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….
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*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.

The Albert Canadian Tire Ad

Posts two days in a row after a month of silence?  What what?

I can’t let the NHL playoffs pass without observing that it’s a shame that Boston defenceman Andrew Alberts didn’t play for a Canadian-based team, and about twenty years ago.  The reasons for this are, in my opinion, obvious – provided you spent some time in Canada during the 1980s, owned or had access to a television in that same time period, and currently have space available in your brain’s memory banks to devote to useless ephemera.  Useless ephemera, you say?  Sounds like the intellectual wheelhouse for HiR:tb…

If Alberts played in Canada back in ye olde 1980s, there is no question in my mind that nary a game would have gone by without an “Albert” (no “s”) chant getting started at some point.  Alberts wouldn’t have needed to play particularly well, he wouldn’t need (necessarily) to be on the ice, he might not even need to be dressed for the game;  Canadian fans would have gotten a kick out of having a legitimate opportunity to chant this guy’s name.  Why?  Because of this ad (which, incidentally, was pretty much ubiquitous in the Great White North about 25 years ago):

This commercial was wildly popular back in the day, despite – or maybe because of – the sappy script, the cheap sentimentality and the clumsy acting.  There is of course, also an obvious and glaring flaw:  why the hell is Albert’s given name on the back of his jersey at the end of the ad?  How did something so deeply flawed become such a widespread cultural phenomenon?  Some mysteries will endure forever, I suppose.

Anyway, I know that Canadian fans would have been chanting for Alberts, because the “Albert” chant at the end of that spot actually did make an appearance at some games back in the late 80’s, despite the complete absence of anyone on either team with such a surname.

Stick with me for a moment, because I need to flesh out some of the cultural background for this story.   When the Leafs were truly awful in those latter Ballard years, the frustration of a fanbase that is now (unfortunately) called “Leaf Nation” was overflowing.   Keep in mind that back then, we The Disappointed did not have this public spleen-venting outlet you kids call The Internet, because Al Gore hadn’t got around to inventing it yet.  There was no Barilkosphere within which to proclaim loudly our anger, restlessness or dissatisfaction.  So we did things like showing up at Leaf games with paper grocery bags on our heads¹.   Expressive grocery-related haberdashery was all well and good, but chief among the limited and primitive expressive mediums of sports fans at this time was The Chant.  The Chant is essentially the same idea as The Heckle – a shouted barb or witticism, occasionally devolving into mere profanity – but syntactically simplified (to permit the synchronization of many mouths) and with a super-added element of loose mob-style organization (to give it superior moral authority).

Thus did it happen, and not infrequently, that as the Leafs were once again thoroughly outclassed on home ice by their opposition of the day, Leaf fans from time to time expressed their angst by chanting “Albert!  Albert!  Albert!”  This was truly a watershed moment in the evolution of chanting:  highly constrained by the inherent technical imperatives of the short-form structure of the medium, chant-makers had historically struggled to bring depth and intellectual maturity to their work.  Consider, for example, the innate challenges in bringing lyrical beauty or a deeper truth to the world through an expressive form traditionally used to publicize the onset of a toga party, to encourage the commencement of a food fight, or to recommend the drunken public display of female breasts.  Yet the “Albert” chant succeeded where so many others had failed:  making use of an ironic and humorous reference to a shared cultural externality, Leaf fans made it clear that they needed – nay, demanded –  a real life hero, someone like Albert, to lace ’em up for the Blue and White.

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¹That sentence is so dated culturally, it’s the lexical equivalent of an archaeological dig in Egypt.  For example, going to the game with a bag on your head made reference, in a way, to the Unknown Comic.  Also:  paper grocery bags were then still the industry standard, not the enviro-retro-chic that they are now (suitably recycled, of course).