JC’S THEATRE SPOTLIGHT – The Girl With The Golden Ear

“It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” … James Brown’s 1966 classic would have sounded perfect on the playlist of the legendary Windsor, Ontario AM radio station, CKLW (remember AM radio??).  But it was another year before Rosalie Trombley would complete her unlikely ascent as a woman, from receptionist to music librarian, and finally taking the reins as Music Director at “The Big 8” (800 on the old AM car radio dial was signified with a single ‘8’).  Radio, like most others, was an extremely male-dominated business.  But it wasn’t until Rosalie took over that “CK” would start to develop a hybrid Top 40/Rock/R&B/Soul format that would break cultural barriers in Canadian and U.S. radio … and find space on a mainstream full-power mass appeal radio station for artists like “The Godfather Of Soul”.  Rest assured, in the late 60’s, James Brown wasn’t getting much air time on stations owned and programmed by white people.  But CKLW changed that.  With such a bold, creative and original sound that it would dominate the ratings in cities and towns throughout Ontario, Michigan, and Ohio, for the next 15 years. 

The Girl With The Golden Ear is the first full-length offering by local playwright and former Daily News reporter, Ryan Van Horne.  It’s “inspired” by the story of Rosalie Trombley, who reportedly wants nothing to do with any productions – stage or film – that pay tribute to her.  It’s the same attitude she took in 1972 when she had become the most celebrated Music Director in North American radio, CKLW then one of the top 5 most-listened-to radio stations on the continent, #1 in Detroit and Cleveland, and re-writing the radio rulebook.  When local hero, Bob Seger, dished up a single called “Rosalie” (“A smoother operator you will never see … she’s got the power, she’s got the tower, Rosalie …”)  Seger was having a hard time getting his records on “The Big 8”, but this type of obvious brown-nosing was not going to help.  While other stations in the region dutifully played the record, Trombley banned it from CK.  (Trivial note: Saskatchewan band, The Sheepdogs, recently rerecorded Seger’s song to raise funds for the Rosalie Trombley scholarship at St. Clair College in Windsor.)

Van Horne, rather than risk any legal issues over the use of Trombley’s name or the telling of her personal tale, has chosen to change her name, renamed the station CKRT, and filled the story in with some fictionalized details – but it’s pretty bang-on historically.  And it’s a story that deserves telling.

For lovers of pop/rock music from the 60s and 70s, particularly for those lucky enough to grow up listening to CKLW, this play is a treat.  (I lived in Southern Ontario from 1973-85, and The Big 8 was the most influential radio station on “JC the DJ” – that’s me today in the photo, still wearing CK garb.)  For those not as familiar with the inner workings of radio, you’ll enjoy the wide selection of music, and the outrageous characters portrayed by a cast obviously loving the subject matter.  Although the show could use a few appearances by radio’s MOST celebrated characters – the DJ’s themselves!  (Ahem.)  CK’s air staff was one of the most talent-rich and craziest that radio will ever know, and could help breathe a little more energy into a production occasionally weighed down by its behind-the-scenes technical chat. 

There’s so much detail dying to be imparted in a story like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for all those darn trees.  Trombley’s (sorry), “Marjorie Thompson’s” overwhelming odds involved not only being the only female Music Director that anyone can recall up to that point in history, but she had to do it while battling radio stations owned by major market American owners with massive budgets who programmed without the “Canadian Content” restrictions which applied to CKLW, and as the 70s dawned, she was faced with daunting competition by several big Top 40 stations on the FM dial in Detroit.  (Switching the CKLW format to FM was blocked by the CRTC in the early 80s and led to the end of the station’s run of supremacy.)  And despite all this adversity and tremendous odds, Rosalie’s “Big 8” ruled the radio world for over a decade.  The audience seemed to enjoy the episodic anecdotes from Rosalie’s career at CK, but I’m not sure the play makes the broader point of her Herculean victories clearly enough, leaving the audience a little uncertain about the overall impact of Trombley, and why her legend continues to shine so brightly in Canadian broadcasting 50 years later.

As a work of entertainment, The Girl With The Golden Ear works well, but could benefit from a little deeper character study of its protagonist.  Rosalie Trombley was one of the most colourful players in an era of blazing personalities.  She was funny, feisty and at times mean.  Even Seger’s lyrics reflect that:  “She’ll see ya later … no one dares disobey her openly …”.  This play portrays “Marjorie” as earnest-to-a-fault, an ethically precise, divorced working mom, with an “aww shucks” modesty that I’m not convinced is the most interesting way to play her, even if it were an accurate depiction of Rosie.  (I had the extreme pleasure of meeting the reclusive Rosalie 12 years ago at the presentation of the first Rosalie Trombley Trailblazers Award for Canadian women in broadcasting.  She was charming, but her coarseness was still there, just below the surface, and in her hearty laugh.)  Actress Maria Fournier brings a strong presence and volume to her “Marjorie”, she’d be perfectly cast to infuse the role with a more brash, chainsmoking edge.

All that said, I’ve rarely connected so personally with a play, particularly one with roots in Nova Scotia, but set in the soundtrack of my formative years.  Ryan Van Horne is a talented writer with a knack for discovering gems of stories, and I’d love to see him workshop this project further.  I believe there’s an audience for it far beyond the Maritimes.

The Girl With The Golden Ear’s inaugural run continues at Bedford Players until March 26th.