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That time when Toronto television did the movies right

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Long before time-shifting VCRs, DVDs, Pay-TV and Netflix allowed movie lovers to mainline with all the ease of turning on a tap to get water, TVOntario treated Toronto denizens to double helpings of film classics on Saturday nights, doled out generously by the most perfectly employed man in the history of television – Elwy Yost, the movie host with the most.

Originally christened “Saturday Afternoon at the Movies on Saturday Night” before being shortened to the eminently more memorable “Saturday Night at the Movies” (SNATM), Elwy’s show premiered on March 30, 1974 with a cold slab of European nihilism – Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, then went on to thrill viewers over the years with an eclectic mix of 5 star classics, foreign fare, and often neglected and forgotten b-movies from the golden age of Hollywood.

Elwy truly loved movies with the perennial joy of a proud parent, championing even the most questionable titles and never allowing the kind of cynicism so rampant in modern film discussions to blight his magical picture show. Famously, Elwy adored every movie he ever saw, except one title in particular (being a proper gentleman, he never named the movie but rumour on the street is that it was Porky’s II: The Next Day).

As TVOntario reported to the Ontario legislature through Minister of Education Bill Davis in accordance with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority Act, all programming was expected to contain at least a modicum of educational content. SNATM brilliantly achieved this by airing interviews with film makers, set designers, stunt men and actors discussing the art and science of the movies, predating the concept of DVD bonus materials or Director Commentaries which are so commonplace that we’re all movie experts now.

Not only would you get a double barrel blast of quality films on a Saturday Night, you also got all the trimmings – interviews from such luminaries as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Greta Greer, George Stevens, Vincent Minnelli and Frank Capra to name a mere few.

Elwy would also invite local guests ranging from Toronto Sun film critic Bruce Kirkland to the late great John Candy onto the SNATM set for lively debates on hot topics often raised by the themed double bills, such as alcohol or drug abuse, adultery, and juvenile delinquency. For a screening of The Ox-Bow Incident, Elwy’s guests were a rabbi, a priest, a police officer and a lawyer, who all engaged in a discussion about the rights of individuals to take matters into their own hands.

As if the 4-5 hour Saturday night slot was not enough, Elwy also fronted the weekday movie show Magic Shadows, which chopped up vintage films into bit sized 30 min chunks, and also had a memorably psychedelic/terrifying into that anyone who saw will likely never forget. Elwy often ran his favorite film of all time – Nanook of the North – along with King Kong and Flash Gordon serials.

Elwy retired from TVOntario in 1999, but SNATM weathered on, first with Shelagh Rogers and later Johanna Schneller as hosts, and then a number of years completely host-less although thankfully Elwy’s vintage interviews cropped up from time to time. Thom Ernst took over hosting duties in 2008.

Sadly, tomorrow night’s installment of SNATM (The Live of Others and Black Book, bookending the whole enterprise nicely with more European nihilism) is the series’ curtain call, the end of the line. Written off as a casualty of the rise of Netflix and dedicated movies channels, and no doubt impacted by the reduced operating budget of TVOntario, SNATM – the longest running film series in Canada and probably the world according to Ernst – seemed like an obsolete relic from a different time.

The sad truth is that since 1999 the show has had an Elwy shaped hole in it. With no offence intended to the subsequent hosts – they were all excellent – SNATM will be remembered for Elwy’s infectious sunshine disposition and his positive celebration of movies. He loved them, and knew more about them than anybody else. It may be easier to watch things like Through A Glass Darkly nowadays, but it is nigh on impossible to find anyone to talk about them with the kind of exuberant relish Elwy Yost always brought on Saturday nights.

Farewell, Saturday Night at the Movies.

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.

The top 10 things to do in Toronto on the August long weekend (30 years ago edition)

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August, 1983: it might have been thirty years ago, but in the grand scheme of things that’s hardly a raindrop in Lake Ontario. Here’s some rad options Toronto denizens had as the sweltering August long weekender kicked off.

GO TO CANADA’S WONDERLAND

Only wto summers old, and already $10.95 a day?!! That’s silly rich people money. Still, word is good on the Mighty Canadian Mine Buster, Zumba Flume, Scooby Doo Ghoster Coaster, Happyland of Hanna-Barbera, Smurf Village and of course Yogi Bear’s upside-down cottage.

CHILL OUT WITH PORTABLE PERSONAL STEREO

The Sanyo Sportster Personal Stereo Portable actually allows you to take your music with you wherever you go, including that breezy spot underneath the tree next to the pool. Ain’t technology grand!

SEE A MOVIE

So far summer 1983 is all about RETURN OF THE JEDI, but having already seen that three times how about SLEEPAWAY CAMP? Even if it sucks, it’s still a mighty fine air-conditioned refuge from the unforgiving heat.

TRY CHICKEN McNUGGETS

McDongles has this crazy new menu item called “Chicken McNuggets” being advertised all over the place…time to find out what all the fuss about?

PLAY WINTARIO DOUBLE BONUS DRAW

Double your chances for the big Wintario draw on August 11. Winning would be awesome, but getting to meet sweet Faye Dance would be even better!

RIDE THE LRC

VIA’s new LRC is a treat for train enthusiasts – Light, Rapid, Comfortable.

WATCH DENNIS WEAVER IN COCAINE ON TV

CityTV Channel 79 has a Great Movie on Friday night – Dennis “McCloud” Weaver as a man whose life is torn asunder by evil white dust.

PLAY VANGUARD AT HOME ON ATARI

How many quarters have you dumped into VANGUARD in the last 2 years? Well, now you can stay home and play it on Atari in your air-conditioned house! Now if only Luther was around to help on the last level…

ENJOY A CAFFEINE FREE TAB

Ice cold TAB is a summer favourite, but did you know it’s now available caffeine free?

VISIT ONTARIO PLACE

Best family spot in the whole city, and “it’s all yours!” – hopefully forever…

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 retrontario.com.

That time when Toronto was People City

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To mark the 175th birthday of the great city of Toronto in 2009, Mayor David Miller presided over the Toronto Song Contest, inviting Canadian residents 13 years of age and older to submit a song that reflected “Toronto’s amazing spirit and unparalleled diversity,” offering up a prize of $5000 and a place in history as our city’s de facto theme song. He needn’t have bothered, as Toronto already had a de facto theme song, a perfectly legit one at that, called “People City.”

Written by Gary Gray and golden-larynx crooner Tommy Ambrose, “People City” was stealthily commissioned by Moses Znaimer in the summer of 1972 to mark the launch of his small but mighty local UHF station Citytv. The remit was simple – he wanted a love song about the city of Toronto. “People City” bookended each exciting new day of Citytv’s broadcast: the full vocal mix played when the station signed on in the early morning hours, while the more laid-back muzak-y instrumental mix played when they signed off in the late hours. The song was released as a 45rpm single and climbed to 44 in the Canadian adult contemporary chart in 1973.

Ambrose was born in Toronto and cut his teeth as a Gospel singer and frequent subject of CBC’s Cross Canada Hit Parade in the 1950s, which led to his own series, The Tommy Ambrose Show in the early ’60s.

By the ’70s, Ambrose had established himself as a champion jingle maestro able to compose and perform memorable audio campaigns effortlessly across radio and television. As a rallying cry for the boys and their beer, his Labatt 50 jingle “Me and the Boys and our 50” has never been bettered. Ambrose ran a jazz bar in downtown Toronto between 1977 and 1989 ironically called “Jingles”, which by all accounts was a hopping place to drink, smoke and get down on some bad assed sound styling.

“People City” however remains the unquestionable Ambrose masterpiece, a haunting, slightly schmaltzy ode to the friendly multicultural city which in 1972 was brimming with the same magnanimous stuff that still makes us proud today:

Find yourself in people city

Stay awhile if you can

With folks who will be tomorrow’s faces

Kickin’ the traces

Showing you places

In Toronto

That’s people city

Where love takes hold

Makes old dreams happen

She makes you feel things

So very feeling

Take on old meaning

In Toronto

That’s people city

Winter’s white in people city

Green ravines make summer pretty

When leaves start to turn

Then the rainbow burns

That’s when you learn

That you’re in Toronto

That’s people city

Not surprisingly, Ambrose was later commissioned to also perform the theme song for the launch of Global TV – “A Point of View,” two years later in 1974. While not as immediate as “People City”, “A Point of View” is yet another maudlin theme which bottles the past, the present and the future into one spooky aural vintage. Global TV used it as well in their sign-off videos in the ’70s and early ’80s, guaranteeing it a place in the warm nostalgic tickle trunk of Ontario ephemera.

Other than the occasional spin on Zoomer 740 AM (owned and operated by a certain Moses Znaimer), you don’t hear much of “People City” these days; You hear even less of the 2009 winner of Mayor Miller’s Toronto song contest, a modest ditty called “Love to Live in Toronto” by George Axon and Aidan Mason.

Perhaps Tommy Ambrose’s love song to Toronto just captured the melancholy vibe of the city in a way that that no one else has in the last 40 years.

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 the CN Tower had a clown on stilts

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The CN Tower has memorably provided stout entertainment to Toronto and its visitors for almost four decades, but sadly history has not been kind to its original kid-friendly mascot, a humble, balloon animal wielding clown on stilts who went by the name of Diego.

David Garrick, former general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition first spotted Diego Gonzoloz walking on stilts in the 1975 Toronto Santa Claus Parade. Garrick had been drafted by the CN Tower to take over its public affairs department just as it was opening, and saw great potential in the form of a towering clown. “I reached way up high and gave him my business card, and asked him to call me.” recalls Garrick, now retired. “I started him on just weekends, when the crowds were backing up the elevators.”

Seen briefly in the clip above, Diego was on hand for the CN Tower grand opening ceremony, and remained a fixture until the early 1990s. Finding great favor with visitors, especially children, he roamed around the lobby of the Tower, making balloon animals and generally keeping people amused while they waited for their turn to ride up the elevators. Garrick remembers “He was so good with children and making balloons for them while on stilts that he was hired full time. My payroll clerk who was hard-nosed from the railway side said I have penned a lot of cheques for clowns, but this is the first real one I have signed.”

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Look closely at the photo above, and in the top centre you can just make out Diego’s legs, surrounded by a scrum of adoring children. According to stilt maker Gary Ensmenger, stilts have been helping sideshow entertainers walk tall for over 600 years, creating a playful twist on physical reality and elevating street performance to, uh, lofty heights. Laugh Makers magazine, a title dedicated to the arts and science of Carny folk, wrote in 1990: “The term “Stilt Walker” is already obsolete because it does not delineate what we are accomplishing as performers on bending-toe stilts. We should replace the term with “Stilt Performer” or “Stilt Acrobat” and leave the stilt walking to folks on drywall sticks.”

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Doc Bandoli, a popular Toronto entertainer also remembers Diego well: “I myself used to do gigs on stilts for years and I did a few at the CN Tower where I met Diego. He always stayed at the inside ground floor because his stilts were so high, and after walking around a bit he would always perch himself on a concrete ledge and make balloon animals for the kids.”

Unsurprisingly, it was children who championed Diego. Perhaps his most lasting impression came in the form of a popular souvenir glass which came free with purchase of specially mixed kid drinks served At the Top of Toronto, the CN Tower restaurant now known as 360. Not only can these still be found knocking around local thrift stores, but probably as well around the world thanks to the booming CN Tower tourist trade in the 70s and 80s.

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After a fleeting cameo in the utter train wreck that is CBC’s The Opening of SkyDome: A Celebration, Diego disappeared. Dave Garrick left his position as President of the CN Tower to help launch the Skydome: “Diego stayed on until the stilts became too hard on this knees and I do not know where he went, as I left the tower to go to Skydome”.

Numerous attempts to track down more information on Diego have proved futile, as for whatever reason the CN Tower’s current publicity department sees no value in acknowledging his contribution to the overall experience during its formative years. However, as the sheer number of visitors who attended the Tower between 1976 and the early 1990s must number in the hundreds of thousands, there are likely many more visual recordings out there of this jolly, stilted clown who kept young ones busy and engaged while their families awaited a ride to the top of Toronto. Hopefully one day his legacy can be respectfully marked.

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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.

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That time when Toronto got the Munchies and nothing else would do

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There was a time locally when only one brand of potato chips mattered – Hostess Potato Chips.

Owned by powerhouse General Foods, Hostess Potato Chips monopolized the snack food industry between 1959 and the early 1990s with strong flavours, and stronger favor. If you were a kid during that era, you may remember Hostess being revered as the almighty God of chips.

According to the current owner Frito Lay’s website: “Hostess Chips had its beginning in 1935, when a young Beaverdale farmer began cooking potato chips on his mother’s kitchen stove. Little did he realize that the finest potato chip manufacturing operation in Canada was to grow from this humble beginning. The youth’s name was Edward Snyder; the company he founded became known as “Hostess.”

Through a deft blend of simple colour coded branding, quality control, and an aggressive distribution strategy, Hostess were kings of all things chip related: Blue was Regular, green was Sour Cream & Onion, yellow was Salt & Vinegar, and deep red was BBQ. Eventually Ketchup, BBQ Chicken, and Sour Cream & Bacon joined the hallowed ranks. A bag cost roughly 25 cents, and came in a no frills tin-foil packet. Salt was bountiful, and the burning vinegar taste packed an unforgettably savoury wallop. It was truly finger lickin’ good.

Their greatest boon however came as a response to their greatest blunder. In the late 1970s, in a marketing manoeuvre on par with Coke’s inexplicable decision to change their billion dollar taste, Hostess released three new, fruity flavours of potato chip – Cherry, Orange and Grape. The retching, heaving sound of disapproval can still be heard (and felt) to this day – with many people taking to the internet claiming that even after almost 40 years they still cannot get the awful taste out of their mouth.

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Born out of this howling dud in 1981 were the Munchies, 3 goblin type creatures created to cheerlead the brand and its booming new tagline – “When you got the munchies, nothing else will do”.

Throughout the 1980s the loveable trio of Munchies were woven into that uniquely warped tapestry of immortal Canadiana advertising mascots, rivalled only in ubiquity by Captain Highliner. They appeared not only on TV, but in local parades, at the CNE, at shopping malls, and even in commercials for convenience stores like Beckers. Plush replicas of them slept in many childhood beds as they traversed the landscape of 1980s pop culture – video games, heavy metal, Michael Jackson and breakdancing.

Also memorable were the collectable stickers you could find inside bags of Hostess chips. Baseball, wrestling, and rock band themes were the most popular, but the endless cycle included TV show and movie tie-ins as well. Occasionally in thrift stores you can come across ancient household appliances adorned with half scratched off Hostess wrestling stickers.

As the 1990s dawned, Hostess Chips fell victim to what Wikipedia terms “brand erosion with the introduction of various “upscale” brands such as Kettle Chips and Miss Vickie’s”. By 1996, they were gone, replaced by the dull packaging and even duller taste of Lays.

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You can still find Hostess at Food Basics and Price Chopper, or online at Canadian Favourites, however they are HINO (Hostess in name only): Lays chips bagged in Hostess branded packages so that Frito Lay can maintain its trademark protection on the Hostess brand, which has long been dropped by the corporation.

The real deal is gone, and sadly when you got the Munchies, nothing else will do.

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 CFTR became 680NEWS

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Exactly 20 years ago today, as the final notes of Starship’s paen to 80s era commercial rock “We Built This City on Rock’N’Roll” faded away into the murky 440 hz fuzz of amplitude modulation, Toronto’s once mighty Top 40 radio station AM CFTR 680 was re-born as the city’s very first all-news radio station, 680News, where it remains today as the most successful radio station in all of Canada.

CFTR began life in 1962 on 1540 kHz as CHFI-AM, simulcasting CHFI-FM. In 1971 it changed its call letters to CFTR, standing for “Canada’s First Ted Rogers,” honoring founder, owner and all around media guru Ted Rogers. The station flirted with different formats over the years, at first championing Top 40 and giving 1050 CHUM a run for the coveted title as most popular Toronto music station. Known in the industry as a trend setter for modern radio programming, CFTR switched to adult contemporary in 1986 and found great success with its commercial free Sundays, as well with popular DJs like Tom Rivers, Mike Cooper, and later Tarzan Dan. However at the dawn of the 1990s, it had become obvious that music ergo advertising revenue on AM was drying up, and a radical overhaul was necessary to survive.

A few markets in the US had successfully experimented with the all-news format, but the concept was untested in Canada in both radio and television. At the time, CNN had only recently completed its first decade on the air, and the value of a 24/7 news service was amazingly still considered niche. Had it not been for the breathless under-the-Baghdad-desks broadcasts from Wolf Blitzer and Bernard Shaw during the Gulf War of 1991, it’s conceivable that even CNN would have remained an obscure cable channel, and the format of all news would have taken even longer to gestate as a sustainable commercial and populist enterprise. War, what is it good for?

After looking at the so-called “AM problem” in depth, CFTR toyed with the idea of switching to an all-news format, spurred on by rumours that rival 640AM was close to doing the same: no one wanted to be the last station still playing music on AM radio in Toronto. Thanks to some meticulous planning and research from CHFI News’ director at the time John Hinnen, who had visited WINS 1010 New York, the originators of All News radio (tagline: “You give us 22 minutes we’ll give you the world“) and formulated a six-day turnover plan.

After acquiring their news manual, Hinnen was confident he could overhaul CFTR into a top shelf All News station. Now he just needed a buy-in. “The board called up Ted and asked him what he thought” recalls Hinnen, now General Manager of 680s News and VP of News, Rogers TV and Radio. “They said, hey Ted, we’re making a million bucks a year now and if we do this we’ll probably lose 5-7 million a year for the next few years. Ted said, sounds like a plan, let’s do it. So, the entrepreneurship of a guy like Ted Rogers is the only reason why a station like 680 is around today. If you look at guys who are worried about quarters, it’s a much different environment, but because Ted being Ted, he was prepared to invest in the long term, and we started making a profit in year five. Now it is the most profitable radio station in the country”

Hinnen recalls “It was an interesting launch. That week was crazy, totally crazy. People thought we were crazy. The competitors just couldn’t believe we were doing this, they thought it was a waste of money”.

While most of CFTR’s existing on air personalities at the time were given pink slips (including Tarzan Dan, who went on to a prolific broadcast career at YTV as host of HITLIST), the news staff survived and eagerly stepped into the breach of this brave new All News era. Thankfully this carryover included the dulcet tones of Traffic reporter Darryl Dahmer: “I’d already been with the radio station for 20 years. We knew that this was coming and the shock was to change the major format of music, because we were at the top of the heap. But the seers had looked at what was going to happen on the horizon and I thought, great, traffic is part of the news department, so hopefully I will continue to have a job. And I’m still here today.”

Dahmer: “I’ve seen a lot of transitions in the 50 some odd years I’ve been in the industry, but to make a change like this, and then realize the concept, it was absolutely fascinating to have news at your fingertips 24 hours a day. We all thought it was a pretty good thing. We missed the music because when we were working in the music format, we were part of the product, and now we’re delivering the product.”

Asked about the jazzy signature tune which accompanies all his TV commercials and has become another de facto aural mark of 680News, Darryl admits he was unsure of it at first. “I had nothing to do with it and I didn’t think much of it when I heard it, but now it’s grown on everyone. It’s like mushrooms on the side of a tree. It’s an absolute perfect piece of music as a bed for the commercials. I’m really proud of our commercials, they introduce our audience to one of the main things we do for them which is traffic reports”.

In addition to Dahmer’s essential airborne Traffic reports, another thing 680News has delivered consistently well in the last 20 years is consistency itself. John Hinnen remembers “In 1994 we were offered the Leafs rights for 4 years, so we thought about it and said no. The way we’re gonna win is to be consistent, and I think that this is the most consistent radio station in the country in so far as we haven’t changed formats.

The people are consistent, Darryl Dahmer has been with Rogers since 1973, the longest serving employee with Rogers is Russ Holden who started in 1967, at least a half a dozen of us who have been here since day one, myself, James Monroe, Gloria Martin. The fact that we haven’t made a ton of changes, people have come to expect what this is, we’ve looked at it as a utility, as opposed to a radio station.”

Has the rise of Twitter, and citizen journalists armed with smart phones and loose standards changed the way in which 680 operates, especially with pressure to break news before anyone else?

“Twitter now has certainly become a great source for tips, sometimes for news and information” wryly notes Hinnen. “We try and treat it in such a way that it’s another source for us, and we’ll try to check things out best we can. But traditional media needs to think of themselves in a slightly different way now, we’re all trying to be competitive, but rather than get the story first, get the story right, and more importantly to be fair, but in terms of journalistic integrity, there’s a real challenge to the media right now, which was a real problem with Boston coverage, Cleveland coverage, even the Rob Ford story, which we held off running that morning.

I believe 680 and City were the only media that held off. We didn’t run the story until we’d had a chance to at least provide some balance so we wanted to make sure that we had a comment from Ford before we ran the story because to me it was such a damning accusation.”

680News remains as relevant today as when it first launched 20 years ago, with radio now being only one platform for their reporting, but if the power goes out or your smartphone runs out of batteries it is ultimately the most important.

“We’re a 24 hour a day wheel. When people tune in they know what they’re gonna get. And it’s exciting to provide this information in all the forms that we do to our audience. We edit this material on the fly, so it’s not stale dated, like a newspaper. We say, when you read a newspaper, you’re reading old news…” says Darryl Dahmer, not untruthfully.

Happy birthday 680News, here’s to the next 20!

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 Toronto Ford meant something else

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A quick Google of the names “Ford” and “Toronto” spits out over 300,000,000 depressing results, covering everything as you might well guess from subways to KFC to cocaine of the smokeable variety. While this ubiquitous association has many concerned for the global rep of this once fine and politically civilized city, it’s comforting to recall that Toronto has already survived one sustained saturation of the Ford brand. Although to be fair it was a little less sensational, it happened in the 1980s, and it was different kind of Ford…

Running from 1983 until late 1987, Ford’s “Toronto…Driving is Believing” TV spot were innocent civic odes to Ford lovin’ Hogtown denizens. Backed by obvious landmarks, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from colourful local characters as diverse as J.D Roberts, Ed Mirvish, Don Cherry, Harold Ballard, Elwy Yost, Paul Godfrey, Al Waxman, Jesse Barfield, Brian Linehan, and many more, they all closed out with a “man on the street” testimonial spotlighting Torontonians espousing how they had become believers.

“Toronto, Toronto, we can’t be outdone, at Ford quality is job one!”

The Star had no issue with Ford in ’80s

By the late eighties, people had grown tired of the Toronto Ford meme, and more generic, less jingely TV spots were introduced, standard operating procedure for Ford right up until this day. With the all-consuming and probably lasting hoo ha involving their mayoral namesake, it’s doubtful Ford would want to engage Toronto in a campaign quite so literal ever again, or at least anytime soon.

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 the Provincial lottery did blackface

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Yesterday’s toppling of the OLG house of cards, accompanied by the feint whiff of an oncoming category 5 scandal presents us with yet another blunder in a long line of embarrassing, OLG related palavers. Did you ever hear the one about the Al Jolson lottery commercial?

In 1978, Ontario based “The Provincial,” a $5 ticket with five $1 million Jackpots, became the first lottery available coast to coast. It saturated the airwaves with catchy jingles and fun TV commercials, one of which even starred the mighty Billy Van, but one commercial from June of 1983 ran seismically afoul of all good taste and sense:

A light hearted play on classic Hollywood characters and charactures – Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong, W.C Fields et al – it’s certainly no more or less misleading than any lottery commercial which asked you to “just imagine,” or to picture yourself sitting on beach sipping champagne and lighting cigars with Million dollar bills. However, this commercial contained a snippet of Al Jolson doing his signature “Mammy” blackface shtick, and even by 1983’s riotous punk standards, this was unacceptable.

Amazingly, around this time you could still see infomercials on TV for old Al Jolson record collections that showed clips even a decade earlier would have been considered mainstream. However, the 1980s was the decade when racially insensitive material from the unenlightened past finally began to get culled, by no means definitively, out of wide circulation (hence why Walt Disney’s Song of the South VHS tapes sell for a small fortune on eBay).

Complaints about Al Jolson guesting in their commercial flooded into the Provincial and the OLG. CityTV’s crusading crime reporter, JoJo Chintoh featured a story about a young 10 year-old local boy who was upset this grotesque parody of his race was the only time he saw anyone of colour on TV in prime-time. After getting a lot of negative coverage, especially on CityPulse, the offensive TV ad was re-edited to be made a little less “offensive”:

In a moment of supreme un-ironic irony, Al Jolson had been white-faced in a weak sauce attempt to salvage the already submerged spot. As is always the case when something this monumentally stupid occurs, people got fired. The spots were pulled, replaced by something harmless, and the event was very quickly brushed under the carpet. We assume all copies of both spots were destroyed in a bonfire.

Thanks to the wonders of home VHS recordings from this Wild West era, both versions of this commercial were accidentally preserved on analogue tape and have now been placed on the internet where they can serve forever as reminders of a far less sensitive, less polished era in the OLG`s checkered history.

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 the SkyDome landed in Toronto

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Some might say that the Rogers Centre SkyDome was born under a bad sign: After the 1982 Grey Cup relayed broadcast to an audience of over 7 million Canadian viewers (at the time, a whopping record) embarrassing images of sullen Argos fans at Exhibition Stadium soaked to the bone, frozen masses huddled under concession stands, overflowing toilets and torrential disaster movie style rain, it became apparent that if Toronto desired to be a world class city, it urgently required an enclosed sport`s Stadium. The Argos might have lost that night, but Toronto`s image was the real loser.

Enter Ontario Premier Bill Davis, who had been in attendance at the great Grey Cup wash out, and who was drowned out the following day during the Argos presser by universal cries of “We want a Dome!” Never one to let a good crisis go to waste, Davis expedited plans for an enclosed stadium to be built in Toronto; a bump in the polls soon followed.

After several years of geographic uncertainty it was finally decided to build a retracting Dome stadium at the base of the CN Tower, at the time a near barren waste-land, but conveniently within close walking distance to the Union Station hub. Construction began in October 1986 with EllisDon winning the lucrative lead contractor bid, and spearheaded by Chuck Magwood, President of the crown corporation formed to run the Dome.”Before debt service, the project will throw off something like $30 million in the first full calendar year,” he once said, famously.

Two and a bit years and $570 million dollars later, the newly christened SkyDome, designated such after a frenzied months long National contest, was ready to open to the public. Sadly the EllisDon completion came a scant few months later than originally planned, resulting in the gigantic missed opportunity of kicking-off SkyDome activity with the Toronto Blue Jays 1989 home opener (it was held at the old and busted Ex Stadium, for shame). To make up for this, Chuck Magwood and StadCo planned a gala, star-studded party-of-the-century to mark the epic launch of Toronto’s, nay, Canada’s dome – “The Opening of SkyDome: A Celebration”

Broadcast nationwide on the CBC, hyped for weeks in advance, and hosted by, ahem, Canadians Alan Thicke and Andrea Martin, “The Opening of SkyDome” was clearly one of those events which probably seemed like a great idea at the time, and may well have looked good on paper, but did not translate into compelling television – unless you consider rubber necking an inglorious train wreck compelling. In fact, it is a top tier contender for the most bizarre, frustratingly inept CBC broadcasts of all time, thanks to a potent cocktail of its own misguided hubris and poorly judged antics, and a deft bitch-slap from Mother Nature.

After the rousing WTF intro which clearly caught the elated audience off-guard (beautifully setting the stage for the melt down to follow), the rat-a-tat thud of Quebec impersonator André-Philippe Gagnon`s poor and incomprehensible jokes, and a gaunt, sleepwalking performance from soft rock gods Glass Tiger, Premier David Peterson rocked the mic with a laser pen to officially open the Dome. The legend Oscar Peterson (no relation) then took to his keys to soundtrack this poignant moment which should have carried the emotional weight of the structure itself, but instead marked segued into a gargantuan farce.

CBC host Brian Williams breathless reports that due to a lightning storm in the area, the Dome roof cannot be fully open, thus somewhat deflating the mood of the event, and actually it`s raison d’être. One can only imagine the flop sweat and foul language flying around behind the scenes, as the decision to close or keep open the roof would not have been a light one. Never mind that Chuck Magwood, seated and all smiles ham for the cameras, was busy demanding the roof be opened come hell or highwater. Highwater it was.

Poor Alan Thicke does his best to introduce the salute to those who built the Dome, but by this point the oncoming soak must have been giving broadcasters a migraine induced déjà vu of Grey Cup 1982. Not even the much vaunted touchdown of SkyDome`s kid friendly mascot Domer could raise a smile. The parade for Toronto’s bright and shiny new toy was well and truly being rained on.

As if the patience of attendees had not been tested enough, the following song and dance number absolutely defied convention. Dedicated to the people of Toronto, and ostensibly based upon our rich multicultural fabric, “We Are Toronto, That`s Why We Celebrate!” is just about the most cringe-worthy item to limp out of the sometimes taste challenged 1980s, and that`s saying something. You can just about hear the feint sound of a million people changing the channel to watch something, anything else.

Smearing rock salt into an already festering wound, the onslaught of torturous light entertainment continued unabated. Maestro and until-then flawless Toronto jingle chef Tommy Ambrose appeared to sing his specially composed for the occasion ditty, “Open up the Dome!” to which the few people remaining in the stands reportedly yelled back “Close the roof!”

At this point in the “celebration”, it is hard to decide which is the most tragic sight: The aging local heroes and middling talent being driven around and announced over the loud speaker in embarrassing rhyming lyrics (look, Al Waxman!), the few die-hard souls who had probably paid out the nose for tickets and were staying put in their seats, or the faces of those young entertainers who had practiced day and night for moths preparing for this, the biggest show of their life, only to be dumped on by the unimpressed gods from above. Karma, or divine intervention?

While scandal and cronyism ran rampant in the years before, and those which followed, and as more and more juicy stories leaked out about StadCo’s business dealings, and the enormous financial sucking wound SkyDome created, never mind the renaming of the building, people mostly forgot about “The Opening of SkyDome: A Celebration”. Maybe people just blocked it out of their memories, like they would any other traumatic event.

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 image: Domer the (retried) SkyDome mascot

That time when Record Store Day was everyday

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Tomorrow is Record Store Day, a special occasion to celebrate local record shops, and the seemingly Teflon vinyl format.

There’s a lot of noise about why vinyl is still en vogue, whether it is the undying physicality of the medium – those liner notes and photographs, the human need to hold a piece of the artist or admire a collection in totality, the uncompressed purity and fidelity of raw analogue sound, or just the intrinsic visual and aural artistry of dropping needle onto a wax cylinder.

The record store is no different. For a long time, it enjoyed an unparalleled reputation as a defining temple of cool, a vast library of street credibility spilling over with crucial music you had never heard, and couldn’t afford, or had heard and couldn’t afford to live without. People of all types flocked there to learn and discern, to hear music, and talk about music, and buy music. Like the beloved video rental shops of days gone by, recently the Record Store has taken on an almost ethereal place in the hearts and minds of many, and that is why Record Store Day is so essential.

In honor of Record Store Day, here are a few nostalgic TV spots from beloved Record Store chains no longer with us.

Discus, Music World, A&A, Sam The Record Man, Tower, Cheapies, Flipside: How many people found the vinyls or cassettes or CDs that soundtracked their lives there?

Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum was a true Toronto oddity, a place full of the most incredible selection of wax, but also dotted with bizarre paraphernalia, including records covered in bible verse (apparently these were the ones Peter did not like). Sadly it was closed in the late 1990s, but to this day you can still find many records with Peter Dunn Vinyl Museum slip covers floating around good thrift stores.

Speaking of thrift stores, the granddaddy of great record shopping and more important amazing discoveries, to this day, remains Goodwill. As Macklemore gnomically states, “one man’s trash that’s another man’s come up”:

While for many the idea of music existing as a physical object has been abandoned, and a fully digital musical caboodle selected and downloaded from a virtual store has been cheerfully embraced, it is encouraging to see the interest in Record Store Day. And as the digital waves break, so will follow the analogue undertow.

Happy Record Store Day!

That time when life in the city started at the Centre

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The Eaton Centre may fall in and out of fashion, but it has always enjoyed top tier status in the pantheon of Hogtown iconography for good reason. While the last decade or so may not have been so kind – last summer’s Food Court shooting being a particularly barmy blight – there once was a time when the Centre was at the shining centre of Toronto’s eyes wide open consumer optimism.

“Life in the City (Starts at the Centre)” was an inaugural song comissioned to celebrate the opening of Centre in 1977. Written by jingle master Terry Bush, the genius behind the infinitely indelible theme song for The Littlest Hobo and a million other jingles, “Life in the City” was even performed live on opening night at the Eaton Centre by Bush, as the event was breathlessly reported by all of Canada’s major media outlets.

Here’s a snippet from the early 80s TV commercials which ran under the “Life in the City” umbrella:

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, Eaton Centre TV commercials dominated local channels, whether it was Citytv, CFTO or even independent Buffalo stations like WUTV 29. They celebrated the food, the clothes and the glass covered galleria itself. There was a tremendous pride in the Eaton Centre.

If you fondly recall Stitches, or Simpsons, or the old Mr. Green Jeans, or the Cineplex Odeon theatre with tiny screens and paper walls, some of these retro TV spots will probably stoke a warm nostalgic glow in your heart:

That’s SCTV alum Tony Rosato in the last spot, unable to pick just one delicious dish circa 1986.

Of course, with the advent of online shopping and the fickle nature of brick and mortar retail, it ain’t what it used to be. Is anything? But the dizzy heights and good times of flashy unfettered ’80s consumerism are captured here, like Dinosaur DNA frozen in amber, for future generations to ponder.

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 puppets taught us about danger

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For too long fatal dangers in the average Canadian home were left unchecked. Aside from the occasional in-school 16mm horror shows warning of poison and dangerous strangers, there was little effort to educate kids about the severe repercussions of messing around with unknown substances. So after the sweeping Hazardous Products Act of 1971 was authored by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, it fell to the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (CCA) to educate and inform the public of the new Hazardous Product Symbols: four icons that were to appear on the labels of items which contained corrosive, flammable, poisonous, or explosive materials.

Renowned Toronto advertising agency Vickers and Benson, famous at the time for their breakthrough William Shatner fronted “More than the price is right” Loblaws TV spots, had established a close relationship with the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968 after Trudeau’s rise to the office of Prime Minister. They were hired to devise the creative behind a new hazard awareness campaign, which would be directed at a young demo and assumed to be co-viewed by their parents and guardians. The simple yet highly effective modus operandi of outer space travellers named Binkley and Doinkel was sketched out – these two green aliens are visiting Earth, and need to learn about potential dangers that should be avoided.

Meanwhile, around the same time, puppeteer Noreen Young was making waves in Toronto at the Provincial broadcasting network of TVOntario (TVO). An Ottawa native who had built puppets from a young age and manipulated them into “incredible plots that would have rivalled Dallas”, Young was busy working on the flagship TVO children’s series entitled Read-A-Long, which was TVOntario’s attempt to mould a Sesame Street styled educational potpourri of live action, animated and puppet vignettes. Impressed by her wonderful creations, scope and ambition, Young was approached to work on the Binkley and Doinkel project, to not only realize the characters in puppet form, but to help train the young players of “The Binkley and Doinkel Safety Show”.

CCA’s first wave plan was to barnstorm the country, coast to coast, with live puppet shows hosted by “The Mayor”, and featuring Binkley and Doinkel and an evil snake named Slither. These Punch & Judy puppet shows were staged in schools, parks, gyms, and playgrounds during the summer months in the early 1970s, under the aegis of the Government’s summer student employment program. While the puppets were built and repaired by Young, the operators were University students looking for a summer job, which allowed them to tour Canada and build up some live entertainment credibility.

Although there was a fair amount of freestyle ad lib, the scripts for these live shows were in fact written by a young Vickers and Benson employee by the name of Barbara Amiel, better known nowadays as Lady Conrad Black. This travelling Binkley and Doinkel roadshow proved so popular, that the National Film Board of Canada recorded a live performance, struck a 16mm film print and created video tapes allowing every School in Canada to screen the “The Binkley and Doinkel Safety Show”.

To reinforce the messaging presented in the live show, a comic book was produced and handed out at events and in schools. It re-told the story of Binkley and Doinkel, with two major changes: The evil character of Slither was replaced with that of a more Vaudevillian villain, a top-hatted, monocle wearing Basil Rathbone type blagard named R. Pugsley De Pugh, owing to the fact that the CCA had heard objections about stereotyping snakes and did not want to be seen encouraging kids to fear and wish to destroy them (JK Rowling later missed that memo).

Also added to the mix was Binkley and Doinkel’s Earth guide, a talking canine named Sniffer who dutifully served the exposition role vacated by the Mayor character in the live puppet show. The comic book included games and puzzles, and more detailed information on the new hazard symbols. Illustrated by legendary Canadian comic book artist Owen McCarron, and his company Comic Book World which also published titles such as Auntie Litter, Wayne & Shuster, Cap’n Bluenose and Colonel Sanders, “The Adventures of Binkly (sic) and Doinkel” was first published in 1974.

In 1978, a second comic book was published, however this edition was illustrated by noted Quebec erotic-artist Diane Desmarais, and bore little resemblance to the first edition. Although the messaging remained consistent, Binkley and Doinkel looked far more alien and less kid friendly. The comic was titled “Haunting Signs”, and certainly struck a far more frightening and mature tone than its predecessor.

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Also around this time, Binkley and Doinkel made the leap to broadcast television. The CCA collaborated with noted Television production company Glen Warren (famous for such Cancon classics as The Starlost, The Littlest Hobo, and The Waterville Gang)to create 4 Public Service Announcements, one for each of the Hazardous Product Symbols, which went on to air nationally on CTV for almost a decade.

For these PSAs Young created new Binkley, Doinkel, Sniffer and R. Pugsley De Pugh puppets, and for Canadians of a certain age, these remain the definitive renderings of the characters. Owing to the sheer number of times the PSAs were broadcast, Binkley and Doinkel became forever associated with the Hazardous Product Symbols, and the spots went on to become the stuff of playground legend, especially after they vanished in the early 1980s. However, the story of Binkley and Doinkel was far from over.

A third and final comic book was produced in 1981, returning to Young’s original character design and drawn by Owen McCarron once again. Young was also contracted to create life-size Binkley, Doinkel and Sniffer costumes which went on to tour schools, malls and fairs, where the new comic (and stickers) were handed out to eager children. A new 12-minute live-action video was created by the National Film Board in 1982 to replace the aged “Adventures of Binkley and Doinkel” puppet show.

In 1984, Binkley and Doinkel were retired. It was felt that after more than a decade, the goal of educating young people and the populace at large about the hazard symbols had been achieved. Young continued to work with other Government agencies on puppet-led PSAs, most famously the travelling Geese used by Revenue Canada, Customs and Excise.

Although thirty years have passed since they last appeared on television, Binkley and Doinkel are still revered today, and remain an integral part of the fabric of uniquely Canadian safety characters such as Astar, Blinky and Elmer who helped kids at the time better understand the dangerous world in which they lived. Fans of the unforgettable green duo will be glad to know that they are still on Earth, living in harmony with their creator Noreen Young amongst her vast cadre of Canadian puppets, safe from the dangers of poison, explosive, corrosive and flammable materials.

Special thanks to JC Sulzenko and Noreen Young

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