Alan Walker's Old Time CBC TV May 30, 2021

Welcome back - assuming you were here before!

Regular contributor Al Vitols leads off with this interesting story about CBUT technician Ken Lowe and the invention of the immediate video playback on CBC Vancouver TV sports shows.


Much has been said and published about the instant videotape replay invention by the late Tony Verna, a US sports producer. Not to take away from his accomplishment, but his “invention” involved two adjacent Ampex two-inch videotape machines, at least one extra microwave link between the the sports venue (probably two), as well as an extra pair of communication circuits. 

The replay was achieved by using one VTR machine to record the event and then the tape guided to an adjacent machine for playback. Complex and expensive and utilizing a lot of facilities, usable only by networks that could afford to tie up a large number of facilities.  Kenny Lowe, our Vancouver maintenance technician, “invented” an instant replay system using only one VTR machine and it could be done at the venue thus eliminating multiple microwave links.  Instead of two machines his method used a tape loop on one. 

At the outset he needed to know how long the loop should be, i.e. how many seconds of playback. I was involved with sports at the time and he asked my advice. I looked at the kinescopes of three football games to see, on average, how long plays lasted. I was astonished to discover that the longest play between ball snap and dead ball was 11 seconds and that was a 90 yard (82.296 m) run. Who knew?  The decision was made to make the loop 18 seconds because it took 3 seconds to recover from synch loss after the tape splice and an extra 4 seconds of usable time ‘just in case’.

 Eventually Kenny discovered that after a number of passes the splice gap got filled with the iron oxide, the recording medium, and there was no breakup of picture at the splice. The record-to-playback disturbance was very brief and minimal, usually just one picture “roll”. It was a great system utilizing Vancouver’s VTR Cruiser's single machine. The primitive-looking but efficient plywood panel fitted with many idlers to achieve the 18 second delay was mounted on and alongside the existing tape deck and - voila! instant replay. All 'permanent' changes to equipment had to be approved and authorized by the Technical Gods in Montréal. This wasn't permanent so no permission required. 

The network was curious how lowly Vancouver could afford the complex Tony Verna’s instant replay system but it remained Vancouver’s secret until George Retzlaff, the swearing football producer, who brought “his own” main cameraman because none of Vancouver’s were “good enough”, found out when he requested our “facility” for one of his network telecasts. What was permanent, and needed authorization, was Kenny's solution to switchers' (operators, not equipment) cramping wrists and semi-dislocated fingers.  The old mobile switcher (the equipment, not the operator) was mounted vertically in order to provide space under the console for the cameras when packed to travel.

Kenny, without asking for permission or telling Montréal HQ, hinged the switcher (the equipment, not the operator), a permanent solution, so that it could be used flat on the console. A great relief for switchers (technicians, not equipment) when working lengthy shows, such as football games. Having been a switcher myself, Kenny, I thank you. The system lasted until Vancouver acquired a slo-mo disk with its human slave - Ralph Wiens.  Tony Verna got all kinds of credit whereas very few people even know that Kenny was responsible or our system. 

I first noticed Kenny at a reception held by the Chinatown Benevolent Society after an Almanac 'live' telecast from and about Vancouver's Chinatown. The Chinese are very generous people and at the after party the water glasses in which the booze was served by the staff were never allowed to be less than full.  Kenny, being small and of Asian heritage as well as having consumed the copious quantities of quaff experienced facial flushing and was cherry-blossom pink when we departed Pender Street. He and the TP, and it was hard to tell who had consumed more of the Spirit of Chinatown, drove the mobile back to 1200 West Georgia. Try as I might, I cannot recall a single occasion when Kenny screwed up. Not one. 

One other thing involving Kenny's ethnicity.  Occasionally he'd join us for lunch in Chinatown,, usually at a place that specialized in chāu-mèn, a dish featuring noodles and sprouts  Eventually I noticed that when Kenny was with us the dish was predominantly noodles, sprouts taking second place, whereas without him it was the reverse.  "Why?" I asked Kenny.  "Sprouts are much cheaper than noodles and when I'm not there you get served the less expensive dish."  

By the way, Vancouver has the largest "sproutery" on the West Coast, which, by definition, means biggest not in the Orient. They grow them in old porcelain, lion-footed bath tubs. At one time they switched to 'modern' stainless steel tanks. They didn't work out (the sprouts didn't "taste right") and by the time that was found out to be true the old tubs had been sold or destroyed and the search was on for replacements, no mean task as they numbered more than fifty.

I used to buy direct but eventually found parking on Jackson or nearby streets to be a pain...  Mind you, the difference between those directly from the 'tub' and the plastic-bagged supermarket kind is like the difference between The Mcallan and Black Velvet.


Thanks Al.

1962 – NEARLY WORLD WAR III - by Alan

In October 1962, the Soviet Union began to secretly install medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, about 90 miles from the U.S. coast.  On October 16, U.S. President John Kennedy was informed that U.S. spy plane flights (by U-2's) over Cuba had discovered the missile sites.  On October 22, President Kennedy addressed the U.S. by television, revealing the missiles' presence, and announcing a naval blockade of ships trying to enter Cuban waters carrying war material.

Professor Graham T. Allison has written:  "Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster.  We now know that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there would have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow.  The U.S. air strike and invasion that was scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response that might have led to the deaths of over 100 million Americans, and over 100 million Russians".  And no doubt a few Canadians.

Kennedy                              Castro                               Khrushchev

At the time of the crisis, I was working as a coordinating producer in the transmitter booth (Studio 50) of CBUT.  Like every informed adult, I was aware of the U.S./USSR confrontation, but didn't think for a moment that it might touch me in any direct way.  It was October 25, 1962, I had just started the night shift when the Director of Television, Hugh Palmer, came into the control room.  He looked a bit awkward, perhaps because he didn't know my name (we had worked 100 feet from each other for the past 3 years).  And then Hugh cleared his throat and said to me "Take this envelope, but don't open it unless war breaks out tonight."  Well, those words made my rectum tighten somewhat for a moment.  Hugh left without a further word.  Now, I ask everybody who may read this story, if you were me, what would you have done now?  Of course, once I knew that Hugh was safely out of the way, I opened the envelope.  It said, to the best of my recollection, "To the Coordinator on duty:  In the event that there is an outbreak of war:

1.  Arrange for the signal from CBC Radio Vancouver to be plugged into the television transmitter of CBUT so that CBC radio's output will also be the (television) station's output.

2.  Allow all the technical staff to leave work so that they may be with their families.

3.  Remain in the control room to receive further instructions."

I could hardly believe what I was reading.  I had a wife and two young children at home.  Why couldn't I go home and be with them?  And then I said to myself:  "No way.  If war breaks out, I'll see to CBC Radio being plugged into TV, but then I'm out of here."

You probably know that World War III didn't break out.

Over the years, I wondered what the "further instructions" might have been.  Would I have been asked to put the TV station back on air, considering that 100% of the technicians would have left?  What video should have been showing while the CBC radio filled the air on TV?

Looking back all these years later, I figure if the same scenario was somehow reinstated, I would do the same thing (connect CBC Radio, go home), but before leaving I would put a slide in the telecine projector and hook it up to the TV transmitter.

The slide would say "WTF".

Ray Waines 

Many readers will be aware that Ray Waines passed away a week ago.  "Mr. CBC TV Cameraman" will be sorely missed.  I knew Ray for more than 60 years. Ray was a great contributor to this column.