Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Eric Nagler Story- Part Two

     When I left off with Eric, he was 24 years old and had just taken part in the March Against Fear as a supporter of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., hearing the famed I Have a Dream” speech.
     As the internal battle in America to end the bitterness of segregation was well on its way to success, across the world America was involved in another conflict: the Vietnam War. Like so many others in America, our subject had the heavily debated conflict touch his life in two ways. First, Eric Nagler was drafted to fight for the American armed forces. Second, Eric Nagler refused to go. His life at that point was defined by tough decisions between “what was right,” and “what was wrong.” He decided that fighting in a war, regardless of recruitment laws, wasn't the right path, and refused to go. However, the American government doesn't tend to accept decisions like this with open arms. Being labeled a draft dodger was not only criminal, but often led to ostracism by the public. He had to leave America, so Eric headed north to Canada.
     Entering through Montreal to stay at a friends' house, Eric felt a change almost immediately after crossing the border. A weight of hatred seen and felt everywhere seemed to be removed, political tension seemed to drop away and even the idea that people were separated from each other was gone. As he said, “America was run by a bunch of big time crooks, while Canada is run by a bunch of small time crooks.” It just felt right for him to be here. To this day, only one person has criticized him for dodging the draft, and he was from Sweden!
     Eric wasn't left off easy though. The reality was that draft dodging is a crime, and he knew that he would need to stand for it. He went back to America in 1972 to stand trial for draft evasion, on which he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. Being acquitted on appeal, he returned to Canada, the idea of being American behind him.
     After being unable to find work in Montreal, he moved to Toronto where he would eventually come to own and operate a music store on Avenue Road called the Toronto Folklore Centre with his then-spouse Martha Beers. Later on, he would live in a small Northern Ontario town called Killaloe, where he decided one day to see a friend of his perform some music for the local children in the library. Eric's friend, the performer of the “Homemade Music” show, wanted to get out of performing for children and felt Eric should take all the homemade instruments and do the show himself. He even spoke to his producers and arranged an audition, and with that, Eric came into possessing all the strange instruments thousands of children associate with him today. That is, all except the sewerphone. That was a creation of Reverend Ken Ramsden (of Reverend Ken Ramsden and the Lost Followers). The instrument's invention consisted of merely changing a "sinkpiece" to a "sewerpiece" (from "sinkerphone" to "sewerphone"). Eric also gave it a name targeted at adult audeinces -- the fallopian tuba. I have no idea how hearing this has affected my childhood yet.
     At the beginning of his career as a children's performer, around 1978, things seemed to be going very successfully. The children loved it, Eric loved it, everything was going great. Around this time, two other children's acts were getting attention as well. The trio of Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bramwell Morrison in Ontario, and the solo act of Raffi Cavoukian in British Colombia. From what Eric told me, it seemed that Sharon, Lois and Bram felt they could do a better job than that Raffi in BC, the group felt it was time to move onto bigger things, so they approached a man named Bill Usher to produce an album for them. Bill happened to be a friend of Eric's, who knew that Eric played a wide range of instruments, making him perfect for session work. That was the start of what would become a beautiful relationship that children across North America would come to love. The finished album, One Elephant, Deux Éléphants was a hit, getting a JUNO nomination and reaching Triple Platinum on the Canadian market. When Sharon, Lois and Bram were approached about making doing their own TV show they were ecstatic, but needed a venue to perform in front of children to show producers their material. Once again, Eric Nagler worked as the perfect connection. He was performing a show at a small theatre around the University of Toronto campus, and gladly allowed the trio to perform some songs in the middle of his set. The producers and creators loved the show, the trio, and Eric also. It was decided then, if Sharon, Lois and Bram were to have a show, Eric was to be a part of it. He would appear in every episode for the next five years.

Eric as a child.

     This music-oriented show would air in Canada, the US, Ireland, and many other nations, with videotapes being released and eventually distributed to millions of children round the world. Although this was Eric's first time on Canadian television, he had been on TV before, and therefore wasn't nervous or hesitant to jump at the opportunity when it arose with Sharon, Lois, and Bram. Eric recalled, laughing, that his first time on TV was performing some music on the show that pioneered music television and popularized the genre, “Ted Steele's Bandstand”. He was in the background playing while Brian Hyland was singing, the man who rose to fame at age 17 in 1960 with his number one single “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." From what I could watch of Sharon, Lois and Bram reruns on VHS (some days it seems I'm ancient), they all seemed like naturals in the world of television, yet once again Eric shared some behind-the-scenes stories one could never really hear second-hand. Sometimes, the four of them (especially Lois) had to be reminded that they were playing to the camera, and to stop acting so grand and elaborated. Eric recalled how the producers (more than once) told Lois to “stop playing to all of Australia, play to the camera!”
     In time came 1988, and the end of the original airing of the Sharon, Lois and Bram Elephant Show after 65 episodes spread over five years. This was in large part due to the fact that the trio felt it was time to retire from the televised world and go back to musical performance only. The trio would continue performing until 2000 when the unfortunate passing of Lois's husband made her realize it was time for her to retire from life on the road. To this day, Sharon and Bram still perform, with the three still performing together on rare occasions. Eric however, wasn't done with television.
     The year 1991 brought along a new children's sitcom produced by Cambium Productions titled Eric's World, staring Eric Nagler, a group of children (including Daniel DeSanto who went on to become known to many as Jason from Mean Girls), and Eric's manager, C.J., a puppet voiced by John Pattison. When this show was in its original casting process, the casting director was looking for a young girl to have the role of Eric's daughter, a role Eric's actual daughter, Lauren, wasn't happy about. Then, Niki Holt auditioned for the role of Kaley, the daughter. Everyone was simply amazed at how natural she fit the role and how she was the seemingly perfect for it. When they decided on her, Eric took the audition video home to show his own daughter. Although initially stubborn, she was flabbergasted by the time the tape was over, expressing how “she plays your daughter better than I can." The memories Eric made during these years still bring a smile to his face, and among other things, the show also brought him more JUNO nominations! In all, albums he had a major or minor part in combine for a total of five JUNO nominations. One of these was the Eric's World record, nominated for the Best Children's Album JUNO award of 1995, which was awarded to the album Bananaphone by Raffi. As for best memories from the show? Eric told me that the best moments were the ones we never saw, the outtakes with his manager, the puppet C.J.
     The original running of the show ended on January 1st, 1996 after five years. A month after that, the Siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War ended and with this, Eric's next adventure began. After the war, a friend of his partner of twenty-three years, Diana, went overseas to the nearly destroyed city of Sarajevo to perform his juggling act to a group of children who had resettled in the area. Upon returning, while talking with Eric at his dinner table, the friend had asked if Eric wanted him to put him in touch with his overseas contact in regards to performing for the children too. Although he didn't really know much about the conflict, he jumped at the chance to go stating, “You only live once, so why not?” Diana felt that garage sales were enough life for her, so she'd be staying in Canada. Sarajevo was a learning experience for Eric. Looking around at the children, singing to them via two separate translators and seeing their destroyed homes. Learning how cultures that had lived in harmony for years were almost torn apart by religious fear and prejudice. He said it was scary to learn about, but even scarier to learn that it almost succeeded.
     Marching in America? Singing in Sarajevo? It didn't end there. Next was China. Nowadays, when Eric isn't working at his music and knick-knacks store in Shelburne, Ontario (The Second Fiddle), he's arranging workshops for the Human Awareness Institute (or HAI), an organization centred around love, intimacy and sexuality that focuses on learning to fully appreciate these feelings, how to be authentic, and how to be ourselves. This is an organization formed by the late Stan Dale, in Chicago. With Dale, Eric travelled on what was titled a “Citizen's Diplomacy Trip” for two weeks to teach some Chinese students the ideas and ideals of HAI, which to him was a truly interesting experience. Eric now has the role of planning HAI workshops in Ontario and the rest of Canada. After seventy years of experiences, Eric has decided to immerse himself in teaching others to live and love genuinely.
Eric's had an interesting life to say the least, and one thing he said to me really seemed to sum it up:

     “I was there marching with Reverend King, there when the police raided Washington Square, I refused to go underground during air raid drills, everybody went to city hall and stood silently when the air raids went off when we were supposed to be underground. I've marched for tons of things, but I was never passionate about it. I've met a lot of people who are very passionate, but sit on their asses. A lot of people who speak a lot but don't do anything. It was weird, people would always just assume I was passionate about something, yet really I was only ever doing what was right. The same thing with coming to Canada, I mean, joining the army was just wrong. I couldn't do that.”

     With that, I had to ask out of curiosity: Out of your seventy years of memories and adventures, from slamming on the piano with grandma to singing in war-torn Sarajevo to the children left with little happiness after the conflict, what was your greatest memory or adventure? He laughed and told me how, coincidentally, his greatest life memory happened only a week before I came to visit him. He had the chance to go to Florida and visit the true love of his life, his little granddaughter Ava. When he saw her, he saw something in her face that he taught him more than any other adventure. As he explained it, “how childhood brought infinite love from the start. One that emanates from inside, and one that he felt in the naturalness of the hug she gave him.”
     I couldn't expect a better answer. That's how I left off with Eric Nagler, glad I had the chance to meet in person the man millions have met through their television screens and in their hearts.

Eric Nagler and I

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