For many people, the word "Maltese" conjures up images of Hollywood intrigue, Humphrey Bogart vainly searching for that elusive statue from the enigmatic land, the Maltese Falcon. My collaborator, Patrick Reed, and I thought that our profile of Toronto's Maltese community should investigate and unravel this popular notion of mythic Malta, ushering in history, easing out Hollywood.
Sidestepping the romantic facade and searching for the realistic core of Maltese-Canadian identity, we ventured to an area in Toronto where many Maltese-Canadians live, the Junction - a working-class neighbourhood, once home to the many slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants that gave the city its nickname, Hogtown. Apart from a few storefronts and a Church (St. Paul the Apostle), there are not many visible clues of the Maltese presence. The public face of the Maltese is, however, on display one day annually at the Malta Day ceremonies, held at the City Hall cenotaph. Here the honorific Knights of Malta march forward in all their finery and regalia, swords drawn and helmets poised, capturing the imagination of all present, hinting at the rich past of the antique land of Malta.
Johnny Giordmaine was a member of the Knights of Malta; this fact, coupled with his countless other accomplishments, made him seem an ideal subject for a documentary. As soon as I saw his image, visions from my TV-addicted childhood flashed before my eyes: The Captain Kangaroo Show, or at least Uncle Bobby, I knew I had seen this little whirlwind of magic before. Apart from nostalgia, Patrick Reed and I were interested in the role that chance played in Johnny's life. For instance, Toronto was supposed to be a stopover en route to California, but circumstance convinced him to stay. Ten years later, an industrial accident scared Johnny into making a career change that would alter his life forever, transforming the electrician into an electrifying performer, a dynamic dynamo of deception, a magician who would delight adults and infants alike.
Magic had been an interest of his since childhood. In fact, during his years at the meat packing plant, he'd built secret passages and booby traps into his home in the Junction so he could magically entertain his friends from work. Being a magician had been a hobby of his, but he'd never seriously considered making a living at it, until the accident. He'd been aching for something more, playing in amateur orchestras, acting in Maltese community plays, and joining the Maltese-Canadian Society of Toronto, but it was only when he really took up magic seriously that he found his route out of the Junction.
Add to these unique features of Johnny's story the chance to put some of these magic tricks and TV appearances on screen and you'll see what sold Pat and I on a tribute to Canada's best-known magician. We contacted Johnny's son, Joe, as well as the still active Maltese- Canadian Society and were overwhelmed with the wealth of archival materials, audio tapes and photos from Johnny's career, particularly a box from Joe of 16mm home movies dating back to 1931. Three more key collaborators and their collections of Johnny-paraphernalia made the documentary more than viable: Irene Johnston, the widow of one of Johnny's closest fellow magicians, Sid Lorraine; Tom Ransom, another Giordmaine enthusiast with the largest collection of flyers and tricks; and Tom Baxter, a famous Canadian magician who'd been inspired to follow magic by seeing one of Johnny's performances as a ten-year-old. The Maltese community in the West Junction was also terrifically supportive and Pat and I practically went door-to-door to find those with memories of Johnny's heyday.
I had to ask myself, though, why make a film about Maltese immigrants, why should I be their spokesman? I have no blood ties to Malta, and the best I can muster is that my Aunt and Uncle lived there as part of a British military outpost in the early fifties and had spoken fondly of their adventures there. The magic certainly attracted both Pat and I, but we were really no different than those who think of Bogart first and foremost. The only way we could justify our authorship of such a piece was that the Maltese, like the Canadians, also lacked a clear, coherent national identity, despite their rich history. Like Canada, they'd served more than one colonial master, and had also, like us, fallen under the influence of their powerful neighbours on both sides, which left them juggling to preserve some elusive sense of their Maltese identity. Take one little Maltese man and transplant him to Toronto in the 1920 and the task seems to call for almost magical powers to prevent anything distinctly Maltese from disappearing. Johnny Giordmaine reinvented himself again and again, almost magically, without ever sacrificing his core values, and that's what inspired Pat and I to film this tribute.