I was turning 13 during the summer of 1989. My family and I had been living in Holland Landing, in one of the new houses on Stegman Road, for just about a year. Our living room window looked out in the direction of the drive-in theatre where we could see screen one. Many nights I spent staring out that window with binoculars watching the first Michael Keaton “Batman” movie as it had just been released. I became very good at reading lips from this practice as, sadly, the radio signal transmitted from the drive-in died out about 100 m's from my home.
My family friend, Darren Robertson, whose mom was the lunch supervisor at H.L.P.S. for many years including during my time there, worked at the local hardware store. The Holland Landing Hardware Store as a matter of fact, then a staple (pun intended) of the Grist Mill Plaza. Today that unit is occupied by the E.G. Soccer Assn. and a political office if memory serves me correctly. Back then Lentini's Pizza was in the western most unit, where the Wild Wing now resides. The convenience store was still there, but larger (I would later work there for a short time) and there was also a doctor's office and the same pharmacy there is today.
Darren had worked at The Holland Landing Hardware Store for some time and one Sunday he called my household in bit of a panic:
“Matthew, it's Darren. Is Mark there?” He said urgently. He always called for my brother as the two of them were closer in age, 5 and 6 years my senior.
“No” I replied. “What's the matter?”
“Nothing, just get down here. You're never gonna believe this!”
“What? Why?” I replied, but he had already hung up.
I decided to listen to Darren, after all, he had never made a strange request like this before. It was just after lunch and both my parents were busy doing something, so I put on my running shoes and made the walk toward the hardware store, cutting through the park just east of the plaza like I had a hundred times before. I kind of expect a big hoopla when I got there: cop cars, an ambulance, something to mark the occasion, but when I arrived everything seemed normal. That is, until I got in the front doors.
There, standing at the counter, was easily one of the largest human beings I had ever seen in my life. I'd seen him in countless movies and on SCTV of course, but it didn't do him any justice at all. Later in life, when I read his biography, I learned that he was actually just under 6'2” tall and his jolly girth made him even more imposing, but you could tell within seconds of meeting his gaze that he was easily one of the sweetest human beings you would ever meet.
I think my heart stopped beating. I remember feeling flushed and warm all of a sudden. And really nervous. I had heard the rumours that he lived in the area, Queensville I think. Later I would learn his family owned a farm on Doane Road. But there is nothing quite like the feeling when rumours become reality.
There he was: John Candy at The Holland Landing Hardware Store. It just didn't seem real. What the heck was he doing there? Since first entering the store I found myself stashed in one the aisles, kind of peering at him between the merchandise. He was just standing at the front counter, shooting the breeze with the old guy who ran the store. He was wearing old looking leather shoes, really well worn, the kind you slip on without socks. No socks, obviously, khaki shorts and a big plaid shirt, brown and white I think. He had a shaggy beard and fedora like hat on top of his head.
He glowed with kindness. He greeted every person he saw. Spoke to them with respect and made eye contact with everyone. No Hollywood facade here. No entourage. No pomp and circumstance. Just a really nice person.
Apparently, he had offered to buy anyone in the store whatever they wanted. He offered to buy an old man the drill he was interested in, asking a pair of little girls if they wanted the water-wings they were bugging their parents to get for them, and purchasing what looked like gardening stuff for himself and his family. I was too shocked to take advantage of this opportunity, but there he was, star of the recently released “Uncle Buck”, “The Great Outdoors,” “Summer Rental,” “Splash”, the immortal “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and my absolute favourite of at the time “Spaceballs.” I was in the presence of comedic greatness and the greatest influence in my later acting career and I was hiding behind shovels and hoes. Pathetic.
The time seemed to stand still but I'm sure it was just a few minutes. Eventually he finished his transaction and started for the door. I had to do something. I had to get his attention. For him to notice me. For me to tell him how much I loved his work. Somehow I managed to stumble back towards the door just as he was heading out. There I was, this gawky pre-teen, just standing there dumbfounded. He must have noticed me watching him because he paused before he left and I managed to put out my hand which he shock with great care and thoughtfulness. He asked me my name and I hopefully mumbled something accurate and he said he was pleased to meet me.
And that was it. He was gone. But not forgotten. My buddy Darren was standing at the counter with a funny look on his face. He had watched me go from a normal kid to a shy little bunny in the blink of an eye, but kudos to him for not making me feel bad about it. We stood there at the counter and talked about the experience for what seemed like hours. The whole store took part actually. It was no longer a place of work, but a celebration of a local celebrity that brought so much joy to us all. The best part was he was so nice, so down to earth, so Canadian. It was an experience I would obviously never forget.
At the time I wanted to be a major league baseball player. Made a run at it too. But a major injury ended all that. During my recovery I watched a lot of TV. A lot of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and a lot of SCTV. It would inspire me to actually study at the world famous Second City Toronto, the same place John Candy had trained. I even got to grace the stage at the old fire hall location where he and the other greats of his time had cut their teeth. You could feel their presence there. Later I would start my own comedy troupe: the Canadian Improv Showcase and as homage to John and his contemporaries, I auditioned my talent just as they had detailed their experiences. It just seemed the right thing to do.
Some years later I read the biography “Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy” by Martin Knelman and learned a lot about this larger than life individual. One thing that stood out to me was that he apparently was not interested in being apart of the film “Spaceballs.” That he shot it because of a contractual obligation. Well, today, if a star does something they don't want to you would know all about it. It would be all over the tabloids and in the media. But John Candy was a professional. He was so professional that he put on a spectacular performance in a movie he didn't even want to do. I'm sure he had a change of heart with how well the film did, but it speaks volumes about the nature of his character. In this day and age of “Character Matters” in schools and whatnot, that type of character needs to be celebrated and that is one of many reasons why I have made it a personal goal of mine to have Mr. John Candy immortalized in our community in some way. A street, school or perhaps a theatre named after one of the greatest men in all of Canadian entertainment history.