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WHO CREATED MULTICULTURAL TV IN TORONTO?

Moses Znaimer and Dan Iannuzzi

Here at Retrontario, we were saddened to learn of the passing of former Rogers Media Television CEO Leslie Sole and his wife. However in the news item posted online at CityNews.ca, it is claimed that Sole was “the architect” of Canada’s first multicultural television station – Omni. To take nothing away from Sole’s important contributions to Canada’s broadcast landscape, this claim is not quite true, and it is important to correct the record.

Citytv Channel 79, Cable 7 Executive Producer Moses Znaimer

It was in fact Citytv who first developed multicultural/multilingual broadcasting shortly after its launch on September 28, 1972 under the guidance and vision of Citytv founder and Executive Producer Moses Znaimer.

Here is Moses talking about Citytv’s early multicultural programming in 1987 on the occasion of Citytv’s 15th anniversary:

By 1979, Citytv had amassed 36 hours of week of multicultural content, at which point it was spun off into CFMT Channel 47 Cable 4 (at the time better known as “MTV” – as in, Multicultural/Multilingual TV). Channel 47 was launched by Dan Iannuzzi, a producer of much of Citytv’s multicultural content and founder of the Italian-Canadian newspaper Corrieri Canadese.

Dan Iannuzzi
CFMT Channel 47 Cable 4 hit Toronto airwaves in September 1979

CFMT Channel 47 was in fact the first multicultural station in Canada, and Citytv had an ownership in it until CRTC rules compelled them to divest. Iannuzzi’s CFMT Channel 47 eventually ran into financial trouble and was forced to bring in Rogers, who eventually took over and forced Ianuzzi out. Having failed to stomp out or buy Citytv, Rogers desired a Toronto outlet of their own, and 47 was rebranded as Omni 1 and 2.

Sole’s contributions to Omni are well documented – he expanded its footprint from Ontario to B.C. and Alberta. However, there is sadly little mention online about the true “architects” of multicultural TV in Toronto – Moses Znaimer, and Dan Iannuzzi.

For more about Moses Znaimer and early Citytv’s multicultural ethos, please watch our documentary People City – Toronto’s Lost Anthem

People City: Toronto’s Lost Anthem (2017) from Retrontario on Vimeo.

That time when Master T gave MuchMusic its groove

MuchMusic Master T

Pop quiz, hotshot: Can you name the very first Canadian hip-hop music video as listed in the MuchMusic archives? Hint: It’s not Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes or even the Dream Warriors.

It’s Master T and the Super Hip 3’s colossal MuchMusic Groove, a part station promo, part party-anthem that helped prime the airwaves in 1988 for the oncoming storm of local Toronto rap and hip-hop artists who were about to blow up the dial.

Back in 1987, Tony “Master T” Young was but a “lowly camera-dude” working at Much, shooting interviews for the Power Hour and hoping his breakthrough acting gig would turn up soon. After doing some stunt double work in the Toronto-shot Police Academy 3 and cameoing in the opening to thePower Hour (that’s the future Master T holding a tape in his hand, watching music video director/Electric Circus creator Joel Goldberg crooning on the monitor), Tony wanted to step it up.

This era at Much flourished under an almost supernatural creative pulse, one tenet of which encouraged staff to go off-site on Fridays to shoot promotional spots and fun station idents. While many absconded to the pub, Tony and his fellow cameraman Gord McWatters forged on making many memorable Much spots including the creation of a “Spy” character played by Tony who would chase or be chased by agents attempting to steal the soul of MuchMusic in a briefcase (shades of Pulp Fiction, years before its release).

Visionary MuchMusic/Citytv creator Moses Znaimer famously had an open door policy, and one of Tony’s earliest memories is pitching him the idea of doing a short video to mark the stations historic move from 99 Queen St. East to the majestic 299 Queen St. West digs.

Featuring appearances from Kim Clark Champniss, Erica Ehm, Chis Ward, Mike Williams, Laurie Brown and a freshly minted Steve Anthony, this short rap promo assuaged any concerns that moving would affect the madcap MuchMusic ethos. Quite the contrary, it promised a vast new canvas from which the “Nation’s Music Station” could continue to broadcast a high quality flow of music content and attitude.

Master T

Perhaps the most important event to come out of this short was the moniker Tony Young adopted – Master T. “At that time I was like, what do I call myself? I was looking at a character generator, and at first it was Much Master T, then we shortened it to Master T, and it just stuck” Tony recalls.

Master T

After the success of the Spy promos and the 299 Queen St. West spot, Tony and Gord were encouraged to shoot a full length video, but with few resources and a full-time job the task seemed daunting. After getting Znaimer’s blessing, Tony and his then girlfriend (now wife) Paula came up with the lyrics, done in the then popular party hip-hop stylee and focusing on the Much environment, the personalities and behind the scenes staff.

They roped in a talented band who worked at Much and gave them silly names – Steve Vogt (Steve Snare), Dave Murphy (Lo-Tide) and Richard Oulton (Richie Baby) were christened “The Super Hip 3”, led by Master T and supported by Lady P (Paula), Tony’s brother Basil (DJ Mix Master Baz) and Gord as the shifty manager (Dutch).

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Once again Much’s on-air talent were enlisted, including Moses Znaimer himself seen dancing in his office during the video. Sensing something very cool was in the offing, everyone pitched in and many hands made light work. “The MuchMusic Groove” was born.

The video premiered during a special party at the Beverly Tavern, the now long gone local watering hole for the 299 Queen Street gang. The sanctioned $400 budget was spent on chicken wings and pitchers of ice cold beer, and off the back of its roaring reception the video was placed into what Much termed “B-rotation,” which meant it was aired almost every day (you might even recall seeing it onSoul in the City).

In his biography Much Master T: One VJ’s Journey, Tony says “It’s a frightening thought, but there were virtually no rap videos being submitted at the time. This was the very first Canadian hip-hop video to enter into Much’s library.”

Not only that, the video was later used as an educational and promotional piece when industry people visited the building. Morale amongst those in front of and behind the camera noticeably improved. Not bad for a lark done during down time.

Master T

Rather mysteriously, at some point in the 1990s the master tape simply vanished. “The MuchMusic Groove” became the stuff of hushed legend, with some viewers beginning to question if it had ever existed in the first place.

By this point, after hosting X-Tendamix, fronting the MuchMusic Dance Mix CDs, then finally becoming a full blown VJ, Master T was firmly established as one of the key driving forces behind MuchMusic’s mega-success. Sadly, not even he held a copy of this important piece of Much, ergo, Canadian music history.

After years of searching, Retrontario.com successfully located a copy of “The MuchMusic Groove” earlier this year. Those involved in the making will surely be happy to see it back out in circulation, as will people who missed it the first time around if only to remind us all of how progressive and free-wheeling the halcyon days of MuchMusic really were.

Don’t touch that dial, don’t nobody move….

Master T of course made waves last summer when he spoke out on the #GivethembacktoMosesmovement based on viewer’s frustrations with the current incarnation of Much, a fetid wasteland of missed opportunities and Simpsons reruns entombed in the mortuary that 299 Queen Street has become.

Master T will soon be seen on FevaTV‘s Sooooo Special with Master T, where he has interviewed legends such as Billy Ocean, KC and Shaggy. FevaTV stands for First Entertainment Voice of Africa Television, showcasing entertainment programming from Africa and the African diaspora in North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, and is spearheaded by Robert Onianwah.

While we will probably never see a TV station populated with the likes of the characters who appeared in these videos, we can at least keep the old spirit alive online, and “get on up and move to the MuchMusic Groove”.

Master T

Special thanks to Tony “Master T” Young & Mr. X

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

 

Goofball City: Toronto mascots past and present

Derived from the French word “mascotte” meaning bringer of good luck, mascots have amused, embarrassed and terrified us in equal measure since the 1800s. Usually affiliated with sports (dutifully illustrated by The Simpsons in the form of the Capitol City Goofball), and meant to embody the spirit of any given franchise, Toronto has had its fair share of mascots both sporty and otherwise. Here is a primer on some of our best and worst, most of whom have already exited stage left with little or no fanfare.

Starting with perhaps the most ill-conceived and lamest mascot of all time, meet Millenni, the cuddly Tower headed androgynous cartoon character created to help Toronto usher in the mighty year 2000.

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Millenni epitomized late 1990s confusion and Millennial tension, and much like the Y2K frenzy seems to have vanished into the ether of cultural amnesia as of January 1st, 2000. While those who drunkenly danced and got their pictures taken with him on New Year’s Eve 1999 at Nathan Phillip’s Square may never forget, the city quickly did. The last time Millenni made news was in 2010 when his poor origins were invoked in the spirited debate about creating a mascot for the 2015 Pan Am Games (or rather, how not to).

Even a scant decade after his birth, Millenni was viewed as an embarrassment best left behind in the 20th century.

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While McDonald’s perfectly nailed their mascot over 50 years ago with erstwhile Burger loving clown Ronald McDonald, other fast food franchises have struggled to find similarly endearing characters with whom the public might identify. Dough Dude, the official Mascot of Ontario’s once Teflon pie chain Pizza Pizza, never quite caught on and went quietly into the night sometime in late 2007.

Some might say the character’s dull name, unimaginative behaviour and lacklustre appearance is apropos to the product he’s shilling for.

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When Ikea Monkey mania exploded in late 2012, their long forgotten mascot Mr. Moose garnered nary a footnote. Speaking in a thick Swedish accent, Mr. Moose was often found goofing off at Blue Jays games, or marching with other mascots at the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. One that is definitely due for a comeback, although the fact Ikea never cashed in on Darwin the Monkey craze makes it doubtful this will ever happen.

Law enforcement has had many successful mascots over the years, from McGruff the Crime Dog to Elmer the Safety Elephant, nevermind Toronto Police Service’s own legendary Blinky the Talking Police Car.

PAT TROLL

However things took a turn into a slightly bizarre and terrifying realm in the 1990s with the appearance of Pat Troll, a Troll headed Toronto Police safety officer who visited schools. Pat Troll didn’t last very long, probably owing to the fact that the toy Troll craze died a death and in isolation such a character probably frightened its intended audience more than educated them.

DEWEY

According to the Toronto Public Library’s Kidspace website, Dewey is “a robotic alien who likes Kids’ Space a lot”. He can be found at the city’s annual celebration of the written word, Word on the Street, and various Libraries around town. Named after the antiquated library classification Dewey decimal system, Dewey bears more than a passing resemblance to the lucrative Minions from Despicable Me, although in fairness Dewey preceded their ubiquitous arrival.

POLKAROO

Although he began innocently enough as an imaginative and mysterious character in TVOntario’s flagship pre-school TV series Polka Dot Door, Polkaroo has since evolved into Canada’s own Big Bird, a signifier of the importance of Public broadcasting in our coarse culture.

When Tim Hudak raised the spectre of cuts to TVO, many hoped for a redux of the firestorm which engulfed U.S presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 after he threatened to annex funding to PBS and Big Bird became an unlikely symbol of the left. Alas, the reserve cavalry of Polkaroo wasn’t needed this election, but he’s always waiting in the wings if future nuts feint a similar war game.

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Toronto’s cadre of sporting mascots have always been top tier. Sadly over the last few years many of the original characters have peeled away – Domer, the Nelvana-designed Turtle who helped put the SkyDome on the map in 1989 is all but forgotten but for musty plush and YouTube videos. He was wheeled out last month when the Dome celebrated their quarter century b-day, but as with how to handle Roger’s Centre original name in the proceedings, the whole enterprise seemed somewhat confused.

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BJ Birdie’s antics thrilled Blue Jays fans spanning decades, until some kind of behind the scenes salary dispute ended his beloved reign back in 1999. Designed and played by Kevin Shanahan (who also realised the Argo’s defunct mascot Scully), BJ Birdie’s absence remains one of the franchise’s worst hangovers. His replacements Ace and Diamond (Diamond lasted a mere 3 years) lack a certain cartoonish charm and haven’t come close to matching BJ’s enduring popularity.

The Raptor, Carlton the Bear, and Jason the Mascot (Scully’s replacement) are still around, but like all mascots have struggled to stay relevant and most importantly aid the kind of lucrative licensing boons their forerunners engaged in during the pre-internet age.

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Sesqui the Sesquicentenary Squirrel was selected to be Toronto’s mascot for its 150th birthday celebrations in 1984, roundly defeating runner up T.O Hog, who pretty much ruined his chances by squealing loudly through the City council debate on the subject. The immensely popular Sesqui (or Seskwee) appeared throughout the city at many functions in 1984, culminating in a massive b-day jam at Nathan Phillips Square, whereupon he retired and was rumoured to be resting up in hibernation for the city’s 200th birthday celebrations. Time will tell if Sesqui is destined to make an encore T dot appearance in 2034.

Other memorable mascots of the city’s past include Skywalker the CN Tower’s frightening clown on stilts, TTC’s friendly giant beaver Barney, Bob the Baker, mascot for the sorely missed donut chain Baker’s Dozen, and countless strange others whose lifespans were either fleeting or promptly forgotten.

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PACHI

Pachi the Porcupine, mascot for the 2015 Pan Am games, is the newest member of the pantheon of Toronto mascots, and probably hopes to be remembered as more of a Sesqui than a Millenni.

That time when Star Trek fever gripped Scarborough

Stardate 1993 — television series Star Trek: The Next Generation is midway through its celebrated 6th season, and about to launch its first spin-off show in the form of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Airing in the GTA on “Your Federation Station” Citytv, ratings are cruising at Warp 10, grown men speaking Klingon are holding costume conventions with alarming frequency at Airport Road Hotels, and a strange televisual phenomenon is occurring in the Neutral Zone between Scarborough and Pickering – Ten Forward, a Trek oriented late-night call-in show is fast becoming the stuff of Scarberian legend…

Long before the internet made such programming largely irrelevant, local community access channels (usually found broadcasting at 10 on the dial) aired low-budget filler designed to educate and inform viewers between bouts of scrolling TV listings. Quite often the shows were “interactive,” meaning they took phone calls from viewers live to air, with nary a time delay to prevent embarrassing on-air meltdowns, shenanigans or foul language.

Thanks to having virtually no budget, these shows were beset with technical difficulties, poorly lit sets, and hosts and guests who were not quite ready for primetime, thus ensuring their place in the annals of charming, rubbernecking, must-see, train wreck TV history.

Scarborough Cable 10 had already influenced the comedy gold of ’90s titans and Scarborough natives Jim Carrey and Mike Myers (whose Wayne’s World is about as on-point an homage as it gets), and was well known for The Rob Cormier Show and the guys who played table Hockey in their basement. Not long after, CUC Broadcasting rebranded the channel as Trillium Community 10.

Debuting on Trillium 10 sometime in late 1992, Ten Forward (see what they did there?) billed itself as community based interactive show designed to spur discussion about “Star Trek, space and technology”, but aside from a few visits to the sadly now defunct McLaughlin Planetarium the show was obviously ALL about Star Trek. Just check out those uniforms.

For two hours on Friday nights, 10pm until midnight, the hosts would open up the phone lines to argue the toss about Trek minutiae, ranging from obsessing over minor continuity errors to heartfelt debates about the place of religion in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.

JOHN

Callers to the show included dopey late night shift workers, Forever Knight fans, squeaky-voiced teens concerned about violations of the Prime Directive, lonely women inquiring about the marital status of Jonathan Frakes or Brent Spiner, barely comprehensible weirdos who frightened even the rabid hosts, and not surprisingly, a legion of crank callers.

One can only imagine what it might have been like stumbling across this bizarre program late at night, boozed up and without a concern in the world. It even became somewhat of a cruel sport, as rival gangs of crank callers posed ringer questions before dropping their inevitable F bombs. Full marks to the subtle Pickering crew who managed to sprinkle coded esoteric messages into their banter while on air; Scarborough area cranks seemed to be much more blunt.

As juvenile as they were, the drama of not knowing if a call was legitimate or an attack made for compelling television. At times the series’ host “Captain John” seemed almost to be challenging the little punks to call in and say their piece, daring them to try and get past his spry trigger finger. While it seems trite now, hearing the F bomb with such regularity on a TV show at the time was truly shocking, and surely questions were being asked by Trillium brass behind the scenes (the program was in fact rerun throughout the week, with offending calls edited out, making for much shorter episodes).

It is easy 20 years later to laugh at the “nerds playing dress-up in their parents’ basement” aspect to all this, but at the time the series was actually a fairly useful service for fan(atics) of Star Trek. Without the aid of the internet, Captain John was able to breathlessly report all the latest Trek news and gossip, dropping hints about upcoming guest stars and release dates for books, videos, and various bits of merchandise.

Captain John remained at the helm of Ten Forward throughout its entire run, while his co-hosts changed from “Commander Bob” to “Ensign Andy” to “Lieutenant Sue.” When Shaw Communications bought CUC in 1995 (Rogers acquired it later in 2000), Ten Forward was beamed away, sucked into a wormhole of corporate maneuvering and a changing TV landscape. It’s actually somewhat miraculous the show lasted as long as it did, likewise impossible to imagine it in a post-1995 internet gazing world. Thanks to the archiving alchemy of a certain anonymous Scarborough native, Ten Forward can now live on YouTube for future generations to ponder (Retrontario.com has obtained over 20 hours of it, for shame!).

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will no doubt be jazzed that next week sees the release of the 6th season on Bluray, re-mastered in stunning HD and boasting a Delta quadrant’s worth of bonus materials, although sadly, no episodes of Ten Forward.

Museum of Television flips switch in Liberty Village

Toronto’s own visionary prophet of the airwaves Moses Znaimer re-opened his Museum of Television yesterday, and now welcomes all curious and card carrying fans of the medium to visit this weekend as the MZTV Museumof Television & Archive participates in the citywide Door’s open program.

Not just content with pioneering and broadcasting his own unique brand of exalted content, Znaimer also digs the apparatus: his collection of vintage Television sets is a geeked-out heavenly shrine to the art of TV technology, from boxy postage stamp sized screens to hulking, Martian-like monstrosities on the likes of which our (great) grandparents witnessed the first human being walking on the moon.

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The mandate of the MZTV Museum of Television and Archive is “to protect, preserve and promote the receiving instruments of television history”, and with the largest collection of North American boob tubes dating from the 1920s to the 1970s on display, a stroll down the aisles of the MZTV museum is guaranteed to nuke your nostalgic synapses.

As a learned student of communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Znaimer has long been fascinated with the delivery system – “the Medium is the message!” – and iconography showcasing classic TV sets can be found throughout his work, from the salad Citytv days right up to his booming Zoomer empire.

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Highlights of the Museum include the truly alien RCA TRK-12 Phantom Teleceiver, “the rarest TV set on the planet” from the 1939 New York World Fare. The guts on this beautiful unit were intentionally open and on display to remove any doubt that magic might have been responsible for the live images it displayed – sort of like the Citypulse newsroom of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The Kuba Komet was a marvel of German design combing television, radio and phonograph into a single stylish unit. Imaging what it must have been like to digest the cathode rays on such a machine seems as alien a concept as photographing it with a smartphone would have been to its original owner.

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Clearly an MZ favorite, the Philco Predicta hails from that glowing post 1957 Sputnik era “space age” design craze. Toon fans might be interested to note Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth was named after Philo T. Farnsworth (the “originator” of TV in 1927), whom Philco financed.

Speakers

Fear not, young ones. Children of the 90s will be thrilled to see the original Citytv Speaker’s Corner camera, and even better its invitation to record your own TV memories which will be added to The MZTV Museum & Archive Oral History Project. Better than the newly revamped Speaker’s Corner, right?

As the idea of a Television “set” is fast becoming as antiquated as all physical media itself, Museums such as this become a crucial link from our past to our future. “A society starts turning into a culture when it first shows an interest in preserving its past” Znaimer has smartly noted in the past.

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While we are spoiled for cool things to experience this weekend, the MZTV Museum is pure pop culture manna and a must visit for TV fans and history buffs. Where else can you meet TV’s first star Felix the Cat, watch Marilyn Monroe’s own personal TV set, or behold the mighty personal collection of a prophetic media maven who helped shape the city in which we live?

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Interesting to note as well as a great many other things, Znaimer was also well ahead of his time when it came to the “open doors” concept – starting in 1990, Citytv held an annual “open house” in which Toronto citizens could enter and explore the legendary ChumCity building at 299 Queen St. West:

That time when the Jays had songs, anthems & albums

Where have the all Blue Jays songs gone? For much of their formative era, campy odes and anthemic ballads about the Toronto Blue Jays and their star players were aurally ubiquitous in the city: major airplay on the radio, music videos on TV, and even a series of pop albums lovingly released on fresh LP, CD and cassette guaranteed these feel good boppers a special place in Hogtown’s heart. When the boys in blue were flying high (as they are now-ish), these songs helped ossify the bond between fan and brand, big time. Who were you in 1986 if you weren’t power moving to a worn out cassingle of “Shaker’s Rap – It’s Lloyd Moseby Time!”

Not surprisingly, themology was in the Blue Jays DNA from the very beginning: are you old enough to recall the boogie nights flaring to a special disco, Blue Jay bird sampling theme song when the franchise first launched in 1977?

Throughout the 1980s, radio station personalities sometimes recorded their own songs based upon the team, such as this 1982 classic “Hang on Blue Jays,” a Howard Cosell sampling riff on The McCoys bubblegum classic “Hang on Sloopy” created by some CHFI sonic boffins and played before games in the ’82/83′ season:

Some never stuck. This bizarre 1985/1986 song “The Ballad of Jesse and George” by (then) Citytv sportscaster Peter Gross was recently unearthed at the end of a mouldy VHS tape rescued from near oblivion at a garage sale. It is doubtful that either George Bell or Jesse Barfield hum this poor man’s sea shanty in the showers:

In the early 1990s, a joint deal between the Toronto Blue Jays, the Variety Club of Ontario, and Sony Music Canada ushered in a trilogy of Blue Jays albums (Out of the Park (1991), Class of ’92 (1992), and Salute to the Champions (1993), mercifully reaching a crescendo as the team went supernova after winning the World Series in 1992.

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As World Series champion fever swelled to gargantuan proportions in 1993, the Blue Jays albums charted higher than releases from fellow Canadian artists The Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, and The Tragically Hip. With $1 of the purchase price going to charity everybody pitched in from supergroups formed by Much Music, Q107, CISS FM, CHUM-FM, to mysterious players such as Dug and the Dugouts, The Kokomo Beach Band and the vaguely offensive “Hoodat Singer” (note the copyright on each album was ©Hoodat Singin… Extremely Limited.)

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Aside from dusty 45 rpms languishing on eBay, or ripped mp3 files hosted on fringe Blue Jays fan blogs as curate’s eggs from a checkered past, most of these songs have long ago dissipated from the public conscience. Of course, the mightiest of them all – “OK Blue Jays (Let’s Play Ball)” by the Bat Boys was the subject of much contention a few years ago when it was unceremoniously scrubbed from its primetime real estate – the soundtrack of the 7th inning stretch. For old school fans, the idea of going to a Jays game and not hearing that incendiary 1983 song seems just as alien as not seeing BJ Birdie, natch.

Will the Jays ever help produce another LP of spoof songs and pump up anthems, or are these jangly jiggles a relic of the less cynical and frankly more bonkers decades that also brought us the arrival of SkyDome, two back-to-back World Series wins, “Catch the Taste!” and more band wagon fans than the Maple Leafs could dream of?

“Help Us Mookie,” make the Jays number one!

Wasteland of the Gods at Muzik Nightclub

Mythical Toronto sculptor Elford Bradley “E.B” Cox (1914-2003) would likely be appalled to see what has happened to one of his greatest collections of work – The Garden of the Greek Gods – donated to the City of Toronto and displayed at the CNE since 1979.

Nightclub Muzik has absorbed almost all of them as part of their extended patio, and these historic Canadian sculptures are now off-limits to anyone not frequenting the property of this 19+ only bar. Their intended audience – children – can no longer interact with them at all. Aside from losing these beautiful public sculptures to a private establishment, it’s troubling to imagine them as impromptu perches for Smirnoff Ice and Bud Light Lime.

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E.B himself is weaved through the fabric of our Canadiana art tradition – he was close friends with Barker Fairly and the Group of Seven, carving their headstones as they passed away; he was friend to the late Farley Mowat, chronicler of the Great North; he taught French at Upper Canada College to sonic maven, photographer and filmmaker Dan Gibson; he portaged with Omer Stringer, legendary canoe sensei and creator of the Beaver Canoe line.

E.B was a proper old-school artist from a golden age that celebrated the Canadian nature experience, equally influenced by Iroquois and West Coast Haida styles as he was by classical Roman sculpture. The E.B Cox aesthetic was entirely and uniquely Canadian.

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From small animal carvings made in wood (he is often credited with starting the boon in coffee table art) to limestone behemoths in public places, E.B had an almost supernatural ability to capture the essence of a subject in his sculptures. Described by art historian Gary Dault as “The Mark Twain of contemporary art,” he famously never took a penny in government grants for his artistry, nor did he suffer elitist, effete art snobs. He was a man of the people, and interaction between the public and his statues was of paramount interest to him.

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The 20 pieces in his masterful Greek Gods series (Hercules, Mermaid, Cyclops, Boy on a Dolphin, Pan, Aphrodite, The Three Graces, The Harpies, Cerberus, The Hydra, The Typhon, Medusa, Orpheus, The Minotaur, Centaur, The Phoenix, Sea Horse, The Sphinx, The Triton and Narcissus) were originally sculpted in the 1960s for a resort in the hills at Georgian Peaks, however E.B was reputedly disgusted at their hilltop placement, as it meant people only saw them during the skiing season. He bought them back in 1974, committed to finding them a home where they could be marvelled at all year round.

In 1978, an E.B Cox fan, Toronto restaurateur and all around celebrity magnet Arthur Carmen bought all 20 statues from E.B and donated them to the city and people of Toronto where they were to be proudly displayed on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition south of the Horticulture building, near the Dufferin gates. E.B would often appear at the CNE, carving wildlife statues out of butter at the Food building (such fare passed as an attraction before exploitative food stunting like the Cronut burger and its ilk became the de facto marketing tool).

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Over the last 30 years, the statues in the Garden of the Greeks Gods have entertained anyone who travelled through this part of the CNE grounds. “What I am happiest about is that my statues will be available to the public, and to kids especially,” E.B told the Toronto Star at the ground breaking ceremony for the Garden in 1979. “They’re not dainty things – all limestone – and kids can climb on them all they want”.

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What does it say about our culture that these magnificent pieces are allowed to languish, some completely out of sight, seen only by the likes of Muzik owner Zlatko Starkovski as a bothersome obstacle in the expansion of his nightclub? It is absolutely shameful that, at the very least, the statues were not moved before the City granted Muzik its cozy licence, and then went on to entertain nonsensical demands such as a ban on all-age parties on the grounds of the CNE.

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As tempting as it to wish the statues might come alive, Golem-style, and extract bloody vengeance on those who see fit to disgrace them as glorified ashtrays, it’s also reassuring to remember that the Greek God statues will outlive the current occupant of the space they pre-date. E.B used to joke that his stone work will still be there long after Rembrandts’ paintings had crumbled. And it’s true.

Remembering Toronto restaurants of days gone by

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Used to be when it came to family dining out on a budget, Toronto was spoiled for choice. The Gods of frugal yum smiled down on us, bestowing fabled chains which offered affordable eats for family friendly visits and left behind indelible impressions in our minds and taste buds even long after they had shuttered, gone into receivership or been chewed up by corporate garburators.

Toronto based chain Frank Vetere’s Pizzeria was one such magical eatery: Started in 1972 by Frank Vetere, the red and green shutters and offbeat interior (mixing Carnival mirrors, cartoons and great moments in Pizza history) provided an imaginative setting, bested only by their Chicago style deep-dish toppings heavy Pizza which oozed that authentic Italian touch and was rightfully branded “the best Pizza you’ve ever tasted”. In fact, Frank Vetere’s actually trademarked the name “Deep Dish Pizza”.

Frank Vetere’s menu also included mouth-watering Italian sandwiches, burgers, pasta and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Arcade games (usually Asteroids, Pac-Man, Dig-Dug or Zaxxon) lined the walls and could be operated with plastic tokens that also worked in the gumball machines, and of course every kid got a free token with their meal. Dads were happy to sink their $2 steins of house lager while the legendary free-with-dinner Frank Vetere’s soda glasses can still be found at local thrift shops.

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After a massive expansion which saw over 40 locations arise in Ontario (22 in Toronto alone), the chain was crippled by the 1982 recession, forcing owners Foodex Inc. to sell most of their locations to Pizza Hut, who wasted little time in aping Vetere’s popular Deep Dish style Pizza but without the pizzaz.


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Another fondly remembered chain also owned by Foodex Inc. of Toronto was Ponderosa. Named after the ranch in TV’s long running oater Bonanza, Ponderosa offered up affordable chopped steak, baked potatoes, all-you-can-eat salad bar, coconut cream pie and mushroom gravy smothered fries.

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The restaurants housed an authentic Cowboy styled atmosphere with saloon doors, stag horns, wood walls, yellow and brown uniforms for the staff and red and white checkered table clothes. Ponderosa was a popular birthday destination in the 80s, owing to the group friendly prices, kid friendly zones and fun-tastic birthday hats. Also, the deserts on display were always a sight to behold.

Sadly the same issues which had affected Frank Vetere’s ultimately brought down Ponderosa, which still survives as a US chain but saw a total collapse in Canada in the late 1980s when the majority of their locations were converted into Red Lobsters (run by the General Mills Canada) at a time when our country was experiencing a massive renaissance in seafood)

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Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurants – catchphrase “A celebration of food!” – also score high on the nostalgic food-o-meter, primary thanks to their yummy deep fried ice cream, piping hot plates and cheap margaritas. It helped that before Taco Bell got a stranglehold on the GTA in the mid-1990s, Chi Chi’s was the only ubiquitous Mexican game in town.

By the 2000s, Chi Chi’s fell apart thanks to a combination of bankruptcy and a fatal hepatitis A outbreak traced back to green onions served at one of their Pittsburgh restaurants. The majority of their remaining locations were unceremoniously gobbled up by Outback Steakhouse, with nary a drop of salsa left behind. Not much of a happy ending for that “celebration”.

Thankfully not all of our beloved retro chains have sad endings: Mothers Pizza Parlour & Spaghetti House, another fondly remembered family joint – recently returned from the grave in April of this year. Businessman Brian Alger acquired the expired trademark to Mother’s Pizza – one of his favorite brands growing up (along with the Pop Shoppe, which he also acquired) – then teamed with Restaurateur Geeve Sandu to reboot the franchise using the same original formula.

It’s not hard to see why Alger was so enamoured with Mothers – Like Frank Vetere’s, the ambiance was crucial to the experience. Roaring 1920s style décor with wood and decorated glass, Tiffany lamps, red and white gingham, and Black & White silent films playing on screens all around the restaurant guaranteed Mothers was a place that once visited was never forgotten. Also like Vetere’s, the Pizza was phenomenal, and their 99 cent Root Beer floats with take home glass were the stuff of playground legend.

The 1980s were unkind to Mothers, and even though Blue Jays Ernie Whitt, Loyd Moseby and Cito Gaston invested in the company (there was even “Ernie Whitt Specials”) and helped market it along with Duel dodger Dennis Weaver! By 1989 Mothers had gone into receivership and was bought up by Little Caesers, who disposed of the classy Mothers style and helped usher in the era of cheap tasteless cardboard Pizza (aided and abetted by other chains who shall remain nameless).

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Many other deceased or decimated chains not mentioned here – The Olive Garden, Lime Rickey’s, JJ Muggs, Harvey Wallbangers, Bo Peep, Eddie Shack Donuts, Bobby Orr Pizza, etc – live on in our memories and through dusty promotional glassware found at garage sales or old commercials on YouTube. Will the cookie cutter family restaurant chains of 2013 – Boston Pizza, Montana’s, Milestones, Eggsmart, etc – ever be as fondly remembered as the likes of Frank Vetere’s, Ponderosa, Chi Chi’s and Mothers?

This article was first published on BlogTO and can be found here

That time the Toronto Police had a talking police car

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Today’s Santa Claus Parade will once again feature an auto-riffic appearance from Blinky, the semi-retired Metropolitan Toronto Police Car who for decades has taught kids about traffic safety, inspired and terrified in equal measure.

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While Pixar may reap the almighty dollar now, it was 1950s era educators and law enforcement who first pioneered the art of targeting children using cars with faces. The Talking Car was an early example, a 16mm educational film made in 1953 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and used extensively in schools and traveling road-shows.

In Ontario, the job of teaching kids about automobile safety fell to Mr. Beep, a mascot-ish ambassador for big oil magnate British Petroleum. Created in 1957, Mr. Beep appeared in BP’s print and billboard advertising and enjoyed massive popularity as a miniature toy car sold for 50 cents at BP gas stations (now worth a small fortune on eBay).

After partnering with the Ontario Safety League, BP created a life size replica out of a Ford Zepher chassis to appear at parades, picnics and the CNE, interacting with children and answering their questions about road safety. In 2013 Mr. Beep found new fame in an episode of History Channel’s Canadian Restorers, after the original car was discovered and restored to its former glory.

Meanwhile in Toronto, the Metropolitan Toronto Police were enjoying great success with their safety mascot Elmer the Elephant, created in 1947 by Charles Thorson (“Elephants never forget”). Schools with perfect safety records got to proudly fly the Elmer flag, however one accident or safety miss-step and it would be cruelly revoked, as this archival CBC short illustrates. Elmer was such a mindful motivator that incidents of children involved in traffic accidents dropped a whopping 44% in the years following his arrival in Toronto.

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However, after nearly two decades of flying solo in his important mission Elmer badly needed a buddy. In the late 1960s, Metro Toronto Police Sergeant Roy Wilson approached radio station CHUM to sponsor his new creation Blinky, a humanized Police cruiser who through blinking could help teach the ABCs of traffic safety. Based on Wilson’s sketches, a standard issue Metro Police Plymouth Fury was modified to incorporate two large eyes and a long nose. A legend was born.

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After several early facelifts, Blinky was soon able to wink as well as blink, and given a voice with the addition of speakers built into the nose and connected to a microphone in the cockpit. Blinky’s eyes moved back and forth and blinked through an adaptation of the regular windshield wiper system, while the car was operated by a safety officer in a booth located nearby and linked with cables laid neatly across the floor.

As the front windscreen was covered and visibility completely obscured by his “mask”, Blinky could not be driven on roads (he did not have an engine either) and so was towed around or remained stationary during his many visits to schools, shopping malls, and most memorably the annual appearances in the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. Elmer now had a friend to march with.

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By the mid-1970s, Blinky fever swept Toronto. Irwin Toys and Tonka engaged in a bidding war to win what they viewed as the super lucrative Blinky license allowing them to mass produce toys, t-shirts, and collectables, however the offers were rejected by the Police commission.

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In 1975, The Toronto Star paid $23,500 as a public service to create a short 10 minute animated film entitled “Blinky: Traffic Safety Rules” which was shown on 16mm film in schools across the GTA and aired numerous times on CFTO’s police friendly Uncle Bobby Show. Seen by over 100,000 Toronto students in the late 70s/early 80s, the film was thought to be long lost until Retrontario recently unearthed a unique 16mm print at an estate sale. Len Carlson, best known as Bert Racoon in CBC’s The Racoons, provided the voice of Blinky.

When visiting school’s to discuss road safety, Blinky’s modus operandi would change radically depending which grade he was talking to. So while kindergarteners might be treated to Blinky singing a song or reciting a poem about pedestrian safety, 8th graders were treated to a frightening demonstration of Blinky slowly backing over a doll filled with red paint, graphically illustrating the end result of what happens to children who don’t properly observe their surroundings – red asphalt.

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In the late ’80s when the entire fleet of Toronto Police cars were repainted and rebranded, the original yellow Plymouth model was retired (donated to the Toronto Shrine, in fact), and Blinky was reborn as a white Ford. Blinky continued to attend the Santa Cluas Parade and the other events, but as the ’90s gave way to the 2000s, time began to take its toll on Blinky.

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By 2005, Blinky was in a sorry state: the speaker system had been removed, taking away Blinky’s voice, and the blinking system had mostly broken down, resulting in one malfunctioning eye that prompted many to wonder what had happened to the former spritely and chatty automobile.

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Blinky’s creator Roy Wilson retired from the Toronto Police force in 1975 (having joined in 1949), after selling them the exclusive rights to Blinky for the princely sum of $1. He went on to become Wasaga Beach’s popular Town Crier. Sadly, Roy passed away on January 20th of this year.

While his Parade bestie Elmer was given a radical make-over several years ago, for better or for worse Blinky remains his same old self. Its seems a criminally missed opportunity that in this age of Pixar’s Cars and Disney’s Planes the character has not been revised or given more to do. Perhaps the Toronto Police are content to wheel Blinky out annually like many of the other relics of yesteryear who appear in the Santa Claus Parade. But for some, his role in the parade is just as magic, nostalgic, heart-warming and memorable as the big man himself.

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Special thanks to Mike Sale

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

That time when Halloween was the Dark Night

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Long before Christopher Nolan’s moody Batman sequels kind of seized the phonetic, Dark Night was the title of YTV’s annual Halloween celebration: a candy haze, pop and chip frenzy induced bumper marathon of spooky ’90s kids shows like Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaky Stories, linked together with epic interstitials starring PJs Phil, Paul, Jenn, Katie, Krista and many more. For children of ’90s, Dark Night was annual appointment TV, almost as important as Halloween itself…

PJs (or Program Jockeys to the uninformed) began to appear on YTV in 1991, helping to fill out precious time between programs where advertising could not be sold, and to bolster the Canadian content quota mandated by the CRTC. It didn’t take long for the first crop of PJs like Jazzy Jan (Janis Mackey Frayer) and Gord the PJ Man (Gordon Woolvet) to catch on and develop cult followings, but it was the fortuitous arrival of one Phil Guerrero aka PJ Phresh Phil that triggered a seismic shift in YTV’s image, vibe, and street credibility. When YTV launched in 1988 they billed themselves as “the spirit of youth”; now they had a Reverend to preach it.

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By 1993 the PJs were the face of YTV, and after great success with 1992 Canada’s Wonderland set Festival of Friends, PJ fronted specials outside of program blocks like The Zone and the Alley began happening with greater frequency. And what better event to build a special night around than one that marketing had determined was key to kids – Halloween. The very first Dark Night premiered in October of 1993, a skin-crawling twenty years ago.

Featuring a triple helping of Are You Afraid of the Dark? along with special Halloween themed episodes of shows like Rugrats and Garfield, the evening was hosted by PJs Phil, Jenn and Ashna in a darkened and cramped candle-lit set. Proving to be a massive ratings success, Dark Night 2 followed in October of 1994 and was sponsored by Smarties , who provided glow-in-the-dark sleeping bags while the PJs promoted sleepovers during the marathon of fearful episodes. Also around this time, the utterly legendary YTV Green Skull first appeared, and forever became associated with scary things on YTV, especially Dark Night.

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In October of 1995, YTV’s atomic creative explosion knew no bounds and the production of Dark Night 3 kicked the enterprise up several notches by shooting at Casa Loma, bringing a real sense of scale to the nominally low key PJ special events. Paul McGuire aka PJ Paul remembers “Dark Night was a big deal at the time. We were used to the small Zone studio and working with nothing, now we’ve got multiple crews, lightning rigs and dollies”.

However, as ambitious as the 3rd installment had been (“Scooby Doo-esq. Shooting it at Casa Loma with all those hidden rooms and secret passages was far scarier than it was on the air” dryly recalls McGuire) it was merely a dress rehearsal for 1996’s industrious and chilling 4th installment:

Dark Night 4 found PJs Phil and Paul wandering around the fog shrouded Toronto streets, looking for a Halloween party while Phil struggles with the fact he has become uncool while Paul’s arm has been bitten by a creature and he may be turning into a monster.

In those days, YTV HQ was located at 64 Jefferson Avenue (ironically now home to Moses Znaimer’s silver foxy Zoomer empire), and the surrounding area afforded suitably creepy locations for the Dark Night shoots.

“I remember getting home at like 7am in the morning, after shooting all night around YTV in the warehouses there. Before it became Liberty Village, it used to be a landfill, with abandoned buildings and warehouses. It was crazy” recalls Phil Guerrero.

“You gotta remember, back then it wasn’t called Liberty Village, it was Lower East Parkdale. When we were shooting (Dark Night 4), in the park there were vagrants, needles and condoms scattered around on the ground, you know? It was a totally different place” adds McGuire, who fondly remembers a zealous make-up artist applying mini-sardines from a tin to create the wound effect on his arm.

As the plots of Dark Night became more inspired, so did the merchandising and promotional tie-ins which became a huge part of the Dark Night experience: from YTV branded bowling ball bags for severed heads, to watches with disappearing YTV skull icon to an actual Dark Night board game. Hasbro Canada provided mind-blowingly massive prize packs rewarding eagle eyed viewers who participated in 1-800 trivia contests. One year the response was so overwhelming the jammed phone lines eventually took down New Brunswick’s network, underlining the furious passion surrounding Dark Night.

Dark Night 5 in 1997 was perhaps the apex of them all, prophetically pre-figuring the reality TV/faux horror craze which wouldn’t kick off until 1999 with The Blair Witch Project and the rise of the “found footage” genre. The PJs held fort at YTV’s control room while monitoring supernatural events unfolding in a small (fictional) town called Tweed. It was as if X-Files had hijacked the Zone and transported it into the heart of Twin Peaks. Was it perhaps too much for kids to see their trusted daily hosts placed into such otherworldly peril?

“There was a lot of controversy back then – if it wasn’t kids gambling with Pogs, the horror stuff was too much for them, or the Power Rangers were making kids beat each other up in the school yards. Every time we did a Dark Night we wondered if it was too scary” recalls Guerrero.

Things were certainly reigned in for the following year’s Dark Night, which was not numbered and featured a monstrous game show parody from the production team behind YTV’s smash UH-OH. In 1999, Dark Night was replaced by Halloweird, and by then both Phil and Paul had moved on from YTV. The winds of change were blowing, and those innovative and anarchic madcap ’90s YTV stylings were soon a thing of the past.

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Last week, home girl Ellen Page tweeted “Halloween approaching makes me remember the limitless, undying joy that YTV’s Dark Night gave me. Any Canadians in the house hearin me?” illustrating the legacy of Dark Night which lives on in the hearts and minds of ’90s kids who came of age during that innocent time before the internet irreversibly changed everything, even how we celebrate Halloween.

“That was the ’90s for you…” Guerrero thoughtfully explains with a sly hint of PJ Phresh Phil sneaking back into his patois. “Great time to be a kid, lame time to be an adult”.

Special thanks to Phil Guerrero, Paul McGuire, Rebecca Lager, Jan Leonard, and Dawn Mustard

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

That time when CKEY/590 was Toronto AM gold

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Much like the music you hear played on them, radio formats are notoriously fickle and prone to constant change. For example, rising star Indie88 might feel as if it’s been with us forever, but is barely a few months old. Now occupying the 88.1 MHz frequency previously occupied by CKLN, whose fearless hip-hop show Fantastic Voyage aided the trajectory of Canadian hip-hop by shepherding the likes of Maestro Fresh Wes and Michie Mee, the arrival of Indie88’s near perfect blend of new and old “alternative” cuts in the dead shadow of CKLN is just the latest in the long line of Toronto AM/FM makeovers, mergers, ownership flips flops and format changes. The danger with radio has always been falling in love with a particular station only to wake-up one morning to find it broadcasting something entirely different.

What is now Chinese language CHKT/1430 on the dial was once CKEY/590, Toronto’s “good as gold” easy listening station. Once a leading Top 40 competitor to powerhouse 1050 CHUM, CKEY went “MOR” (middle of the road) in 1965 and beefed up its news and editorial voice. From 1970 until the early 1980s, CKEY employed the likes of Charles Templeton, NDP leader/Citytv social crusader Stephen Lewis, and Canadian history boffin Pierre Burton. At one point in the ’70s off the back of their stellar news team, rumours abound that CKEY would switch to all news, a novel concept which didn’t end materializing in Toronto until CFTR transformed into 680News in 1993.

On January 1, 1984, CKEY re-branded to “Solid Gold CKEY”, ditching the MOR format in favour of full fat soft rock/oldies, appealing to a growing tide of oldies lovin’ baby boomers who were underserved in the Toronto market at the time. While Boomer partiers gravitated to the harder nostalgia of Q107, amazingly not many stations were playing the likes of Motown, Bill Haley and Simon & Garfunkel. Anyone who visited a dentist’s office in the ’80s no doubt recall hearing the calming yet toe tapping sounds of CKEY.

Fierce competition from old rivals CHUM arrived in 1986 when they also switched formats to oldies, re-christening themselves as “The New 1050 CHUM AM. Suddenly Dentist’s offices had choice, and poor old CKEY found themselves lagging (indeed, rock radio scrapbook refers to CKEY as a perennial bridesmaid).

On June 20, 1988, CKEY became “Key 590” and fully embraced the oldies format, jettisoning any remaining adult contemporary styling that had survived the rebrand as suddenly that format was crowded with the likes of CJEZ FM soothing out Toronto with easy listening jams. As the ’80s drew to a close, CKEY was suffering a major identity crisis.

In March of 1991, CKEY became CKYC “Country 59”, adapting a country music format which was flattened by a Dixie flag emblazoned Mack Truck the following year in the form of CISS-FM, Canada’s first Country FM station. By the mid 1990s, CKYC slid to 1430 on the dial, while sportsradio CJCL inherited the more listener friend 590. In 1997, country was dropped in favor of an ethnic format which stayed in one form or another to this day.

There are some great legacy sites out there that remember CKEY and go much deeper into the classic jocks and side-burned, plaid wearing characters that made it so memorable, including CKEY Memories which is pretty much the definitive collection of the station’s colourful history.

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At its best, CKEY’s rainbow over Toronto imagery summed up the good vibes their broadcast exuded, with smooth music, nice people, breaking news and humane commentary. Even all these years later, CKEY is missed on the dial.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

That time when Murdoch Mysteries went to sea

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Murdoch Mysteries kicks off its new season on Monday night with a salty sea-bound whodunit that not only showcases how polished this homegrown chestnut has become during its seven years on air, but also serves up a slice of legit historical Canadian rolled gold – the S.S. Keewatin, last of the great lakes passenger steamships.

In “Murdoch Ahoy“, erstwhile Toronto police detective William Murdoch (played as always with great relish by perennially smiling ladies man Yannick Bisson) and his guv’nor the craggy ginger Inspector Brackenreid (Coronation Street veteran Thomas Craig) are called in to investigate when the maiden voyage of the S.S. Keewatin comes under threat after a Death and the Maiden card is delivered to the ship’s greedy industrialist owner. Opting to stay aboard during the trip, it’s not long before murder, sabotage and Rubik’s cube-shifting motives distract Murdoch from his true passion – Dr. Julia Ogden (the ever classy Helene Joy).

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Since premiering on Citytv in 2008, Murdoch Mysteries has revelled in its genre splicing mojo – equal parts Conan Doyle murder mystery, Sci-Fi infused police procedural, steam-punk revisionist Toronto travelogue and lush period romance. When Rogers cancelled the series in 2011, CBC’s head of English services and now Twitter Canada supremo Kirstine Stewart smartly rescued it (“Murdoch Ahoy” contains a brilliant Twitter reference, no doubt a shout out to their esteemed saviour).

While the series always felt awkwardly out of place amongst Citytv’s trash glitterati reality shows and sub-CW teen dramas, it fits like a glove on CBC – pure maple flavoured chicken soup for the Canadiana soul.

Over the past seven seasons Murdoch has ardently mythologized turn of the century Toronto lore, turning the aged stuff of dusty books and battered 16mm classroom films into spritely produced drama in the style of Downton Abbey by way of CSI dashed with Doctor Who, possibly with a streak of MacGyver for good measure.

Initially based on the series of Murdoch Mysteries books by Maureen Jennings, local production company Shaftesbury Films have taken her cue and run with it, creating a globally recognized, cult TV brand which shows no sign of powering down anytime soon – surely a rarified feat in Canada (not including non-genre stuff like Degrassi, The Littlest Hobo or Trailer Park Boys).

By embracing and exploiting its Toronto roots as a setting, the city has become as central a character to the show as Murdoch himself: “Murdoch Ahoy” opens with the doomed passenger liner S.S. Keewatin leaving Toronto Harbour, with a historically accurate St. Lawrence Market computer generated seamlessly into the background. Using the actual S.S. Keewatin as the stage for this mystery was a stroke of genius, although its very existence in 2013 is another yet fascinating historical anomaly…

The S.S. Keewatin was built in Scotland for the Canadian Pacific Railway and delivered to the Great Lakes in 1907, were it dutifully served as a railway link connecting Georgian Bay and upper Lake Superior railheads for over six decades. When in the mid-1960s its sister ships were either scrapped or long sunk, the Keewatin escaped a similar unkind fate when it was purchased by an eccentric Michigan collector who brought Keewatin to the small town of Douglas, Michigan ultimately docking on Lake Kalamazoo.

Purchased by Skyline Hotels & Resorts in 2012, an equally eccentric ex-Keewatin waiter by the name of Eric Conroy brought the ship back to its home at Port McNicoll, the once thriving Ontario hub which served as the western terminus of the CPR’s Georgian Bay and Seaboard Railway, connecting to its Ontario and Quebec Railway, near Bethany . (Conroy has a guest appearance in “Murdoch Ahoy” as the ship’s Captain).

As the Keewatin is the last of the Classic Edwardian passenger liner still in existence, older even than the much more prolific S.S Titanic, its 1900-era aesthetic is a century old set frozen in amber. “Murdoch Ahoy” takes full advantage of this almost otherworldly place, following the action from the vast expanse of the open decks down to the tiny cramped corridors in steerage to the industrial era majesty of the engine rooms.

Comparisons to select scenes in James Cameron’s Titanic are inevitable, but the last laugh is that it took the CBC to do something neither Mother Nature nor force majeure could muster – sink the mighty S.S. Keewatin.

Murdoch Mysteries – “Murdoch Ahoy” airs on CBC Monday, September 30 at 8PM/8:30NT

The S.S. Keewatin is open for tours every day from 9am – 4pm in Port McNicoll

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

Lead photo from the S.S. Keewatin webpage.