RETRONTARIO

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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.

That time when Citytv played great movies

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Toronto is a city in love with movies. Today, we are overwhelmed by how much choice we have to indulge that love, from TIFF to the reps, uncut and commercial free HD channels, $5 Blu-rays, streams, on demand, pirating or even just using our phones to gaze upon YouTube. Whatever our fancy, we live in a time of unprecedented access to movies.

No amount of programming wizardry or post-modern playlist shuffling, however, could ever come close to reproducing what it was once like to be a patron of that most eclectic festival of cathode ray mayhem, witness to a heady yet irresistible parade of high-brow art house, home grown Canadiana, beloved Hollywood classics and low-grade, gormless sleaze guaranteed to rattle, titillate and challenge our senses all hours of the day and night: Citytv’s Great Movies.

As one of the core three tenets of old Citytv’s identity — “News Movies Music,” movies played a crucial role in forging their destiny, or rather, Baby Blue movies did. Even after all these years, people still talk about the Baby Blues with reverence because they not only helped defrost Toronto’s frigid attitudes towards sex, but more importantly pushed the buttons of those wholesome squares who controlled television at the time. Watching Citytv in the ’70s, especially the Baby Blues, was an act of insurrection.

In 1992, while celebrating their 20th anniversary, Citytv re-aired the original Baby Blue “The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festival,” a fuzzy compilation of arty sex shorts acquired by Canadian producer Robert Lantos for $500. “The Voice” could hardly have been more on point when he stated “While we have gone through a lot of changes, the content of the following films have not”:

As the Baby Blues cunning stunt achieved Moses Znaimer’s goal of bringing both wanted and unwanted attention to Citytv’s humble UHF location, (as well as probably inspiring David Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but that’s another story…) the station also carved out a reputation for itself by showing regular movies too. The Great Movies skein screened double bills every night, with tacit acknowledgement that viewers were cool (“Before you go out tonight, see what’s on Great Movies.”) This was a marked contrast to other broadcasters’ passive treatment of their audience. The fanfare evolved, with each progressive intro getting more complex and exciting: watching these, you knew that something special was about to flash onto your screen.

Themed weeks were popular — Godzilla, James Bond, Planet of the Apes, Elvis, Woody Allen, Shaw Brothers, Universal Monsters and Disaster films. Plenty of film enthusiasts from Toronto swear by the higher education they attained watching Great Movies, in an era before VCRs or Pay-TV. Not to mention the Late Great Movie phenomena, born out of large film collections which any other TV station would have rejected with a barge pole.

Trash, cheese and outright crap were celebrated at Citytv, first with The Not-So-Great Movie strand and then most memorably with the aural alchemy of The Voice, who with one gruff and ready sentence could sell you on a bad movie quicker than a million dollar advertising campaign could on a good one.

In the early ’80s when 24/7 broadcasting was a new reality, Citytv populated the wee hours with music videos. After successfully launching MuchMusic in 1984, they switched to all night movies and once again, brilliantly, enlisted the City itself as a character in its own unfolding story: denizens of after-hours Yonge Street (back when it was grimy, soulful and a smidge dangerous) reminded viewers they were watching “Late Great Movies on Citytv!” Every commercial break shout out created instant camaraderie with shift-workers, insomniacs, ogling teenagers and whatever other assorted miscreants who were up at 4:00a.m. watching a W.C. Fields movie. Where are these people now?

There were some fascinating failures with the format as well: infamous rocker and Edison Twins theme composer Bob Segarini hosted Late Great Movies for one year in 1985 alongside producer (and now Ultimate Spider-Man writer) Ty Templeton, unleashing all manner of bad behavior and irreverent commentary that eventually got them fired (and rather proved Late Great didn’t need a host – only a Voice).

While lately there has been a renewed interest in the horror hosts of yore, nobody talks much about Toronto’s only known horror show, Monsters We’ve Known and Loved, which ran only eight weeks with host Gene Taylor dressed as some kind of singing and dancing camp Wolf-man.

A great boon to watching movies on Citytv was their punchy, liberal approach to censorship, with only the “mother” portion of a certain popular turn of phrase being muted (CRTC regulation or odd Oedipal issue?) while everything else — course language, gratuitous nudity, gore, awkward running times – remained intact. All the other commercial stations ran “TV versions” of popular Hollywood titles, meaning they were poorly re-dubbed and re-cut to fit strict running times and acquiesce to outdated puritanical broadcast standards. We can thank Moses Znaimer and his vision of Citytv for a lot of the freedoms on television which we maybe take for granted today.

By the 1990s, Citytv had added afternoon screenings of “More Great Movies” meaning anywhere from 4-6 titles a day were being played on the station. It was a wondrous time to be a movie fan. But as more specialty channels appeared, catering to all and sundry, and the notion of “home entertainment” pushed a world where people built their own collections of movies to watch in their home theatres, the event factor of movies on TV diminished greatly, as did the art of programming them. But from 1972 until the early 2000s, Toronto was treated to a kaleidoscopic trip though film history, via Baby Blues, obscure foreign, horror, musical, drama, war, T&A, comedy, western, thriller, Sci-Fi, and all points in between, some even scraped from the bottom of a particularly filthy barrel. Citytv played great movies!

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

That time when Doctor Who educated Ontario

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Youthful old Sci-Fi institution Doctor Who rematerialized Saturday night on Space in an exciting adventure with the Daleks, kicking off a new season of thrilling “timey wimey” business with hipster heart-throb Matt Smith as Fez/bow-tie/funny hat wearing Doctor number eleven. This almost 50 year old TV series created by Torontonian Sydney Newman retains a truly feverish cult following in our city (witness the number of costumes it inspired at last weekend’s FanExpo, fostered in no small part by its strange coupling in the 1970s and ’80s with our provincially funded broadcaster TVOntario.

Christened initially as the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (behold that scary Orwellian style animated ident) and spearheaded by then Minister of Education Bill Davis, TVOntario reported to the Ontario legislature through Davis, in accordance with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority Act, and was therefore expected to produce and screen only serious, educational content, meaning shows such as Polka Dot Door, The Science Alliance, Téléfrançais and Write On! dominated the schedule.

After picking up Doctor Who in 1975, TVOntario was then tasked with the somewhat daunting challenge of justifying it as an educational program, and a costly one being footed by Ontario tax payers at that. TVO had already addressed a similar problem by using the perennially jolly Elwy Yost to engage his encyclopedic knowledge of film history to bookend to their two successful film series Magic Shadows and Saturday Night At The Movies, and so it was decided to hire someone credible to come on the air after Doctor Who and bring some semblance of “education” to the proceedings.

Conservationist and futurist Dr. James Dator hired by TVOntario’s CEO Ran Ide to build awareness of a “Futures Project” and work on those serious science programs, was roped in to film these intros and outros. Dator recalls “I did lots of things for OECA while I was there but nothing nearly as popular as those last-minute Doctor Who portions, however.”

When TVO acquired the Tom Baker episodes of Doctor Who in 1977, they replaced Dator with noted Speculative Fiction author Judith Merril, the “little mother of Science-Fiction” whom J.G. Ballard described as “the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.” Merril clearly relished her title here as “the Un-Doctor:”

While Dator and Merril’s discussions were perhaps slightly deeper and more intellectually stimulating than what the preceding episode of Doctor Who would have offered up, it’s still impossible to imagine subject matter such as species extinction, deforestation, future-phobia, etc., being publically pontificated upon after a Matt Smith-era romp. When the CRTC loosened their regulations regarding TVO’s educational obligations, these post show chats were scrapped and tragically the tapes were wiped. It’s a real shame TVOntario didn’t hang onto Judith Merril’s post shows as they would have made an amazing addition to the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy, which already boasts the finest collection of SF material in Canada.

On the subject of wiping tapes, this abominable practice was also sanctioned by the BBC and is the reason why a large chunk of Doctor Who episodes from the ’60s and ’70s are missing. Several stories from Jon Pertwee’s era survive because ironically TVOntario hung onto the 2″ master tapes longer than they should have, only returning them when the BBC, embarrassed at having destroyed much of their historic output, saw the error of their ways (things like Monty Python’s Flying Circus only barely escaped complete destruction).

Perhaps the most lasting impression Doctor Who left on TVOntario viewers was one of outright fear: for many young people growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, TVO was a trusted electronic babysitter, tacitly approved by teachers and parents alike thanks to their high grade educational output. So it was not an unusual occurrence to find the peace and serenity of Polka Dot Door violated by the sudden arrival of Delia Derbyshire’s tunnel of doom a.k.a the scary Doctor Who credits.

TVOntario lost their rights to Doctor Who in 1990 when fresh upstart YTV outbid them, ending an un-interrupted and loyal fifteen year run. While it may be a global sensation now with Hollywood style yearnings mostly accepted by the cool kids, old Doctor Who was weird, occasionally frightening and thanks to TVOntario, somewhat educational.

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 everywhere

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September 28, 2012 will mark exactly 40 years since Citytv began broadcasting on UHF as gutsy Toronto Television, Channel 79 “the little station that could:” re-writing the medium of TV’s boring old rules along the way, sparking an electric dynamism in local television and ushering in a good three decades worth of freewheeling and anarchistic programming styles which have since fostered an immortal endowment to the art of television all around the world. Then Rogers bought them.

It remains to be seen how Rogers will celebrate this tremendous milestone in Toronto (and indeed, Canadian) television history, if at all, but over the next few weeks at BlogTO we’ll look at what made Citytv the living, breathing broadcast embodiment of that Toronto spirit we know and love, and what better place to start than “Everywhere…”

Although the phrase is welded into our collective psyches through Citytv’s universally known and adored idents, “This is Citytv…EVERYWHERE” didn’t actually materialize on-air until late 1983, when they moved down the dial from Channel 79 to Channel 57, and The Voice, Mark Dailey, took over most of the station’s V.O duties.

The genesis of “Everywhere…” is of unknown provenance, but it remains Citytv’s most recognizable facet: when the phrase was officially retired by Rogers, shortly before the still devastating loss of Dailey in December of 2010 to cancer (http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/12/06/mark-dailey-grea-voice-of-toronto-tv/), there could not have been a more poignant harbinger that a much loved era had just drawn to a close.

So let’s wind back the clock to happier times. Here are 40 classic Citytv idents, starting from the early days in 1972 when Dan Akroyd was the voice of CityTV, right up to Mark Dailey’s final, posthumous recitation of the call sign in 2010.

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Part of the beauty of these idents is not only witnessing the evolution of the CityTV brand, but of the city itself. Stay tuned, as in the coming weeks we’ll take a look back at other vintage CityTV institutions such as Speakers Corner, Baby Blues, Great Movies, CityPulse and of course the ever elusive creator, Toronto’s very own gnomic media prophet, Moses Znaimer…

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.

Let’s go to the Ex, vintage edition

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The arrival of the Canadian National Exhibition has always been a harsh portent of Summer’s twilight and Fall’s unstoppable creep. How amazing is it that a simple, five word jingle is still able to capture that bittersweet emotion and turn it into a rallying cry, 30 years plus since its inception: “Let’s Go To the Ex!”

“Let’s Go To the Ex!” was the brainchild of celebrated ad man Jerry Goodis, Toronto’s very own Don Draper (that is, if in addition to being an ad genius Don Draper was a member of the Mamas and the Papas and a special advisor to Lyndon B. Johnson in his spare time; Doubtful even Matthew Weiner could create such a varied fictional character).

Goodis was a founding member of Canadian folk band The Travellers as well as tactical advisor, speech writer, communications counsellor and policy consultant for Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but it’s his Midas touch with jingles and advertising slogans that truly beggar belief: in addition to “Let’s Go to Ex!,” Goodis came up with such classics as Harvey’s “Harvey’s Makes Your Hamburger a Beautiful Thing,” Speedy Muffler’s “At Speedy You’re a Somebody”, Swiss Chalet’s “Never So Good For So Little” and hundreds more, most of which have sadly been lost to the ravages of time.

Goodis was hired by the CNE in 1980 to come up with a catchy jingle that recalled the greased up sounds of the 1950s, a decade which was still enjoying a renewed retro boom thanks to American Graffiti. Enter Danny & The Juniors’ “At the Hop,” a modest chart topper from 1958 (that also featured in Graffiti) which with a few minor tweaks easily became an ode to the joys of going to the Ex.

Response was gushing, so the cheery tune was wheeled out every August in those glorious early 1980 summers, but inevitably when the CNE moved to a new ad agency in 1986 both the song and the saying were jettisoned in favor of this kind of thing:

By the late 1990s, some semblance of sense was restored and “Let’s Go To the Ex!” returned from its decade-and-a-half hiatus, where to this day it pretty much remains the de facto theme song of the CNE. People even sing it aloud on the TTC. Jerry Goodis passed away in 2002, but it’s hard to imagine contemplating a visit to the CNE without his golden jingle bouncing around somewhere inside your head.

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.

Consumers Distributing and the catalogue of dreams

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Near mythical Canadian catalogue retailer Consumers Distributing is on the six-digit comeback trail. First reported in late July via the somewhat low-key St. Catherine’s Standard, brand new owners of the Consumers Distributing brand are hoping to re-boot the chain which unceremoniously declared bankruptcy in 1996 with a pilot store in Niagara Falls, followed by opening more than 80 locations across the country by year’s end. Ambitious or what?


Consumers Distributing Catalog 1984 1 by Retrontario

Launched in Toronto in 1957, Consumers Distributing “wrote the book on savings:” by-passing expensive displays and showrooms Consumers outlets were essentially warehouses with no-frills storefronts, almost a prophetic physical manifestation of what would later become the concept of online shopping. This next level of futurist consumerism was so red-hot that by the 1970s, Hudson’s Bay Company had launched a knock-off chain called ShopRight.

Customers would browse the lushly photographed catalogue at home or in store, select their merchandise marked with a 6 digit code, use tiny blue pencils to fill out a form and then apply to the store clerk for the item. Sadly the perception that most items were perennially out of stock is often cited as a huge part of the chain’s downfall; imagine a frustrating Birthday visit in 1985, having to pick second and third tier G.I. JOE figures in the likely event the first choice was unavailable.

Unforgiveable, especially considering Consumers also owned Toy City, a chain of toy shops which overflowed with Hasbro, Coleco and Mattel product of the era.

Regardless of their poor stocking practices, the arrival of Consumers’ semi-annual home catalogue became an momentous event in itself, and many ’70s and ’80s children fondly recall poring over the truly epic toys and games section, or on the flipside, losing their innocence to that picture of a sinister, smiling woman holding something not-quite-right over her back (the infamous item # 407-122 – a “personal” vibrator retailing around $5). These once free catalogues now fetch a small fortune on eBay, and are endlessly reminisced over on websites and forums throughout the internet.

With the big box explosion in the last decade, and Target’s slow burn rollout in Canada, a Consumers Distributing redux has a certain cyclical irony about it, especially considering that the arrival of Wal-Mart pretty much killed them back in 1996. We can only hope their new catalogs capture our imaginations as they once did, that the stocking situation perhaps isn’t quite so dire, and that item # 407-122 returns to sooth a new generation…


Consumers Distributing 1985 by Retrontario

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 The Avengers came to Toronto

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A sniper atop the CN Tower. Guns blazing out a Toronto Star delivery van. Iron chinned wonder George Chuvalo getting KO’d by bionic Russian spies. This televisual mayhem, and more, brought to you by The New Avengers…in Canada!

Dapper British styling from the Sixties doesn’t get any more swinging than original The Avengers. Cold war stuff and nonsense shot through with surreal imagery, camp sensibility, and kinky female empowerment (also somewhat sullied by an atrocious 1998 Hollywood adaptation, and now easily confused with that ‘art-house’ Joss Whedon picture from earlier this year).

Created by ex-Pat Torontonian Sydney Newman while on loan from the CBC (Newman followed this up by creating Doctor Who a mere two years later for the BBC), The Avengers ran the duration of the decade (’61 to ’69), launched the careers of Bond girls Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg (the only gal to get 007 to put a ring on it), and set the standard for what now is codified as “Cult Television.”

Re-tooled in 1976 as The New Avengers to reflect a grittier TV landscape populated by the likes of Starsky and Hutch, Vega$ and The Streets of San Francisco, the show proceeded to lose most of its offbeat charm, goodwill rating and finally, finances.

Enter Toronto-based Neilson Fern Productions, who bridged the money gap and allowed a second series to be completed, with a caveat that the final 4 episodes would run under an umbrella title of The New Avengers in Canada and be filmed entirely on location in Toronto. The show continued with aged ’60s lead Patrick Macnee as the bowler-hat-wearing, umbrella-wielding superspy John Steed, adding action man Gareth Hunt and future sweetie darling Joanna Lumley as sidekicks Gambit and Purdy, bringing a little bit of street cred. Here the trio tour the city core on a leisurely stake-out.

This truly bananas sequence unfolds in front of infamous eatery Pickin’ Chicken BBQ on Lakeshore near Mimico, while a machine guns blasts a sandwich board wearing doomsayer from inside a Toronto Star van, followed by an unfortunate hallmark of ’70s cop shows, the slow car chase.

The only man to go the distance two times with Ali, and probably greatest chin in the history of boxing George Chuvalo turns up here in a cameo, kicking off for no good reason with some bionic Russian supermen. Chuvalo would pick another inadvisable fight with a stranger, ten years later in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and end up hurt even worse thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s toxic spittle.

Canadian Producers Hugh Harlow and Jim Hanley (who by all accounts took full control of the series after the original UK team slinked off when the money ran out) were not averse to playing out obvious locales in all their glory, and no attempt is made to disguise Toronto: The Eaton Centre, Pearson Airport, Center Island and the C.N.E all get a cameo (some nice creative geography in the chase below – from the C.N.E to the University of Toronto via Bay Street!), and characters are continually pointing out how nice everyone is – ‘Toronto the Good’ for an international audience.

The series aired on CTV to lukewarm ratings, and plans for a follow-up never materialized. Compared to the first series of Euro-centric New Avengers, never mind the revered, original Avengers, the Canadian episodes are mostly dreary, humorless, cheap-looking and lack internal logic, but that doesn’t stop them from being fascinating time capsules – Toronto 1977 frozen in amber – and most importantly a fun footnote to one of the most peculiar Cult TV franchises in the history of the medium. Plus chances are you probably will never see a TorStar van firing indiscriminately on someone ever again…

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 Ontario Place was our place

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John Tory’s suggested revitalization plan for Ontario Place goes a long way to restore the crestfallen reputation of that once splendid paragon of patriotism, architecture and culture, but notably misses something which united every visitor back in 1971 and kept the good vibrations alive long after they went home — a theme song!

Released in 1971 on a double sided 45 rpm, “Theme From Ontario Place” was written by the mighty Delores Clamen, composer of legendary ode to Ontario “A Place to Stand” and Canada’s second national anthem “Hockey Theme,” formerly a fixture on Hockey Night in Canada. The A-side featured a poppy version of the song, while the B-side went for easy listening grooves, and many variations, slow and fast, have appeared throughout the years (Delores was a true dub shepherd.)

A variant of the “Theme” appears in this short film, which spotlights the blood, sweat and tears of prep that went into the creation of Ontario Place. You can see the giddy, Expo ’67 hangover in full effect here, and get a taste of the original remit – a celebration of the urban waterfront space as conceived by a gang of wildly imaginative (and probably insane) European architects, building something spectacular from a spectacular nothing.

This orangey, sun-soaked short from the 1970s ran as late night filler on many TV stations, when a program under-ran its slot or just before sign-off. The true kindred spirit of Ontario Place shines through here – this is what your parents and grandparents are talking about when they wax nostalgic about how it used to be…

By the 1980s, Ontario Place was struggling to remain relevant in the shadow of US-style mega theme parks like Canada’s Wonderland, and the freewheeling notion of “It’s All Yours” gave way to the empty spectacle of the Wilderness Adventure Log Ride (For my money, the water park and Children’s Village were top drawer and outclassed Wonderland any day of the summer.)

In the 1990s Ontario Place had mostly abandoned TV spots, awareness and a sense of direction, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting OP even existed as it slouched through the 2000s.

Whoever ends up taking over the mantle of regenerating Ontario Place, whether or not they abide by John Tory’s middle-of-the-road roadmap, certainly has their work cut out for them. And while it may not be helpful to obsess too much over past glories, they could do worse than find someone to re-mix and re-release “Theme From Ontario Place” when show time arrives (if Delores is cool with it, you know).

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.

Revisiting the Toronto bar scene, circa 1979

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July, 1979 was a dry, throat-scorcher of a summer, which found Torontonians fighting off fears of recession, depression, apocalypse and boredom by dancing, drinking and carrying on all night in sweaty bars. Nothing ever really changes, does it?

Head Space at Larry’s Hideaway (121 Carlton Street) was a legendary punk/thrash night that hosted bands as varied as Slayer, Teenage Head, The Cramps, Razor, The Viletones, Killing Joke, and, uh, R.E.M.

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Larry’s remains one of the more infamous old school Toronto dives, which kept up a steady, heady flow of cheap beer, easy drugs, bare knuckle brawls and raw emotive music, until finally closing its doors in 1986. In Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, 1977-1981, Larry’s was described by guitarist Chris Houston as follows: “You were lucky to get out of that room alive. Either the bouncers would kill you, or there were strange people coming and going from the rooms.” It was “truly the filthiest, most degrading bar I’ve ever ventured into,” claimed another. Nice night for a parteee!

The disco Yin to punk’s Yang could be found at Yorkville’s most exclusive lounge, Checkers, although not for much longer. Thanks to the mass vinyl and cassette burning in Chicago’s “Disco Demolition Night”, July 12, 1979 is often cited as the official death day of disco, so Checkers was probably running on 12″ edit fumes at this point.

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According to one un-named Checker’s survivor, “The ladies’ washrooms tended to resemble a snowstorm; the great cocaine blizzard of 1979 was whitest in the heart of Yorkville.” Checkers was history by the end of 1980.

Located under the Hudson’s Bay store at Yonge and Bloor, a devilish good time looks to be had at Heaven. Due no doubt to the ensuing disco doomsday, it changed its name (and vibe) to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven, in turn becoming a legendary Toronto hairband and glam metal hotspot rocked by the likes of Skid Row and company until its demise in the early, boy band crazed 1990s.

But back in July of 1979, it was all glitter balls, platforms and soulful house bands grooving away those hot summer nights.

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.

How about a hot slice of retro Pizza Pizza?

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From their landmark first store at Parliament and Wellesley in 1967, to the invention of a heated delivery bag, advertising on the spines of Yellow Pages, and that ubiquitous 967-11-11 jingle, Pizza Pizza have always been mavericks of marketing pizza. With over 500 franchised stores, a successful expansion of the menu, and transformation of the in-store experience to be more like that of a restaurant, Pizza Pizza remains Toronto’s de facto pizza powerhouse despite the dubious quality of its food. But in the 1980s, they sure had some oddball TV commercials.

It’s easy to mock ’80s advertising, but this commercial was quite adept at achieving its primary visual (Toronto loves Pizza Pizza) and aural (967-11-11!) goals. The butt wiggling may be random, but that lady is on a stealth mission to meet her man and enjoy her slice. Note the intonation of 967-11-11 — in recent years it has been radically overhauled.

Worst of all were Pizza Pizza’s “Shirley” spots from 1988. Besides the fuzzy low budget vibe and irritating, sub-Ernest “Know what I mean, Vern?” character, these commercials never bothered to actually show any pizza (surely a huge over sight?), a failure at the most basic, advertising 101 level.

Things got back on track in ’89 with a series of ads which really emphasized Pizza Pizza’s home grown Ontario roots — the farm fresh ingredients, and the “timing” of the title, 30 minutes or free. Also, the ever important family angle (“the family who graze together stays together”) appears in both of these spots, as does actual pizza! Full disclosure — the second commercial was filmed at my parent’s house in Scarborough, and our family sheep dog Billy got a cameo, bless.

For some context of the times, here’s a truly atrocious 1989 pizza commercial from Buffalo which Toronto people saw courtesy of WUTV 29. There is simply so much wrong here it is actually a masterpiece of error, and it makes the Pizza Pizza spots look Kubrickian by comparison.

Pizza Pizza’s current advertising consists mostly of dry radio spots pitched by their chief marketing officer Pat Finelli (they could double up as a drinking game – take a shot whenever Finelli uses the word “fresh”), but long gone are the days of their strange TV commercials, the promise of free pizza if it took more than 30 minutes, and most worryingly, the original ear worming intonation of that breadwinning phone number.

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.

Photo by Gary J. Wood on Flickr

The top 10 vintage Toronto TV show openings

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Vintage Toronto locations in film get a lot of appreciation; in TV, not so much. Could it be that so many TV shows, like films, have used and abused our gritty city settings to front as New York, Chicago, Boston or anywhere else USA? Or is it, more likely, that no broadcasters air these programs anymore and outside of YouTube they have no televisual legacy? Either way, here are openings (a dying art in its self) to a few classic and/or forgotten TV shows which were not afraid to be loud and proud about where they were set.

NIGHT HEAT (CTV, 1985-89)

This sweaty, vigilante cops and robbers business was made on the cheap to sell to CBS for their late night detective slot. It plays like a creepy Toronto after-dark locations greatest hits, with a memorable theme song from Domenic Troiano (The James Gang, The Guess Who).

DEAR AUNT AGNES (TVOntario, 1986-1989)

A more idealized portrait of the city existed in Dear Aunt Agnes, a kind-hearted TVO production aimed at 8-14 year olds living in posh Toronto digs (the house seen in the opening is steps away from Rosedale subway station).

AIRWAVES (CBC, 1986-87)

CBC’s right on punt for the new wave crowd, with Molly Ringwald wannabe Ingrid Veninger sexing the city, ’80s style.

JUDGE (CBC, 1982-84)

Rumpole of the Bailey in Toronto, starring Tony Van Bridge as the pensive Judge whose only solace is walking his dog around the city.

HANGIN’ IN (CBC, 1981-87)

Mostly forgotten CBC sitcom about Toronto youth drop in centre boss, Lally Cadeau, with decidedly un-sitcomish plots involving abortion, suicide, homosexuality, racism and self-harm. Every episode was “A very special episode:” and with its killer intro you can see why people tuned in every week.

KING OF KENSINGTON (CBC, 1975-80)

Artful, classy, simple: that’s why he will always be the King.

STREET LEGAL (CBC, 1987-94)

Toronto’s glossy answer to L.A. Law had a new opening every season (of which there were 7!), but the first remains the best, if only for the final moments of punks running towards the camera framed by an iconic Yonge Street location.

TODAY’S SPECIAL (TVOntario, 1981-87)

With this magical opening sequence, the Lego world show, and their annual Christmas window display of Hasbro, Kenner and Coleco toys, ’80s kids could be forgiven for thinking that Simpsons Department store at Queen & Yonge was the epicentre of all cool things in the universe.

WOJECK (CBC, 1966-68)

CBC’s tough-as-leather police thriller from a turbulent time found crusading Toronto coroner Dr. Steve Wojeck (John “Delta House!” Vernon) eschewing bullets, bursting blood vessels over deranged criminals, neo-fascists in the Toronto police force, and every button pushing issue in between. The noir jazz stylings and spooky skyline (from when the Royal York Hotel ruled the roost) in the intro seal the deal: Wojeck was not for the faint of heart.

THE KIDS OF DEGRASSI STREET (CBC, 1979-86)

15 seconds that perfectly captures the happy sad/melancholy vibe of Toronto living in 1979 (see also: Rush). Degrassi Junior High may get all the props, but Kids was the original pathfinder and Toronto kids at the time were raised watching battered 16mm prints of these episodes on war horse projectors wheeled into the classroom, cementing life-long emotional attachments to the city.

Shamefully, only one series on this list is available to buy on DVD (Can you guess which?) and it’s from Boston’s WGBH video label. A quick glance at Zap2it reveals that none of these shows are currently airing, or have been aired, even as late night/early morning Can-con filler, in years. It would seem the majority of these Toronto based series are doomed to a future of obscurity, denying us the pleasure of fist pumping with Wojeck, nodding agreeably with Aunt Agnes, or golf clapping with Judge.

Written and compiled by Ed Conroy

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

The lost world of miniature villages around Toronto

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The allure of miniature villages has receded in modern times, perhaps because young people can now build, play and live in virtual worlds that dwarf even the most complex model builder’s vision. Children of the ’80s, however, were spoiled with them, and they left an indelible impression (possibly fostered by the intro to CBC’s beloved The Friendly Giant?).

Tivoli Miniature World, (slogan: “Have big fun at miniature world”), was located in Jordan, Ontario, right next to Wet’N’Wild at Prudhomme’s Landing. The CN Tower, Mount Rushmore, the Roman Coliseum, London Bridge and The White House were just a few of the 75 miniature reproductions built out of fiberglass on a 1/50 scale of famous international sites.

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Tivoli inherited some pieces from Canadia, another miniature park from the 1960s that focused solely on Canadian structures. Due to dwindling attendance in the late 1980s, Tivoli moved its location closer to Niagara Falls near Ferry Street, but by the early 1990s it was closed.

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Meanwhile in Whitby, everyone who has visited will always remember the majesty of Cullen Gardens, with its colourful floral displays, bird sanctuaries, luscious gardens and most memorably, a southern Ontario-themed miniature village.

Opened in May 1980, Cullen Gardens & Miniature Village was a love labour of Len Cullen, father of horticulturalist boffin Mark Cullen. It was a major tourist attraction for Durham Region, offering the perfect summer day trip destination for bored kids and school trips, as well as a picturesque backdrop for weddings, and even the setting for a particularly exciting episode of The Littlest Hobo.

During the winter season, Cullen Gardens offered up the Festival of Lights, sleigh rides and much Christmas merriment. YTV famously chose Cullen Garden’s Miniature Village as the locale to kick off 1993, sending PJ’s Phil and Aashna there to fill out time between shows.

Sadly, Cullen Gardens closed in the mid-2000s, and it seems many pieces of the miniature village are either in a warehouse rotting away, or up for sale. If you can withstand a heady dose of sadness (and motion sickness), here is a video detailing what’s left of Cullen Gardens from a few years back.

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Tivoli and Cullen Gardens allowed us to be Gullivers in our own land of Lilliputians, and it stings to think there is nothing like them around for the restless kids of summer 2012 to marvel at.

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.