The Musical Life of Marlene Nash

Pictured above: Marlene Nash re-enacts one of her winning numbers from the Seniors’ Variety Show, Those Were the Days, singing to a portrait on her apartment wall, which was shot after she won a talent show as a 16-year-old in San Francisco. Lorne Eckersley photo

By Lorne Eckersley

Marlene Nash has been singing for as long as she can remember.

“In the womb, baby,” she grins. “I was singing to get out!”

One of five siblings born to “an alcoholic Irish tenor father,” Nash said she grew up in a musical family, a trait she passed on to her own two children.

The musical family wasn’t affluent, though, and she grew up in “the projects” in San Francisco, public housing for the working class. And she could hardly wait to get out.

She won her first talent show singing at Macy’s Department Store at the age of 13.

“Peggy Lee was one of the judges,” she said.

Three years later she won another talent show, this one at a Moose Lodge, and soon she was leaving home and making her own way.

“I was singing in clubs before I was old enough to get into them,” she said. “I’ve been lying about my age my whole life!”

Even today, as an effervescent senior citizen, she is apt to burst into song at any point in a conversation.

Eventually she married, but her husband was difficult and nothing like his young bride. Two children later she was out of the marriage and eventually she would meet her future second husband, Jack Nash, who was her senior by 27 years.

Above: Leading singalongs has always been a passion of Marlene Nash, as evidenced by this album that she and her husband Jack made during their days of operating The Crow and Gate Pub near Nanaimo. Lorne Eckersley photo

A Brit by birth, Nash was living in Nanaimo. It was 1967 when Marlene headed northward to Vancouver Island to escape a country mired in the Vietnam War and serious social turmoil.

“Coming to Canada was the smartest thing I ever did,” she smiled.

Jack had made a good living in lumber sales, but they shared a dream of building a pub. They lived on a shoestring for three years while they worked to turn their dream into a reality.

The Crow and Gate Pub, near Nanaimo, was an instant success. Jack was a charming host and Marlene, who had gained plenty of cooking experience in her years in San Francisco, was right at home in the kitchen, whipping up English specialties like steak and kidney pie (she still makes a version that is to die for!).

But it was in the evenings when she really came alive. She would clean up, change clothes and emerge to become the Crow and Gate chanteuse, singing bawdy British beerhall tunes and jazz standards alike. Singalongs helped create the intimacy that Jack dreamed of for his dream pub.

The marriage broke down and, at 51, she set out on a backpack trip to Central America. On her return, she met Francis Peace, a club owner in Nanaimo. Soon they packed up and moved to Belize, where Francis already an eco-tourism business in the jungle. Marlene felt right at home—she spoke Spanish fluently, and a buoyant personality made her popular with locals and tourists.

After three years in Belize she and Francis (”my true soulmate”) felt the tug of Canada, and “retired” to Creston. Marlene took some courses and got a job working with seniors at Swan Valley Lodge. Singing was often part of her daily work.

She and a friend helped establish Creston’s first farmers’ market. With another neighbour she convinced the Town of Creston to allow the use of an 11th Avenue vacant lot for the use of a Community Garden. It remains in that use today.

It was in a little house on 11th Avenue North that she became famous locally. She and Francis painted the house in bright salmon and yellow colours and Marlene, again putting her kitchen skills to use, began making home-made ice cream and selling cones from a little corner that had once been a garage. She was in her glory, serving customers and getting rave reviews.

Above: Hans Bringmann donated the proceeds of Kokanee Brass’s prize money from the Seniors’ Variety Show to the TAPS music program. Marlene Nash donated half of her first place winnings to the program, with the other half going to her accompanist on piano, Monte Anderson. Accepting on behalf of TAPS were Bridget Currie and Kerry Schoncite. Lorne Eckersley photo

Some neighbours didn’t share her enthusiasm, though, objecting to the traffic she was drawing to the mixed commercial and residential street. A controversy raged, and the disheartened couple sold the property and returned to Vancouver Island, where they remained until Francis’s death.

Marlene moved back to Creston in 2012. She quickly returned to managing the Community Garden, singing and organizing the construction of a teepee for Family Day. She’s had some health issues, but she still jumps at the opportunity to perform. A few months ago she got a telephone call asking her to perform at a seniors’ variety show that was in the planning stages. She would be the object of a bull’s (think bullfight) affection. Would she wear a red cape and be chased around Prince Charles Theatre?

For the unfortunates not in the audience, Marlene did just that, and had onlookers howling as she tried to evade the bull’s clutches.

“Unfortunately, it was a horny old bull,” she laughed. “If it had been a matador I wouldn’t have run away!

And, by the way, she also performed, singing a couple of songs and walking away with first place honours as selected by judges.

“I sang Bésame Mucho (Kiss Me a Lot) in Spanish, because I love singing in Spanish, and then I sang Those Were the Days, turning it into a singalong with the audience. It was wonderful!

“I’ve had a great life and I wouldn’t trade any of it,” she said. “But I have never been happier than I am now!”

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