Reporter, emcee, impersonator, jailer, radio host. Born Nov. 12, 1942, in Newmarket, Ont., died April 4, 2013, in Kingston from complications of diabetes, aged 70.
If anyone ever personified Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” line, it was Don Robinson. This ebullient gent loved the limelight and developed a bizarre sense of humour to propel himself to centre stage in a myriad of situations and settings through a checkered 70-year career that amused and astonished me and many others.
I was a nose-to-the-grindstone bureau reporter for a daily newspaper in Gananoque, Ont., when a free-spirited cub reporter from Welland, Ont., half my age, joined the local weekly. On a summer’s day, he would set aside the search for news to buzz around the 1,000 Islands in a boat or take over the keyboard in a cocktail lounge and play a stream of old standards by ear – just for laughs or the odd beer.
Blessed with a vivid imagination and a zest for storytelling, Don epitomized the “Life is a Cabaret” theme and rarely missed an opportunity to celebrate. Toronto, which he’d known as a student, seemed to bring out the rascal in him. I personally saw him pose as a hotel detective, and he regaled me with stories of his exploits as a fake police detective, medical doctor and son of premier John Robarts.
The latter caper, which earned him a stern lecture from a Toronto policeman, narrowed his choice of roles but did not chill his desire to masquerade. An admirer of One-Eyed Connolly, the famous American gatecrasher, Don once bluffed his way past a veteran ticket taker at Maple Leaf Gardens and visited broadcaster Foster Hewitt in the Gondola while I waited outside with his ticket for an NHL game.
In his 40s, Don was an imposing sight in a dark or pinstriped suit, topped with a Homburg hat, smoking an expensive cigar. Aided and abetted by friends, he accepted public speaking engagements as “Canada’s youngest senator.” He would make an impressive entrance, sometimes rearranging the head table seats to his liking and ending by announcing an unexpected federal grant. On one occasion he blew his cover by awarding free mukluks to all Canadians to help fight “global cooling.”
Don hung out with magistrates and lawyers, and served as an associate director on the Kingston General Hospital board. He quipped about having “a champagne taste but a beer budget,” and finally gained financial security and a “captive audience” with a job as a correctional services officer at Joyceville Institution.
His greatest audience was built as host of All that Jazz on a Kingston radio station for 23 years. His laidback style and knowledge of music drew large ratings and made him popular as an emcee throughout eastern Ontario and northern New York State. When the station changed its musical format and cancelled his five-hour Sunday-night show, it was a crushing blow and he removed the JAZMAN license plates that had graced his Lincoln, Cadillac and Oldsmobile cars.
Don’s final audiences were fellow members of the Kinsmen Club of Kingston. For seven years he served as president of the club’s “Senators,” who raised thousands of dollars for hospital equipment.
Slowed down by diabetes that affected his eyesight, Don bid goodbye to his faithful guide dog and spent his final days in hospital, where his mellifluous voice faded to a whisper. “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself,” he quipped.
Bill Fitsell was a friend and colleague of Don.