It is tradition on the Prairies to hold a celebration after a successful harvest. Turkey is served and merriments had, spurred on not only by the euphoria of a job well done but also as a way of capping off the season. The fall supper, or fowl supper as they are sometimes called, may be the last time those in attendance see each other before battening down in preparation for the bitter winter.
While falling temperatures signal the end of the season here too, this year will mark the end of a longstanding tradition in Vancouver, as the Fillmore Family’s Prairie Fairies Fowl Supper draws to a close.
The family’s matriarch, Linda, says she believes the event’s biggest selling point over the years has been its wide crossover appeal, drawing everyone from 20-year-olds to folks in their 90s. According to her, gay, straight and even Australians are all welcome to eat, drink and reminisce with old friends.
In addition to its harvest spread, the supper regularly features a silent auction, performances by menopausal dancers with bustiers (the world-famous Hot Flash Hoofers), and an ever-changing festive theme, with this year’s being My Big Fat Prairie Wedding.
But the real draw — besides the knowledge that net proceeds from ticket sales and table-wide coin collections are donated to people in need — is without a doubt the event’s larger-than-life host, Linda Fillmore.
The bespectacled 83-year-old moves spryly for a woman of her age, dazzling the crowd with her singing, dancing, and not least of all with her many outfits.
“We tend to talk about costume changes which is kind of fun. There’s several that happen through the night for Linda,” says Lisa Martella, executive director of A Loving Spoonful.
Martella’s organisation provides meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Metro Vancouver, and with the Fillmore Foundation’s help, is able to provide 20,000 meals with the fowl supper’s proceeds.
Martella has been to the Fowl Supper every year for nearly a decade and never ceases to be impressed with the professionalism and painstaking care taken to keep it going.
“This group of people has been doing it so long, they’ve been doing it so well, that this event runs like a well-oiled machine — I should say like a well-oiled tractor,” Martella observes, praising the supper’s network of dedicated volunteers. “It’s incredible when you can get all those people together and it runs just as smoothly as it does.”
Looking back at the many suppers she has attended, Martella says she’s always enjoyed her time backstage with Linda before she went out to perform. Having spent so much time with her, Martella feels more than qualified to describe Linda as magnificent, poised, elegant — slightly raunchy — and as having a heart as big as her hair.
“For Linda it’s about making the world a better place, it’s about making our community more vibrant, and about supporting organizations that really get into the community,” Martella notes, adding that even though this is the last official Fillmore fowl supper, she doubts this will be the last we see of the mother hen herself.
There is only so much money to go around, no matter how successful any fundraising event is. Out of the countless foundations and charities to choose from in the Lower Mainland, it’s easy to see why the money raised at these events goes where it does, especially considering Linda’s own upbringing. A self-described small-town Prairie girl, Linda set out at the age 18 for Regina, SK in search of a beauty school and a better life for her and her sister, Doreen. But the big city was not the land of milk and honey she dreamed of, Linda says. She recalls struggling to survive, even turning to exotic dancing for a while to put food on the table. But it wasn’t long before she left the hustle behind her and headed for home.
Kim Stacey is the executive director of McLaren Housing Society, another beneficiary of funds raised at the fowl supper. Her organization helps cover the cost of rent for local individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS in Metro Vancouver. In a region where even finding a place to live is a challenge, subsidies from McLaren can be the one thing keeping whole families from homelessness.
“It’s hard when you’re dealing with all the things that can happen when you’re positive to actually hold down a full-time job, and to have a job that gives you enough money to have a decent place to live. We know how hard that now is in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland,” Stacey says.
The society typically takes home enough money from the fowl supper to provide 35-40 portable rent subsidies each year, according to Stacey. But McLaren’s executive director also point out that the benefits from these fundraisers go far beyond the money they provide.
“Some of our board members volunteer to help with the event. Some of our folks in our programs either attend or they volunteer; it really brings the community together,” she says.
Fowl suppers with Auntie Linda are never in short supply of memorable moments, Stacey says. Like clockwork each year, someone dressed as a cow emerges out of thin air, breaks out their musical saw, and plays jaunty tunes for the audience. Another that comes to mind is the jelly salad judging contest, an event that defies all comprehension, taste, and even the most valiant attempts at explanation. Stacey says seeing Linda is without a doubt her favourite part of the whole evening.
“I think Linda has contributed in a very unique way to improving the quality of life for many, many people who are living with HIV/AIDS from our perspective. That’s something that is very unique and I think it should be recognized,” Stacey says.
The event typically marks Linda’s only annual appearance in Vancouver. For the rest of the year, this do-gooder octogenarian spends her summers, winters and springs in a small trailer park in Arizona, she says.
She plays bingo on Thursdays, frequents a quaint little pub nearby called the Jerk N’ Slurp in the evenings, and admits that a day of straying off-menu from her staple of cheese sandwiches on white bread is considered an adventure.
Linda is quick to redirect any praise she receives from Martella and Stacey towards the many volunteers she says makes fundraising events like her Fowl Supper more than just a pipe dream.
“All I’ve done is to try and be someone who will be around people who want to do good together. I’m just one in a lovely group of people. I wouldn’t want to say I’ve contributed any more than any other human on earth or any of the people involved in the fowl supper. I’m just really happy to be one of them,” she says.
Linda remembers a conversation with event organizers at the Fillmore Family brain trust about the supper’s future, and being told that this year would be the last. She says she had no qualms about the decision.
Eighteen years is a long time to be involved in anything and Linda, ever the entertainer, says she wanted to go out with a bang and on her own terms at the peak of her popularity, rather than watch it slowly diminish.
“It was really quite disappointing for many of the folks who organise to imagine that this would be the last time we do it, but we all sort of got it. We’re not going away, I’m not retiring, but it’s our last big supper. We just knew that the time was now,” she says.
And that’s all without mentioning her age. Though she doesn’t look it, at 83, there is also Linda’s health to consider. “You can’t imagine how it would be if we’re a week out and I kick the bucket. You’d kind of be in trouble if you sold all your tickets and Linda’s dead. I guess you could have a wake,” she says, thinking aloud.
Linda says she has a lifetime of fond memories to look back on, none more precious than the meals and goodwill she has shared with the many people who have come to see her. Of course, there have been some hiccups and awkward moments — including one involving a trouser malfunction and a guest backstage — but the one that stands out the most to Linda was granting a wish to one of her guests some years ago.
“He was diagnosed with something and the trajectory of his life was extremely shortened and this was the last thing he wanted to do. And it’s like, ‘Of course you’re coming,’” Linda recalls. To her, the fowl supper is as popular as it is because it reminds people of where they come from and what it means to have a community. “It’s fairly rare you can walk into a room of 700 people, put on a name tag, and whoever you were before you walked in the door is kind of gone and everybody is just together.”
Whether it’s around food or around housing or giving people the opportunity to be included, Linda feels it is her responsibility to share with others what she has been lucky enough to have.
“For most of my life now I’ve had more than others,” she says, “and it’s not okay for me to not share that and not be an example for what we need to do to support each other.”
When asked if she sees herself as a shepherd or mother hen to her flock, Linda nearly spits out her stiff Long Island iced tea, before pausing. Not a mother hen, she insists. “I guess they see me as their aunt.”