Albert Speaks: I’ve Been Holding Out On You Edition

watercolor albert

Albert, As the Group of Seven Would Have Seen Him

Confessions Department: Since April, I’ve been keeping some pretty fun information from you all. Remember the Albert Canadian Tire commercial? Well “Albert” has spoken out.  Here, at Heroes in Rehab: the blog.

I’ll tell you what the actor who played “young Albert” had to say when I “interviewed” him, but first, a little history.

Back in the 1980s, before that bearded guy and his wife annoyed the hell out of everybody on behalf of the nation’s favourite purveyor of hardware, auto parts and sporting goods, there was Albert.  Albert was the protagonist in probably the single best-remembered commercial in Canadian history.  This one minute ad featured prominently in hockey broadcasts at the time, and it became so widely known that – as I mentioned in a post earlier this year – disgruntled fans in hockey rinks (and football stadiums – see below, and remember it’s not confusing if you factor in the inevitable consumption of beer) across the country actually began chanting for Albert, as if imploring him to arrive and turn around the fortunes of their favourite team.  I remember being at a Leafs game at the Gardens in the mid 80s when this happened.  Here’s another reference to the Albert phenomenon in a 1984 Sports Illustrated article:

The commercial has caught the fancy of a nation. Albert T shirts and posters are on the market. Before a preseason intra-squad game, the Vancouver Canucks stitched ALBERT on the back of the sweater of rookie defenseman J.J. Daigneault, at 19 the youngest player on the team. Spectators at the game chanted “Albert!…Albert!…Albert!” Albert shooting contests are held between periods at Calgary Flame games, and calls for Albert have been heard at Canadian Football League games. During a recent Canucks game, a fan sat with a bag over his head in lament for the plight of the NHL’s worst team. Written on the bag was, WE WANT ALBERT.

Simply put, Albert was huge here in Canada.  To understand how huge, you have to remember that this was the mid-80s, several years before Al Gore’s Internet had made its way into peoples’ homes.    We mostly received our culture back in ye olden days by osmosis (by which I mean “television”).  It generally came from beyond our borders, because nobody could stand watching the CBC (sporting events excepted).  Aside from the a Gordon Lightfoot record here and there or the occasional hoser explaining how to get a mouse in a beer bottle, it was pretty slim pickings for uniquely Canadian cultural products.  It wasn’t hard for our own voices to be overwhlemed;  our neighbours to the south were definitely feeling their cultural oats – these were, after all, the years of Reagan’s “Morning in America” – and Canadians were bombarded by Uncle Sam’s cultural exports – basically parachute pants, hair gel and more Lionel Richie than you could shake a stick at.  The UK and Australia were also huge influences; Ol’ Blighty thrust Boy George upon us (ew) and ensured that Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics produced every recording we listened to from about 1985 to 1989 (little known fact), while the Aussies gave us Foster’s Lager, Crocodile Dundee movies, and the shared experience of shouting “vegemite sandwich” in time with the song on the car radio.

Somehow, despite all those pressures, and in the absence of an online community to tie us all together, Canadian culture nevertheless began to seriously flower.  While the Brits pumped out Do They Know It’s Christmas, and the Yanks countered with We Are the World, Canadians produced Tears Are Not Enough.  In  America, Saturday Night Live entered one of its golden eras (after the unfortunate Anthony Michael Hall year).  As for the U.K., on top of the longstanding legacy of Python, Canada got its first glimpse of the genius of Not the Nine O’Clock News (the “Gerald” sketch linked is a classic).  We responded with the Kids in the Hall.

My point is that it was a cultural coming of age.  The Americans had “Where’s the Beef?”, and we were painfully aware of it, but we also had our own unique commercial phenomenon:  Albert.  There wasn’t anything bigger on this side of the 49th parallel in those years.  Canada was coming in to its own, and I’m saying that you can pretty much trace our cultural maturation to this moment in time.

Fast forward to April of 2009 when, evidently desperate for ideas to write about, I put up a post about Andrew Alberts, a defenceman for the Boston Bruins. I used Alberts’ surname as an excuse to take a couple of lazy cheap shots at the “Albert” Canadian Tire and to write an equally lazy bullshit manifesto (much like the one appearing above) about the cultural backdrop to Leafs games in the 1980s. A couple of weeks later, there was a comment from “Albert” appended to the post.

Because I am an idiot and incapable of thinking logically, I initially came to the conclusion (using the commenter’s email address and about a thirteen second review of imdb.com) that the commenter was the guy who directed the ad; my brother quickly set me straight on that one (he’s a genius – he can read), and I realized that my little site had been visited by a true Canadian icon: “Albert” himself, a former child actor by the name of Bill Novinski. “Albert” himself confirmed it about a week later.

Bill Novinski

Bill Novinski nowadays; swiped from Google Image/Facebook

I did a quick bit of research (mashing buttons on the computer) and learned that oddly enough, the advertisement in question was produced by an American ad agency. I learned from Whatever Happened To…? Catching Up With Canadian Icons by Mark Kearney and Randy Ray that when the ad was filmed, Novinski was a young kid from Long Island, New York. According to the book, he became a systems engineer for J.P. Morgan Chase in Delaware and now has two young daughters*.

I couldn’t let the opportunity go by. I had to ask a few questions of Bill. I sent him an email asking if he’d mind answering a few questions for the readers of this site about his experience as “Albert”. He very kindly answered back a couple of days later. I’ve been wanting to share our conversation with you all, but when it happened the NHL was right in the middle of the playoffs and – as monumental as this news was to me – I had a sneaking suspicion that it might fly well under the radar in the circumstances. Next came the draft and the free agency deadline, then my attempt at writing an article for the Maple Leafs Annual 2009-2010.

Now here we are in the dog days of August; hockey news is a little slow, unless you’re Patrick Kane’s bail bondsman. I thought now would be the perfect time to share my chat with “Albert” (I’ve re-arranged bits and pieces here and there to make it more comprehensible – Bill actually sent my email back to me with his annotated answers, but that format would be difficult for readers here to follow):

HiR:tb I believe [the ad] was filmed in Denver, but where were the exterior location bits done?
BN: Echo Lake, Colorado Actually, the camera was facing the upper northwest corner of the lake (a bit specific, I know).
HiR:tb Was the setting as pastoral and rural as it appears in the commercial?
BN Yes, very – it reminded me exactly where I visit in Quebec each year, only more rural.
HiR:tb How long were you on set?
BN: I was at the lake for two days. One day we shot the French version and the other day we shot the English version. We flew to Toranto 2 weeks later for a 1 day shoot in the studio, where they replicated the interior of the Canadian Tire store.
HiR:tb What did you do to keep warm during all the setups and how did you get the part in the first place??
BN: We stayed on a bus between the setups at the side of the lake. I auditioned for the commercial in New York city; Thats where the majority of US commercials are cast. I had been in commercials for a couple of years already; the interesting thing was that I was probably the only actor at the audition who was familiar with Canadian Tire.
HiR:tb Were there any sequences that were filmed that didn’t make it in to the spot?
BN: Not specifically that I remember; but then again there are always many different angles and variations in the script that are filmed and do not make the cut.
HiR:tb Do you know if there was ever any discussion on set about the issue of Albert’s (given) name being on the back of the sweater at the end of the ad?
BN: Not that I remember, although it was many years ago. I am sure that came up somewhere along the line by the crew. I think they intentially ignored this kind of like in a movie when they show a camera shot from the rear seat. You never see a rear view mirror; they remove it because it is too distracting to the shot. In this case, they needed the viewers to know who Albert was without having the distraction of introducing his last name. It would be too complicated for a simple commercial.
HiR:tb I think I read somewhere that you weren’t much of a hockey fan at the time, and that you hadn’t skated much either.
BN: Actually it was that I was not a good Hockey player. I am a pretty good skater.
HiR:tb What kind of an impact has appearing in the spot had on your day-to-day life since then?
BN: Since I live in the States and the commercial never aired down here, not much other then the personal experiences acting has with it.
HiR:tb Were you aware of how big a phenomenon this was in Canada (this was a “Where’s the Beef?” moment for us), and what’s your reaction to that?
BN: I was not aware how big it was at first. My relatives had seen the commercial so I knew it was airing, but again, it was, for me, like the other commercials I have done. The oddest thing was being mentioned in Sports Illustrated and now recently seeing “Albert” Canadian Tire posters on sale on Ebay (very rare, but I was able to pick up one). I am trying to locate one of the original Albert bags (http://www.upsetfan.com/whoweare.html) however I have had no success in contacting Dave Armstrong through his website. That would be cool to get one of them.
HiR:tb I read that some years ago you became a systems engineer and that you are living and working in the U.S. but that you have had occasion to holiday in Canada from time to time.
BN: This is true. I will be visiting southern Quebec and Ontario again this year.
HiR:tb Finally, how did you happen to come across the post, and what (if anything) else would you like to say about it?
BN: I stumbled across your posting by doing a search on “Canadian Tire” and Albert. I do that on rare occasions because there is some interesting stuff that comes up time to time. Nothing major, but one time someone was stating in a blog that they were at a game years ago and I was brought out on the ice after the Albert chant (No!!, not me, but if there is a free game ticket, I’m there. LOL). The fact is many posts do not get added to the Google search for a month or more sometimes. As for what I would say about the post, I say thank you for bringing the commercial up and diving into the subject. It’s great to see people reminisce and if this is somthing I have been a part of, then it is great to know what people are thinking.

From this, we principally have learned that I am a terrible interviewer, possibly the world’s worst not named Paul Hendrick.

I should add that Bill stressed that he hadn’t taken any offense to the cracks I made about the ad (he actually pointed out that he’d left a “LOL” at the end of his comment that I’d obviously missed, because I was initially a little worried that he’d taken my stupid jokes to heart). He said he thinks that what I called a “sappy script” and “clumsy acting” is “what helped to make the commercial memorable”. He hastened to add that he never claimed to be a great actor.

Anyway, it occurred to me that there may be those among you who have a memory of the ad, or the phenomenon it caused here in Canada, that you might like to share with Bill. On the other hand, maybe you have a question that you’d like to ask him; I can’t promise he’ll answer it, but I’m prepared to make a nuisance of myself one more time and email him one more time, if you have something good.

How about it? Any love for “Albert” out there? Barilkosphere, I’m lookin’ at you….
—————-
*Novinski’s co-stars in the ad were:

  • Scott Schwartz (“Albert’s older brother”); Schwartz went on to a couple of movie roles, as a child in The Toy with Richard Pryor and A Christmas Story (he played Ralphie’s friend “Flick”) and more notoriously (in the late 90s, anyway) in such adult classics as New Wave Hookers 5; and
  • Bill Stewart, who (according to a recent article in the Vancouver Province) was initially paid nothing to appear in the ad (as a result of NCAA eligibility rules – he was playing for the University of Denver at the time), though he did receive $2000 from the company years later after pointing out to the company that he’d never signed a release. He went on to found the Central Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles; he is now involved with the Wenatchee Wild of the North American Hockey League.

8 comments to Albert Speaks: I’ve Been Holding Out On You Edition

  • geezer

    Interesting interview. Is he a fan of any hockey team now?

    By the way, I found the link to the Sports Illustrated article particularly timely. Your link goes to page two of the article but I decided to check out what was on page one. Lo and behold there is a lead story about the US Supreme Court refusing to hear the appeal by the NFL of the movement of the Oakland team to Los Angeles by Al Davis.

    Indeed, the article says “The lower-court decision that the Supreme Court let stand last week doesn’t prevent a professional league from having a say in franchise relocation; it merely holds that the NFL’s specific rule that franchise moves be approved by a three-fourths vote of its 28 teams is unreasonable. The court implied that the league would be on more solid legal ground if it established objective guidelines governing relocation that took into account such factors as population, economic projections, quality of facilities, fan loyalty and “location continuity.””
    Hmmm! Mr Bettman and the NHL take note: Objective guidelines? Population, economics, fans, location continuity. Sounds like Hamilton might qualify under such criteria but Phoenix?…not so much.
    What do you think?

  • Haha wow, I’m just old enough to remember a single ‘Albert’ commerical (hockey one wear he was wearing Red/White).. this is totally cool to know such a backstory cause I thought it was just just a strange ‘one-off’ commercial… Anyways, the original point of the comment was to link swap for my little piece of internet at dullskatesbrokentwigs.tumblr.com

  • @geezer: I don’t know if he’s a fan of any particular team right now. If I get another couple of questions, I’ll pass them all along to Mr. Novinski en masse and maybe he can then live out the balance of his days secure in the knowledge that I’ll never bother him again.

    Interesting coincidence about the Raiders decision in the ’84 Sports Illustrated I linked to. I know that case is definitely one that played a very large role in Judge Baum’s ruling, (discussed earlier < a href="http://heroesinrehab.ca/blog/2009/06/16/the-balsillie-nhl-coyotes-bankruptcy-ruling/">here). As for the criteria you mentioned, I’m not so sure that all of the factors mentioned are an enormous slam dunk. I think it’s clear that the present management has dug the Coyote into a hole, but in terms of population base, and economic potential (setting aside, for the moment, the current disproportionate recessionary effects in Phoenix) and quality of facilities, the ‘Yotes have an argument to make, one that would be bolstered by questions of “location continuity”. Obviously, there’s a massive cash cow in the southern Ontario hockey market waiting to be tapped (that’s why Balsillie is going through all this costly grief), and the per capita number of hockey fans is astronomically higher here (I think they call that “market penetration”) but I’m not one of those guys who says hockey could never work in Phoenix. But that’s a rambling for another day, I guess…

    @PapaLasagna: There was only one Albert commercial; or, at least, only one each in English and French. The one you remember is embedded in my first post on the subject.

  • I’m just about old enough to remember the move to LA — but was definitely around for the return to Oakland, as I was going to school over there by then. It was as though they’d never left, the silver-and-black explosion that ensued, despite the grumbling about Al Davis and the personal seat license malarkey (you would pay an annual fee in order to qualify to buy your season tickets). There’s any number of teams who, upon returning to their home towns would find the same love (although I suspect that the Colts and Ravens have pretty much burned those bridges) they were seeking with their new suitors.

    Oakland threw a whole bunch of money at the old Coloseum to bring it up to standards; teams will go where the money is. Uncle Gary needs to be convinced that it’s in the league’s best interests; while his goal has been to sell hockey in non-hockey markets (c.f. attempts to win a Cup with the chosen Sid, expansion into sunbelt cities), it’s borne odd fruit. It’s as strange that there’s no pro football in LA (outside of the odd claims for USC) as there are pro hockey teams in places without naturally frozen water. The failure of hockey marketing comes not from needlessly obscure rules (any follower of American football minutiae would be able to pick up the game) or senseless violence (ditto NASCAR) but a failure to spark youth imaginations down here — it’s not mindless hero worship we need, necessarily, but an emphasis on the speed and beauty of the game.

    Completely on a different tack, I wonder what the Albert photo would look like having gone through Poladroid.

  • Now that I’m off the work internet access I watched the video and strangely it seems not too familiar. I think it was on the cover of a Canadian Tire catalog or something, because I was born in ’87 so I wouldn’t have seen this on television. That being said, I remember laughing at the fact that the guy in the Crappy Tire ad had his first name on the back of his jersey. I wanna say I remember it seeing from around 1998-2001? Maybe it’s all a daydream, but I swore I thought Canadian Tire referenced the commercial during that time.

    p.s. “Joff-a”? I’d never heard it pronounced anything other than “Joe-fa”. And speaking of Jofa, I’m obliged to pass on it’s meaning, according to urban dictionary:

    JOFA comes from the hockey equipment which has nice equipment but a bad helmet. Used to describe a girl, who has a nice body but an ugly face.

  • @Mike: Lol re: USC. Also, I am LOVING POLADROID!!!
    @PapaLasagna: I think Bill is right, the quirkiness of the ad (including the almost universally noted fact that Albert’s first name is on the back of his jersey) is a large part of what makes the ad memorable. This ad may have still been running in ’87. Great, now I have another research project…

  • @junior You can plug your ears and sing “LALALALA” if you don’t want to hear it, but I’m pretty sure where I think I saw it was on a Canadian Tire catalog. If there is a backlist of all of the old covers (I can’t find one) then I would imagine it to be there… you’ve got me totally interested in how the hell I know this, I think I’m going to ask around with my friends and see if they can help me patch up some kind of explanation

  • Albert

    To answer Geezer’s question, I was a fan of the NY Islanders growing up. They were at top just around the time the Abert commercial was out the first time. Sadly they have fallen hard; Subsequently I left NY in the late 90’s . . . Coincidence?? hmmmm . . . . Lately I have been liking the Flyers, they just need to push a little harder –

    PapaLasagna – The commercial was out in ’84, again on and off through the second half of the 80’s and once again for a bit in the 90’s, so it did span some time. I am not sure of it being on the cover of the catalog, but I do know there were ads in magazines that had pics from the commercial. Unfortunately being disconnected from Canada in the winter gave me a limited view of where it was advertised up there. If you find a catalog with it on the cover, let me know.