Originally posted April 30, 2008
The Western Hour, The Rex’s last tenant
I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Fairchuk recently. Yes, THAT Len Fairchuk - of The Western Hour fame !
Recently I was invited into the Rex Theatre before its demolition to help salvage some chairs that will be used in the expanded West End Cultural Centre. While there, I found some remnants of Len's The Western Hour which was the theatre's last tenant, (he rechristened the place Opry Grand.)
I remember watching the Western Hour grwoing up. It was hard to miss in the 13 channel universe. It was a very low budget, oddly edited, no frills, talent show of sorts featuring pro and amateur singers, jiggers and fiddlers from around Manitoba. I saw him a couple of times away from the show, walking about town with his art portfolio under his arm, but don't really know much about him.
As Len was the last person to give a damn about the Rex, I thought I would take a look back at his life.
Len Fairchuk (1932 - 2004)
Fairchuk was born in 1932 in St. Boniface and raised in Horad, Manitoba, north of Elphinestone. Len’s day job was a mechanic, but the arts would become his career. He was a fiddler, carver and painter, his talent for the latter landed him a job as a sign painter, then a set designer at a Los Angles movie studio.
Upon his return to Manitoba, Fairchuk wanted to continue in the entertainment industry. He used the format of a popular 1940’s and 50’s Manitoba radio show: “The CJOB Western Hour” and revived it for a television audience focusing on Aboriginal and Metis artists.
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The Western Hour began its impressive 19-year run on VPW (Winnipeg's Cable Access Channel) program in 1976. Long before live satellite feeds and "palm of your hand" camcorders, Fairchuk rented a single television camera for the weekend and travelled to towns and reserves throughout Manitoba. he showcased aboriginal talent, ranging from jiggers to fiddlers to country music bands and gave more ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame than any Manitoba television production has, or likely ever will.
After VPW, the show continued on CKND and MTN. It still lives on today, back in radio format, on NCI-FM.
Fairchuk's involvement with the Rex theatre seems to have had two distinct periods. In the 70's the Rex, called Opry Grand, was the Winnipeg base for The Western Hour.
In the 1980s the Rex became an adult movie theatre, closed for a number of years, then around 1990 the dream of Opry Grand was revived. I recall media stories about Fairchuk fundraising by selling his art to keep the place going as an aboriginal country music venue.
In 1991 the Rex closed again for the final time.
Fairchuk died of a heart attack on April 4, 2004 at the age of 71. The following year he was among the inaugural inductees into the Aboriginal Music Hall of Fame for his support of aboriginal artists throughout the province.
Seeing the stage and the old posters I wonder what would have happened if more people had rallied behind Fairchuk and supported his dream to create an aboriginal country music venue and preserve a magnificent theatre ?
Sadly we will never know.
April 7, 2004, Winnipeg Free Press
April 8, 2004, Winnipeg Free Press