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Neil Armstrong and his wife Jan enjoy a moment in the restaurant atop the tallest building in Vancouver on Aug. 12, 1977. (Henry Tregillas)
Neil Armstrong and his wife Jan enjoy a moment in the restaurant atop the tallest building in Vancouver on Aug. 12, 1977. (Henry Tregillas)

Tom Hawthorn

How Neil Armstrong landed in B.C. Add to ...

The client: A fine-dining restaurant atop the tallest building in the city.

The publicist: Tom Butler, the ideas man behind such events as the world belly-flop and cannonball diving championships.

The date: Aug. 12, 1977.

The setting: The new Sears Tower (now Harbour Centre) in downtown Vancouver.

The problem: How to get press attention for yet another restaurant.

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The solution: Get a famous figure to attend a formal opening.

Hmm. Tallest building. Soaring above the street. Towards the sky. How about … an astronaut? How about not just any astronaut, but the most famous astronaut of them all? How about the first man on the moon?

Mr. Butler worked the telephone. NASA officials in Houston put him in touch with a secretary in Washington who put him in touch with the ex-astronaut’s agent in New York. The agent checked with his client, who lived on a farm near Lebanon, Ohio, and who was teaching aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Neil Armstrong agreed to come to Vancouver. His price: a $5,000 honorarium plus two first-class return airplane tickets.

“Worth every penny,” Mr. Butler says today.

Mr. Butler greeted Mr. Armstrong and his wife, Janet, at the airport. He had leased a limousine to drive them into the city. Mr. Armstrong, known for his cool demeanour and unflappable nature, fretted about the next day’s speech. What should he say?

“Neil, I’ve got an idea for you,” Mr. Butler said. “We’re going to stop at the park on the way. There’s a memorial to the first president to ever visit Canada while in office. He’s a fellow Ohioan.”

The limo stopped at the Warren Harding memorial in Stanley Park. The president had visited the city in 1923, and died suddenly a week later in San Francisco. Three years later, an impressive bronze memorial was constructed at a spot in the park in which the president had addressed a crowd of 50,000. Included were his words: “What an object lesson of peace is shown today by our two countries to all the world.” Mr. Armstrong had the theme for his remarks.

The next day, the astronaut and an entourage rode a glass elevator to the observation deck of the 168.6-metre (533 feet) building. Mayor Jack Volrich was in attendance, looking spiffy in an all-white suit and white dress shoes. The artillery band of the 15th Field Regiment played America the Beautiful.

Mr. Armstrong, wearing a checked suit, carefully placed his left foot into a slab of wet cement.

One small step.

A 10-year-old shoeshine boy named Brian Lee wiped the muck from the astronaut’s black loafer, size 9 1/2 medium.

Mr. Armstrong took the time to shake hands with all 130 people at the reception.

“People have said he could be standoffish,” Mr. Butler said. “I didn’t find him like that at all. He was wonderful. He was very accommodating.”

The astronaut and his wife, from whom he would later divorce, posed for photographs in the restaurant.

“I billed that event as, ‘The restaurant that soars halfway to the moon was opened by a man who went all the way,’” Mr. Butler said. “That had a twist to it.”

Even this august newspaper saluted the publicity coup of getting a celestial figure to take part in so mundane a chore.

Two months earlier, the publicist hired beer-chugging ne’er-do-well Billy Carter, who happened to be the U.S. president’s brother, to judge the belly-flop diving championships. The ballyhoo gained the goofy event a television audience on NBC.

Mr. Butler also gained attention by travelling the continent with a live beaver named Esquire to promote British Columbia as a tourist destination. (A nocturnal creature, Esquire turned out to be less than an ideal hotel roommate.)

The publicist retired to Summerside, PEI, where he recently completed a memoir, PR Man, which he is shopping to publishers.

Today, the revolving restaurant is called the Top of Vancouver and the observation deck is known as Vancouver Lookout. From the street, they still look like a UFO floating above the city.

Sadly, the imprint of the astronaut’s step is missing. No one can say whether it was stolen, lost or misplaced.

Mr. Butler has a souvenir of his own. The astronaut, who died on Saturday, aged 82, signed a copy of a newspaper describing his famous moon landing eight years earlier. “Thanks for the hospitality,” he wrote.

That particular edition of the Vancouver Sun includes a change in the newspaper’s logo. Dated July 21, 1969, it is called The Moon.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

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