Living History

By Kevin McKay


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Photo: Jennifer Nelson Entertainer Douglas Fraser

It is difficult to come away from spending time with Douglas Fraser and not believe you have just spoken to one of the most interesting people you will ever meet. He was born in Stratford, Ontario to intriguing parents and, at the age of 65, is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Douglas is a living, breathing piece of history with personal connections to the entertainment industry in North America that most cannot even imagine. Who else has fronted a band that opened for Bryan Adams, lived in a house with Orson Welles for the better part of a year and had a mother who was picked up after school one day by Buffalo Bill Cody?

Doug’s father was also born in Ontario, one of 13 children, to an elderly couple. When they both passed away, he hitchhiked to Florida to try to fulfill a dream by joining the Ringling Brothers Circus shortly before his seventh birthday!

“The circus took him, educated him, trained him and made him a big star, just like he wanted,” says Doug. “When he turned 17 in the early 1920s, he quit the circus to join vaudeville and went to work with a partner named Amos Jacobs. Sometime later, his partner changed his name to Danny Thomas.”

Doug’s mother was raised by the same circus, though it was so large, they never actually met there. His maternal grandmother was also an entertainer and was busy touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, so she left Doug’s mother to be raised by the circus, where she followed in her mother’s footsteps.

Doug’s early years were unconventional. His parents moved at least once or twice a year when he was growing up, even after they retired from show business. Doug says, “Even after they retired, they could not get touring out of their system. Every time we moved, my Dad bought a new house, then he would give away the one we were living in. He even bought houses in faraway cities over the phone without ever seeing the place, and my mother never complained once. We left places that would eventually be worth a fortune. He once owned a whole square block in Palm Springs!”

It is no wonder that with a family like this, Douglas became a performer, earning money from entertaining people at a very tender age.

“My parents still dabbled and did the odd show even after officially retiring,” he says, “and I got started when I was three, collecting about $3.25 at each show from the coins people would throw, and that was my pay.”

While Doug was growing up, his parents used to host house parties and invite their show business and circus friends over. It was normal for celebrities like Orson Welles, Joey Bishop, Buddy Rich and the famous clown, Lou Jacobs, to join the festivities.

“We had tumblers, acrobats, circus freaks, sword swallowers, a lion tamer with a lion and, one time, one of only two trained blue face mandrill baboons in the world,” he says. “I was quite young and sitting down it was taller than me standing up. It teased me and I was terrified. So many crazy things happening!”

When he was growing up, Doug’s parents took him everywhere they went. He would dress up in a suit and get into nightclubs, shows and concerts all over North America with them. This gave him a unique perspective on entertainers.

“I was in nightclubs watching shows all the time,” he says. “I could see how nervous some performers were and even saw some have anxiety attacks, though we did not know what to call them then. It was always impressed upon me that children were to be seen and not heard, so I listened and became a professional eavesdropper. This is what provided me with the curiosity I needed to become a history buff.”

Despite being around all that talent, Douglas is mostly self-taught as a singer and musician. He was drawn to singing since his father had been a singer and taught himself to play a number of instruments, including the banjo and the tenor guitar. When he was 16, Doug was working at Knott’s Berry farm in California when he got a call informing him his father had bought a place in Vancouver and wanted Doug to join him.

“I was under contract to them, writing all their shows, but I really wanted to be with my parents. I went in to speak to Walter Knott, the place’s founder, and told him I could not buy this time back. He agreed and told me to go,” says Doug. “When I got to Vancouver, I bought a carnival and started making so much money, I could not give it up for several years.”

Doug settled into the local scene as a musician and singer. He was the leader of the seven-piece ragtime band that played at the Banjo Palace in Gastown for two years during the 1970s. He fronted the Heartache Razz Band, which opened for Tom Jones, Aretha Franklin, The Pointer Sisters, BB King, Bryan Adams, Earl Hynes and more along the way. He says, “I also did some stand-up comedy and, while doing that, I worked with George Carlin and Gallagher, people like that.”

When he was younger and living in Los Angeles, Doug once fired his piano player and badly needed to find a replacement that could make people laugh as well as he could play. Eventually, people pointed him in the direction of a much older player, named Paul Mousie Garner, who was working with Spike Jones.

“I was writing our shows and I wanted Mousie to finish one song and get up and do a pratfall. He told me he had been working with Spike for more than a decade and had never had to do a pratfall. When I persisted, he told me that when he worked with Red Skelton, he never had to do a pratfall. When I didn’t give up, he told me that when he was an original member of the Three Stooges, he never had to do a pratfall, so, I finally gave up. I had no idea about who I was dealing with.”

Today, Doug is an author, singer, musician, historian, teacher and living link to the history of entertainment in North America. He wrote one book about survival and markets it to gun clubs and outdoor enthusiasts. The other, Early Entertainment, is a history of all forms of entertainment in North America from 1840-1940 and it will be in book stores soon.

Doug’s curiosity and vast store of knowledge places him in the perfect spot to preserve this rich history and he is happy to share what he knows during his shows. Not only does he entertain audiences with songs from the 1800s and up, he also teaches along the way.

“I absolutely love performing in front of an audience,” he says. “I believe I bring something special to the stage when I perform. What I do is so unique, it allows me to follow any act in existence because what I do is of such high quality and it is so different from anything else the audience will ever see.”

To book Douglas Fraser for a show, contact him via his website: www.thegenuinejugband.com To order *Early Entertainment*, as an e-book or in paperback, visit amazon.com or amazon.ca

 

MAY 2015 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE

 

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