2011 MOOSE JAW HONOURS RECIPIENT
The material for this award is a little unusual, as most is taken directly from the book "Lady Mary of Mossley Hill" which is the story of the Wilson family, published by Larry Wilson himself. Larry was such an amazing individual, that it is impossible to adequately tell his story in the designated time frame. We ask your indulgence, as we lead you through his remarkable life journey.
Lawrence James Patrick Frances Wilson (Larry) was born September 29th, 1918, the first child of James & Mae Wilson. Six years later, a sister, Dorothy, was born. Three more sisters and two brothers completed the family, although only one of his brothers would survive infancy.
Larry's father, a Mountie, joined the Saskatchewan Provincial Police after his marriage. The family had little money and few possessions. They moved to a series of small towns over the next few years, and Mae played the piano for silent movies to augment their income. Mae hated small towns and was happy when they moved to Moose Jaw. Larry's father lost his job as a policeman and he took employment with Swifts Canadian packing plant.
Larry began school in Moose Jaw but his education was forever interrupted by illness and later family duties. He developed rheumatic fever, which plagued him for the rest of his life. The family always seemed to be in debt, mainly because of so many medical bills for sickly Larry. After a bout with double pneumonia, which permanently weakened his lungs, he took up body building, an activity he maintained for the rest of his life.
From his mother, Larry inherited a positive outlook on life, despite the tough times the family endured. Mae became well known as a pianist and a teacher of dance. Larry's artistic side was strongly encouraged by his mother, and over every obstacle, she saw to it that Larry had dancing lessons. The Wilson children, with their song and dance routines, soon became known as "The Dancing Wilsons".
One of his first jobs, while at school was as elevator boy in the Hammond Building. He did his school homework while waiting for clients. He also became a commissioned salesman for a Winnipeg company selling their line of Christmas cards. So successful was he in this that he soon became their top salesman.
Larry began writing and became a "Torchbearer", which was a club for amateur writers whose work was published in the Leader Post. People liked Larry's contributions and wrote the editor, praising his work. Larry continued writing for the club until it closed down. He also wrote in the annual yearbook for Central Collegiate. In addition, he developed a one hour show on Friday nights for radio station CHAB.
Larry never even finished high school, but he had a vast warehouse of practical education. He developed into a shrewd, determined businessman with a sensitive artistic side, which found expression in dancing, acting and writing. This talented young man became a careful saver, and he formed an iron resolve that one day he would not be poor. Adversity gave him character and the will to succeed.
Larry quit school and took a job in the accounting department of Swifts meat packing plant for $18 per week. He always deposited part of his weekly pay cheque in the bank.
Moose Jaw was the centre of the dust bowl during the depression, and the dust was damaging to his allergies, so Larry quit his job and moved to Winnipeg. In Winnipeg, he worked at a variety of jobs, the main one being a desk clerk and bellboy for a downtown hotel. Larry discovered he could make much more money working for the railroad so he quit his hotel job and was soon making three times the money he had made in the hotel business. He was still able to sandwich in part-time jobs with the railway work. In addition he was always able to keep up with his acting, dancing, writing and broadcasting commitments. Small wonder he admitted to being a workaholic!
Larry wanted to tour with the armed forces, but he had been turned down for military work on health grounds. He discovered that you could get a special enlistment as an entertainer if you proved you had talent. It was close to the end of the war when he was accepted. Larry talked his sister Dorothy into joining as well, so they could work as a team. It wasn't long until they were entertaining thousands of war weary troops in Europe, Holland and Germany as part of the Wayne and Schuster Show. As a sideline, Larry found he could make good money by selling his army ration of cigarettes to the many smokers.
Larry went to London after the entertainment tour and got a job with the Canadian Wives Bureau, arranging transport to Canada for some 68,000 war brides. This kept him in London for several extra months.
Larry learned he could get an army scholarship for a two year course at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. The government would pay his tuition, as well as a small monthly allowance. To help support himself in New York he got a job as a waiter in a top line restaurant. While he was still in New York, his father passed away. His mother wanted him to come home at the conclusion of his course, but Larry returned to Winnipeg to his well paid railway job. He found a day job as a salesman for Western Grocers. When not at work he acted in plays and musicals and taught dance at Murray Dance School, where he also sold ads and wrote programs and press releases. For a time he worked as a funeral assistant and even stocked shelves in a grocery store. During the 50's and 60's Larry (who many said resembled Bing Crosby) played many rolls on stage as well as regular performances on live CBC Radio dramas. He became a regular performer in Winnipeg outdoor theatre, and learned his lines as he worked on the CPR from Winnipeg to Fort William. In addition, Larry acted as business manager for the Actors Guild summer stock productions.
Actually, Larry hated his work on the railway, so he applied for a job on a magazine. He was given a 6 month trial on "Oil In Canada". He did so well that he was promoted to work on "Trade & Commerce". This became his lifetime publishing project, and a job he would keep until he reluctantly retired at age 79. "Trade & Commerce" became highly successful. Larry built it up from scratch, and when he retired, he was part owner of the company. When Larry started with the publication, it was 16 pages. Under his tutelage it grew into an attractive full-colour magazine with as many as 150 pages. Eventually it won national prizes for its cover and layout, and had a circulation of 10,000. Larry came up with the idea of selling reprints of the magazine articles on which he made from 15%-25% commission. He was making commissions on ads as well as special printing jobs and his income grew in proportion to his success. By the time he retired, he was a very wealthy man. He travelled extensively, circling the globe twice, visiting over 70 countries.
It was a cherished dream of Larry's to someday purchase the Moose Jaw Capitol Theatre where members of his family had so often performed as children. He planned on donating it to the City and hoped to see it restored as an Art Centre. His only condition was that it be named the Mae Wilson Theater. He felt it was the least he could do to honour the memory of his remarkable mother. When he came to Moose Jaw to attend the funeral of his mother, who passed away at the age of 103, Larry donated over $300,000 to purchase the Capital Theatre. Unfortunately Larry himself passed away in 2002 at the age of 84. He never had a chance to see the magnificently restored Mae Wilson Theater however all of his siblings were able to attend the Grand Opening in June 2004, where they preformed a brief dance routine.
Larry, who had never married, left over one million dollars to establish Scholarships in the Arts to help talented young Moose Jaw area artists fulfill their potential. The scholarships were to be named after Larry and his siblings.
Tonight we honour a truly remarkable man, who left a legacy that Moose Jaw citizens will proudly remember every time they enter the Mae Wilson Theater for yet another performance. Kay Isely, Larry's sister, is here to accept the award on his behalf.