By Conor Fitzgerald, JD/MBA 2022
It all started with an email from Kathleen Welsby, who asked if knew of Wayne & Shuster. Of course, as a thirty-something who grew up in small town Canada, I remember reruns of their specials. Those ended in the mid-2000s, around the time Frank Shuster died. Thus, I was a member of the last generation experience this vital piece of our Canadian heritage.
For those who don’t know, Wayne & Shuster were a comedy duo who started performing together in the 1930s. Their performing career lasted their entire lives, until Johnny Wayne died in 1990. Frank Shuster would continue doing specials with the CBC until his death in 2002. But longevity is not their only legacy – Johnny & Frank were two of the founding fathers of Canadian comedy, which is now a part of our cultural identity. Over the past two years, Emily Dix and I (with our company Bygone Theatre) have been working with Wayne and Shuster’s children (Michael, Brian, and Jamie Wayne and Rosie Shuster) to explore their legacy and honour it for a new generation.
The sons of Jewish immigrants, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster met at Harbord Collegiate, where they began doing sketch comedy together. They both attended the University of Toronto and performed in the annual UC Follies in Hart House theatre. In 1939, they enlisted in the Army and went overseas, performing The Army Show both at home and abroad. When they returned, they became regulars on CBC Radio and, in 1954, were among the first performers on television – a medium they originally did not believe would catch on!
Wayne & Shuster appeared more than any other guests on the Ed Sullivan Show, with 67 appearances. They had offers to move to LA but always refused. Brian Wayne loves to tell the story of when Johnny & Frank were offered a big contract to do a TV show in LA and refused; their manager’s response was: “Boys, there’s more to life than happiness.”
Yet their legacy extends far beyond their foundational role in the growth of Canadian comedy. Mike Myers, Dave Foley, Norm MacDonald and Lorne Michaels are just a few of those who cite their influence. Indeed, in many respects, Saturday Night Live was a Canadian creation. As Rosie Shuster tells it, both she and Lorne learned comedy by observing. Lorne became a fixture at the Shuster house through his highschool years. When he met Hart Pomerantz at U of T (with the UC Follies) – having married Rosie after she finished high school – Lorne began his professional comedy career. All three worked on The Hart and Lorne Show for the CBC before moving to LA to write for shows like Laugh In! and The Lily Tomlin Show. In LA, they met Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner and formed the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. (They returned to Toronto together before moving to NYC, without Hart, to start Saturday Night Live. Rosie would have a successful writing career after leaving SNL in 1980, most notably winning an Emmy for The Larry Sanders Show.
Johnny Wayne died in 1990 and Frank continued to present specials until his death in 2002. Since the mid-2000s, Wayne & Shuster have been largely forgotten in the Canadian zeitgeist. The Wayne brothers, Michael, Brian, and Jamie, have worked for the past 20 years to get their work back into the cultural sphere.
The original shows aired on CBC from 1954-1990 and, like much of our television, is plagued by copyright issues. Much of the music is difficult to trace; estates are hard to get a hold of; and it is expensive to ensure that the shows can be aired. With a budget that, in real dollars, has decreased over time, the CBC is simply unequipped with manpower and funds to nurture its archival collection and the these pieces are only enjoyed if a third party licenses them and pays the costs of digitizing and accessing the materials.
This frustration is what led the Waynes to Schulich. Doug Barrett had been legal counsel for the estates in the 1990s; Michael Wayne reached out to see if there was a student who could help them unlock some of their family legacy. When Doug spoke to Kathleen, who was aware of Bygone Theatre, an idea was born. The estates own the rights to the original scripts, so there was nothing keeping us from creating new content (“derivative works”) using those scripts. After an initial meeting with Michael and Brian in June 2021, we met with Rosie and the idea for a live stage show was born. We then reached out to Doug Floyd at the Hart House Theatre. Emily Dix, our Artistic Executive Director, had done many shows there when she was a student and Wayne & Shuster got their professional start on that stage, so it made sense to revitalize their material there.
Emily led a research mission during which we gathered every piece of information on Wayne & Shuster, spent hours with Michael, Brian, and Rosie getting stories and spoke with people from archives at the University of Toronto, the Toronto Jewish Archives, and the City of Toronto Archives. (The U of T has 20 years of original scripts that we were able to access and scan, including the pair’s first television script and first radio script after the war.) Doug Floyd found some original wartime Army Show. And Michael and Brian had copies of old shows, scripts, and photographs.
It was daunting -- not the work but the legacy. Wayne & Shuster are not just comedians, they are a part of our heritage – a heritage of inclusion, diversity, acceptance, and, of course, comedy. We found, as we heard stories and read their material, that what these men loved was Canada – and not in a reverential way. They loved that Canada accepted everyone (they themselves were the children of Jewish immigrants), and their comedy brought Canadians together. Frank said he did comedy “for the blue haired woman in Victoria” and Johnny did it “for the working stiff in Saskatoon.” They cared about the people and just wanted to make them laugh.
Of course, we’ve still come a long since the 1990s in understanding what acceptance and diversity means. We had early conversations about how we could adapt and update the material to reflect what these words mean today for Johnny and Frank. In an early conversation about the song “Charlottetown”, which describes the founding of Canada as a friendly handshake, without addressing the treatment of Indigenous populations in the colonial era, the heirs were quick to note that their fathers would have been at the forefront of Truth and Reconciliation and it was important to them to ensure our presentation took that into consideration. Michael Wayne, in fact, is a retired professor of history, whose research was in the experience of Black Americans in colonial North America. In history, he said, it is important to contextualize. Progress comes from reflection and it is important to understand the environment of history to understand a path to bettering society.
As COVID-19 continued, a decision was made to move the show to May 2023. At the same time, we started discussing a documentary on the life and legacy of Wayne & Shuster. With a Toronto show, a tour, and a documentary, we realized that this project could be bigger. (Doug Barrett, who had become a mentor of mine by this time, introduced us to Kealy Wilkinson of the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation, a staunch advocate for keeping our broadcasting heritage alive. I worked with the CBMF to research the CBC royalties and licensing considerations (thanks to AM&E alum Lawrie Schneider for some deep conversations), speaking with union heads (thanks to Dave Forget and AM&E alum Michael Adam Murray) to understand what exactly was the issue with heritage content. In short, I discovered that it is a multi-pronged situation that involves undocumented copyright, a lack of funding for the CBC, and a manpower deficiency that is made worse by privacy policies so that third parties (like myself) are unable to do some of the research that could unlock the rights.
The business plan came together: we had an opportunity to showcase the market viability of heritage content through our multi-media plan for Wayne & Shuster. As we started talking to potential partners, we saw excitement.
We decided that Emily and I should focus on the big picture, researching and producing, so we hired veteran sketch director Paul Bates to develop the stage show. As Paul said in a CBC radio interview, “Wayne & Shuster taught me comedy!” A massive fan, Paul dove into everything we had gathered over the past two years and ran with it. We found other partners in the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame, who wanted to present a statuette to the families recognizing the induction of Wayne & Shuster in 2004. We also connected with Grieg Dymond, Director of Development for CBC Comedy, who asked to express his and CBC’s gratitude to Wayne & Shuster.
With bumps and bruises, we made it, and there’s more on the way. As we develop the documentary and tour, we’ve realized that there is an opportunity for us to steward education and recognition of the history and heritage of Canadian comedy. We don’t take this privilege lightly.
Of course, this is a massive undertaking and we are always looking for more partners and supporters. This project is, in many ways, the child of the Arts, Media & Entertainment Program at Schulich. From introductions to the fantastic network, and of course the knowledge gained from the program – I can’t say enough about the support from people like Joyce Zemans, Doug Barrett, Kathleen Welsby and Trina McQueen. if you are interested in supporting or being involved, email me at email@example.com.