Just before he died, Harry Hibbs was planning a rare trip back to Newfoundland — but he never made it home.
This summer, Rising Tide Theatre has been bringing Hibbs’ songs and music back home with their musical production, “Harry Hibbs Returns!”
Starring Michael Power as the Bell Island-born musician, the show has been so popular, the theatre company is holding it over into the fall season.
Born in 1942, Hibbs moved to Ontario at age 17, after the death of his father, to work in the factories. After an accident left him unable to work, Hibbs took up the accordion and started playing in the so-called “Newfoundland clubs” of Ontario.
“In the 1960s and early 1970s, Newfoundlanders were going to Ontario to work in the factories there,” says Donna Butt, director of “Harry Hibbs Returns!” and Rising Tide’s executive and artistic director. “Manufacturing was at a high there. Back here, the inshore fisheries were going downhill and there was a lot of resettlement of the rural towns — there just wasn’t any work. So Newfoundlanders went to Ontario to work.”
With all of the Newfoundlanders in town, bars and clubs in Toronto began to cater to them, hosting Newfoundland music nights.
“So many people have come to me and told me about these clubs,” says Butt. “Newfoundlanders would get together there and reminisce and sing these songs. It was an extraordinary time.”
Following his industrial accident, Hibbs started singing and playing accordion in the Caribou Club, perhaps the most famous of the Newfoundland clubs.
“Harry was a truly gifted accordion player and singer,” says Butt. “And very quickly, he and the Caribou Club became synonymous.”
Hibbs performed under the title His Nibs, Harry Hibbs, Newfoundland’s Favourite Son, and he was wildly popular. His records went gold and, in the early 1970s, he wound up as the host of CHCH Television’s hit shows “At The Caribou” and “The Harry Hibbs Show.”
“Even so, he remained a shy, trusting man,” says Butt. “And that got him into some trouble. You know, when everybody in the club loves you and everyone wants to buy you a drink and you’re shy and kind — well, you can see how he would have developed an alcohol problem.”
Hibbs struggled for a few years before leaving the club to work in a warehouse and keep away from booze. He was diagnosed with cancer when he was 47, and died shortly thereafter.
“Harry Hibbs Returns!” starts at the end of his life, during a rehearsal for his tour back to Newfoundland, and then jumps back to the death of his father, and proceeds chronologically from there.
“It’s a touching story, and it’s also nostalgia,” says Butt. “My father, who passed away in November, used to play Harry Hibbs all the time on Christmas Eve at our house. When I watch Michael Power perform Harry’s songs, I can still see my dad dancing to the music.”
Butt says she has always wanted to write a play about Harry Hibbs and, in the end, she commissioned Ben Pittman to do it. Butt and Pittman also worked closely with Russell Bowers, a Bell Island-born journalist currently working for CBC Alberta. Bowers produced the album “The Very Best of Harry Hibbs,” and also made a documentary about Hibbs.
“(Bowers) was in town this June, so we all got together to read the first draft of the play and talk about Harry’s life,” says Butt. “(Bowers) had all of the various songs that Harry had played over his life and we set about choosing the ones we’d include in the play, and I actually discovered one that I had never heard. It’s called “Memories” and Harry wrote it himself, and he didn’t write a lot of songs. So we included that one, right at the end of the play.”
The play also includes favourites like “Sweet Sixteen,” “Between Two Trees” and the “Black Velvet Band.”
“There’s just such a surge watching this play bring all those people to their feet clapping and swaying,” says Butt.
“You can just imagine what it would have been like for those Newfoundlanders in Ontario in those clubs, to be able to get together like that and sing. He was so important to these people who were reaching out to hold onto their homes. Newfoundlanders may leave home, but they never leave home in their hearts.”
“Harry Hibbs Returns!” opened July 20 in Trinity. After just a few shows, the season was sold out, so Rising Tide Theatre is holding it over for a few shows on Sept. 14, 21 and 22. They’ll be taking the show to Gander on Sept. 23.
“It’s important to recognize how our past influences the future, and Harry’s story, to me, always seemed to have a lot to say,” says Butt. “He was performing at the real height of the Newfoundland movement back here. And there he was in Ontario, with his own television shows and gold records. I don’t think that we really knew what Harry represented back then. But I think we do now.”