Anyone with school-age children in Whistler is probably familiar with the work of local performer Ira Pettle. As DJ Ira, he’s been entertaining kids for over ten years at the Whistler Children’s Festival in the summer, and at family aprés events in the winter. But like many artists, Pettle saw all of his bookings evaporate when COVID-19 came to town.
Fast forward two and half years, and Pettle is now a familiar face to a lot of Whistler’s big kids as well. The debut season of his adults-only, improv / sketch / standup show, Laugh Out LIVE! was a huge success, selling out every single week of its Winter 2021-22 season.
On top of that, as if the last twelve months weren’t busy enough, Pettle is about to release his first album of original music, a collaboration with Juno award-winning singer / songwriter Norman Foote.
I caught up with him to chat about his early days as a performer, his upcoming events, and, of course, what brought him to Whistler.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For most people, it’s the outdoor sports that lure them to Whistler. You’re originally from Toronto, what made you move here?
I’d just graduated from Teacher’s College, and my best friend Ryan, who was also a teacher, called me up one day and said, Ira, after this school year I’m getting in my bus, and I’m going to the West Coast. I don’t know if I’m coming back. Do you want to come with me?
For me, it was the last hurrah. My thought was to spend these three weeks out on the west coast, dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean, then come back and start my career as a teacher. That didn’t happen.
The short version of my Whistler story is I’d met a girl while I was travelling out to BC, and she invited me to be her date at a wedding in Whistler. It was at the Hilton. And the next day, having already concluded that it wasn’t going to work out between this girl and I…
I walked to the base of the mountain, and I looked up, and this voice in my head said, You have to stay here, you have to explore this place, there’s something here.
I had everything in my car as I was living out of my car. So, that day I found a six-week sublet in Whistler, and I just started living here. The Crystal Lounge was one of the first places I went to and I met legendary local musician, Kostaman. He was the first person I met when I got here. It was karaoke night and Patrick Swayze had just died, and I sang one of the Dirty Dancing songs, maybe She’s Like the Wind. I did a tribute to Patrick Swayze, that was my first time performing in Whistler.
What was Whistler like in 2009?
It was the year of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Everything was building towards the Olympics in February. There was a crazy buzz, there were so many things happening in town, and the whole time I was thinking…
What’s missing here? In terms of a niche market that I could fill. Who could I be here?
In those early days, I saw very clearly that Whistler was this small town, but with this international platform. That really excited me. Right away I started writing Whistler the Musical, which still might happen, I have an eighty-page script and twelve songs.
You’re pretty much King of the Kids here, what kind of kid were you growing up?
I was for sure the class clown. I made my way to the principal’s office quite a bit. I was that troublesome kid who couldn’t sit still.
I remember when I was thirteen years old, we used to go to the Blue Jays baseball games, and I used to be really good at fake falling. I would fake fall down these huge staircases, with thousands of people, and get hundreds of people to gasp.
I started to play with it. I do recall really enjoying stirring the pot and creating an emotional response in people. Those were really the first signs of my inner performer beginning to manifest itself.
How did your proclivity for clowning become a passion for musical theatre?
I went to Summer Camp when I was a kid, and that was where I got my first part in a musical and I was on stage for the first time, and sang, had to learn lines and got applause. I was probably ten.
While all that was happening inside me, creatively, my parents were like; You want to be an actor? Are you crazy? You have to go to school.
So, I ended up going to University, for my parents, and then as soon as I got my degree, a Bachelor of Arts, I gave it to my Mom, and I enrolled in Second City Improv classes (in Toronto) and started really studying the things I wanted to do. Second City led to theatre school, and I studied musical theatre for a couple of years at the Randolph College For The Performing Arts. Then I got an agent, started doing plays in Toronto, got a couple of commercials…
What did you advertise?
I was in a Super Bowl commercial for the Canadian networks. It was a Subway commercial, it was hilarious. The guy wraps my sandwich and goes to hand it to me, and I say; No. No, Go long! Then in slow motion, I’m running, like it’s football. He throws the sandwich and I catch it. It was so dumb.
You have a Masters of Education. How did you end up at Teacher’s College?
It was a little bit of a safety net. I feel very much that I’m an educator. I do these classes, I work with kids and I work with adults. Education is very much part of the flavour, even in my performing.
I think a lot of it’s from Summer Camp. There’s community and education woven into everything I do. So going back to get my teaching degree felt like a good move.
What did you do to make rent during those first few years in Whistler?
When I got to Whistler I’d maxed out my credit cards. Those first six months I was a dishwasher at the Millar Creek Cafe. Then I got hired by the Whistler Children’s Centre. That was the first job where I met local families, and that’s where things started to happen for me in this town.
Eventually, I started doing the DJ Ira thing that I was doing back in Toronto, here. It was something I could do, it was something that really didn’t exist here.
The thought that I had in those very early days was that Whistler was going to be the place where I could incubate my creativity, and become the me I was meant to be for the world. There’s magic here.
What can we expect from your new album?
Imagine Jack Johnson meets Barenaked Ladies meets Raffi.
The record is going to be classified as a children’s record, but it’s by no means infantile. The music stands alone. I can just get up and sing it, like a concert, but the songs also connect to a storyline with characters, so there could also be a stage show, a mini-musical to go with it.
How did your collaboration with Norman Foote come about?
We met at a Whistler Children’s Festival, we were both performing, I was going on before him and he was the closing act. I went on and I killed it. I don’t often say that, but it was a good show! And as he comes on stage, he sorta grabs me, pulls me back on stage in front of everyone, and says, “Give it up for Ira! This guy’s awesome!” He was vibing with me, he felt the energy that my show stirred. That was the beginning of us being on the same bill a couple of times.
We stayed in touch. He reached out to me once and invited me to come open for him.
At first, I was in awe. He’s legit; he has a career, he’s a working musician. But secretly I was planning. I had this dream that I’ve been carrying with me since I was twelve, to make my own music.
So, when the pandemic hit and all my gigs dried up and I had all this free time, I thought, Ira it’s time to do this music. So I reached out to Norman, and I asked him if I could come over to his place in Vancouver and pitch him some songs.
I pitched him on about twenty songs over two days. And at the end of it, he essentially said to me, “Let’s see what we can do.” He basically called in all of his musical friends, Canadian musical legends, award-winning producers and instrumentalists, who just brought the songs to life.
You said, Whistler is magic, why do you think that is?
My answer now is different from what it was five years ago, which is different from what it was ten years ago.
So right now when I reflect on what is it, what is the magic?
Right now what it is for me, this place has so much opportunity and possibility yet to come to life. Especially in performing arts.
Rapid Fire: Ira’s Top Whistler Choices
- Cafe – Blenz
- Aprés – Stinky’s on the Stroll
- Eat in – Wild Wood Cafe (Function Junction)
- Take-out – Alpine Cafe
- Trail – “Does this look like it walks?”
- Event – Laugh out LIVE!, Whistler Writer’s Festival, Flagstop Theatre and Arts Festival
Ira Pettle’s record, A Little Bit, will be released on streaming platforms on December 30, and a release party is planned for the same day as part of the Wintersphere celebrations at the Whistler Conference Centre.
You can preview the tracks, and donate to his Kickstarter campaign, at irapettle.com
Laugh Out LIVE! will be at Wintersphere on Thursday, December 22 and Thursday, December 29. Future shows are planned as one-off residencies around town. You can sign up for the newsletter at https://subscribepage.io/tUbcMp.