With Trevor Arsenault & Archie MacDonald
Welcome to Island Roads, where we explore the Main Streets, and the Side Roads, and the Back Alleys of PEI’s History, and it’s Culture, and it’s Folklore to boot!
In the summer of 1991, David Moses and I created, for CBC Radio Charlottetown, a short radio series called Island Roads. Here are some remembrances I have on that whole endeavour.
I was the sidekick. In those early years of creating plays and establishing an impossibly low-budget black box theatre company (see A History of Off Stage Theatre), I was the eager sidekick to the Idea and Implementation Guy, David Moses. It was, no doubt, David who came up with the germs of the idea for Island Roads, and who was responsible for making it a reality. As with so many things at that time, I was glad to just come along for the ride.
Around this time, David was, I think, doing some occasional work at CBC Charlottetown, or at the very least, was in the orbit of Chris Straw, the producer of their afternoon radio program Mainstreet. Chris was relatively new to Charlottetown and was looking for ways to move Mainstreet away from the news-centric program it was and into a more entertaining, loosey-goosey, and conversational show.
From our first meetings together, to the end of his time here in Charlottetown, Chris was a champion of the kinds of things David and I were doing, and he went above and beyond to find ways to get us on the radio. He was chagrined that he couldn’t afford to pay us as actual, you know, creators of original fictionalized content. The costs would have been prohibitive. So in an effort to at least get something fun and interesting done, he, and we, came up with the idea that we would be creating content, but under the guise of journalists. And it was through this sort-of loophole that Island Roads was born.
[Chris Straw’s enjoyment of our stuff – a small group of us also performed live improv on Mainstreet semi-regularly for a brief while – went a long way to making me feel like I was legitimately funny and had value as a performer. To this day, I appreciate the faith and respect he showed towards me during those early days of my creative life. He was so obviously and grandly talented in what he did, and I had such respect for him and was glad to call him a friend for that brief time. We lost contact with each other when Chris moved to the CBC in BC. I knew he had became producer of Basic Black for awhile, but hadn’t really followed his career after that. I was shocked and saddened to hear, in March 2021, that he had suddenly passed away due to a freak construction accident at a neighbour’s house.]
And so it was decided that Island Roads would come into being and exist for as long as we could get away with it. David and I would assume the characters of Trevor Arsenault (David) and Archie MacDonald (me) – true to our real-life relationship, Archie was very much a sidekick to the more knowledgeable and worldly Trevor – and we would create episodes of entertainment under the banner of journalists. To his credit, Chris more or less left the content of the episodes up to us, and we left it to him to edit our oodles of improvisations and meanderings into tight little pieces. Considering what we often provided to him, it’s clear he was really good at his job.
Here, then, are the six (plus one) episodes (and my recollections) of Island Roads we created for CBC Charlottetown’s Mainstreet radio program during the summer of 1991.
01. Pownal Magnetic Hill
For our first episode, we decided to highlight the Pownal Magnetic Hill. (If you’ve never experienced it, it’s a pretty great optical illusion. You really do feel like your vehicle is being pulled up the hill. Directions to it, in the episode) With the hindsight of 30 years, I might assume that we thought by dedicating an episode – our first – to a fairly innocuous and relatively unknown “attraction” like this it would be indicative of the type of nonsense we’d be getting up to for this series. The reality, probably, was less of a contrivance and more of a “here’s the only stupid idea we have, let’s see if this works”.
Our method for the episodes would be to roughly pre-plan some story beats we’d like to record, and then improvise around those beats. Nothing was ever written down or very much pre-planned. So, for instance in this episode, I think we decided “Trevor will ask Archie to get the map out and Archie doesn’t have the map” and then hit record to see what happens. We would have come up with this idea while en route to the destination. The laughter at the end of that beat is us genuinely laughing, and I’m so glad Chris kept moments like that in the edit, as I think it really adds to the charm of these characters. Other times, like “Alexandra holds many a fond memory for Archie MacDonald….”, the beat would be completely made up on the spot, as we attempted to catch the other of us unawares, just to see what would happen. When Dave mentions Alexandra as Trevor, I had no idea – and I suppose that he didn’t either – of where that would lead us.
The story about Archie’s father being a bus driver, and driving his pregnant sister to the hospital, is based on a story from my Dad’s life, but obviously exaggerated for effect and full of misinformation. I love that impossible and incorrect ideas like “drove from Georgetown to Charlottetown ten to fifteen times a day” just goes unchecked and taken as a statement of fact. We’re definitely not in CBC journalist territory here.
I was thrilled when I heard the final product, after Chris put it all together. I thought the bluegrass music really added to the energy and feel of what we were doing, and the sfx of the car having trouble starting at the beginning was the perfect lead-in joke to what the audience was about to experience.
We were all pleased, I’m sure, with what we created. And looked forward to what would come next.
02. Owen Connolly Building
It didn’t take us long to go from the silliness of Episode One to the absurd. For episode two, we decided to visit the bust of Owen Connolly on the top of his eponymous building in Old Charlottetown. And, oh yeah, Trevor would channel the ghost of Mr. Connolly. You know, typical CBC stuff.
An early moment I love in this episode and in this series is when Trevor is commenting on Owen Connolly and the building we’ll be visiting. All I can manage in this improvisation is to repeat a couple of the words Trevor has already said. “Owen Connolly…” and “Owen Connolly building…” You can just barely hear a laugh from me after that. And that laugh is me realizing just how lame my participation in this beat is, having left all the work to David’s Trevor. I really was just along for the ride for a lot of this, just hoping to add my oddball sensibilities to the product, and hoping I wouldn’t get found out. In that laugh, I can also hear me simultaneously realizing that my lack of participation kind of works in terms of the dynamic between Trevor and Archie. So where you may not even take notice of that laugh, to me, it represents me learning a little bit more about who Archie is, and how he is very much a sidekick in this whole operation. A valuable insight for me, at the time, hearing it back. And kudos to Chris, again, for keeping in little nothing moments, like the barely audible “my door’s locked” as we sign off from inside the car. Little moments like that just add so much to the world and character of the show.
Another thing I love about these episodes in hindsight is that they contain little moments of quite specific 1991 history. For instance, “that guy looks just like Kenny Rogers” came about, no doubt, because as we were driving down Queen Street, we actually saw that guy who looks like Kenny Rogers. Does anyone remember that guy? Did anyone else other than us at the time even think that guy looked like Kenny Rogers? I don’ know. But I love that we included the mention of him.
Early on, we tried to record as much as we could “on location”, so most of the stuff you hear in the car was actually recorded as we drove towards our destination. Obviously, for this episode, we didn’t actually go to the roof of the Owen Connolly building (sorry for ruining that illusion for you!). For that portion, we parked down by the ball diamonds at Victoria Park and ran around the parking lot a bit so we’d sound a bit out of wind. I’m sure Chris, throughout the run of the series, had challenges in the edit trying to make some of our scenes sound cohesive and blended.
“I’ll just visually explain what I’m seeing”. Is that Archie showing his inarticulate inability to communicate, or is it me? I’ll never tell. But I will say this: I have often created characters whose lack of something-or-other is a direct result of me allowing my own lack of something-or-other to come forward. So, what I’m saying, perhaps, is that I often encourage and allow myself to channel the stupidity that’s within me. Speaking of channeling, “Can you fast forward through the meditation or something” and the “yoyoyoyoyo” is just funny stuff! As I listen to these episodes again, I take delight in seeing the development of these characters. In particular, in this episode, I take note of how naive and gullible and sincere Archie is. There was, perhaps, a lot more of me in Archie, in those ways, than I’d like to let on.
With the bust falling through the car at the end, and with the car crashing into the ditch at the end of the first episode, we stumbled onto the idea of tagging the ending of each episode with something similar. I’m pretty sure that was Chris’ input and idea.
03. Indian River Church
We were so pleased with ourselves for starting this episode going through an actual drive-thru. We were eager to keep exploring what can happen in this world of Trevor and Archie and what was even permissible from a production standpoint. Trevor’s statement of Route 2 being Archie’s favourite route was another example of improvising where that was sprung on me and I had to go along with it. We worked well together.
Another relatively big eye-opening (or perhaps ear-opening) moment for naive me, was the concept that music from “real” artists could be used in these silly little things we were doing. It may seem like such a little thing, but Chris’s inclusion of Elvis’ Love Me Tender snippet as a transition piece blew my mind open a bit. Like I say, I was something of a sidekick in this whole enterprise and everything was a bit eye-opening for me.
For this episode, we actually did travel to the Indian River Church, and may have recorded some stuff there, I can’t remember and couldn’t say if any of it made it into this episode. Definitely the Route 2 and “do your Elvis” and the sideburns stuff was recorded en route. And I think my visiting the cemetery was on site. But the majority of the “in the church” stuff from this episode was recorded after the fact, in the acoustically imperfect Off Stage Theatre, if I recall correctly.
“What are you, a heathen?” “No, I’m Presbyterian” will always make me laugh, I hope.
There’s lots I love in this episode. I love us having a bit of fun at the expense of CBC Radio Drama, at the beginning of the episode. It was improvised in the moment. I love having actual guest participation from the Landmark Cafe owner Eugene Sauve and Victoria Playhouse Artistic Director Erskine Smith. And I love our failed audition.
If I recall correctly, we recorded this episode on the same day we visited Indian River Church. We didn’t tell Eugene nor Erskine that we were coming, but were so happy they were willing to play along with our nonsense. I’m not sure what we would have done if they were otherwise engaged.
One of my favourite moments of this series, and of my entire existence, is the three of us, Rob, David and Erskine, sitting at a table at The Landmark Cafe, trying to figure out the mathematics of how many performances the Victoria Playhouse has had. It is such an unnecessary and confusing diversion. I don’t know about David, but I can safely say that this was not Archie trying and failing at math. This was Rob trying and failing at math. I so very much love that it was included in the episode.
The excerpt of the play we performed for the audition was improvised, obviously, and I love how Erskine was politely dismissive of us. Believe it or not, us singing “Hooray For Hollywood” at the end is, I’m pretty sure, us trying our best to harmonize and sing well. No Triple Threats, us! And even though these characters exist in their own world and reality, I always found it hard to believe that either of them would know the lyrics or the melody to that tune.
05. Basin Head
So the summer of 1991 was our first at Off Stage Theatre on King Street. For that summer, David had invited a couple of his National Theatre School friends to Charlottetown to be part of our inaugural summer season. And that’s how the inestimable Rick Roberts ended up in a cameo as Stuart, Archie’s cousin from away. I think we just wanted to get Rick some of that lucrative coin we were making for each episode. Probably something like $30 per episode or close to that. For writing and performing original content for the CBC. We were ridiculously underpaid for what we were creating. Or maybe we were ridiculously overpaid. Have a listen and you decide. I’ll agree with whatever judgement you come away with.
Pretty much all of this episode was created and improvised as we drove to Basin Head from Charlottetown. I really enjoyed the new dimension a third character added to the dynamic. And Rick played an obnoxious Stuart to a T! I had a hard time keeping from laughing a number of times. You can particularly hear that when I exacerbate “Stooo-urrrrt!” at one point.
You know, with my hazy memory, I am now wondering if we did in fact travel to Basin Head? I’m pretty sure we did, but it might now be a false memory I have. I can’t imagine we would pass up an opportunity to day-trip to Basin Head on a lovely August day on Prince Edward Island. I’m pretty sure we attempted to record the actual Singing Sands but it didn’t translate to tape. So – and I do know this is factual – we recorded the sounds you hear of the Singing Sands in the CBC studio, pressing on a box of corn starch to simulate our footstomps squeaking in the sand. Again, sorry to burst that illusion for you!
Ah, the magic of radio!
06. Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait
We knew, going into this one, that this would be the final episode. Chris couldn’t find any more money to keep it going, and we were all bummed that it was the end. I still get a bit emotional when I hear Trevor and Archie in this episode talking about how much they loved doing this show. Because really, that was David and myself saying how much we loved doing this show.
This episode, I’m pretty sure, was pretty much fabricated and built in the studio. We didn’t actually travel Up West and we didn’t actually witness The Phantom Ship. For this one, we figured out a bit more of a story line before we recorded, like the contrivance of running out of film. I quite like the casual, reflective pacing at the end of this episode, and thank Chris for the extra production elements he threw into this one, from the crackling fire to the awesome segue into the Lenny Gallant song. And every time I listen to this episode (which, granted, isn’t a lot – I mean I am my biggest fan, but I don’t go crazy about it. Like, I’m not a self-stalker or anything – but) I get a lump in my throat whenever I hear Willie Nelson’s Stardust at the end of the episode. And then the improvised final tag, with the genuinely in-the-moment revelation of Newton Nash. I cherish the genuine laughs we have after that moment.
This episode was a lovely end to a lovely summer experience of creating six episodes of fun and foolishness.
07. Haunted Car Wash – Halloween Special
We just couldn’t leave well-enough alone, I guess. In late October of 1991, we attempted to recapture the magic of the summer with this half-hearted and too-contrived special Halloween edition of Island Roads. It’s a fairly weak effort, in my opinion, but it does have a few moments.
The nicest moment for me is hearing Chris Straw’s voice at the end of this one. I hadn’t listened to this episode for a long time, and I forgot Chris played a character in it. So, listening to this one just a day or two after I learned about his sudden and untimely death (which compelled me to make this post), I was so pleased to hear his voice. What a lovely experience that was, hearing him, and it brought back so many great memories.
If you’ve read, and listened, all the way to the bottom of this post, I hope you got even a fraction of the enjoyment out of these episodes that I did in creating them.