A tribute to Cal Wilson
(The author MC’ing at Cal Wilson & Chris Woods wedding, 2007)
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I’d arrived unfashionably early for the opening night party at the 1999 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I had no excuse to be late as my show was playing in the adjacent storeroom. During the festival it was known as the Lunch Room, but even that modest title exaggerated its charm. Only a thin black curtain separated the audience from retired industrial machinery & broken furniture.
The Lower Melbourne Town Hall was all but empty when I arrived. I was contemplating retreating to my dressing room to wait it out with the hydraulic ghosts & unupholstered phantoms, when Susan Provan, the festival director, tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Ah, Damian Callinan, you’re one of the responsible ones,’ she said with palpable relief. My eyes diverted to the diminutive blonde by her side. She was wearing significant trousers, complicated shoes and a generous smile. ‘This is Cal Wilson,’ Susan declared. ‘She’s over from New Zealand. You’re in charge of looking after her.’
That night, as the room swelled and then emptied again, we stayed in the corner and never left each other’s side. We found immediate common ground; improvisors who’d morphed into stand ups; devotees of Flying Nun Kiwi Indie music; an Olympic level commitment to talking nonsense and a recent history of romantic missteps. For the rest of that festival, we danced, flyered, talked drivel and became friends.
I took my ‘look after the new kid at school’ responsibility very seriously. I never stopped looking after her, and she never stopped looking after me, However, it was more often her looking after me.
Thankfully, after winning the Best Newcomer Award that year with ‘Hell Kitty’, she quickly became a festival favourite, and our friendship grew with every visit to our shores. When in 2002, we were both invited to become cast members on the Network 10 sketch show ‘Skithouse’, our dream of getting paid to talk rubbish together came true.
(Damo & Cal on the set of skithouse. Probably the best Batman/Catwoman pairing since Adam West & Julie Newmar)
(Cal’s award award winning solo show that won over the Australian audiences)
When she decided to settle permanently in Australia, I recall feeling a sense of relief that now she would always be nearby … and now cruelly, she is not.
I am far from alone in feeling the chasm of a world without Cal. For her immediate family, Chris and Digby, that must be an unimaginable void. For the rest us who were enveloped in the seemingly limitless radius of her love, we now look upon each other and see the magic she left behind. These past weeks I’ve experienced Cal Wilson levels of compassion, beauty and hilarity from within her cohort of close friends. I have lost Cal, but I have become so much closer to those she loved keenly. She is still nearby.
She was a rare gem our Cal. She glittered on all sides. Paranormally talented; effortlessly witty; meticulously prepared; infuriatingly versatile; unreservedly charming: distinctively stylish and most importantly, endlessly kind. That was the shiniest side of the gem. Very few pair such abundant talent with an equal measure of grace.
Grief and loss don’t plan ahead and block out a space in your diary, so I’ve had to continue touring these past weeks. That the show in part deals with the sudden, tragic loss of my mother, made the show even trickier to negotiate than usual. Each night I paid tribute to Cal by displaying a dedication photo and popping on one her celebrated head dresses. Subsequently, strangers were moved to talk to me about Cal after the show. I’ll outline the most commonly asked questions below, and give my typical response
Did she ever wear the same thing twice?
… Once. The skithouse wardrobe department accidentally made her wear the same dress in two different sketches.
Was she as nice off stage as she was on it?
… Yes, except for the time the skithouse wardrobe department accidentally made her wear the same dress in two different sketches.
Is it true she was holding a glue gun when she died?
… One in each hand
Is it true she had her own special language for her cats?
… Yes, it’s called ‘Spoody.’ They’re teaching it as an elective subject now at Wodonga TAFE.
Was her handbag as big as people say?
… Yes, she was able to quarantine in it during the pandemic.
( The author on stage at the Portland Arts Centre the day after Cal passed away)
Cal was a storyteller and loved stories, so it seems fitting to sum her up with a couple of my own.
It was a low key, no show, travel day on the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow. Cal was taking her first stint for the tour behind the wheel of the Tarago as we cruised along the A20 between Renmark and Waikerie in South Australia’s Riverland. I’d taken the passenger seat, so we could continue our role play of bickering parents whose fractious relationship had blown up during this disastrous holiday. Our kids of course, were the rest of the cast and crew in the back. We’d been keeping this storyline going for a few days and our travel companions had long since lost interest in who was getting custody.
Our ability to take on alternate universe realities had been finely honed on slow paced days on the set of skithouse, so we were once more relishing the opportunity to explore the layers of Don & Maureen’s imploding marriage. It’s not an exaggeration to say this particular instalment of The Sparring Stanhopes lasted over an hour. Between Monash & Barmera we thrashed out who was to blame for the swinger’s party fiasco in Glenelg. From Kingston to Wigley Flat we unpacked the fall-out from Maureen’s slow-moving affair with her Tai Chi instructor & we fought bitterly all the way to Blanchetown over whose house would be the primary residence of Alan, our pet carpet python.
Maureen was mid spray about Don flirting with Christina’s French teacher at the recent PT interviews, when Cal suddenly and surprisingly dropped character.
‘Oooohh’, she blurted, pointing at a yellow and black kangaroo warning sign. ‘What do you do if that bouncy thing happens?’ It was a sudden reminder that Cal didn’t grow up in Australia. The sign had shocked her back into the reality. I opened my mouth to give a potted version of what is the suggested advice if a ‘bouncy thing’ should appear in front of a moving car on a country road. However, no words came out, because at that precise moment, an emu ran out of the scrub on the other side of the road. It narrowly missed being hit by an oncoming car, then loomed in front of us. Its trajectory suggested it would safely pass across our path. However, for reasons only known to that emu, it chose to change direction. Rather than safely continue into the scrub on the other side of the road, it chose to make a hard 90 degree turn directly in front of us. It fell over, of course, and a bundle of legs and feathers rolled across the bitumen like a poorly drawn tumbleweed. Somehow, Cal held her nerve. She neither swerved nor used the brakes excessively. Miraculously, the emu rose to its feet and for a brief moment comically ran along beside my passenger window, before veering off into the bush to no doubt tell its friends of its brush with death.
Cal included this story in one of her festival shows, where she gave her perspective on the behaviour of one half of our coat of arms, and continued to throw Don under the bus for the swinger’s party debacle.
(Comedy Festival Roadshow 2004, Port Hedland WA - from left Charlie Pickering, the author, Rebecca Austin, Adrian Cherubim, Akmal Saleh, Cal Wilson & Justin Hamilton)
(Cal Wilson & Chris Woods, Port Hedland, WA)
The foundation of my second story bears a similar blueprint to a myriad of Cal stories I’ve heard in recent weeks. Her acts of kindness towards people in her orbit were not only plentiful, but perfectly executed. This is one such story.
As I mentioned previously, my mother died in exceptionally tragic circumstances. Our dad accidentally ran mum over. She was in a coma, but her brain injuries were non-survivable and life support was switched off after 5 days. Aside from all the other support she gave me that week, on the day of the funeral, Cal quietly slipped my sister a tupperware container full of muffins.
‘These are for the car trip to the crematorium,’ she smiled. ‘The family always miss out on the spread after the service.’
Who thinks of doing that? Cal Wilson, that’s who.
There are times when I have pondered how exhausting it must have been to be her. Thinking of ALL of the people, ALL of the time. But what an example she gave us all. These past weeks I have continued to think ‘What would Cal have done?’ in all manner of situations. So far, it’s working. Thanks to Cal, I put money in the hat of the busker outside Woolies in Colac, who was butchering ‘Bad Moon Rising’; bought 17 copies of the same edition of ‘The Big Issue’ and contributed to the crowdfund to publish the memoirs of a comedian I don’t admire.
Thanks for allowing me the space to ruminate about my dear friend. Tomorrow, I will be the MC at her private funeral and will speak at her public memorial the day after, and this has allowed me to gather my thoughts.
One last thing: If you’d like Cal’s legacy to live on, I invite you to play this game next time you are driving. When you see a signpost with the word Creek abbreviated to Ck, simply exchange the word creek for cock. Cal taught me this game on our first Comedy Festival Roadshow together in WA, and we continued to send each other Ck names thereafter. We’ve both shared this game with anyone that we tour with, and the puerile nonsense lives on as others now share their finds with me via text.
I have kept a file of our favourites. Here are some the highlights …
17 Mile Ck
Black Mans Ck
Pump Bills Ck
(Considerable Ck, WA - The Merger, Country Arts WA tour)
This is our last ever text message exchange.