I never imagined myself decked out in a leotard and pantaloons, but that was before something that occurred just before Christmas in 1970.
Earlier in the fall I had committed myself to supplying a pony for a British Pantomime called Cinderella. It was to be performed at Eaton Auditorium in downtown Toronto. It had been explained to me that pantomime referred to a type of show, always performed around Christmas, that took fairy tales as a theme, added music and dance and reversed the roles of the players so that men would be playing the women’s parts and vice versa. It sounded a little kinky for Brits, but who was I to judge?
They needed a pretty silver dappled pony with a white mane and tail to pull Cinderella’s carriage onstage. When they told me what they were willing to pay for the use of the pony and its handler, ignoring the fact that I currently did not own a pony of that description, I recklessly agreed to supply said animal.
When December 15th rolled around and I got a call from the producers telling me that they were starting rehearsals in two weeks, I still hadn’t sourced a suitable pony. There were lots of quiet ponies to be had — pintos, bays, blacks, greys, even appaloosas — but no silver dapples with white manes and tails. The weekly horse auction at Kitchener Livestock Sales northwest of the city might be my last chance to find what I needed.
I had walked past almost all of the critters lined up for the auction and was losing hope when I noticed movement in a pen in a dark corner of one of the out buildings. I looked over the top rail and there in the gloom was the pony I was looking for — at least I thought he was until he suddenly bared his teeth, reared up and lunged at me. I shot backwards as his teeth snapped shut about an inch from my nose. ‘I guess I’ll pass on you, pal,’ I thought to myself, moving away to check for more suitable candidates.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be an unusual dearth of silver dapple ponies in the region that day. It was back to the pony from hell.
When the pony came up for sale I was hoping none of my associates would notice me when I raised my hand at a ten dollar bid and the auctioneer said sold. All the boys around the stockyards stood watching and scratching their heads as I drove off with the pony screeching in defiance, rearing and almost kicking the tailgate off.
With the help of my dad and two stable workers we got him safely off my truck and incarcerated in a sturdy box stall. I knew I had to get the little demon broke and quieted right away.
To everyone’s surprise, including mine, after a few intense days my improvised techniques to convince him that he shouldn’t kill me began to work and the pony began to settle down. With any luck I would have him harness broken and ready to go to work when the rehearsals for the pantomime started.
And indeed, two weeks later Lucky was a changed beast and I had him pulling a cart around the park roads. He wasn’t perfect; I knew he would still need a firm hand to control him when he made his début at the theatre, but he had come a long way.
The trouble was that when I turned him over to a handler that I wanted to take over the job, the pony reverted to his evil former self. He started rearing, biting and kicking and wouldn’t stop until I took over again. Apparently his new good manners hinged on my presence and there wouldn’t be enough time to establish a new relationship. I would have to handle the pony during the run of the performance.
Eaton Auditorium was a large theatre located on the top floor of a famous old multi-leveled department store located at the corner of Yonge and College Streets in downtown Toronto. It was a beautifully designed room with vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers and ornate Art Deco décor.
However, Timothy Eaton had failed to notice the absence of one important feature when he signed off on the architect’s plans for the place: there was no freight elevator leading to the theatre on the top floor. It was an oversight that I only became aware of when my pony and I arrived at the location for the first rehearsal. The only way to get to the top floor was to use the bank of elevators that served to move the store’s regular clients from level to level.
In his defense, old Timothy, in his wildest dreams, could not have anticipated the necessity of hoisting a pony up to his beautiful theatre.
After a hurried meeting with the show’s producers and the store management, I was informed that I would be permitted to lead the pony across the main floor of the store and use one of the elevators located on the back wall. My most direct avenue to the elevators would see me beginning my passage in the ladies lingerie department, passing through the area where jewelry was displayed and finally ending at the millinery (hats) department just in front of the elevators.
I approached my first trip through the store with the pony with a certain amount of trepidation. I was about to try to lead the pony – the pony that had terrorized the Kitchener Stockyards just two very short weeks earlier – through a crowd of women buying corsets and trying on hats.
Before even getting to that point we encountered our first problem: the entrance was equipped with a revolving door. I was stymied for the moment, so I just stood there eyeing the contraption for possibilities. I looked up to see the store manager staring through the window at me with an incredulous look on his face and pointing in the direction of a set of regular doors located further down the block.
We got into the store with very little trouble and as the pony and I wove our way through the aisles of glitzy merchandise I tried to appear nonchalant. Everything went much better than I expected — no one screamed or ran for the exits and we reached the elevator banks without any further trouble.
I pressed the UP button and then the pony and I stood a discrete distance back from the sliding door while we waited our turn. Moments later the doors of our lift swished open and a rather startled group of women emerged, clutching their shopping bags and giving us wide berth.
As Lucky and I started forward, a stern-looking older lady elevator operator assumed a defensive position in the centre of the door, effectively blocking our entrance. However, when she got the nod from the store manager, who had been hovering nervously in the background, she acquiesced and reluctantly let us aboard.
She was just about to close the doors when two women rushed forward and attempted to join us. The operator tried to deter them, but they insisted that they had seen the cute pony and would be delighted to share the elevator with us. At Eaton’s the customer was always right, so we became a party of five and began our ascent.
The two women immediately began fawning over Lucky, talking baby talk to him and patting him with their white-gloved hands. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to mind the attention.
Then something terrible happened. He suddenly dropped his head and coughed violently and in the same instant, lifted his tail and let loose a thunderous fart.
It was only a matter of seconds until we reached the next floor where the ladies, making a hasty unscheduled evacuation, burst through the elevator doors and disappeared gasping and gagging into fourth floor china.
The old elevator operator wasn’t too excited about getting back into the car. but after she waited awhile for the air to clear, she climbed aboard and we resumed our trip to the top floor.
I had been so preoccupied with getting the pony ready for the show that I hadn’t thought much about the way things would be back stage. By the time we arrived, the place was a hive of activity. The band was warming up in the orchestra pit and a dozen or so ballerinas were swirling around in tutus and toe shoes, waiting their turn to perform.
I reluctantly left the pony in the stall I had improvised for him, guarded only with a ‘Beware of Pony’ sign while I was ushered away to be fitted out in the dreaded leotards, pantaloons and curled toe shoes When my ordeal was finally over and I got back to the pony, the warning sign I had pinned to the stall was laying in shreds on the floor and all the children dancers who were there to perform an excerpt from the Nutcracker Suite were clustered around. The pony was munching on something and I hoped it wasn’t a set of tiny fingers. As it turned out, one of the kids was sharing her oatmeal cookie with him. My warnings to them fell on deaf ears, because during the run of the show every time I turned my back the little pixies and the other ballet dancers were back at it, feeding and pampering him.
To my surprise, when I led him pulling Cinderella’s carriage onto a stage full of flouncing dancers with the band blaring away and the audience applauding, he didn’t even flinch.
Everything went well after that except that, as they are wont to do, the production company went bankrupt and I didn’t get paid. So much for my grand foray into show business!