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Merry Christmas from the ghosts of retailers past

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As clocks tick hurriedly towards the big day, and shoppers across the city scramble to find perfect gifts, ample food and tasty drink for houses full of hungry and thirsty family and friends, let’s spill some spiked eggnog out for our favorite departed retailers from Christmas’ past, and for one who is about to join their ranks after bidding adieu this shopping season.

Goodbye Zellers, we probably won’t ever forget you and your laws of toyland!

And many happy returns to the holiday-glo memories of Eatons, Simpsons, Towers, Boots, WHSmith, Woolco, HiWay Markets, I.D.A, Miracle Foodmart, K-Mart, Knob Hill Farms, Dominion and of course the Rainbow Centre in Niagara Falls.

Merry Christmas!

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 had an Organ Grinder

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Most childhood era birthdays tend to be innocuous vanilla affairs destined to end up mired in a pea soup of foggy memories, but no kids growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, 80s or 90s will probably ever forget if they attended a birthday party at The Organ Grinder at 58 Esplanade.

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Opened in the spring of 1975 and the only restaurant of its kind in all of Canada — “a musical pizza eatery” — the Organ Grinder served up an unforgettable mixture of ear piercing sonics, mouth-watering taste and visual mayhem.

There were pinball and arcade games, silent Chaplin, Valentino, Pickford and Fairbanks films running on a loop, piping hot cheese-heavy pizza washed down with copious amounts of ice cold Coke, Sprite and Minute Maid, and of course the star attraction, The Mighty Wurlitzer organ itself.

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Built from parts of over 50 different pipe organs dating back to the turn of the century, The Mighty Wurlitzer was an aural behemoth. The largest pipe organ was 16″ long while the smallest measured no longer than a soda straw. The organ had over 1,000 pipes made of wood, zinc, lead and tin. The deep bass sound this produced was unlike anything you had heard before.

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Never mind the Frankenstein’s monster sound mix created from various accompanying bonkers gadgets like submarine sirens, sleigh bells, a glockenspiel, bird whistles, horse hoofs, Chinese blocks and even funeral toll bells which adorned the surrounding walls. There were over 267 tuned percussion notes on the various instruments around the room, including upright piano (88 notes), chrysoglott (49 notes), marimba (37 notes), xylophone (37 notes), glockenspiel (30 notes) and cathedral chimes (26 notes).

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Mirror balls, strobes and the octagonal UFO lights were all controlled by the organist, who would often let loose on them as songs built to their climax, resulting in a rave like atmosphere only compounded by the sugar highs which were doled out generously via children’s cocktails with names like “the Crazy Cranberry”, “Miss Kitty Colada”, “Dracula Draft” and perennial kid favourite “The Gremlin Gimlet” (described in the menu as Orange juice, Sprite, and green stuff).

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In addition to the famous performance pizzas (“Opening Number,” “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” “Piper’s Delight,” “Hawaiian Song,” etc.), The menu was filled with lasagna, spaghetti, chicken, burgers and veal parmigiana, assuring patron’s bellies would leave as fulfilled as their brains.

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The Organ Grinder was a crucial part of the Esplanade’s breezy scene, which for years was also home to upscale boozers Scotland Yard and Brandy’s, as well as The Old Spaghetti Factory, which thankfully has not changed one iota and still offers up a true old-school Toronto nostalgia fest (in addition to some great and reasonably priced food).

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Occasionally you can still discover old Organ Grinder glasses or copies of the prized Don Thompson vinyl soundtrack knocking around in local thrift stores, reminders of what a local sensation the place was back in the day. While Chuck-E-Cheese’s had the franchised ubiquity, and The Mad Hatter had the underground notoriety, The Organ Grinder was special and unique enough that if you got invited to a party there, you would do well to spring for an extra Kenner Star Wars figure or Barbie doll for whosever birthday it was.

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Sadly the Organ Grinder was forced to close in 1996 after 21 years of good vibes, and all of its wonderful artifacts were liquidated at auction. The organ itself was purchased by an individual from New Hampshire who dismantled it, loaded it into a transport truck and then rebuilt it in his own house.

While there are still a few organ based pizzerias scattered around North America, the once popular trend has definitely subsided, much like the Animatronic based pizzerias so lovingly chronicled in the brilliant documentary The Rock-a-fire Explosion. Much like the people in that film, those who experienced The Organ Grinder first hand will always remember that bedazzling, exciting and frankly overwhelming environment and the wonderful times it provided Toronto denizens for over two decades.

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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.

Special thanks to Peter Hnatiw and The Old Spaghetti Factory for the pictures, and memories.

That time when video rental stores ruled

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It may seem quaint now, but at the dawn of the home video age renting tapes was a magical experience. It had taken only a few years for the VCR to evolve from being a costly accessory which allowed viewers to time shift conflicting TV schedules (“You don’t have to miss The Fall Guy because you’re watching Gavilan”) into a bone fide extension of the Hollywood experience in the comfort of their own living rooms.

In 1977, entrepreneur George Atkinson bought one Betamax and one VHS copy of every title in the Magnetic Video catalogue and began to rent them out to the public in the very first video store in North America, “The Video Station”. Renting out movies as a business immediately caught fire, and soon almost every Mom & Pop shop, hardware store and gas station carried a variety of VHS and/or Betamax tapes which could be taken home for the night if you laid down cash for a hefty membership, or an even heftier deposit.

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Alongside the tapes and oversized bags of popcorn, these outlets also rented VCRs: in the early 1980s, even a low end machine retailed for around $1000 so ownership tended to be a folly of the wealthy.

The video rental marketplace proved to be so preposterously lucrative that it was not long before chains rose up and absorbed the early pioneers. In Toronto, early minor major chains included Jumbo Video, Bandito Video, Videoflicks, Video 99, The Video Station, Major Video, National Video, Video Palace, Super Video, and a little outfit called Rogers Video. Retail stores got in on the act as well, so if you were so inclined you could also rent videos from places like 7-11, Eaton’s, Becker’s, Canadian Tire and even Loblaws. Imagine that, venturing out for apples and instead coming home with a copy of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo tucked under your arm.

The video stores themselves were houses of wonder, especially if you were young and impressionable. In that innocent pre-internet age, there was simply no way to determine what many of these strange movies were, or where they had come from, nowhere more so than the Horror movie section. Gruesome, lurid artwork on oversized boxes stared down from the top shelf, charging our frenzied imaginations with the nightmarish possibilities of what those forbidden films might hold in store.

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Of course they never quite lived up to the potential of their scary covers, but that was all part of the game (As was the Kabuki theatre of being underage and renting life shaping, trauma inducing hard R-rated material).

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You could easily spend hours browsing the various dusty stacks, only to come up with a few titles, and woe if you limited siblings or friends to only 1 rental. It was also an educational experience, as other than phonebook sized guides compiled by Leonard Maltin there was no IMDB, so much film knowledge could be gleaned from studiously reading the copy on video cases. There was a camaraderie fomented between movie lovers who all gravitated to these places of cinema worship, nurtured at some chains by free popcorn to enjoy while you dipped into their deep cuts.

It wasn’t all good – there were the notorious late fees, which if ignored could spiral into asphyxiating debt (indeed, this was where most chains made serious money); the seemingly never in, always out new release titles; the tattered copy of Fast Times At Ridgemont High (or insert any 80s teen comedy here) which had serious tracking issues during that scene because it had been rewound and paused so many times; the beaded-off, grown-ups section which just by entering somehow made you feel dirty and illicit, and on and on.

The arrival of Blockbuster’s sanitized chain stores en masse in the early 1990s tempered many of these ills but in turn created a host of new ones. Blockbuster would acquire the stock of their prey (smaller chains and Mom & Pop stores) and then exorcise them of anything non-mainstream or slightly off-beat, which pretty much killed off the weird stuff that used to be so fun to discover. They then proceeded to abandon back catalogues altogether in favour of hundreds of copies of new release titles, which weeks later would then be sold-off as “previously viewed”. It was a sad state of affairs when you could no longer rent Gandhi but there were 59 copies of Air Force One in stock at any given time on the shelf.

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Around the same time as the initial Blockbuster explosion, The Amazing Video Machine appeared, a simple kiosk found in malls and grocery stores stocked with only new release titles. It did not catch on, and the concept died a death before being successfully revived as Red Box.

As consumer technology evolved, the need for traditional brick and mortar video stores evaporated overnight. With sell-through DVDs and Blu-rays, iTunes, VOD, file sharing, streaming, digital film channels clamoring for our short attention, the masses have officially passed on the hassle of seeking out and then returning physical media.

Thankfully, Toronto still hosts a hive of reliable rental stores who managed to bottle some of that early rental store lightning: The Film Buff, Queen Street Video, Suspect, Bay Street Video and Videoflicks (the last one standing) all offer tremendous selections of rare titles, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of choice, or to once again be seduced by those enticing yet misleading covers (but let’s face it – uniform DVD cases will never capture the enigmatic beauty of VHS cases, with their unsightly different sizes and gloriously excessive clamshell packaging).

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Getting access to movies might be quicker and easier than ever before, but the thrill and adventure of the hunt has been suitably dulled by convenience. Clicking a mouse or remote control through pages upon pages of titles with low-res jpg images and/or YouTube links will never come close to that feeling of digging through walls of heavy tapes, or potentially reward you the way unearthing something rare and wonderful based solely on gut intuition (or a cover full of lies) used to when video stores ruled.

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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.

That time when Becker’s was fresh and ready

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One of the many highlights of our Christmas season is indulging in that rich creamy nectar of the gods known as eggnog, and while you can still find some yummy, reasonably priced non-alcoholic brands around town, nobody makes eggnog as heavenly or affordable as the late lamented Becker’s chain of dairy and convenience once did.

Not only was their eggnog crafted to perfection, but also their popsicles, ice cream, milk, chocolate milk, soda, bread, juice, coffee, cream, donuts, hot dogs and pretty much everything else they put their name on.

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Legendary Canadian rockers Rush made a habit of accrediting “special thanks” to Becker’s brand chocolate milk in many of their albums, leaving no doubt as to what majestic liquid was fuelling their complex progressive sound ship.

Founded in Toronto in 1957, Becker’s was the king of convenience stores, primarily because of their cheap prices, ubiquity in the GTA and of course their already mentioned champion selection of own-brand treats and sweets. They also rented movies, in both VHS and Betamax formats, just for the win.

Like many other fondly remembered retail relics of that era, Becker’s fostered a lot of goodwill through television advertising. For 80s kids prone to bouts of hyperactivity from guzzling bowls of Frosted Flakes doused in Becker’s half and half cream chased down with grape soda and banana popsicles, this Dukes of Hazzard inspired commercial was as close to a direct hit as you could possibly get.

In 1996, Becker’s assets were acquired by Silcorp, who itself was acquired by Alimentation Couche-Tard three years later. Couche-Tard owned 7-11 and Mac’s, and opted to phase out the Becker’s brand in favour of Mac’s (although the Becker’s flower logo remained on other Couche-Tard properties such as Dairy Mart and Daisy Mart). The Becker Milk Company morphed into a real-estate investment company which is still traded on the TSX and who owns the property of the majority of former Becker’s locations.

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A few franchised locations opted to keep the Becker’s name and logo (such as the one pictured above at 1494 Kingston Road in Scarborough , but don’t be lulled into a false sense of thinking they might carry any beloved Becker’s branded product.

While Mac’Beckers does produce a fairly decent but pricey eggnog, nothing since the demise of Beckers has come close to equaling their utterly toothsome flavour of that sweet Christmas infused beverage. Meanwhile, Rush’s last great album was produced in 1996: Co-incidence? I doubt it.

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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.

First Becker’s ad via jbcurio’s stream on Flickr

That time when the TTC was an Entertainment Network

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The 1980s were a gloriously excessive period for commercializing Toronto, as new and old institutions sexed themselves up and marketed their vibrancy with big, lush broad neon strokes that proclaimed we were a world class city, and dammit we were proud of it. The TTC got in on the act with a variety of amusing TV commercials that spanned the decade and put to shame almost all of their marketing adventures since.

In early 1982 the TTC began running “The Better Way” campaign, which used minor celebrities like Vic Cummings (who at the time played a peripheral part on soapy juggernaut The Young & The Restless, hilariously tagged here as a “soap opera broadcaster”), piano wizard Hagood Hardy and consumer advocate Lynne Gordon to espouse the no-brainer advantages of using public transport in a busy city. These spots introduced sterling TTC slogan “The Better Way” into the public consciousness, where it has remained and today still serves as a glass jaw for those wishing to heap any kind of ridicule onto the TTC.

TTC student cards and fairness was the subject of this 1983 TV spot, featuring two actors (Michael Dwyer and Lydia Zajc) from TVOntario’s then contemporary Sci-Fi edutainment spook show Read All About It!, which many younger viewers were familiar with thanks to in-class curriculum screenings. Young heartbreaker Zajc’s appearance created a (false) hope amongst her adolescent fan base that one might actually bump into her while riding the TTC, natch. The voice over work here was done by none other than Toronto Rocks host and golden throated CHUM radio legend John Majhor.

“Toronto’s Entertainment Network” campaign appeared in the mid-80s encompassing print, radio and TV, tying transit service to Toronto’s many vaunted cultural hot spots (CN Tower, Chinatown, Science Centre, beef that’s rare, even). The memorable jingle still brings a smile (“we got friends to see, all on the TTC”), and for a while anyway the ultra-positive messaging resonated with the city.

The apex of gussy and glossy ’80s style can be viewed in the “Metro Moves on TTC” spots from 1987, which seem to have been produced, directed and performed by a friendly neighborhood avant-garde theatre troupe. Another boppy jingle, this time focusing on TTC drivers as well as passengers (“Time to go, got a job to do, we’re on a roll, Metro moves on TTC…”) and not a million miles away from the current ATU Local 113 campaign which ruffled so many feathers recently (although granted those don’t feature headbands or shoulder pads). These spots ended with what would become the TTC’s tagline for the remainder of the decade – “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going”, and with these commercials they undeniably did.

With a light touch and voice work from the ubiquitous Don Lake, the “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going” spots were reminiscent of “Toronto’s Entertainment Network”, once again equating the service with having a social life, and getting great deals on shoes. Trainspotters will note the subway car used here is an H5 with original seats, and marvel at the sound of the old-school whistle from a time before the three note chime alerted riders the doors were closing.

As the decade closed out, so did apparently the TTC’s investment in imagination when it came to marketing their crumbling service. “A Fare That Moves You” premiered in early 1990 and was a classy ode to foreign films which probably broke the bank and resulted in the dearth of TTC commercials in the years that followed (The ill-fated “Ride the Rocket” campaign debuted in the late 1990s). Still, gotta love that they went out on a romantic high note like this, even if it has all the grace of a pig adorned with lipstick.

With even more grumbling about fare increases, cancelled bus routes, delays, 501 Queen streetcars becoming as rare as Giant Pandas, rude and hygienically challenged passengers, even more delays and bold but schizophrenic plans which seemingly never come to pass, the TTC could sure benefit from some positive and fun messaging these days. These commercials highlight an era when the TTC brand was something Torontonians were proud of, and it was not out of the ordinary to see people wearing sweaters, shirts or baseball hats embossed with the TTC logo on them (Could you imagine wearing that now? You’d be in danger of a beat down at the hands of Def-Con 4 level furious denizens awaiting lost-in-the-ether 501 Queen streetcars).

The TTC store at Union closed down over 2 years ago, and there seems to have been no attempt at making merchandising hay from “The Better Way” in the lucrative style that London or New York does (New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority pulls in $60,000 annually marketing everything from dinner mats to cufflinks.

We can only hope that maybe one day when other wounds have healed, the TTC may wish to revisit some of the marketing magic that brought us so much merriment in the 1980s and bigged the rep of the better way – “Toronto’s Entertainment Network”.

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 just more fun

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What the hell has happened to Halloween? What used to be a kid friendly Pagan ritual celebrated with a tickle truck, a bag of candy and a healthy dose of horror has devolved into a crass commercial cash grab handicapped by nanny statism and near complete apathy from television broadcasters.

This week it was reported that General Mills Canada will not be offering up their legendary gruesome threesome of sugary cereal lore Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry this Halloween, citing poor sales. However it would seem that the ongoing vilification of breakfast cereals is the true culprit here, as in recent years like moth to flame they have attracted the ire of self-appointed food fascists who blame them for the explosion of childhood obesity.

Sugar has become a favourite new Jason Voorhees-esqe boogeyman to those looking to gut all the fun out of growing up, resulting in Halloween night loot shrinking to pathetic taster sizes if you are even lucky enough to get candy or sweets instead of popular new healthy alternatives like fruit and bottled water. Chocolate companies like Rowntree (before they were bought by Nestle) used to flood the airwaves in the lead up to October 31st with imaginative spots, in store contests and the raising of Halloween night expectations to an almost impossible to satisfy apex of chocolaty possibilities.

Another recent casualty of classic Halloween custom is the Unicef box. Hauling around those small orange boxes collecting change for medicine, safe water, emergency relief, education and other support to less fortunate children around the world, followed by the School competition of who could bring in the most money. What better way to encourage the importance of both charity and contest amongst young people? Unicef axed the coin collecting program in 2007, supposedly after teachers moaned about how labour intensive it was to roll them up.

Perhaps the most egregious omission from our modern Halloween ceremony is the fanfare which used to surround it on television. Stations would earmark October 31st for scary movies, horror themed episodes of shows, and allow news anchors to dress up like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Commercials for even the most inane, non-Halloweeny products would get in on the act, all leading up the main event.

A quick glance at the local Toronto TV schedules for this Wednesday, October 31st reveal a night just like any other, with almost no attempt to drum up Halloween spirit through anything remotely scary or horrific (although TLC has a Honey Boo Boo child marathon, which kind of does fit that bill). The digital channels at least try, and as always Turner Movie Classics remains a class act, but AMC is showing butchered, heavily censored prints of the slasher Halloween series, and there is little else on display except a complete lack of imagination.

Thankfully the most important part of Halloween — costuming — remains unscathed while most of the other elements that made it the second best night of the year have been neutered, homogenized, and sterilized beyond recognition. Thanks to busy-body grownups who know best, overzealous health and safety goblins and lazy programmers, Halloween just ain’t what it used to be.

A special treat from Retrontario this Halloween comes in the form of a mixed tape of of dusty vhs horror memories and gory 80s synth soul to scare the kids.

Listen to it here or download it here.

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 TV stations signed off

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Not all that long ago, late night television viewing was a lonely, desolate experience. After midnight the majority of broadcasters in both Canada and the United States essentially told viewers to go to bed, turned off their transmitters and went off the air, only to resume transmission early the next morning.

This act of signing off was celebrated nightly with much pomp and patriotic fanfare, firstly with a station identification and technical specs often accompanied by serene visuals, followed by a stirring short film featuring the national anthem. For some channels, a religious or positive lifestyle message or PSA proceeded the national anthem, which was then followed by colour bars, and finally, static. 1982’s horror classic Poltergeist acts as a sublime Polaroid snap of that era, capturing the popular past time of falling asleep in front of the TV only to be awoken by the final bars of the national anthem, or the eerie droning hum of 400hz.

Seeing, hearing and singing “O Canada” was a daily part of life back then, and perhaps the best known rendition of it was “With Glowing Hearts”, a short composed of many clips gleaned from the National Film Board and released nationwide in 1979.

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“With Glowing Hearts” was also screened before most Hollywood films in theatres across the country in the early 1980s as audiences stood and removed their hats. Many U.S. TV stations on the border would also show an “O Canada” film after “Star Spangled Banner,” and some of them were even nicer than our own home grown variety.

Before the bean counting led egg headed broadcast monopolies sucked much of the creative lifeblood out of the industry, most TV stations had their own unique look and style of signing off: CFTO Channel 9 in Toronto used stylish music like a groovy “Killing Me Softly” cover, and later Electric Light Orchestra’s dreamlike ambient sound scape “The Whale,” seemingly at odds with their upfront and rather square religious messaging. They also ran “God Save the Queen” before “O Canada,” tying the whole package together with a classy bow of Commonwealth class.

Public broadcaster TVOntario originally featured a sign off showing boffins at work in their master control room (including the late great voice of TVOntario, John DeLazzer who famously intoned “good night, et bonne soirée” every sign off), before switching to a rather boring and uninspiring list of their transponders (although viewers might get a chuckle out of some of the towns mentioned – see Emo, Ontario).

Jingle master Tommy Ambrose is the undisputed king of Toronto sign off lullaby culture: as mentioned here, Ambrose was hired by Moses Znaimer to compose the CityTV sign off theme. He managed to follow up the amazing “People City” with an equally beautiful and melancholic “A Point of View” for Global TV, who even released a 45rpm single with many cover versions of the track (Tommy’s was undisputedly the best).

By the 1990s, the idea of being off the air for any period of time at all became alien, and sign offs mostly disappeared. YTV occasionally ran their lovely PJ Aashna “O Canada” film for old time sake even though programming continued unabated before and after it. Late night schedules filled up with cheapo infomercials and sleazy 1-800 numbers on an endless loop which no doubt created helpful new revenue streams for struggling broadcasters in tricky times. Lost to time but never forgotten, the sign off is yet another Martian relic from a more innocent and unhurried age, when the idea of a thousand screaming feeds blaring away 24/7 was more of a nightmare than a dream.

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 KFC was Scott’s Chicken Villa

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Once upon a time in Toronto KFC was actually a tasty, gingery golden brown coloured fast food known as Kentucky Fried Chicken and sold at a chain of take away restaurants called Scott’s Chicken Villa. Their coleslaw was made with Miracle Whip, sugar and carrots and the gravy was a delicious stew of thick and lumpy goodness.

Master chef and creator Colonel Sanders was a proper old-school eccentric gentleman from small town Indiana who grew so disillusioned with the draconian tax laws of the Internal Revenue Services that he liquidated personal ownership in all Kentucky Fried Chicken chains in America, retired to a feathered red-bricked home in Cooksville Ontario and concentrated on franchising his auric style of deep-fried fowl in the great white north. “In Canada, you don’t have to watch for tricksters and shysters,” he once said. “You can do things on a handshake.”

Scott’s was part of the Scott’s Hospitality empire, founded by the late entrepreneur George Gardiner, which opened its first Scott’s Chicken Villa under the Kentucky Fried Chicken banner in 1962 and who also owned a fleet of school buses, hotels, Black’s photography shops, and the Manchu Wok fast-food chain before closure in the 1990s. There were over 100 Scott’s Chicken Villas in Ontario, all designed with the same retro style slanted roof buildings (some of these unique buildings still house modern KFC franchises) and catering the original recipe flavour that many Canadians still fondly recall. Amazing to think that even as far back as 30 years ago, disgruntled Kentucky Fried Chicken fans from the United States would cross the border just to re-live the “finger lickin'” glory they had grown up with.

Sanders had bolted from America to Mississauga in 1965, although he continued to serve as the world wide face of Kentucky Fried Chicken in advertising and tireless personal appearances, rather impressive for a man of his vintage. He retained full control of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand in Canada until his death at age 90 in 1980.

Even though he was complicit in the mass marketing of it, Sanders was openly hostile and extremely vocal about the lack of quality control in favour cost-cutting and money grubbing that he saw sullying the brand he had slaved so hard to build south of the border. He was sued (unsuccessfully) by a group of U.S franchisees when he commented “My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy water for 15 to 20 cents per thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my Mother make it! To the wallpaper paste they add some sludge and sell it for 65 or 75 cents a pint. There’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it.” One can only imagine the fury of the good Colonel if he saw what a travesty the steroid laced, overpriced KFC menu has since become.

Colonel Sanders was a deeply religious, hardworking promoter who valued quality control over profit, marking him a man out of time in the burgeoning corporate environment of the 1970s. Well liked in Canada (amongst other philanthropic endeavours he helped fund the construction of the Trillium Health Centre, Sanders was more bullish in America. He would personally visit random KFC locations and if service and food were not up to his high standards, he would have their franchise licence revoked. Sanders had over time developed that mythical blend of 11 herbs and spices, the now discarded pressure-cooking process, and most importantly the desire to serve diners’ chicken fresh, not frozen.

When Pepsico acquired the Canadian Kentucky Fried Chicken Scott’s chain in 1987, global brand uniformity was swiftly implemented and the legacy of dirty bird was cast. In the vacuum created by Sander’s absence, gimmicks (Oppee), imitation (Nuggets) and heart attack snacks became the norm, culminating in the Double Down sandwich, an ultimate carny styled glut of empty calories and salt that would make even Chris Farley types think twice.

It wasn’t always so bleak. Admitted fried chicken fiend Dan Aykroyd (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000101/) made sure the Colonel’s chicken got lots of free product placement in his very first film, the dreary but cheery love story Love at First Sight (1977), which also featured a totally bizarre yet strangely fitting cameo from Sanders himself milling around Niagara Falls.

A recent survey from that stalwart of journalistic integrity USA Today revealed that 61% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 do not know who the bespectacled, goateed old boy on the KFC logo is. Considering that parent company Yum Brands Inc., have claimed in the past that their initials stand for Kitchen Fresh Chicken, who can blame them?

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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.

13 wacky public service announcements from the past

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Old Public Service Announcements have a nasty habit of lingering in our subconscious like sweaty, half-remembered nightmares. Unsurprisingly, their pedigree can be traced back to the industrial scare films of Ottawa native Budge Crawley, who produced the first known blood soaked Driver’s Ed movie Safety or Slaughter in 1958, ushering in an age of visual shock treatment where educators sought to achieve their aims through terrorizing audiences with ghastly imagery married to borderline hysterical sermonizing.

Over time this approach mellowed, and the authoritative tone was replaced by one seeking peer acceptance from the primary target – impressionable kids. In the 1980s PSAs were overrun with rapping, cartoon characters, skateboards and gaudy colours, all engineered nobly to help curb crime, alcohol and tobacco use, unsafe sex, dangerous behavior and of course the big one, drug addiction.

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While obviously the intentions were nothing less than good natured, the content was sometimes questionable, often hectoring and in some cases could be argued had the opposite intended effect.

Here are 13 of the more memorably insane PSAs from the 1980s and 90s. Do you remember any of them?

13. “Right to Say No” (1986)

A relic of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” front during the 1980s War on Drugs, this obscurity remains chiseled into the psyche of those who saw it at the time probably due to its inherent contradiction – be original by doing what we tell you to do.

12. “It Can Happen Here” (1987)

While the nature of disaster depicted here is left purposely vague (Nuclear war? Earthquake? Zombie outbreak?), there is no doubt this one cruelly set out to scare the ever-loving crap out of its cereal eating demo, confused kids watching Transformers.

11. “The Cool Game” (1993)

The early 1990s saw a boom in cheap CGI and video tech, resulting in this kind of garish kid puking in a candy store attack on all senses from many commercial and music video directors. The Iwo Jima visual reference is bizarre to say the least, especially as this PSA was produced by the Federal Government who should really have known better.

10. “No Glove No Love” (1991)

Mother and daughter bond over rubber Johnnies, bless.

9. “Say No to Drugs” (1988)

In with a swift punch to the gut courtesy of the short sharp shock school of PSA flavour favored by Law Enforcement. Sobering sloganeering and suitably scary intonation from the Voice Mark Dailey make this one almost timeless (sadly the hockey hair and stash on the morgue attendant date it ’88.)

8. “All You Need is You” (1992)

Accompanied at the time by an equally sinister spot in which a butt puffing girl turns into a gigantic cigarette. Symbolism as its most opaque.

7. “One Dumb Move” (1985)

Stone cold crush classic from our next door neighbours in New York State. “Professor of the Rap” Gary Byrd was a Buffalo DJ at the time, and went on to release several non-substance abuse based tracks in the 1980s. 50,000 copies of the 7″ flexi disc featuring “One Dumb Move” were released to schools, skating rinks and discos. Mixes well into Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” we’re told.

6. “Hip Choice” (1993)

Nightmarish, but for all the wrong reasons. If only all drug pushers were as creepy as the eyeless sub-Muppet “hip man” here the job of anti-drug educators would be a lot easier.

5. “Drunk Dad” (1984)

Immortalized thanks to Dad’s questionable drunk performance (“Suuuuuure buddy”), a ubiquitous at the time General Lee toy and some Foley problems.

4. “Eyeball Shrapnel” (1983)

Lucio Fulci inspired horror show which regularly aired on CFTO and Global in the mid-afternoon and afterschool slots, resulting in a generation of traumatized ’80s kids assuming all construction sites were blood splattered death zones. This and the many other slabs of gore offered up by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario no doubt influenced the equally shocking and unforgettable Prevent-it.ca (http://www.prevent-it.ca/) PSAs from a few years ago.

3. “Don’t Put It In Your Mouth” (1993)

Although squarely aimed at the junior set, it’s obvious that Concerned Children’s Advertisers are somewhat embarrassed at the enduring popularity of this one, hence it not being included on the official filmography at their website (not surprising the powerful “Brain” and “ReHab” are.)

2. “Joanne” (1994)

Health Canada splashed out big bucks to run this spot nationally in movie theatres after it tested incredibly well with High Schoolers in Toronto. Simple and effective, it smartly plays on teenage vanity to deliver an oft warned, oft ignored message that smoking cigarettes will eventually morph you into a wheezing, coughing, disgusting old hag.

1. “I Am Astar” (1988)

“I am Astar” transcended his humble origin and has since become a heroic cult figure for all Canadians of a certain age. In the early cash strapped days of YTV, Astar aired during almost every commercial break, sometimes upwards of 20 times daily. When it was haphazardly remade using crude CGI in the late 1990s, Astar’s precarious situation was clarified (“I am Astar, a robot from Planet Danger”), somewhat demystifying the enigmatic Robot who could put his arms back on, but at the same time raising even more questions – such as what other maiming terrors may lurk on Planet Danger. Astar is still making parade appearances, and may soon be visiting a town near you.

Other than the above mentioned grisly shorts from www.prevent-it.ca , modern PSAs mostly have shifted away from scary and towards serious, focusing on more contemporary youth ills such as cyber bullying, childhood obesity and media awareness. They may be more professionally realized and realistic, but two decades from now will they foster the same kind of cult fascination that some of their nefarious predecessors have?

FRIDAY BONUS – “Michael Knight vs. Marijuana” (1985)

Another New York import, this bonkers PSA finds an overly aggressive Michael Knight being a total dick to K.I.T.T, but mostly just being furious at the use of statistics to underline the drug problem of the 1980s. His response beggars belief: “Just tell them its bad” could well be the most patronizing approach ever undertaken to address such a delicate issue. Even Knight Rider at its most absurd was more realistic than this.

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 Citytv was the street

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“Print created illiteracy. Television is democratic, everybody gets it.”

Moses Znaimer’s 10 Commandments of Television are about the closest we’ll ever get to un-covering his televisual hot sauce equivalent of the Colonel’s secret recipe. Unlike most other highfalutin media gurus, Znaimer espouses theories which are practical, and which were very successfully put into practice both home and away. Citytv turns 40 years old today, and while its Teflon status as the most recognizable independent station in the world is no doubt off the hardworking backs of a multitude of souls, it was the single authorial and ethereal voice of Moses Znaimer who defined Citytv as an institution, an ethos, and forever a legend.

Cardinal to all of Citytv’s tremendous achievements, whether it be in the field of News, Movies or Music, was the emphasis Znaimer placed upon democracy and ultimately, the street. From the anarchy of Free for All, hosted by eccentric William Ronald in a pink polyester cape holding court over a live audience who were encouraged to speak their mind about any subject they desired, to its slightly higher tech spiritual heir Speakers Corner, there was no doubt that Citytv was an egalitarian enterprise.

Znaimer also pushed hard for production, noting it was a mug’s game to compete with deep pocketed CTV and Global in bidding wars for glossy American shows (“Produce or die” was his dire warning, obviously unheeded by modern Citytv). Instead they slowly but effectively built a stable of TV shows produced cheap and cheerful, than sold on the international market for a pretty penny. There were memorable imports as well: In an orgy of post-modern irony, SCTV was screened for years, while Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on “your Federation Station,” as did M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone, no budget soap opera Ryan’s Hope and even the Price is Right. Plus there were many and varied multicultural shows such as Sounds of Asia, Hello Japan, Chinese Television and Greek Paradise which reflected the real Toronto more than any other broadcaster at time.

Much of Citytv’s early line-up was the kind of bizarro TV as carnival sideshow predicted in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/), but it was happening here in Toronto! Thankfully there was no Howard Beale equivalent, although Mort Schulman probably came close a few times.

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With the debut of Speakers Corner in 1991, the parameters of Reality TV were rather effortlessly defined (now you know who to blame), while the earlier Greed forewarned of its eventual excess. Singles Unlimited was eHarmony.com (without the fake profiles) while the City Nights posters were proto local blogs (without the snark). The Toronto Trilogy was sort of a civic pride version of YouTube, while the Great Diamond Hunt could have been The Amazing Race in 1983. Citytv even managed to start a merchandising phenomenon with the Toronto T’s and sweaters, unheard of at the time.

People City,” the Znaimer commissioned Toronto lullaby by Tommy Ambrose, sound tracked both the station sign-on and sign-off, which marked the end of another day in the life of our city and invited viewers to personally write letters to Moses Znaimer at 99 Queen Street East. These relics of a bygone era offer an acid Polaroid of Toronto and the station itself in the 1970s and early 80s. When Citytv switched to 24 hour programming, there was no longer a need to sign on or off.

Aside from the blood sport politics and infinite sadness regarding its current state, Citytv casts a very long shadow across Toronto. Those who lived through its glory days will never forget the indelible mark it left, and those who missed it are lucky enough to play in an age where you can catch retro rebroadcasts on video sharing sites.

40 years ago today a small group of misfits led by a colourful gnomic revolutionary stepped forth into the breach and swiftly recalibrated both the art and science of Television. They came from, and understood the street. They boldly let the street inform their sexy little UHF station. That is the 40th Anniversary we should all be celebrating.

And If you ever wondered how things went from gutsy to gutless in the last decade, former Toronto Mayor David Crombie has a pretty good hypothesis, and in keeping with the prophetic nature of all things Citytv, this clip was filmed for their 15th Anniversary in 1987.

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 Citytv had a pulse

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According to Gord Martineau, it was former Toronto Mayor and all around Citytv fanatic David Crombie who once said in deference to the CityPulse news team’s cramped studio space at 99 Queen Street East, “the city is your newsroom.” The program had debuted in May of 1977 with its own striking subtitle — a day in the life of Toronto — and a very strict remit from Citytv’s visionary man upstairs Moses Znaimer: “You can decide that news is 24 discrete mini-events delivered with the voice of doom, or you can say, as we do, that it’s the daily soap opera of Toronto.”

If CityPulse was the daily soap opera of Toronto, then Martineau is its Victor Newman. He recently celebrated 35 years at the helm looking roughly the same as he did when he started, even as everything around him has changed fundamentally. But change is paramount to the Citytv success story. “There is no alternative to growing up” Znaimer told NOW magazine in 1982 while discussing Citytv’s 10th Anniversary. “There is nothing as necessary as biology. The biology of a television station is no different from the biology of a person. You can be nostalgic about the days when you were young and pimply, when things seemed to matter more and less at the same time. But if you contrive to remain a child when you should be an adolescent and an adolescent when you should be an adult, you’re just a failure.”

From its very first anarchic transmission on September 28th, 1972, the crown jewel in Citytv’s schedule was The City Show, fronted at first by the pensive chain-smoking Warner Troyer, a nightly 2 ½ hour marathon of in-depth discussion of local events, public affairs and news which at the time was a welcome antidote to Toronto’s thirty or sixty minute news programs which aped the U.S. model. The City Show was more indebted to CBC’s house style, unsurprising as Znaimer cut his teeth at the Mother Corp in the 1960s.

Unfortunately this gutsy but ponderous approach did not result in a sustainable serial, although it ran for half a decade and marked Citytv’s first bold attempt to remould the stolid institution of news. The station then sought help from “news doctor” Jacques de Suze, a U.S. based consultant who proposed a series of revolutionary tweaks to the format based on his due diligence (rumour has it that upon being summoned, he holed up in a hotel room and watched nothing but Toronto area news for weeks on end). Filtered through Znaimer’s Marshall McLuhan inspired temperament, and wunderkind Ivan Fecan’s toiling, a new kind of news style came alive, a Frankenstein’s monster crafted of equal parts music video, performance art, Hollywood sheen, and carnivalistic sideshow. This was the pulse.

While some saw the slick rebranding a betrayal of Citytv’s earlier earnest commitment to hardboiled, old school journalism, CityPulse was in fact the most progressive and prophetic form of news gathering and telling ever broadcast. No surprise it’s formula would go on to transform news reportage around the world, as well as confound and then reshape viewer’s expectations. One of Znaimer’s commandments at the time was “let the actual sound and visuals tell the story.”

Clocking in initially at a whopping 90 minutes length, CityPulse soon settled into a fast paced 60 minute edition at 6 P.M., followed by another at 10 P.M., later known as CityPulse Tonight. The after-dark broadcast used the jazzy grooves of Grover Washington Junior’s “Masterpiece” to soundtrack stories of our city, later Graham Shaw’s mighty “Pentatus” while the 6 P.M. show deployed “Gonna Fly Now” (Rocky’s Theme) to great effect, with assignment editor Glen Cole’s introductory holler sounding like that of a wrestling announcer.

Znaimer populated his soap opera with real people, not reporters. Not only that, the people he enlisted actually reflected multicultural Toronto. It all seems so utterly Martian now, but at the time most major Toronto news outlets were anchored by silver haired, grandfatherly males, most of whom smoked pipes and wore un-ironic elbow patches. Citytv’s diversity not only led to better quality news reportage, but better business as well, and by the mid-1980s CityPulse was close to slaying stodgy old dragons CFTO (CTV) and CBLT (CBC).

With a shrewd casting instinct to rival that of Robert Altman, Znaimer and company assembled a large and varied cadre of characters who established a bedrock of trust with viewers and became celebrities in their own right. Martineau was the very first, lured away from CFTO (where he had been forbidden to use his full surname), complimented by now legendary folks like Dini Petty, JoJo Chintoh, Brian Linehan, Bill Cameron, ex-Maple Leaf Jim McKenney, Peter Gross, Mary Garfalo, Jim Tatti, Kathy Kastner, Lorne Honickman, former provincial NDP leader Stephen Lewis, Toronto alderman Colin Vaughn, consumer affairs advocate Peter Silverman, athlete Debbie Van Kiekebelt, The Honourable David Onley, Anne Mroczkowski, Greg Rist, Jeanne Beker and later J.D Roberts, Monika Deol, Ann Rohmer , John Burgess, Terilyn Joe, Teresa Roncon, Bob Hunter, Libby Znaimer, Ben Chin, Harold Hosein, John Saunders, Laura Di Battista, Pam Seatle, Thalia Assuras, Denise Donlan, Lance Chilton, Dwight Drummond, Kathryn Humphreys and John Gallagher, to name but a few.

Another pivotal hire was ex-RCMP officer Glen Cole, who later shepherded former policeman Mark Dailey into the CityPulse family. Both men brought with them strong ties to law enforcement, invaluable for covering every nuance of crime in the city, and both elevated awareness of organizations such as Crime Stoppers and many other charitable causes. Both are also sadly deceased. Dailey passed away after battling cancer in 2010, sparking a public outpouring of grief for the much loved “Voice” of Toronto. It is a testament to Dailey’s enduring iconic status that Citytv still hosts their moving tribute to him at Citytv.com.

Over the years CityPulse ushered in many new technological advances, but few were as prized or ultimately important as those which granted the ability to accurately predict the state of the atmosphere.

In May 1987, CityPulse moved into a new home base at 299 Queen Street West. The bright orange set remained, but the static anchors and crash zooms were gone. The newsroom became electric with a new found sense of space where anchors walked around and interacted with one another in the midst of their messy technology. The guts of a modern studio were purposely exposed and celebrated, but there was no “studio” per se. This was also the age of the Videographer, lone wolf cameramen who shot, reported and edited their own stories. Pioneered by Dominic Sciullo, this style of reporting spilled over to other broadcasters before becoming standardized. Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account is a Videographer.

Adding to the mythological stature of the brave CityPulse cameraman whose “eyes were on the beat of Toronto” was the fleet of CityPulse cars and trucks which tore around the city with wild abandon, beating their rivals to the drop on political scandals, car accidents, rowdy picket lines or murders. They were everywhere! After years of hard service in the field, dust ups with streetcars and various fender benders, the original Live Eye truck was retired, shipped off as junk then rescued from a scrapyard near Gladstone moments before it was to be crushed into a cube. Built to last and wired to the gills by technical boffin Ron Reid, the original Live Eye truck became the ultimate Citytv objet d’art, immortalized forever as a Toronto landmark on the side of 299 Queen Street East. The new owners of the building have since repainted the truck with the colours and branding of CP24, causing understandable umbrage amongst original Pulse personal at such a vulgar act of revisionism. Long live the original CityPulse Live Eye!

As with CNN, Citytv’s coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 was a catalyst for major innovation in the upcoming decade. While other stations were off air, the anchor-less assignment desk scrolled news updates throughout the night, eventually using night owl Kevin Frankish to host spots which bled smoothly into Breakfast Television. By 1998, the CityPulse team had refined their technique to the point they were ready to give Toronto its very own 24-hour news channel, something which Znaimer had envisioned creating as far back as the 1960s: CityPulse 24 (later CP24, and now controlled by Bell Media (http://www.bellmedia.ca).

The 2000s proved to be a tumultuous decade for CityPulse, with the departure of Znaimer, ownership of the station flipping thrice (from Chum to CTV then finally to Rogers), a name change to the less immediate CityNews, the death of Mark Dailey and Bob Hunter, and most damaging, a near ruinous gutting of the news division (this sordid moment is covered brilliantly by Lindsey Aubin in her piece “No Pulse left at Citytv“. Reflecting back over 35 years, one can’t help but feel the whole enterprise has been defanged in response to a stifling advertising and corporate climate. Has the punch up the bracket, crusading style of journalism shuffled away indefinitely from the homogenized universe of broadcast television and into the scrappier, more street savvy realm of blogs and social media?

Would contemporary CityNews ever deliver something as taboo as when Dini Petty gave birth on camera? Or as emotionally devastating and raw as Dan Petkovsek’s report on Toronto skid row alcoholics “Raymond – No Fixed Address”? Or even want to help in toppling a sitting Mayor, as CityPulse did in 1980 when Colin Vaughn exposed John Sewell’s canard about why he skipped out on a policeman’s funeral?

If anyone understands the need to stay true to the CityPulse roots, it’s first man in, last man standing Gord Martineau. After 35 years on the Hogtown beat he still considers the murder of Toronto police officer Michael Sweet the most shocking story he has had to cover (Mark Dailey used to say the same thing). He is a consummate professional with a deft sense of humour, as evidenced by his cameo roles in The Last Polka (1985) with John Candy and Eugene Levy, and Dirty Work (1998) with Norm McDonald and Artie Lang, and the countless years he MC’d the Citytv New Year’s Bash. In the early 1980s he hosted a variety show for the Cash for Life lottery, and even cheekily defected to Global News for a short while (“A coffee break” as he describes it now).

After being booted from 299 Queen Street West, Martineau recalled David Crombie’s sublime description of CityPulse when he passionately argued the case to Ted Rogers that Citytv absolutely must relocate to the Olympic Spirit building at Dundas Square, as opposed to selling out completely and absconding to posher digs in the north end favored by bean counting MBAs with no understanding of the streetwise stuff CityNews, nee Pulse, was once upon a time made from. “Ted drove down there, looked at it with his wife, and wrote the cheque”. No matter what else may change, the Pulse legacy is safe with Gord.

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Citytv will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with the airing of Citytv: 40 and Fab, a 5-part news special airing next Monday, September 24 through Friday, September 28 during CityNews at Five, CityNews at Six and online at www.citynews.ca. It promises a no holds barred look at the good old days, with interviews from many of the classic Citytv personal. Colour us intrigued.

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 Citytv knew music

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Legend has it that when Citytv began its inaugural broadcast on September 28th, 1972, anchor Warner Troyer’s opening salvo was “Welcome to the epileptic circus,” a sly play on the name of what had previously resided at 99 Queen Street East – the building which the ragtag UHF outfit channel 79 now inhabited – a nightclub called Electric Circus. Not just any old nightclub, Electric Circus was brought to Toronto by the notorious Jerry Brandt, club owner, promoter and all around happening Sixties fellow who observed “This city is a hip place. There are some groovy people here. I would like to turn Toronto on.”

Music was in Citytv’s DNA from the very beginning. Co-founder Moses Znaimer adored music and correctly identified its crossover potential in the burgeoning TV universe (Leonard Cohen has perfectly described him as “The CPR of music”). He possessed laidback Montreal sensibilities tempered by a DIY protopunk ethos, at a time when Toronto was in the throes of an almighty Sixties hangover, Rochdale hippie idealism abounded and the ghosts of New York nightclubs loomed large. This fertile breeding ground would just over a decade later give birth to our last great hope in the battle to stop MTV’s soulless encroach into Canada, the mighty MuchMusic.

Back in 1972, Znaimer wanted Citytv Channel 79 to have its own identifiable theme, and so he commissioned king of the jingles Tommy Ambrose to compose “a love song about Toronto.” The result was the romantic, slightly schmaltzy but always endearing “People City,” released as a collectable 45 rpm and used frequently as on-air mood music during the first decade of the station.

Citytv’s earliest crop of musical programming may have lacked the slick style we came to identify with their particular brand of hip, but they sure had heart: Stevedore Steve’s Big Time City Slickers, People Who Sing Together, and Boogie (hosted by R. Paul Godfrey and famously spoofed in SCTV’s “Mel’s Rock Pile”) all served as a prelude to major revolutions coming down the television pipeline.

In 1978, CHUM Limited acquired majority ownership of Citytv, and the die was cast. As well as porting over CHUM talent to City, money and ideas began to flow even faster and more furious than in preceding years. The two stations worked closely together on new initiatives, bearing fruit immediately with FM stereo/TV simulcasts titled Saturday Night at 11.

One year later The New Music arrived like a force of nature and changed everything. In 1979 the world was still two years away from the launch of MTV, and while difficult to imagine at the time there were no in depth shows dedicated to exploring ideas behind music, never mind covering local bands, scenes, alternative culture and obscure New Wave and punk groups. Brainchild of the visionary John Martin, it was “Rolling Stone meets New Music Express, on TV”, with fearless hosts J.D Roberts and Jeanne Beker leading the charge against musical apathy.

In 1982 when Citytv adopted the then-novel concept of broadcasting 24 hours a day, music videos began to play a much larger role, first by plugging gaps in the schedule and then as the basis of several shows tailored to this new and exciting format. City Limits was the first, an all-night music video haven hosted by Christopher Ward and peppered with offbeat skits, B-movie clips and comedic cameos from some Scarborough kid who used to hang around the station claiming to be “the biggest Limitoid in the city”.

The CHUM 30 Countdown premiered in 1983 with host Roger Ashby, while Toronto Rocks debuted in 1984. Rocks enlisted CHUM radio personality John Mahjor, by all accounts one of the most talented and nicest in the industry. He memorably sat in the smallest set in the history of television, a Punch and Judy stage from which he inspired countless kids, garage bands and future rock historians to leg it home from school so as not to miss his essential 4 P.M. broadcasts

By the time the broadcast license for MuchMusic came through in 1984, CHUM/Citytv had harnessed their mutual visual and sonic prowess: The New Music, City Limits, The CHUM 30 Countdown and Toronto Rocks allowed the nimble team who built the house of Much to master their trade and complement innovation with economy, speed and wit. MTV could be challenged, and perhaps even bested. The “Nation’s Music Station” launched on August 31, 1984, with J.D Roberts and Christopher Ward jumping through our screens, while the first proper music video aired was Rush’s “The Enemy Within” fact fans. For a truly gonzo read on the early Wild West days of MuchMusic, check out Bob Segarini’s firsthand account here.

Music meanwhile had also been playing a vital role in Citytv’s most prestigious institution – CityPulse. CityPulse at Six opened with Maynard Ferguson’s punched up, tougher-than-leather cover version of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky),” while CityPulse Tonight was sound tracked by an all-together grittier and funkier rendition of The Temptation’s “Masterpiece” by Grover Washington Junior, before being replaced by Graham Shaw’s ludicrously shred heavy “Pentatus” for most of the ’80s and ’90s. These cues grabbed you by the scruff, underlining the raw “day in the life of Toronto” street style of the newscasts themselves. During the entertainment portion of the show, most local concerts got a look-in, especially homegrown bands, as did award shows, and even charitable tribute acts.

In 1987 Citytv moved out of the now impossibly crowded 99 Queen Street East building and into the larger canvass of 299 Queen Street West. As MuchMusic exploded across the country, 299 quickly became a cult temple of urban cool in Toronto, as well as a tourist destination for the rest of Canada and later the world. The public were even invited in to witness “the living movie” unfold before them.

Even after successfully launching a sister station dedicated solely to music, Citytv remained committed to creating new musical content. Toronto Rocks had become slightly superfluous in the age of Much’s Pepsi Power Hour, necessitating a flagship replacement. Znaimer instinctively sensed a dance show in the spirit of Boogie would bring even more people to the building, reveling in their accessible new street-front and studio-less environment, and would also solidify the rapport Citytv shared with the local Hip Hop community. In a brilliant homage to their roots, Znaimer christened the show Electric Circus, and in 1988 yet another powerhouse franchise was born.

After moving to Much in the 1990s, Electric Circus also shifted time slots and became a night-time show geared more to the club kids and the Euro dance sound which marked the decade. (It also gained a charting, Mark Dailey sampling theme song – “Hang On, Here We Go” by Jet Fuel. Outdoor events became even more frequent and extravagant, bolstered annually by the New Year’s Eve bash at Nathan Phillips Square which had begun in 1984 and always featured a mix of live music from local bands and Citytv personalities.

Viewers may recall many Citytv shows repurposing pop songs as their themes, as was the case with CityPulse, but also City Line (“I’m Still Standing” by Elton John), City Lights (“Street Beat” by Tom Scott), The New Music (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” by Pigbag) and most famously, Fashion Television (“Obsession” by Animotion).

Finally, no round up of Citytv’s musical past would be complete without mention of hedonistic house band the Booze Mothers, who played every Citytv Christmas party and immortalized the 99 Queen Street East HQ with a cheeky cover version of Powder Blue’s “Doin’ It Right (On the Wrong Side of Queen”). Made up of behind the scenes boffins Dave Russell, Bob Haller, Denis Saunders and Michael Heydon, it is unknown whether they are still operational, but their rare as hen’s teeth singles turn up on eBay once in a blue moon.

As the floodgates of digital and specialty channels opened, so did the internet, irreversibly changing the way we consume both music and music videos, and to a much larger extent, television itself. At its best, Citytv’s fascination with and tremendous contribution to music introduced viewers to an eclectic mélange of genres, sounds, cultures and possibilities, truly their core competency and the key to their lasting legacy in people’s city.

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.