Bohemian Embassy Ambassador Don Cullen Cultivated Talents of Other Artists
Creative versatility came naturally to Don Cullen. Writer, actor, comedian, producer and impresario, he could apparently do it all. His talents first surfaced in high school, where Mr. Cullen’s flexible physical features and talent for vocal impersonations made him popular with his classmates. “I became the funny kid,” he once recalled, “by capitalizing on the angularity of my frame and the rubbery quality of my face.”
Mr. Cullen has taken on these attributes on stage and on the air, voicing more than 1,500 radio programs and appearing in nearly as many theatrical revues and television shows. He starred in a production of beyond the margin which has been performed more than 800 times in Canada and the United States, including at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway.
He co-directed the Leacock Festival of Humor for seven years and co-hosted the Winnipeg Folk Festival with Peter Gzowski, also for seven years, in addition to being the editor of Spring Thaw magazine. And, for 25 years, he was a regular on CBC-TV shows. Wayne and Shuster showwhere his distinctive gaze and mastery of dialects have made him a specialist in comic characters, from butlers and undertakers to gangsters and aristocrats.
But Mr. Cullen has spent most of his illustrious career creating space for others. His Bohemian Embassy cafe, which operated in four different locations in Toronto between 1960 and 1992, featured musicians, poets, comedians and actors and offered first stages to such figures as Margaret Atwood, Gordon Lightfoot and Sylvia Tyson. Meanwhile, working with Mr. Cullen provided vital training for future showbiz moguls like Saturday Night Liveit’s Lorne Michaels.
When Mr. Cullen passed away on June 26, artists of all artistic persuasions mourned the passing of a witty, generous-hearted man who spent much of his life encouraging the talents of others. “I wouldn’t be anywhere successful without Don’s influence,” said Mark Breslin, founder of Yuk Yuks Comedy Clubs. “He was fearless in his approach to comedy with acts like La Troupe Grotesque and taught me to take risks and always put the artist first.”
While at Harbourfront, Mr. Cullen’s Bohemian Embassy also spawned the Harbourfront Reading Series, which became the Toronto International Festival of Authors. In a nod to its roots, the prestigious literary festival is now offering a series called The New Embassy, which it calls “a celebration of Canadian voices in the 21st century, presented in the spontaneous and innovative spirit of the ‘iconic bohemian embassy in Toronto’.
Singer-songwriter Nancy White, who made her musical debut at the Bohemian Embassy in the mid-1970s, visited Mr Cullen at his home just two weeks before his death and says he never never spoke of his failing health. “He was really brilliant and we talked for over two hours, mostly about religion, even though he was an atheist and a humanist,” Ms White said. “People loved Don because he was so nice and never honked, which made him the perfect Canadian hero.
Emmy-winning comedian and actress Rosie Shuster, daughter of Frank Shuster of Wayne and Shuster fame, has fond memories of Mr. Cullen’s days as a satirical revue interpreter. “He was so collaborative, always happy to share the spotlight,” she recalled. “Some actors rule out others, but Don wanted everyone to enjoy his moment.” Added Ms. Shuster, writer and producer for the Carol Burnet Show and The Larry Sanders Show: “Don was one of our quiet national treasures, a lovely, talented and hilarious and funny man in that very self-effacing way.”
Donald Austin Cullen was born in London, Ontario. on January 18, 1933. He was the youngest of three children born to Elsie Cullen (née Smythe) and Austin Cullen, who moved with her family to the High Park area of Toronto in 1936 after finally landing a job as the city’s chief accountant. Young Donald’s parents were fundamentalist Christians who “had gone through moral contortions buying a radio”, he once recalled. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he developed a love for radio, listening to classical music broadcasts and dreaming of a career in broadcasting. At Humberside Collegiate he joined the Drama Club, performed in school plays and performed with the Young Canada Players. His yearbook called him the “Jerry Lewis” of the school.
After graduating from the Radio and Television Arts program at what was then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Metropolitan University of Toronto), Mr. Cullen briefly attended Toronto Teachers’ College. “to please my fundamentalist parents, but gave it up as a bad job,” as he once explained. Eventually, he worked his way into work at CBC radio as a copyboy in the news department and began coming up with show ideas. He wrote and acted on the satirical Show that dares to make itself known by bad taste alonewhich lasted two years, and eventually contributed to the editorial staff of CBC-TV Hop Music.
A conversation with CBC colleagues, lamenting Toronto’s lack of adventurous culture, led to the creation of the Bohemian Embassy. With Mr. Cullen and four others investing $100 each, it opened on June 1, 1960, in the hayloft of a former horse stable in a lane near Yonge and Wellesley. While it was not the first café in town, it was, with scholarly Mr. Cullen at its helm, the most eclectic, with a multidisciplinary program that surprised and delighted visitors. Poetry evenings mixed with theatrical performances, film screenings, and jazz and folk music evenings proved popular. One night a magician and a fire-eater were enjoying themselves, while on another visit American stripper Libby Jones lectured on the “defeatist dogma associated with beatnik clubs” to Milton Acorn and a teenage girl Margaret Atwood read poetry and Sylvia Fricker (not Tyson though) sang Celtic ballads. Other poets who have appeared include Al Purdy and a still-teenage Gwendolyn MacEwen.
The Bohemian Embassy gained notoriety and media attention after listing in the Yellow Pages telephone directory under the heading “Consulates and other representatives of foreign governments”. “It provided Toronto with something that didn’t exist back then,” poet Dennis Lee noted in the 2010 documentary. Behind the Bohemian Embassy. “If you were hanging out there, it was like being part of a clan of strangers.” Ms Atwood added: “Just having a place like this in Toronto in 1960 was a subversive act.
Folk music has always been the Embassy’s daily bread, and the third-floor promenade featured popular Sunday hootenannies. A Snowy Night in February 1963 included appearances by Mr. Lightfoot, Bram Morrison, who went on to form Sharon, Lois and Bram, and the Halifax Three Plus One, a band that included both Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky, later from Mamas and the renowned Papas and Lovin’ Spoonful, respectively. Others, including a young Joni Mitchell, performed on the Embassy stage, but not Bob Dylan. The Greenwich Village star showed up and offered to sing, but according to embassy music programmer Mitch Podolak, later founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, “the guy who ran the poetry nights didn’t know who it was “.
By 1964, 14,000 people had taken out membership at the Bohemian Embassy – each spending 25 cents for a “citizenship card”.
Mr. Cullen’s own interests became increasingly focused on his Village review, the popular satirical comedy he co-wrote and co-starred with Barry Baldaro. Over the next few decades, the Review followed the itinerant path of the Embassy itself, winding up at various locations around the city.
For a decade beginning in 1981, he owned Toronto’s The Strip nightclub on Yonge Street. In an interview with his friend Pierre Berton, Mr Cullen lamented the shift from burlesque from striptease performances to “a gynecological spectacle”.
Despite all his humor and good-natured image, Mr. Cullen suffered from bouts of melancholy. While working for him at the Bohemian Embassy’s Harbourfront Center, Mr Breslin noted “unspeakable sadness” about his boss and added: “I don’t know if he was so lucky in love as he wished”. In fact, Mr. Cullen has only had two significant romantic relationships with women. One was Jan Tennant, the future CBC on-air personality he met on Humberside. The other was Janet Inksetter, whom he met at CBC. He and Ms Inksetter, who later ran Annex Books, were married for five years in the 1970s.
The Bohemian Embassy and Mr. Cullen, the club’s ‘ambassador’, last appeared in the early 1990s on Queen Street West, where the public heard readings by Daniel Richler, Rosemary Sullivan, Robert Priest and Mrs. Atwood, which attracted 400 people. at the launch of his collection of short stories Wilderness Tips. Ms Atwood continued her friendship with Mr Cullen and always credited her experience on stage in her café with giving him her lifelong trust. “Once you read at the Bohemian Embassy,” she said, “you could do anything.”
Mr. Cullen published his memoirs The Bohemian Embassy: Souvenirs and Poems in 2007. Another memoir, based on his years at CBC, was in progress at the time of his death. His friend and carer Dan O’Reilly said Mr Cullen died following prostate surgery. Mr Cullen, 89, was predeceased by his sisters, Betty Trewin and Barbara Roberts, and leaves many nieces, nephews and a wide circle of friends.