nside a brightly lit Bedford diner, blue poodle skirts swish in time with Carole King’s “One Fine Day.” Three singers belt out lyrics amidst a sea of red leather seats and black-and-white checkered tile. It smells like grease, and the daily special is Salisbury steak.
While the special is subject to change, the entertainment is the same Wednesday and Thursday nights at the True North Diner on Bedford Highway. Since December 2014, the TND Gang has served up song and dance from the era of Elvis Presley.
Kyle Gillis, 31, has loved 1950s music ever since he was a kid listening to P.E.I.’s oldies station. “I feel like I was born too late,” says Gillis, dressed like Danny Zuko in a white t-shirt, black pants, Converse sneakers, and aviator sunglasses.
He’s one-third of the troupe that’s drawing large crowds mostly through word of mouth. Customers, many of them regulars, come to hear songs like “Lollipop,” made famous by The Chordettes in 1958, The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” or Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Most tunes tell similar stories of love and being young. They’re soaked in an earnest innocence that’s rare to find in art these days, says Gillis.
Gillis has spent the last decade performing in and around Halifax, and studied at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria, B.C. He’s playing Shrek’s dad in Neptune Theatre’s Shrek: The Musical, and credits his gig at the diner for preparing him for the eight-week run. “This is a bit of a marathon, like we’re sort of on for three hours and we don’t stop,” he says.
At dinnertime on a recent February night, a group of four sat in a booth five rows from the front. They ordered pie and chatted with the performers, who came by with a list of trivia questions. (The group was stumped on naming all the Rat Pack members, leaving out Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford).
Charles Sellon was back for a second time, after being dragged to the front on his first visit for a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” He says there’s something special about music from that era. “The innocence made it seem like there was nothing to worry about,” he says. “We didn’t worry about things as much, maybe it was because we were younger.”
The TND Gang’s set list is more than 30 songs long, and most are under two minutes. But their simplicity belies their power. For many of the diner’s older customers, the songs transport them back in time, a journey that’s not always easy to make, says performer Renae Perry, 35.
Recently, while she was singing Shelley Fabares 1962 song “Johnny Angel,” she noticed a woman in the audience burst into tears. “I went over and I talked to her afterwards, and she said that her husband was sick in the hospital and that was their song,” says Perry.
The True North Diner is owned by the Grafton Connor Group, which also operates Halifax’s Grafton Street Dinner Theatre. Dining room manager Angie Withrow says when the new owners bought the restaurant four years ago, they wanted to replicate musical diners they’d seen in New York City. It was difficult to find servers who could also sing, so they dipped into Nova Scotia’s pool of performers.
It’s not uncommon for the restaurant to fill up mid-week on days that were traditionally slow. “It’s definitely made a difference. We definitely have more customers, better sales on those nights, repeat customers,” says Withrow. There’s talk of adding more nights, and the TND Gang performed for the first time on a weekend to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
“It’s a nice little benefit for Bedford,” says Withrow. “I mean, mostly if people are looking for entertainment they have to go all the way into Halifax, they have to pay the larger price of the dinner theatre.”
Throughout the three-hour show, Gillis, Perry, and the newest cast member Lindsey Moore leave their post near a vintage jukebox to dance around the restaurant. They pass out retro candy to kids and try to stump patrons with ’50s inspired trivia. While some guests are only there for a meal, most are potential improv partners.
“The people who come here are sort of like another character, like a lot of them tend to buy into it, and they sort of enjoy playing along with us, which helps us too. It keeps it fresh for us and it keeps us on our toes,” says Gillis.
Moore, 32, is a mother of three, who only recently started performing again after taking time off. She knew she’d love the music and the getup, complete with curled hair and saddle shoes, but she didn’t know she’d become so attached to the regulars she see’s every week. She knows their names and their favourite songs. “They’re like our people, and if they stop showing up we would wonder where they were,” she says.