Log-roller, dog trainer, entertainer, brother, uncle. Born Oct. 21, 1926, in Fort Frances, Ont., died March 14, 2012, of a brain tumour in Fort Frances, Ont., aged 85.
On Dec. 21, 1976, at the height of the Cold War, the good burghers of Spay, Germany, were treated to a curious, never-to-be-forgotten sight.
You see, the Spay Canal, running close by the town, separated West Germany from East Germany. And Santa Claus was there, in his full red suit and flowing white beard. He was log-rolling, Canadian lumberjack style, across the canal with a bag of toys on his back for the East German kids.
But upon reaching the other shore, Santa was confronted by a rifle pointed at him by a menacing East German guard shouting, “Go back! Go back!” Some witnesses said a warning shot was fired.
This Santa, however, was not so easily put off – after all, there were kids waiting for their Christmas toys. Santa shouted back: “What? You’re going to shoot Santa Claus in front of all these television cameras?” The guard backed off. The sack of toys was deposited successfully in East Germany.
The man in the Santa suit was Bill Fontana of Fort Frances, Ont. – champion log-roller, performer and idea man. The stunt was his idea.
“Bill and Peppy the Log-Rolling Pooch” were touring Germany in a water show produced by Johnny Weismueller, of Tarzan fame. But we must go back in time.
Years earlier, in June, 1950, the good citizens of Fort Frances had been treated to an equally curious sight on the waters of Rainy Lake: Bill, who had already made his mark in log-rolling competitions around the United States, was on a spinning log, in a log-rolling competition against his dog, Peppy, a little reverse-spotted Dalmation.
Such a sight had never been seen and received national attention when a passing outdoors journalist, Tony Mio, snapped a picture that he titled “Dog-on-a-Log.”
It won a major sports photography award and was widely disseminated, appearing in more than 30 national magazines that summer.
As animal acts go, Peppy was a quick study and that summer Bill taught him a variety of balancing and agility tricks, all performed on the floating, spinning log.
Bill and Peppy were seen at sportsmen’s shows, state fairs and exhibitions throughout the United States and Canada for 35 years (a second Peppy replaced the first).
They toured Europe twice. The second tour brought them to that winter’s day on the Spay Canal.
Bill counted many celebrities and sports figures among his acquaintances, evident by the exchange of Christmas cards each year.
While the act always ended with Peppy dunking Bill in an all-out log-rolling competition, Bill insisted that it always begin with the emcee’s introduction: “From Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada, Bill Fontana and Peppy the Log-rolling Pooch.”
He enjoyed his role as an international goodwill ambassador.
James Fontana is Bill’s brother.