He was the Peninsula’s own Mr. Showbiz – a class act right down to his natty suits and ties.
Comedian, MC, guitar-playing impressionist and man-about-town Gerry Owens was gifted with a crackling wit, a seemingly unflagging stream of ‘business’ and one-liners – and the style and professional panache of an old-school entertainer straight out of the glory days of Vegas and New York in the 1950s and 1960s.
Like many others who remember this community’s entertainment scene in the ’80s and ’90s, I was shocked to learn of his unexpected passing, at the age of 66, late last month. The news came from mutual friends Gordon and Debbie Vander Horst.
For most of us, it seemed he had always been – and would always be – around. Ready with a wry quip and a keen sense of the ridiculous, Gerry had clearly taken Shakepeare’s words – “all the world’s a stage” – and run with them.
He always ‘left ’em laughing’. But those who knew him also recall an unfailingly open hand of friendship and respect – and a genuine appreciation for others, whether in show business, or just the business of life.
Gerry – a private man in those rare moments out of the limelight – slipped the mortal coil quietly and without warning.
He was discovered in his cottage on an acreage near the border in South Surrey by George Ferreira, who, along with other friends, became worried when nobody had heard from Gerry for a few days.
The coroner’s conclusion was that Gerry passed away around on Nov. 19, several days before he was found, of a heart attack brought on by dehydration and complications from a chronic lung condition he’d had for the last few years.
Reached at home on Vancouver Island, his sister Lori Davidson (she and husband Geoff and their daughter were his closest relatives) said Gerry had called in sick to his day gig at Home Depot several days before. He’d been checked for COVID-19, but tested negative.
Due to the current pandemic restrictions, the family has not planned a memorial so far, although Lori does not rule out having one in the future.
Gerry was born in Saskatoon, Lori said, but the family had moved west in 1965, ultimately settling in Victoria, where he attended Oak Bay Junior and Senior High.
The former broadcaster was a comedian from day one, she said. “He was the class clown – he was always getting kicked out at school,” she said. “It was just who he was – he couldn’t really have been anything else.”
He had no children, she said.
“At least none that we’re aware of,” she said, with a chuckle, adding that her brother chose to live life “hard, fast and full-on.”
I first met Gerry in the early ’90s, through White Rock musician/songwriter/author Tom Saunders, who had recently produced a video mockumentary This Is Orest, the supposed story of Elvis’ distant relative (played by Tom).
The affectionate parody included Orest’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, and the role of the famous TV variety show host was a natural for Gerry, who Tom had frequently encountered as the MC of live music shows and other events.
“I already knew he did an Ed Sullivan impression as part of his act,” Tom told me.
“It was an over-the-top caricature in some ways, but in others it was pretty accurate. He was a very creative, very ‘upbeat’ kind of guy – he and I shared a lot of laughs over the years. He was up for anything that would put him out there. And he was really fearless – people would heckle him and he didn’t care who it was, he’d slam right back at them.”
“I’m going to miss him,” he added, noting that he had looked forward latterly to visits to Home Depot, where Gerry could be counted on to interrupt browsing with a fake “excuse me, sir!” – usually the set-up for some kind of impromptu comedy exchange.
Another local musician with fond memories of Gerry is Rice Honeywell, who, with brother Jim, headed the popular band Sibling Rivals.
Gerry played a major role – as an obnoxiously ostentatious restaurant patron with ‘arm-candy’ girlfriends – in the brothers’ tongue-in-cheek music video Rich and Famous, shot at Five Corners Cafe in the late ’80s.
“Those were the days when the White Rock crowd of our age group were very busy planning almost weekly events, whether boat cruises, hall dances, fundraisers and gigs at places like the “Viking House” (later the Sandcastle Club) or the ‘OB’ (Ocean Beach Hotel)” Rice recalled, in an emailed reminiscence also shared to Facebook.
“He loved the attention and his ability to make people laugh,” he wrote.
“Even his gait struck me as someone who seemed he was perpetually walking through a crowd of admirers; shoulders back, toes pointed outwards and with a somewhat grandiose air of a well-loved mayor or local hero, acknowledging people’s admiration with a friendly smile and more often than not, calling them by name.”
Even posthumously, Gerry seems to have had one last laugh on everybody, Lori said – for days after he was discovered no-one knew where his remains had been taken.
“He was MIA for four days,” she said. “We didn’t know where he was; the police didn’t know where he was. Fortunately George has connections with the coroner’s office and they found out where he was.”
We can only trust that – after this last bit of schtick – Gerry has moved on to a steady gig in a truly major room.
We may only have memories now. But, as Lori remarked, “there are no tears – unless they’re tears of laughter.”