Presenting: Ben Viccari – A Lifetime Dedicated to Multicultural Communications
5. Please tell us some of the stories you remember most from your time during WWII. What was your personal experience during this crucial time in history?
The phony war ended May 10, when the panzers came pouring into Belgium and Holland and the front line troops were eventually driven back to the sands of Dunkirk. In desperation it seems, the British Army rallied the troops who were well out of harm’s way during the Dunkirk evacuation — mostly raw replacements like ourselves and formed them into impromptu units like “E” Field Battery to which I was posted as a driver.
We move up from Nantes where we were formed into a unit and headed toward Paris, where it was assumed we’d defend the city along with the French until reinforcements arrived from Britain. This became impossible, we leaned later, since the troops who’d been fortunate enough to be evacuated from Dunkirk had few arms and there weren’t enough ready in srmy storage in England.
When we reached a certain point miles short of Paris and dug gun pits it was with dismay that we witnessed what seemed like the entire French Army in retreat; south they went in weary dejection, leaving Paris to the Nazis. Then we heard the capital had fallen and Italy had entered the war against us. We had all of us — officers and men — now become true companions, and apart from a few light hearted remarks to buoy up my spirits after Mussolini’s decision, I sensed neither prejudice nor concern at my being one half Italian.
My lot was to drive one of the two senior lieutenants in the unit on reconnaissance of the neighbourhoods at which we would build gun sites, contact supply depots for food and try to locate command headquarters.
It is difficult to describe the fluid state of affairs when often, not even our commanding officer knew nothing of the overall Army plans. On one occasion, we thought we were being strafed by enemy aircraft but the commotion was a dogfight and suddenly from our cover in a small stand of trees, we saw a British fighter plane ploughing through the earth. Two of our fellows dashed into the open to find the pilot alive and well except for a sprained ankle. He was dragged into cover, fed and driven to the nearest RAF airfield remaining in France.
On another occasion, Lieutenant Jack Lowery and I were driving on a rural road when coming rapidly toward us was a strange looking vehicle which we suddenly realized was a German armoured car. In a flash, we both saw a side road to our left, and swinging the steering wheel madly, we turned into it on two wheels and drove like hell for several miles. We’ll never know why the Germans didn’t fire at us or attempt pursuit. Maybe they thought our light van was one of theirs.
And so it went for eight more days. Dig in, await orders, and then retreat until finally we arrived at Cherbourg where the guns were loaded onto a ship. The vehicles were driven into a field outside the city where they would be destroyed. However, as driver of a lighter vehicle, I was one of ten who were told that remnants of a company of Cameron Highlanders were stranded outside Caen, some 90 miles to the north of Cherbourg and we’d have to go back to pick them up.
By now the roads were clogged with refugees moving south, thousands on foot, some travelling on bicycles, a lucky few in vehicles, even a hearse. The going was rough when we set out before daybreak but we made the rendezvous just after noon only to find no Cameron Highlanders. We drove around the area, found nobody and assumed the Scotties had been picked by others. As a short cut, we decided to drive through the south end of Caen, which wasn’t such a good idea since we heard the rattle of German gunfire as the Nazis poured into Caen. Fortunately they must have paused to regroup since we were able to leave unhampered.
The road back to Cherbourg was even more difficult and eventful than the road up to Caen. We did manage to find a few British soldiers going it on foot along with the other refugees but as we crawled back to the seaport we were machine gunned twice in 15 minutes by a lone Stuka. Each time refugees and ourselves threw ourselves into roadside ditches. We searched for dead and wounded but couldn’t’ find a scratch.
We reached Cherbourg in the last hours of daylight and were ushered into the hold of a cargo ship. I lay down on the bare metal and slept like a log, waking to find myself on a cloudless June morning in Southampton harbour
‘E” Field Battery was quickly disbanded to the regrets of the entire group. Jack Lowery had been promoted to captain and we were dispatched hither and yon.
Within three weeks I found myself drafted into the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, an anti-tank regiment assigned to garrison duty in Northern Ireland. From then on, after the few weeks of high excitement in France, life seemed anti-climactic and I whiled away boredom by writing an account of the three months I’d spent in that beautiful, doomed country. After the manuscript was typed, I submitted it to a few publishers but by then so many first-hand accounts had already been published and other conflicts — Greece, the Middle East — had broken out and my MSS was stale news. But I never regretted the confidence that completion of the 30,000-word book gave me.
Other wartime memories are legion and would take a book to fill. My 36 months in Northern Ireland gave me some insights into the “troubles” that began nearly 30 years later. Back in England promoted to bombardier (corporal) I specialized in administering spare parts supply to the regiment’s vehicles until one fortunate day I was dispatched to the land of my fathers.
I was posted to Italy as a reinforcement but my knowledge of Italian soon got me special status wherever I went until eventually I was posted to the Military Mission to the Italian Army as an interpreter/translator with the rank of staff sergeant. It was fairly routine work but I was in Rome, a city l already knew, and one in which by now were it not for my love for Canada, I would otherwise have found some way to settle.
6. What happened when you returned to England after the war?
My first job on being discharged from the Military Mission to the Italian Army in 1946: was as a reader with Paramount Pictures’ London office, feeding the great maw of Hollywood with synopses of new books. Then to the fast-growing J. Arthur Rank Organization as a story analyst, where I not only read but saw new plays and foreign-language films. I was also earmarked for a training program with Rank’s junior production unit, Highbury Studio. My ambition then was to become a writer-director.
Rank was seeking a vehicle for an English production featuring Hollywood great Frederic March and his wife, Florence and I was asked to write a treatment of a short story by Rudyard Kipling about an American industrialist and his wife and how they become enamoured of rural life in England. Which I did, to some praise, but unfortunately the producer chose Christopher Columbus as their vehicle.
Disaster arrived in the form of the “Bogart or Bacon” tax with the Labour government slapping a 70 percent tax on all Hollywood films. Instead of bolstering the British film industry, the tax had a reverse effect on Rank, with five British studios. Reciprocal distribution agreements with the U.S film industry went out the window and hundreds of men and women were fired. That included me!
7. Why did you decide to go to Canada and what were your experiences just after your arrival?
No job, no prospect. Rank was the only game in town and for writers, newsprint shortage had reduced newspapers and magazines to shadows of their pre-war selves. Travel held no terrors for me and through meeting Canadians in England, I’d come to see the potential of a “new”country. It was the late Alan Jarvis, an expatriate sculptor who eventually returned to become director of our National Gallery who finally helped me make up my mind.
8. Several people assisted you in the beginning when you came to Canada. Please tell us about that.
I owe my first job to two people. Broadcaster and travel writer Bill McVean and the late Harry Savage, one of the best ever Canadian publicists.
I arrived in Canada December 15, 1947 and reaching Toronto two days later; after finding a room, wrote to Bill Mc Vean in Woodstock who while in the RCAF had been befriended by a family in London. At a farewell party at my cousins’ home I met this couple who insisted I contact Bill. The reply to my letter was a telegram to the effect that I was invited to spend New Year’s with him and his parents. Bill was then a broadcaster/D.J at a station in Wingham and after some wonderful hospitality, on January 2, I started out for Wingham with Bill but heavy snowfall forced us to literally dig our way back to Woodstock for several few miles before the road was cleared sufficiently.
Ben with his wife Anne at a Liberal barbecue
9. How did your career progress once you were in Canada? How did you originally get into the media business?
Bill knew Harry Savage , a brilliant Toronto publicist and writer, and back in Toronto, I met with Harry who gave me several contacts. I picked the least likely job first, and landed it! within three weeks of arriving here, I was working at Turnbull Elevator Company Limited Company writing brochures and creating a house organ. I was subsequently appointed its first public relations officer.
So the line passed from McVean to Savage to Gordon Turnbull, proud of the fact that his all-Canadian company was second only in sales here to the mighty international Otis Elevator. Gordon was, for his background (son of a Scottish immigrant engineer) an extraordinarily broad-minded man. When he asked me the origin of my name I felt no discomfort at his attitude. He expounded on the need for large-scale immigration to keep Canada out of American hands.
At the Turnbull Company, I was surrounded by engineers, not among the most imaginative members of society, but Gordon — himself an engineer –asked me how I thought his company’s name could achieve greater prestige. In the mid 50s, self-service elevators were being introduced into large office buildings and we had to steal a march on our competitor, Otis.
I had one of those flashes of imagination that have helped me on many occasions. I said “Why not introduce the world’s first elevator hostess? Dressed smartly in a distinctive uniform like an airline stewardess, “Miss Turnbull” would stand in lobbies of large buildings and help people adjust to self-service travel. He mulled over the idea for five mites as I trepidated, and then proceeded to call the general manager, the chief engineer and one or two other executives into his office. Gordon wasn’t feared by his staff, but as he asked me to explain my idea it was clear to the others that he approved. And so Miss Turnbull was born. On her first appearance she made the Toronto newspapers and television. By the time Miss Turnbull had appeared in several new buildings, I received a president’s award from the Canadian Public Relations Society.
For five years, I was part of the Sidney S. Brown School of Radio Drama. Having first attended class in 1948 because I wanted to get a handle on radio playwriting, I found myself as a teacher and genial assistant to Syd Brown, who remained a close friend until his death in 1979. Together we produced Sunday night plays featuring the students, first on CHUM, then on CKFH and finally back to CHUM. Classes were always in the evenings and so didn’t conflict with my daytime job.
Because of Miss Turnbull, I had also attracted some job offers, but when General Foods Limited, Canadian subidiary of the giant White Plains Corporation — Jello, Birdseye, Post cereals, Maxwell House coffee — showed interest, I couldn’t resist and so in 1956 parted with the Turnbull company.
My career in public relations was satisfying and eventually I was asked to manage the PR arm of a large ad agency. I had a small but efficient staff, but threw the job in after a year because the agency execs wanted me to spend too much time window dressing, sitting in at pitches instead of working with my colleagues: I’m a hands on guy. In 1971, I was named PR Person of the Year, receiving the National Achievement Award of the Canadian Public Relations Society.
I’m glad to be out it though. Today, I believe public relations has taken a turn for the worse; too much “strategy,” not enough ballyhoo. Too much lobbying, too much evasion of the media, not enough transparency.
10. You also transitioned into ethnic media. There was an incident involving a couple by the name of Schneider that convinced you of the importance of ethnic media. Please tell us about that story.
Among the many volunteer PR services I’ve performed was helping launch the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition at the original Four Seasons Motor Hotel in 1961. In 1962 — the second year, I hit on the idea that since so many exhibitors were immigrants, the ethnic media in the Toronto area should be alerted.
Three months after the exhibition, there arrived a letter from Poland addressed to Maria Schneider c/o the hotel. Maria, a watercolorist, was one of our exhibitors. The fact that she was exhibiting and where was picked up by a newspaper in Poland and thus two friends were reunited after 23 years. On the day Warsaw was bombed by the invading Nazis back in 1939 Maria and the friend had been forced to cancel a luncheon date. Maria and her husband escaped and found their way to Canada.
I was also chair of public relations for Villa Colombo, the Italian home for the aged which opened in 1976; we pioneered telethons for such enterprises and Rossano Brazzi, the star of Summertime and South Pacific, was host for three years running. My wife Anne and I rejoiced in our friendship with Rossano and his wife Lydia. He was the complete opposite of the suave Latin lover and full of fun.
In 1979, when I represented the Region of Campania (Naples, Vesuvius, Capri, Ischia, Sorrento ) on a promotional week in Toronto I was fortunate enough to meet Sofia Loren, a great and warm presence. She was here to promote her book and the PR man for Bantam asked whether I could arrange for her to visit Villa Colombo. This also suited the Campania people since Sofia was a native of that region and they arranged by telephone for a pewter statuette commemorating her visit to be made and flown over within 48 hours!
As a PR consultant I’d entered into a partnership which had proved incompatible and when Johnny Lombardi introduced me to a group financing a new Italian weekly, I was happy to accept their offer to become publisher and managing director. It was 1980, and CFMT-TV, Canada’s first multilingual/multicultural television station had opened the year before. With CFMT plus Italian radio, a new paper didn’t stand a chance and we fought an uphill battle for most of the year, but were finally forced to shut down.
11. What is the role of ethnic media in Canada? How has it changed over the years?
Back in 1951 when Canadian Scene was established by a group of dedicated volunteers, there were about 50 ethnic newspapers and one or two isolated radio programs — that’s all. Most of these papers were Eastern European and German, with a smattering of Italian since there had been a substantial Italian immigration prior to World War I.
According to my estimate, there are some 1,000 media representing non-English, non- French and non-Aboriginal communities. By media I mean newspapers, magazines, and individual radio and television programs — plus the growing number of internet publications.
The role they play is threefold: (1) acting as a bridge between the newcomer and the community at large, (2) providing ethno- specific community news and (3) providing motherland news.
12. Please tell us about your experience with Canadian Scene. What other projects have you been and are you currently involved in?
One of the most rewarding periods of my life was being in 1986 offered the position of managing editor of Canadian Scene, a free news and information service for Canada’s ethnic media. I was also in effect the executive director with a staff of one, the highly efficient Naomi Macdonald who was our office manager. We were publishing in 13 languages by the time of our unfortunate demise and mailing in English to those for whom we couldn’t afford to translate.
I was responsible for persuading the Board back in 1986 that with mailings of our twice-monthly bulletins to such media as Dutch and Czech and Slovak with small representation. We went into Chinese, Urdu, Punjabi but felt the need for even more translations. I lucked into the job after the untimely demise of Doug Amaron , a highly praised retired Canadian Press executive.
Other projects are: My 70-second commentaries for OMNI for the past 10 years.
Membership in the Canadian National Exhibition Association as the official representative of CEMA and member of marketing committee.
Was president of the Canadian Public Relations Society (Toronto Inc.) (1961-62)
Was president of Toronto Press Club (1981-82)
13. Please give us an overview of your Canscene online publication.
We tagline it Canada’s Multicultural Scene and that’s what we are, although being such a film buff, I can’t resist giving substantial coverage to such multicultural events as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
I’m also big on human rights and small “l” liberalism. I make it quite clear that I don’t like the politics of George W. Bush and Stephen Harper. And I feel that Canada should amicably cease formal relationships with the British Crown and stand on its own as a republic, but with a governor general as head of state and not a president.
My cyber mentor and web designer Bill Andersen was experimenting with
inks and so — with apologies to Andy Warhol he did this and gives me
permission to use it if you can see any use for it.
14. You are also the president of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association. Please tell us about this organization, its mission and activities.
It was founded 28 years ago as the Canadian Ethnic Journalists’ and Writers’ Club and as such is the oldest surviving Canadian organization of is kind. We were founded by Sierhey Khmara Ziniak who quit the existing association because it admitted only publishers of newspapers ant not editors or wits. Sierhey had the foresight to include radio and television people.
My involvement dates back to 1986, when I was a vice president of the Toronto Press Club occupying spacious premises. Ziniak approached us for permission to hold its monthly meetings on our premises. Judy Creighton, then president, and I had a tough fight to convince the Board, but we won.
As the Press Club’s token “ethnic” I attended most of the new group’s meetings and on becoming an ethnic publisher in 1980, joined.
Our mission is to create greater awareness of ethnic media and their potential in immigration settlement, heritage preservation and their overall role in nation building.
15. You recently completed your first television documentary. Please tell us about that project.
It was named The Third Element — Canada’s Diverse Media and it followed the growth of these media from the 19th century to the present. We shot in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto. It was filmed with a grant from Omni Independent Producers’ Initiative which as a special fund set up to encourage documentaries on films.
I would like to emphasize that I owe this film’s success to executive producer Lalita Krishna, award winning Canadian documentarian who has some truly outstanding docs to her credit. I got the grant as a writer based on an idea , but I had to find somebody who knew how to actually budget, plan and get film edited and produced, and I was indeed lucky that she was the first person I discussed the project with. I went home with several VHS recordings of her films and after viewing them, called the next day and we were in business. Lalita engaged Karen Shopsowitz — another award -winning documentarian as director.
The Third Element has been broadcast on OMNI TV eight times in its original English version and half a dozen in the Italian voice-over version.
16. You are currently working on another documentary. Please give us more information about that.
The ‘M’ Word —- a study of where Canadian multiculturalism is today and what Canadians believe are its strengths and shortcomings and what it will man to Canada in years to come. We emphasize that Canada’s idea of multiculturalism is different from that of other countries, some of which are suffering a backlash of anti-multiculturalism.
We’e underway, with Lalita as director and myself as writer-producer. That’s all I want to say until we get to the editing stages and can look at the project as a whole.
17. How do you find the energy to be involved in so many different projects?
I guess it’s in the genes. Or ego. All I know is I don’t need to psych myself into doing what I do. And I’ve been fortunate to have liked what I’ve been doing — except in those pre-war hairdressing days. My wife is a highly energetic person, too, but in different ways from mine. I tend to let ideas take over; she is totally organized.
18. As a British born individual of Italian descent and as a Canadian immigrant, how do you feel about Canada in general? What is your view of Canada as a multicultural society?
I made a wise choice in coming to Canada. Since I had enough money for a return passage, you might say it was speculative venture, but the people I met soon had me convinced that my future lay here.
Now there is no alternative I would consider with children here, plus grandchildren and great grandchildren the youngest of whom we hope will grow up with a clear idea of their Canadian identity and heritages (Canadian, Italian, British, Dutch, Ukrainian, Mexican-Irish)
I am more than fortunate in having Anne as a a wife who shares my Canadian-ness and has done so for almost forty years.
I am not what a British travel writer once called Canadians “gleefully pessimistic.”
I believe in Canada and its eventual emergence not as a “middle power” but in the words of the Canada 25 movement, as a “model” power. In years to come, if we can keep our faith and not throw ourselves into lockstep with other countries, if we can enhance our faith in the values we say we cherish…..if we can lean to define our identity in terms of our diversity — integrating into and contributing to society and learning to stand alone with the courage of our convictions — then we shall have achieved the society that others will envy and emulate. So let’s not be defeatist – we’re part of the way there already.
Thank you, Ben, for sharing with us your life story and your unique insights on ethnic media and a multicultural Canada. I wholeheartedly share your thoughts that we have a very unique paradigm here that gives people from all over the world of all different backgrounds a chance to find new roots and start a meaningful new life while being able to preserve their traditions and cultural heritage