There were two questions that I heard on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis when I worked at the tourist bureau in St. Peter’s as a teenager during the summer of 1992.
They were: “Where’s the St. Peter’s Canal?” And: “Are we far from Rita’s Tea Room?”
I always found the first question mystifying, because at the time, the village’s tourist bureau was located a short walk from the canal bridge, just outside of what was then known as Campbell’s Dairy Freeze and now serves customers as Jigg’s Take-Out.
But the second question made perfect sense.
By the time the early ‘90s rolled around, Rita MacNeil had gone from little-known Cape Breton troubadour to international celebrity, winning JUNO Awards, scoring regular radio airplay, and selling out concert halls across North America, the UK and Australia. So it was no surprise that the former Big Pond schoolhouse that she and her family refurbished and relaunched as Rita’s Tea Room in 1986 was suddenly a favourite stop for tourists heading through our part of Nova Scotia.
At first it blew me away when busloads of visitors from, say, Winnipeg or Edmonton wanted to see “our Rita” and the building bearing her name. But I quickly got used to it, just as I’m sure employees at the tea room got used to hearing another frequent question:
“Is Rita here today?”
Surprisingly, though, that was a reasonable question to ask. Despite her touring and recording schedule and the success of her three-season CBC-TV variety show Rita and Friends in the mid-‘90s, Rita could often be found at the tea room during its operating hours, surprising and delighting many of the visitors who wouldn’t expect the venue’s namesake to be there to shake their hand.
I even had my own such moment, in a matter of speaking, from the summer of 1989. My mother was driving me and my friend Tanya back to L’Ardoise after we had each spent a week attending Catholic youth camps sponsored by the Diocese of Antigonish in the Boisdale area. Since our trip home took us through Big Pond, we decided to make our first visit to Rita’s Tea Room.
Already impressed by the display of Rita’s various awards and memorabilia, we decided to ask if she was there, only to be told that she was upstairs, having a rest. Well, no worries there. Everybody needs to catch their breath after awhile.
Back in the parking lot, we were just about to get Mom’s car when Tanya turned around and said: “Hey, look!” And there, in the tea room’s upstairs window, was Rita MacNeil, smiling and waving to us.
I’ve had three other chances to speak to Rita since that time, one of which gave me the opportunity to finally tell her how much her music and her dedication have impacted me over the years. But that smile-through-the-window has stayed with me, nearly thirty years later.
All these memories came flooding back with the recent news that the operators of Rita’s Tea Room have decided to close the Big Pond operation, nearly six years after Rita’s passing. In a post on the business’s Facebook page, the venue’s owners – largely Rita’s own family members – announced last week that they would relocate the Rita-specific aspects of the tea room to the Charlotte Street location of The Cape Breton Fudge Company, another local success story run by the same folks.
Now, I can’t fault a hardworking group of people for wanting to make the most of the business opportunities put before them, or to make what must have been a difficult decision based on a variety of factors including the actual traffic at Rita’s Tea Room and the basic cost of running the place. And I’m sure Rita’s spirit will live on in Sydney, where she lived and gigged for many years of her life.
Still, I can’t help but feel a wave of sadness at the end of an era, not just for Big Pond – which has lost its fair share of small businesses over the years – but for Cape Breton as a whole. I know this might be a feeling rooted a little too deeply in sentimentality and my own personal Rita fandom, but I liked the idea of that symbol of Cape Breton’s arts and cultural community, and its legendary hospitality, shining like a beacon along the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake.
And, even if I hadn’t been a fan, it was honestly just a nice place to stop and have a cup of tea in the middle of a long drive around Cape Breton.
I’m sorry I didn’t get there for one last cup. But hopefully, to quote one of my favourite songs, Rita’s spirit – and her tea – will still be “Shining Strong” in downtown Sydney.