LOS ANGELES—Barry Humphries loves to come back to Toronto, to be reminded of the millions of dollars he once lost.
The 81-year-old Australian comedian-author is best known here as the creator and manager of Dame Edna Everage, who will be flaunting her somewhat tawdry wares in Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye — The Farewell Tour, at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
But Humphries himself is a sophisticated, erudite man with a fondness for fine art and it’s that topic that is on his mind as he sits in the lounge of a chic Los Angeles hotel for a chat.
“I once went to an antiques dealer in London,” he begins, with a melancholy look causing his basset-hound visage to droop even more visibly. “This man asked me if I wanted to purchase a mural.
“I told him I didn’t want a mural, but he offered it to me for 70 pounds and rolled it open to show it to me. It was a landscape, a panorama of a lake with snow-capped peaks, pine trees, I think there was even a moose in it. And the painter had signed it boldly in the left-hand corner in red letters.”
Humphries looks around so that no one can hear the heretical statement he’s about to make.
“It was painted in a sort of bravura style. Commercial art, I thought, had probably been peeled off the wall of a restaurant. But I bought it for the 70 quid. Keep the goodwill of the dealer.”
He goes on to describe how he mounted in the dark entrance hall of a flat he had then in Sydney, “to brighten up the place a bit, but I did move an end table over to cover the vulgar signature. And when I sold the flat a few years later, I tossed the mural in with it.”
And that was that. Until Humphries decided to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario on a Toronto visit decades later.
“There were giant banners outside the portico, with snow-capped peaks and pine trees, and lettering that read ‘Tom Thomson: Canadian Master.’
“I went inside and saw a lot of paintings that reminded me of my mural, right down to the signature. I rushed back to Sydney to my old flat, but the mural was long gone and so were the millions of dollars I might have earned.
“That’s one of the reasons I keep coming to Toronto. To get my money back.”
If truth be told, Humphries loves Toronto, even though his first visit here in 1962 was during a cold spell that rivalled this past winter.
“I had been in the original production of the musical Oliver! in London, playing the role of Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker and understudying Clive Revill as Fagin.
“On the way to Broadway, the producer David Merrick became unhappy with the man he hired for my roles and convinced me to return to the show for its Toronto tryout.”
Merrick also needed a chaperone for Davy Jones, later one of the Monkees, who had played the Artful Dodger in London and was going to take over again on Broadway.
“I had to stop him from smoking,” recalls Humphries, “and so I sat shackled next to him on the plane.”
They landed in Toronto in December 1962 “to temperatures of a frigidity I had never experienced in my life. I got off the plane and was told I was going on that night to play Fagin. But I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone because they hadn’t informed the man I was replacing yet.
“So I arrived at the O’Keefe Theatre, struggled to put my beard on in the freezing cold, walked onstage and discovered the man I was replacing sitting in the front row, glaring at me. My beard fell off two times that night, but the theatre was so big nobody noticed it.”
That was Humphries’ first visit to Toronto and this will be his last, alas, as he and Edna are both retiring once this tour is over.
“I’ll miss the people in this city, the wonderful restaurants and bookstores, and even the Art Gallery of Ontario.”
What he won’t miss is a certain unnamed hotel that presented him with a cheese basket on his last visit.
“I love cheese, but there was a Canadian Camembert in the basket that was so malodorous I couldn’t be in the same room with it. So I put it outside my door, but it reappeared inside. The odour of the cheese suffused the entire suite.
“So I rather naughtily concealed it in the fire hose cupboard, thinking it would be safe there.”
He grins wickedly. “I’m tempted to go back and see if it’s still there, but I’m afraid of rediscovering the smell.”