Edmonton: Chasing the Ghost of Frankie Rodgers in the Canadian Prairies

Studio Insider #236
August, 2018
Edmonton: Chasing the Ghost of Frankie Rodgers in the Canadian Prairies

The huge pick-up truck slammed to a stop right in front of my video camera. It totally blocked the view I had just framed of the exquisite old hotel in Egremont, a tiny hamlet on the Canadian prairie.

“What are you doing?” bellowed the rough looking character behind the wheel.

“Filming this beautiful old building. Could you move your truck just a couple of feet?”

“Why?”

I stepped closer and looked the guy in the eye, searching for any sort of opening. I saw a glimmer of curiosity there, and answered:

“We’re working on a documentary film about a fiddler who was born here over 80 years ago. He wrote a fiddle tune that’s played all over North America. It’s called the Ookpik Waltz”

“A fiddler?”

“Yes! His name was Frankie Rodgers, and we believe his parents settled here when they arrived from Ukraine before the war.  We think their name was Wozny in those days, and they lived here at different times in the mid-20th century. We’re shooting scenics to show Frankie’s Canadian roots. I’m Joe Weed and this is Brian Ficht. Brian’s from Edmonton. He knows this area and is helping with research.”

“Well, I’m Graham Waterman, and I own this place. Only business in town. Go ahead and film for a while, and I’ll be back in ten minutes after I deliver this junk to my neighbor. This is the Egremont Hotel and Tavern, and I have some old pictures inside that you might want to see.”

As Graham drove off, I could hear Brian, standing close beside me, let out a long exhale of relief. “When people see my cameras,” I told him,” some folks think they’re going to be film stars and get all puffed up. Others are suspicious and guarded. Some folks get it and do their best to cooperate and help. I think our Graham is one of these — and he was probably just reacting to the first strangers he’s seen in front of his hotel in a long, long time.”

Egremont (pronounced Eggermont) is a collection of tiny old houses and mobile homes huddled together within a three-block by three-lot piece of the western Alberta plains. It’s surrounded by farms and large petrochemical industrial sites, and the North Saskatchewan River flows just a few miles to the southeast.  A nearby Ukrainian Orthodox Church sports the iconic onion-shaped tower, its graveyard filled with the Ukrainian and Polish names of the hardscrabble folks who arrived in the early twentieth century. They came looking for better lives in the beautiful but harsh Canadian prairies, so life must have been pretty hard back in the Ukraine.

Graham’s hotel, the Egremont Hotel and Tavern, is much more tavern than hotel.

“I was an iron worker in a small town near London, England,” Graham told us as he showed us around the bar. “I retired fifteen years ago and did what every Limey dreams of doing: I moved away and opened a pub!”

Photos of historic Egremont dotted the walls between pictures of beautiful smiling women, dartboards, and pub kitsch. A few of the tables also had old photos of the town, lacquered to the tabletops, slowly fading away. We photographed as many as we could, as Graham recounted events and stories that he’d picked up from locals who come to the tavern for warmth and companionship.

A boy growing up here during the great depression of the 1930s would surely be attracted to the bright lights, sophistication, and employment opportunities of burgeoning Edmonton, less than 50 miles to the south. Frank Wozny did indeed follow his older brother Henry from Egremont to Edmonton, taking Henry’s newly adopted last name of Rodgers and becoming “Frankie Rodgers” of the “Rodgers Brothers Band.”

Frankie and Henry apparently did well in Edmonton, landing jobs backing up singers and playing with bands in supper clubs and private events in this capital city that grew with the oil industry. Frankie, diminutive and spunky, played fiddle; Henry, who became “Hank,” played guitar and steel. Crowds especially loved Frankie’s playful showmanship. When television came to Edmonton, the Rodgers Brothers leapt from the stage to the screen. They joined the house band of Czechoslovakian immigrant and new TV host Gaby Haas. The European immigrant prairie population loved the show and its old-country polkas, waltzes, and Nashville-inspired country music.

Frankie and some of the better players in Edmonton were hired to tour with Wilf Carter, a beloved Canadian western singer who used the name “Montana Slim” when playing on the American side of the border.  After crossing the breadth of Canada a few times, playing in dance halls and large public spaces, Frankie and the rest of the band opted to winter back home in Edmonton when the hard Canadian winter set in. Gaby Haas’ television show gave Frankie daily exposure to the growing and avid TV audience, and Canadians soon learned the name of this fun and talented musician.

Brian and I will continue our research. We’ll interview Frankie’s surviving band mates and friends, and film places where he lived and worked. I’m eager to learn how he came up with the haunting “Ookpik Waltz,” which he recorded in the mid 1960s, apparently soon after he wrote it.

I’ll post updates from time to time as the pieces of this tantalizing puzzle come together. Next month, though, I’ll return to the short series of tips I’ve been providing to Bay Area musician Tomás Enguídanos for recording electric guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, and more when working on productions that mix acoustic and electric instruments.

Copyright © 2018 by Joe Weed

Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California.  He has released seven albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does scores for film, TV and museums. Joe’s composition “Hymn to the Big Sky” was heard in “The Dust Bowl,” a film by Ken Burns, which premiered nationally on PBS.  Joe recently produced and released “Two Steps West of the Mississippi,” a collection of his original instrumental music based on American fiddle roots. Reach Joe by email at [email protected], or by visiting joeweed.com.