Lifetime Yellowknifer and musician Norm Glowach will take the NACC stage as a new character named Johnny Cole on Saturday evening.
Through a multimedia performance and music, Johnny Cole – Meet Me at the Rex tells the story of how Glowach’s ancestors came to Canada, settled in Yellowknife in 1940 and eventually bought the Rex Cafe on Latham Island.
Although Cole is a fictional character, his persona is an amalgamation of real ones. From his father to long-time Northerners, Cole is inspired by people that influenced Glowach as a younger man in Yellowknife.
“All of these people are long passed and I truly believe that I can draw on them to help me find my way in this character,” said Glowach.
When he was searching for a name for this new character, his brother suggested the surname Coe, which is a family name. But Glowach decided on Johnny Cole because “back in the day” the Cole family owned the town’s movie theatre.
“And I used to work for old man Cole for a very short time,” he said, adding he liked having that connection to 1950s and 60s Yellowknife.
As Johnny Cole, Glowach will tell his family’s story, from Quebec City to the Red River Colony to the North, backed by an eight-piece band performing acoustic versions of his original songs.
“You will see pictures of my ancestors up on a screen behind us as we’re going through the songs and as I’m telling the story as the narrator Johnny Cole,” he explained.
But it took him nine years of research, writing and recording to get to this point.
Glowach has worked at the NWT Archives for 20 years, and scanned over 700 photos in the family collection, ranging from the 1860s to the 1950s. While doing preservation work on the photos, like one of his grandmother getting married in the Red River Colony, songs started coming to him.
“I feel like I am being led by my ancestors,” he said.
“When I was writing the songs, there’s times where, seriously, I felt like the songs were being written by somebody else. I was being directed.”
One of his songs titled Bootlegging Granny, much to the chagrin of some relatives, is about how his grandparents sold bootleg booze to make ends meet.
“The reason that they did that was they couldn’t make a living any other way,” Glowach explained.
In the 1940s and 50s, the Rex Cafe was the only one in town that would serve Indigenous people.
“When you take a look at the history of the Rex Cafe, the pictures you see, the Indigenous people were more than welcome in the cafe, because of course, my grandmother was Metis,” said Glowach.
In the early days of this project, Glowach envisioned simply stringing a few songs together for a short show.
“A story of Yellowknife that I could tell at the Ramble and Ride,” he said.
But his late friend Alex Czarnecki encouraged him to think bigger. This was not just a Yellowknife story, but a Canadian story Czarnecki told him.
“I have to think of it in a big-scale story of how our country developed,” said Glowach.
“With immigrants coming in and mixing with Indigenous people and all kinds of races mixing in order to develop this wonderful country that we have.”
The performance on Saturday night will be the first for an audience, but likely not the last, as the show has already gained interest elsewhere, he said.
“Because it’s a story of Canada, in a lot of ways,” Glowach said
“And it’s a Metis story because of the Indigenous connection through my mom’s side, so there’s this interest within the Metis community of this project.”
This show will give the audience a view into what old Yellowknife was like and Glowach’s vision of what the Rex Cafe would have been like at that time. And while the musical is based on historical events, it’s not completely historically accurate.
“I know for a fact there were lots of happy times at the Rex Cafe – but it’s not all happy,” said Glowach.
“That’s the good thing about this – it’s not all truth, it’s not all false, it’s not all happy, it’s not all sad, it’s not all country, it’s not all early rock n’ roll. It’s not about one race of people to another race of people, it’s about all of us.”
Glowach said it’s important to him that the old-time families of Yellowknife come to the show.
“If anybody out there knows my brothers, my sisters, any other people in the family, you should come out and say hello,” he said.
“And we’re having pie before the show.”
Tickets are $10 for seniors and youth and $15 for adults. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.