Some squab! Some squabble!
The Pigeon King, a countrified musical born and bred at the Blyth Festival, has moved after two seasons there to Ottawa, where it closes the National Arts Centre’s current English Theatre schedule, from April 24 to May 5. It’s a true story about a pigeon-peddling fraudster, an off-the-rails trial and rural people left shamed and swindled. “Get the pigeon religion,” the opening song goes, “it’s the gospel truth.” It was a lie, though – a barnyard con of the Ponzi scheme kind. Family-farm fortunes were lost and never, if you will, recouped.
The titular flim-flam feather man was Arlan Galbraith, a folksy fraudster who in the 2000s ran his bird-breeding empire from Waterloo, Ont. In an eggshell, his shady plan involved selling breeding pigeons to farmers and then buying back the offspring, which he sold to new recruits. The sham was built on the promise of a pigeon-meat boom. Baby pigeons, or squabs, are something of a delicacy.
Galbraith ran advertisements in farm-country newspapers and agricultural trades, preying on Mennonite and Amish communities in particular. “Are you looking for a way to supplement your farm income?” lured a typical ad. “Are you looking for financial freedom? Pigeon King International has the answer for you!”
In person, making his pitch to struggling farmers, Galbraith was charismatic and convincing.
“He appealed to a community who needed hope, which is what he offered,” says Gil Garratt, artistic director of the Blyth Festival and one of the cast members and creators of The Pigeon King. “The farmers had questions, but he was affable, empathetic and never made a hard sale. In spite of themselves, the people were ready to buy pigeons.”
Ponzi schemes, named after turn-of-the-20th-century Italian-American Charles Ponzi, involve the deceptive venture of paying off old investors with money collected from new ones. It’s the psychology of the ploy that is more interesting than the finance, however. Investors extend more than money – they invest faith, in a schemer often endowed with quasi-religious gifts of persuasion. Galbraith talked of saving the family farm, fostering a cult of pigeonality in the process.
“He spoke in Judeo-Christian codes that allowed people to trust, beyond their own judgment,” says Garratt, who plays Galbraith in the musical.
When the fraudster is exposed – Galbraith was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2014 – the duped feel shame, having trusted the schemer when others (and their own instincts) warned against a promise too good to be true. One woman scammed by Galbraith, according to Garratt, would hide behind a tree if she was in her yard when a neighbour drove by.
Because of that embarrassment, and because the Blyth has close ties to the farming community in southwestern Ontario, Garratt and his team proceeded carefully when creating the tone of The Pigeon King. The story is surreal and colourful, but people were hurt, emotionally as well as financially. Marriages suffered.
“We don’t shy away from the outrageousness and the absurdity,” Garratt says. "At the same time, we definitely went to tremendous lengths to honour the people who we represent. In a lot of ways, the play is a community effort.”
In creating The Pigeon King, Garratt and others interviewed prosecutors, police officers, investigative journalists (from Better Farming Magazine, which broke the story originally) and dozens of farmers. After listening to the audio of the trial (in which Galbraith spouted conspiracy theories and incapably defended himself after firing his lawyer) the Blyth team revamped the whole second act of the play to capture the courtroom audacity almost verbatim.
When The Pigeon King premiered at the Blyth in 2017, one of Galbraith’s pigeon salesmen (so oblivious to the scam that he sold $125,000 worth of bird to his own son months before the scheme collapsed) came to the play. He even brought the son. According to Garratt, they laughed at the absurdity of the story along with everyone else. For subsequent performances, the remorseful salesman drove local old-order farmers to the show in his van, resulting in full rows of theatergoers in beards and bonnets.
“It was an amazing exchange to be a part of,” Garratt says. “The Pigeon King is a signature Blyth show, in that it puts farmers front and centre. And now to take the play to a national stage, it’s an honour for us on every level.”