Remembering Bill Fontana
I originally thought of Bill Fontana as being irascible. The first time I met him in the office of the Times that then was located on Church Street, he was in meeting with Carl Shrubring the newspaprs’s editor at the time.
Bill was loud. He seemed very forceful and I thought that he was angry. Bill and Carl were best of friends and regularly had coffee or shared a meal together at the Rainy Lake Hotel.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that this was all a façade. Bill wasn’t who he often appeared to be. He was a much different person. He really liked to challenge people and catch them off guard. Yet, if you watched him closely, he had one eye on you that was earnest while the second had a twinkle in it. And there was always half a smile on his face.
You never knew if the needle you were getting from Bill was in jest or seriousness. But he would only give you those jabs when he got to know you. And he expected as good as he gave.
Bill constantly promoted the area as a tourist destination. He helped the Bass Committee persuade Ron Scharra, (Minnesota Bound and Minneapolis Star Tribune) to come to Fort Frances and write about Fort Frances and the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship.
Ron Scharra and Bill had a long history going back to all the sports shows that Bill travelled to promoting Rainy Lake Wilderness Houseboats and also performing.
My parents took our family once to the arena where he performed with his dogs on a rolling log. He was performing for the Mississippi River Travel Association that connected Fort Frances to the Gulf of Mexico. Peppy and the other two doused Bill. We all laughed. Bill seldom did his show in the region, yet travelled the world with his dogs, performing at the Canadian Pavilion at the Tokyo World Fair and in Europe.
With his spotted Dalmatians, “Peppy and Peppy II” and his Fox Terrier “Cork” and clad in his bold red plaid suits Bill was a show stealer. And everyone learned by the end of the show that the “World Champion Birler” from Fort Frances was second best to the dogs.
Bill could be outrageous. On Christmas Day in the middle of the cold war, Bill donned a Santa Claus suit and carried a bag and rolled his log across the Spray Canal from West Berlin to East Berlin where he offered the East German guards a gift. He then rolled the log back.
Many East Germans had died trying to flee across the river, shot by the same guards. And when Bill was asked why he did it, his answer was simple “Who would dare to shoot Santa on Christmas?” The photograph of him rolling his log across the river appeared in papers around the world. He found a way to grab publicity.
And he did it in every city in which he performed. He regularly gained front-page headlines. And he relentlessly promoted Rainy Lake as a wonderful family vacation destination. Bill worked two seasons a year, the winter Sports Show season and the State Fair August September season.
In between he trained in the basement of the New Fort Frances Hotel where he had a pool set up with his log in the middle. As a young boy, Bill and a group of young people including Ray Cousineau, Billy Cousineau and Joe Podgorski learned to run the logs on the river and river drives. They waltzed on the logs and challenged the old hands getting dunked in the cold water of the lake or river. And from it, Bill turned log rolling into entertainment.
Bill was a private person. He was gruff. Yet there was another side of him. If he found a cat or a stray dog, it was fed. If he happened to find young people wandering around at night, he would make sure they were fed and warm. He would take them back into the kitchen of the old Rainy Lake Hotel and Matt Grynol or Matt Rogoza would give them a meal and Bill would pay for it.
He was two people. The private humble, caring person he protected from the public, and the gruff belligerent person the public often saw. Bill died on Monday at the age of 85.