Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Dark Underbelly of Being a Hostess at Expo 67 (from the Kingston Whig Standard 15 June 17)

“Come a little closer….” he whispered urgently in my ear.  “A little more….”

I was shaken.  A respected familiar public figure, now leering at me as we sat side by side in the theatre.  Was nothing sacred?

But this was 1967, decades before such apparent behaviour was labelled inappropriate, and so I simply squirmed and smiled more brightly than ever, anxious not to give offence.

Then, with deep frustration in his voice, he said, “I’m really hard of hearing.”

Whew!  I thought, and immediately re-hoisted Jack Benny on his pedestal.

The iconic comedian had come to Montreal along with the whole world that summer, to visit Expo 67.  And I was the Ontario Pavilion hostess assigned to accompany him and the still super-elegant singer-entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, as they watched our Oscar-winning film, “A Place to Stand”.

With Benny on one side and Chevalier on the other, I sat star-struck while the multi-screen scenes unfolded dazzlingly in every direction. The following afternoon a column captioned “Mother Will Never Believe This”, appeared in a newspaper, alongside a dewy photo of me.  A small but irresistible taste of fame set in……

Those were truly halcyon days for the 50 young men and women that made up the pavilion hosting staff.  In those six months from April to October, we squired the famous, hosted all-pavilion parties that put Ontario’s name up in lights, and watched as millions descended on tiny reclaimed Ile Ste Helene.

In preparation for this once in a lifetime job, we’d memorized detailed facts and figures about Ontario.  We needn’t have bothered. No one ever asked us anything more consequential than: “Where’s the bathroom?”  “What time’s the restaurant open?” “When’s the next movie showing?” and “Where’s the Stanley Cup, the Coupe Stanley?” The Cup, won by the Leafs that year, was displayed in a bulletproof case, an OPP officer proudly and perpetually by its side.

To relieve our resulting boredom, we would often stand stock still, frozen, with our eyes fixed, our mouths agape and our arms unnaturally outstretched, until some baffled visitor would inch closer and lay a timid finger on an arm or a hand.  Then we’d suddenly spring to life, to great shock and amusement.  It definitely helped to pass the time.

We hostesses were kitted out in natty khaki and white uniforms – white gloves (the only part of my outfit I can still slip into) forever covering our hands -- with toupee hats made of some ghastly synthetic material.  Those white domes, which trapped heat and humidity and left our Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdos wet and straggly, turned out to be the perfect camouflage for brush hair-rollers.  By wrapping hanks of hair around five or six of these prickly little beautifying rods, and securing them with pink plastic sticks, we could – with a bit of brushing and a lot of teasing – appear presentable at the end of our shifts.  There was always a party somewhere and we were always invited.

Along with the hats, we were issued high-heeled shoes made of Corfam, a new man-made material that had two shortcomings:  it didn’t breathe; and it crippled.  After an hour or two on our feet we all hobbled to a standstill.  Leather replacements were soon found.

The white go-go boots we wore in rainy weather were no better.  Equally air tight, they gathered moisture, etc.  It was the etc. that was immediately and pungently noticeable if one of the hostesses took her boots off in a confined space.

Before Expo actually opened, we were given basic beauty lessons by Eleanor Fulcher, owner of the eponymous Toronto modelling agency.  She encouraged us to be bright-eyed at all times, a look she insisted would be enhanced by false eyelashes.   

I apparently was the only one that believed her and was accordingly known all summer long for the distracting pair of tarantulas that flapped untethered on my eyelids.  I was never without them.  I would apply them at the start of each week, and for the next five days would simply stub them down whenever they threatened to escape. Peeling them off and re-installing them was a major undertaking involving glue and a steady hand.  Getting them on straight – especially on the clacking Montreal-Toronto train – was particularly hazardous.  But the eyelashes made quite an impact, and defined me in a not-altogether-flattering way.

Each of us spoke several languages – more or less – but apart from the Franco-Ontarians among us, fluent French was not generally one of them.  Products of Ontario secondary school language classes, we did our best to muddle through, and fortunately no comments were made nor incidents kindled, though several harmless and humorous misunderstandings resulted.

It was the best of times and……well…...the super-best of times.  As one of our hosts later wrote: we had the pre-eminent jobs in Canada that year and were part of the luckiest generation on earth.  We were on the cusp of life, ready to launch at the end of an enchanting summer.  Our opportunities seemed limitless. 

I still boast about that magical period in my life.  But over the years I’ve noticed my audience’s eyes start to glaze over.  Somewhere along the line, listeners started to say in wonderment, “My parents took me to Expo in a stroller!”   About five years ago I met a young man who told me his mother was taken there in a stroller!

I guess that’s possible.  It’s been fifty years after all.  Hard to believe.

Alena Schram is the author of The Opinionated Old Cow:  Ruminations from the Field.  She lives on Amherst Island near Kingston with her husband, John, a retired Canadian diplomat.  Her white Expo gloves have been useful in cleaning out bird cages and in rubbing shoulders with royalty at three Buckingham Palace Garden Parties.  They may be viewed by appointment.

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