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Champney’s West Variety show marks 25 years


CHAMPNEY’S WEST, NL — The stage curtain has a frayed hem. The boat is one-dimensional and made of cardboard.

It bends in the middle as the three actors bring the Easter Seal boat and doctor Austin Hookey to the stage.
Welcome to the Champney’s West Community Centre and opening night of the annual variety concert.
Welcome a place where the folks might not win awards for best production or stage design, but should definitely get an award for most fun-loving little town in Newfoundland and Labrador.
This past weekend, March 24 and 25, marked a milestone for the Champney’s West Variety Concert.
It was the 25th anniversary.
Not by coincidence, their silver anniversary falls in the year of another 25th anniversary.
This June marks 25 years since the day Ottawa, and former federal fisheries minister John Crosbie, announced the shutdown of the northern cod fishery.
The idea for this variety concert was born from that moratorium — an event that impacted people not only financially, but emotionally.
Wanda Pippy and Bev Freeman were among the first suggest the community should regenerate the tradition of a variety concert.
Pippy says in the days after the 1992 announcement people were in shock.
“We were just in a daze. I don't think anybody really knew what had happened; they were just hoping it wouldn't have to last long.
“It was just surreal,” she says, her mind wandering back to that awful summer.
Her dad, Charlie, and her brothers were among those immediately impacted by the closure of the fishery. They could no longer fish for cod.
While Pippy wasn't directly involved in the fishery — she worked at a local hotel — she said everyone was hurting from the emotional blow.
“Two months into the moratorium it was obvious that people were really struggling with this. It was scary.”
No one knew what was in the future, but Wanda and her friend, Bev Freeman, knew something was needed to cheer folks up.
So at a meeting of the local recreation committee, they pitched the idea of bringing back a local tradition – an old fashion variety concert.
“We just wanted to have something for fun, a talent show of some sort to give some people something to do and something to enjoy.”
They charged just a dollar for a ticket to that first show.
It wasn’t about making money, she recalls. It was simply meant to lift people’s spirits.
That first show went over very well.
Word of mouth — friends telling friends — got people talking about it.
Someone suggested one dollar was not nearly enough to charge. So the ticket price went to five dollars the next year.
Every year since then they've been packing the tiny community center, which can hold no more 120 people.
Wanda and Bev have been involved with the concert every year since the first one.
They gave birth to their alter egos — Martha and Bertha – on this stage and these two comic characters have since become famous far beyond Champney’s West, adding comic relief at events like the community’s annual Cardboard Boat Races every summer.
Fred Freeman is president of the recreation committee and has been involved with the concert since 2000.
He’s not a fisherman either, but he and his family were dealt a blow by the cod moratorium in 1992.
Just the year before the announcement he had moved back to Champney’s West from Alberta with his wife and children. He had moved out west in 1976, right after high school graduation, and felt it was time to get back home.
His plan was to start a construction company.
The cod moratorium changed all that.
With fishermen and plant workers out of work, the home renovation business for contractors pretty well dried up.
He remembers watching the announcement by John Crosbie on the evening news, and thinking, “Well, there’s not going to be much work around here for me.”
He packed up a few weeks later and headed west again, to Manitoba, where he spent nearly 10 years before coming back home again in 2000.
Thanks to the concert, he says, this little community – 55 souls in winter and about 100 in summer — has been able to build other things.
There's the heritage house with memorabilia from the community’s past, a playground, Fox Island walking trail, and the recently-opened aquarium which includes a touch tank for visitors to learn about the local marine environment.
On stage Friday night Freeman played a variety of roles, including a very good spoof of Donald Trump and his idea of a wall.
Come to think of it, the American president could learn a lot about cooperation from the folks of Champney’s West.
“It’s natural for us to help each other out,” says Freeman.
Pippy adds that in the wake of the moratorium, when times were tough, their only option was to try to help each other, and the community.
“We’ve always done that,” she says, adding, “This is a wonderful place to live.
“I guess it’s because we’re small that we have no other choice but stick together. And we do.”
Amidst the ribald jokes, the slapstick skits, the music and laughter of 25 years of the annual variety concert, lies some downhome wisdom.
The folks of Champney’s West have proven what people can do when they all work together.

Barb.Dean-Simmons@tc.tc
Twitter: @nlpacket


At the Garrick April 18

For those who couldn’t get to the Champney’s West Variety concert on March 24 and 25, don’t despair.
The show is coming to the Garrick Theatre in Bonavista on Tuesday night, April 18. Show time is 7 p.m.
You can also catch the show this summer, during the community’s annual Cardboard Boat Races in August.

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