The Creston Valley Blossom Festival has brought in a variety of excellent entertainers over the last 71years, but this year’s opening show on Friday will definitely be different. Finding the right words to describe it will be quite a challenge. It isn’t the first time that a comedian has entertained the overflow crowd — remember the antics of the ventriloquist-magician-comedian a few years back?
So just who is Al Simmons? He could have been born at the turn of the century. The modern day comedy chameleon would have felt right at home beside vaudeville kings Milton Berle, Red Skeleton and Jimmy Durante. In those days, performers would treat audiences to musical comedy routines with song, dance, jokes, magic tricks and sight gags.
A creative genius with the soul of a vaudevillian, Simmons continues the tradition of the comedy greats. He is a wizard of one-liners, quick costume changes, out-of-this-world theatrical props, peculiar musical instruments and other assorted gadgets. Like his predecessors, Simmons’ constantly changing performance style cannot be pigeonholed.
In concert, Simmons is a one-man cast of thousands. Make an appointment with Dr. Simmons, the friendly optometrist and his musical eye chart. Go on safari for exotic feathers with explorer Al. Get into formation for his “Cry of the Wild Goose”, complete with quilted feathers and honking shoes. “We fly in formation in the shape of the letter B, because we are looking for the beach,” says Simmons. He’ll magically becomes a Scotsman who uses a deflating beach ball to create bagpipe shrills on his harmonica. Amazingly lifelike Ma and Pa puppets come alive at the breakfast table and shout, “I want a pancake!” And something’s definitely fishy with his finny friends — a pyromaniacal piranha and a smokin’ smoked salmon!
Simmons and his imagination grew up in Winnipeg, Man., with parents who nourished his creativity with their own love of storytelling, music and old-fashioned fun. Simmons fondly recalls waiting in a restaurant booth for food to arrive while his enterprising mother captivated the kids with hushed word games as she magically transformed soda straws, salt shakers and paper napkins into all sorts of entertaining and peculiar items! An eccentric collector of odds and sods, his father encouraged a young Simmons to explore and develop his imagination and his own fascination for gadgetry. His extended family was also made up of punsters, pranksters and eccentrics, including his Uncle Nick, who toured Eastern Canada and the U.S. as Steamboat Harris, who was best known for playing a ukulele built out of a toilet seat.
Simmons has had a flair for performing since he was old enough to walk. He studied comedians on the Ed Sullivan Show and learned about the vaudeville days from his father’s descriptions of the old routines. Simmons often treated his family and neighborhood friends to impromptu parades, circuses and magic shows.
As he grew older, Simmons discovered that he could actually make a living out of his love for the limelight. He first worked solo in variety shows and then formed the comedy-rock band, Out to Lunch. He hired then-unknown folksinger Fred Penner for lead guitar and changed the band’s name to Kornstalk.
After Kornstalk disbanded in 1977, Simmons went back to performing solo, making a splash with his vaudevillian style. He and his costume-and-prop routine were often the most popular and talked about act at fairs, exhibitions, folk festivals and children festivals across North America.
In 1983, Simmons and his wife, Barbara Freundl, developed and produced a successful syndicated children’s television show, All For Fun. He has also been a frequent guest on Fred Penner’s Place and on Sesame Street, and has made appearances on YTV, Nickelodeon and TLC. He has been featured on television programs in Canada, the U.S. and as far away as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Simmons’ debut album, Something’s Fishy at Camp Wiganishi, takes young listeners on a madcap journey though his imaginary world of counting feathers, collecting rocks, eating pancakes and wearing Lego underwear. Nominated for a Juno Award for best children’s album, Something’s Fishy was produced by Ken Whiteley and featured contributions from some of Canada’s top studio musicians.
In 1995, Simmons released his brilliant ode to vaudeville, Celery Stalks At Midnight. Named Canada’s best children’s album at the 1995 Juno Awards, Celery Stalks is a musical variety show showcasing a collection of big band classics from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as Simmons’ own witty compositions. Featuring such unforgettable classics as Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long, the album is filled with tailor-made puns and the album’s title track — a tale of scary scallions, terrifying tomatoes and other menacing produce lurking in the vegetable garden.
Simmons was also awarded a 1996 U.S. Parents’ Choice Award of quality for Celery Stalks At Midnight, as well as a coveted Cable Ace Award nomination for his music video, Counting Feathers/I Collect Rocks. Longstreet Press also developed the song into an illustrated children’s book.
Simmons’ third album, the Juno-nominated The Truck I Bought From Moe, features songs about a Gypsy Sock, a lonely moose, a Drip Drip Dripping tap, and the dog with the longest name in the world.
Simmons continues to take his show to fans both young and young at heart all over North America. He, Barbara and their three sons live in Anola, Man., a town with less than 200 people if you count geese, chickens, dogs, cats, and fish. Their home is a Simmons original creation in itself, featuring a real train bunk car bought from CNR for $500, and a fire pole on the second floor where you slide down into a padded, pillow playroom.
Simmons is in his mid-50s but he has the energy a child. If he doesn’t tickle your funny bone and make you laugh, then perhaps you are taking life far too seriously.
—BY HUGH JOHNSTON