I get mail: A Voice from the Past

Somebody named Gordon Cressy sent me an email message. The name meant nothing to me until he followed it up with a message and attachment of his book, entitled “Gordon Cressy tells Great Stories”

Gordon wrote:
The book is available on line at Amazon, Indigo etc. But too expensive. (I think it’s typical of Gordon to not ask me to spend any money to read his book. – ZD) Here is the book as it went to print. The movie idea is mentioned in the preface. In the first chapter you are mentioned by name. Hope you enjoy the stories.
Warm wishes,

I have taken the liberty of carving out a relevant excerpt from that book and present it here:

Selling Christmas Trees in Trinidad

Now that I was the general secretary (Of the YMCA in Trinidad when Gordon was just twenty years old -ZD) , I had to learn many new things, like balancing a budget. I learned very fast when it became clear that we were spending more money than we were bringing in. It certainly was not my salary, which was TT$10 per week. We could not raise the room rate or meal cost. It was suggested that we try to raise some money. Although I have spent a good part of the last thirty years in fundraising, back then I knew precious little.

I tried to remember what had worked growing up in Toronto. I remembered that our local church, St. Leonard’s, used to raise money selling Christmas trees. I went to the steering committee and suggested if we sold Christmas trees there would be no competition. One member asked if I had developed a business plan. Heck, I did not even know what a business plan was!

I have learned over the years that bold and exciting ideas excite. Several steering committee members had visited Canada at Christmastime and thought the idea just might work.

I got the go-ahead and contacted the YMCA in St. John, New Brunswick, which sourced 1,500 Scotch pine trees for us and put them on a cargo ship. The ship operators told us the trees would arrive on December 15, nice and fresh. Our boys at the Y went out and presold 1,200 trees. This story was gaining traction. There was a little article in the newspaper — my name was in it. I sent it home to my mom and dad. My mom shared it with her bridge club group!

Everything was going very smoothly until our trees did not arrive as promised on December 15. We did not make many long-distance calls in those days, but I sure did that day. I called the Y folks who said there had been a “small” fire on the ship. The trees had been put on another ship and were scheduled to arrive December 22. I remember saying, “Wow, that’s really close to Christmas.” They suggested we call the port authority in Bermuda and find out how the ship was progressing. We learned, to our horror, that there was a dockworkers’ strike in Bermuda, and now the trees would arrive in Barbados on December 22, but would not get to Trinidad until after Christmas! Things were going quickly from bad to worse, and the enthusiasm and support for this young Canadian volunteer was diminishing at a rapid rate.

My suggestion of changing the date of Christmas did not go down very well, especially with the clergy! One of the steering committee members, Steve Hanuman, knew the head of British West Indian Airways (now Caribbean Airlines) quite well. The next morning off we went to BWIA and suggested to them an innovative marketing opportunity in which they would give the YMCA a cargo plane. We would fly over to Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados, go down to the docks, take the trees off the ship, load them onto some trucks, drive out to the airport, and stuff those trees on the plane. We would then fly back to Piarco Airport in Trinidad, take the trees off the plane, load them on the trucks, drive down to the YMCA, and sell those trees. Lo and behold, they agreed! There was a headline in a Trinidad newspaper: “Christmas Tree Airlift to Raise Funds for YMCA!”

On December 22, steering committee members James Dube and Frank Mohan, my friend Bing Mandbodh and I, a couple of flight attendants, and the pilot, plus a few bottles of Old Oak Rum (a very fine Trinidadian rum), flew out in the early morning for Barbados. We got down to the dockside to discover that, it being a Sunday, the dockworkers were not working — but a few of the workers were hanging around. A few bottles of Trinidadian rum later they were working, and together we loaded the trees onto the trucks, drove to the airport, and stuffed those trees into every nook and cranny on the plane. Mr. Bal Soochit, a YMCA volunteer in Trinidad, donated the trucks both in Barbados and Trinidad.

We flew back to Trinidad in the late afternoon, took the trees off the plane, loaded them onto the trucks, and drove down to the YMCA in Port of Spain. There was a festive atmosphere when we arrived, with Christmas carols blasting on the radio. Trinidad’s TV station covered the arrival. We started selling right away. Families came by that night to buy trees, and for the next two days we sold trees nonstop. By Christmas Eve we had sold out! We were tired but very pleased. We turned a bad situation into a wonderful ending. People had their trees. The media loved the story, and we had raised about TT$7,000.

On Christmas Day, we were having lunch at the Y and I mentioned that it just would not be Christmas without a Christmas tree, to which one of our residents chimed in with the fact that Jesus was born under olive trees and not Christmas trees. On December 28, the Trinidad government banned the mass importation of trees, suggesting that people grow local trees.

That should have been the end of the story, but not quite. About thirty years ago, Douglas Bain, a middle-aged man from Trinidad, showed up at the University of Toronto, where I was working, and told me that I had taught him how to swim at the Y in Trinidad. Not only that, he mentioned that he helped sell those Christmas trees. He said he and his buddy had gotten tired of selling the trees and threw twenty of them over the back fence. Then they went down to the corner and sold them and made $200. Obviously, a little private entrepreneurial experience.

A decade ago, Stuart McLean of the popular Vinyl Café radio show on CBC, asked if he could tell the Christmas tree story on the radio. Not being one to shy away from publicity, I readily agreed. The story played across the country, and I got a few emails from old friends. On the following Monday, I got a long-distance call from a Zale Dalen in BC, who told me that he was a movie producer (A misunderstanding; I have never been a movie producer. Just a director. -ZD) and he thought this Christmas tree story would be a great feature film. Much like Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team — but in reverse. I was excited. I was already thinking of who would play the male lead. I rushed home to tell my wife, Joanne, about this upcoming blockbuster film. She looked at me a bit skeptically and said, “I am not sure this movie will ever be made.” Well, she was right, the movie never got made, but the story lingers on.

And of course with this the floodgates to my memory bank were opened and I clearly remember my interest in the story and my passionate effort to get it made into a movie.

I wrote back to Gordon thusly: Thank you so much for sending me this digital copy of your book, and for reminding me of my efforts to make the film about your Christmas tree fundraiser.  I knew that your name rang a distant bell in my brain, but until I started reading your book I just couldn’t place you.  Now you are firmly placed with a touch of sadness and very nearly tears.

I can’t remember why my wife and producer at the time, Laara Dalen, and I reluctantly decided to give up the Christmas tree story.  No doubt it had to do with an inability to gain any interest from the powers that be in Canada, or find any money. We must have disappointed you, and for this I am very sorry. I shall ask Laara if she can remember any of the details, but she most likely can’t.

You should know that, in retrospect, it feels like my film making career consisted of finding something that I thought would make a great film, putting my head down and running into a wall until I staggered back, bloody and heartbroken and finally gave up the project. I went through that process too many times to count. There was my father’s oral history from which I generated two complete drafts of a film script without finding any support.  There was the William Deverell novel, “Platinum Blues”, that I took to Los Angeles no fewer than three times, the first simply as his novel from which I learned that nobody in Hollywood would read a novel.  I returned to Canada and generated two full drafts of a film script that nobody would support. Each project ate up years of my life. Your Christmas Tree airlift to Trinidad was no exception.  If you were disappointed when the film didn’t happen, you can be sure that I was also disappointed.  It’s still a great story.

I’m not complaining.  I got to make one movie that was completely my own.  I know other filmmakers who never managed to do even that, despite throwing as many years of passionate effort into the attempt as I did. I was lucky.  I always managed to pay the mortgage and provide a Christmas for my children. For this I am very grateful.

Thank you again for mentioning me in your book, and for your kindness in sending me a copy that didn’t cost me. I find I have very limited discretionary cash these days, compared to my glory days as a film director. This time of year, money gets tight.

Have a great 2024.

Warmest regards


Now, permit me to tell you a story of my own. If you’ve been following my blog you know about the recent fundraiser screening of my first feature film, “Skip Tracer” at the Universalist Hall here in Nanaimo. If you haven’t seen it yet you can read all about it here:  http://www.zaledalen.com/zaledalen/

That trip down memory lane and the resulting nostalgia aroused in me a desire to take one more kick at the cat and make one more movie.  My first thought was to make a movie inspired by my son who now works as a paramedic. I have been thinking about a movie about paramedics ever since my son sent me a picture of himself in his paramedic uniform. I took that photograph and put together a mockup of a Christmas movie poster with the intention of seeing if I could find any interest among the producers and companies that make the Christmas movies every year.

Having found no interest in the Christmas Paramedic idea and following the screening of Skip Tracer for the Universalists, I thought I might forget the Christmas movie angle and just make a movie about paramedics.  Accordingly I wrote to my son, Casey the following:

Hey Casey: I’ve decided to make one last movie before I give it all up completely. I want to make a movie about paramedics. So I need your help to come up with a script. Please start thinking about scenes, events, structure. If you can give me those, I will write the script and raise the money. Please think about it. Make notes. Thanks. This will save my life, if you want to do that.

To which Casey replied:

Dad: That’s awesome. Sure I can make some notes. I’ve generally inundated these days. Love ya lots.

I wrote back:

Thanks Casey. Notes is all I need. Just notice things that happen and things that feel like they belong in a movie. Eventually we’ll get to talk about it. I’m sure your dance card is full, so don’t stress it. But think about the elements we get with a movie about paramedics. Attractive people in uniforms dealing with constant drama. There are a shit ton of movies about cops and doctors. I’ve never seen a movie about paramedics. Closest I can think of is “Rescue 8”, a series back in the sixties. But they were saving people from being trapped in caves and such. Not paramedics. Just seems like a concept lying in the street waiting for someone to pick it up. Drama up the yingyang. Love you tons.

And Casey immediately sent me this trailer for a recent Scorsese film I didn’t know existed.

To Casey: That was a disappointment. There I am again. A day late and a dollar short. Just proves that I’m on to something. You’ve already given me one scene for comic relief. Your golden Chinese buddha has to fit in the script someplace. 

That Scorsese movie is exactly what I don’t want to make. So predictable. So Hollywood, right down to starring Nicholas Cage.

If I watch movies like that I’ll start imitating them and become derivative. The thing that keeps people watching Skip Tracer 47 years after all the other Canadian movies made at the same time have been forgotten is that it wasn’t imitating anything from Hollywood. It came out of interviewing people who were doing that work. But maybe I’m out to lunch again.

Maybe I should just forget it and stop pestering you. Who needs another movie?

From Casey: Love it dad. Definitely meditate on that and see what comes to you! Go with your intuition ✨😌

And my reply: Good thinking. What comes to me is this: Even if I manage to make my own, completely original and non derivative movie, everyone will assume I was inspired by Scorsese’s movie and compare me to it and I’ll come up short because I won’t have had his budget and resources. So thanks by finding that for me, Casey. You saved me from making a fool of myself. I’m retired. The world is telling me to accept it. Love you kiddo.

And  some final words from Casey: This is a lot of words. (Translation by his father: Dad, I’m so busy. Please stop bothering me.) Love you dad. Sorry to be so distant. I’ve got a lot happening.

So, Gordon, that’s the backstory about where I was at when your book and my mention in it landed in my inbox. The paramedic movie is dead and I’m looking for a project.

It occurs to me that there is a whole new genre of movies now: streaming video films designed for Christmas.  Maybe, just maybe, I can go back to the Christmas tree airlift story.  It’s still a great story.  I don’t know why we had to abandon it way back in the day, but if I could find a producer and that producer could find the funds… Times have changed.  With streaming video projects designed for the Christmas season, there may now be money out there to make your tree airlift story.  Unfortunately I’m not the man to find the money.  But with your fundraising experience… If taking a crack at being a film producer intrigues you, you might think about a retirement project. Just for tun. If so, I know a retired director who loved that wonderful, inspiring story, and would be very interested in directing for you.  It’s still a great story. Think about it, eh.

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