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The long awaited musical tribute to Ryerson’s beloved hot dog vendor reminds us that money can’t buy happiness. Chi Nguyen tells us why he traded his ivory tower office for a curbside lookout.

The audience was anxious. “Where is Ernie?” a chorus of curious voices asked last Thursday evening. But if you’re asking “Who’s Ernie?” you’re obviously new to Ryerson.

Everyone knows him as Ernie the Hot Dog vendor — the man who manned the street meat cart at Gould and Victoria streets for 25 years before retiring earlier this spring.

He is believed to be living out west with his family where he is, yes, making the people of British Columbia happy with his Ernie dogs. He may have left his cart behind at Ryerson, but his spirit returned when the university hosted a tribute to the vendor.

Hot Dog was performed in the George Vari Centre for Computing and Engineering, with admission donations going towards Ernie’s student scholarship fund.

The idea of a musical based on Ernie’s “colourful character” came to Nelles Van Loon, a former Ryerson English professor, when he met Ernie one day in the early ‘90s. The two went out for dinner and the idea that had been born 15 years ago finally happened and made it to the stage this past week.

“For a long time, we would just toy with the idea. We didn’t even know if it would make it out of my computer at all,” Van Loon said, adding that Ernie’s personality had captured his attention. “I had never met a street vendor who enjoyed his work so much, who cared about the people he interacted with.”

Ernie saw an early version of the play, which chronicles his journey from riches to relish, but he was unable to leave his B.C. cart to attend the production. Although both the real-life Ernie and his character were once corporate bigwigs and street vendors, the rest of the musical’s plot is purely fictional.

“(The musical) certainly embodies his personality, his giving nature, and his way of entertaining with his somewhat quiet nature,” Van Loon explained. “Ernie contributed to the story a lot; it wouldn’t have turned out like this without him.”

As audience members took their seats, they were welcomed by a larger than life, colourful projection of a smiling Ernie at his cart with his hands extended to hand out a hot dog.

The stage was small and simple, accommodating the band off to the right, while the cast took center stage. Van Loon played guitar and narrated. Betty Trott, Scott Moyle, Rob Prince, David Snable and Blaine Evans made up the rest of the cast, each playing multiple roles. They had been rehearsing twice a week since July.

The story begins with Ernie, a happy hot dog vendor, living with his friends Angie (Evans), Nick (Moyle) and Momma (Trott).  He considers returning to his corporate roots when Arthur the CEO (Snable) wants to buy out his stand and offers him a job. Before Ernie sold hot dogs, he was a factory top dog. A romantic relationship develops between Ernie and Susan (Trott), Arthur’s worker, who was sent to recruit Ernie.

When Ernie decides to return to the corporate world, he abandons his friends, turns corrupt and nearly ruins his relationship. He becomes enthralled by the prospect of money and struggles with whether he’s “Ernie” or “Ernest.”

A dream then opens Ernie’s eyes to what he truly wants in life: happiness. Ernie returns to the streets with the mantra that business is business, no matter how it is done.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Anne Wisniewski after the show. “It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot of heart put into it. The story flowed well, the music was lively, and the moral at the end was great.”

Hot Dog will play once more at the Canadian Musical Theatre, a non-profit organization focused on developing local musicals.

“I am hoping that Hot Dog will evolve into a professional production, but unfortunately in Canada, it usually means a very small budget,” Van Loon said. “One can only hope, but I am very happy with it. I had a ball.”

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