Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion - theHumm January 2024

Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion - theHumm January 2024

By Kris Riendeau

In the realm of figure skating and artistic expression, Toller Cranston stands as a Canadian icon whose accomplishments have left an enduring mark on the world of sports and art. Renowned for his revolutionary style on the ice and his artistic pursuits beyond the rink, the news of his sudden death in Mexico at age sixty-five came as a shock to fans from Canada and around the world. In her new biography Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion, his sister Phillippa Cranston Baran has crafted “a celebration of his life, a tribute to the values by which he lived, and a road map for living fearlessly”. theHumm contacted Phillippa to learn more about her book and its impending launch in Arnprior on March 3.

The Humm: Let’s start with the local connection. After the official Canadian release of your book on February 20, you will be holding a special “hometown launch” at the O’Brien movie theatre in Arnprior on March 3. Tell me a bit about the history of the Cranston family in the Ottawa Valley.

Phillippa Cranston Baran: Toller once said, “I remember skating in Arnprior. They had a new arena and my uncle Hugh, who had been the mayor, invited me. The building was packed. When you step on the ice in Arnprior, you perform exactly as you would in Madison Square Gardens — in a grand, crazy way. It was important to me to go all out the one time I skated in Arnprior. I really hope that twenty years from now, they’ll say, you know, one time I saw Toller Cranston come to skate in Arnprior and I’ll never forget it.”

That was 1977. In the decades since, I have met people who were in that rink at the Nick Smith Centre that day and they very much remember. In fact, everyone who ever saw Toller Cranston skate — in person or on television — remembers.

Beyond grand, crazy performance on the ice, there is deep family history with the Valley. My great-grandfather was the first doctor in Arnprior. My grandparents, Dr. Jim and his wife Mary Frances Toller, raised their five boys in the red brick house across from the library. We spent summers at the family cottage at Marshall’s Bay. We took swimming lessons from Mary Fran who was the best ever and by god, we learned to swim. There were picnics in the park and five cent double dip ice cream cones from the Merryside Dairy. And movies at the O’Brien where 25 cents would get you a ticket and a box of popcorn.

Toller Cranston was known for pushing the boundaries of figure skating with his innovative choreography and performances, yet his life was filled with both triumphs and challenges. How did you navigate the delicate balance between celebrating his achievements and presenting a nuanced portrayal of his life, including any struggles or controversies?

I knew that I could write about Toller as a little boy, and I could write about what it took to clear an estate property in Mexico of 18,000 things in 45 days, but I definitely could not write about figure skating judging (Yes! He was robbed!); or about the influences and themes in his paintings; or about his impact on people — gay, straight, famous, not famous. I didn’t try. What I did was reach out to individuals with the authority and experience to comment or explain. In the process of creating this book, more than 150 people contributed deeply personal, incredibly moving, and utterly authentic stories. There are icons like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, champions like Don Jackson and Brian Orser, and others who are not so well-known including skating fans and Toller’s Mexican staff. Collectively, the stories and pictures create a tapestry of the richness, depth and impact of Toller’s life.

The jacket of your book states that you are: “understanding of his quirks, fiercely proud of his talent, and committed to sharing his story, albeit with more fidelity to the truth than he would have permitted if still alive.” Why is it important to you to divulge more about this iconic man than he revealed during his lifetime?

As a script writer, I am used to telling stories in a way that that delivers a message through image, emotion and impact. I used the same approach with this book. The truth about Toller emerges from perspective and context. The video equivalent would be lighting, camera angles, setting and editing. Over the years, millions of words have been written about Toller or spoken by Toller in interviews and articles. The thing is, he rarely told the truth. He would embroider, distort or flat-out lie to make a point. What I set out to do in this book is present Toller Cranston from a variety of perspectives, a variety of angles. I tried to get the hard facts right. I tried to capture the authenticity and the spirit of my brother. The sparkle. The flamboyance. All of it.

The book jacket also states: “In the process of writing this book, Phillippa had to deal with corruption, extortion, and threats by gun-toting thugs. Like her brother, she is not a quitter.” That’s quite provocative! Can you elaborate on a few of the major challenges you faced, and explain why you persevered?

In dealing with Toller’s estate property in Mexico I did have to deal with corruption, extortion, and threats by gun-toting thugs. At one point, I was facing a civil suit, a criminal suit, an embargo on the property, unable to leave Mexico, unable to move forward, unable make anything happen. One memorable day I found myself sitting in a park in Mexico with all my worldly belongings in a brown paper shopping bag — passport, money, papers, iPad. My Mexican lawyer, a wonderful man named Martin Martinez had told me the day before, “Sra, tomorrow there will be men coming to your house. You must not be there. You must take your things and do not return until evening.” At 8:00 in the morning, I found myself on a park bench. I was 69 years old. Alone. Miserable. In tears. Getting to a solution was difficult. Let me just say that arrangements were made. The word in Spanish is gratificationes. It means bribes. So, yes, bribes were paid. That was tough. But in many ways, a bigger challenge for me was managing Toller’s estate in such a way that protected his reputation, his legacy and his relationships. Dismantling a property containing 18,000 things in 45 days was a challenge. Getting two 53’ containers of artwork and personal effects into Canada was a challenge. Writing this book was a challenge. Still, I can say that every single minute has been satisfying. Horrible, sometimes, but satisfying. What kept me on track was being committed to the goal and being clear about the end result. That, and the love and support of people who cared. I have emerged with more wrinkles and age spots but very deeply enriched. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Toller is credited with having brought a new level of artistry to men’s figure skating and he certainly inspired generations of skaters, but he was also your brother. How would you describe his legacy?

I am incredibly proud (and frankly astounded) at the impact Toller has had on other artists. There is a chapter in the book called The Muse that describes works of art in many different fields — painting, theatre, poetry, music, ceramic, skating of course, even needlepoint — all either inspired by Toller or made as a tribute to him. That is amazing to me. But I think what I am most proud of is his legacy as a human being — his courage, work ethic and creativity. That is the legacy he leaves for all of us. Inspiring people to dream big, do the work, live without fear and be creative now.

What can people expect to see at the launch on March 3, and where else can they find your book?

Just like the good old days at the O’Brien Theatre. A box of popcorn. Toller on the big screen. Lots of laughter, shared experiences, memories, and celebration. A pretty great way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. Copies of the book, brilliantly designed by Robert Hughes of Robert Hughes Design and Print in Arnprior, will be available for sale. Toller Cranston, Ice, Paint, Passion is also available from Amazon and local booksellers as well as by order from the publisher, Sutherland House Books .


Linda Standing — Canada’s Emerging Folk Artist - theHumm January 2024

By Sally Hansen

Art… and Soul

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Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion - theHumm January 2024

By Kris Riendeau

In the realm of figure skating and artistic expression, Toller Cranston stands as a Canadian icon whose accomplishments have left an enduring mark on the world of sports and art. Renowned for his revolutionary style on the ice and his artistic pursuits beyond the rink, the news of his sudden death in Mexico at age sixty-five came as a shock to fans from Canada and around the world. In her new biography Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion, his sister Phillippa Cranston Baran has crafted “a ce......


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- theHumm January 2024

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