Driving with Lorne Elliott
As we pull up to another red light, my mind is busy piecing together the fragments of a newly rewritten scene. I’m not sure if it was the scene that didn’t work, or if we didn’t work. Regardless, we spent the better part of the afternoon rehearsing it within an inch of its life, and now it’s time to share it with an audience and hope for laughter or mercy.
I look over at Lorne in the driver’s seat, who has his hands casually resting upon the wheel. This is the true-to-form cavalier gesture of a man who, at a glance, had little worry of the world. He has a prancing gaze observing everything but the road. It touched the gas station on the corner, then the graveyard across the street, then a middle-distance somewhere in his imagination.
The light turns green.
Still, Lorne’s gaze is following his thoughts, which seem tied up in a daydream. As traffic lines up behind us, I wonder “what do I do?” I don’t want to be impolite and tell him to snap out of it, but I also don’t want to bring upon a chorus of car horns.
Riding shotgun with Lorne requires a certain level of alertness and responsibility. It’s like being seated in the emergency exit of an aircraft, and the flight attendant checks in to remind you of your assumed duties for being in such a position. Except, in this case, there was no flight attendant, and all seats were an emergency exit.
I hear a soft hum come from Lorne as he seemingly enjoys whatever song is playing in his head. Before I can say anything, a hand reaches from the backseat and swats Lorne on the shoulder.
Lorne jolts upright after Paul’s swat. “Oh! Sorry folks,” he says, obeying the green light moments before it turned yellow again.
Paul is a much more comfortable backseat driver than me. He is the same age as Lorne, and they had worked together for many years, and is much more comfortable calling him by his given first name. He had been courteous enough to offer me the front seat because I’m a bit taller than him, but also he enjoys the backseat so he could have a place to set his bird-watching binoculars.
I’m sure once we got onto the highway from Charlottetown to Hunter River, Lorne’s imagination went back to work. I often wonder what’s on his mind. He was always wonderfully social, and an immaculate conversationalist, but behind those glasses lies a deep well of thought.
In previous drives, he had mentioned his radio show, and how much he enjoyed the experience. Madly Off In All Directions was celebrated by listeners across the country, and had brought hours of entertainment to my parent’s generation. Any time I mentioned to someone my folk’s age that I was working with Lorne Elliott their eyes lit up in excitement. Most of my peers hadn’t a clue what I meant. From the tone of our conversations about the program, Lorne always sounded wounded about the series’ conclusion.
He also talked about art. For as ridiculous as some of his stories are, he held a high standard for what he hoped to see on stage. Often backed by Paul from the backseat, the pair lamented the state of commercialization in the entertainment industry, and how capitalism has given way to an era of artistic bankruptcy. At the end of these tangents, he would look at me and laugh, and say “bet you feel lucky to be stuck with a pair of old vaudevillians, eh?
One thing he never mentioned on the drives was why we were doing the show. Paul never asked, because loyalty and comradery are symptoms of decades of trust and collaboration. As for me, I was just lucky to have work. I was only involved in the project because I woke up at 7am in Alberta to a call from Lorne (who, admittedly, was two time zones ahead of me) asking me to send in an audition tape. In a fit of semi-conscious confusion, my only response was “how did you get this number?”
The truth of why we are doing the show only revealed itself in an interview for The Guardian. The interviewer began the discussion with “so sorry about Fran.”
At the mention of Fran, I witnessed a flash of quiet contemplation come over Lorne. He responded very carefully. “It’s a kick in the teeth and a kick in the heart, ain’t it?” After a soft beat, he added “she said I should keep doing my shows when I’m gone. She gave me my marching orders, so that’s what I’m doing.”
In truth, in those moments of deep-seated daydreams behind the wheel, I don’t think it was any one thing on Lorne’s mind. Knowing how his excited mind works, it was likely a periscope of emotions without any hard lines discerning one from the other.
Even if it is for reasons I can’t fully appreciate, being next to him is a privilege. It is a nuanced balancing act of appreciating his past achievements, and recognizing the present task at hand. It is making his words that have been said countless times before sound as though they’re being said for the first time. It is about ensuring he never loses sight of the twirling thoughts of his mind as they face joy and pain, and making sure he keeps his eyes on the road.