Victoria's arts community mourns the loss of Joan Mans, grandmother of all fans

Years ago, soon after I started covering theatre for this newspaper, an English-accented woman started phoning me regularly.

She seemed a bit, well, odd. She demanded appraisals of the latest plays. When I suggested picking up the Times Colonist and reading reviews, the response was: "Well ... I'm not a subscriber."

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She'd ring every few weeks. Same routine. Incorrigible.

That was Joan Mans, who died late Monday night at Oak Bay Lodge. She was 85.

Mans was not an actor or a dancer. Nor was she a director or musician. Nonetheless, she was a celebrated -- and slightly notorious -- figure in this city's close-knit cultural scene. She was the arts equivalent of the sports "super fan," and it seemed she attended every cultural event in Victoria. A short, stout woman with a cropped bob, she was everywhere, always alone.

And if she collared you at a concert or a play, it was sometimes hard to get away.

Ultimately, Mans was regarded with great affection by the arts community, who in a sense adopted her. Actors and musicians invited her to parties and pub nights.

Victoria musician Brooke Maxwell, who has created a Memories of Joan Mans page on Facebook, called her "our cultural grandmother." Ian Case, the general manager of Intrepid Theatre, said yesterday: "She was kind of like everybody's eccentric granny."

Mans was so well-known, Intrepid Theatre used multiple images of her face for pop-art posters advertising the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival. Theatre SKAM, meanwhile, is creating a play about her.

Maxwell remembers Mans listening to his jazz trio at Ocean Pointe Resort every Friday and Saturday night. She would arrive with provisions in a plastic bag: cheese and bread. She would order a glass of wine and later, when the mood struck, get up and dance by herself.

Eventually, Mans and Maxwell devised a little routine. When his band played Just a Gigolo and he sang the final phrase: "Nobody cares about me!" Mans would pop out from behind a pillar and sing: "I do!" Afterward, Maxwell would drive her to her "home," Swans Brewpub (her favourite watering hole), where Mans typically stayed until closing time, chatting with patrons.

Lacking a car, she would frequently solicit rides home. Broadcaster David Lennam once found himself alone with Mans in the lobby of the Belfry after post-show drinks. Naturally, she asked for a lift.

"We ended up, like a couple of drunk teenagers, parked in front of her building talking, talking and talking and talking. Joan doing most of it ... I let the car run for a while, then turned the lights off. And then the engine. Two hours. The car windows were all steamed like we'd been making out. And for the record, we had not! It was great, though. The keen energy she had and the stories."

A small confession: In years past, upon first encountering Mans at shows, I would sometimes try to give her the slip. She could be awfully intense and our "conversations" were mostly a one-way street. Yet over time, I warmed to her. She was awfully intelligent, and her views on cultural happenings were perceptive.

Matthew Payne, the actor and director who oversees Theatre SKAM, admits to a similar reaction when he first met Mans in the mid-'90s. He and his SKAM colleague, Ami Gladstone, used to conduct a game when she approached. Payne would tell Mans that Gladstone "really wants to talk to you" or vice versa.

"And you'd watch as the other guy got cornered," he said.

The irony was that Payne, in later years, became Mans's closest friend, visiting regularly. She had no family in Victoria. After her death at 11:45 p.m., it was Payne who got the phone call three minutes after midnight. And it was he who visited her empty room this week to collect her meagre personal effects.

Among them is an old black-and-white photo of a young woman in a smart uniform. Mans had enlisted in the Women's Royal Naval Service, a.k.a. the Wrens. She told Payne that after the Second World War, she worked for the British Foreign Office. She was posted to Prague, Baghdad, Bahrain and Bangkok.

Mans did secretarial work for the Foreign Office, including typing out deciphered missives.

The details of her life, as related to Payne, are sketchy. Mans grew up in West Hartlepool, in northeast England. Her mother, Lillian, died when she was nine. Her father, Edgar, an iron and coal merchant, sent Mans to live with an aunt. She spent years in boarding schools, something Payne believes fostered her independent spirit.

Mans's maiden name was Hardy. She seems not to have been married long. Payne said Mans would, curiously, say "I don't remember" when asked her ex-husband's first name. As to why they split, she quipped: "I wasn't very good at domestic service."

She immigrated from Britain to Ottawa in 1966, doing administrative work for the federal government. Mans moved to Victoria in 1976. She was a perennial volunteer for arts organizations, and helped with the Victoria Symphony, Kaleidoscope Theatre, Pacific Opera Victoria and the Belfry Theatre.

On the Facebook memorial page, Belfry artistic director Roy Surette recalled Mans once clutching his hand.

"She said with grave intimacy, 'Why won't they let me be a volunteer usher? Is it because I fall asleep in the audience? That's a medical condition and has no reflection on the plays.' "

Belfry publicist Mark Dusseault said Mans did do volunteer work such as taking tickets. She was friendly, but if Mans didn't like a play, she'd indirectly let him know afterwards.

"She'd completely pretend I didn't exist. She wouldn't say hi. She would just sort of look at me; she'd turn away."

Although Mans appeared to have little money, she was generous when she was able. Payne recalled she once gave Theatre SKAM $75 to pay for blankets (the company often stages theatre outdoors).

At some point, Payne realized that Mans had many acquaintances but few close friends. And she had no family here. Realizing the genuine affection she had for arts folk, he decided to return it in kind.

Payne made a point of visiting regularly as Mans's health began to falter. She stopped wearing her false teeth; her memory started to slip; she was confined to a wheelchair. When Mans was no longer able to cope with her Balmoral Road apartment, he helped with a series of moves that led to Oak Bay Lodge. In recent months she had battled pneumonia.

"Joan had a fall of some kind. That fall is what did her in," Payne speculated.

The last time I saw Joan Mans, at Swans pub, she peered up at me.

"I think I know you," she finally said. "Don't I?"

"Yes, you do," I said.

And then I stopped to listen for a little while.

Note: Plans for Joan Mans's memorial service will be announced on Theatre SKAM's website: www.skam.ca.

To find the Facebook fan page, search for "Memories of Joan Mans" from your home page.

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