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Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Banff Springs Hotel 1971

Banff Springs Hotel 1971
Me in a pub near Radium Hot Springs.

I did two hitches at the Banff Springs Hotel. This story is about the first hitch in the summer of 1971.

It was early spring and I was living in Toronto with two roommates that I had gone to high school with in Montreal. I wasn’t that thrilled about the job I had working in the dispatch office of a national van lines company and one day while leafing through the want ads I spotted something that interested me. The ad said that interviews were going to be held at the Royal York Hotel for summer employment at the Banff Springs Hotel.

The person who interviewed me was Fred Weiland who was in charge of the dining rooms and bars at the Banff Springs Hotel. I had had previous experience working as a waiter and wasn’t surprised to be told that I was going to be hired. A few months went by and I never received a phone call or letter asking me to report  for duty. I kind of wrote the whole thing off as a missed opportunity.
One weekend, I was part of a foursome playing golf including one of my roommates and through a bit of chit chat I found out that one of the other players was a personnel guy with Canadian Pacific Hotels which, at the time, ran the Banff Springs Hotel. I told him my story about my interview.
A few days later I got a phone call asking me how quickly I could make it out to Banff. I asked for a week. I quit my job and went to Montreal to see my retired parents for a few days. When I got back to Toronto one of my roommates gave me a lift up north of Toronto to a city called Barrie. His parting gift was a small piece of hash rapped in tin foil.
I hitch hiked the rest of the way to Banff. I left on a Friday night and was in Banff on Monday. I made it as far as Sudbury that Friday night, got a lift in a mail truck through the night and by late Saturday I was in Manitoba. The only delay I had was trying to get a lift from an anal British guy in a gas station early Sunday morning in Saskatchewan. He was pulling a sailboat and I just couldn’t convince him to give me a ride. Hitch hiking was always something I was good at. It might have been that I was fairly clean cut in a time when lots of older folks disliked hippies.
I wandered down Banff Avenue and with some directions I crossed the bridge over the Bow River and found the Banff Springs Hotel. It was quite an impressive looking building and looked rather majestic. I walked up the front steps to the main entrance (it has since been relocated) and asked one of the bellman dressed in tartan where the personnel department was. In the lobby I spotted the huge stuffed buffalo heads on one of the walls.
I was told that I would be working as a waiter in the Alhambra dining room and was assigned a room that I was to share with two other guys. Both of them were also from Montreal. They weren’t exactly friendly from the get go and gave me the impression that their space had been invaded. The room had one single bed and an upper and lower bunk bed. I got the top bunk.
I was issued a short waist high white jacket along with some buttons and two epaulets that we attached to the jacket ourselves each time we required a clean one. Black pants, black shoes, a black tie, and a white shirt complimented my appearance.

Name badge and jacket buttons.

For the first few days I was trained by an experienced waitress and assisted her where I could. Then I was let loose on the unsuspecting public. The evening meals were by far the busiest and  the dining room was always packed. These were the meals where the tips added up. Breakfasts and lunches not so much.
At the time, there were two major dining rooms in the hotel, the Alhambra and the Fairholme. ( A few months  ago we stopped off at the hotel on our way to see my daughter in a production of Cats in Calgary. I took my son and girlfriend for a tour of the building. We were standing in one of the dining rooms and I asked a passing security guy when the name of the dining room had been changed from the Fairholme to the Alberta Room, He told me he had worked at the hotel since the late seventies and the room had never been called the Fairholme. You might say he was dismissive. When I got back to Vancouver Island, where I live, I did some research on the net and sure enough I found proof that the room was once called the Fairholme, What a twit!

The Alhambra was a tad classier of the two dining rooms and had a winding spiral marble staircase that led to the front entrance. The kitchen was massive and served both dining rooms. Waiters and waitresses lined up to pick up the servings in the kitchen while cooks barked orders. There was a Scottish cook who liked to tug at some of waitresses front zippers on their uniforms, A double set of swinging doors led to the dining rooms. I scoffed more than one plate of smoked salmon plate between those doors.
Most of the summer staff were students. Some were a little more serious than others. There were a couple of older ladies who came out each summer to work as waitresses. One was a Mrs. Leach. There was one busboy that I remember who was pretty funny and would do rhymes about places near where he lived in western Quebec. You can go to Huberdeau, have a beer in Weir, get the boot in Lachute.
I can’t remember what the hourly rate was but it was pretty low. We had to pay something for our rooms and it didn’t cost much to eat in the cafeteria. Tips were the name of the game. For some, it was squirreling away the next years tuition while for others it was booze money with a bit left over to take back home. I was in the latter category.
A lot of bus tours came through the Banff Springs Hotel dining rooms. The tour guides were often gay and could be very demanding. Sometimes it seemed like the guides were getting even by having their turn at pushing people around after spending days on end with old ladies making demands. The old gals were referred to as “tour whores” by some of the waiting staff. The tips from them were never great but I had a little fun joking with them about travelling around on their husband’s insurance and that just maybe the old boy had been buried in the backyard back home.

Sulphur Mountain or Tunnel Mountain?

Every hotel has their hierarchy. In most cases it was Europeans at the top with the power and Canadians doing the grunt work. In the Alhambra dining room where I worked, the maître d’ was a guy named Tony who was from Austria I think. His immediate underlings, the captains, were almost all Europeans. I kind of got the feeling that they looked at Banff as kind of a remote colony. After hours they often stuck together. I had as little contact as I could with them. Most were a bit too snotty for me.
The most coveted summer job was supposedly being a bellman at the front entrance because of the tips. Big freaking deal! Bartending had a bit of glamour to it. “Hi folks, what’ll ya have?” Washing dishes was kind of the bottom of the barrel but I have to say I had some admiration for some of those guys who took it in stride and made the best of it by joking around with each other and the waiters and waitresses.
A week or so after arriving at the hotel, I had a bit of a confrontation with my roommates. They were treating me like a pariah and made a few snide comments and I finally had had enough and told them that if one or the other would like to step outside maybe we could settle things. There were no takers and a bit later one of them left town and they couldn’t team up anymore.
The guy that stayed on wanted to have a career in the hotel industry. I think he did. Although I disliked him I did take advantage of his record player. Carole King and Tapestry, the Woodstock Album….Canned Heat…..”I’m going up the country….”. He also had an album with the Supremes singing Rogers and Hart tunes that wasn’t half bad.
I’ve never been much of a group person and my time in Banff was no different. I did hang out with a Jewish guy (Richard Golumbia) from Peterborough who was also a waiter and into fishing. We hiked up the glacier fed Spray River a few times with our rods but never saw anything remotely resembling a fish.
The Spray River runs through the Banff Springs Golf Course and meets up with the much bigger Bow River a few hundred yards below the Bow Falls. There was a kind of sandy patch on the hotel side of the Bow River where some of the staff would stretch out on a sunny day and pick up a few rays. On one of those days I spotted some other guys diving off the cliff side and swimming about 30 yards across the Spray River to the beach. It looked like fun and I became one of the cliff divers for a few days, perhaps trying to impress the babes. A guy from Central America, I think his name as Hernando, was taken away to the hospital with a gash on his head and it kind of put a damper on that activity. If anyone had ever found themselves swept away in the current of the nearby Bow River they could have very likely ended up a cold corpse in Calgary.

Bow Falls.
Back in 71’ there was a corral across the street from the hotel where the trail horses were kept. I went horseback riding 5-6 times that summer and on one of those trail rides I found out that one or two of the other riders had been with the Olympic equestrian team. When we got out to the flats they got the OK or high sign from the trail guide and went from a canter to gallop in no time. My horse followed suit and it took all I had to hang on.
Nightlife in Banff was pretty well all downtown (pre Sundance Cabaret). About a half hour walk. More than a few have staggered back to the Banff Springs Hotel over the years after pounding back a few beers. There were a few large taverns in town, one of which had a giant mural on the wall of men building the railway. There was a story that I heard about some old guy in one of those taverns whose claim to fame was once stealing a locomotive. In the Mount Royal Hotel there was a small lounge where folksingers would entertain. I think it was called The Buffalo Paddock. If you wanted to dance there was an Italian joint called Tita's or something close to that name. 
I remember a few of the restaurants around Banff back in 1971. There was a pancake house place just down the street from the hotel. By the railway tracks in town there was a steak and lobster place in a converted old caboose. On Banff Avenue there was a restaurant called the Paris Steakhouse. The steaks were huge but very thin. The French guy who took us to our table had a fake hand covered with a glove. Someone later told me he lost his digits in a meat grinder.

I started hanging out with a waitress from Galt. Ontario who was going to Europe that fall and we talked a bit about me joining her. It never happened. She left at the end of August and I got involved with another waitress who I later saw in Toronto. It turned out that she already had a boyfriend but that is another story. If I was used I didn’t mind that much. Maybe I was Rick from Casablanca and her boyfriend was Victor Lazlo. Well we’ll always have Banff…and Toronto.
Aside from waiting on tables in the dining room, I was occasionally asked to work private parties. The rooms for these parties were a floor down from the dining rooms. At one of these events I had to take a tray load of frozen parfaits downstairs. I had planned on taking a short cut through a darkened corridor near the service bar. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel restaurant supervisor  replaced a portable partition I had removed in the corridor. I banged into it with my tray in the dark and when I came out to the spiral staircase where people were arriving for dinner, the parfaits started to fall like grenades. I can still remember the glare in the supervisor’s eyes.
The weather outside was getting nippier. It was now September and a lot of the staff had left to go back to school. Each year the hotel would host a lawyer’s convention at this time and about 2000 of the legal bandits would turn up. It was kind of the official end of the summer. A rowdier crew  who weren't sudents came in for the winter season and some skiing.
I was going to stick it out for another week or two but one day I was slightly hung over and got stuck with serving the shop owners in the hotel lunch. Little or no tips and being ordered about just didn’t suit me that day and I told one of them to shove it. It had been fun while it lasted.
I caught a plane back to Toronto and went through my savings in no time.
You may be asking yourself whatever happened to that little bit of hash I had? Well my roommates told me that the RCMP sometimes raided the rooms so I hid it at the base of a tree. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember which tree. I did picture in my mind squirrels doing summersaults.
A little over a year later I did my second hitch at the Banff Springs Hotel.
To be continued….

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