Tea for Toller

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For a decade, Toller Cranston played the strawberry  violin.

Picasso had his Blue Period. Cranston had his Strawberry Period.

Cranston always subscribed to the maxim that “If something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing.”

In 1970, he walked into the home of a California coach and his psyche was ignited by her over-the top, exuberant strawberry décor. He went home and painted “The Strawberry Queen,” which was followed in quick succession by “The Strawberry Patch,” the “Strawberry Tango,” the “Strawberry Sisters,”  the “Strawberry Warrior.”

“Strawberries overwhelmed my paintings like juicy red barnacles on a ship’s hull: clusters and clusters and clusters and more and more and more,” he said in his autobiography “When Hell Freezes Over, Should I Bring My Skates?”

When serious art collectors began to think them trite, Cranston said he phased out the strawberry period, but sometimes, during a decorative work, “a strawberry pops out of nowhere and lands on the canvas.”

But not before Cranston’s first television production of “Strawberry Ice,” a visual fantasy, a 1982 CBC production that won a string of awards and was broadcast in 67 countries.

Out of the trunk of his coach Ellen Burka came an old video of that show, and that video begat Toller’s Strawberry tea, held at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club a day before what would have been Cranston’s 66th birthday on April 20. Cranston died on Jan. 24 of an apparent heart attack.

At the Cricket, the strawberries returned en masse.  There were chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry cookies, strawberry scones, strawberry ice cream. Astra Burka, daughter of coach Ellen Burka, came dressed in red from head to toe. Red skirts, pink blouses, honoured the strawberry.

Best of all, was the star of the show, the costume that Frances Dafoe had designed for Sarah Kawahara, the Strawberry Queen in the film. While the video’s colour had paled over the years, the costume had not. It stood resplendent at the front of the room, all intense pink petals of various shades, a work of art, indeed. Dafoe, herself, was at the party, seeing it again.

During the video, the crowd tittered when Osborne Colson gestured as only he can on camera, wearing a costume that made him appear portly. Sandra Bezic arose from a clam. Peggy Fleming danced with the artist. Chita Rivera brought a sensual touch. Allan Schramm was the second lead, and seemed to be the force of evil, or the anti-artist that keeps returning like a bad penny, until Cranston throws him off his game, banishing him down a whirlpool into a black hole. That’s when the strawberry court is free to come out.

Early in the story, a ghostly Toller floats out of his body and into a painting, taking a fantastical journey. Bodies float in this film. Is it any surprise that, in so many Cranston paintings, figures float above the earth, untied to convention, free of gravity and rules?

Downstairs at the Cricket, in a special display cabinet, was a figures medal that Cranston won during a Skate Canada International event. Yes, a figures medal. “His big problem was figures,” said former international judge Jane Garden, who used to be Cranston’s judge monitor, even back from the time he trained in Montreal.

“He had a rather free spirit toward what figures should be,” said Garden, who said it was challenging but interesting to be his monitor. Garden discovered that Cranston executed the figures best when he laid them out on clean ice in front of a judge. So every morning, she got into the habit of stopping by the club (she lived around the corner from the Cricket) on her way to school, and watched him do one figure. She’d look at it and continue on to her teaching job.

One morning, a CBC crew showed up to film Cranston. “They had somebody following him around the figure with a microphone to catch the sound of the blade,” Garden said. “He laid out the best figure that morning that I’d seen in years. He rose to the occasion.”

Shortly after that, Cranston won that figures medal. And when he returned to Toronto, he gave the medal to Garden, telling her that she was really the one who had earned it. Garden gave the medal to the club a couple of years ago, and during the tea, it was on display, an unusual trophy in Cranston’s career.

But Garden really came to the tea to talk about Cranston’s “extremely generous nature.” A tiny woman, she stood on a stool behind a massive podium to deliver her message.

When Cranston was on tour, he was always on the lookout for talented young skaters. When he found one, he’d let the Canadian Figure Skating Association know. He’d sometimes get them to perform on one of his tours or shows. He started up a bursary fund at the Cricket Club – and it was meant to help novice level skaters who needed encouragement. Garden was on that committee that made it happen. Cranston endowed it.

As interest rates fell, the endowment needed help. So Cranston would donate items for silent auctions and the bursary has continued. “He said there were so many times along the way that he thought why was he pushing on, when nobody seemed to recognize his ability – which was partly because he was so off the wall,” Garden said. “He said you need it when you’re at that novice level. You need encouragement to keep at it and work. He said it doesn’t have to be a huge amount, just enough that somebody cared enough to give you a couple of hundred dollars to help out.”

He showed his generosity other ways. During the 1970s, Cranston had opportunities to perform in Russia. He knew that Russian skaters had a hard time buying tights inside the country – after World War II, many European countries fielded skaters that showed up with darned and tattered tights. Coach Sheldon Galbraith, head coach at the Cricket, trained his skaters to take an extra pair with them – to help others.

Cranston would stuff his suitcase full of women’s tights. And if he had to explain to Soviet customs why he brought so many, he’d tell them that he needed them “so his pants would ride smoothly as he performed, but that they didn’t survive more than one performance. So he needed many of them,” Garden said.

He’d also fill his suitcase with fruits and nuts for coaches and officials and tell customs that they were his form of nutrition. In reality, he knew that people in Russia couldn’t get the candied fruit they needed to bake Christmas cakes.

“He did all sorts of considerate things,” Garden said. “Yet at the same time, he could be obnoxious, because he didn’t do the thank yous that people were expecting. But he did all these things that showed he really did care deeply about people.”

Haig Oundjian, a former president of the British Ice Skating federation and a member of the British delegation that brought the Summer Olympics to London in 2012, was a skating colleague and long-time confidante of Cranston. Oundjian was also a contemporary of John Curry, Cranston’s greatest rival.

Oundjian also partook of strawberries and tea at the Cricket Club and noted how he worked to keep Cranston on the financial straight and narrow. “It wasn’t that easy,” he said. Cranston’s typical retort in times of trouble was” Oh for god’s sake, I’m an artist. What do you expect?”

But Oundjian also counselled Cranston on another of his great life regrets: that he hadn’t won the Olympic gold medal in 1976. It ate away at him for years  like rust on an old jalopy fender.

Oundjian told of a wonderfully written 2014 book by British filmmaker/author Bill Jones called “Alone” a book about the tortured inner life of John Curry, Cranston’s archrival – the one who had snatched Olympic glory from him.

“John was well behind Toller in the days of the old judging system,” Oundjian said. “When you were behind, you stayed behind, correct?”

So, said Oundjian, Cranston had every reason to expect that he would remain ahead of the British skater, especially after a powerful skate at the 1974 world championships in Munich, Germany – when Curry had a disastrous performance. And, according to “Alone,” Italian-born coach Carlo Fassi was looking to bring a male skater to Colorado Springs, where he coached, in 1974.

To Cranston, Fassi said:  “Toller, I have Dorothy Hamill here, as you know, I have all the facilities, and I want you to come on a full scholarship. I want you to come to Colorado and train with me and my wife and we will make you an Olympic gold medalist.”  He offered free lessons, free ice, even a car.

The book describes Fassi thus: “In a sport infected by politics, Fassi was a master politician; a professor of spin….Fassi prowled backstage tirelessly.”

“Does that mean I have to leave Ellen Burka?” Cranston asked him.

“Yes,” Fassi said. “You do. The offer is open right now. There’s a ticket booked with your name on it. Come down.”

Cranston didn’t bite. He could not discard Burka so callously. “She’s been a wonderful coach and a wonderful friend, given me great guidance and it’s my feeling that between the two of us, I have as good a shot at the gold medal as anyone else,” Cranston told Fassi.

According to Oundjian, who confirmed the facts with Cranston,  Fassi was on the phone an hour later to Curry, offering him the same thing, an Olympic gold medal. “Within a day, John [Curry] was on a plane and Alison [Smith], his coach was dropped.”

In later years, Cranston became very estranged from figure skating. “He really distanced himself,” Oundjian said (although he still took enough of an interest to phone various Canadian coaches to give his advice on their proteges). “We had these long discussions at night when he said he was never appreciated, he was never understood and really,  John came out of nowhere to win and “it was unfair.”

Oundjian said he worked with Cranston to get him to come to terms with his skating career, and to “understand that in life, you don’t always win everything. Actually, there is ultimately something that underlines your purpose in life.”

Oundjian asked Cranston to describe himself. And because he refused to leave Burka in 1974, Cranston replied: “I’m a man who has values and I have substance and I couldn’t do that to someone who has done so much to me.”

The irony is, Curry died in 1994, penniless, and Cranston enjoyed a very productive artistic career.

Oundjian always tried to convince Cranston that becoming an Olympian is exceedingly difficult – some countries now don’t get to send a representative at all and that in the Olympic movement, “medalist” is a key concept, rather than gold, silver or bronze medalists.

Before Cranston died, Oundjian spent time with him in Mexico and believes the painter finally came to terms with his failure to win Olympic gold.

Cranston called Oundjian up one morning in January before he died, and said: “Haig, I’ve had an epiphany.”

“Another one?” said Oundjian.

“Yes,” Cranston said. “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Oundjian said. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Cranston said: “I’m an Olympian.”


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