Linda Fillmore reaches for her chardonnay, places a straw in the glass and slowly takes a sip. “Mmmm,” she mutters in appreciation before gently placing the chalice back down on the table.
“I’m not much of a drinker,” she confides, though “Golden Wedding was the love of my life,” she laughs.
I am enjoying a Sunday afternoon cocktail in the Hotel Vancouver lounge with a woman I have only just met but already sized up as distractingly charming, unapologetically brazen and witty as hell.
“Just who is Linda Fillmore?” I ask, getting down to business.
“Well,” she says, taken aback. “That is not an easy question.”
“I’m Auntie Linda. I think, for many people, they think of me as their aunt, their mother, their grandmother,” she begins.
The maternal figure and philanthropist was born into a Saskatchewan farming family during the Great Depression, the story goes. Fillmore and her sister, Doreen, left the farm at 18 to enrol in beauty school in Regina, then started dancing in a club.
“We were younger then,” Fillmore says. “There were poles.”
Debauchery aside, one of Fillmore’s greatest accomplishments has been establishing the Fillmore Family Foundation in her and her sister’s name.
Launched in 2003, the foundation is a registered non-profit society that raises money for other non-profit societies working in nutrition, housing, health and education. The Fillmore Foundation organizes various charity events throughout the year, but its signature event is the Prairie Fairies Fowl Supper, orchestrated by Fillmore, the board, a 16-person committee and dozens and dozens of volunteers.
The first Fowl Supper took place in 1997 in the basement of Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral, in keeping with the Prairie tradition of communal turkey dinners hosted in church and Legion halls throughout Saskatchewan to celebrate the harvest. The Fillmores just added a little spice — and a lot of sparkle.
The supper now attracts up to 800 guests, and all proceeds from its ticket sales, silent auction, liquor sales, raffle tickets and private donations go to local charities, such as A Loving Spoonful, which provides healthy meals to people living with HIV/AIDS; McLaren Housing, which gives housing subsidies to people with HIV/AIDS; CampOut and Out in Schools, which support queer youth and gay-friendly schools.
For Fillmore, it’s a matter of creating family and encouraging that family to be generous with others.
“There have been a lot of us who have been very fortunate to have so many more opportunities than others,” she says, “and it’s our responsibility to be generous with our opportunities and give others the opportunity to be generous as well.”
In addition to the annual supper, the Fillmore Foundation has also started a fund for queer seniors, to help with rent and food.
“We realize that getting older is very isolating,” Fillmore says. “You get older and people look at you like you’re an old woman.”
This year’s 14th annual Fowl Supper took place Oct 19 and ostensibly celebrated Linda’s 80th birthday. It also attracted 676 guests and generated between $65,000 and $70,000, says foundation board member Mark Trowell. To date, the event has raised approximately $510,000 for its beneficiaries.
“It was another great success,” Trowell says. “Everyone seemed to be in great spirits and having fun.”
This year also marked Maria Jackman’s first time at the supper. “I am a Prairie Fowl Supper virgin,” she says, beaming beneath the brim of her cowboy hat.
Jackman’s friends invited her to the event. “It was a last-minute thing, but I had the boots to go with the outfit,” she says, pointing proudly to her ebony cowboy boots.
“I like to support anything that supports people with AIDS and education around that,” she adds.
“It’s such an awesome event,” says Jackman’s friend Robin Toma. “She [Fillmore] just kind of feels like our momma or our auntie — you know, family.”
This year marked Toma’s sixth Fowl Supper. She says the moment she set foot in her first supper, she knew she’d be back. “What I love about it is that there’s all types of community here,” she says. “There are not a lot of events in our community that have that.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or however you identify,” Fillmore says. “You come in the door, you slap on a name tag, you grab your place mat, you run to the table and there you are.”
It’s an annual reunion, says Wayne Robert, from the Health Initiative for Men. “It’s sort of like going to Pride and you see people that sort of mark the year,” he says. “Every year you see them here and you catch up.”
Colin Craig did more than catch up with his long-time boyfriend; he offered to marry him. Onstage.
Assisted by Fillmore — who obligingly called Craig’s boyfriend to the stage and invited him to reach into her box, blindfolded, for a surprise — Craig sneaked onstage behind them and got down on one knee, to the crowd’s delight.
“I had absolutely no idea,” Derek Nordick told Xtra after the proposal. “I thought I was going up for a raffle draw!”
“We have about 25 friends here tonight, and I’ve been going to the supper for eight years,” Craig says. “All of our friends are here, so it’s like a proposal and engagement party all in one!”
Asked what Linda Fillmore means to them, Craig doesn’t hesitate. “She’s someone who brings community together,” he says.
Back onstage, everybody’s favourite auntie is alternately shooing people “the hell off” her stage, encouraging others to reach into her box, inviting guests to join her under the red light to do shots, welcoming her jellied-salad contest judges (the chamber pot won), and descending into the crowd to lead a Western dance — all with an impish smile and a wink.
“She looks as beautiful as ever,” says Lisa Martella, executive director of A Loving Spoonful. “She can make those 700-plus people in the room pay attention with the snap of her finger.”
“We raise enough money through the event annually to provide over 800 meals for men and women through A Loving Spoonful,” Martella adds. “We’re so honoured and thankful to be chosen as one of the beneficiaries of such an incredible event.”
More than a fundraiser, the annual supper has an incredible energy, Martella says.
“I’m proud that we’ve created a space where people feel comfortable to be together, where they can freely be themselves,” Fillmore says. “It’s life-changing. Once you go, you will never be the same. And I didn’t do that,” she adds. “People created that.”
“Linda Fillmore is fab! What can I say?” says Kim Stacey, executive director of McLaren Housing. “She is one in a million. Without the Fillmore Foundation, we would be looking at 20 percent less in portable housing subsidy.”
“It’s a great charitable event,” agrees Fountainhead Pub owner Michel Duprat, who sponsored all the food for this year’s supper.
“It’s important to support the community that supports us,” Duprat says. “When I first went to the event, a lot of the people who come to our pub were participants and I wanted to support them.”
A few days after the Fowl Supper, Fillmore calls me from her home in Yuma, Arizona.
“How ridiculous and crazy was that? I had a blast!” she says, before admitting that the night “seemed like a big blur” — which she chalked up to her advancing age, before I reminded her of the Jell-O shooters she shared with so many cowboys.
For Fillmore, the highlight of the evening was recognizing the many volunteers, all of whom crowded together onstage for a group shot spilling at the margins.
“It just shows that there are so many people that are involved. As they started coming up onstage I was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’” she says, laughing. “It impressed upon me how many people are involved.”
Linda may be the Fillmore matriarch, but she refuses to take credit for the event she started. “It’s not about me,” she says modestly. “It’s not really important that accolades come with the fundraising.
“I like to come in and do it and go away,” she says.
“Those who know me well, know me very well,” she adds coyly.
“Maybe the good part about it is that, maybe, I’ll be an example,” she says. “Maybe for someone else I’ll be an inspiration to do some [charity work] on their own. I’m just me,” she says. “And I happen to be around.”
As for next year, Fillmore says she has big plans for the supper’s 15th anniversary but gets tight-lipped when pressed for details.
“If I told you I’d have to kill you,” she says sweetly. “And I can’t kill you; you have a story to write.”