The Jewish Heritage Centre recently received the gift of an unpublished manuscript by the late Lou Rusoff, former youth director for the YMHA. It was discovered some time in the 1990s by his widow Suzanne. A work of fiction, it closely paralleled the Rusoff family’s early years as new immigrants in North End Winnipeg (they emigrated from Pavolich, Russia in 1911) and introduced the character of Leon, Lou’s alter ego, giving us some insight into how he became the man he did. It is also a story of time and place, Winnipeg’s North End at the beginning of the 20th century. Here, Lou’s nephew Bill Brownstone reminisces about the man, a magnet for lost youth who, in Lou, found a kindred spirit. Lou Rusoff (1911–1963) was the seventh of ten siblings. The first born in Canada, the six born before him had a little trouble understanding his love for music and the theatre, while the three who followed worshiped him. Their parents exuded love for them all, spreading their warmth and love over everyone.
When Lou played piano for the CBC, the family gathered around the radio to cheer him on. In the autobiographical manuscript, Lou talks about a Black train porter in his Point Douglas neighbourhood who taught him to play the piano, a skill that would serve him well as an entertainer for the Jewish community and in wooing the marvelous Suzanne to be his wife.
He published several Western-based novels before he turned his talents to social work; here Lou found his true calling. It was when he became director of youth programming at the YMHA and director of BB camp that his combined love of arts and people blossomed.
At BB camp, he ran a contest where every cabin had to write, produce, and act, regardless of age, a musical play to be performed in front of the entire camp, staff counsellors and cleaners included. The day of the performances and the evening of awarding the “Moishes” were a highlight of the season. He gave the performers star status and the audience a love for music and theatre that lasted a lifetime.
Several years after Lou had died, a resident in the Sharon Home (now known as the Simkin Centre) in his late 80s was regaling other residents with the story of how Lou took three rather lost boys, got them instruments, and formed them into a trio who played at Lou’s Saturday night teen dances. He, a successful dentist in adult life, finished the story: “He saved my– no, our– lives and I will never forget him.” Lou recognized the seed of good and potential in every person and had the ability to help them grow from that seed. Indeed, some veterans of his musical events, such as Monty Hall, Allan Blye, and David Steinberg, would go on to their own successful show-business careers.
After the 1950 flood, when his little dream home on Scotia was completely covered in water, he, Suzanne, and their two sons decided to take a chance on Los Angeles. They were barely settled when his brother-in-law, a struggling lawyer, approached Lou to join him and a partner in starting American International Pictures. Lou couldn’t raise the capital required, but said he would be happy to write for them.
After selling their first film to a large theatre chain, American International Pictures (AIP) was born. The “ Beach Party” movies, starring singing teens Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, served as a sort of tribute to his years of working with young people; the characters of struggling teens were based on the kids he knew from the YMHA & BB camp. Like the man in the Sharon Home said, if you were lucky enough to have Lou come into your life, you would never forget him.