Interesting people are everywhere. I met Ben Viccari a few weeks ago at the initial screening of a documentary called “Small Places – Small Homes”. The documentary profiled the life of four immigrant families who had chosen to settle in small rural Canadian towns and spoke to their unique challenges and adjustment experiences. During the party afterwards I was introduced to Ben Viccari, a distinguished writer and journalist, and a pioneer of Canadian multiculturalism.
Ben is a fascinating individual – at almost 90 years of age he is in the process of creating his second television documentary and involved in multiple projects at the same time. Ben has decades of public relations experience and during the last quarter century also became involved in ethnic publications. At present Ben is the President of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association which speaks to issues of immigrant settlement, heritage preservation and the ethnic communities’ role in nation building.
He is also a regular commentator on Omni Television and runs an online publication called “Canscene” which introduces the reader to multicultural issues in Canada. In this article Ben shares with us his life experience throughout his early years, the Second World War, and his almost 60 years in Canada. He also gives us insight into his unique views on Canada’s role as a potential model nation in terms of how we deal with immigration and immigrant settlement, notions that are very dear to my own heart.
I was amazed by Ben’s energy and creativity and enjoyed the time we spent in a little restaurant along Bloor Street, learning from a man whose life experience spans almost a century, a man whose energy, creativity and broad-mindedness captivate.
1. Please tell us about yourself and your background.
I am a Canadian well qualified, I believe, to speak for multiculturalism and diversity through my mixed parentage, early education at a London school with an international student body, travel abroad, followed in Canada since the late 1940s by a diverse career in communications much of which has placed me in contact with Canadians from a wide variety of origins and backgrounds
Ben at the provincial archive, Winnipeg with the complete issues of
the Icelandic Framfari, first ethnic newspaper published in Manitoba,
in a scene from The Third Element
2. You grew up in England as the child of Italian immigrants. Please tell us more about that.
My father, an Italian immigrant to Britain, met and married my mother, an Englishwoman. They had two children, my younger brother John and me, seven years his senior. Our delight was to grow up in a home in which husband and wife enjoyed mutual respect for each other’s national traits. We lived in an ambiance of being loved and in turn, loving.
In those days, marriage to a foreign citizen who was not naturalized meant wife and children were Italian nationals and a sense of duality became natural to us. We ate chicken cacciatore and olives, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and rejoiced when Dad came home with sticks ot torrone, Italian nougat bought at Barale and Crippa an Italian grocery in the heart of Soho. Also their tangy salami. And while my Italian grandparents were still alive, they mailed boxes of home made salami, soppressata and goat cheese to us.
3. Your working life originally started out in the barber shop of your father. Please tell us more about that.
From childhood, I loved being read to and even made up my own stories. I remember my mother recounting that I had created a fictional country that I frequently “visited.” It was peopled entirely by cats and I called it “Abloo Labloo Land.” Even before I started kindergarten I knew the alphabet and could detect certain printed words and by seven sensational papers like News of the World were hidden away from me.
My favourite subjects were English, French and History and not being much of a sportsman or gymnast I reveled in opportunities to participate in school dramatics and class performances of Shakespeare.
There was a brief fling at pro theatre when at 15 I joined a troupe of youngsters at the spacious Wimbledon home of the Thursby-Pelhams. The husband was a prominent English lawyer and his wife born in Mexico but raised in England had brought up her children Lola and Marshall in a theatrical atmosphere. She had written a children’s Christmas play in which a school is magically transported to all corners of the world.
I played Ronnie, the third juvenile lead after Lola and Marshall and the famous music hall comedian Harry Tate was engaged to play the school teacher. By the time the show was sufficiently rewritten, rehearsed and ready to go, no London theatres were available and the idea of a West End production abandoned, but we gave a few performances in aid of charity at town halls and other locations with stage facilities. I remain a ham at heart and during my army years, organized a number of shows performed by soldiers.
My reverence for the spoken and written word is perhaps what has most governed my life. I attended Pitman’s College where I learned typing and shorthand skills. I was disappointed that I could never get into journalism even at the entry level of copy boy or some other menial job. Oddly enough, my father encouraged me in my search and never insisted on my becoming a hairdresser.
At age 17, I became a hairdresser feeling I owed it to my father who had tried so hard to get me introductions to press people. I was first apprenticed to a large salon at Liverpool St. Station and then attended hairdressing schools.
My father remained a barber but had excellent management skills and rose to be manager of the ladies and gents salon at the world renowned Claridges hotel. In 1935, he opened a small salon of his own and two years later a much larger business on Cork Street, in the heart of the Saville Row district. The clientele included the aristocracy, the greats of politics and diplomacy and many people from the arts and entertainment world: Anton Walbrook, Valerie Hobson, Jan Masaryk, Sir David Lean, Sir Arthur Bliss, Alexander Korda, to name a few. The window of the salon carried the Royal Warrant, the official coat of arms of the House of Windsor, granted because one of Dad’s personal clients was a Royal Duke — I can’t remember which one.
I worked at the entry level at the Cork Street establishment and then found jobs in the suburbs, but my heart was never in the craft deeply enough to take it to the art that my father and his contemporaries raised it. Today, in the light of the fate that befell millions it seems sinful to say that I joined the army with a sense of relief.
4. You were also fighting for the British Army during World War II. What was your role and where were you stationed?
I was able to claim British citizenship at age 21, along with my mother and thus eligible to join the army. Although I would have been conscripted anyway, I was able to volunteer and so to choose the Royal Artillery rather than the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry.)
I was one of the few people of my age to be fortunate enough to own and drive a car, which I’d been given for my 21st birthday, so I automatically became a driving instructor at the helm of a dual control vintage Rolls Royce which to my chagrin was speed-governed to 30 mph.
That period lasted from October ’39 to March ’40 when I was shipped to France with a draft of reinforcements, not to replace casualties for this was the period of the Phony War and two mighty armies faced each other across the Maginot Line, only firing token shots occasionally. Many troops were already going home to England on leave and as they trickled off, some of us were sent to the front lines to replace them in their activity.
New Years’ Day, 1948. Why Bill McVean was holding his golf club, neither of us can remember, but in my own memory, this was and still is a landmark of my life here — to enjoy such hospitality so soon after arriving in Canada.
5. Please tell us some of the stories you remember most from your time during WWII. What was your personal experience during this crucial time in history?
The phony war ended May 10, when the panzers came pouring into Belgium and Holland and the front line troops were eventually driven back to the sands of Dunkirk. In desperation it seems, the British Army rallied the troops who were well out of harm’s way during the Dunkirk evacuation — mostly raw replacements like ourselves and formed them into impromptu units like “E” Field Battery to which I was posted as a driver.
We move up from Nantes where we were formed into a unit and headed toward Paris, where it was assumed we’d defend the city along with the French until reinforcements arrived from Britain. This became impossible, we leaned later, since the troops who’d been fortunate enough to be evacuated from Dunkirk had few arms and there weren’t enough ready in srmy storage in England.
When we reached a certain point miles short of Paris and dug gun pits it was with dismay that we witnessed what seemed like the entire French Army in retreat; south they went in weary dejection, leaving Paris to the Nazis. Then we heard the capital had fallen and Italy had entered the war against us. We had all of us — officers and men — now become true companions, and apart from a few light hearted remarks to buoy up my spirits after Mussolini’s decision, I sensed neither prejudice nor concern at my being one half Italian.
My lot was to drive one of the two senior lieutenants in the unit on reconnaissance of the neighbourhoods at which we would build gun sites, contact supply depots for food and try to locate command headquarters.
It is difficult to describe the fluid state of affairs when often, not even our commanding officer knew nothing of the overall Army plans. On one occasion, we thought we were being strafed by enemy aircraft but the commotion was a dogfight and suddenly from our cover in a small stand of trees, we saw a British fighter plane ploughing through the earth. Two of our fellows dashed into the open to find the pilot alive and well except for a sprained ankle. He was dragged into cover, fed and driven to the nearest RAF airfield remaining in France.
On another occasion, Lieutenant Jack Lowery and I were driving on a rural road when coming rapidly toward us was a strange looking vehicle which we suddenly realized was a German armoured car. In a flash, we both saw a side road to our left, and swinging the steering wheel madly, we turned into it on two wheels and drove like hell for several miles. We’ll never know why the Germans didn’t fire at us or attempt pursuit. Maybe they thought our light van was one of theirs.
And so it went for eight more days. Dig in, await orders, and then retreat until finally we arrived at Cherbourg where the guns were loaded onto a ship. The vehicles were driven into a field outside the city where they would be destroyed. However, as driver of a lighter vehicle, I was one of ten who were told that remnants of a company of Cameron Highlanders were stranded outside Caen, some 90 miles to the north of Cherbourg and we’d have to go back to pick them up.
By now the roads were clogged with refugees moving south, thousands on foot, some travelling on bicycles, a lucky few in vehicles, even a hearse. The going was rough when we set out before daybreak but we made the rendezvous just after noon only to find no Cameron Highlanders. We drove around the area, found nobody and assumed the Scotties had been picked by others. As a short cut, we decided to drive through the south end of Caen, which wasn’t such a good idea since we heard the rattle of German gunfire as the Nazis poured into Caen. Fortunately they must have paused to regroup since we were able to leave unhampered.
The road back to Cherbourg was even more difficult and eventful than the road up to Caen. We did manage to find a few British soldiers going it on foot along with the other refugees but as we crawled back to the seaport we were machine gunned twice in 15 minutes by a lone Stuka. Each time refugees and ourselves threw ourselves into roadside ditches. We searched for dead and wounded but couldn’t’ find a scratch.
We reached Cherbourg in the last hours of daylight and were ushered into the hold of a cargo ship. I lay down on the bare metal and slept like a log, waking to find myself on a cloudless June morning in Southampton harbour
‘E” Field Battery was quickly disbanded to the regrets of the entire group. Jack Lowery had been promoted to captain and we were dispatched hither and yon.
Within three weeks I found myself drafted into the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, an anti-tank regiment assigned to garrison duty in Northern Ireland. From then on, after the few weeks of high excitement in France, life seemed anti-climactic and I whiled away boredom by writing an account of the three months I’d spent in that beautiful, doomed country. After the manuscript was typed, I submitted it to a few publishers but by then so many first-hand accounts had already been published and other conflicts — Greece, the Middle East — had broken out and my MSS was stale news. But I never regretted the confidence that completion of the 30,000-word book gave me.
Other wartime memories are legion and would take a book to fill. My 36 months in Northern Ireland gave me some insights into the “troubles” that began nearly 30 years later. Back in England promoted to bombardier (corporal) I specialized in administering spare parts supply to the regiment’s vehicles until one fortunate day I was dispatched to the land of my fathers.
I was posted to Italy as a reinforcement but my knowledge of Italian soon got me special status wherever I went until eventually I was posted to the Military Mission to the Italian Army as an interpreter/translator with the rank of staff sergeant. It was fairly routine work but I was in Rome, a city l already knew, and one in which by now were it not for my love for Canada, I would otherwise have found some way to settle.
6. What happened when you returned to England after the war?
My first job on being discharged from the Military Mission to the Italian Army in 1946: was as a reader with Paramount Pictures’ London office, feeding the great maw of Hollywood with synopses of new books. Then to the fast-growing J. Arthur Rank Organization as a story analyst, where I not only read but saw new plays and foreign-language films. I was also earmarked for a training program with Rank’s junior production unit, Highbury Studio. My ambition then was to become a writer-director.
Rank was seeking a vehicle for an English production featuring Hollywood great Frederic March and his wife, Florence and I was asked to write a treatment of a short story by Rudyard Kipling about an American industrialist and his wife and how they become enamoured of rural life in England. Which I did, to some praise, but unfortunately the producer chose Christopher Columbus as their vehicle.
Disaster arrived in the form of the “Bogart or Bacon” tax with the Labour government slapping a 70 percent tax on all Hollywood films. Instead of bolstering the British film industry, the tax had a reverse effect on Rank, with five British studios. Reciprocal distribution agreements with the U.S film industry went out the window and hundreds of men and women were fired. That included me!
7. Why did you decide to go to Canada and what were your experiences just after your arrival?
No job, no prospect. Rank was the only game in town and for writers, newsprint shortage had reduced newspapers and magazines to shadows of their pre-war selves. Travel held no terrors for me and through meeting Canadians in England, I’d come to see the potential of a “new”country. It was the late Alan Jarvis, an expatriate sculptor who eventually returned to become director of our National Gallery who finally helped me make up my mind.
8. Several people assisted you in the beginning when you came to Canada. Please tell us about that.
I owe my first job to two people. Broadcaster and travel writer Bill McVean and the late Harry Savage, one of the best ever Canadian publicists.
I arrived in Canada December 15, 1947 and reaching Toronto two days later; after finding a room, wrote to Bill Mc Vean in Woodstock who while in the RCAF had been befriended by a family in London. At a farewell party at my cousins’ home I met this couple who insisted I contact Bill. The reply to my letter was a telegram to the effect that I was invited to spend New Year’s with him and his parents. Bill was then a broadcaster/D.J at a station in Wingham and after some wonderful hospitality, on January 2, I started out for Wingham with Bill but heavy snowfall forced us to literally dig our way back to Woodstock for several few miles before the road was cleared sufficiently.
9. How did your career progress once you were in Canada? How did you originally get into the media business?
Bill knew Harry Savage , a brilliant Toronto publicist and writer, and back in Toronto, I met with Harry who gave me several contacts. I picked the least likely job first, and landed it! within three weeks of arriving here, I was working at Turnbull Elevator Company Limited Company writing brochures and creating a house organ. I was subsequently appointed its first public relations officer.
So the line passed from McVean to Savage to Gordon Turnbull, proud of the fact that his all-Canadian company was second only in sales here to the mighty international Otis Elevator. Gordon was, for his background (son of a Scottish immigrant engineer) an extraordinarily broad-minded man. When he asked me the origin of my name I felt no discomfort at his attitude. He expounded on the need for large-scale immigration to keep Canada out of American hands.
At the Turnbull Company, I was surrounded by engineers, not among the most imaginative members of society, but Gordon — himself an engineer –asked me how I thought his company’s name could achieve greater prestige. In the mid 50s, self-service elevators were being introduced into large office buildings and we had to steal a march on our competitor, Otis.
I had one of those flashes of imagination that have helped me on many occasions. I said “Why not introduce the world’s first elevator hostess? Dressed smartly in a distinctive uniform like an airline stewardess, “Miss Turnbull” would stand in lobbies of large buildings and help people adjust to self-service travel. He mulled over the idea for five mites as I trepidated, and then proceeded to call the general manager, the chief engineer and one or two other executives into his office. Gordon wasn’t feared by his staff, but as he asked me to explain my idea it was clear to the others that he approved. And so Miss Turnbull was born. On her first appearance she made the Toronto newspapers and television. By the time Miss Turnbull had appeared in several new buildings, I received a president’s award from the Canadian Public Relations Society.
For five years, I was part of the Sidney S. Brown School of Radio Drama. Having first attended class in 1948 because I wanted to get a handle on radio playwriting, I found myself as a teacher and genial assistant to Syd Brown, who remained a close friend until his death in 1979. Together we produced Sunday night plays featuring the students, first on CHUM, then on CKFH and finally back to CHUM. Classes were always in the evenings and so didn’t conflict with my daytime job.
Because of Miss Turnbull, I had also attracted some job offers, but when General Foods Limited, Canadian subidiary of the giant White Plains Corporation — Jello, Birdseye, Post cereals, Maxwell House coffee — showed interest, I couldn’t resist and so in 1956 parted with the Turnbull company.