Twelve years old is an impressionable age, and Woody Woodland at 12 lived through a particularly impressive moment in history. He and his family were on the last boat to get out of Shanghai (where his parents worked as missionaries), when the Japanese invaded it in 1941.
"I remember looking up at bombers going over our heads when we were out at sea. Luckily, they decided not to waste bombs on our ship."
So, it was back home to Australia, and there Woody (then known by his given name, Howard) grew up, until, in his early 20s, he decided to accompany a friend who had found a job in Toronto.
"We sold our motorbikes and went," says Woody. And life has been a peripatetic adventure ever since. Having become an elevator mechanic in Australia, he soon found work with Otis in Toronto, and there he met his wife Jutta.
While Woody was growing up in Australia, Jutta lived on the other side of the world, in Germany. About the time Woody left Australia for Canada, Jutta was leaving the apartment she shared with family in bombed-out Hamburg, dreaming of a life of space and creativity. First, she travelled through Europe and then proceeded to Canada on an "immigrant ship."
"I was adventurous," she says. No wonder, then, that she and Woody hit it off when their paths crossed in Toronto. They got married on Centre Island in 1955.
Many people in Victoria know Woody Woodland as the leader of the Butchart Buskers, the band that provided Butchart Gardens' lively stage show from 1969 to 2004. Before elevator mechanics Woodland had studied brass instruments in Brisbane and Sydney, and long before the Butchart days, back in the 1950's, he and Jutta went to Germany for two years with their infant son. Woody played in a concert orchestra and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Band. Back in Canada, he was with the RCAF Band in Edmonton when a second son was born.
After a stint in Ottawa they came to Victoria, Woody becoming a bandmaster at Naden, playing in orchestras around town, and working as a piano technician at UVIC's Music Department for twenty years.
"I always told my kids: get yourself a full toolbox and you'll always have work," he says now.
If versatility was one of his strengths, it is one he shares with Jutta. When she arrived in Canada Jutta was a window decorator, working for department stores. Over the years in Edmonton, Ottawa and Victoria, she turned her talents to theatrical stage and costume design. "I was never trained in anything except window decorating," she says now, "I'm self-taught in everything."
"Everything" expanded to include singing, acting and eventually directing (twelve plays over 35 years at Langham Court Theatre). "I put the kids in the prop room," she remembers with a laugh, "so having kids never stopped me." Indeed the whole family was theatrical, with one son backstage, one an usher, and Woody in the orchestra pit.
"We were in No No Nanette together," they recall now with much giggling. "There was a cast of 25, and we designed the set together." An hour spent in the company of Woody and Jutta is an hour of anecdotes, laughter, and comical reminiscing. Aside from their lives in the arts they look back on travels in Europe, Australia, the Caribbean and North and South America ... much of which Jutta has recorded and edited on film. "Looking back now at photos of all these travels and projects, we wonder 'where were the kids?!' We certainly never suffered empty nest syndrome!" More giggles.
Just so you know: the kids were fine. Both played their own instruments and both became professionals in other careers. Meanwhile, Jutta moved away from theatre and took up painting, first experimenting with watercolour, then acrylics and oil. She was juried into the Federation of Canadian Artists, and joined the Oak Bay Art Club and the Al Frescoes, among other groups.
Woody remembers the Butchart Gardens days with pleasure. He started as a roving accordian player but soon the Butchart boss wanted a full stage show combining big band, show tunes and comedy. The trademark "Uncle George" character emerged, Woody's "uncle" in Australia who popped up from below the stage (from "down under") to fire off one-liners which elicited groans heard right across the Saanich Peninsula. He still makes an occasional appearance among the friends Woody meets almost daily at Caffe Misto, his local coffee shop. Guffaws from the corner usually mean Woody is channelling Uncle George again.
After retiring from Butchart Gardens Woody made guest appearances with the Dixieland Express at Hermann's on View Street, and he guests there still on occasion, as well as playing a couple of games of tennis each week. Woody and Jutta know exactly how they have kept all this creativity and energy going: "We always went to each other's shows and were each other's mutual admiration society," says Jutta.
"You each have to have space for your own projects," adds Woody, "then when you're together, you discuss them." And you have to make compromises, he adds with the Uncle George twinkle. "For instance, Jutta wanted to buy a diamond necklace. I wanted to buy a new car. So we compromised, we bought the diamonds but kept them in the garage." Once a comedian always a comedian ... But there has been hard work too: this pair spent years, for instance, making oak plaques with heraldry crests in their basement for The Tartan Shop on Government Street. "We made enough to buy our house!" says Jutta.
"Performing to an audience," says Woody, "provides one with down-to-earth wisdom. You learn that in life's tricky situations too, you must pause, focus on whatever role you've got to play and say to yourself 'it's show time ...'" Then you give it your best shot.
And if you can raise a few laughs as well, so much the better.
AUGUST 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE