Leonard Podolak remembers the first time he laid eyes on a real-live crankie.
A what? A crankie. It’s something Podolak — a veteran banjo player and the executive director of performance organization Home Routes / Chemin Chez Nous — had to see to believe.
He was at a folk conference in Kansas City when an old-timey, traditional folk duo called Anna and Elizabeth took the stage. As they sang in perfect harmony, one stood behind a peculiar box, with wooden spindles at the top, spanned by a piece of woven fabric that seemed to go on forever.
As they sang, they told a story with their lyrics, all while telling the same story in a different way on the fabric, decorated with images and landscapes that not only echoed the words, but enhanced them as it rolled on and as the singer turned the crank.
Podolak’s mind was blown. As a musician who’d toured since the age of 19, it wasn’t too often he saw something that totally caught him by surprise.
"The vibe that it created was phenomenal," recalls Podolak, formerly of folk-fusion band Duhks and the son of Winnipeg Folk Festival founders Mitch Podolak and Ava Kobrinsky, who were also instrumental in starting Home Routes, the West End Cultural Centre and the Children’s Festival.
So Podolak got a little bit obsessed with "crankies," which he soon realized were an old form of storytelling that didn’t go out of style at all.
The next year, he helped spearhead the Winnipeg Crankie Festival, a collaboration of Home Routes and the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church. The fourth edition will take place this weekend.
What modern enthusiasts call crankies were once known as moving panoramas, an artform originating in Europe in the 17th or 18th century, according to the Crankie Factory, a website curated by Podolak’s friend Sue Truman, a fiddler and crankie artist from Seattle.
Moving panorama shows were precursors to modern media: a moving picture in literal terms that foretold the feature film and the music video. By the mid-19th century, hundreds of travelling shows crisscrossed the U.S., U.K. and Europe, with the year 1850 — when crankies were at their peak in popularity — referred to as the panoramania era, according to Illusions in Motion by Erkki Huhtamo and the website Panoramaonview.org.
This year’s festival kicks off today, and Podolak says it will offer the widest range of programming yet — from workshops to performances.
Tonight in a 7 p.m. showcase at the West End Cultural Centre called Crankie and the Blues, an all-star slate of performers will take the stage with wholly original crankies: Burnstick, singer-visual artist Debra Lyn Neufeld, Big Dave McLean, Romi Mayes and Al Simmons, no stranger to invention.
At the same time, the Mariachi Ghost is headlining a Day of the Dead crankie show at the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, with Boogat and magician Brian Glow adding to the aura. The Mariachi Ghost performance will be livestreamed to a venue in Toronto, while Boogat’s performance in Toronto will be streamed in Winnipeg. Podolak calls it a multi-billed, multi-venue hybrid performance.Saturday night at 7, the church will host Prairie Panorama, the most ambitious undertaking in the festival’s history. The project is a creative collaboration, featuring five concerts in rural Manitoba communities with original work from local visual artists to illustrate and write original songs. Emerging artists from Flin Flon, Killarney, St. Boniface, Clearwater and Gimli were paired with mentors for the project.
The crankies were revealed in those communities, and will get another turn in the spotlight at the festival, on the main stage, which has been dubbed the Cranktuary. (For more information on performers, visit wfp.to/panorama.) The performances will also be shown on a "Crankotron" at the venue.
"You’ll have to see it to believe it," Podolak says.
Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., Scott Nolan and Glenn Buhr will perform their "Suburb Beautiful" show, featuring Paul Balcain, Gilles Fournier and Joanna Miller on saxophone, bass and drums, respectively.
"It’s a great little festival that celebrates Manitoba art," said Nolan, who’s been involved since the start. "At that first festival, a lot of the (original) folk festival people were there, and they talked about how much it felt like those first ones."
Tickets cost $20 to $35. While $35 is the recommended price, they are available on a sliding scale to make it affordable for as many as possible.
Podolak hopes that those who attend, especially first-timers, get their minds blown, just as his was the first time he saw a crankie.
He’s been in awe every time since.
Advance tickets and all festival information are available at crankiefestival.com.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.