The Carillon - ONLINE EDITION
By: Grant Burr
Posted: 02/20/2018 11:15 AM
He has made audiences laugh in every major city in North America, in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore too. Wherever he may be, Al Simmons has always been able pull off a madcap, hilariously creative performance on stage, but at the heart of that creativity has always been his workshop on his property just east of Anola.
The laughs have been hard to come by over the last two weeks, after a fire reduced the workshop to rubble on Feb. 9.
If there's any greater joy than performing in Simmons' life, it’s playing with his grandchildren. That's just what he was doing as his wife, Barb, called to him around 8 p.m. that Friday night.
His workshop was on fire.
"It was like a torch. It was massive," Simmons said.
In retrospect, Simmons says it may not have been the smartest idea to venture into the burning shop, which has been a home to invention since the couple first moved to property more than 45 years ago.
But what would you do when your life's work is going up in flames?
"I just went in blind and then grabbed and grabbed and then grabbed again," he said.
The shop, fashioned out of an old train bunk car, was packed with items from the Juno winner’s long career.
"The last time I went in I came out with an armful of costumes. I didn't realize it, but they were on fire. I threw them down and that was it. I didn't go in again," he said.
A friend sent him a message on Monday, Simmons recalled, and in it astutely observed that losing that workshop was likely always Simmons’ worst fear.
"Now, the worst has happened," the friend wrote. "So, now it can only get better."
"All my life I worried that place would go up and here it was burning in front of my eyes," Simmons said, noting his friend’s words of encouragement were spot on.
As for it only getting better, that wasn’t on his mind, at least as he looked upon the fire. Reflecting on the fact that he’s approaching 70 years of age, he admitted that in that moment he thought his run as a performer was over.
But as he pondered what to do, another thing crossed his mind, a volunteer fundraising gig scheduled for the next day in Winnipeg.
He got to work.
"I realized I need to get back on the horse right away," he said.
"So, I stayed up that night and found what I could use and went on stage and did a show wearing costumes that were scorched and props that smelled like smoke."
The veteran performer was distracted during the performance as he inhaled flecks of ash falling from his props.
"I kept forgetting where I was in the show, thinking about the bad news, but the audience didn't notice."
He looks back on the performance as a turning point, which was aided by a little shopping adventure the same day.
"I built myself a pop gun out of a broken bicycle pump. I built that and popped the cork out of it and I thought, 'OK, there's one. I've got one thing finished.'"
Now, as his wife and friends work at sewing new costumes—a new automated tuxedo is in the works—Simmons is busy rebuilding props, taking it all one thing at a time.
"One at a time," he says, "If I think about it all, it's just too much of a burden to bear."
Rebuilding props is a difficult task. Pieces and components that made his contraptions a success were cobbled together, often after his latest thrift store find.
"Some of the stuff I built a long time ago and really I have no recollection of how I did it. All I remember is that it made the people laugh."
Simmons is prepping for projects ahead, with the biggest one on the horizon a performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on April 8. It’s the first of four symphonies he’ll play with this year, followed by Regina, Vancouver and Victoria. Thankfully copies of the musical scores for those shows were safely inside his home.
A fundraiser through a GoFundMe page has also left Simmons feeling humbled. He said he is hopeful that some of his props and costumes will be able to be restored professionally through support raised through the fund.
He remains on the hunt for other essentials too, like a 17-fret tenor banjo with no resonator on the back, if you’ve got a lead for him.
And, as he rebuilds the old, you might just see something new from Al Simmons. One of the few items snatched from the blaze is an item audiences have never seen before.
"I had a new crazy hat that I built...sometimes the dumber things I've got…they're funny because they're so ridiculous," he said.
"This one is ridiculous," he said, describing with excitement this latest idea and proving his tinkering spirit is alive and well.
"I can't use it on stage. It only works when I'm standing in a huge wind storm. It's the silliest thing ever and it survived the fire."
He’s down but Al Simmons definitely isn’t out and, if the wind's in your favour, he’s ready to deliver another treat.
Find these stories and more in the Nov. 15 issue of The Carillon.
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