It has been a long time since I watched The Late Show with David Letterman. Last I remember tuning in was to see Sixto Rodriguez perform a couple of years back. In recent years, I have been turned off by his increasingly strident left-wing posture and his vicious attacks on Sarah Palin on her children. He would apologize for his June 2009 “joke” about the then 14-year old Willow Palin being knocked up by New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, but as it turns out, the apology was insincere.
The only reason I will watch Letterman’s final show is because of the man who has been by his side for the past 33 years — Paul Shaffer.
You see Paul Shaffer was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and it just happens to be where I was born and raised too. Now I’ve never met Paul Shaffer. In fact, he left Thunder Bay before it was even known as Thunder Bay. My hometown didn’t exist until 1970 when the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated. There was even a vote by plebiscite to determine the name of the city. Voters were given three choices: Lakehead, The Lakehead, or Thunder Bay. Honestly, it would have made more sense to call the city Lakehead as it is situated on the head of Lake Superior. To this day, there are as many businesses and organizations that bear the name Lakehead as they do Thunder Bay. But with the Lakehead vote split, Thunder Bay would prevail.
Although I have never met Shaffer, we both attended Shaarey Shomayim Synagogue. Our family knew his parents, Shirley and Bernard who was an attorney and also spent many years on the Board of Governors at Lakehead University where my Dad taught for more than four decades. My parents saw Shaffer play at the Circle Inn shortly after arriving in Thunder Bay in 1969 where he was leading a jazz trio. Dad couldn’t believe the quality of the music. “It was kind of music you’d hear in The Village,” Dad recently told me, “Yet I was hearing this in the middle of nowhere.”
This is not an exaggeration. Although more than 100,000 call Thunder Bay home, it is very isolated. Although Thunder Bay and Toronto are in the same province, Toronto is more than 850 miles away. When people make the drive, it is generally done over two days. The nearest major Canadian city is Winnipeg, which is a seven and a half hour drive. So it’s not surprising that many Thunder Bay residents prefer to drive to Duluth, Minnesota to spend their weekends. The three and a half hour drive is brief by comparison especially when driving on the smoother roads in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
While the road might be bumpy, when one drives around Thunder Bay it becomes evident to the senses that it has many natural virtues. The trees are a darker shade of green than I’ve seen anywhere else. These virtues can also be seen from my parents’ home. From the balcony you can see the Sleeping Giant overlooking Lake Superior. Known as Nanabijou in the Aboriginal language of Ojibway, he according to legend was turned to stone by the Great Spirit when he divulged the secret location of a silver mine to white settlers. You can also see Mount McKay (a.k.a. Thunder Mountain), which is situated on the reserve of the Fort William First Nation. To Thunder Bay’s west there is Kakabeka Falls, the Niagara of the North. To Thunder Bay’s east is Ouimet Canyon, which is grand in its own way. If you enjoy hunting, fishing, and skiing (both the downhill and cross-country variety), then you will like Thunder Bay. If you enjoy the bitter cold, then Thunder Bay is really the place for you. When my parents arrived in July 1969 they were greeted by a foot of snow. You read that right. It snowed in July. Needless to say, its harsh winters prepared me for this year’s record snowfall in Boston.
Whatever the season, no trip to Thunder Bay is complete without having french fries on Hodder Avenue (which are so good you don’t need to add ketchup) and eating a Persian. No, Iranians are not subject to cannibalism in Thunder Bay. A Persian is a cinnamon roll with pink or white frosting on top which is usually flavored with raspberries, strawberries, or maybe cherries. Our answer to Dairy Queen was Merla Mae.
Then there is the somber. In the summer of 1980, Terry Fox captivated Canada with his Marathon of Hope. Fox lost a leg to cancer and was determined to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society by running across Canada. Sadly, Fox was forced to end his run just outside Thunder Bay. A year after his death, Thunder Bay would erect the Terry Fox Lookout and Memorial in honor of Fox’s bravery near where he ended his run.
But there is also the amusing. I also think it’s pretty neat that it is Thunder Bay where Stephen Stills and Neil Young met for the first time before becoming collaborators with both Buffalo Springfield and later as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
There is also the unique. Thunder Bay is the home to one of the largest Finnish communities in the world outside of Finland. The centerpiece of the Finnish Community is the Finlandia Centre. Its basement is the home to The Hoito, the oldest co-operatively owned restaurant in Canada. It was started by organizers from the International Workers of the World (IWW) to offer cheap food for forestry workers. The Hoito might very well be the Wobblies’ greatest achievement. Many a Canadian politician has come through the Hoito looking for votes, as well as the occasional celebrity. Although the New York Times recently did a write-up on The Hoito, the piece did not mention that it has hit hard times and may soon close.
Like many communities in both Canada and the United States, Thunder Bay is one of those places people leave to seek greener pastures even if they are unlikely to find greener trees. Many head east to Ottawa, Montreal, or Halifax. Others go west to Winnipeg, Edmonton, or Vancouver. A good many also head to southern Ontario cities like London, Hamilton, and, of course, Toronto. Others found their way to this country. Paul Shaffer is no exception.
Shaffer grew up with music. His parents reared him on classical music and jazz. But like many teenagers in the early 1960s, he fell in love with rock ’n’ roll and started his own band, the Fugitives. After attending the University of Toronto and graduating with a sociology degree, Shaffer had the good fortune of finding work in music when Broadway producer Stephen Schwartz hired him to be the musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell. It was on this production he would meet the likes of Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short. Schwartz would bring Shaffer to New York to play piano on his next Broadway production The Magic Show. Then late in 1975, Shaffer was hired to be part of the band on a new show called Saturday Night Live. He would be with the show for its first five seasons and appeared in a number of sketches, usually as music mogul Don Kirshner or as the piano player for Bill Murray’s lounge singer. After leaving SNL, he worked with Gilda Radner (who he later admitted was his unrequited love) on her one-woman Broadway show Gilda Radner — Live from New York.
But it would be his association with David Letterman that would make him a star. Although Letterman has been on late night TV for more than three decades, his heyday was during the 1980s and early 1990s when he was on NBC. Late Night with David Letterman was cutting edge in those days and was enormously popular among the student body at Port Arthur Collegiate Institute (PACI). For us it wasn’t just stupid pet tricks or the Top 10 list, but the presence of Shaffer himself. Like many Canadians, we resented Americans myself included (although I had an American born father). Yet making it in America also represented the epitome of success. The fact that someone who grew up in Thunder Bay not only found his way on American TV, but recorded and performed with the likes of Diana Ross, Robert Plant, Cher, and the recently departed B.B. King, meant that there was a chance any of us could make it in the world.
Thunder Bay has certainly been grateful to Shaffer. It honored him by naming the street in front of the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium — what else? — Paul Shaffer Way. And yet Paul Shaffer never forgot Thunder Bay. It was not unusual to see Paul’s parents in the audience and over the years, he and Dave have mentioned Thunder Bay numerous times. At the height of Michael J. Fox’s popularity following the success of Back to the Future, I recall the Vancouver native ribbing Shaffer, “We looked upon Thunder Bay with amused pity.” Well, Shaffer saw things a little differently. I remember Shaffer appearing in a commercial for Labatt’s Twist Shandy (which was a mix of beer and ginger ale). He said, “People ask me, how did you become so cool? Well, being from Thunder Bay helps.” It most certainly does.