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Susie Hall sits down for a chat about her life as an entertainer over the years

Hall talks about her life, her life on stage, and her new career in the movie industry


Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a monthly feature with a local personality. This month, Susie “Francis” Hall is our guest. The long-time Port Kells resident is the founder of the Cloverdale-based, golden-age music and entertainment troupe “Susie Francis and the Versatiles.”

Hall recently retired from performing after nearly a quarter-century of playing gigs around Surrey, the Lower Mainland, and across B.C. with the Versatiles and more than 70 years performing on stage.

Hall played her final gig—a St. Paddy’s show at the Cloverdale Legion—March 17. She sat down for a coffee and chatted about her life, her life on stage, and her new career in the movie industry.

Malin Jordan: Please tell me a little bit about yourself. Where were you born, where’d you grow up, that type of thing?

Susie “Francis” Hall: I was born in Ottawa and I was brought to B.C. when I was one. When I was four, I was taken to England to be with my parents while they were travelling. And I ended up going to school in Britain.

MJ: So your parents were working over there?

SH: Oh, my parents were in show business, my dear. My dad’s Fran Dowie and my mom’s Candy Kane. Those were their stage names. He was in show business since he was a boy. She was in show business as soon as she married my dad. He did Barkerville for 16 years or something like that. I was up there for a couple of years. Then I went to Montreal for Expo 67 and I worked the Golden Garter Saloon there. I was singing and I was doing the choreographer for the dancers.

MJ: So you grew up on stage then?

SH: Started at seven.

MJ: So if your dad was also on stage since he was a boy, that would have put him on a stage during the end of the Vaudeville era?

SH: You bet. And his dad, my grandfather, Frank Dowie Sr. was the same.

[And Susie’s great-grandfather, Frank W. Dowie, put on the first minstrel show in the early 1900s at the London Palladium.]

He lived in Vancouver and then lived in Boundary Bay with my grandmother for many many years. He started doing shows in vancouver with the Versatiles. They were all Vancouver entertainers who played piano, sang, da-da-da. And they’d get together at English Bay, on the stage there, in the summertime, and they would put on shows all the time. They charged 25 cents to come and see the show. That’s how far back it was! (Laughs)

MJ: What year we talking here?

SH: We’re talking 1930 or something because it was before the Second World War.

MJ: Was your grandfather a travelling entertainer too?

SH: No, just my parents. They were travelling entertainers.

MJ: What kind of shows did they put on?

SH: My father could sing, but he wasn’t a very good singer. He was a comedian and a crazy clown. He used to dress up as a cowboy with a whip. Very much a variety show. He performed all over England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Wales. Every time they went to a different part of the world, I ended up going there on all school holidays. And then, or course, I’d end up on stage.

MJ: So your parents were on the road for about 10 years?

SH: Yes.

MJ: Where did you live during that time?

SH: I lived in London to start. Then I went to Blackpool. And then I lived in Liverpool. Then we moved back to London and I ended up living in Ealing. I grew up there. I learned a lot when I was there. I really did.

MJ: Those years formed you.

SH: Well, what I love to tell people, is that I was going to dancing school back then. I used to have to leave the house on the top of the hill in Ealing and walk down the hill and take the train from the station into downtown London. Go to my dance school. Get the train back. Walk back up the hill. Just one day, just this one particular day, I left home at 2 o’clock. And I’m walking down the hill and there’s this guy behind me getting closer and closer and closer. So I stopped.

MJ: How old were you?

SH: 12 or 13. So I stopped. And he came up beside me. And he went to grab my arm—it happens everywhere, anytime—but what he didn’t know was that I had an umbrella with a spike on the end of it. So when he grabbed my arm, I just went whack! And hit him right in the stomach with the point. (Laughs) He took off running. I was fine. I was an independent little brat. Nobody could pick on me.

MJ: Wow! That’s quite scary.

SH: And it wasn’t my mom or dad that taught me that. It was the lady who was looking after us. Kitty from Ireland. She was our nanny. Kitty Fowley. She showed me how to swing it. How to point it. The whole thing. It was like learning how to fence. (Laughs)

MJ: When did you come back to Canada?

SH: 16. I graduated when I was 14 and went to college for two years there before I came back here. The fun part was, when I got back, I wanted to go to UBC, but they wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t speak French.

MJ: Really? That was a requirement back then?

SH: That was a requirement back then. So because I had a lot of experience in the art world, Woodward’s hired me to work in the display department. I designed the Santa Claus sets for the windows. And I loved doing that. And while I was doing that, I was dancing in the Cave Supper Club. That was the main club in Vancouver at the time. I did the choreography there for a while. I was living in Vancouver at the time, westside. Then I got married. That didn’t last, not very long. The man was not a nice man. But I had a daughter and she is amazing.

MJ: Where does she live these days?

SH: Alberta. And she got married and had two boys. And one of them had four kids. So I’m a great-grandmother, three girls and a boy. My son’s still here. He lives in Langley.

MJ: How were things after your divorce?

SH: Well, I got sort-of married again and lived in Richmond for two years. That’s when I had my son. And we bought a house on one-and-a-half acres in Surrey. And that’s how I got here.

MJ: You’re still in the same house to this day?

SH: Same house to this day. 48 years. In Port Kells. I love it. My husband loves it too. He plays with the flowers and trees and he grows kale and garlic. He also built me a workshop. Then he built himself a workshop. And I said to him, “I need a place to teach the kids to dance and sing. It needs to have acoustics and a bouncy floor.” So he built me a chapel. (Laughs) The acoustics are great.

MJ: So you moved in there 48 years ago. How did your music career and everything go between the move and up until you started Susie and the Versatiles?

SH: I was still doing shows. I had an act with Patty McGregor, a duo. And Lorraine Smith would fill in when Patty couldn’t be there. We played all over. The farthest we ever went was Inuvik. The Legion up there had never been able to get any band of any kind to go up there, especially on Remembrance Day.

MJ: So you had your duo act for several years. Was there anything else between that and the Versatiles?

SH: No.

MJ: What inspired you to start the Versatiles?

SH: My dad couldn’t do very much on his own. And the town of Wells wanted to do a show to raise some money to save their school. And they knew my dad, as he played all those years in Barkerville. So, they phoned him and asked him if he could gather some of his friends to do a show. So, he called me and I said, “Leave it up to me.” I was still friends with some of the people that played Barkerville with him. So I took the Versatiles. We had a ad a dancing group. We had a singing group. I had some really good singers. So we went up to Wells with my dad and his piano player. I took mine. And we did the show and that was the beginning of the Versatiles.

MJ: So that was basically the Versatiles 2.0, then. You took your dad’s Versatiles, made them your own.

SH: Yes. That was in 2002 and then in 2003 people started calling me and that’s basically how it started. He made me promise to keep Vaudeville alive. And I said, “Okay, as long as you promise not to die right now.” (Laughs). He thought that was really funny.

MJ: Did he keep his promise?

SH: No. He was on his deathbed when I made him promise that. But that’s okay. That’s okay.

MJ: So, in a way then, you kept his memory alive through the Versatiles.

SH: I still use a lot of his comedy in the shows.

MJ: How was your final show?

SH: It was great. It went really well. All Irish music. We finished and everyone was applauding and screaming. The place was packed, literally packed with people. And they were all laughing or singing along. They loved the songs. It was great.

MJ: How would you sum up your life in music, in showbiz, and in comedy?

SH: I’ve had more fun in my life than a person should be allowed to have. Seriously. I have loved every minute and it’s all because the people in the audience accepted me as the crazy lady I am and they didn’t try to change me into something else. That’s important.

MJ: And how have things been since you officially retired?

SH: Okay. They’ve been amazingly okay.

MJ: What are you going to do now?

SH: Well, the movie industry still knows I exist. I got a call from one of the guys. I make special props for them. And I’m making a dog that looks like one of the stars. It’s a mutt. And they need a stand in for lighting and what have you.

MJ: A life-size replica?

SG: Yeah. They call me for that sort of thing. But it’s the first time in three years because they haven’t done anything.

MJ: I heard productions are picking up.

SH: They are picking up and they’re getting very excited about it. Yeah. I know a few of the props people so I hear from them.

MJ: What other props have you made for the movies?

SH: Seven years ago I made a dead German Shepherd. It was supposed to look like it was run over. I make things they can’t get anybody else locally to make.

MJ: Do you enjoy doing that? And how did you get into that?

SH: Yes, I do. Do you remember when they did Superman here?

MJ: Smallville.

SH: Yes, that’s the one. They needed three dead cows, Holsteins, to go in a field where somebody had killed them. Well, I made those Holsteins. And I made a horse too.

MJ: That sounds interesting. How long does it take you to make a cow or a horse?

SH: Well, if I have all the stuff, maybe about a week.

MJ: Anything you’d like to add?

SH: I’m happy. I lived a pretty good life. And I’m still all here!

Malin Jordan

About the Author: Malin Jordan

Malin is the editor of the Cloverdale Reporter.
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