Communist hot dogs…

Communist Hot Dogs, In Pursuit of Petula, and A Kiss from Marlene Dietrich


The fortieth anniversary of the opening of Expo ’67 unleashed a flood of memories for me. As soon as season passes became available, passes which took the form of little red soft cover books with blank pages and were called “passports,” my parents acquired “passports” for all four of us. These “passports” would be stamped at the entry of each pavilion one visited. For six months in 1967, one could tour the world on two offshore islands adjacent to Montreal. When my little brother, who was eight at the time, had machine photos taken for his “passport,” he grinned and crossed his eyes. Mischievously he insisted that the cross-eyed picture was the one he wanted on his passport. My mother complied, but warned that each time he went through the gate he would have to cross his eyes or he wouldn’t be recognized and the guards wouldn’t let him in. Ultimately, she declared, his eyes would get stuck and stay crossed. Mikey would giggle with glee—then he’d cross his eyes again.

My parents were building a business and worked seven days a week, but on the Friday afternoon of April 27, 1967, they closed up shop and, right after school, drove me and my little brother down to St. Helen’s Island and the new man-made island which had been miraculously redeemed from the St. Lawrence River. At an inaugural ceremony 7,000 dignitaries were gathered, 62 national flags were unfurled, our prime minister lit the Expo torch, and we four family musketeers, along with a horde of Montreal’s masses, charged through the opening gates.

The American pavilion and the Russian pavilion were poised at the edge of the two separate islands, confronting each other, connected by a small bridge which spanned the channel. My dad had spent five years as a war refugee in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and wanted to see the Russian pavilion first. After touring the heavy-handed exhibition of tractors and spacecraft, we went to the pavilion’s cafeteria for supper, where we had hot dogs wrapped in buns. All of us, even my little brother, smirked at the irony of eating typically American cuisine in the Russian pavilion. My parents were shocked at the price; seven dollars for four hot dogs in 1967! My father dubbed the meal “Goddam Communist hot dogs!’ and nearly spit, “The difference between a capitalist and a communist is–50 bucks!” (Later, he would revise the “difference” to “100 bucks—because of inflation!”) My mother glanced nervously at the Russian employees. In Polish, she hissed at her husband to behave himself. “Ach! We’re in Canada now! I can say whatever I want!” My little brother nodded in solidarity. He glared at the sausage in his possession, just before chomping into it. “I am going to eat you, you communist!” With his mouth full, Mikey beamed beatifically at our dad. Daddy beamed back. Mikey adored our dad. So did I. From then on we brought our own food. We spent weekends at the fair, and once word got out how marvellous it was, there were line-ups in front of the more popular pavilions which would last for hours.

Less than a month later, during our brief time of lilacs, with the dandelion-studded grass a primavera green, the sky an unblemished blue, and the sun as yellow as in a child’s drawing, several classes in my elementary school were to be taken on a field trip to the Expo site. Our school was in a working-class neighbourhood and, for most of the children, this would be their only chance to experience the fair that the world’s fortunate were flocking to see. Once we arrived at the site, our teacher did a head count and discovered that one head was missing. Norman, who was the fattest boy in class, just as I was the fattest girl, had managed to slip off the bus unnoticed. Eleven-year-old Norman had a crush on Petula Clark. He’d heard that the British pop singer had come all the way from “Downtown” to visit the Expo islands–so he waddled off in pursuit of Petula. The frightened teachers ordered our class to stay on the bus until Norman was found which, ultimately, would take all afternoon. The bus door was locked, and we were imprisoned. The only technology then available for tracing a lost child in a crowd of thousands was a PA system. My classmates and I sat trapped, stewing in our seats until Norman was found. We never got off the bus. I knew that I would be able to come back, but the other kids had no such consolation. If I remember correctly, Norman was lured into an Expo office when a devious security guard paged Petula Clark. I cannot swear to it, but I think Norman did get to meet his Pet, which must’ve made the punishment he was going to receive from his enraged classmates a bit easier to bear.

A family friend was employed as an Expo hostess representing Canada during the Summer of Love. Anna was born in a DP camp in 1948, had a Teutonic surname, and spoke German before she spoke anything else. To her supervisors, this qualified the nineteen-year-old for the position of guide and factotum to Marlene Dietrich when the legendary star came to perform at the Expo Theatre. The 67-year-old icon warmed to Anna–in a motherly way. When Anna told her charge that her parents were coming to the evening’s concert, Dietrich’s impish side emerged. Onstage, she unexpectedly summoned the mini-skirted hostess from the wings and introduced her to the audience. Then she pulled the pretty teenager to her and, with a lascivious look reminiscent of the cabaret scene in Morocco, Dietrich drew Anna into a cinema-style clinch and kissed her on the lips with grand, theatrical passion. The audience roared. Mama and Papa Bergmann, seated among them, swelled with pride and laughed as delightedly as the strangers in their midst. Anna’s innocent parents never got the joke.

Having cleaned up my diet, I no longer eat hot dogs, but the sight of them recalls an obscure aspect of the Cold War. On the rare occasions when “Downtown” plays on the radio, I feel oddly claustrophobic. Dietrich’s image in an old film makes me smile. Most of all, the memory of the education gained, the horizons expanded and the vision of a gleaming, glorious future incarnated on two magical islands for six months in 1967 will remain always.