Last weekend’s fireworks brought to mind what fireworks will always remind me of – The Benson and Hedges Symphony of Fire at Ontario Place in Toronto. Yes, kids, there was a time when cigarette companies could sponsor giant events. The SOF was launched in several Canadian cities in 1990 and I was delighted to emcee the Toronto version for several summers. The evening would start with a reception at the Royal York Hotel, after which we’d be driven to a marina where we would board a boat to take us to the site via water so we could avoid the heavy traffic on Toronto’s lakeshore. Sometimes it was an OPP vessel. Sometimes a private boat. And we always felt privileged, with a clear view of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Here, B & H event coordinator Doug Henderson chats up a couple of guests while I enjoy the view.
The Symphony of Fire was a competition. Countries including Italy, China, the U.S. and of course Canada competed with beautiful displays set to music. It would continue over several nights culminating in a finale created by all of the countries involved, with an award presentation to the winner. Judges included people like Rita DeMontis from the Toronto Sun and other media personalities and politicians. We would have a wonderful dinner in a private VIP tent at Ontario Place, where cigarettes were available for free! (I had already quit smoking years before, and B & H’s Belmont Milds were my brand.) Then, just before dusk, the judges and I would get back on the boat and taken to a barge offshore, private boats would slowly move in and the crowd on land would swell. One Canada Day it was estimated that 80,000 people were there. When I said Happy Canada Day into the microphone from my position on the barge, my hair nearly flew straight back on the wind of the massive audience’s roaring response.
Emceeing was a tricky job because my voice would travel on a brief delay via speakers throughout the park. It was a challenge to ignore the echoes of my last sentence as I started the next one. My engineer would wave away bugs that were drawn to the light but I swallowed several and simply carried on. I miss these floral pants, BTW. Here I am waiting for a cue.
I stayed silent during the displays themselves, although in the early years, there were play-by-play announcers for the simulcast on MIX 999. One year, the American team had gotten drunk during the last night and freaked out when they didn’t win. One guy had to be manhandled a bit because he tried to take a swing at Doug, the gentlest, nicest man on the planet. The U.S. approach to the competition was to launch as many fireworks as possible to a patriotic country song. There was no finesse, no art, just loud, brash popping of everything they had, while the Italians, for example, would use a beautiful piece of classical music and time everything to the nanosecond.
The federal government changed the rules around tobacco advertising and promotion in the late 1990s and the Symphony of Fire was no more, at least, not in Canada. Various events took its place including the Festival of Fire and other similar incarnations. But they didn’t have Doug at the helm and they either fizzled or aren’t consistently staged. Every year, B & H gave me wonderful gifts for my participation. On year, it was a brass, nautical telescope. Another season, B & H branded raingear that I wore for many years. If things ran late, Doug would pay for me to stay at the Royal York rather than drive up to midtown in the wee hours. Big tobacco’s big money flowed freely for a time and lit up the sky in a spectacle. I’m glad I was there to see it.