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From show biz to big biz to no biz—and loving it Print-ready version

by George Gamester
Toronto Star
January 9, 2000

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John! Welcome back. How've you been?

Staying in Toronto long? No, of course not. But tell us this:

Are you still laughing in bed?

Yeah? Well, that's good. Because you're an inspiration, John Uren.

So listen. Now that you're here, do us a favour. Let us peek into your life for a few minutes. Because it really helps, you know. With all our anxieties and hang-ups, it's nice to read The Story of a Free Man...

You know where we should start? With that picture over there. The shot of you and your teammates from Rosedale's Whitney Public School celebrating victory in the Toronto bantam baseball championship at Sunnyside Stadium in 1946.

John, that is an absolutely fabulous photo. No movie director could have composed, cast or framed it better: The triumphant hero, and his adoring pals. Look at those smiles!

That's you in the front row there, in the Whitney shirt, closest to the camera. And that's your lifelong buddy, John Tattle, riding on Mr. Wilkinson's shoulders after striking out 14 Kew Beach batters in a seven-inning game.

In the more than half-century since that photo was snapped, many of your teammates from Whitney have become lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors, corporate chairmen.

But not you, John. No way. Because you chose a different path. And who's to say you haven't had the best trip of all?

How long after that picture was taken did you run away from home for the first time? A year? You were 11 when you hopped on your bike and took off to see the world. They napped you 27 kilometers away.

Not that things were so bad at your Rosedale home. You simply had an urge to explore. Dad was a nice guy, though you didn't see much of him. He was a doctor, always working. And Mom? She was fine, too. Until that evening in 1953.

Brucie, your 15-year-old younger brother, was walking up Mount Pleasant Rd. when a car swerved on to the sidewalk and killed him. Two months later, Dad died of a heart attack. "For 30 years after that," you recall, "Mom lived in a freeze-frame."

And what did it do to you John? Did the shock of it all turn a boy who thought he wanted to be a doctor into a nomad?

Who can say? But Jarvis Collegiate and Trinity College couldn't hold you. No, you were more intrigued by the race track, introduced to you by your father when he was official physician to the Ontario Jockey Club.

It was the characters who drew you to Woodbine, wasn't it.

When was it you started walking hots for trainer Carl Chapman? 1957? Then those years as advertising and sales manager for The Canadian Horse magazine. You went broke, of course. But it was fun.

Was that when you decided to go west? Yeah. You signed on with a drive-away outfit running cars to Vancouver. When you reached Calgary, it was Stampede time.

"There was a TV show with Jack Lord I liked called Stoney Burke," you confess. "It was about rodeos. And I liked the look of all those cowboy hats. I decided to stay for a while."

Right. That when you rented that 25-car parking lot for $5 a day, then doubled the rates from 10 to 20 cents an hour. Before long, you'd converted an abandoned building into a coffee house you called "The Depression." The second singer you hired was a kid named Joni Mitchell.

"I got a kick out of taking empty space and filling it with people," you tell us now.

Uh-huh. And you made money, too-which you promptly blew as a concert promoter. Oh, well. When two pretty young women invited you to join them on a surfin' tour of California beaches, what could you do? You went.

And when one of them turned out to have a rich uncle looking someone to promote the Stratford Festival, what could you do? Become a promoter, of course.

In Stratford, you made a discovery: The theatre world is like a race track. Filled with free-spirited characters who live on the edge. You did well there, and developed a reputation that might be summarized thus:

John Uren: Adventurous guy. Lots of energy and ingenuity for short-term jobs. Needs constant new challenges. Attractive to women, married once, but can't settle down. Bird watcher. Athlete. Reads a lot. Apt to take off at a moments notice. Address unknown. Try the race track.

How many jobs did you have through the '60s, '70s, and '80s, John? Promotion and advertising director for the World Festival of Entertainment at Expo, with a staff of 14. Manager of MacLauren Advertising in Montreal, staff of 10. Consultant to this... Organizer of that...

Sure, you had some big pay-though you had some big tap outs at places names Woodbine, Santa Anita, Saratoga, Ascot, Longchamps, Auteil. But you didn't worry, did you? Oh, maybe when you got down to your last $300 in the bank, you'd get a bit edgy. But something would always turn up.

Hey, you remember that time in '76 when you decided what you really wanted was to get back to running a parking lot? So you showed the parking boss your resume, and...

"He laughed at me! 'Overqualified,' the guy said"

That's how you wound up in Aiken, S.C., rubbing down horses for trainer Gil Rowntree.

"Going down there was like Alice stepping through the looking glass. I loved it." Yes, you've spent a few winters down there with the hay-burners.

Remember that time in '85, when Clare Copeland, president of the largest TV rental company in Canada, showed you a warehouse full of 3,000 depreciated rental TV's he planned to crush for $4 each?

"Got any ideas?" he asked.

Within a month, you'd opened a small store in Gravenhurst called Cottage TV, peddling thousands of those reliable, fully guaranteed, solid sets for as little as $99 apiece. That led to a whole new coast-to-coast dealer network called Encore TV and Video, grossing $10 million.

You could have made a bundle, John. But you walked away again. What you really wanted, you decided, was some quiet time in Vancouver to watch birds and read books.

Did you find passages in literature to fit you life, John? We know you carry a notebook, filled with lines you like:

"A man must be obedient to the promptings of his innermost heart."-Robertson Davies.

"My writing is my talent. My life is my genius."-Oscar Wilde.

"I was mobile and unencumbered. Young enough to go anywhere I had never been. And clever enough to do new things when I got there."-Ross MacDonald.

New things. When the money ran out, you stopped by a vacant building in Stevenson, B.C.

"How much to rent the store front?" you asked.

"What you want with it?" inquired the bohemian young owner.

"To open a store for bird-lovers."

"Aaaay! Good karma, man. Here's the keys. Move in now, pay me when you can."

Your bird watching walks, ecological tours and driftwood gallery were a great success, John. But feet get itchy, don't they? So now you're back. Where's the first place you stopped in TO?

"The race track. It never changes. People you haven't seen for 20 years say: How ya doin'? Where ya been? Who ya like in the third?

Right. So here you are at age 65. House-sitting for a friend, catching up with your sister Mary, getting together with buddies from that 1946 schoolboy team.

They're always glad to see you, aren't they? Guys like Norm Seagram, George Whyte, Gord Cooper. And especially your dear friend, John Tattle, the hero in our picture now comfortably semi-retired with his own engineering firm.

"People are always asking when I'm going to get a real job and settle down," you say, "I tell them they just want me to be miserable, like them. Hell, I can't explain my life. But you know what? I'm still laughing in bed."

Laughing? In bed?

"Yeah, I lay down. Then I get to thinking about things I've done, the moments of joy... and I start to giggle." Then fall asleep with a smile.

Sweet dreams, John...

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