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Ace Mackay-Smith: Creating fun in the belly of the beast

It’s not like Whistler has lost its soul or anything… but — “Everything is getting so serious,” says Ace Mackay-Smith with her signature giggle.
Not So Serious fun in the sun

It’s not like Whistler has lost its soul or anything… but —

“Everything is getting so serious,” says Ace Mackay-Smith with her signature giggle. “You put on a ski event these days and it’s all about sponsors and prize money and photo ops and professional athletes. There’s no slush cups or restaurant races anymore, stuff that’s just for fun.” She pauses for just a beat. Smiles — and giggles again. “After all,” she says, “it wasn’t that long ago that organizing a ski event was just an excuse for having a big party…”

She shrugs. Pulls a stray strand of blond hair out of her eyes. “I mean, what are we doing exactly?” asks Whistler’s longest-working go-go girl. “We’re sliding down snow on slats of wood and plastic. How serious is that?”

Too true. So when it came time to celebrate the end of the World Ski & Snowboard Festival last week — something Ace has done successfully for 12 years on the last Sunday of the event — she decided to re-invent her party.

“For a bunch of reasons I was all for postponing it,” she explains. “But because of feedback from friends who were bummed that it wasn’t going to happen, I decided to re-think the idea instead. And that’s when it hit me: why not have a party on the day after the WSSF shuts down for all the people who had to work during the festival? Since the GLC got voted ‘best après spot’ by the Pique Reader Poll, it made sense to do a big end-of-season après party there. We could have a BBQ and make it like an old freestyle ski party and then move it inside once it got dark.”

Laughter is as much part of Ace’s discourse as are her words. Whether a giggle, a chortle, a belly-laugh or just a quiet titter, it punctuates her speech like rain drops on a tin roof. It’s partly nerves of course. Ace has never been overly fond of talking about herself. But it’s something else too. Something deep, profound — could it be that she actually has that much fun with life? That what you see and hear with Ace is really what you get? I’m not sure, but it certainly feels that way to me…

But I digress. Back to Ace.

“I have such great memories of those ol’ freestyle days,” says the 42-year-old deejay/dancer/filmmaker/artist. “When I was growing up, my dad managed Tod Mountain (now Sun Peaks). And he was always throwing some kind of ski bash there.”

Indeed, to many of us who were just cutting our teeth in the ski business back then, Peter Mackay-Smith is something of a legend. Blessed with a child’s imagination, a salesman’s instinct for a great pitch and an unending supply of good-natured energy, Mackay-Smith père organized the kind of on-hill ski parties that the 1960s and ’70s are famous for…

“My dad loved skiing and socializing and he was always trying to come up with new ways to get families involved in the sport,” explains Ace. “At the end of the season he would throw a party called Wonder Weekend .” Another happy burst of laughter. “It was two-days of full-on partying, for all ages. We had ski jousting, obstacle course racing (kind of like old school terrain park skiing) — and the infamous bum jump of course.”

Bum jump? More giggles rain down upon me. “Well, it was a pretty simple contest,” she tells me. “You jumped, you did whatever you had to do in the air, and then you landed — on your bum. That was the only rule. We’d build up a big pile of snow on the landing and everybody had to land on their butt. You were judged on crowd appreciation.” She stops speaking. Smiles. “You know, that was the first time I ever saw a streaker… but not the last of course.”

And so from these memories was born the idea for the first annual Hot Doggin’ Après Ski Bash . It would be patterned on her dad’s Wonder Weekends and would feature the same kind of offbeat events that had been so popular at Tod Mountain three and a half decades earlier. “I figured we could set up a bunch of deejays on the patio,” she says. “Music was always blaring from the Burfield Lodge at Tod…” Proposed events included an old-school ballet competition, a limbo contest, a hot-dog eating contest and a tray-boggoning race. And everybody, of course, would come dressed up in period ski suits.

“Everything unserious,” adds Ace. “I just wanted people to celebrate the end of the snow sliding season in a fun atmosphere.”

And if people didn’t have the right clothes for the event, that was no problem either. “My mum, Winnie, is a bit of a collector,” she says. “And I kinda collect ’70s ski clothes too.” More laughter. “I haven’t put it all back in storage yet and so my living room floor is so colourful right now…”

To make her party fantasy come true, however, she also had to enlist the help of the Prince of Darkness. But that was easy. The master of the GLC, J. Michael Varrin Esq., was onboard from the moment he heard her pitch. “How could I not be?” he asks. “It was Ace. It was an après-ski party. And it sounded like a hell of a lot of fun. My only question to her was: ‘What can I do to help?’”

When it comes to whacky creativity, there is nobody quite like Ace Mackay-Smith. But then she grew up in one of those families that would make the Royal Tannenbaums look tame. “Never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” she says, shaking her head at the memories. “My brother Stu and I — we talk about it all the time. We remember those days so well. Living on the mountain, playing on the hill… spying through the windows of the bar…”

And with parents like Peter and Winnie, Ace and her two brothers never quite knew what fresh adventures they would be thrown into. “My dad — he’s part of how I think for sure. His first priority was always ‘How can we make it fun?’” Whether it was stacking wood or setting a Hot Wheels track from the roof of the house to the garden, the Mackay-Smith kids’ life was never even close to normal…

Though her parents would split up when Ace was 13, she seems to carry few scars from their break-up. “My mum was amazing,” she says. “She was really active with us. We’d go hiking in the summer and she’d have baby Adam on her back. We’d be moaning and groaning yet she knew it was good for us.”

But it wasn’t just on the physical side that Winnie helped her children grow. “She was incredibly supportive on the creative side too,” says Ace. “I had two imaginary friends when I was a kid and instead of telling me it was silly she’d set two more places at dinner. We had a big dress-up box and she’d film us on Super-8 when we wanted to make a movie.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that Stu is now a well-established artist in Vancouver and Adam is a celebrated e-game designer working on some hush-hush project in Australia.

As for Ace, she admits that living in Whistler and being an artist (although she would never call herself that) is never easy. “I’ve usually got a few different jobs going at the same time,” she says. “I’m still dancing, deejaying, and now making another short film — I just got a grant recently to do one of those Whistler Stories. I’m writing a bit these days too — and doing special events.” At this point she can’t hold back her laughter. “I get calls for some weird jobs, like dancing at the dinner for the American Meat Conference. Stuff like that…”

But what about the Hot Doggin’ Bash? How did it eventually play out?

It was everything Ace had hoped it would be. “Everyone got into it,” she says. “It was like a really fun house party. You should have been there: there were kids in their 20s who’d never actually seen ballet skiing before. People told me they hadn’t laughed so much in a long time. And they must have meant it; the party didn’t shutdown until after 2 in the morning…”

Some highlights: Rob Boyd showing up for the party squeezed into an old ’80’s ski racing suit and winning the ballet title just ahead of a hard-charging Smiley Nesbitt. A real dog competing in the hot-dog-eating contest and almost stealing the show. And my favourite — a genuine old-school streaker entering the ballet contest and a heads-up deejay managing to find the old Sesame Street theme song: “Sunny days…” for his run.

The last word, however, should go to one of the participating deejays who left these thoughts on Ace’s Facebook site. “A fantastic and fabulous event. Some much silly funny! Watching…a whole crew lift scaffolding with turntables, mixers, CD decks over 40 feet with cables still all attached and a 45 still playing on the record player and not skipping once...unbelievable!” And truly emblematic of the magic of the whole damn event…