STATIONBREAK.CA

MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER, BY CHRIS PATON

 

 

SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2022

Guest contribution for this Best of Times issue of Magazine is Chris Paton.

 

 

 

   Chris Paton is a Producer/Director who has a wide range
   of experience in Television News and Current Affairs, Sports
   and Entertainment programming at CBC Television stations in
   Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.

 

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THE TWO JACKS

On a warm April day in 1977 reporter, columnist and TV interviewer Jack Wasserman walked into my office on what would turn out to be the last day of his life.

At the time I was Exec Producing Hourglass, the CBC’s regional television supper hour program, and Wasserman was the show’s principal interviewer. Wass worked the television show and as well continued to report and write his popular daily column for the Vancouver Sun.

That afternoon Wasserman and broadcaster journalist, Jack Webster had just come upstairs from studio 42 where they’d recorded a two-on-one interview for that night’s program. Wasserman reached behind my office door and retrieved a wardrobe bag he’d earlier left there. Soon the two men, along with 600 of Vancouver’s best known and most influential citizens, would be heading off to the Vancouver Hotel ballroom for a gala evening. The event was a “roast” to celebrate the life of long time politician, business leader and lumber baron, Gordon Gibson Sr. Wasserman and Webster were among the celebrity roasters invited to speak that night.

In my office I remember Wasserman digging into his pocket and pulling out a piece of crumpled paper. “I think I’m speaking first.” Webster reached over and took the paper out of his hand and peering over the top of his glasses, scanned the list of people lined up to provide the evening’s entertainment. “And I’m the last speaker of the night” he said to Wasserman. Then smiling he added, “they’re obviously saving the best for last.”

 

The jibe was a blink-sized glimpse at the inner workings of a relationship that had spanned 30 years. The Jacks were friends by then, but their story began more like a brawl than a brotherhood - a head-butting battle between two demanding, uncompromising, highly intelligent, competitive and street savvy reporters. It would become a friendship carved from the hard rock of fierce rivalry, ego, one-upmanship and ardent and ceaseless debate. That day in my office, I had known both of them for over a decade. I’d come to suspect that from the moment they first met, they'd most likely recognized in one another many of their own foibles and shortcomings - and sometimes they just didn't like what they saw. But with time came a grudging respect, mutual admiration, and an acceptance of their shared obsession with news stories and the reporting of same. Webster once summed it up for both of them when he wrote, “I could never stand the feeling that somewhere, something was happening and I wasn’t involved.”

They first met as working reporters at the Vancouver Sun during what is often thought of now as the golden age of the newspaper business. It was a time when the paper occupied offices in the Sun Tower on Pender Street, once the tallest building in the British Empire. For decades it dominated the City skyline. An enormous glowing orb was mounted at its peak, and underneath, a radiating red neon sign spelled out, for all the lower mainland to see,The Sun. Webster would write of that time, “it was an era that brought together a stable of writers and editors who became the who’s who of Canadian journalism.” Among the names he listed were Arnie Myers, Stanley Burke, Doug Collins, Simma Holt, Paul St. Pierre, Pierre Burton and Jack Wasserman.

At age 8 in 1935, Wasserman moved west with his family from Winnipeg to Vancouver. He went on to graduate from UBC, but his plan for a career in law fell victim to his passion for reporting, and he went to work for the Ubyssey, the University’s student newspaper. In 1949 Wass got a job at the Sun as the paper’s police reporter, a beat that opened doors to the inside workings of the entire City. He used the experience to develop contacts and friends he would value for years to come. While working on a story for another program I was producing, I met a well known Vancouver Judge. We talked about Wasserman and he said, “what the City gained in Jack as a reporter, the judiciary lost.” In his view, Wasserman had a natural inclination for the law. He was further impressed by the fairness and understanding of the people about whom he wrote, both the rich and famous, and the desperately disadvantaged. “He would have been a great lawyer. He had all the right stuff.”

Jack Webster had been reporting for the Sun since 1947, two years before Wasserman’s arrival there. He’d started the same year he emigrated to Canada with his wife and family. He was 29 then, and a seasoned reporter who 10 years before, got a job as an office boy at the Glasgow Evening Times. He had followed his older brother Sandy into the newspaper business, making the two the first white collar workers in Webster’s family of hardworking Scots craftsmen and shipbuilding engineers.

Webster went into military service during WW2, and at war’s end returned to reporting. By the time he came to Canada he had worked for three major newspapers. But he often said that the most important skill he came by was as an office boy. In that junior job at the Glasgow Evening Times he was what they called an “editorial telephonist,” taking dictation from the reporters who phoned in their stories to the paper’s City room. In order to unerringly write down their words, and better ensure a promotion later to reporter, young Webster signed up at a nearby school and learned Pittman Shorthand. It took him three months to acquire the skill, but in true Webster style, he didn’t just learn shorthand, he became a whiz at it. To practice what he learned, he would go to church on Sunday, sit in the balcony and take down the minister’s sermon in shorthand. Then he’d go home and read it all back to his parents. Throughout his life it was a talent that amazed, and often terrified many less than honest individuals - the ones who attempted to deny their own statements and public promises, only to have them read back on the air, and word for word.

I met Webster in 1966, when he became the west coast correspondent for the program This Hour Has Seven Days. I was a production assistant then, assigned to accompany him on his location shoots. I also worked the floor on his studio interviews. At our first encounter Webster sat across the desk from me, leaning hard on his elbow, just as he did when talking to callers on his radio show. “Well then Chrissie Paton” he growled, “tell me where your people came from?” I offered up the Glasgow address of my paternal family. From that information Jack quickly figured where my Dad, Jim Paton, was born and lived in relation to Webster's own family home. At that moment, Webster’s eyes twinkled, his face softened and the growling stopped. 

The CBC network legal department used to insist that production people get signed release forms in order to cover the use of any man-on-the-street interview footage. Getting those signatures was my major responsibility on location jobs. Jack and my own first Seven Days shoot together happened on a wet winter night in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I don’t remember the streeter interview topic, but I do remember the people who came out of the old hotels and shabby boarding houses to meet Jack. By then he was already a popular talk show host on CKNW, and a fast rising national celebrity. In his early days reporting stories from the underbelly of Glasgow's horrific slums, he’d developed an understanding of the kind of misery so many people are born into and never manage to escape. Webster was gruff and demanding by nature, but that night in the wet and cold of the Downtown east side, I saw that understanding reflected in the respect and patience with which he treated the people in the street. It would be something that showed up in the character of both the Jacks, Webster and Wasserman - something I grew to greatly admire. When we wrapped the shoot the two of us and the cameraman took refuge from the rain in the old White Lunch cafe on Hastings Street. Shortly after the coffee arrived, so did Wasserman. That was my first meeting with Wass. By that time in the 60s, the hostility between Webster and Was had mellowed. They'd become friends, and each others most trusted source of information. Together throughout the years, and with the skill and skepticism of professional journalists, they’d covered the whole enchilada - robberies, rapes, political trials and murders. In separate incidents, both Jacks had been involved in life threatening situations. In 1963 Webster got a call from the BC Pen warden, telling him that rioting inmates wanted him to come inside the prison to negotiate for them. He went and later succeeded in bringing the violent dispute to an end. And in 1972, in a similar situation, Wasserman found himself at knifepoint inside Okalla, bargaining successfully for the release of a woman hostage.

Those years of shared experiences formed a trust between them. In regular, sometimes daily get-togethers they compared and checked out each others information, separating gossip and rumors from truth. It was a unique 24 hour a day operation. Webster owned the daytime, and picked up a lot of information from people who dropped by his radio studio. The nightshift belonged to Wasserman whose beat was downtown clubs and restaurants where he'd scout out stories, and what he called “items” for his daily newspaper column. When instinct told Wasserman he had what he needed, he’d return to his office, write the column and file it via a taxi delivery to the Sun offices. Only then would he head home to bed for a few hours. On any given day, between the two of them, Webster and Wasserman knew more about what made the town tick than the entire City Hall assembly.

Work soaked up the lives and energy of both men, and what precious little was left over was for family. It was a hard way to live. Exercise for exercise sake was alien to both of them. But to be fair in those days it was equally alien to most of the business world. From time to time the two would play golf together and walking the links was about as good as it got. Golf was another area where the competition between the two heated up. In his autobiography, Webster wrote about those days on the course. “He was a terrible golfer” wrote Webster, “he hit the ball either 200 yards or 200 inches. There were no half measures. It was the same with his putting. One afternoon at the Vancouver Golf Club, I was in the sand trap to the side and out of sight. I pitched the ball out to within two inches of the pin. His reaction was instantaneous and he called out to his partner, “check Webster’s fingernails for sand.” He had that kind of quick and devastating wit.”

Wass's ability to cope with office tools was worse than his golf game. He was an astoundingly bright individual, but the problem lay in the fact that he had not one iota of patience with things mechanical. Wasserman’s frustrations were well known to me as I often learned about them in conversations with his assistant, Bruce Galt. Bruce was a brilliant young man who after working with Jack, came on board with the Hourglass unit. Later he was snatched up as Manager of CTV’s Ottawa News Bureau.

Once on an early morning call to Wass's office, I got Bruce on the phone just minutes after he'd unlocked Wasserman's office door to start his work day. A couple of hours before his arrival, Wasserman had filed his column and gone home to bed. What Bruce saw when he opened the door stopped him in his tracks. Streamers of both new and used typewriter ribbon hung from everything in the vicinity of Jack’s chair and desk. Like some grisly crime scene that police had just dusted for evidence, inky red and black smears and fingerprints covered the surfaces of the tables, the lamps, coffee pot, and mugs. "What happened?" I asked. "Well either there’s been a murder in the office, or Jack attempted to change his typewriter ribbon again. I'll call back and let you know which."

Webster was somewhat more mechanically inclined than Wasserman and somewhere along the line he'd developed an appreciation of country living. In the mid 70s, I was in Victoria with Webster working on an interview. We finished early, and he said he wanted to buy something for his newly purchased farm on Salt Spring Island. He asked if I’d like to go along. Together we took a taxi to a farm machinery store. Once there, he opened the car door and said to me, “come on inside and have a wee look.” We got out, and asked the taxi driver to wait. Inside the place Jack pointed to an enormous yellow backhoe, and glowing with pride said, “It’s mine. What do you think of it?” I had no idea what I was looking at. Jack was obviously excited. “Come on then, tell me, what do you think of it?” I came up with the best I could manage. “I think we’ll need a bigger taxi.” He would often remind me of that day and laugh all over again.

On April 6th 1977, I wished both the Jacks good luck and sent them away up Georgia Street to the Hotel Vancouver. The CBC mobile was set up outside the hotel as the evening gala was to be videotaped and edited for later telecast. While 600 people watched, laughed and applauded, Wass got the night’s roast off to a great start. He was building to a punch line on one of his last jokes when he suddenly pitched forward and then fell back, disappearing behind the microphones and podium. Even while the audience believed it to be part of the joke, three doctors who were guests knew immediately what was happening, rushed to the stage and started CPR. An ambulance arrived and Webster, along with two other of Jack’s close friends, then CBC Regional Director Len Lauk and Producer Al Vitols took off following it to the hospital. From the hospital Len went to Jack's home to get Pat, Jack’s wife. It didn’t take long for word to come from the ER Doctors. As Webster would say later that week, he didn’t need to be told at the hospital - he knew Jack was gone as soon as he saw and heard him fall. They had been best friends, often pivotal friends, supporting each other through the best of times and the most tragic. Wasserman was just 50 and Webster 59. It was a loss from which Webster would never really fully recover.

Television is a silly business in a whole lot of ways. For openers, it's dependent on a squad of people with various talents coming together, and mind-melding to make concrete nothing more than the thin air of an idea. Outcomes can only truly be successful if every person in the crew, no matter what their job or expertise, shows up and brings their very best game. Working long hours, sharing successes and disasters, it can all make the loss of someone who’s been part of a unit, akin to the loss of a family member. But in the running of a daily television news program, the mourning period falls short. Quite literally, that old chestnut about the show must go on, is true in the daily news business. Jack died on a Wednesday. The next day he was the headline in both City Newspapers and every radio and TV station. “Jack Wasserman’s Death Stuns Gathering” the Sun headline read. Before the weekend, it would be two full working days with a group of people who had no choice but to handle the very public and shocking death of a cherished friend as a news story.

In keeping with Jack’s wishes a funeral took place, as did his cremation. Jack's wife asked another friend, Vancouver Theatre impresario Hugh Pickett, as well as Webster and Len Lauk, to take care of a plan for his ashes. As a young boy, Wass sold programs for performances of the shows at Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl. He’d loved the shows and often told friends he thought of those times in his life as some of the happiest. And so it was decided to quietly hold a small ceremony with Jack's closest friends in attendance, and scatter his ashes just outside Malkin Bowl. A dozen or so of Jack’s friends were notified and arrangements were made.

During that week I'd come to fully understand just how lucky I was to be working in the company of such an exceptional group of people. Somehow together we managed to get through the fog of those days. A mainstay in our midst was Sharon Bartlett, the show’s producer. Some years later Sharon would become a producer of award-winning documentaries for the network program, The Journal. And still later, in partnership with broadcaster Maria LeRose, they would form the documentary team, Bartlett LeRose Productions. But that week in 1977 Sharon was one of the program's mainstays, doing what needed to be done to get the show to air, and help rally an office full of waning spirits.

The day we were scheduled to meet in the Park, Len Lauk, looking weary and frustrated, arrived in front of the CBC building behind the wheel of a loaner automobile from a garage that was repairing his own car. He opened the doors to what I remember was a dark green 70’s muscle car of some sort, with an enormous, terrifying looking bird painted in metallic gold and silver on its hood. I got in the front seat, and Sharon and Bruce Galt climbed in the back. The plan was to pick up Jack Webster who was still on the air at his Gastown radio studio, and take him along with us to the Park.

As we sat in the driveway, Len pushed back and forth adjusting the car seat and loudly complaining about the ugly automobile. Finally Sharon leaned forward from the back seat and in an effort to reassure him said, “Len, it’s not so bad.” Then she reached between the bucket seats and patted a paper bag in the well of the car's console. “See? It’s even got a place for your lunch.” Len looked over his shoulder at her and said, “Sharon, that’s Jack.” There was perhaps three seconds of silence, and then laughter - a lot of laughter.

We arrived at Webster's radio studio, and while he was in a commercial break Len told him about the muscle car and Sharon’s observations. The story had the same effect on Webster as it had on the rest of us, laughter breaking through the awful grief and sadness we'd carried around for days. Webster managed to gain control in time to sign off his show and the five of us headed to Stanley Park, taking Wass to his final resting place among the rose bushes at Malkin Bowl. After the ceremony, the group headed for a glass of wine and an impromptu wake. During the short service, I'd thought about Wass and imagined his presence. I pictured him standing near the group of us, watching the proceedings and writing them up as “items” in his ever present black pocket notebook. As we walked to the car, I looked at my watch. It was just 3 in the afternoon. I said to Webster, “Wass would have so many terrific items from this day, he’d be able to write his column early and take the night off. “No chance,” said Webster, “he’d never miss out on the wake.”

From that day on, whenever we met up, Webster always found a way to bring the conversation back around to his thoughts about giving up and retiring to his farm. But he never got the chance. The following year in 1978, he was offered a challenge he couldn't refuse - his own Vancouver based, one man television morning talk show. He took the job at BCTV and every weekday morning for the next eight years he would famously hit the air "at 9am preee-cisely.” Webster finally retired in 1987. He died 12 years later on March 2, 1999, at age 80.

The two Jacks were originals, both as great reporters and as human beings. They have easily stayed on my mind for all these years. Writing this retrospective I imagined both of them sitting at duelling typewriters in a newsroom in the sky. At the end of each day I felt them checking my copy, bickering about quotes, arguing about all the dates and places, about who said what to whom, and when they'd said it. I knew the minute I started to write this story that in the end, when it was finished and I was ready to file the piece with Peggy, the two Jacks, glasses of good scotch in hand, would be counting the words and arguing about which one of them wound up with more column inches.

.....Some things never change..... 

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The Nice Show

   One night on stage at the Penthouse, one of Vancouver’s most infamous nightclubs,
   actor, writer and comedian Jackson Davies introduced a new TV sketch character
   to the comedy program Nice Show. He named the character Benny. Over the run
   of the series, Benny took on many personalities, but on this night he was Benny the
   Great, a magician getting ready to perform his most amazing feat. It was a scene 
   Jackson had written as a cold opening tease for the top of the hour-long show.

   Standing behind a table Benny produced a magician’s top-hat and then held a live
   rabbit up to the audience. In a voice that can best be described as Marlon Brando doing Don Corleone, he said, “o.k. first thing I gonna do is cut this bunny in half. Then I gonna put him back together again.” He put the bunny in the hat, then picked up a lumberjack sized chainsaw, and dramatically yanked the chord, starting the motor. The audience gasped. Jackson proceeded to cut not only the hat in half, but in the battle to control the saw, he cut the entire table in half, barely missing the props person underneath who was responsible for hiding and holding the bunny. The camera moved in to Jackson’s face as he raised an eyebrow and then looked down at where the hat and table had just disintegrated in a shower of sawdust. After much applause and laughter he looked up at the camera and said, “o.k. sometimes the magic works, and sometimes you cut your bunny in half.” Opening titles rolled and the show started.

Nice Show was slotted at 10 pm, outside the family hour, so we felt fairly comfortable with the tone of the material, but that particular Saturday when the show aired the switchboard was swamped with calls about the CBC program that had telecast a “brutal bunny slaying." By Tuesday the wonderful Norma Burrows, our script assistant, was in my office telling me “the switchboard operators are complaining that people are still calling, so would we please put the bunny back together on next week's show.” The callers were being told it was just a TV trick, and the bunny was still in the land of the living, but the explanation wasn’t good enough. So to remedy the situation Norma and I went to the VTR editing suite and located the moment in the show tape when Jackson held up the bunny and then lowered it into the hat. Then we ran that moment through the vintage VTR editing slo-motion disc, the machine that in the late 70s was the technical gizmo primarily used by the sports department for action replays. That machine made it possible to run the bunny back and forth, and then finally see him come up out of the hat, completely intact and unblemished. We played it as an insert in the following week's show and to reinforce the point, we froze the last frame of the rescued bunny and supered a graphic that read, “no animals were injured or killed in the making of this program.”

The idea of a comedy show began in the late 1970s when BC Regional management wanted to find a way to showcase local performers in a mix of sketch comedy and music. Put those elements together, and no matter how it was formatted, the show came off looking like the extremely shabby cousin to NBC’s bright and shiny Saturday Night Live. Unlike SNLNice Show had to be produced in a remote location so as not to tie up the then constantly busy Hamilton Street studio 40. At that moment in time, the Penthouse Nightclub, a notoriously seedy old strip joint, was closed down while the owners were in court fighting legal problems. While the place had a dubious reputation, in most other ways it was workable enough to allow us to get the show up and running. The location had easy downtown access for audiences, loads of tables and chairs, and enough space for sketch performances, musical guests and bands. Unfortunately, in an effort to explain why the show was being taped in this particular and most unlikely place, I went ahead with one of the worse program titles in the history of television....“What’s a Nice Show Like You doing in a Place Like This?” We never showed the exterior of the building, so in reality nobody knew or cared that the show was coming from the City’s oldest strip club. In the end the far too wordy title became the awkward and insipid short form, Nice Show.

The title made even less sense when for the second season the show moved to a warehouse on Granville Island. In that wonderful and at the time recently redeveloped area of Vancouver, there was a big farmers market, the Emily Carr art school, craft shops, theaters and galleries. The production took off and began to thrive. On show nights audiences lined up to get in. The design and technical crews had a space big enough and ceilings high enough to allow them to do their best work, and they did. The cast bonded into a strong ensemble that included actor and writer Jackson Davies, Writer-Performer, Bob Robertson, Radio Personality, Rick Honey, Writer- Performer David King, Performers Fran Gebhard and Dorothy-Ann Haug, Performer-Musician Charles Gray and a terrific all star house band, all of it supported by professionals who weekly performed miracles. They were Gordon Gill, directing the hour, Studio Director Gary Johnson, Script Assistants Norma Burrows and Terry Barr, Business Manager Paddy Moore, Costume Designer Pat Abercrombie, Designer David Croal, Key Makeup Artist Maurice Parkhurst, Technical Producer Jim O'Brien, Lighting Director Amir Mohammed, Audio Director Marv Coulthard, Camera crew: Ray Waines, Jack Bell, Bill Lawton and Martin Corley, Switcher Bob Reid, Video Operator George Jones, VTR operator Bruce Johnston and season two Business and Location Manager Maurice Moses. The show launched in 1979 and lasted for 26 episodes, running Saturday nights on all the stations that formed the CBC regional network.

There's seldom any disagreement with the idea that comedy is never easy - not easy to write, not easy to perform, not easy to stage. But the production began to come together. It started to attract writers whose work was original and contemporary. The performers began to feel comfortable with each other, and with the crew. The old warehouse worked as if it had been custom built for us. But at the end of season two, it was suddenly all over. It is almost never just one wrench in the works that ends a series. Nice Show was no exception. But in this case there were so many wrenches, we could have opened a garage. 

So it might make sense that throughout the intervening years I’ve come to think of that punchline to Jackson’s Bunny sketch - “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes you cut your bunny in half” as a near perfect simile for the bumpy road along the way to producing any kind of television programming. In fact for every kind of creative endeavour, and for every person trying to make palpable the thin air of ideas there is, and always will be, a long and wide wake of truncated bunnies…. 

                           

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"WHEN AN AUDITION WAS JUST AN AUDITION”

It was early Spring of 1964 and the end of a long day of auditions at the 1200 West Georgia building. Our mission was to find young new performers, primarily singers and musicians, for a brand new pop music show tentatively titled Let's Go!

In studio 41 where the auditions took place, there were a couple of spotlights over a performance area, and two more spots further back over a long table set up for the production unit. During the day CFUN DJs Fred Latremouille and Red Robinson dropped by on and off, as did veteran Vancouver Sun Music columnist Bob Smith. The day had been so long that the studio was hot and stuffy. Paper coffee cups and ashtrays littered the table and cigarette smoke drifted through vertical shafts of light. At the table Producer Ain Soodor, Floor Director Al VitolsBob Smith and I all sat quietly numbed by the sheer number of candidates we'd seen in the last couple of days, and by the dispiriting fact that among all of them, we hadn't discovered even one young performer of the talent and style we were so hoping to find.

The session audition pianist was musician, composer and veteran band leader, Doug Parker. I still remember him sitting just to the side of the studio performance area at a grand piano and at the end of the long day standing, stretching and saying to no one in particular, "Why don't you guys bring the cameras in here and just videotape these auditions. That would make a heck of a show all on its own." And there it was, Eureka! The very core of an idea that 4 decades later would blossom into a billion dollar concept called Britain's Got Talent, followed by the whoppingly popular series American Idol. Simon Cowell, the producer who would some day be credited with that format idea, was at that very moment in time, 5 years old.

But in 1964, an audition was still just an audition. It came with no promise of recording contracts, riches or overnight fame - just the possibility of a gig on a new TV program. The comment about making a show out of the auditions was actually Doug being sarcastic. Earlier he'd stepped aside to allow an auditioning woman singer to accompany herself on the piano. It didn't end well. In a voice so grating that by comparison fingernail scrapings on a blackboard would have seemed more musical, the woman caterwauled her way through a dozen repetitive, dirge-like choruses of the song Oh Mein Pa Pa. Each time she ended a chorus, we would all stand up as a group to bid her farewell, but she'd ignore us all and launch into yet another chorus of the song. We were a row of human yo-yos, standing and sitting, until in total desperation we swarmed the piano like some weird police tactical team, all mumbling thank you while herding her out of the studio door. At the end of the days session the word despondent doesn't half cover the feeling that hung over the studio.

This day was one of the few when Producer Soodor took off his dark navy blue suit jacket. He always wore a never varying pale blue broadcloth button-down shirt. He must have had a closet full of them. Sometimes, like this day, he had twice carefully rolled back each shirt sleeve. Ain was a man of meticulous habits in every aspect of his office life. On his desk in the production office at the corner of Bute and Alberni, there was always a jug of perfectly sharpened, equal-length yellow 2-B pencils, and a piece of art gum eraser. An ever lengthening list of misspelled examples of his own name, which he would cut from incoming envelopes and letters, were pasted in a vertical column on his office door - like Ain himself, his name puzzled a lot of people.

Not many colleagues would argue with a suggestion that Ain wasn't an easy guy to work with. But as a director the man had an undeniably fine eye for television images. He saw pictures and imagined moving and flowing shot transitions, sequences that were often magical. Over the years I've come to understand that of all the directors I worked with as a production assistant, I learned more about shooting television programs from Ain than anyone else. During my years directing, I tried to apply many of those things I learned to my own work, and when occasionally I managed to pull off something that looked remotely similar, I'd remember him and be grateful. One of the techniques I picked up on was in the way he marked scripts. Ain used a clean and clear shorthand layout with symbols always marked exactly where in the music he intended things to happen. )( for dissolve, // for a cut, PR, for pan right and PL left, XCU for tight closeups, MWS, medium wide, XWS for big wide shots. Those big wide shots were difficult to achieve in old studio 41 because the ceiling was so low that the grid and lights couldn't be hidden and easily dangled in the top of the framed shot. At one time, Ain collaborated with the brilliant veteran lighting director Jim Ellis and the two found a way around the problem for programs in one of Ain's most unique series. That series, just like the studio, was titled Studio 41. Ain and Jim turned the grid and the big metal hooded lights into a signature west coast look by purposely not hiding them, but rather making them elements of the moody design style of the shows. As Vancouver's very first lighting director, Jim Ellis will be remembered as the man after whom the lighting dock area in the back corner of studio 41 was named. For as long as 1200 West Georgia was the location of CBC television, Ellisville was the name printed on thousands of copies of the 41 floor plans used by every working designer and technician in the place.

Ain was a great lover of Jazz and the show Studio 41 became one of his best and most memorable series. It featured artists such as the renowned Jazz sax player Stan Getz, guitarist Wes Montgomery, the MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet), the brilliant Vancouver pianist Chris Gage and his trioDon Thompson on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums. Ain also did a number of specials, one in particular in 1963 with jazz vocalist, Ken Coleman and Ray Sikora's big band. That production was so large Ain and the technical department wired two studios together in order to produce it. Sikora and the orchestra, including an amazing string section, worked wall to wall in studio 42, while the singers and dancers performed in studio 41. That same year, there were special projects done under the Studio 41 show umbrella, one with Canadian singer, Shirley Harmer and another with Della Reese. Now flash forward to 1964 and we are once again in Studio 41, but this time searching for exciting young talent for the brand new series Let’s Go! - a pop music show to be produced and directed by Ain Soodor, a man who wasn’t keen about Pop Music. With 20-20 hindsight, safe to say this wasn’t going to be a happy marriage. 

On both CBC TV and radio, there were promo spots calling for people to contact the CBC for an audition. Plus the CBC we had on-air promotional help from CFUN and DJ Fred Latremouille, soon to be one of the shows's hosts, and an enthusiastic Red Robinson who would later follow Fred in the hosting role. Under the guidance of the CBC auditions department, then run by Hilda Wilson, we'd scheduled about 10 days to audition candidates. In an example of just how seriously the CBC took its role to serve and be ever responsive to all the people of Canada, General Audition days were scheduled regularly throughout the year. Those days would include performers of every variety who simply phoned the CBC offices and asked to come in and be adjudicated. Hilda booked them in, adding names to the a list and then sending out a memo about dates and times to all the producers, asking them to adjudicate and write a short synopsis for her files. I once asked her who would a person have to be in order to get an audition. She said "a taxpayer with a Canadian passport." I thought she was joking, but later found out that her reply was a simplified version of the truth.

Even though all the promos and ads stressed that we were interested in finding singers and bands of a young age, specifically performers who could represent a new generation of talent, the request fell on deaf ears. The 30 or so people who trouped through the studio on a daily basis included not just rock bands, but western bands, and even a German Oompha Band. Unlike the very specific program casting calls that routinely happen in present day television, in early CBC history there was only the Audition Department and the general category audition adjudications. But as the days went by, things began to pick up. Between the many performers who didn't fit the bill, came some wonderful entertainers who did.

At some point, a young woman named Gillian Russell came through the door, shyly gave her music to Doug Parker and began to sing. Ears perked up. I think the song was On Broadway, the 1963 Drifters hit tune. In days to come we'd be equally happy to find singer, Susan Pesklevits (Jacks) who Al Vitols and I both think, sang the Gail Garnett hit, We'll Sing in the Sunshine. Susan would later become half of the Poppy Family with husband Terry Jacks. During one of those brighter days, we were also delighted to find singer, Mike Campbell. And finally, hot on the heels of yet another not-ready-for-TV rock band who crashed their way through way too many choruses of the tune Watermelon Man, finally the studio doors blew open and in walked pianist Tom Baird, sax player Claire Lawrence, guitarists Glenn Miller and Brian Russell, drummer Gary Taylor and vocalist and trombone player Howie Vickers. They were the Classics, such a stand out group of musicians we knew we'd stuck gold and found the official Let's Go! show band.

And so right on schedule on July 17,1964 the auditions were over and Let's Go! was finally up and running with hosts Fred Latremouille and Randi Conlin and a fresh faced cast of wonderful and enthusiastic young performers. On air it looked like a lot of fun, but behind the scenes, not so much.

As usual to his credit, Ain worked hard and was brilliant at shot plotting and calling cameras in the control room. But on the studio floor, instead of connecting and working with the young performers, he could be brutal in delivering direction. At first I took Ain's behavior as an approach adopted from a European theatre background in which he had apparently trained as a director. It's called the Stanislavski method. But as he was often reminded by older members of the unit, the cast were all young singers and musicians new to television, and performing in a bright and breezy musical show, not actors in a Russian melodrama. There was even a time when, from the control room and bypassing the floor director, Ain opened the talk-back key to the studio loudspeaker and reprimanded a young singer in front of the entire cast and crew. In response, some crew members abandoned their headsets in anger over the treatment. 1964 was still part of an era in television in which abusive behaviour by producers, directors and highly paid star performers prevailed, often under the guise of "artistic" temperament. I like to think that today’s world is more enlightened and there would be a quick intervention. But I'm not confident that would now be a certainty.

One night in the middle of a show taping, Ain gasped in pain, and crumpled over in his chair. There was no mistaking the fact that he was in terrible pain. We later found out he had a bleeding ulcer. If a director went down ill In the middle of most productions, the show would have come to an immediate halt. But this show had a large cast, and stopping tape and starting the show again would have cost considerable overtime for musicians, performers and crew. The rule was in a situation like this one, a production assistant would take over and continue. So that night someone, I have no idea who, got a near unconscious Ain out of the control room and I slipped into his chair to finish the show that he'd started. It was an occasion when Ain's neat freak habits paid off big time. As usual he'd clearly marked his script in exactly the places where he wanted shot changes. With the superb A-team crew that included Ali Beheshti switching cameras, Al Vitols directing performers on the studio floor, audio director Nelson Smith and camera crew Ray Waines, Bruce McDonald and Gene Baedak, all of them doing what they always did brilliantly, we successfully finished the session.

Ain recovered, leaving some of us to wonder if the ulcers might have contributed to his behaviour with the cast that summer. We'll never know. In the fog of time it's not clear exactly how much longer Ain continued as producer-director, but eventually moved on to the nightly current affairs program The 7 O'Clock Show. From Vancouver Ain moved to CBC Toronto, working on the network daytime show Take Thirty.  From 1975 to 1978 he was that programs' Executive Producer. Later still, he became a teacher at York University, hopefully leaving everything he knew about Stanislavski at home.

That September of 1964 Let's Go! became part of the series of network programs, telecast at 5:30 weeknights and originating from 5 regions under the umbrella title of Music Hop. When Ain departed, Al Vitols came on board as the producer/director. Al was as skillful as Ain in the control room, and had a great gift for encouraging the very best work out of both cast and crew. I moved off to work in the current affairs and news areas, and Patsy MacDonald (Gill) took over as Script Assistant, also a welcome addition to the series.

Al was carrying a large workload with the music show as well as a full time assignment producing sports projects. Something had to go. Al chose the job with the sports department. In 1967 Ken Gibson took over as the music show's Producer/Director. With his appreciation of the era, understanding of the influence of the British Music Invasion and other major impacts on the evolving 60's music scene, Vancouver's Let's Go! grew into the popular and fun production it was always meant to be.

                 

L to R: Mike Campbell, Gillian Russell, Red Robinson, Ain Soodor.

 

The Classics l to r: Gary Taylor, Claire Lawrence, Glenn Miller, Howie Vickers, Brian Russell, Tom Baird.

       

 LEFT L to R: Doug Edwards, Ross Turney, Bob Buckley, Claire Lawrence, Terry Frewer and Howie Vickers centre floor.

FAR RIGHT L to R: Red Robinson, Howie Vickers, Susan Pesklevits, Tom Northcott

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THE WHEELS ON THE TRUCK GO ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND

In 1965 CBC network viewers were watching a program in a series titled Vacation Time. This episode was about the sights to be seen and experiences to be had during a spring day in Stanley Park. The program was in black and white, but still pretty and visually bright enough that a person could imagine the pink color of the cherry blossoms and scent of saltwater air wafting in from the Pacific ocean. 

In the CBC Toronto Master Control Room the operator sat quietly checking the logs that listed upcoming commercial breaks and programs. Near the end of the hourlong program a 1000Hz standard audio tone caused him to look up at his on-air monitor. What he saw brought him out of his chair like a rocket. A full screen “Trouble Temporary, Do Not Adjust Your Television Set” graphic had materialized out of nowhere, accompanied by the shrill audio tone in the background. There was no program trouble, and even if there was, he was the one who was supposed to call up the slide. The operator slapped open all his talkback keys, wildly trying to find out who put the slide up when just as suddenly as it had appeared, the message and tone disappeared. A couple of seconds later, the VTR operator chirped in on the intercom with the information that the slide had been edited right onto the show tape, a show that was still in progress but rapidly coming to a close with credits starting to roll on the screen. The master control operator leaned in, pencil in hand, staring intently at the monitor as the name of the program’s Producer and Director, Keith Christie, appeared on the screen and was quickly followed by the CBC Vancouver Production credit.

At this point in time, Keith Christie was already a legend at CBC Vancouver. In his unique way he had become to television programing what MacDonald’s was to the fast food business - racking up and dispatching hundreds of bargain basement television shows out of his studio on wheels, the one-camera mobile dubbed the Cruiser. In reality, it was a converted delivery truck. Inside there was a closet-sized space, barely able to accommodate four people plus an enormous, by todays standards, 2 inch VTR machine, monitors and audio gear. Most directors would direct shows sitting down on the padded bench alongside the Script Assistant. But Keith wasn't most directors. He was Keith, always dressed impeccably in a suit, shirt, and tie, no matter the weather or the type of location in which he found himself. It was Keith's style to stand up in the truck, his back against the wall, microphone and monitors directly in front of his face where he could bark out orders like an advancing tank commander.  

During his early years working in the Cruiser, Keith would be the first to admit that his strength was not in making artful television productions, it was in producing volume. To that end, he crashed and butt-edited his way through show after show on the mobile's single VTR machine. No editing suite for Keith. These were the days of linear television, meaning that it was tricky to butt-edit in order, one shot sequence after another in a line, and achieve the exact program running length strictly demanded by the network and local CBC traffic departments. The “Trouble Temporary” kerfuffle came about after Keith had butt-edited a program that came up short by about 15 seconds. Faced with the problem of having to go back to the top of the show and re-edit the entire program to make it come out at the correct length, he was suddenly seized with an idea. He put a camera on a Trouble Temporary graphic and edited that shot directly on to his show tape to make up the needed time. He then added a blast of audio tone just to help it along. Again, not art, just Keith getting on with it. I don’t suppose it even dawned on him that it would be a problem until the day after the show went to air and all hell broke loose in the Program Director’s office. 

Not to take away from the positive aspects of Keith’s work, the man had an amazing dedication and belief in getting out of the studio confines and bringing all the wonders of Vancouver, it's interesting people and beautiful landscapes, into homes all across Canada. Keith and Dorothy Vickery, his Script Assistant and Girl Friday, were among the hardest working teams in the Alberni Street Production office, yearly turning in a staggering volume of programming for both local and network telecast. Among Keith's productions were VacationTime, one of the the series he produced out of the Cruiser. He later came back into the studios with specials and series like Music to See, Thank Heaven for Christmas, Meeting Place, Mr. Bars and Tone, Gift of Music, Medical Explorers, Sinterklaus Fantasy,  Klee Wyck, Anna in Graz (with Dance legend, Anna Wyman), Michaelangelo the Shoemaker, Maranatha Rock Mass (with Marek Norman), Noel Christmas Fantasy (with Marek Norman) and Suzuki on Science, the programs that first introduced David Suzuki to CBC television viewers.

Keith worked hard and most of the time, non-stop. He expected the same dedication from all the people working on his productions. But he was often brusque, preoccupied, single-minded, impatient and sometimes outrageous in the way he went about getting the work done. A couple of recollections here .... 

Because of the tight show delivery date, his "Vancouver in the Spring" program had to be shot and edited before Vancouver's famous Cherry Blossom trees were in bloom. I know a little bit about this as one day, I was sent out on the shoot to replace the dedicated Dorothy who had gone home with a cold.  

On this day in Stanley Park, the mobile truck was followed wherever it went by a talented and bright props-man in a truck that was filled with things he thought would come in handy, in particular many branches of artificial cherry blossoms. When we stopped, the props-man would check the way the shot was framed, and with the help of a stagehand, fill the background with the branches of pretty pink flowers, or whatever he had that would make the best background. A few tourists came by, oohing and awing at the flowers. Some of them even took pictures thinking they’d found a patch of early blossoming cherry trees, only to be startled when the accompanying props-man leapt out of the vehicle to rip the flower branches out of the trees and toss them into the back of the staging truck. All of this while a gung-ho Keith waved his arms out of the Cruiser door calling, “that's a wrap in this location gentlemen. Start your vehicles and follow the truck.” 

While full fledged spring hadn't arrived, it was early enough that some of the aquarium mammals were already engaged in the rites of the season. The otters were the friskiest and when we arrived at the aquarium, two of them were making out like - well, like otters make out. The floor director, Barry McLean was taking a bathroom break and away from his headset at that point. It was well known that Keith could be frighteningly relentless when he wanted to get on with the work. So discovering Barry was in the john, he looked at me and said something like, “we can’t show these otters doing this sort of thing on TV. We have young viewers at home.” Then he said “find a stick and get out there and stop them.” I was pretty sure that none of this was in my job description, but Keith was insistent enough that I got out of the truck. I managed to find a broken tree branch, not that I had any idea what I was supposed to do with it. Before I had time to figure it out an aquarium attendant with a full pail of Otter goodies managed to distract the little critters for as long as it took Keith to get his shot. When I climbed back into the truck Keith said, “Thank you Carol, good work.” “It’s Chris” I said,” I'm not sure he heard me, not that it would have made any difference. I was Carol for the rest of the day, and as our cavalcade of vehicles rolled out to the next stop, a little prayer for Dorothy’s full and speedy recovery began to repeat in my head.

Ken Lowe was the Cruiser’s hard-working technical producer, tape operator and guiding light. He knew every nut, bolt and oscilloscope in that vehicle. Over the years, between Keith, Ken Lowe, Dorothy Vickery, the camera and audio crew, the team must have recorded scenes and interviews in every neighbourhood, street and alley of the City. If this story is being read by someone who wasn't working in TV at that time, it's important to understand that the 60's was an era in CBC's history that can only be described as poles apart, in every conceivable way, from today’s public attitude toward TV location coverage. The idea of taking the mobile out to record shows in the community was still in its infancy, but at that time it made a solid and valuable connection with audiences. The blue truck with the big Channel 2 and CBC logo on the side was almost always welcomed and greeted with cooperation and good will. It was a time when citizens still felt they shared a stake in the CBC and in a way, the Cruiser and its crew was something that belonged to them. The curiosity, interest and enthusiasm, and the questions about what was being "filmed" and when it could be seen on TV, followed everywhere the Cruiser showed up. It sometimes felt like driving around in an Ice-cream truck with people coming out onto the street, delighted to see us in their neighborhood. Those times prevailed right through the mid 60s, spanning the years when I worked as Script on producer Len Lauk's series On the Scene

But in the very early years, the Cruiser was Keith’s personal studio and workspace. It was parked in the lot next to the old 1200 West delivery entrance. Just inside the buildings garage, Keith had staging and technical set up a permanent graphic stand and lighting, and a microphone so that he could record voice over narration right on the spot with hosts and long time CBC announcers, Bruno Cimolai and Doug Campbell, and writers and performers, Hilda and Ross Mortimer. In those days, I could count the days on one hand when I saw Keith or Dorothy inside the studios, control rooms, or in the editing room upstairs. His productions were recorded in the Cruiser, edited in the Cruiser and in the end, like some well oiled assembly line, shows flew out the door, boxed and ready for air.... with the occasional weird surprise edited right in.  

Soon after I'd spent the day in the Park with Keith, I ran into Ken Lowe coming into the building and holding what looked like the steering wheel off the Cruiser. He gripped it with both hands at 10 and 2 o'clock as if he was still driving the thing. He had a bit of oil and dirt smudged on his cheek. I asked him what happened, and he smiled. “It fell off. Now maybe I get some rest.” I suggested that a rest would be far more likely if all four tires were to fall off.  His smile broadened  "Good idea" he said, and disappeared down the hall. 

The Cruiser pictured here is the original 1960s truck used by Keith Christie, and later that decade by Producer Len Lauk for the program series, On the Scene. The video, camera and audio crews were regularly rotated, and over the years included CBCers such as Harry Taylor, Carl Pedersen and Ray Waines. In this picture the cameraman atop the Cruiser is Ted Cole. The Cruiser's dedicated Technical Producer Ken Lowe can be seen in the front seat. When Color television began in Canada, this original old workhorse Cruiser went first to Charlottetown, and then to South America where it operated in TV stations still telecasting in black and white until 1984. 

 

 

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