Dr. Gene Turgeon has helped countless patients over the years working in remote northern communities and as a dermatologist in Sault Ste. Marie.
As a vocalist, musician and songwriter performing with The Comedics - comprising several local doctors and non-medical supporters - he has assisted in raising over $2 million for the Sault’s healthcare sector through the group’s fundraiser shows.
That’s an impressive amount of money, but Turgeon, speaking to SooToday and aware the healthcare sector can always use more funding, chuckled “we want more.”
“We started in 1996 during Bon Soo. We did three songs. We’ve gone from there to being a pretty versatile band.”
Turgeon started as a keyboardist and vocalist with The Comedics before concentrating on vocals and writing his own material.
The group’s lineup has varied over the years, depending on the availability of doctors and arranging performances around their schedules, sometimes needing three or four months to organize and schedule a fundraising gig.
“We started out as musical comedy, doing song parodies and things to do with current events. One of the songs we did on our very first night in 1996 was a little song about then-Premier Mike Harris,” Turgeon said.
“It’s gentle musical comedy. It’s not the type of thing you would find at a comedy club with a lot of profanity. That’s not our style. It’s very self-deprecating humour. We're not out to make people feel bad.”
The group performs cover versions and their own material.
“Initially we started out just as musical comedy but as we got better as musicians and as we found musicians to add to the group we felt we wanted to do some serious things.”
A turning point in the group’s evolution took place in 2008 when The Comedics played with Tommy Cash - brother of country legend Johnny Cash - when he performed in the Sault to raise funds for vascular surgery equipment at Sault Area Hospital.
“Often there would be some event the same day as our show. The worst one for that was when we had a show on 9/11,” Turgeon recalled.
“What do you do? It was a physicians’ golf event which they do every year here and I kept calling the organizer during the day saying ‘I don’t think a comedy show is what we need.’ But it was Dr. John Marrack, and with his British accent, he said ‘no, that’s just what the terrorists would want us to do, to cancel it. We’re not cancelling it.’ So we went ahead with it and I think people really enjoyed it because people had been glued to the television all day watching the planes crash into the Twin Towers and people really wanted a few hours of getting away from that.”
“We had to do a couple of shows when there’s been a big shooting in the States so we started adding one or two serious songs. We often do a song by The Trews called Highway of Heroes.”
“We’ve done fundraisers for almost every healthcare entity in town,” Turgeon said.
“We’ve done them for the hospital, we’ve done them for mental health, we’ve done them for the Canadian Cancer Society, the Alzheimer Society, the Red Cross, the list goes on and on. Tracy’s Dream was one of the more recent ones we did a show for. They’ve all been for good causes in the Sault.”
In the early 2000s, the Sault Community Theatre Centre was financially struggling and The Comedics performed several fundraiser shows to help the Centre get back in the black.
The Comedics also assisted the Sault Symphony Orchestra in raising funds.
For their efforts, The Comedics won the City of Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit award in 2009.
The group also received an International Year of the Volunteer Award in 2001 from then-Sault MP Carmen Provenzano.
The Comedics can trace their roots to Dr. Brian Shamess and Dr. John Pearson, who performed a fundraiser show for The Kidney Foundation of Canada in the 1990s.
Since then, Turgeon has become the group’s frontman.
“It feels great and it’s so much fun doing it. There’s been a lot of work behind it through rehearsals and trying to schedule things but the results have been great,” Turgeon said.
“Music’s always been a part of my life and a huge part of my family’s life. Two of my siblings are professional musicians. My brother Ed is part of a group called Duo Turgeon. They’re internationally recognized as a piano duo and my sister’s a full-time piano teacher in Toronto.”
Born in Quebec City and raised in Toronto, Turgeon began his medical career as a Sioux Lookout-based doctor flying into 28 remote communities before moving to the Sault to practice medicine in 1975.
“There were 28 communities that we had to serve and only two of them had road access and when I say ‘road’ I use that word generously. We had to fly into 26 of the 28 communities and only two of those had runways at the time, so that meant for 24 of them we were going in on floats in the summer, skis in the winter and sometimes by helicopter.”
Turgeon shared memories of what he described as “a bad day at work for me.”
That bad day happened in 1975 and involved the crash landing of a Beechcraft Model 18 plane at Sioux Lookout.
Returning to Sioux Lookout after attending to the needs of a patient in Big Trout Lake, Turgeon and the aircraft’s pilot encountered rain showers, water coming through a crack in the plane’s windshield and dripping down behind its instrument panel, shorting out the electrical system.
The radio didn’t work, and the two men were unable to alert others to their predicament.
Neither did the plane’s landing gear work when it came time to land.
“When we touched down on the asphalt runway, there were deafening, loud metallic screeches, and lots of sparks and smoke on either side as the propellers, then the fuselage, hit the runway.”
“I unbelted and ran toward the door at the back of the plane, certain that the plane was soon to be engulfed in flames. Then I noticed the pilot just sitting there, uninjured but momentarily stunned. Finally, he joined me hurrying out the back door.”
“I never did get an explanation as to why the wheels didn't come down. I was given one set of the twisted props, and they sit, along with the story, at the Canadian Heritage Bushplane Centre in Sault Ste. Marie. Interestingly, a Beech 18 sits atop a pedestal in front of the museum,” Turgeon said.
Practicing medicine in the Sault beginning in 1975 proved to be a lot safer.
Turgeon worked emergency shifts for his first 20 years in the Sault, drawing on his experience in remote northern Ontario communities.
Turgeon worked as a general practitioner with additional training in dermatology, working exclusively in dermatology for his last 15 years in medicine.
“There was nobody based in the Sault in dermatology at the time.”
“There was a dermatologist in Sudbury and two in Petoskey, Michigan so if people needed a dermatologist that’s where they had to go.”
Beginning in the 1980s, Turgeon worked closely with Dr. Gary Sibbald, a Toronto dermatologist who still visits the Sault to hold monthly clinics.
Turgeon retired in 2016.
“It’s a good feeling,” Turgeon said, glad that he was able to help many local patients in dermatology.
“At times I wonder if I should’ve stayed on longer to help more but I found a great replacement for me - Dr. Wendy Wallace - so if I had not found her to take over my practice I’d probably still be working at it. I really did not want to leave my patients so when that opportunity with Dr. Wallace came up, I took it.”
In retirement, Turgeon has devoted time to two other interests apart from music - geology and gemmology - and is looking forward to the publication of a book he has written that examines the history of medicine in Sault Ste. Marie, from Indigenous healers up to the first European doctors to settle in the area.
“I gathered material on that for years and I’m getting ready to submit it for publication,” Turgeon said.
But, back to music.
Turgeon isn’t finished with helping others through musical fundraisers.
After two private shows last year, The Comedics will be presenting a public fundraiser show - for the Musical Comedy Guild of Sault Ste. Marie - beginning at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11 at Quattro Hotel & Conference Centre on Great Northern Road.
It will be the first public fundraiser show for Turgeon and the group since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“In this upcoming show I would say it’s probably two-thirds comedy and one-third non-comedy,” Turgeon said.
The Comedics lineup for 2023 is:
- Gene Turgeon (vocals)
- Bob Maloney (acoustic guitar, mandolin)
- John Pearson (acoustic guitar)
- Rob Askin (bass guitar)
- Frank Greco (keyboard)
- Fred Pelletier (percussion)
- David Simard (electric guitar, banjo)
- Denise Lacroix (acoustic guitar)
- Colette Chiarello (vocals)
- Rob Rock (lights)
- Mike Lacroix (sound)
The show is entitled Laughter & Love Songs but Turgeon said there will be "serious love songs," including Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles and The Long Black Veil by Tommy Cash.
Along with performances by The Musical Comedy Guild, Turgeon said the show will be “quite a mix.”
“Like everybody else in the arts world we’ve been shut down for a couple of years but we still have ongoing expenses,” said Louise Stephens, Musical Comedy Guild of Sault Ste. Marie president.
“Out of the blue, I received an email from Dr. Turgeon saying ‘hey what do you think about us doing a fundraiser for the Guild?’”
“I was floored. I thought ‘wow, that’s fantastic, what a generous offer.’ I’m absolutely thrilled that they would do such a lovely, generous thing,” Stephens said.
Tickets for Laughter & Love Songs are $35, available through the Sault Community Theatre Centre’s website, at the Centre’s box office in Station Mall or at the door at Quattro.