Well before my father died, the girls had grown up sufficiently that they were far too ‘cool’ for puppets. Hugh became my co-puppeteer as well as craftsman and technician and the team was reduced to the three of us: Hugh, me and Max. Caroline, however, married at eighteen and rapidly produced three children, so it was not long before Max and the puppets had a new adoring audience in the form of our grandchildren. Naturally, Max’s new fans liked coming to the shows since they were allowed to come backstage and play with the puppets after the final curtain.
During these years, Max became quite the celebrity dog. The local cable company did several features on him with his puppets, and twice CBC came to the theatre to film clips for the news. The local papers covered the Christmas shows every year, sending photographers who often wanted to include Max in the pictures alongside the puppets and puppeteers.
The Max puppet was such an attraction I was even asked to be part of a celebrity cooking feature in the local paper. Dutifully I churned out my seafood crepes and posed with them for the photographer, but I was in no doubt that the celebrity they were really interested in was the little wooden one on my shoulder!
However, on one notable occasion when CBC was coming to film an excerpt, we thought it would be fun to have Brandy along for the photo session. What a disaster that was! Max was so distracted by having his girlfriend present that he forgot all his tricks and was thoroughly misbehaved. The cameraman dutifully took some clips of the naughty pair, but he was obviously not impressed. We were not surprised when the final airing showed lots of puppets but no dogs. Max learned the lesson that other temperamental actors have discovered the hard way. If you have an attitude, you end up on the cutting-room floor.
We realized that Max, the Ho Hum Husky had become a local celebrity when we began taking the puppet into the Hyack parades. Vagabond Players often had a troupe walking in the parade or riding on a float, so Hugh and I would walk on either side of the group, each one of us holding a puppet. In the spring, I would work the Max puppet and Hugh would take Brandy. For the Christmas parade, it would be Max and Rudolph. Whatever the season, every so often we’d hear a voice from the crowd cry out, “There’s Max! Hi Max!”
This familiarity with the puppet began to show up at the theatre performances too. Every so often, the Max puppet would be applauded on his entrance like some big star on Broadway. What made that puppet so popular? It was certainly the efforts of three people that brought the character to life: Hugh, with his wonderful craftsmanship that created such an appealing marionette; myself, of course, with my scripts that put words in the puppet’s mouth; and Dwayne Campbell, our actor friend, who interpreted those scripts so perfectly in giving Max his voice.
However, the fact that Max was based on a real dog provided the extra magic. Children loved to hear stories about the real Max after the shows, and when Max, the flesh-and-blood husky, performed his tricks or took his bow, the oohs and aahs were enough to give any dog a swelled head. No wonder Max considered himself a star. Even today, children at the puppet shows are delighted to hear that Max was a real dog …. and yes, he really did eat a Christmas tree light bulb!
Max’s personality made its way into my other arts activities too. My play, Renovations, included several references to a feisty dog named Boris who was always locked up in some other room so that he didn’t chew up the workmen. In my mystery books, Max appears as MacPuff, Bertram Beary ‘s well-loved, misbehaved mutt.
However, it was the Vagabond Players puppet shows that gave Max his fame in our local community. Because he was so popular, I found a way to incorporate his character into all the shows, even if they were traditional stories. In Aladdin, Max appeared as Hum Ho, the princess’s bodyguard; in King John’s Christmas, he was Sir Max, the Ho Hum, saving Santa from a dastardly plot thought up by Bad King John and his pet dragon.
Max used to love going to the Bernie Legge Theatre. The minute we arrived to set up, he would run to the apron of the stage and take a bow. Of course, he knew that he would get a cookie, whether the audience was there or not. Then he would settle down on his blanket in the stage-manager’s corner and sleep there contentedly while we performed the shows. However, he always woke up in time for his bow. We were convinced that our clever dog could recognize a final chorus, no matter what show was being performed.
Those years were good ones. We worked very hard, some Christmas seasons performing as many as eighteen shows at the Bernie Legge Theatre, followed by another dozen or so at the Burnaby Village Museum. However, our house was always decorated early and we would go home after performances and sit by the tree, enjoying Spanish coffees and Christmas treats, listening to carols and lapping up the festive atmosphere. Max would be at our feet, tired from the excitement of his outing at the theatre, but blissfully content. If friends had attended the shows, they would come back for drinks and snacks, and that was how we did our Christmas socializing for we were far too tired and busy to get out to parties. It was a routine I look back on with pleasure: Good company, the memory of children’s smiling faces, the joy of Christmas festivity, the knowledge of a job well done.
These days, whenever I watch the Knowledge Network’s ‘Dogs with Jobs’ program, I always remember how happy Max was when we came home from a show. Much as he was loved and cared for, Max needed challenges and discipline too. Being a dog with a job had been in large measure the reason our difficult adopted pet had found contentment. Those post-show Christmas interludes demonstrated just how well the lesson had been learned.