Time doesn’t stop — not for Stuart McLean, who’s entering the 18th year of his hit radio show The Vinyl Cafe, nor for the fictional family that he tells stories about.
McLean retired some years ago from his broadcast journalism teaching job at Ryerson University. He has plenty of time to focus on his weekly CBC radio show, as well his books, CDs and live tours as one of Canada’s most beloved storytellers.
The folks he spins tales about — Dave, Morley and their children Sam and Stephanie — have also grown older since McLean began elaborating on their zany misadventures in Toronto.
The characters didn’t have to age but they did.
“I had to make a difficult choice, fairly early on . . . but I think it was the right choice,” said McLean, who will bring The Vinyl Cafe to Red Deer’s Memorial Centre stage on Feb. 22 and 23, with musical guest Harry Manx.
On the one hand, McLean was tempted to freeze Dave and Morley’s children at the ages they were at when his radio show started in 1994 — that would be six for Sam and about 12 for Stephanie.
“They were such perfect ages to write about,” he explained.
But the more McLean thought about it, he realized time would have to move on in The Vinyl Cafe universe. If it didn’t, his tales would become more Peanuts than Doonesbury.
McLean describes himself as a fan of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip. He particularly likes that the U.S. cartoonist advanced his college-aged characters about 10 years after taking a 22-month hiatus from writing the cartoon series in the 1980s.
By comparison, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang was forever stuck in the elementary school years, and as a result, Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus seemed to stagnate after a while.
“With Peanuts, everybody stayed young and it didn’t have the same legs as Trudeau’s strip,” said McLean, who found he had no end of new things to write about as his fictional children approached puberty and young adulthood.
Currently, Stephanie is away at college and has a boyfriend, while Sam is in high school, having just landed his first part-time job. “They’ve grown a little bit older, sadly,” said McLean — and so have Dave and Morley.
But in Dave’s case, older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser.
A new story that McLean will tell in Red Deer involves the 50-ish record store owner getting into hijinks at a car wash with Mary Turlington’s car.
Turlington, as anyone familiar with the series knows, is Dave’s next-door neighbour and nemesis — her meticulous, chartered-accountant ways standing in direct contrast to Dave’s happy-go-lucky penchant for chaos.
Another new story will be a flashback to Dave’s youth, said McLean. “It takes place during the spring thaw. Dave and his friend attempt to save a dog they spot stuck on the melting ice.”
While the word “attempt” carries a nasty, foreshadowing quality, McLean refuses to give anything away. He said people will have to hear the story to find out how it ends.
Red Deer fans will also listen to McLean delivering an old favourite. But The Vinyl Cafe host hasn’t decided which story it will be yet.
McLean, who has two adult sons and a stepson, likes to take long daily walks with his dog, but contemplative moments aren’t necessarily when inspiration strikes him.
He said he has no idea what makes new story ideas flow. “I’m not trying to be coy. They just come. If I knew when and where, and how to make it happen, then I’d go to that place more often.”
Sometimes listeners will suggest ideas to him but most often, they will simply occur to McLean. Lately, the ideas have been coming more frequently, he said, because “I know Dave and understand him.”
After nearly two decades, listeners across Canada have also come to know and love Dave and his crew.
McLean said he get loads of fan mail and fan feedback. “People talk to me about how much they like listening to the stories and how they like listening to them with others” — sometimes with friends or relatives in other parts of the country.
Sometimes people tell McLean that Dave and Morley stories have helped them through not-so-light moments. For instance, one man who was visiting his sick father in the hospital found comfort in the tales.
Perhaps storytelling resonates because the tradition is something we recognize from our earliest years. “Hearing it brings echoes of our childhood? Maybe,” mused McLean.