The Beachcombers

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CraigBaird

The theme music to The Beachcombers is like an instant nostalgia shot for a few generations of Canadians. It sparks memories of Sunday nights, of television with the family and of the stories of Relic, Jessie, Constable John, Molly and of course, Nick.

If you pitched it today, a story of a Greek man who salvaged logs off the coast with his friend, who was Indigenous, with a grandmother and two grandchildren operating out of a café, its unlikely that the show would get greenlit.

Not only was that show greenlit in Canada, it would go on to change Vancouver, the Canadian film industry and become an integral part of Canadian culture.  

The Beachcombers is considered one of the greatest Canadian television shows in history and one of the longest running Canadian shows ever with 387 episodes. It was a show ahead of its time with its portrayal of Indigenous characters, a focus on the environment and an ensemble cast of characters that would shape future Canadian television all the way to 2020. Today, I am looking at this show that went from being a show that people enjoyed in the early 1970s, to a part of Canadian culture and an iconic piece of Canadian television.

I also have interviews today with Jody Franklin, who runs an art gallery in Gibsons, Nancy Chapple Smokler, who played the original Marguerite on the show and Jackson Davies, who played Constable John Constable in over 170 episodes of the show. I’ll also have some archival audio, and bits of behind the scenes stories from David Croal, who is a town councilor in Gibsons but worked on the show for over a decade.

The history of The Beachcombers begins with a show called Adventures in Rainbow Country, which was a family adventure series made by William Davidson. This series followed a single mother, her son and her son’s Indigenous friend on their adventures north of Lake Huron. Due to changes in leadership at the CBC, and conflicts with Manitoulin Productions, which was run by Davidson, funding was pulled on the project. Everything changed when the show hit the airwaves and earned four million viewers, second only to Hockey Night in Canada. Without having Adventures in Rainbow Country, but seeing the public’s appetite for that type of show, the idea to create a similar show but on the west coast was born. CBC envisioned a show that had a single mother, a father figure and three children, one of whom had to be Indigenous.

Phil Keatley was assigned to the project and he began working with Marc and Lynn Susan Strange. Their first idea of a show set during The Depression was rejected and they had two weeks to figure out an alternative. One day while walking on the beach together, the Stranges saw some people beachcombing, which is salvaging logs and selling them. They were intrigued by the job and they came up with a show titled Molly’s Reach, which would focus on a Greek character and a single mother named Molly who ran a café. The idea was accepted by CBC but the name was changed to The Beachcombers.

CBC story editor Suzanne Finlay went to Vancouver to oversee the writing and would replace the Stranges who left early in production but would return later in the show’s run. The focus of the show as on a wholesome environment that the whole family could enjoy, empathy for outsiders who come to the community and a respect for the natural environment. Storylines tended to be comedic at first, and the characters were established. With the development of the show beginning and the characters being established, work began to cast the parts.

Bruno Gerussi was a well-known stage actor and radio show host in the country. He had performed at the Stratford Festival in the second season of the festival’s run and in 1960 was in the role of Romeo at the first production of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival and he would take on the part of Nick Adonidas, the Greek-Canadian beachcomber and the father figure of the series.

To keep any sexual tension between Molly and Nick from occurring, Molly was rewritten as a grandmother rather than mother and Rae Brown was cast in the role. Brown was a veteran of radio and television and had done extensive work in both industries, as well as voice work and was a cast member at the first play, The Hostage, ever performed at the Vancouver Playhouse. Her grandchildren would be played by Bob Park and Nancy Chapple, playing the parts of Hugh and Margaret. For the Indigenous friend, Pat Smith was cast in the role of Jesse. This would begin the trend of The Beachcombers to have prominent Indigenous characters who were not stereotypes or caricatures. Relic, the rival of Nick in the beachcombing business was cast to Robert Clothier. Clothier had quite an interesting leading up to his defining role as Relic. During the Second World War, he flew in the 408 Squadron of the RCAF, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross on Dec. 5, 1944 for attacking heavily-defended targets, described in his citation as “with great determination and by his personal example of courage, coolness and confidence has set an example which has inspired all with whom he has flown.” He would be involved in a plane crash three weeks later while serving as an instructor in Boundary Bay, British Columbia. The crash would result in the death of three on board, with Clothier being the only survivor. He suffered a broken back and was paralyzed from the waist down for two years. He would begin studying theatre in England, returning to British Columbia where he worked as a stage actor, sculptor and painter.

Everything was in place for the show, it would follow Nick and his business partner Jesse as they dealt with a wide assortment of things and scenarios, all while dealing with arch-rival Relic. The mother figure for the show would be Molly working out of her café, the centrepiece of the community.

In that first season, Nancy Chapple Smokler was cast as Marguerite, the granddaughter of Molly, and would remain on the show for the next year and a half.

Over the coming years, many other actors would join the cast. Jackson Davies joined as RCMP John Constable John Constable in a bit part in 1974, becoming a regular cast member as time went on. Charlene Aleck was cast as Jesse’s little sister Sara Jim in 1976 and Marianne Jones was cast as a Jesse’s wife Laurel in 1982. There would be notable guest stars over the years, but I will get to those later.

Through it all, Nick Adonidas would be the heart of the show, surrounded by strong characters whose backstories and characters grew over the course of the show. The show would become a mix of character, physical action, comedy and location filming.

It should be no surprise that when Jody Franklin planned the art show focusing on The Beachcombers in 2020, Relic and Nick were the two most common subjects immortalized by artists in their work.

Gibsons would be chosen as the filming location for the show and eight episodes would begin production in 1971. The restaurant of Molly’s Reach was built into a vacant liquor store, with the character of Nick living in the same building. His log salvage business operated out of the building as well.

In an interview in 2012, John Smith, the grandson of the man who built the original Molly’s Reach structure stated, “It wasn’t Molly’s Reach then, it was vacant. It was at one time a second hand store, a general store, it became a hardware store then a liquor store. The liquor store had just moved out and these guys were interested in using it as the main setting for the show. I was a beachcomber in those days and they wanted to rent some boats and stuff and we owned the marina just below Molly’s Reach too. They liked the look of the boats so that was the start of it.”

Smith had believed it would be a short job, but the show would go on to exceed all expectations.

The Persephone was the main starring boat of the show but Relic’s boats are also well-remembered by the fans. Hi Baller I was used in the first season and was smaller than the second boat, which was used from the second season onwards.

When shots on the water were needed of Nick on The Persephone, these were conducted with the aid of a custom-built barge containing props, a generator, storage rooms and change rooms. This unique approach allowed for many angles and long shoots on the water, something that was not seen in the production values of Canadian shows at the time.

The first episode of the show was going to be Jesse’s Car, but that was scrapped and instead Partners was the first episode, showing how Jesse and Nick formed their business, which involved Jesse hitchhiking down to South America, meeting Nick and befriending him and forming their business partnership.

The show would premiere on Oct. 1, 1972, only a couple weeks after Canada had united for the Summit Series. Airing at 7 p.m., the ratings were weak and many felt that Nick was unconventional for a leading man on a show. Over the remaining episodes, viewership increased as its family-friendly stories became popular among Canadians. In 1972, 19 episodes were ordered and The Beachcombers was on its way to becoming an icon of Canadiana.

In the mid-1970s, the Vancouver Sun wrote “The Beachcombers sits atop the ratings in its class and is in a knockdown fight with Hockey Night In Canada as the most popular of all Canadian programs. Last week, it outdrew Hockey Night in Canada with an audience of 3.4 million.”

The show would find a strong audience in Britain, as well as in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Germany.

That reach of The Beachcombers did a lot to show the Sunshine Coast to the world, something that had not been done before.

During these years, the show was a fixture for Sunday night. At 6 p.m., the Wonderful World of Disney would air, then the Beachcombers and its iconic theme song would come on and families were transported to beautiful British Columbia.

In 1978, The Stranges returned to the show, and would write 70 episodes. Gerussi would also go on to direct several episodes as the series went on.

Over the course of the show, the cast of characters generally stayed the same with very few departures. Rae Brown would leave the show in 1985 after she retired from acting. In 1988, Janet-Laine Green was cast as Dana, a single mother out of Toronto, who bought the café and moved in with her son Sam. That same year, The Beachcombers became Beachcombers in an attempt by the CBC to give the show a new look. The theme was also replaced with a new theme that nearly everyone who liked the show hated.

Ratings started to fall in those years as the show took on a more action-feel and in 1989 CBC moved the show from its usual Sunday spot to Wednesday night, which caused a further decline in numbers.

The last episode of the show would air on Dec. 12, 1990, with Gerussi saying the last line of the show, “We gave ‘em a run for their money didn’t we?”

The show to replace The Beachcombers in its time slot on CBC was Sydney, which starred Valerie Bertinelli, Matthew Perry and Craig Bierko. Never heard of it? That’s because it ran for 13 episodes.

So, with a show that ended 30 years ago, why am I talking about it now? Most of the people listening likely were not even alive, or very young, when the show ended. Well, I’m talking about the show because not only is it a part of Canadian history and our culture, but it was something truly unique. It was the first Canadian series that did not follow an American model, giving a regional slice of life and depiction of blue collar work that was rare on television at the time. It also set itself in B.C., rather than film in B.C. and pretend to be a different location. Its use of Indigenous elements was also rare, featuring many story lines that looked at Indigenous issues, using Indigenous actors. Above everything, the way that the show highlighted the Indigenous was exceptional for its time. In talking with those who were influenced by the show, or watched the show, its use of Indigenous actors and story lines was ahead of its time.

The show resonates today on other Canadian shows, many of which have followed its template in some ways. Corner Gas literally compared its own characters to those of The Beachcombers in the episode Cable Excess.

In 2019, even The Simpsons referenced The Beachcombers.

The show was well loved by Canadians, but not all critics enjoyed it with some calling it stilted and wooden. One interesting review came from Grant Lawrence, who called it the greatest show in the history of television, but added that it was about “a Greek guy and his First Nations buddy drive around in their shitty boat collecting logs. Every week. For 20 years. It was like the Dukes of Hazzard on water and 100 per cent Canadian.”

The show would make its cast members household names across Canada, especially Bruno Gerussi. One wonderful story I found from a local history book relates when Gerussi came to the community of Hussar in 1976 as part of a publicity tour he was on. Gerussi was familiar with the area has he was born in Medicine Hat and a look-alike contest had been held in Southern Alberta as part of the tour. The winner of the contest was a man from Medicine Hat ironically. The community arranged to have the look alike come to the community and after some phone calls upon finding out Gerussi was in the area, they were able to convince him to join the festivities. Gerussi ended up riding in the Summer Daze Parade, giving delight to the people who didn’t realize he was going to be there, along with the man who looked just like him.

Gerussi would become a major star in Canada thanks to the show. From 1975 to 1984, he would host Celebrity Cooks on CBC and then the Global network. That show would run for 478 episodes and featured a pre-fame David Letterman, Margaret Trudeau and Jean Beliveau.

One fan of the show was Conan O’Brien. He related in a story that in the early-1990s he was in Vancouver with his friend Greg Daniels, who would on to make The Office. They were watching TV in their hotel rooms and become mesmerized by The Beachcombers. O’Brien would say “it was about guys picking up logs in water” and they were very impressed with Pat John’s character Jesse and they set out to find him. They quickly found his name in the phone book and called him, telling him they were producers looking for new talent. In reality, they just wanted to meet him.

Revivals of the show would come including The New Beachcombers starring Dave Thomas, airing in 2002 starring Davies, Graham Greene and Thomas. It returned as another television movie in 2004 called The Beachcombers Christmas, and a documentary was released in 2003 called Welcome Back To Molly’s Reach.

As for Molly’s Reach itself, that building still exists with the sign that appeared on so many Beachcomber episodes. The building was originally built in 1926 as a grocery store, serving in various retail functions until it was leased by CBC. From 1990 to 1995, the building sat vacant until investors turned it into a functioning restaurant. Today, the restaurant is arguably the most famous restaurant not only on the Sunshine Coast, but in Canada. The building would be used again in 2010 when it was renamed Flynn’s Reach for the movie Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron. In 2016, the Vancouver Sun called Molly’s Reach the most prominent landmark in Gibson.

The Persephone still sits in Gibsons, next to Molly’s Reach and there is the hope of restoring the ship and having it as part of the local museum, which itself has a Beachcombers display.

The Beachcombers would have far reaching impacts on Canadian culture. Molly’s Reach, a power pop band out of Edmonton named themselves after the centerpiece location of the show. The show itself would inspire others like North of 60, Republic of Doyle and the aforementioned Corner Gas. It also helped CBC expand its programming and production to regions outside of Toronto and it raised the profile of Vancouver as a shooting location. Vancouver was nearly empty of film and television productions in the early 1970s. By the time The Beachcombers ended, Vancouver and British Columbia would be known as Hollywood North, with shows such as The X-Files being filmed there. Without The Beachcombers, it is likely that would have never happened. Gibsons would benefit from The Beachcombers as well, even beyond the money that comes in from fans of the show visiting the community. Needful Things was filmed in the community in 1993, The Irresistible Blueberry Farm in 2016 and The Seamstress in 2009. Its international reputation increased in 2009 when it was declared the Most Livable Community In The World by the United Nations. Those who worked on the show started in the early days were often new to the entire industry. They would go on to help define the filming scene in Vancouver for decades all the way to today. Many of the department heads in Vancouver got their start, or were employed, on The Beachcombers with some estimates being 1,000 people worked on the set at one point or another and then went onto other careers.

Many prominent Canadians, actors and otherwise, came through The Beachcombers set. Chief Dan George, one of Canada’s greatest Indigenous actors and the first Indigenous person to be nominated for an Academy Award, appeared in eight episodes of the show 1972 until his death in 1981, as Chief Moses Charlie. David Suzuki appeared on the show as himself in 1981. Several notable future actors appeared on the show before they were ever famous including future X-Files villain William B. Davis in 1986, Don S. Davis, who would go on to appear on Twin Peaks and as General Hammond on Stargate SG-1, appeared in an episode in 1989 and would actually move to Gibsons. Bruce Harwood, a future Lone Gunman on The X-Files, was in an episode also in 1989, while noted Canadian actor Ian Tracey appeared in 1988. Ryan Stiles appeared in 1985 on an episode before reaching fame in the 1990s on Whose Line Is It Anyways. Janet Wright, who would play Emma on Corner Gas appeared in a episode in 1987. Bruce Greenwood, another well-known actor today who played Capt. Pike in the new Star Trek movies, appeared in two episodes in 1977 and 1978, while legendary Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent appeared in three episodes from 1975 to 1978. Interestingly, there is a rumour that a very young Michael J. Fox appeared in the 1973 episode of The Beachcombers called Truck Logger but in 2012, he wrote the forward for the Beachcombers book Bruno and the Beach, noting “I must have been the only actor in Vancouver that never appeared in a Beachcombers episode.” So, I’m guessing he was not in an episode, but maybe I’m wrong.

As for the cast, Bruno Gerussi would continue to act on stage and on film until he sadly passed away on Nov. 21, 1996 at the age of 67.

Robert Clothier would continue to act, appearing in several shows including The X-Files. In 1996, he had a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair, but he continued to act and sculpt until his death in February 1999.

Rae Brown would pass away in 2000.

Pat John started working as a fisherman and even has a beachcombing licence for clams and shell fish on the coast just north of Gibson’s.

Jackson Davies would go on to be a driving force behind The Beachcomber’s subsequent TV movie projects and has appeared in over 300 TV shows and 30 movies, along with 160 stage shows. An honorary sergeant in the RCMP, a rare honour for anyone, he is now a faculty member in the Performing Arts and Motion Picture Arts programs at Capilano University. In 2013, he published a book with Marc Strange about the Beachcombers called Bruno and the Beach.

Charlene Aleck would become a cultural preschool teacher and serve three terms as a council member on her First Nation.

By the time the show ended, it had been broadcast in 50 countries, was the longest-running drama series in Canadian history until Degrassi surpassed it in 2012. While the show averaged one million viewers a week in its prime, huge for a country of only 20 to 25 million at the time, it never earned any major awards apart from a Gemini Award for Clothier’s performance as Relic in 1986. Even with that, the show has endured as a part of our culture and it is well-loved by generations of Canadians. In 1998, it was ranked the most popular CBC series of all time in a TV Guide poll, and the most popular Canadian family series ever in a poll done in 1999. In 2017, the Toronto International Film Festival named The Beachcombers one of Canada’s all-time best television shows.

CBC, please put it on Gem.

Purchase Bruno and the Beach here: https://www.amazon.ca/Bruno-Beach-Beachcombers-at-40/dp/1550175653

Information comes from The Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia, Mollysreach.ca, Trail Times, City News 1130, IMDB, Scout Magazine, Canada Through My Eye, Hussar Heritage, The New Beachcombers, Metro US, Outside Looking In, Television Heaven, GrantLawrence.ca, Bruno and the Beach.

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