There are a million different songs that I have sung.
But I have never heard a single one among them
that said anything about my favourite place,
where people live and face each day at their own pace.
So to those who stayed and even those who went away
there is no explanation needed when I say Winnipeg’s
my home and though I may roam all around the world
I still come back to Winnipeg my home.
There was a commonality in the North End, something that went into the making of you, something that keeps pulling us back. And it extended to non – Jewish as well as Jewish friends – you felt it as soon as you went under Main Street through the subway. My life has moved into the larger world, but I’ve never left the North End. – Allan Blye
Allan Blye’s life, has indeed move into the larger world, no doubt informed by the sense of Jewishness that permeates his intellectual and moral framework nurtured, honed, and enriched by the sights and sounds of North End life, of a physical landscape forever etched in his mind. His success as a television writer based in California owes much to his indefatigable work ethic, creative instincts, and awareness of the intricacies of human behaviour often parlayed through the medium of comedy and musical entertainment. From the 1960s and beyond Allan Blye wrote for some of the most successful American television programs and specials.
Allan Blye was born in 1937 in St. Joseph Hospital and raised at 269 Selkirk Avenue in the heart of the Jewish community. He told Harry and Mildred Gutkin that his house was next door to Saidman’s Seeds, and just a few doors away from Gunn’s Bakery, the Queen’s Theatre, and the Jewish Post newspaper office. Misha the barber was not too far, as was Raber’s grocery, Dr. Ben Victor’s office, Dr. Rabkin the dentist and Mr. Kneller the carpenter.
Blye’s parents were born in Ukraine but met and married in Winnipeg. His maternal grandfather, Jacob Portnoy, had arrived first with his two sons (Nathan and Sam) and later sponsored the rest of his family, namely his wife (Chava), two daughters (Goldie and Clara) and another son (Percy). The Portnoys established Perth Dye Works and Cleaners which also employed Blye’s father, David. Blye noted that his father was very good at dry cleaning but seemed to be at his best in intellectual pursuits. He was an avid reader, especially Yiddish works, including translations of Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad. He was, according to Blye, the family scribe. If someone needed a letter written to a relative in the old country, be it in Russian or Yiddish or Hebrew, his father would avail himself. Blye’s paternal grandfather was a shoichet or ritual slaughtered in the old country, but in Canada worked as a shammes (sexton).
The Blye siblings (Allan, Sid, and Gary) were sent to Talmud Torah kindergarten and later evening classes and attended the synagogue. It was at Talmud Torah that Blye learned to chant the prayers and sang with the synagogue choir under the direction of Cantor Benjamin Brownstone. Of Brownstone, Blye noted, “He instilled in me a love of music and an appreciation of all creativity, and he inspired dozens of young people to pursue careers in music as cantors, singers, conductors. For all his eccentricities, he remains for me a part of the Jewishness at the heart of my life”.
The Sabbath was always a special occasion in the Blye household. Blye note, “When you came home from school on Friday afternoon, the gefilte fish was ready, the chicken already roasting, and the delicious smell of fresh – made boolkas, yeast buns, hung in the air. The floors were scrubbed and waxed and covered with newspapers, so that we wouldn’t get them dirty again, because that house had to shine like a palace”. The Blye residence took two boarders, the celebrated local Yiddishist Noah Witman, and his mother. Witman was a vital force in the cultural and social life of the Winnipeg Jewish community, and one cannot help but believe that his presence added another layer to Blye’s sense of Jewishness. Yiddish was the default language of the Blye household. Until the age of 5, Blye spoke only Yiddish. His maternal grandmother, “Baba Portnoy” who lived with the Blyes, “refused to speak English – didn’t understand she claimed, though she had lived here for forty – five years”.
At an early age Blye demonstrated a passion for music and the performing arts. At Talmud Torah he appeared in a Purim play. He took up violin lessons and at Machray School and St. John’s High took part in several musical comedies. At the YMHA he entered and won an amateur show and appeared in many musical varieties. Later he sang locally with the Paul Grosney orchestra as well as CKRC radio and CBC television.
By the early 1950s Blye had moved to Toronto where he sang on the CBC production General Electric Showtime. Other opportunities came up including a live revue in Montreal directed by Norman Jewison.
In addition to television appearances, he sang commercial jingles. Temple Sinai, a large Reform Congregation asked him to be their cantor which he accepted, but without remuneration.
Allan Blye’s career took a path when he got into writing for television. In 1968 he moved to Los Angeles where he became a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That same year he co-wrote the Elvis Presley Comeback Special followed by the Petula Clark Special. Throughout the 1970s Blye wrote for the Andy Williams, Sonny and Cher and Dick Van Dyke shows, often in collaboration with Chris Beard and Bob Einstein (better known as Super Dave Osborne). In Canada, he wrote and produced the comedy series Bizarre, starring John Byner. His busy schedule has not prevented him from practising his faith. In Hollywood he founded the Synagogue for Performing Arts, where he conducts Kol Nidre as Cantor Emeritus.
Allan Blye married twice; his first spouse, Shirley Brotman, born in Winnipeg, sang in various Rainbow Stage productions and at one point was employed with CBC as an executive secretary.
Over the years, Allan Blye has returned to Winnipeg on numerous occasions on behalf of various community groups lending his support to fundraising initiatives and promotion. These have included Youth Aliyah, the Hebrew Schools Lottery, and the Seven Oaks Hospital Foundation. In September 2000 he participated as Cantor at Shaarey Zedek’s High Holy Days Selichot Service led by Rabbi Alan Green and featuring the Shaarey Zedek choir under the direction of Sheila Roitenberg.
On November 2, 1990, in recognition of Allan Blye’s contributions Ashville Street in West Kildonan was changed to Allan Blye Drive. The official ceremony included representatives of Talmud Torah/Beth Jacob Synagogue, the Seven Oaks Hospital Foundation (the organizations which lobbied the City of Winnipeg for the name change) and Mayor Bill Norrie who commented on Blye’s community spirit. CBC sportscaster Ernie Nairn served as master of ceremonies. Of the honour, Blye commented, “I am quite humbled. It’s the most thrilling tribute I’ve ever had”. That same week the Seven Oaks Hospital Foundation presented him with a plaque “as a lasting token of esteem” and “in recognition of his support and service to the foundation”.
Allan Blye’s unwavering commitment to Tzedakah (charity and justice) his attachment to his Jewish roots has been nourished in his faith and the sense of community which defined the North End, a life best approached with a strong sense of humour and compassion. He told Harry and Mildred Gutkin, “We had to laugh in the North End. My friend, Perry Roseman made me laugh, and Larry Zolf always made me laugh. We laughed at our lifestyle, at the people around us, at the guys that bullied us. We laughed at family, we laughed at ourselves. But we cared. North-Enders looked after one another. It was simply taken for granted that as a human being you owed something to other people”.
Suggested reading & Bibliography
Chisvin, Sharon. Our Musical Heritage: A Century of Jewish Musicians in Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, 2000
Gutkin, Harry and Mildred Gutkin. The Worst of Times The Best of Times. Markham: Fitzhenry and