La Troupe Grotesque
by Robert Dayton
Reading time 41 Minutes
Canada, the 1970’s
Canada, the 1970s. There are still quite stringent laws against performances in public places that may be deemed offensive due to nudity and coarse language. The lights come on. The show begins. The stock strains of strip tease music fill the air. Onto the stage appears a totally naked man coyly cupping himself with his hands. And then he begins…to slowly, seductively put on his clothes. Donning one clothing item after the other dancing demurely until eventually the audience clues in that he is a cop! The helmet comes on. He opens the visor and arrests the entire audience, proclaiming, “You’re under arrest for witnessing an obscene performance!”
This was the infamous ‘reverse strip’ routine by La Troupe Grotesque - then the most respected and outrageous comedy duo in Canada but mostly forgotten today. La Troupe Grotesque liked to shake things up in a country oft-described as ‘nice.’ With their mix of performance, elaborate costumes and props, gender play, persona work, camp sensibility and a strong British influence, La Troupe Grotesque were as Glam Rock as it gets without being Glam Rock. Active primarily in the 1970s with a bit of seepage out each end of the decade, La Troupe Grotesque-no, they weren’t French- consisted of Michael Bonceour and Paul K Willis. Willis was straight and Bonceour was gay, and both gleefully pushed buttons. It was Bonceour who stepped out onto the stage fully nude numerous times throughout their career in this number - including a particularly infamous appearance at The Leacock Festival in Orillia, Ontario (named after early 20th century satirist Stephen Leacock; Orillia was where he laid his hat and left it on - along with everything else). This Festival was a heavily starched comedic affair drawing an older crowd, normally a real sit down-and-back show that epitomized safe Canadiana. Comedian Don Cullen describes the results: “There was Hell to pay. The Board of Directors were terribly upset. The Rotary Club withdrew their support of the festival. The artistic director was fired.”
Though they shook things up, Canadian TV presenter Ralph Benmurgui notes, “The thing about La Troupe Grotesque is they were the ones that taught me professionalism. I remember that they were going to do a show at Yuk Yuk’s, a feature. Michael was putting up a curtain track so he could put up a mylar curtain so that as he came out as his parody of the Quebec teen [singer] René Simard in a spangled jumpsuit and as he walked on the stage he took the front of the rod and pulled the curtain across with him so all of a sudden the stage would have three really tacky stage lights pointed at it, all of it was bouncing off the mylar in the back, all of a sudden the place was transformed, the music went up and he was like, “Helllooooo, I’m René Simard!” and he was nuts, he was crazy, he was all over it.”
Mark Breslin, the founder of Canadian comedy club franchise Yuk Yuk’s, exclaims, “And there’s your Glam! Michael never met a sequin he didn’t like. I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on gay culture but there was a certain kind of flavor to gay culture at that time that involved a lot of glitter. Michael, of course, was so campy and so glittery in so many ways. I don’t think anybody used the word gay then back in ’77, ’78 but he wasn’t hiding anything. I’ll tell you something, La Troupe Grotesque was not only ahead of its time for its time it would be ahead of its time now! That’s how out there they were. First of all they were the first act that I ever saw that took on what I think of as media culture and did that kind of thing with it with props and tape cues. It was a very complex multi-media show which you don’t even see today. Secondly you’ve got an openly gay man which was really radical for 1978 and a straight guy as partners in a show. [Paul] really liked it dark. It was very much a 70’s act in that kind of way, the 70’s were very dark. Then it all went away in the 80’s. People forget that in the 70’s there were radical terrorist groups, there were bombings every single day. All of that percolated in Paul’s consciousness. Paul did most of the writing I think but Michael was a great performer.”
Lynn Johnston, the cartoonist and creator of long-running newspaper strip For Better Or For Worse, became friends with Paul and Michael when they were all in junior high school together in the West Coast city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Running from 1979 to 2008, For Better Or For Worse was respected for its realism with a family that aged normally – a rarity in the mostly static medium of comics. In the 1990s the character of family friend Lawrence was introduced, historic for being the first gay character in a syndicated comic strip. Lawrence was based in part on Michael Boncoeur.
In a phone conversation to me, Lynn Johnston described their early friendship. “Michael and Paul Willis and I were The Three Musketeers, we were vicious comedy people, we were out for blood, we did a graphic novel together,” she says. “All three of us would listen to The Goon Show and laugh ‘til we cried copying all the voices. Michael called himself “Bonkers.” His Mother was mentally ill. We would go into Michael's house. It was always very dark. Michael was often ushering her off somewhere. Michael did not have a good relationship with his Dad. He did not want a son who was theatrical and creative. Paul did not have a good relationship with his family. I didn't either. My Mother would beat me. I think Paul and I were pretty unhappy. I rarely saw Michael unhappy. Michael had wonderful girlfriends, Maya Bangert, she was the most voluptuous girl you could ever imagine, her relationship with him was wonderful. Paul seemed jealous of anybody who got between him and Michael. Michael had all kinds of relationships. He never settled with anybody. We lost track of each other through high school. Michael wrote a love letter to another boy in junior high. Somehow the letter was turned in to the authorities and Michael was expelled and removed. Michael was sent to another school. We kind of lost touch for a while. Then I met up with Michael and Paul at the bus stop. We were giddy and excited. They were moving off to Toronto. [I was] not expecting to move to Ontario myself in a year; my husband found work at CHCH in Hamilton. I saw them perform at black-out comedy shows. They were brilliant, they were so much fun.”
When La Troupe began in Vancouver there were no comedy clubs to speak of so these they would often perform at your standard hippy hang-out Happenings and Be-Ins, as well as between the bands at such folk and rock clubs as The Retinal Circus - where, shortly after forming, they opened for The Velvet Underground, who were touring the release of their noisy, intense and groundbreaking White Light/White Heat album. There is no documentation of La Troupe Grotesque’s performance at the event, and the memories of those who were present have proven hazy. One can only hypothesize what would acerbic personalities Paul K. Willis and Lou Reed would have said to each other in the dressing room, if anything.
After moving to Toronto
After moving to Toronto circa 1970 Paul and Michael started working in television. In an interview with The Globe and Mail Paul states, “Of course in Vancouver it became very clear very soon that there was nowhere for us to perform after we’d done the round of rock places.” Michael continues, “In Toronto, we’ve made as much money out of writing as we have from performing. You know Supermarket? The game show on Channel 11? CHCH? We designed and wrote it. We spent the whole of last summer writing 9,000 questions about food. It was grinding work, but I know now that I can confidently tackle any French menu.”
A unique, independent television station still based in Hamilton, Ontario, CHCH is known for a lot of rather budget original programming. Besides Supermarket, Paul and Michael also wrote jokes for Party Game, a low-rent take on U.S. celebrity game shows but with a dearth of booze or cigarettes in a severely earth-toned rec room where lesser known guests played charades. One of the prizes was an indoor plant watering hose. Billy Van, an exceptionally talented workaholic who was on pretty much every American variety show ever made in the 70s, was a permanent guest. It was this residency on Party Game that led Billy to become the epicenter of the greatest children’s TV show ever, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a flipped-out cult comedy-horror program aimed primarily at kids but going far beyond that demographic due to being wild and smart. Paul and Michael’s affiliation with Party Game led them to become a part of this rather memorable show as writers. Brothers Riff and Mitch Markowitz produced and initially came up with the concept of Frightenstein where Billy Van played a mind-blowing thirteen characters, including Count Frightenstein, a bumbling vampire; The Wolfman, a werewolf DJ; The Librarian, who was rather dusty; Dr. Pet Vet; The Oracle; and Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet Witch. The inspiration for the character of Grizelda was their secretary. Mitch Markowitz describes her, “She had worked for me before actually. Big person, an inch or two taller than me. His name was Norman. Norman was a really great guy, great sense of humor, but he was no longer happy being Norman. He was in a state of transition. Everybody deemed him “Norma Jean The Sex Machine” because Norma Jean was quite sexy. Whenever anything over the top or wild happened she would give us a “Woo!” Billy was in the office one day, he heard it and he went, “Holy F, man! That’s the way I’m going to play Grizelda!”” In fact, Paul and Michael started writing for CHCH through Norma Jean, who lived right down the street from them.”
Though he did the bulk of the characters on Frightenstein, Billy Van was not the only performer - Michael and Paul were assigned to write poems for horror legend Vincent Price. However, things did not start out smoothly. Mitch Markowitz describes the tension: “We got fifteen minutes into the shooting, Riff gets on the PA and says, “Mitch, Vincent, we have to have a meeting.” The three of us get into a huddle. And he looks him right in the eye and said, “Vincent, you’re just not scary. We hired you to be scary.” Vincent looked him right back in the eye and said, “Listen you want scary, you have to write scary. This shit that you wrote is all cute and it’s fun and it rhymes but it’s not scary and I can’t make magic.” So we learned a very valuable lesson that day. We put Vincent on ice for 24 hours, called Michael and Paul, brought them back in and said, “Okay, here’s the deal, this is what happened on the set, now we’re going to put you in that room over there. You’re going to rewrite all 130 of Vincent Price’s episodes and this time you’re going to make them scary and until you’re done, no toilet and no food.””
They were locked in a room?
“I think I did the locking,” says Markowitz. “So about 24 hours later there was a huge bang, bang, bang on the door. I opened the door, let them out and they raced for the toilet and did what they had to do. We had sandwiches all ready, we knew they’d come out sometime. We took the stuff to the studio and the rest is history. Vincent nailed it, he did an incredible job. His reaction was akin to a highly tuned exotic automobile finally being filled with the right blend of high octane fuel. When he met Michael and Paul he greeted them with open arms and a warm hug. They had finally been given the proper direction and within 24 hours they had delivered great copy that once transferred to cue cards made Vincent’s role as Frightenstein’s host/segment interlocutor as smooth as the flight he arrived on from Hollywood to Hamilton.” These playfully eerie poems set the perfect tone at the beginning - and middle - of every episode.
At the same time that Paul and Michael were writing for television they were continuing to perform as La Troupe Grotesque. They would spare no expense for their stage show, using multitudinous musical cues and such props as a giant light up joint for their Satanic Majesties-esque tribute to the 1960s. For their take on old drive-in movie intermissions they would sing, “Let’s all go to the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby…because La Troupe Grotesque has got to pee,” while dressed as a giant pop bottle and popcorn bag made out of fiberglass. They had incredibly life-like large-breasted female fiberglass torsos built for them - apparently some people were even fooled into believing that they were real! Many of their amazing props were designed by Pat Doolittle and David Powell, the latter later of upper crust interior design team Powell and Bonnell.
As TV chef James Barber describes in The Province, a Vancouver newspaper, “Michael Boncoeur is a Girl Guide mistress dodging a Chilliwack draft board, disguised as an immature English hockey mistress, but, completely unable to hide the acid drop, prissily prunes and prisms affectations of speech and morality, learned at his mother’s knee. His mother, Paul K. Willis, a tall, horse faced, lugubrious hamburger addict…Willis with a voice from a still warm coffin and Boncoeur a frenetic imp. Together they are a delight, a sophistication of banana skin humour…”
A Strong British influence
A strong British influence gave La Troupe Grotesques quite the Queen fixation; with Canada being a British colony, she does feature prominently on Canadian money and stamps. Michael even performed as a stamp of The Queen of England using a specially-constructed ridged postage stamp border that he would hold in his hands. Says Benmurgui, “He would come out, walk it out to the middle of the stage, turn in profile and look at the audience and he looked like a Queen Elizabeth stamp, it was perfect. They were a highly visual act and they were both really good character actors. That’s the way they did it. Michael had all the flash and pizzazz and Paul had all the structure.” Former actor Rafe Macpherson (whose varied credits include Cronenberg’s first film Transfer and the voice of Count Chocula) notes further that “When Michael put on a dress, women found him irresistible. When he was doing women he wouldn’t change his voice like drag queens do.”
This stage show would play out in all array of venues, turning it into an event no matter what size the stage. It was at a folk club that Paul’s first wife Leatrice, who would much later write about comedy for The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, first saw them perform, and she had never seen anything quite like them. Paul left his girlfriend and swiftly moved in with Leatrice and her friend Sue Frumin in 1971 –along with Michael, of course. Not long after that, La Troupe Grotesque embarked on a well-regarded massive U.S. university tour during which Paul and Leatrice wrote letters to each other.
Besides universities, they often played numerous gay venues in Toronto. Leatrice O’Neill says, “They used to play this club called the Manatee which was quite famous at the time in gay Toronto in the early 70s. They would have drag shows and dancing. And women were not allowed out in the club. I actually went in one time with them in disguise. I put my hair up in a hat and wore no makeup and I went in cause I wanted to see the show, so I kind of snuck into the gay club. It was really quite the scene, go-go boys in cages and the whole thing…They were much beloved by the gay community.”
Ralph Benmurgui says, “This was a time where being gay was still barely acceptable, as long as you were something like an entertainer, kind of a Liberace thing. With Michael it was in your face: “You know what? Fuck you! Don’t even think, ‘Is this guy gay?’ I am flaming!” And that was his way of standing up for himself. There was also a very intense, underground, just exploding gay scene in Toronto and he was glad to be part of that, he loved it.”
Leatrice O’Neill points out that one Toronto gossip tabloid newspaper called ‘Tab made Paul and Michael quite upset. “They had this little article about them saying basically, “Why doesn’t Leatrice know that Paul is gay and what’s the matter with her?” and I thought “Are you serious?” I mean it was funny, we just laughed because Paul, Michael and I and my then-roommate Sue all lived together in this teeny-weenie apartment for years. And there was no money, I mean it’s not like Paul and Michael had day jobs. They basically lived off what they were making, which was very little, from doing their show.”
Leatrice asserts that they really didn’t like much other comedy. “I don’t think there was any American influence whatsoever,” she says. In 1970 two Laugh-In writers, Hart Pomerantz and Lorne Michaels, jumped ship to the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) to create a show that was a Canadian version of Laugh-In called The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour (Canada still has quite the long-standing reputation for doing ‘Canadian versions’ of American things). Paul and Michael were invited to audition but refused to go out of fear of their material being stolen. “So that was the end of any sort of Lorne Michaels connection that La Troupe had,” Leatrice says. “I mean they should have been writers on SNL. They would have been brilliant but, you know it’s like, ‘Well that Lorne Michaels, he wants to steal my comedy sketches so I don’t want to go anywhere near him.’”
La Troupe Grotesque also hated improv - including, most notably, Second City. “The Toronto branch [of Second City] opened here in ’74 or so,” Rafe Macpherson explains. “I saw their first show and thought they were hilarious. John Candy, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Joe Flaherty… who knew? But I couldn’t convince Paul and Michael of that, hence their scathing indictment of improv. Michael and Paul hadn’t seen it nor would they believe that comedy based on this new fangled idea of improv could be any good. They were writers and worked on their sketches for a long time before they rehearsed them. Their so-called “improv” sketch began with Michael on stage with a clip-board jotting down audience suggestions. He asked for a male character, a female character and a setting. Given the era, the suggestions were almost always Idi Amin, Margaret Trudeau and Three Mile Island. The audience would laugh in anticipation. La Troupe would play Idi and Margaret for a couple of lines and then, Michael would say, “Oh, Idi, I wish I was in Paris!” On the word “Paris”, music would cue, lighting changed, a glittering mylar curtain would drop and they went into an elaborately staged number. Michael danced across the stage doing a Can-Can, complete with flouncy dress, crazy wig and bare (plastic) breasts; Paul appeared wearing a Kaiser Wilhelm coat and sporting a huge Eiffel Tower hat that lit up: then, Michael crossed the stage driving an ingenious (cardboard) Citroen and then, the mylar curtain whisked away to reveal a clever back drop of scenes from Paris. The sketch would end with Michael's asking the audience, “Any more suggestions?”” Later on, once the cast members of Second City moved on to a decidedly non-improv format with SCTV, the greatest television show ever made, Paul and Michael would race home to obsessively watch it with Rafe and actor Cathy Gallant. This made sense: SCTV had an array of wild costumes (many with sequins), numerous characters, and concepts galore.
In 1973 la Troupe Grotesque announced in The Globe and Mail
In 1973 La Troupe Grotesque announced in The Globe & Mail, “And this month we’re making our first record album. It’ll be on GRT and it’ll be big and spectacular.” GRT was a record label who released copious albums mostly in the rock genre but also such comedy albums as Maclean & Maclean’s Toilet Rock and the Canadian versions of The Monty Python albums. The La Troupe Grotesque album never materialised. No one knows whether it was even completed. GRT no longer exists. La Troupe apparently also did a CBC TV pilot that may have aired as a special, also lost to time. The CBC Archives have no mention of this special. As Don Cullen says, “They’ve done some terrible things with regards to their archives at the CBC. At one point somebody realized that you can get eleven cents worth of silver from old kinescope recordings from a 1200 foot roll. And the BBC did the same thing.” Besides a smattering of CBC TV guest appearances, La Troupe Grotesque did a series of CBC Radio specials with ex-Royal Canadian Air Farce comedienne Gay Claitman called Pulp & Paper, a glibly toned take-down of periodicals such as Reader’s Digest and The Daily Mirror.
An important venue for La Troupe Grotesque was a second revival of The Bohemian Embassy, originally a ground-breaking Beat establishment run by comedian Don Cullen from 1960-1966. The first Bohemian Embassy revival in 1968 at the notorious student-run experimental Rochdale College was rather short-lived. Thanks to government funding, The Bohemian Embassy was again resurrected more successfully in 1974 at the newly-opened Harbourfront Centre, where La Troupe Grotesque had a lengthy run and a budget to bring many of their visions to life. Don Cullen really believed in them and even tried to break them at The Village Gate in New York to no avail. Years prior, Don’s affiliations with Lorne Michaels and Rosie Shuster working on one of his comedy revues led to him becoming a regular on Wayne and Shuster (a CBC TV comedy show in the withered, old school ‘easy laugh’ Bob Hope special vein featuring two Ed Sullivan variety show vets) for over 25 years. Don Cullen relates that, “I sent Lorne something for La Troupe. I got no reply from Lorne which was unusual as I would usually get a telephone reply within 48 hours.”
Mark Breslin broke into comedy at Harbourfront, where he worked on La Troupe Grotesque’s shows. “They were very influential, especially Paul, in developing my sensibility that made me want to start Yuk Yuk’s,” he says. “They were easily my favourite act at Harbourfront of all the comics that I met and all the comics that I ever dealt with.” Breslin started Yuk Yuk’s in 1976, originally as a weekly series before moving to its own full-time venue. La Troupe Grotesque were there from the beginning, as was comedian Chas Lawther who hit it off with them. He recalls their response to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978: “When Jonestown happened and Jim Jones killed all those 800 people. We’d arrived that night at Yuk Yuk’s and the debate backstage was, when is it appropriate to make jokes about Jonestown? It was the day after, I believe. Then Paul and Michael came in and they started mixing up Kool-Aid. They had all these little containers of Kool-Aid. We’re backstage thinking, “What the fuck are they going to do?” So we all rushed out to the back of the audience to see what was going to happen. Paul and Michael came out and they started handing out Kool-Aid to the audience. This was Michael and Paul’s brilliance. I describe it as a comedy no-man’s-land. The audience didn’t know whether to be horrified or whether to laugh…Paul had a real dangerous edge to him when he was onstage. Maybe that came from the years working from the kinds of places they had worked in, biker bars and opening for weird bands and shit. I wouldn’t really fuck around with this guy because he will comedically eviscerate you. Paul was the funniest guy ever in all those comedians I ever saw at Yuk-Yuks and there was some breathtakingly funny guys. Paul was a comedic genius, he really was, he had a wry, ironic, dry take on life.”
Leatrice O’Neill elaborates, “I remember standing there in the back of the room watching the show where you know, the Kool Aid was passed out, and then you hear a gun shot, and then Paul who was Jim Jones, kind of collapses, going “Mother Mother, Mother,” - which is what apparently happened in the Jonestown Massacre - and then black. And it’s like, “What did I just see here? What is going on?””
After eight years together Paul and Leatrice broke up their marriage in 1979. Mark Breslin stepped in to take care of Paul and hired him to manage the short-lived Yuk Yuk’s in Montreal for a year. In 1981, Paul met actor Cathy Gallant, and the two became a couple. It was also around this time that Michael started working in wardrobe for the theatre via his friend Rafe Macpherson.
Besides these life changes La Troupes Grotesque quietly broke up in 1979 or 1980. This wasn’t a formal break-up, they dissipated for a variety of reasons. One such reason is that Paul felt more comfortable as a writer than as a performer and veered more and more completely towards writing after the break-up. Also, although they had critical success, in the end they were scrambling for work. A powerful bigwig at CBC TV just didn’t like La Troupe Grotesque. Luckily the Radio arm of the CBC was more receptive. Continuing to work together under their individual names they did do some critically acclaimed specials for CBC Radio. Perhaps this better fulfilled the CBC’s mandate of “safety first” strongly skewing to a mild flavour less Grotesque. Firmly established as Canada’s national public broadcaster for radio and television the CBC was and still is not known for being experimental with its comedy, often showing preference for safer fare. Paul Chato of 1980’s Canadian comedy sketch group The Frantics comments, “There’s just no way what they were doing was going to be palatable to a larger audience at the time. Again it’s the Canadian thing, if they had a better label, better luck. They were a great sun that burned out in the firmament, just exploded….”
Paul and Michael did remain active separately writing and performing comedic bits for The All Night Show, a wild and wooly TV show that aired between midnight and six AM, ostensibly after everyone had vacated the premises for the day. The host was even a Security Guard named Chuck, played by Chas Lawther. Based in Toronto in 1980 and 1981, The All Night Show was created by Jeff Silverman, whose background in putting on Midnight Movies at The 99 Cent Roxy Theatre heavily informed the programming. The All Night Show had a very “anything goes” quality but was actually meticulously formatted to include old Twilight Zone episodes, vintage ads, cartoons, post-gig musician drop-ins and plenty of original bits. As the overtly gay character “The Gay Desperado,” with cocktail in hand, Michael did ribald monologues delivering all manner of bon mots and double entendres.
In 1989 Paul created the short-lived CBC television family sitcom Mosquito Lake which, due to the CBC’s reputation with comedy, had the self-defeating tagline “Watch us anyway.” CBC TV loved the lead star, a Canadian stand-up comic named Mike MacDonald. “Mike MacDonald was just horrible on television,” Chas Lawther admits. “Paul said to me that was the great regret of his life: “Chas, take this as a lesson from me. I was so thrilled they said, ‘What do you want to be?’ that I said, ‘Head writer’s enough for me.’ I could have asked, ‘Can I be executive producer?’ I had no control over who got hired and where it went, it was such a lesson because I completely lost control of the thing.” It was disastrous for him, it was one of those shows they still hold up as “The CBC can produce shit comedy and here’s one you might remember!” It was sad.”
Michael Boncoeur was brutally murdered in his home
On March 23rd, 1991, Michael Boncoeur was brutally murdered in his home. His close friends Rafe Macpherson and Suzzanne Brown found him the next day after he didn’t show up for work. “When I found him I screamed,” says Rafe. “Suzzanne said, ‘I never want to hear that sound out of your mouth ever again.’ It was very traumatic. It screwed us all up very badly. I don’t think Paul ever recovered. I think he kind of repressed it. I cried and cried and cried. Michael was my best friend. He was the love of my life - never sexually - and I felt amputated. … There were a lot of us who had strange feelings around that time long before we started to call him to find out where he was. I had horrible, bloody nightmares for six months, bloody, stabbings and things like that. I told Michael, ‘I am having these awful dreams. I have to drink myself to sleep every night.’ I was preparing myself.”
Rafe recounts the incidents leading up to the murder. “Michael told me that he had met this teenaged boy who was going to some private school in the country, and I didn’t realise there was a connection to Michael’s murder at the time. It turned out that the kid didn’t murder Michael. He went back to this private school which was a reformatory for wayward youth and he said, ‘I met this guy in Toronto and he’s really rich and he’s got this nice apartment.’”
One of the boys at the reformatory named Adam Blake Harris responded and came up with a plan for the both of them. Rafe continues, “They planned, ‘Okay, let’s escape, let’s go to Toronto and rip him off,’ and there was a girl at the school who said, “If you’re going to do that, you should kill him.” So they rehearsed killing him. They came to Toronto and Michael gave them twenty dollars each and told them to go away because he had a show that evening with The Moscow Circus so they went and bought a knife. Then they came back. He went to bed early because he had a show the next day. What he’d done is said, “You two can spend the night here and sleep on the sofa.” Adam Blake Harris stabbed him in the carotid artery. You live about a minute. Blood everywhere and that’s how I found him. Forensics suggested that he was sleeping when he was killed. Adam Blake Harris wielded the knife and he was the one who was convicted of murder in the first degree. Apparently his first run in with the law was when he was five. Paul went to all of the trials obsessively. The final day Paul threw up on the way there. In Canada to be guilty of murder in the first degree means it was planned, intentional and deliberate.”
Shortly after Michael’s murder, in a letter to their old friend and former roommate Sue Frumin, Paul wrote in a flowing script of being with his partner Cathy for almost ten years as a “…more settled, somewhat grayer version of my earlier self, but very happy.” But then immediately goes on to write, “Needless to say, Michael’s death is the most horrible thing to have happened to us. He was still, and always, my best friend, and I don’t know what we’ll do without him. To have him snatched away from us like this has left us angry and bewildered. Michael had just had the best ten years of his life. You may know that he was the head of the wardrobe department for “Cats”, a job he loved…He dressed well, paid his bills (usually) and drank too much… The police tell us that nothing could be done for Michael from the moment he was stabbed. They say he would have been in shock and died quickly. I hope they’re right. It also must be said that Michael was somewhat the author of his own misfortune. He always prided himself on his so-called “radar”, but this time it broke down. Nevertheless, some sixteen year old punk has taken away our dear, sweet Michael just to rob him. I’m afraid, Sue, this isn’t the goofy slow-moving Toronto we knew in the seventies. We’re a big, violent city with a murder rate to prove it. Michael was number twenty-four and it was only March. His funeral was quietly spectacular…”
In the 1990s
In the 1990s Paul created Rumours and Borders, a CBC radio comedy about a wealthy family forced to run a boarding house which ran for over 200 episodes and was about to become a TV show with Eugene Levy producing. Paul had also created a show about The Queen Of England entitled Windsor Hassle that had just been green-lit. Chas Lawther was working on Eugene Levy’s TV show Maniac Mansion and was about to approach Paul to be his writing partner. Then Paul got the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and everything quickly changed. Ralph Benmurgui reflects, “I remember we would talk on the phone quite regularly because he was having chemo and you have to sorta stay away. I said, “How’s it going?” ‘Well, it’s a festival of hats.’ That was his response because everyone has their hair loss.” Lawther continues, “I started seeing him regularly in the final year as he was declining. Pancreatic cancer was really quick, a death sentence. Painful.”
Paul K. Willis died on November 24th, 1999 at the age of 52. At Paul’s memorial his friends and family gathered to pay tribute with numerous comedic memories of him and La Troupe Grotesque. There were also readings from his unpublished memoir “How I Died From Cancer.” He kept his sense of humour to the end.
La Troupe Grotesque were unique and respected but are completely unknown today, perhaps due to both Paul and Michael dying far too young. And perhaps due to the double whammy of existing up in Canada in the pre-internet era, despite their rather original sensibility in the emerging Canadian comedy scene and far beyond. And they were far, far beyond.
Special Thanks to Don Cullen, Leatrice O’Neill, Lynn Johnston, Cathy Gallant, Mark Breslin, Jeff Silverman, Ralph Benmergui, Rafe Macpherson, Chas Lawther, Paul Chato and Sue Frumin, who all participated in personal interviews with the author. Thanks also to Mike Gabel, Christina Rice, Alan Zweig, Tara Feeney, Darren Yearsley, and Dan Rocca.
Photos and newspaper articles courtesy of Sue Frumin Video of La Troupe Grotesque courtesy of Jeff Silverman
Robert Dayton is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. His writings and drawings (along with other art) have appeared in numerous publications, books, exhibits, etc. His current book The Empty Bed is a pen-and-ink humour book about heartbreak. Robert has performed across North America and Australia. As The Canadian Romantic, he manifests as a series of videos, live performances, a doll, an art book and a winking photo to make people in Canada and everywhere feel more attractive. His collaborative musical performance and recording projects include song-and-dance duo Canned Hamm, July Fourth Toilet and Hallmark. Robert holds an MFA from the University of Waterloo.
To give a bit of background to what it was like to perform in liquor licensed establishments in Ontario, Canada at the time Mark Breslin, the founder of the Canadian national comedy chain Yuk Yuk’s states, “Maclean & Maclean used to get busted regularly (note: Maclean & Maclean are the notorious bearded Canadian musical comedy duo known for such filthy songs as “I’ve Seen Pubic Hairs” sung to “I’ve Been Everywhere” found on the album Take The O Out Of Country). Maclean & Maclean fought their case all the way to The Supreme Court of Ontario and won. And the story on that is and this is an important case because I couldn’t have done Yuk Yuk’s without Maclean & Maclean previously winning this case. The Liquor Board of Ontario used to have very, very harsh and draconian laws about what you could and couldn’t do in a licensed premises. It would come right down to them choosing the carpet on the floor. They had unbelievable powers including the powers of what goes on onstage. Maclean & Maclean had songs with the word ‘fuck’ in it. There was a club in Thunder Bay that they played. The liquor people went in to inspect it, they saw Maclean & Maclean doing this and they said, “You have to fire these guys.” They said no. So they fined the club owner and took away his liquor license. They fought it all the way to The Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said that the liquor board could no longer regulate any content on a stage as long as it didn’t violate the burlesque laws. In other words, you couldn’t have nudity but you could say what you wanted to say. It’s a critical, critical victory for free speech in this country. Hardly anyone knows about it. That would have been about ’73 or ’74.”