That time when puppets taught us about danger


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.


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

That time when a clucking bunny meant Happy Easter


The Eastertime resurrection of the Cadbury Clucking Bunny was annually guaranteed to raise a smile. Like the trusted barrel collared St. Bernard dog from Neo Citron commercials, the Clucking Bunny was a loveable mascot of industry: a signifier of not only delicious chocolate covered crème egg yolk ecstasy but also of a kinder era where loveable animal characters helped shift nuclear powered sugar highs and the fleeting nature of Easter itself was reflected in the limited availability of the candy.

Before the advent of the Clucking Bunny in the early 1980s, the crème eggs were sold to Canadians using disco infused roller rinks as a backdrop for their enjoyment (and rarity).

But after his debut appearance in 1982, the Clucking Bunny became a persona of the brand itself, with merchandise, numerous books and yearly, global rollouts of his new commercials, including this pleasant one from Toronto ad agency MacLaren McCann, who stated this was “a fun reminder that the Cadbury Clucking Bunny had done his job once again”

But something changed as we careened into the 2010s. Cadbury dropped the Bunny in favour of spotlighting the “Goo”. Even worse, their whole Easter campaign has come under fire for seemingly glamourizing chocolate eggs pleasurably eviscerating themselves.

While their clever Canadian Facebook page is busy, many comments expressing disbelief at the current campaign of the “Here Today, Goo Tomorrow” self-harming eggs are going uncommented on, even though a quick look at Google logs that in Australia concerned citizens rallied against the campaign and took it to the Advertising Standards Bureau. Cadbury’s Brand Director James Graham defends the strategy as follows: “This campaign’s infectious sense of humour is sure to spread as each new execution is revealed.” Sorry to say, we prefer the Clucking Bunny (and roller rinks) to maiming, suicide and executions.

Either way, Happy Easter!

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

That time when the Toothbrush family came to life


In the 1980s and 90s, waking up too early for your favourite cartoon lineup was a surreal experience. Local stations signed on the air around 5:00am then played time-killers which both counted towards their Cancon requirements and kept the seats warm until they began broadcasting the proper blue chip stuff like The Littles, The Smurfs, or Muppet Babies during the coveted 8:00am slot.

This dawn zone of programming is how many kids first stumbled upon anarchic oddity The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, or The 20 Minute Workout, or the most boring cartoon in the history of the medium, The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel. One show that remained a cornerstone of interstitial filling throughout the decade, and beyond, was The Toothbrush Family – created by an Australian, paid for by Americans, and animated and voiced in Toronto.

The Toothbrush Family started life as a series of spoken word LPs created by Australian children’s author Marcia Hatfield, who came up with the concept as a way to make the mundane act of brushing more palatable to her then 5-year old son, who had recently thrown away his toothbrush out of sheer boredom. “I wrote a story about a magic moonbeam that came into our bathroom at night when our family was asleep. When it touched our toothbrush holder our toothbrushes came alive, climbed down to the floor and played with whatever toys my three children had left there after bath time” explains Hatfield. This fantasy story re-engaged her children with their toothbrushes as it suddenly became a fun activity, instead of the daily dull chore it had once been. Hatfield knew she was on to something.

In 1974, an illustrated book of The Toothbrush Family was published in Australia by legendary animators Hanna-Barbera, which later afforded Hatfield the opportunity to meet Bill Hanna in LA, who in turn introduced her to the executive producer for children’s programming at CBS (LA – what a place!). Fortuitously, the morning he was to meet Hatfield, the unnamed executive had argued with his young son about the importance of brushing, and was very open to the idea of a program which exalted the virtue of toothbrushes. At the time, CBS’ flagship morning children’s show was Captain Kangaroo, a variety program not unlike Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, in which animated shorts played a crucial role.

At the time, Canada was very well known and respected globally in the field of cartoon animation, thanks to a large crop of local talent including the husband and wife team of Al Guest and Jean Mathieson, who had risen to fame in the 1960s with their work on that unforgettable mash up of tripped-out Sci-Fi psychedelia, Rocket Robin Hood, yet another scary filler known well to early risers.

Guest and Mathieson had formed Rainbow Animation studios in Toronto, and had several early successes including the creation of animated sequences for The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, native Inuit cartoon Ukaliq, and The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo which had established their relationship with CBS. When The Toothbrush Family was commissioned, Rainbow was charged with bringing them to life, with original creator Marcia Hatfield on board to pen the scripts.

Probably the most lasting memory of The Toothbrush Family was the Toothbrush song. Hatfield had become concerned while writing the Toothbrush Family scripts that no technical information had been included, and so she paid a visit to the Dental Health Education and Research Foundation in Sydney, Australia, who not only Ok’d the scripts but also gave her permission to use their newly composed Toothbrush song in every episode, sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice:”

“Brush your teeth, round and round,

Circles small: Gums and all.

A small soft toothbrush the round and round way.

Will keep your gums healthy and stop tooth decay.

So clean very carefully two times a day.

Go round and round… round and round”

The stories told in The Toothbrush family ran roughly 4 minutes and featured star toothbrushes Tess, father Tom, the kids – Tina and Toby, and Gramps. Other bathroom items appeared – Flash Fluoride, the toothpaste, Hot Rod Harry the electric toothbrush, Cecily Comb, Bertie Brush, Nev Nailbrush, Susie Sponge, and Shaggy Dog who represented the scruff of worn and out-dated toothbrushes. Their adventures were usually contained in the bathroom, however on a rare occasion they ventured into the outside world.

Sharp-eared viewers might recognize two very familiar local talents giving voices to the characters: Billie Mae Richards and Len Carlson. Richards is best remembered as the vox of Rudolph in the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, that stop motion classic which gets trotted out every season, and also Tender-Heart Bear from Nelvana’s The Care Bears.

Carlson was an industry veteran who voice-acted in 1000s of cartoon episodes, sometime voicing multiple characters per show in things like The Racoons (where he was loveable Bert Racoon) to Rocket Robin Hood, Spider-Man, Garbage Pail Kids, Swamp Thing, Droids, C.O.P.S and Beetlejuice, Cyberchase, and Beyblade to name but a few. He was also the voice of Kraft Foods and provided the unforgettable “Ho Ho Ho” of the Green Giant.

While The Toothbrush Family won acclaim as a segment on Captain Kangaroo in the US (Kangaroo Producer Joel Kosofsky claimed “the Toothbrush Family segment was probably the most significant part of the program in terms of viewer recognition and response”), in Canada it was equally beloved, airing daily on the CBC, then Global, then YTV before finally falling out of syndication sometime in the 1990s. Because the episodes were only 4 minutes, they would often run between shows and so you might have caught between 5 and 10 per day, every day, for almost 15 years, accounting for some very vivid memories.

Could the Family be priming for a return in 2013? According to Hatfield, The Toothbrush Family’s global popularity exists because “no matter what the country, no matter what the culture, all children grow teeth and frequently don’t understand the importance of why they have to brush their teeth twice daily. It becomes a boring daily chore, so anything that makes that chore interesting is a good thing. I’m sure the new Toothbrush Family will work the same way.” You can visit Hatfield’s Toothbrush Family Facebook page to support their return here. And don’t forget to “Brush your teeth… round and round”

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

That time when a Toronto ad man dreamed up the Caramilk mystery


Last week we lost towering legend of intellect, advertising genius and all around Toronto hero, Gary Prouk. While you may not instantly recognize his name, you’ve no doubt been directly or indirectly influenced by his advertising campaigns, visually seduced by his many television commercials, bus shelter ads, billboards and transit signage. A real life Hogtown “Mad Man”, a live wire who fictional characters like Don Draper reach to emulate, Prouk’s crowning legacy was devising the long running hook for Caramilk’s successful advertising strategy- stoking the mystery of how they get that soft flowing caramel into the Caramilk bar.

The question was first raised not long after Caramilk debuted in Canada in 1968, and fresh faced 26 year-old Prouk was already creative director at the Toronto office of American firm Doyle Dane Bernbach. The new 10 cent chocolate bar from Cadbury needed something to brand it unique, to stand out from the wide variety of popular chocolates offered by sweet toothed giants Nestle, Hershey and Effem Foods. Prouk reckoned on playing up the mystery angle, prophetically pre-empting the 1970s zeitgeist of Watergate, Bigfoot, UFOs and conspiracies. He also coined the solid gold subtitle – “One of life’s sweet mysteries”.

Prouk was most proud of his infamous Mona Lisa Caramilk spot, winner of a Lion at Cannes, and recipient of a coveted spot in the Clio Hall of Fame, where it remains to date the only Canadian advertisement in the fiercely competitive ad world to do so.

The Caramilk mystery meme continued, running through the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and even 2000s. Everyone has a favourite variant – the business men bidding against one another to gain the secret from the Devil (“Anthingggg?”), the arrogant bragging aliens, the WarGames influenced kid hacker. Prouk’s good friend David Cronenberg even directed a few spots, including the James Bond-ian “Surveillance”.

In 1979, Prouk helped launch another Cadbury chocolate bar, Dairy Milk, with a series of puns based on the word thick and realized in Terry Gilliam-style animation in both broadcast and print.

The 1980s were a tremendously successful time for Prouk. He helped re-launch Apple computers into Canada and rebranded Mercedes Benz for an encore. His commercial for Nabob coffee with a mallet wielding Michael J. Reynolds kick-started the trend of comparative advertising, and is still taught as textbook ad man acumen everywhere from the London School of Economics to Harvard.


In 1985, his firm Scali McCabe Sloves romanced the lucrative Labatt account away from incumbent J. Walter Thompson who had held it since 1968, and promptly rocked the entire Canadian advertising industry. He went on to re-tool the Labatt Blue brand with the “Call for the Blue” campaign, a patriotic, inclusive coast-to-coast Canadiana bent which defines beer marketing to this day.

It’s impossible to imagine eating a Caramilk bar without thinking about its mysterious secret thanks to Gary Prouk, and with his untimely passing the secret of that secret may never be known. But as the old Cadbury transit ad used to ask, “Ever notice how famous you become when you’re wrapped in mystery”?


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

That time when Honest Eds made honest ads


Target’s segue into Canada cheerfully soundtracked by a slightly blasphemous rinse of Mr. Roger’s signature tune pays deference to the belief that TV advertising shapes consumers appreciation of retailers more than anything else. No one understood and harnessed that better than Honest Edwin “Ed” Mirvish, whose bargain basement TV spots perfectly complemented his bargain basement warehouse, located at the corner of Bathhurst and Bloor streets. “This way all you bargain hunters!”

Opened in 1948, Honest Eds can lay claim to being the very first discount superstore (“no credit, no service, no frills: the world’s biggest discount department store!”). The sardine crammed store cheaply peddled items bought in bulk at fire sales atop his infamous orange crates, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue. Mirvish also claimed to have invented the concept of the loss leader, items sold below wholesale cost designed to lure patrons into the store’s labyrinthine layout where they would surely splash out on much more. “There’s no place like this place, anyplace!”


With its Vegas style marquee illuminated by 23,000 blinking light bulbs, the shop itself was one gigantic advertisement painted in broad kitsch strokes, and even felt retro by the time 1960 rolled around. As the decades flew by, Honest Eds remained the same, for better or worse. It was a bona fide Toronto destination, fittingly referenced in travel guides and pop culture outlets alike as a visual short hand for Hogtown West.

“London has Harrods, New York has Macys, Toronto has Honest Ed’s” proclaims one of the many unique hand painted signs that make the store so memorable, along with the rows of black and white head shots and theatre posters from Mirvish’s friends and associates in live entertainment. “Honest Ed’s a nut, but look at the cashew save!”


Perhaps the greatest bit of cogent sales skill Mirvish deployed was his pun heavy, groan worthy, comedic self-depreciation. There was no point in trying to gussy up the low grade reality of discount shopping, so why not celebrate it? In the hundreds of TV commercials Honest Eds produced in the 1980s, Mirvish would often appear at the beginning, or end, to drop puns and make light of his no-budget approach to advertising. “Honest Ed is a nightmare, but my bargains are a dream!”

Much like their print advertising, Honest Eds TV commercials were produced in the same house style, always abiding by the if it ain’t broke don’t fix it rule. Commercials aired locally on CityTV and CFMT Channel 47 Cable 4, because airtime real estate was cheap, and would hit the right eyeballs – Toronto’s ethnic community, low wage earners and students. Using stock footage, rag tag costumes and store customers as extras (check out the dudes modeling $10 car coats in the 1984 commercial – they are sure glad for the work), Honest Eds commercials were a triumph of good will over good budgets.

Ed Mirvish passed away in 2007, and although at the time speculation on the future of the store was grim, so far Honest Eds has kept on keeping on. The store gained more cult cred after appearing in both the comic book and flaccid film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim, and as the setting for Jenny Mayhem’s awesome “Wide Open” music video. Young people may still marvel at how old fashioned it all is, but they might just be surprised that their parents did as well. And let’s be honest, one day in the future that schmaltzy Target commercial will look just as quaint and dated as the 1980s Honest Eds TV commercials do in 2013.


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

That time when the Prince of Love ruled late night Toronto TV


The bionic Borscht Belt antics of David Bronstein, a.k.a “The Prince of Love,” left an indelible mark on anyone flipping TV channels in the middle of the night circa mid-1990s. Whether you had stayed up watching a movie and fallen asleep on the couch, were an insomniac, or had just come home drunk and lonely, stumbling upon one of Bronstein’s infamous 1-900 infomercials was like hitting late night rolled gold. It was a fool’s errand to try and escape the clutches of his endearing character shtick, while at the same time his unflappable chutzpah was just enough to drive you crazy, relent, and just call the number on the screen like he demanded.

Originally hailing from Philadelphia, Bronstein moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s looking for entertainment work, spurred on by in-laws who saw the rise in film and Television production and tremendous opportunity at bay. A fan and student of legendary Catskills performers like Don Rickles and Henry Youngman, it didn’t take the young stand-up comic known as “The Prince of Comedy” very long to score a sweet gig co-hosting the late night CBC Toronto culture show After Hours.

After Hours paired the manic Bronstein with a straight laced polar opposite in the form of Alexandra Amini, who at the time was co-starring with Mr. T in his low budget shot-in-Toronto drama featuring PI’s, lawyers and fists, T And T, produced by Nelvana, and now pretty much forgotten. But lucky Amini got to toil with Mr. T by day, David Bronstein by night.


In After Hours, Bronstein and Amini explored Toronto after sundown, visiting restaurants, bars, concerts, events, and all points in between. This opportunity allowed the Philly native to not only brush up on his Toronto knowledge, but also absorb the exact science of cheap and cheerful television production – shooting on location with one cameraman, one boom op, and one editor.

Meanwhile, a business model was fomenting in his mind.

The show was a hit, and critics immediately took to the fresh faced Bronstein. “I was described as Pumpernickel instead of the usual Canadian White Bread” he fondly recalls. But after the original producer who saw great promise and gave Bronstein that influential break was replaced with someone who did not appreciate his particular brand of comedy, David’s time at After Hours was called short: “She hated slapstick, she hated Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, everything that I do, Burlesque, Catskill jokes, everything that people love me for, she hated. She would write on the scripts, don’t make jokes, no funny faces”. Bronstein left the show while Amini continued on as a solo host for a short while before After Hours was cancelled.

One night while watching scantily clad fly girls getting down on the Arsenio Hall produced dance show The Party Machine With Nia Peeples, Bronstein was hit with a Mack truck-like epiphany: “I said to my wife, there should be a phone number you could call to talk to these girls, because they’re so sexy”. At the same time, the self-proclaimed “Pavlovian dog” was restless. Not content with waiting for his agent to arrange something (“My agent couldn’t book Lassie into a kennel” he recalls), Bronstein wanted to find a way to get himself on TV doing his shtick, where surely he would then be discovered.

At first a few dodgy handshake deals with Toronto area 1-976 numbers led to short lived shows with titles like “Affection Connection”, “Love and Passion” and “Night Encounters”, but the true bonanza arrived when he hooked up with an entrepreneurial ex-Rogers employee and they decided to purchase their own 1-900 line, buy cheap and tactical late night airtime, and create their own show – Dial-A-Date, fronted by Bronstein as newly dubbed “The Prince of Love”, telling full-on, no-holds-barred Catskills jokes with all the stuff that got him in trouble on After Hours.

Filmed entirely on location at Toronto’s notorious Limelight night club, Dial-A-Date was a 30 minute tightly scripted infomercial featuring Bronstein’s cheeseball Prince of Love character interacting with attractive “single” females, some of whom were on his payroll and would actually talk with callers (there were also 75 girls off-screen who took live calls and got paid 25 cents a minute). He got to tell jokes, pull faces and play a Catskills-inspired parody of sleazy night club guys, employing the same kind of reverse psychology that makes performers like Ron Jeremy so popular: regular, average Joes at home would watch him and think to themself, “Hey, if that schmuck can get the chicks, so can I” and then call Dial-A-Date, at $50 a call (!).

Their initial airtime buy was $20k, made in April of 1995. Bronstein swears his passive aggressive, motor mouthed invitation to viewers – “What are you waiting for? Stop looking at me! Get off the couch and call these girls!” – was driven by the fury he had at the idea his money was burning up while dead airtime focused on him. The first check came back at over $100,000k. “When I saw that cheque, any dreams and aspirations of being a big movie and TV star went out the window. What am I, nuts? I like this kind of money!” remembers Bronstein, who took that money started buying more airtime. Soon they were spending $250,000k and airing the spots over 150 times a week on local TV stations (this accounts for why we all remember him so well). In turn, those buys were bringing back cheques for $500, $600, $700 and $800k from the 1-900 number. The gambit had worked, and soon many others wanted a piece of the pie.

The most obvious and crass Dial-A-Date Xerox was The Date-Line, which also charged $50 a call, broken down to punters at the end of the infomercial as $3.33 per minute, with a minimum 15 minute charge. Its hosts not only lacked the charisma of Bronstein, but the very raison d’être of the show – they looked like they’d have no trouble at all getting a date – and they employed the same kind of dick-in-a-club behaviour that keeps most lonely people at home.

Since Bronstein had essentially created this new late night TV genre, and his Prince of Love shtick was proving so popular, producers of The Date-Line had male co-host Paris Black do Rodney Dangerfield impersonations, resulting in some very unfunny, stilted television (although it didn’t stop The Date-Line from broadcasting in essence a license to print money). These days, Black has a new album – “I’m Not Jesus“, and claims to have created a new musical genre – “Eurawk” a combination of club, dance, trance and wild live guitar. You can even see him perform live at the Revival Club in Toronto.


Levity aside, Bronstein concedes those early days weren’t all wine and roses. Much of the money earned on 1-900 number was never paid out, thanks to charge backs. You can imagine people getting hefty Bell bills and the recriminations and finger pointing which surely followed, including the age old nugget “It wasn’t me who called!” All of this was before the cell phone revolution really kicked off, so land-line misuse was rife, and could always be blamed on any number of random people.

The 1990s saw a final gasp of genuine TV personalities, and people like David Bronstein, while engaging in possibly dubious (and lucrative) endeavours, made late night TV a much more colourful, alive and fun place. To this day, Bronstein still gets stopped in the street and recognized everywhere he goes, owing to the ubiquity of his popular late night persona. As you might imagine, he still oversees an empire of infomercial infamy, only now instead of phone lines he has the entirety of the internet to play with, including reality shows, blogs and “crazy” web sites. His monologues are uploaded regularly to Youtube and Vimeo, and his website is an ambitious base of operation. He’s currently looking for young entrepreneurs who understand the web and want to collaborate with him. He’ll even be a pitchman for you and record a 30 second spot for only $5!. What are you waiting for? Get off the couch and call!


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

That time Dar Robinson jumped off the CN Tower, twice


In the 37 years since the CN Tower opened to the public, only two times has someone actually jumped off the top of it. Both times, it has been the same man – maverick daredevil Dar Robinson.

The steel-balled stuntman was paid a cool $150,000 to double for Christopher Plummer and jump off the Tower for the exciting conclusion to a 1982 (but filmed in 1979) heist gone awry rom-com Highpoint, itself a high point in a middling, convoluted Canuxploitation snoozer.


Academy award winner Plummer was really slumming it here as James Hatcher, a sleazy conman who embezzles millions from a joint CIA/Mafia sting operation. Original Dumbledore Richard Harris and throaty pre-Vacation Beverly D’Angelo give chase, as well as bumbling assassins played by customary Cancon haunts Saul Rubinek and Maury Chaykin, who also scheme to claim the money for themselves. After a series of increasingly slapstick encounters, all the players meet at the CN Tower for the film’s climax.

Hilariously (in light of his mammoth contribution) credited as only the 2ND stunt performer, Dar Robinson’s amazing Highpoint stunt in 1979 earned him instant untouchable world-wide cred, as previously only one other person had dared jump the 1,170-ft high tower, and that fellow did it when the structure was only half constructed. Dar had cut his stunt teeth on glossy big budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and Concord: Airport ’79, but his fearless parachute jump in Highpoint signalled a bold new upping of the ante – a 700 foot free-fall relying on a concealed parachute to be opened at precisely the last possible moment.

The following year, Dar dutifully dropped 220 feet out of a Hyatt Regency Downtown in Atlanta for the tough neo-noir Sharky’s Machine, directed by his good friend Burt Reynolds: “In terms of sheer courage” noted Reynolds, “Dar had no peer.” With no parachute or harness, Dar instead relied on an inflatable mattress to break his fall, setting the record for highest wireless free-fall jump in a film (he went on to claim over 20 stunt records). Reynolds was so impressed he gave Dar a villainous on-screen role as psycho albino killer Moke in his 1985 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Stick.

Around the same time, weekly TV series That’s Incredible! was pushing the boundaries of human endeavour in the name of entertainment, usually featuring breathtaking stunts: “Don’t try this at home” was the show’s popular catch phrase. Hosted by the perfectly chiseled John Davidson, NFL legend Fran Tarkenton and sultry blonde Cathy Lee Crosby, That’s Incredible! perhaps laid the ground for our YouTube era fascination with short clips of people doing cool stunts, hurting themselves, or very nearly killing themselves.

Dar saw That’s Incredible! as a great forum for yet another next level stunt, revisiting Toronto and taking the tower again. However this time Dar wanted to try something different, so there would be no parachute. Dar and his team instead constructed a single 1/8″ (3mm) wire attached to a breaking system controlled by his best friend and assistant “Rocketman” Ky Michaelson, which would be pulled at the very last moment, stopping only a short distance from the ground. No stranger to mixing precise mathematical projections with meticulous planning and devil-may-care brassiness, Dar remained an unshakeable force of nature.

However, with no Hollywood film crew a la Highpoint (which ironically had not even been released theatrically when Dar returned to leap from the Tower again), things were slightly more diy. After visiting the Tower, Ky quickly became concerned: “I saw that the base of the building actually flared out towards the bottom. This caused a vortex or a tornado effect with swirling very unstable winds. We set up some equipment to measure what the wind was doing at different levels. We found out that the winds were doing different things at every level up the tower.”


The night before the jump, Dar declined a steak dinner and drinks with host Cathy Lee Crosby. “This was not like Dar at all” recalls Ky. Was the world’s greatest stuntman in danger of losing his bottle?

While incredibly everything panned out, disaster was moments away. Not long after disconnecting Dar, the wind snapped the cable off the top of the Tower, chipping pieces of concrete off as it hurtled towards the ground. Questions of safety were raised at City Hall and Queen’s Park, and while there was no outright banning of such stunts, here we are 30 plus years later and none have materialized. Finding someone to insure such foolhardiness may play a part, but that certainly didn’t stop Super Dave Osborne from trying in the mid-1980s, natch.

Dar Robinson went on to perform more outrageous stunts in classic B-movies like Police Academy (also filmed in Toronto), Turk 182, To Live and Die in LA, and Vamp. Just as he had scored A-list cred with the amazing stunt work in Richard Donner’s original Lethal Weapon (1987), Dar was killed in a motorcycle accident while shooting a forgettable thriller entitled Million Dollar Mystery. The movie was dedicated to him (as was Lethal Weapon), a Hollywood first, and as well he won a posthumous 1995 Academy Award for his innovations in the world of stunt work.

Sadly, not many people in Toronto know about Dar Robinson. Now that Edgewalk has popularized thrill seeking atop the CN Tower, it would be nice to think that Dar’s amazing stunts for both Highpoint and That’s Incredible! warrant a little more than internet curio. Perhaps a bronzed statue would be appropriate, seated on the edge of the rooftop, glaring down at the impossible heights and giving a thumbs up to fellow edgewalkers everywhere?


Note: The That’s Incredible! clips presented here are from a 1987 TV special entitled The Ultimate Stuntman: A Tribute to Dar Robinson hosted by Chuck Norris, which repackaged much of the That’s Incredible! footage, however not all of it. Chuck’s grizzled delivery (cf “Toronto, Canada”) more than makes up for any errant footage, however.

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

That time when Canada’s strong beers went to war


Take a sip and wipe your lips
Keep my forties getting warm
I’m audi, gots to fill
— E.P.M.D. “East Meets West Malt Liquor”

Described as “the silly season” by Lagerheads author Paul Brent, the early 1990’s saw Canada’s two major breweries Molson and Labatt declare all-out, scorched earth war. Each brand launched successive gimmicks aimed at luring unsuspecting beer drinkers over to their (dark) side, with the promise of exciting new brewing techniques, tough guy branding and cheap canned-heat head rock for those on a budget.

Not co-incidentally around the same time, malt liquor was fast becoming an object of cult adoration due to its omnipresence in the emerging mainstream hip-hop scene, with labels like Olde English 800, Colt 45, Schlitz and St. Ides appearing frequently in videos seen on Much Music’s trailblazing Rap City and Soul in the City. For a time malt liquor had the stigma of a ghetto beverage, popular in inner cities, with advertising aimed squarely at black audiences, like Billy Dee Williams’ smooth as Colt 45 spots. All of this was about to change.

First developed by Labatt in 1993, Ice Beer was brewed using a low-temperature process that caused unwanted proteins and tannins to precipitate at a faster rate. This act supposedly resulted in a smoother taste, but a much higher alcohol content, roughly 5.6 per cent alcohol, thus ensuring every under age drinker in Canada wanted a piece. Who better to sell this new bad man barley pop than Hans Gruber’s right hand man, Karl, aka Alexander Godunov, Soviet defector, classical ballet dancer, and uh, Tom Hanks’ love rival in The Money Pit.

Not only did Godunov’s Karl-esqe sneering bad assery help position the new brew’s attitude, but Johnny Marr’s insane shredding from The Smith’s B-side “How Soon is Now” sound-tracked it, proving to be the first time many 90s kids had dealt with The Smiths (interestingly, Chris Nolan instructed Hans Zimmer to recreate this nuclear bassline during the opening bank robbery sequence in The Dark Knight. Check it!). Shot on location at Ontario Place, this spot was also memorable for Godunov’s chilling warning “if it’s not ice brewed, it’s not ice beer.”

Moments after the arrival of Labatt Ice, Molson jumped into the fray with Canadian Ice and Dry Ice, offering even more buzz for your buck at 5.7 per cent alcohol. Word began to spread that Labatt was secretly engineering an even more potent sud which was due to hit the market in late 1993. In a staggeringly cheeky effort to score PR points, Molson began to lobby the government and cozy up to MADD, claiming real concern over the trend towards stronger beer. Damning the torpedoes, Labatt’s in turn unleashed Maximum Ice onto the populace, clocking in at a whopping and unprecedented at the time 7.1 per cent alcohol content. And who better to sell this bottle of liquid sorcery than Michael Ironside?

Kind of, sort of re-creating his General Katana role from 1991’s Highlander II: The Quickening, Ironside’s tough as leather persona accompanied by thunder bolts and thrashing guitars brought about a sense that this brew contained unrestrained dark powers. Sales and popularity of Maximum Ice soared, as anyone who remembers the cold winter of 1993/1994 will tell you nary a concert, party or school function was complete without someone puking off too much Max Ice. In early 1994, the previously “concerned” Molson’s launched XXX, an even more foul tasting swill at an even more teen enticing 7.3 per cent alcohol content. High School dances would never be the same.

With the launch of XXX a catalyst for even more wantonly drunken behavior, the media finally took notice of the gut rot carnage and along with the support of MADD called out Molson and Labatt. Watching the Ironside Maximum Ice commercial, it is patently obvious the intended demo was angry 15 year old head banging boys, and no doubt both companies were behaving irresponsibly by marketing such low grade, high alcohol content swill to anyone, never mind kids. The cool commercials disappeared, and the price point went way up.

Both Labatt Maximum Ice and Molson XXX are still available at the Beer Store, and remain a hobo favorite, but the days of Hollywood actors appearing in advertising to champion their taste and embody their spirit are long gone. Tragically, Alexander Godunov died of alcohol related illness in 1995 after a short but promising career ending on the cruel irony that his final performance ever was shooting commercials for Labatt Ice in Toronto.

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

That time when Yeti attacked Toronto


The Dino De Laurentiis stink bomb remake of King Kong (1976) cratered out with poor reviews, insipid box-office returns, a broken robot monkey, and Jeff Bridges status as a Hollywood player in serious doubt. More bizarrely, it also inspired New York’s Twin Towers to become a magnet for kaijū eiga, Chinese kung-fu stalwarts Shaw Brothers oddity The Mighty Peking Man (1977), and to date the only monster movie to be set in downtown Toronto – Yeti, the Giant of the 20th Century (1977).

After a “million-year-old” gigantic Yeti is discovered frozen in the icy wastelands of Northern Canada, greedy industrialist Morgan Hunnicut decides to exploit the beast as a mascot for his chain of grocery stores and gas stations by airlifting it to the top of a hotel in Toronto. But after falling in love with Hunnicut’s beautiful granddaughter Jane, Yeti is woe to become a Ju-Ju for capitalism and breaks free of his oppressors. Running amok in Toronto, Yeti is caught between the hardball business machinations of Hunnicut’s rivals who also wish to exploit him, and the Toronto Police department, who have been instructed to shoot him on site. Can Yeti get the girl and return to his peaceful sleep in the ice?

Directed by Italian cult cinema maestro Gianfranco Parolini under the pseudonym Frank Kramer, Yeti is a bruising, berserk, almost unwatchable catalogue of inanity. At once, a Family friendly mash-up of King Kong, The Golem and Lassie, backed by the most unconvincing green screen work ever committed to film, and a totally inappropriate soundtrack that veers from half decent funk in the title track “Yeti” by The Yetians (see what they did there?), to a low-rent version of “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana) which seems to pop up every 10 minutes or so to add a sense of drama. Never mind the fact that Yeti looks like a filthy, smelly hippy.

Heaven only knows what Parolini was under the influence of while directing this, as his career up until that point was chock full of bad-ass Lee Van Cleef revenge movies like God’s Gun and the Sabata trilogy, the kind of hard-boiled spaghetti westerns Quentin Tarantino riffed on in Django Unchained. Heaven also only knows how or why Toronto was selected as a back drop for this blessed madness, especially since other than a few establishing shots, the CN Tower is virtually ignored. One would assume the Tower might have been used for an exciting grand finale a la the Empire State Building in the original King Kong (1933), but no, the closest we get to anything like that is the Yeti skulking around City Hall.

Yeti’s T-dot tour also includes the Sheraton Centre, Exhibition Stadium (where a gaggle of Jays fans holler at the announcement that Yeti is en route), the CNE Food Court and stationary Alpine Way, the Bank of Montreal building, and a host of others. As is usually the case, Toronto’s geography is pretty messed up in the film’s diagetic universe (from City Hall to Ex Stadium in a few moments; see also The New Avengers in Toronto.




City Hall appeared prominently in most of the movie’s print advertising, probably because of its science-fiction-y look, courtesy of Finnish architect Viljo Revell, and probably why it featured twice in Star Trek, which all things considered is high art compared to the lowly Yeti.

Yeti remains a “lost” film, with nary a 30-year-old no-name label VHS release to its sullen name. Italian Antonella Interlenghi’s dreamy green-eyed gaze is about the best thing the movie has going for it, although her pronunciation of Yeti (“Yheeeti”) is suspect, as are the awkward moments when Yeti makes bedroom eyes at her. She falls for him when after eating a fish he uses its dry bones to comb her hair. Who would have guessed Yeti was such a mack?

So the ultimate Toronto giant monster movie remains to be made. This summer’s hotly tipped Pacific Rim was shot here, but it’s doubtful that any of our major landmarks will be getting attacked on screen. And whatever happened to Yeti? Legend has it he occasionally revisits his old City Hall haunt.

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

Looking back at the Pay TV wars in Toronto


Exactly 30 years ago today, Pay TV arrived in Canada. As the clock struck midnight heralding February 1, 1983, duelling services fired their opening salvos and premium entertainment starved viewers were treated to an exciting and sometimes bloody David versus Goliath throw down between Central and Western Canadian companies who battled for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of consumers trapped in a miniscule 20 channel universe. “There could be only one.”

Canadians had too long been denied the pleasure of dedicated, 24 hour uncut movie channels while south of the border services like HBO and Showtime had carved out a wildly successful business model and proved beyond a doubt the appetite existed for pay television. The promise of uncut movies on tap led to many Canadians investing in home satellite dishes which as well as being an expensive folly were notoriously unreliable, cumbersome and above all hideous blights. Most people in the early 1980s just made do with heavily censored movies on broadcast television (to be fair Toronto denizens had it a-okay with the likes of Elwy Yost’s commercial free classic Hollywood fare on TVOntario, or CityTV’s eclectic grindhouse meets Hart House selection of Great Movies.

Finally in 1981, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission(CRTC) held a hearing to licence Pay TV in Canada. One year later licences were doled out, and after a full court promotional onslaught during the Fall of 1982, the experiment was ready to begin.

While licences were granted for smaller regional services, all eyes were on the heavy weight nationals, led by undisputed yet untested champ First Choice (tagline: “Look out for number one! Look out for First Choice!”). First Choice promised a heady brew of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, classic films, concerts, family fare, original Canadian shows and movies, and titillating late night scoops of Playboy programs. All this for only $19.95 per month!

On the opposite end of the cultural spectrum was the infamous C Channel, presided over by former Citytv founding partner Ed Cowan. C Channel reached for the discerning high-brow viewer, focusing on theatre, opera and ballet, as well as foreign art house films and mini-series, yet still retailed for the blue collar friendly sum of $15.95 a month. “People will buy one movie channel, and us” boldly predicted Cowan. By June 30, a mere 5 months later, The C Channel was off the air, the first casualty of the Pay TV war.

Finally, and most cunning of the new pay services was Superchannel (tagline: “Television’s brightest star!”). Although initially only granted a licence for Alberta, by the time February 1 rolled around Superchannel had also acquired a second regional channel – lucrative old Ontario – which severely undercut First Choice’s play for national dominance. Not only that, Superchannel kicked off on midnight February 1st with the very first Canadian broadcast of Star Wars (Han shoots first version), while First Choice limped out the gate with a re-run of The Who’s “final” concert which had aired on Citytv the previous year, followed by brow king Roger Moore’s rather pensive James Bond installment For Your Eyes Only (although by 7:00am they eventually had gotten around to screening Star Wars too).

The war of Wars screenings highlighted one of the major problems in the early days of Pay TV – overlapping blue chip titles. Superchannel president Stephen Harris told Starweek magazine “It’s like two radio stations. If you listen to either CHFI or CKFM, you’re going to be hearing a lot of the same music, but you know they’re two different stations and you probably prefer one over the other”. Superchannel was more geared towards movies and sporting events (pre-TSN they screened NHL, NBA and Expo and Blue Jay games, for example), and avoided some of the shorter material favored by First Choice. They also famously shied away from adult themed movies with gratuitous nudity for a short while before coming to their senses and providing an important service to curious young males across Canada.

At a mere $15.95 a month, Superchannel quickly got the rep as being a poor man’s First Choice, but truth be told both services were exorbitantly priced compared to the cost of basic cable at the time, roughly $12-16 a month. Over at First Choice, programming wizard Phyllis Switzer, another co-partner of the original Channel 79 Citytv gang (along with Cowan, Jerry J Grafstein and Moses Znaimer exclaimed “I came on with terror in my heart because everyone was going out with independent producers around the country spending millions of dollars on programs” Coming from the relative shoe string, scotch tape and glue operation of Citytv, no wonder she was shocked. In its first year alone, First Choice spent upwards of $10 million before a single punter had subscribed. And that was 1983 money.

After C Channel flopped, First Choice and Superchannel’s rivalry became more survival of the fittest, while fat cat Hollywood studio execs bowled over in laughter as the two Canadian services’ competitive bidding drove the cost of licencing even B-grade pablum sky high. Meanwhile the Canadian press, after an initial period of cheerleading the services (no doubt while they were on free previews), turned and began to ask tough questions about the whole enterprise. Would Pay TV survive in 1984?

Freeviews, or Free Weekends began to appear with more frequency, and with better quality films lined up to showcase each service. First Choice even hired consumer advocate Lynne Gordon and legendary funny man Billy Van to host some of these weekends, stressing that hefty subscription prices were easier to swallow if you broke them down and thought of each film as costing you roughly 60 cents.


Superchannel attempted a much more folksy outreach to viewers in contrast with the slick commercialism of First Choice, hiring well-spoken Western gentleman Fred Keating to appear for all intents and purposes as the face and voice of the station. Keating amusingly hosted a weekly feedback interstitial titled “Mailbag” where he calmly responded to a variety of viewer questions about the nature of Pay TV. “The thinking behind Mailbag was threefold” recalls Keating. “It was meant to be a promotion for the network, an acknowledgement of viewer’s concerns, and a way of dealing with the tremendous amount of mail Superchannel received”.

Superchannel also hosted a popular monthly interactive special titled “Superchoice”, wherein the station offered up four new possible movie titles to be screened on the last Friday of the month, then invited viewers to call a 1-800 number to vote for their favourite. Such interaction may seem positively 8-bit worthy now, but at the time was revolutionary (and probably a nice side revenue line as each call cost $1!).

One of the most lasting and memorable aspects of those early wild west days of Pay TV were the program guides, high end glossy film magazines which were closer in style to Variety than TV Guide. The arrival of a lush new issue in the post was indeed a special occasion.

While both First Choice and Superchannel may have been primarily desired for their A-list Hollywood features, or sleazy T&A sex comedies, both services proudly embraced their Cancon quota requirements. Both channels financed and aired an abundance of home grown Canadian films which to this day remain mostly lost, unavailable in any format: The Terry Fox Story (1983), Sudden Fury (1975), Funeral Home (1980), Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck (1975), Highpoint (1982), Love at First Sight (1977), The Dog Who Stopped the War (1984), Mark of Cain (1986), Self-Defence aka Siege (1983), to name but a few. First Choice co-produced the notorious TV series The Hitchhiker (1983), a repellant horror anthology that wallowed in cruel violence and degrading nudity when shown on Pay TV, then was later edited into incoherence when screened on basic cable.

Coincidentally it was created by Riff Markowitz, one of the original applicants of the First Choice licence and producer of the much loved and revered The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971).

As 1984 wore on, both stations found themselves in a stalemate. Through some imaginative wheeling and dealing, Superchannel had tied up much of the desirable A-list studio fare, while First Choice was forced to drop all Playboy content if they hoped to acquire Walt Disney titles. Around the same time, MuchMusic and TSN had been granted licences so music and sports programming was gravitating away. However First Choice held the best card of all – National exposure. It was time for an arranged marriage.

Owing to a near ruinous freshman year, the two Pay TV networks had little choice but to merge into one, imaginatively titled First Choice*Superchannel. Bundled with new cable kids on the block Much Music and TSN: The Sports Network, “the Satisfaction 3-Pack” retailed for $15.95 per month and finally gave viewers a little more bang for their buck. All of Frist Choice’s branding was abandoned in favor of Superchannel’s more colourful fanfare, but sadly Fred Keating’s “Mailbag” was given the boot in favour of letting the content speak for itself, a portent of the grey, no frills approach taken by most modern day Pay TV services.

First Choice*Superchannel’s marriage of convenience was really just a holding pattern until the kinks of a splitting up two monopolies could be ironed out. Innovation during this drawn out period included the interactive shot-in-Toronto Sci-Fi whodunit Murder in Space (1985), which ended on a cliff-hanger and invited viewers to solve a murder mystery and win trips to Florida. Unfortunately the resolution to what should have been a by the numbers bit of fun Agatha Christie pulp proved to be so convoluted that no one correctly guessed the multiple identities of the murderers, and the much hyped event was never repeated (never mind the film becoming yet another buried cult classic, with stand-out performances from a shouty Michael Ironside and pre-Diabeetus meme generator Wilford Brimley.

Ironically the most interesting programming on First Choice*Superchannel at the time was proto YouTube “The Great Canadian Shorts Contest” which ran for almost a decade and invited budding wannabe Spielberg’s to enter their short films for consideration. Finalist’s short films then ran nationally between features, while viewers filled out a ballot in PRIME TIME magazine and voted for their favorites. Winners could receive cash prizes up to $5,000.00, an encouraging amount for young video and Super 8 enthusiasts.

By the end of the 1980s, First Choice*Superchannel finalized their divorce. Ontario and all provinces East were given a tweaked First Choice: The Movie Network (later, bizarrely shortened to just The Movie Network, and then finally the totally uninspired “TMN”), while Manitoba and all provinces West received Superchannel, later renamed “Movie Central” after being purchased by Corus in 2001.

Now that accessing Pay TV is about as exciting and ground breaking as getting water from a tap, it is easy to forget what a buzz all this was 30 years ago. With all of the selection we have now in a 1000+ channel universe it’s hard to get excited about new services, however rarely it does happen. In 2007, the Allard family (who in 1983 originally launched Superchannel) broke the National monopoly when they ushered in a new and improved Superchannel.

More recently in 2011, Hollywood Suite launched 4 commercial free, uncut HD channels specializing in a mixture of studio classics and Canadian pictures, with a lot of titles that would have aired on First Choice*Superchannel back in the day. If you have an HD set, the service is offering a free preview on Rogers until the end of March. It has been suggested that the package will probably end up costing roughly $6 per month, a far cry from the $19.95 range early Pay TV charged. Now if only they could air Star Wars at midnight…

Special thanks to Fred Keating, Joan Schafer and Robert Richardson.

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

That time when Toronto had Johnny Cash machines


In spite of many skeptics who claim it was merely an urban legend, revered gospel and country singing man in black Johnny Cash did actually lend his name and own brand credibility to Canada Trust’s blossoming ATM roll-out in the mid-1980s. As in, I need money, let’s hit a Johnny Cash machine.


Now simply taken for granted, the novel ATM age really kicked off in the early 1980s when Toronto Dominion unveiled their “Green Machines,” which were followed closely by the Scotiabank “Quickstop Cashstops.” Just look at how utterly happy these ATM using people are.

As easy as it may be to Monday morning quarterback the questionable behaviors of previous generations, one of the more bizarre aspects of the old days were banker’s hours. The majority of banks were only open from 9 a.m until 3 p.m., meaning most working people had no option but to line up to withdraw or deposit money at lunch time (and with no smart phones to pass the queue time, gasp!). ATMs were few and far between, and chances are if your bank had one, it was only accessible during business hours. Not only that, they were closed on weekends so if you missed taking out cash on Friday, weekend prospects dimmed to grim. In fact it’s kind of impossible to imagine how people tolerated much less survived such a major inconvenience.

Mike McCurlie remembers that time well. After he and fellow band member at the time Daniel Lanois opened the Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Mike was forced to detour into “writing and selling goofy jingles to help pay the bills.” One of his first customers was Canada Trust. “At the time Canada Trust was aggressively advertising their hours, and I came up with the jingle ‘We’re open 8 ’till 8, early and late, we’re open Saturday’s too.'” After the success of McCurlie’s catchy business hours awareness campaign, they looked towards a much more ambitious project.

Devised by Canada Trust’s marketing head Don Park, Rock-a-billy boom-chick-a-boom legend Johnny Cash was enlisted to put a name, face and homophone to Canada Trust’s ATM strategy, and thus “I Walk the Line” became “Why walk the line?” Flown into Toronto and then chauffeured by limousine to Grant Avenue Studios, Cash made quite the impression during his short stay in Hamilton. “He walks into our studio” recalls McCurlie, “he’s like 6’9 or something, really tall, wearing all black including a Cowboy hat and a bright turquoise neckerchief. I was the only guy in the control room and he looks at me and says in that wobbly voice he was famous for, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.'”

Two different 30 second TV spots were recorded, with McCurlie’s prized 1968 Martin A35 guitar standing in for Johnny’s similar but absent axe. Amazingly, Canada Trust also created life size Johnny Cash cardboard standees which briefly appeared in branches until most of them ended up getting stolen or weather damaged.


At the time, Johnny was a somewhat of fading star, with only a special guest appearance on The Muppets and TV movie Murder in Coweta County to remind people that he was still alive. During his short stint at Grant Avenue Studio, he apparently ventured into the Wentworth Street Tim Horton’s, where he enjoyed a coffee undisturbed. “People probably just thought it was someone who looked like him, because there’d be no reason for the real Johnny Cash to be in a Timmy’s on Wentworth,” laughs McCurlie.

When Johnny Cash rejuvenated his career in the 1990s with a U2 collaboration and the American series of albums, people who recalled and spoke of Canada Trust’s Johnny Cash machines of the mid-1980s were often derided or accused of fostering urban legends (this was before the internet was around to verify or further mystify subjects). It was a relief to find someone else who remembered those TV commercials, or the life-size standees, to ensure one had not lost their mind or perhaps Dallas-style dreamt the whole thing. Sadly the otherwise spiffy Hollywood bio-pic Walk the Line did not cover this amazing moment in Ontario pop culture history.

While old friend and band member Lanois went off to Los Angeles, Mike McCurlie found great success in those goofy jingles and his hugely successful company MJM Productions is a testament to that. In addition to Canada Trust, his other earliest clients included Pizza Pizza and African Lion Safari, both of whom have used his memorable jingles for more than 30 years.

So next time you are grumbling about someone taking an extra minute or two to make a deposit while queuing at the bank, just think of Johnny Cash and ask yourself “Why walk the line?”

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

That time when Toronto TV was fit for aerobics


It’s that time of the year again when the gluttonous excess of making merry has to be atoned and gyms are brimming over with new puffy faces who probably won’t last a month. While Good Life memberships or Jillian Michaels and Skinny Bitch DVDs are the most common instruments for getting fit in the new year, there was time not all that long ago when local broadcasters were mad for fitness shows and created some amusing shows celebrating the art of getting fit.

In the sweaty wake of Jane Fonda’s Workout, the VHS juggernaut of 1982, Fitness and aerobic workouts became as crucially trend defining to the 1980s as a sockless Don Jonson, leg warmers and “Just say no”. Most famous and still fondly recalled three decades later was The 20 Minute Workout, a cheap as chips studio production from animation upstarts Nelvana, which aired on the still burgeoning Citytv and featured a bevy of spandex adorned beauties grooving with a pulsating electro soundtrack (later released on vinyl).

Only 2 seasons of 20 Minute Workout were produced- all 65 episodes were filmed at Magder Studios in Scarborough – however the series ran daily in syndication for years and developed a questionable cult following based mostly around “Aerobics Queen of the 80s,” Bess Motta, who led the workout in its first season and also co-starred as Linda Hamilton’s unlucky flat mate in the original Terminator (1984). While the show did wonders to raise the profile of regular aerobic activity, it was the mildly sleazy style in which the show was filmed and marketed that brought it so much infamy (one of the many unfounded rumours that plagued the show in the early days was that it’s camera crew shot pornographic films in between aerobic sets, although with promos like the one below it’s not hard to see why so many people were hoodwinked).

Although nothing matched the gargantuan popularity of 20 Minute Workout, there were many pretenders – The Fitness People, Fitness Break, Fit for Life and Toronto Today’s daily installment of Flexercize with the breathless Vyvyan Campbell.

One of the more bizarre workout series was CHCH 11’s Good Morning Workout which featured the host Pamela Callyer working out with her dog.

While the majority of shows were aimed squarely at young women, there were also fitness programs created at TVOntario aimed at both a much younger, and much older audience.

Around the same time, Participaction and the Province of Ontario were buying a lot of airtime to promote fitness and getting into shape with public service announcements like this:

It’s mildly amusing to look back on what worked but mostly didn’t in that decade as the initial rat race to monetize fitness kicked off and made so many people rich, especially 20 Minute Workout. It was the cash cow that built the house of Nelvana (although they would much rather acknowledge their vintage kid shows like Inspector Gadget and The Care Bears), and most likely gently ushered a generation of young boys into adulthood, but like so many other legendary Canadian TV series the legacy is mostly forgotten and unavailable, with only a handful of fuzzy bootleg DVDs and torrents floating around the darker corners of the internet. While the aerobic content is out-dated, those old episodes are a great time capsule of the fitness mad decade that was the 1980s.

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