couple of them,
and was amazed at the quality of the presentations and discussions.
Ernie and Judy's home in West Vancouver was another
kind of ongoing conference disguised as a party. On a summer afternoon,
their poolside patio would be full of artists, journalists, publishers,
broadcasters and educatorsschmoozing, noshing, gossiping,
joking, and having a wonderful time.
A worldwide success
In 1992, at 67, Ernie retired. But thereafter he was a fixture
at both the Children's Festival and the Folk Festival. By then it
was clear that he had achieved a more than local success. The Children's
Festival had inspired almost 20 similar events, from Edmonton and
Toronto to Virginia and Scotland. Dance troupes and singers would
arrive in Vancouver and then move onto the festival circuit across
the country and into the U.S. The best children's performers in
the world competed to be here.
Most of us, whether as parents or as kids (or both) have our memories
of the Children's Festival: lining up for face-painting, singing
along with Charlotte Diamond, tromping on the duckboards on the
occasional rainy day. My memories are of kites against the blue
sky over English Bay, hanging out in the performers' tent, and Ernie
wandering from tent to tent, wearing a cap and a big grin.
He was the host of the biggest, happiest party in
town, a party that's been going on for 30 years. Always the ad man,
he knew his audience; he knew what we wanted, and he gave it to
usmusic and dance and theatre, in a city made happier and
more beautiful by them.
If you seek his monument, go to Vanier Park next
spring, or Jericho next summer, and look around you.
(Crawford Kilian is a Capilano College teacher,
a tireless blogger and the author of 20 books, including Writing
for the Web.)
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