Al Osten and Buddy Victor’s names are together, across Edmonton and Calgary. The Emily Carr, Lawren Harris and David Milne paintings they gave to the Art Gallery of Alberta will be featured in a special exhibition this month. There’s a plaque acknowledging the pair’s donation to help build the newly opened Roozen Family Hospice Centre in Edmonton, too, possibly the brightest place in the province to spend your final days. And of course there’s the Osten & Victor Alberta Tennis Centre in Calgary, where they donated enough to jump-start the building of the 13-court, $9.5-million facility and get their names on the building, even though neither has ever picked up a racquet.
“I grew up very poor. And all of a sudden to have a lot of money – I can help anybody,” says Mr. Osten.
Mr. Osten and Mr. Victor are not as high-profile as other Alberta philanthropists. Unlike many prairie elites, they didn’t make their money in the energy sector, or construction. They are entertainers at heart: The two met singing in a one-hit wonder group in New York in the 1950s, moved back to Alberta, and then successfully bought and ran the Weight Watchers franchises in all of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They sold them back to the franchisor in 2013 for “more money than we thought we’d ever have.”
The two have variously been described as lifelong friends or business partners. But theirs is actually a committed, decades-long relationship – a love that wasn’t ever announced but was also never hidden. And now, Al is taking care of Buddy, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“My friends are all saying you should put him in a home. I said that’s ridiculous. We can take care of him here,” says Mr. Osten, 91, speaking in the dining room of the couple’s Calgary penthouse.
Mr. Victor, 92, doesn’t speak much anymore but he is singing O Sole Mio in the sunny kitchen, where he’s sitting with his caregiver. His voice is still strong.
Mr. Osten was raised in Edmonton, the youngest of a family of seven, when he headed to Toronto and then New York to try to make it in show business. He always had taken to singing and performing. “Starving in New York,” is how he describes his early days there. But the singing foursome of Canadians in the U.S. he became a part of, the Rover Boys, had one hit in 1956 called Graduation Day.
When their lead singer quit for a solo career in 1957, their manager sent them a replacement. They met Buddy Victor, from Brooklyn, on the car ride to a gig in Detroit. They taught him their songs on the trip and picked up matching tweed jackets only once they arrived. Mr. Osten’s first impression of Mr. Victor was “a short, fat guy,” but wildly talented, too.
”He sort of took over the group,” Mr. Osten said of Mr. Victor. “All of a sudden he was taking care of the money. He was taking care of everything.” Over months, a deep connection between the two young men developed. In those days, Mr. Osten said, “you don’t have a discussion. It just happens.”
They sang at venues around the U.S. They opened for Tony Bennett, and sang at the Rainbow Room and Radio City Music Hall. They appeared on American Bandstand alongside Bobby Darin. They even played a small but key role in supporting one of Canada’s biggest cultural exports of the 1950s, Paul Anka.
In early 1957, the then-15-year-old Mr. Anka made his way from Ottawa to New York with a collection of songs he had written. In his initial days there, Mr. Anka stayed with the Rover Boys in their small hotel room, noting in his autobiography that he had to put down a mattress in the Rover Boys’ bathtub because there was no other place to sleep. “I didn’t care: I knew my life was going to change in a big way,” Mr. Anka wrote. Just months later, his song Diana became a huge hit.
There was no similar big break for the Rover Boys and the group eventually disbanded. Mr. Osten, missing his family and home, headed back to Edmonton. He got a job as maître d’ at the city’s Embers Club, run by legendary jazz pianist Tommy Banks. “I was good at pouring coffee, and getting people the best tables,” he said. “It was the hottest club in town.”
Mr. Osten had been back in Canada for several months when he recommended the club bring in Mr. Victor as an act. He ended up staying and becoming a Canadian citizen. He hosted a CBC radio show and performed on a number of television specials.
In 1966, Mr. Victor’s relatives in New York were talking up a new weight-loss program that focused on the psychological and emotional side of overeating, and offered meetings and peer support. After a bit of research on the system founded by Jean Nidetch in Queens, they borrowed money from family, and bought the Alberta Weight Watchers franchise for US$10,000.
They held their first meeting – one of the first in Canada – in August, 1967. More than 70 women attended at the Freemason’s Hall in Edmonton. Mr. Victor, who had already lost 60 pounds on Weight Watchers, spoke at the meeting and Mr. Osten, who had lost 37 pounds, did the weigh-ins. The headline on the Edmonton Journal story about the program coming to the city said “Club Helps ‘Fatties’ Reduce, Keep It Off.”
As was the case in the rest of the continent, Weight Watchers in Alberta was a massive success, and meetings soon spread across the province. Mr. Osten moved to Calgary to start meetings in southern Alberta, and the two bought the franchise in Saskatchewan, as well.
Maxine Fischbein, a long-time family friend, remembers going to weekly Weight Watchers meetings in Edmonton as a teenager. Even when Mr. Osten and Mr. Victor weren’t there, their name came up at every meeting. “Those guys really brought it to life here in Alberta.”
Mr. Osten has few words about life as a gay man in decades past. “It wasn’t difficult for me. First of all, I wasn’t making any announcements about it.” In talking to The Globe about it now, he says: “We’re in our 90s. Who cares?”
Ms. Fischbein says she wouldn’t want to talk for Mr. Osten and Mr. Victor, but says it couldn’t have always been easy for them. “But they were able to form enough of a community around themselves, of people who valued them, as well as diversity – at a time when diversity was not a word that rolled easily off the tongue.”
Over the decades, Mr. Osten and Mr. Victor also invested in a series of Broadway shows and other businesses. But their real windfall came nine years ago, when they sold the Alberta and Saskatchewan franchise rights back to Weight Watchers International, Inc. The two don’t have any children, so they have been able to give money to extended family members – including Mr. Osten’s nephews and nieces. Much has gone to philanthropy, including to Theatre Calgary and the Jewish community.
“They certainly have given more than a little,” says long-time friend and business partner, former senator Ron Ghitter, who brought them aboard to supporting a state-of-the-art Osten & Victor tennis centre in south Calgary.
“They’re just very special individuals.”
Mr. Osten said there are still many good moments with Mr. Victor, despite dealing with the degenerative disease of the brain, and Mr. Victor’s frustration with a life that’s more pent-up than it has ever been. The two sing “silly songs” together, including Singin’ in the Rain and the Whiffenpoof Song.
With caregivers helping around the clock, looking after his lifelong partner at home is possible. “He would do it for me, I know. There’s no question about that at all,” Mr. Osten said.
“We love the hell out of him.”
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