"Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained."
-Philosopher John Stuart Mill
Whistler was a small place in the 1970s. And still very much on the edge of the world. Skiing ruled in those days. Powder and vertical were the twin mountain gods that everyone worshiped.
But when the lifts shut down at the end of the day, there wasn't much to do. You could either drink bad beer at the Ski Boot pub or drive your car to the dump and smoke dope and watch the bears gambol through the garbage. I know. I know. Didn't take much to qualify as entertainment back then...
Fortunately there was Fred Flores and his movie nights at the Keg. From the summer of 1976 until the end of 1980, Fred's Cosmic Film Presents filled locals' Sunday evenings with humour, passion, pathos and parody. Seriously — it was one of the entertainment high points of the week. A social occasion you just couldn't miss. Ask anybody who lived here in those years. Better yet, just mention his name. Fred Flores... or Cosmic... and watch their reaction.
"It was just after the health department had closed down the Whistler Lodge," remembers Fred. "Suddenly there were no more movies in the Valley..." A waiter at the Keg, Fred knew the restaurant's disco room was empty on Sunday nights. "So I approached Rookie, the longtime manager there." He shrugs. "Rookie asked me how it would work and I said, 'You don't charge me rent and I won't charge you promo.' He looked at me right in the eye and said, 'OK let's try it.'"
He launched his new enterprise with Roman Polanski's The Tenant. "That was my first film... mostly because it didn't cost me a lot," he admits. And laughs. "Still, it was a strange tale that gave a hint of the kind of films I would choose."
The new movie night became an immediate hit with the young locals. Starved for any kind of "public" entertainment, they soon transformed Cosmic's Sunday night gatherings into a weekly ritual. "It was a very cool scene, for sure," he says. "Especially since I knew pretty much everyone in the room."
And what a tribal rite it became. Scores of young ski bums – high on mushrooms or weed or beer or just plain ol' mountain air – all watching Francis Ford Copolla's Apocalypse Now, Woody Allen's Manhattan and Brian De Palma's Blow Out. Remember, this was before videos, before discs, long before the Internet. If it hadn't been for Fred's films, some of us would have been seriously under-educated.
As befitted local conditions, Fred's set-up was markedly low-tech. "I'd scrounged up an old 16-mm projector from Thor at the Brackendale Gallery," he recounts. "So at the end of each reel, the night's movie would be interrupted while I put the next reel on." He smiles. "But people were pretty patient with me..." Eventually though he managed to find a second projector. "That's when I started putting on two shows a night." He grins. "And that's when I finally started making a little money at the thing."
I hate clichés. I despise stereotyping. But confronted with a guy like Fred, it's hard not to fall into their honey'ed trap. So I'll get them out of the way before we go any further.
Fred grew up in California, dodged the draft and washed up on Canadian shores in the late 1960s. He discovered Whistler in 1971 and became a Soo Valley resident (without ever learning how to ski). He then left the valley to "find himself," and eventually returned to set up his cosmic movie nights. It was only on his second stay in Whistler that he connected with skiing.
And now he's a senior citizen. Lives in his RV in a trailer park just outside Victoria. He looks like Tommy Chong's silver-haired cousin, sounds just like him too. Close your eyes when he speaks, and it's easy to imagine being back in the 70s dropping acid and doing batik work. Ha! What a relic, you'll say. A hippy that never grew up. A flower child gone to seed. And you'll be partly right.
The trouble with clichés, alas, is that they often mask an individual's more interesting traits. Take Fred. He didn't spend a whole lot of time in this valley. By 1980, the tide of incoming progress had chased him away from Whistler. But somehow, this slow-talking, easy-going hipster managed to work his way deep into local lore. He was known, and loved, by everyone in the valley. Became an almost archetypal character in the greater Whistler story.
So yeah, go ahead and dismiss him if you want. But it's your loss. As for me, I'm fascinated by the happenstance journey that led him from his comfortable middle class life in Southern California to Whistler and an entirely different trip...
"I was just minding my own business working in LA as a research analyst," he tells me, "when my National Guard unit was activated." And in 1968, that only meant one thing: good morning Vietnam. "So I headed to Canada instead. I saw this little star on the map for a small city called Vancouver." He laughs. "It was the perfect refuge."
But Fred was a surfer. Not a skier. How the heck did he ever connect with Whistler? "That's a funny story too. My dad came north to visit me in '69. And I'd heard about this new resort up north. So I said: 'let's go for a ride.'" He remembers the driving mostly, how crazy the road was, how rudimentary the conditions. "It was off-season, you know. But I remember going to L'Après. That's where the Greeks worked. Right?"
Right. And then he forgot all about Alta Lake.
It was a woman, he says, who got him up there next. "I was working as ad manager at the Georgia Strait," he recounts, "and I met this lady and we hit it off pretty good."
She told him she had a cabin up at Whistler... in Soo Valley to be precise. Did he want to come up?
"I was all horny of course. So I followed."
He laughs. "That's when I met all the characters for the first time – You know, Paul Matthews, René Paquet, Danny Tolmie and Byron Gracie.... It was quite the scene."
Indeed. The abandoned logging camp at the north end of Green Lake had been taken over by a gaggle of long-haired skiers intent on forging a new world order based on collective fun, powder snow and back-to the-land values.
And Fred was impressed. "It was pretty cool, you know. There was a real sense of communal life. They weren't just making believe... they were really doing it. "
As much as he was attracted by the high jinx and communal spirit of early Soo Valley, Fred wasn't yet convinced to drop his life in the city. "And my new lady didn't want to leave her mountain life," he says. "She was a great skier, you know. And I didn't really ski..."
So the two played the Vancouver-Whistler rumba... until the summer of 1972 when Fred eventually capitulated. "That's when I moved into Soo Valley full-time," he says with a sigh.
The 1972-73 winter was one of the biggest snow years on record. "But I hurt my back carrying wood from the old burner on the other side of the Green River," he says. And shrugs. "I'd found these twenty-foot two by fours to build a woodshed and I thought I could carry two at once. Bad decision..." He woke up that night "in mortal pain," he says. "So I headed back to the city — and a chiropractor — at first light..."
The upshot of his injury? "No skiing for the winter," he says. And laughs ruefully. "So I had to listen to everyone else rave about the powder instead."
But that didn't stop him from appearing in Whistler's coming-out story in Canada's nationally distributed Weekend Magazine. The article, 'The Mountain Belongs To The Bums,' was published on March 3, 1973. Was it written to provoke? Of course it was. Still, the writer of the piece managed to create a highly stylized impressio of the outlaw lifestyles of Whistler locals... particularly those living at Soo Valley. "There was even a picture of me standing outside our cabin," says Fred. And grins happily, "I looked just like Charlie Manson."
Next week: Love ebbs, Fred leaves Whistler, then returns two years later and finally discovers the existential link between surfing and skiing.
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