STATIONBREAK.CA

Alan Walker's Old Time CBC TV November 25 2019

November 25, 2019

Hello Everyone and welcome back!

First up this month is a fascinating history from Al Vitols about Jack ("Wass") Wasserman's time with CBC TV.

Jack Wasserman, after whom a block of Hornby Street was named “Wasserman’s Beat” in the wake of his untimely death, used to write negative columns for The Vancouver Sun about the CBC based on information being fed to him by someone on staff.  It got to the point where the Program Director issued a ‘top secret’ memo threatening the ‘leaker’ that when discovered he or she would be dealt with severely, possibly fired. In the next day’s column Jack was quoting from the memo.  

Eventually he told me who the ‘leak’ was. It was…  well, perhaps it better remain a secret. 

Wass first appeared on CBUT during some sort of telethon-like money raiser to present something to be auctioned.  I no longer recall what it was, but he sat on the set in Studio 42 scared out of his wits.  Not at all like his print life where he could hold his own against anyone and do so with impunity. 

He felt quite comfortable while searching for items for his column in various clubs and eateries snatching forkfuls from the plates of his column fodder to the extent that he became known as The Fastest Fork in the West.

Len Lauk, who knew Wasserman professionally, eventually convinced Jack that he should do some work for the CBC while still a columnist in the Vancouver Sun, and Jack bought the idea. After I took over Hourglass, Len told me that the only reason he got Jack to be on the show was to stop his constant knocking of the CBC.  It worked.  

At the beginning Jack was terrible, but Len persevered and Wass became a very good interviewer as well as a source of program ideas.  It wasn’t easy for him because he seldom finished his column before three in the morning in his Gastown office and didn’t get to sleep in his West Vancouver bed until somewhat later. We held program meetings at ten o’clock and he was expected to attend. He was forever sleep-deprived. 

Much later, when he was already established as an ongoing member of Hourglass and was scheduled to interview Al Johnson, the big CBC boss at the time, Al told Jack in the pre-interview specifically not to ask a certain question. On the show, when the camera red tally light went on, the first question Jack posed was that a very one. As it turned out, Johnson managed to answer it so eloquently that he forgave him and even bought us dinner.

After dinner we wound up drilling and rehearsing him for his scheduled meeting with the pushy Vancouver branch of, I think, Friends of the CBC, or Friends of Broadcasting, or some such organization, the actual reason for his trip out west. Apparently our practice session was helpful as most of the questions he faced had already been posed by Jack and me. 

Although there was supposed to be great rivalry between the Mouth that Roared - Webster, and The Fastest Fork in the West - Wasserman, that was mostly a promotion by the Vancouver Sun publicity department. There is a picture of Wasserman threatening Webster with a typewriter, all part of promoting both of them as being the Sun’s stars. In real life they trod different boards and in doing so had very little reason to be jealous of each other. Publicly, of course, they bristled at the mention of the other Jack.

Wass was developing a balding pate. He didn’t care, but it was gleaming in over-the-shoulder shots. At first we used spray to minimize the problem, but eventually that was not enough and I had him get a hairpiece. For a while he only used it when he was on camera and it was kept in makeup. Then filming (yes, there was this medium that used rolls of acetate with holes down the side to capture pictures and sound) also saw the need to hide the shine and Jack kept the ‘rug’ in his care. Eventually the on-again off-again of the hairpiece became a nuisance and Jack started to wear it all the time.  

One such occasion provided much laughter for the Hourglass staff. To do a political summary the director, and I don’t recall who it was, had Jack emerge from Lake Okanagan like a surfacing Ogopogo and while doing so his rug slipped off and floated out of camera shot. As I remember it, the director let Jack carry on for a bit as obviously he was not aware of his hair departing.  

Actually there were very few things that he refused to do. During yet another election campaign I had him chopper around the northern communities, including the Cariboo, and find out how ranchers and others living in remote communities felt about the candidates. He spotted what looked like a setting for a Currier and Ives painting and the chopper landed as close to the ranch house as the pilot dared, but still some distance away. Jack jumped out into the snow and his city shoes plowed his way to the ranch and wound up with a very interesting item.  

He and I used to grab a post-show, mid-evening bite at a steakhouse on Seymour St.  We used to go there mainly because they set a bowl of the best chopped liver, Jack’s favourite nosh, on the tables as kind of a gigantic amuse-bouche.  We would practically lick the bowl clean and sometimes ask for another.  Keeping in mind that Jack would get ‘comped’ in the place, as he did in most eateries that were hoping for a positive mention in his column, we were constantly trying for something inexpensive and we'd order hamburgers. 

One evening the owner came by and asked if we would please have steaks because his kitchen didn’t stock cheap meat and for our burgers they had to use their steak tartare, the house specialty, and the most expensive kind of beef. 

Even after years on Hourglass he had very little savvy about how things worked. After we did a special program about the similarities and differences of two native settlements, both within the shadow of a metropolis, the stand-up recorded at the intersection of Marine Drive and Taylor Way in West Vancouver was unusable because of heavy traffic noise. Not too heavy per se, but did not go with the serenity of the Cocknawaga community. 

I brought him in to lip-sync the piece and Jack was sweating blood about having to do this. The way it worked was that the original audio was fed into a headset and all he had to do is repeat himself.  When Wass found out he didn’t have to remember every word of his intro he was so relieved that he almost kissed the sound technician. 

He became very ill for a couple of days while we were in Montréal on the shoot, but his own doctor back in West Vancouver pronounced him in perfect health.  

Some weeks later during an amusing speech as he was ‘roasting’ Gordon Gibson at the Hotel Vancouver he collapsed at the lectern. The audience laughed thinking it was part of his speech about the collapse of the Liberal Party. Not so. 

Jack died while he was the centre of attraction, his ongoing aspiration. He was aged fifty, plus seven days. 

There could be more, particularly about the people who used to drop in late at night, early morning really, for a chat and a nightcap.  Politicians, union leaders, and just folk who had something to say and were hoping, perhaps, to make it into print.  The downstairs gate was locked at midnight, but a few pebbles thrown at Jack's office window, providing one knew which was his, would have Wass throw down the key. 

Not all chats were identified as ‘off the record’, some tipsy politicians blurted out state secrets, but Jack always used his own sense of what could or should not be in his column.  

He was very possessive of his spot in the paper. As I recall, it was below the fold on the back page. The time he had a fight with the publisher and got moved to inside the paper hurt his pride quite badly. Eventually he got his spot back.

And so it goes.....-30-

Thanks Al

No Icing on This Cake

Before I begin my story, a little trivia:

What is Canada's official sport?  See answer at the end of this article.  No Googling, please.

One of the tasks of the Coordinating Producers at CBC Vancouver in the '60's and '70's was to be in charge of the Control Room at 1200 West Georgia when a live hockey game was being telecast from the Forum (later the Pacific Coliseum).

Although all the main action of the telecast was handled through the CBC's TV mobile vehicle, some aspects of the telecast such as commercial inserts could only be carried out at the downtown studios.  And thus the output from the mobile truck was fed to 1200 West Georgia for appropriate inserts, and from there went out to the cross-Canada TV network, as well as to the local CBUT transmitter.

A few days before I had my first scheduled time in the Studio 50 control room for an upcoming network hockey game, I was required to have a meeting with the hotshot producer/director of network hockey games from Toronto.  "Al", he said, "I want you to know that our hockey sponsors, Imperial Oil and Esso, pay big bucks to put their commercials into our hockey games, and it's therefore important that you don't screw up when inserting commercials into the game."  "Okay", I said to myself, "Rule one is that there isn't to be any screw-ups."  Hotshot went onto say, "We're not allowed to cut away from the game when in progress to put in the commercials.  We can easily stick the commercials at the beginning or end of the game, and between periods, but all other commercials have to be inserted on the fly, without interrupting the game, and that's why a lot of commercials are "supers", ones that we can superimpose over the game.  I'll tell you when to insert them.  And", he added, "Never ever insert a commercial during a fight on the ice.  Hockey fans want to see those fights.  It's the same thing as auto racing fans want to see a giant smash-up between cars, but they never admit it."  "Rule 2", I said to myself "no commercials during fights".  On the day of the game, I was sitting nervously in the Studio 50 control room, and the hotshot director is loud in my headset.  I kept thinking of the rules, "no screw-ups and no fights in the commercials, oops, no commercials in the fights".

The first commercial I inserted before the play started went without a hitch.  Then the game started, and after a while, Hotshot calls through to me and says, "Ok, Al, stick in that Esso super after the next icing".  "Icing!", I say to myself, "What the hell is an icing?"  (Did I mention I'm from Australia?)  I looked around the control room to see which technician I would be the least embarrassed to ask what was an icing, and then I noticed a kind of pause in the hockey action so I yelled "roll film" and an Esso super appeared over the rink.  Nobody had detected my ignorance of hockey terminology, or indeed of the whole game.

Some weeks later I got around to asking one of my fellow workers, "Is there a hockey rule called frosting?"  He looked confused for a minute and then said, "Do you mean icing?".  When I said "Yes", he started to laugh so hard he couldn't answer my question.  Duh!

Later that same year I had my first opportunity to insert commercials into a CFL game being played at Empire Stadium, and sent out to the CBC network.  Once again I met with a hotshot producer/director from Toronto who specialized in network football games.  By now, being somewhat cocky because of my hockey experience, I said to him, "You'll tell me when to insert the commercials, right? And there are to be no commercials during fights."  He looked at me like I was crazy and said "What are you talking about?  We don't have fights in football games and, you tell me when you want to insert a commercial and I call through to the referee on my headset and tell him to stop the game.  Then you'll hear Ted Reynolds say "There's a time-out on the field", and after that, you stick in the commercial."  My breast billowed with the knowledge of my power over the CFL.                                                                                                                                     

Thinking back on my dumbness about hockey rules, I had this daydream about a Vancouver cameraman (who looked like Ray Waines) who was asked for some strange reason to travel to Australia to be one of the cameramen on an international cricket game.  Ray arrives in Sydney, and the first day just about kills himself crossing the road because he was looking to his left for traffic instead of the right (Australians drive on the left).  Ray sets up his camera, and then hears on his headset the director say "Ray" (it sounded more like "Ry" because of the director's Australian accent), "swing your camera around and get a medium close-up of the fielder at silly mid on".  Ray says to himself, "What the hell is "silly mid on?"  Of course, there's no point my telling Stationbreak readers where this cricket position is located, but you might be interested to know that the fielding position is so close to the batsman that the word "silly" is meaningful.

Footnote:

Years later when I was training a new coordinator on inserting commercials into a baseball game (which was a slam dunk because you simply inserted commercials after every half inning or complete inning), my trainee said to me "What period are we in?"  I smiled to myself.  I won't mention my trainee's name, but he became famous at CBC later on as a studio director because of his habit of wearing white gloves.

Hockey trivia:

In 1931 in the pre-icing days, the Boston Bruins and the New York Americans played a game that resulted in a scoreless tie, possibly because the Bruins iced the puck 87 times.

Answer To Trivia Question:

I know that hundreds of thousands of Stationbreak's readers answered "hockey".  A few thousand, fearing a trick, put "lacrosse".  The correct answer however is…the question is wrong, it should be "what ARE Canada's official sports", and the answer to that question is hockey as a winter sport, and lacrosse as a summer sport and synchronized swimming as a spring sport (I lied about synchronized swimming).  If you answered correctly, you are entitled to join the Stationbreak Hall of Fame, with its numerous non-financial and intangible benefits.

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My ability to remember song lyrics from the 60's far exceeds my ability to remember why I walked into the kitchen.

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For those few readers who are following my saga of obtaining Ten Million ($10,000,000.00) U.S. dollars from various persons in Nigeria, I can report that my bank has advised that all the money orders I mailed to cover initial expenses have been cashed.  I am beginning to think this is a scam.  I may shortly contact the Nigerian FBI.

The success of this column's future lies in your hands.  Comments would be welcome, and your contributions would be greatly appreciated.  If you have an item to add to a future column, please email me at alangwalker@gmail.com .   If you require any assistance in writing, I am happy to help.   Alan