She looks . . . well, not precisely girlish. But still, there is something undeniably youthful about the woman at the corner table of the nearly deserted bar in Vancouver's Hyatt Regency Hotel. Beneath her denim jacket, Vicki Gabereau is wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black jeans; she has Doc Martens or something similar on her feet. You almost expect a line of silver studs to run up the rim of her ear. Her face has the clear complexion of the young - or someone who has spent decades in darkened rooms. Or perhaps it is fear that has a rejuvenating effect - since the veteran radio performer is suffering her worst bout of butterflies in years. Stirring her drink, Gabereau admits: "Once I'm doing it, I'm all right. But I have stage fright. I get paralytic. I get nervous and impatient and agitated when I'm scared." And, is she scared now? "Yes." It comes out with feeling.
And with good reason. Having signed off her long-running CBC Radio program at the end of nine seasons last spring, the three-time ACTRA Award winner, 51, begins a new show this week in a medium where, to use her own words, she is "as green as grass." Gabereau Live is a daily hour of live televised talk, broadcast nationally between 8 and 9 a.m. Pacific time (11 a.m. to noon Eastern) on the Baton Broadcasting System, from its newest station in Vancouver. The show and the station were scheduled to take their first steps together, launching on Sept. 22. By the middle of last week, as Gabereau sat chatting downstairs from Baton's temporary quarters, carpenters and electricians still had not finished building her set in the station's new studios, up the street in the former Vancouver Public Library - a space the station will share with Planet Hollywood and a Virgin Records superstore. "I may be broadcasting in a hard hat," the rookie TV host said. She was only partly joking.
But Gabereau seemed almost to relish that unlikely prospect. It was boredom, she implies, that prompted her retirement from radio. On her new show, she says, "there will be more chaos involved." Doggie makeovers. Freestyle cooking. Bun tosses.
This is a woman, lest anyone forget, with a deep and serious need for a certain amount of what she calls "the nutbar element." As a teenage girl in Vancouver, Gabereau cut school to hang out with family friend Jack Webster, chatting away with the brash, Scots-accented radioman during commercial breaks in his broadcast booth in seedy Gastown. As a young mother and professional clown working for Puck Rent-a-Fool in 1974, she ran for the position of Toronto mayor against David Crombie, wearing her costume and going by the name Rosie Sunrise. Gabereau's most regretted, never-to-be-realized interview? It would have been with comedian Jackie Gleason: "He was the funniest clown that ever was."
"She was always irreverent," says author Pierre Berton. "She always had a lot of moxie." He speaks of what he knows. On the day in 1946 when Vicki Filion was born in Vancouver, Berton went out and got roaring drunk with her father, Harry Filion, senior photographer at The Vancouver Sun. "He was my closest friend," says Berton. "One of the funniest men you could ever meet, and one of the best-read. He knew everything." He died in 1983, but Gabereau's mother, to whom she is close, is still alive: "Smart as a whip and a good businesswoman," according to Berton. In 1965, worried about their only child's increasingly wild ways, the couple sent Vicki, then 18, to live with the Bertons north of Toronto. Months later, the writer's farm was the scene of a fund-raiser where the entertainment included magician Michel Gabereau. In love, Vicki married the young magician, and the couple went on to have two children (the Gabereaus separated in 1980).
By the time she ran for election as Rosie Sunrise, her other résumé credits included being a flower seller, taxi driver and actress (clothed) in a soft-core porn movie. But her satiric campaign against Crombie brought her to the attention of the Ontario media. Afterward, she turned her notoriety to good use, parlaying a post-election interview at a Brampton radio station into a job there. By 1980, she had worked her way to the CBC, replacing then-host Don Harron on Morningside for the summer. The following year, Gabereau got a show of her own as host of Variety Tonight. "I learned a certain degree of confidence in radio," she observes, sipping. "Although it took me five years to calm down to do that."
In the darkened, muted chamber of the broadcast booth, Gabereau found work for which her unconventional career path might have been considered vocational training. With an omnivorous curiosity and a voice that has burnished over the years to a mature silkiness, Gabereau "can get more out of somebody just by saying, 'Oh? Is that so?' than anybody I know," growls Webster. Though with her former mentor, it seems, Gabereau resorted to stronger ruses during his one appearance on her program. "There had been a liquor strike in B.C.," Webster recalls. "When I finished the program and went home, my wife said, 'That was a very good interview, but I could hear the glasses clinking.' She'd flown a bottle of whisky in from Toronto." Gabereau won an ACTRA for the interview anyway.
A favorite aunt was a nun, and Gabereau has been known to sneak away from the babble of telephones and voices at her old show's production offices for the reflective solitude of evening mass at Vancouver's downtown Roman Catholic cathedral. She has sat down to a seder with Jewish friends. But, she says, "I'm more inclined to a Buddhist line. Not that I'm a practising Buddhist," she adds, looking a tad Buddha-like herself in the embrace of the deep wingback chair. "But I'm keen on the outlook."
And there is something Zen-like in Gabereau's description of the hit she gets from a good interview. "I love that space," she says. "When I know within the first three minutes that I have control of the situation, that I'm in the groove. It's kind of a rhythm; it's comforting. You lock on and you just go along till it's over. And I pretty much know when it's over."
By 1995, Gabereau was beginning to get that feeling about her long-running relationship with CBC Radio. She agreed to do two more seasons of what by then was her seven-year-old afternoon interview show. But discussions about a replacement show fell through. At around the same time, Baton was casting about for programming for its new Vancouver station. Baton president Ivan Fecan had first met Gabereau when he was a story editor for the CBC's Quirks & Quarks and she was one for Morningside. BBS vice-president of original programming Susanne Boyce opened talks with the interviewer. "They're absolute visionaries," Gabereau says. "Apart from thinking that it's a pretty good idea of theirs to hire a middle-aged, slightly porky female to go on the TV."
But Baton's Fecan and Boyce are not the only ones who think the ex-clown - who has handled Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding and Nixonian spook G. Gordon Liddy with equal poise - can transfer her quirky chemistry to the small screen. "I think she'll do brilliantly on TV," predicts Bill Richardson, the poet and author who was once a regular guest on Gabereau's program, and who now hosts his own show in her former CBC Radio time slot. "She is possessed of a kind of intelligent exuberance, without being cloying. At the same time, there's nothing about her that's intimidating." Gabereau plays no social favorites either. "At a cocktail party," Richardson remarks, "she'd be able to schmooze with the high and mighty - but at the same time, she'd know the names of everybody in the band and all the waiters." Also helping to ease the adjustment to television is that Gabereau is no stranger to live performance before an audience. She regularly took her radio show on the road, for live broadcasts from tiny theatres in places like Annapolis Royal, N.S., and Whitehorse, and is a sought-after public speaker and master of ceremonies.
But television is different, and Gabereau is keenly aware of that. "I'm pretty old to be a novice," she growls. "Which is a weird sensation. It's kind of embarrassing to talk about it." She plans to follow the advice another Baton broadcaster, the experienced Valerie Pringle, offered during a recent trip to Vancouver. She will feel her way, watching show tapes for mistakes, "and trying not to make the same one more than three times." But Gabereau refuses to change certain things. The trademark glasses will be there - "there is not going to be any contact lens business, because I'm too old and I don't care."
Gabereau's guests will be the same eclectic mix of artists, authors, performers and eccentrics who populated her radio show. Booked for the show's launch on Monday were Joni Mitchell and Kilauren Gibb, the daughter whom the Alberta-born singer gave up for adoption in 1965, eventually reuniting with her only earlier this year. Other guests slated for the first week include figure skater Elvis Stojko, X-Files creator Chris Carter, and former prime minister Kim Campbell - with her cello. "There's more show-and-tell involved in this show," Gabereau notes. "You want people to bring stuff and do things." There will be a cooking set, employed during some interviews even if it does not lead to much actual cooking. There will be a piano player - "To do bridges and once in a while play a song, and for me to throw buns at." There may be a dog simply to lie around and give the place some character. There will not be many politicians: "Their points of view have usually been decided by committee."
Gabereau's daily schedule will also have to change. This week, she starts getting up at 5:30 in order commute to downtown from the North Vancouver home she shares with film-maker Tom Rowe. Most of her co-workers at the new Baton outlet are young enough to be her kids. Maybe that is another ingredient of her vitality these days, a source of some of the energy that shimmers even beneath the last-minute jitters. Besides, even after thousands of interviews, there are still questions Gabereau wants to ask. "I would love to get my hands on Winnie Mandela," she says with grim relish. "Maybe," she reflects, "maybe I get excitement mixed up with fear. The gut feeling is similar." Or maybe Gabereau simply needs a little of both.
Maclean's September 29, 1997