4 min

Co-owner of The Elbow Room lovingly remembered as a Vancouver icon with a sassy wit

Bryan Arthur Searle, 1930-2017, was a generous philanthropist, an LGBT pioneer and a loving partner

Patrice Savoie and Bryan Searle, right, in a scene from Mavreen David's documentary A Little Elbow Room. Credit: Mavreen David/National Screen Institute

As Patrice, his partner of 42 years, scolded him from across a busy café, an exhausted Bryan, seemingly at the end of his tether, leaned into my husband Cameron and I conspiratorially and asked us, “Do you have a gun or a knife?”

It was performative, all of it. This was their repartee, generating the kind of laughs that kept loyal customers coming back to their iconic Elbow Room Café for decades. I scribbled down the line, knowing, as a writer, it would someday prove useful.

But it’s not easy to write about the passing of Bryan Searle. He was an icon in our community, a philanthropist, a devout patron of the arts, a loving partner and, at times, a raging bitch, with a brilliant capacity for sass, a deep sarcasm and a truly wicked tongue.

My husband and I were fortunate to meet Bryan and his equally iconic partner Patrice Savoie through mutual friends a decade ago. We became fast friends, enjoying dinners and glasses of wine together in each other’s homes.

Bryan would regale us with stories from his British youth, and Patrice would correct him, clarifying details as someone who happens to remember every detail of anything ever said to him with razor-sharp precision. Bryan loathed being corrected, but Cameron and I were endlessly amused.

As our bond with the couple grew closer, Cameron and I approached Bryan and Patrice about the possibility of creating a show about their lives and their café.

They were both very keen on the idea, but Bryan had this caveat: “If you’re going to do it, you have to do it quickly, as I want to see it, and I’m already 83.”

They were both there to join the curtain call for Phase 1 of the show at Studio 58 in 2015.

And when Elbow Room Café: The Musical opened at Vancouver’s York Theatre in March 2017, it was a rare honour to see these men exit a limo and sit down to watch the story of their lives, however embellished and modified it may have ended up.

Bryan told us that we’d captured their lives perfectly, though he never truly forgave me for giving Patrice the opportunity to sing Edith Piaf songs in the show.

It was one of their running gags. Whenever Bryan was getting too many shots in at Patrice during dinner, one of us would make sure to bring up Piaf, which would prompt Patrice to sing Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” — off-key, full voice and wherever we were, much to Bryan’s chagrin.

Undeterred by the occasional burst of song, people at neighbouring tables would always come to say hello to Bryan and Patrice during our countless dinners together in restaurants across the city. They would share anecdotes, and thank them for what they’ve done for the community, for the uniquely welcoming space they created more than three decades ago, when few such spaces existed for the LGBT community.

Unbelievably, Patrick would remember their breakfast orders, placed years earlier. Bryan would roll his eyes.

But what really drew Cameron and I to Bryan and Patrice wasn’t their repartee, unparalleled though it may be. What really drew us to them was the tremendous heart they exude.

The author takes an English Bay boat cruise with Patrice, Bryan, their friend Pauline O'Malley, and Cameron. Credit: Courtesy Dave Deveau

They welcomed us into their lives instantly. Together we laughed, constantly.

When Bryan took ill several years ago, it still didn’t stop them from leading very full lives. Even when they would experience speed bumps in his recovery, they were still booking cruises, tickets to theatre productions around town, planning to sit on the aisle should they need to leave because of Bryan’s health. Nothing could keep them down.

Bryan’s life was full of love, lust and a hunger to never miss a beat.

His final evening, on Dec 14, 2017, was spent surrounded by his faithful partner Patrice, his brother Peter and sister-in-law Mary Jean, and my husband and I. Patrice put the original cast recording of Phantom of the Opera on the CD player, and the theatrical cacophony offered the perfect soundscape to the final moments of this bold, unapologetic and exceptional human being.

Bryan moved people. His reach was extensive. And his loss will be felt across the city and far beyond.

There is no denying that the food at The Elbow Room is good, but that’s only a tiny part of why people came. They came because the space was unique, opened in a time when that took courage. And most of all, they came because they love these men.

They love the couple’s commitment to make the community better through their endless donations to A Loving Spoonful, to ensure that people affected by HIV/AIDS never go hungry.

And they love how invested Bryan and Patrice have been in everyone who comes through their door. Though technically an “abuse café,” the type of tongue-in-cheek service dished out by The Elbow Room requires an undercurrent of deep caring. Their brand of mockery happens only among friends, among family. Bryan was our family.

Patrice and Bryan starred in the short documentary about their lives in 2012. Credit: Mavreen David/National Screen Institute

In our musical about their lives, Bryan sings a song about fearing his death, sharing his concerns about whether the community around him would even remember him. It’s a song that touched audiences deeply, and brought Bryan to tears. That song felt, and continues to feel, like the show’s greatest success because it allowed audiences to see the real Bryan.

“What do we leave after we go?” he asks in the song. “How will we be remembered when we’ve grown all we can grow?”

“Once through that dark December, what will be here, left to show that in our hearts we feel we’ve only just begun? When all our things are rotten and our faces both forgotten?”

To which Patrice answers, “All we’ll have is fun. We had so much fun.”

And they did.

Through 42 years of arguments and deep laughs, they have had so much fun. And so much love.

Dave Deveau is an award-winning playwright and the author of Elbow Room Café: The Musical.

This story is filed under Vancouver, Opinion
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