THAT'S MY WONDERFUL TOWN
an excerpt from Book 2
It’s early afternoon in the autumn of 1979 and I’m alone in my car in the parking lot outside the television station a few miles east of town. I’m sitting quietly, taking it all in. I’m staring at the iconic grasshopper-shaped neon sign straddling the TransCanada Highway:
Western Canada’s First
Privately Owned Station
12 2 6 7
This is it. I can’t believe I’m actually getting a job interview here. It’s ten to two and in a few minutes I’ll be walking through the famed front doors of CKCK-TV for the first time. I know it’s going to be a mystical experience. This is the television station I grew up with, the one I would later find out was responsible for my conception (see Chapter 7 in my first book of memoirs.)
A new friend I met in Film School at University is working here and mentioned there is a weekend position available. I don’t ask the salary as I don’t care; I’ll work for free.
It’s time to go in.
I am so prepped for this interview with Mr. C, the Head of Operations. I’ve researched the twenty-five year history of this television station from its start in 1954 to the present, memorizing all the names of the on-air personalities from Jim McLeod of Tele-Pulse News to the new 6 o’clock anchor, James Allyn. I have a briefcase full of the brilliant Super8 short films I’ve made, plus all of my stunning television and movie scripts. I am so revved for this interview I’m starting to worry if it shows, that I may explode.
“So, Barry recommended you,” begins the interview.
“Ya, oh ya,” I say.
“Can you start Saturday?”
Monday to Friday has this multi-million-dollar media monolith pulsating with nearly a hundred professional people in operations, news, advertising, programming, accounting, commercial production.
Saturday and Sunday has three twenty-year-olds running the whole ship, live newscasts included.
The ‘Weekend Crew’ is the first team I’ve ever been part of in my life, the first time I’ve ever been so involved in a group effort — everyone, including myself, having a vital role. There are six of us in three-person rotating shifts throughout every weekend and we produce sharp, live newscasts with only one switcher/director, one telecine/studio camera operator, and one VTR (videotape) operator. And also the solo newscaster who reads the news.
(Most of these eager young journalists type up the news scripts, then dump off copies in our control room and VTR, before going on set to put on their mic for a sound check. Afterwards, they leave the building without even saying a word to us. We are startled before one newscast when the new journalist, Carol, pops by the control room. She hops up on the counter and we’re instantly suspicious: a beautiful young woman with gorgeous long-flowing black hair taking time to talk with us geek teckies. We never did figure out why she was so nice to us.)
The biggest time challenge of the entire weekend is from 6:18pm to 6:30pm every Saturday. That’s when we have to convert everything from the close of a live newscast to the opening of a live show in another studio. And there are only three of us doing it all.
The moment the news anchor signs off, I, as the switcher/director, cut to a two-minute commercial break, then roll the ten-minute “time-filler” film. This is usually an old National Film Board film which I fade out of at exactly 6:29:59pm, regardless if it’s over or not. (I want to hereby apologize to the hundreds of NFB directors whose films I hacked over the years.)
While the film is on air, I run out of the main control room, up the stairs to the production control room, to convert the board to a split screen, then run back down. The VTR operator runs up to the audio booth to unplug the news mic and plug in the bingo mic in the proper slot. The telecine/camera operator rolls the studio cameras away from the news set, across the studio floor, to lock one on the bingo ball number board and the other on the Bingo set, making sure to properly frame host Gord McInnes when he arrives at 6:29, a minute before air-time, for a quick mic check as the Bingo intro is on the air.
All of this is before the era of 24-hour television in Regina.
The last program of each day is a scratchy black and white movie starting at midnight — the film reels loaded on opposite projectors in the telecine chain, making sure there is a “Late Show” slide ready in case of the inevitable film snap.
After the movie’s end credits roll around 2am, I play blurry videos of “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen” followed by a slide of the station logo with a voice-over thanking viewers for watching CKCK-TV, Western Canada’s first privately-owned television station. After the end of the Saturday night movie, I get to choose a photo slide of a church in Regina to match the voice-over: “Tomorrow is Sunday, a day of rest and a day of prayer. Attend the church of your choice.” I always pick the Cathedral. I then fade to colour bars and tone.
Though this wakes up everyone who has fallen asleep at home in front of their television sets, it’s when the fun begins for us.
Here we are: kids alone with the technical resources of an entire television station at our disposal for the next four hours when we’re off-air.
We name our creations, “Weekend Productions,” and our output is prolific: creating many spoofs of commercials and public service announcements of the early 1980s, fast-edited intros to action TV shows, short docs on the aging equipment of the station (a hillbilly selling the wretched cart machine). One of my favourite full-scale productions with studio cameras and clever editing is a deadpan satirical newscast with me as the anchor —“Rodger Cuspid … newsman”— using real news footage intercut to show me interviewing famous people such as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The flip-side to these fun nights is when I’m scheduled for the boring day-time shifts on Saturday and Sunday. Though I get to direct the one live newscast at 12:30pm, my Saturday is filled with ancient film cartoons in the morning and tedious ‘Wide World of Sports’ in the afternoon.
The only nerve-wracking part of every Saturday morning shift is awaiting the overnight Calgary-to-Regina Greyhound arrival of the canister of the previous night’s live filming of “Stampede Wrestling.” Shot on quick-process 16mm film with mag track, the raw film would arrive minutes before air time and we quickly thread it up on telecine and onto air. The several times it did not arrive on time —substituting with a NFB film— I was scared for my safety from the vicious phone calls we received from wrestling fans, still the only death threats I’ve ever received in my life.
Sunday morning is when I am first introduced to six hours of non-stop ‘God Shows,’ featuring all the big-name televangelists: Ernest Angley, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Schuller. I sit gobsmacked in my control room chair listening to this vile hate-filled nonsense, constantly shaking my head to verify what I just heard. I’m both entertained and horrified I’m being paid to put this stuff on the air.
(Totally unrelated to my work duties, I attend a real Ernest Angley show at Regina’s Centre of the Arts in my first public appearance dressed as Bob Loblaw — wearing my early-1960s tight suit, cat’s eye glasses, orange hard hat. I have a big pink ‘I BELIEVE’ tag on my chest and I do my best to annoy everyone but I just seamlessly blend into all the legitimate wackos all around me. I was so disappointed. Walking out after the show, I was amazed at the number of abandoned crutches, canes, and wheelchairs of people who Ernest had healed.)
My biggest claim to fame while at CKCK-TV is in the mid-1980s when I air the very first legal beer commercial in Saskatchewan television history. (I’m surprised there’s no Wikipedia entry for my involvement.) Before this event, we had to cover every beer or liquor commercial in every live or taped Canadian or American program with a local ad or PSA.
It was especially silly when only Saskatchewan viewers of the Saturday afternoon national program “This Week in Baseball,” sponsored by the Labatt Brewing Company, sees no beer ads. It seems appropriate this show is the groundbreaking one.
Program Director, Bill S., drives out to the station on his day off to sit beside me in Master Control to watch me do the deed, the moment I expose innocent prairie television viewers to the dangerous allure of beer.
The above video is unfortunately a REAL commercial that had heavy airplay on CKCK-TV in 1985.