Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A few days ago a very nice graduate student phoned with questions about that classic TV series The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. Turns out he was doing a project on classic Canadian TV comedies.
Well, he certainly came to the right place. The very year Frightenstein was being made I was preparing to relocate via the Gray Coach bus from Toronto (where I'd toiled at The Globe and Mail) to beautiful, downtown Hamilton and my first ever permanent gig: TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator.
One of the first sets I visit was The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. Imagine that! TV production in Hamilton? You better believe it. Randy Dandy Markowitz was the producer and the budget was so low star Vincent Price roomed at Randy's home during production. The other star was comic genius Billy Van and he was hysterically funny.
In the years that followed I reported from the sets of Party Game (the panelist that day was Bill Shatner), Ein Prosit, The Palace. All were series made right in Steel City by the most profitable TV station in the country.
CHCH, founded by visionary Ken Sobel in 1954, was the world's leading movie channel. That's what I said: the entire world.
The movie buyer wascagey Sam Hebscher who had started in Hamilton as manager of The Capitol and Palace movie theares, branched out to manage the Barton street hockey arena. Finally, he was hired by Sobel and boy did he deliver.
CHCH had the world TV premiere of Gone With The Wind, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence Of Arabia and hundreds of other titles. When ABC ran an ad saying the U.S. network was about to premiere The ten Commandments I phoned the network up and told them to withdraw the ad. Hebscher had beaten them to it.
Hebscher told me the key was a daily perusal of The Spectator's movie listings. "Once I discoverdd a movie was playing its last stop at the drive-ins I knew it was time to pounce." It also helped Hebscher had great contacts based on his contacts in the movie business.
Sobel virtually invented low-cost local programming. Through Screen Gems CHCH had Pierre Berton's half hour daily talk show. On the road Berton had to do up to 7-8 full interviews every day but he thrived in such an atmosphere. By contrast successor Fred Davis barely lasted one season. Unlike Berton he just couldn't be up and ready for so many different people in one day.
The series was made as cheaply as possible with a hotel suite standing in for a TV studio. To save money the video tapres were erased at season's end so they could be reused. You can imagine Berton's fury years later when he learned priceless interviews with the likes of Vivien Leigh had been wiped out.
The day I interviewed Shatner he was lying on the dressing room floor after completing six or seven Party Game interviews.  I'm told only three or four episodes of Party Game still exist. All others were wiped. Co-star Billy Van smuggled several tapes out and the "lost and found" episodes are now available on DVD.
It was only when CHCH got delusions of grandeur that the feisty independent station floundered. One year the station paid Lorimar studios big bucks for all its U.S. network series (outside of Dallas) and wound up with many stinkers and only a few genuine hits (like Knots Landing).
With CHCH reputedly on the auction block isn't it time for Channel 11 to return to its roots. As THE movie station it would surely prosper once again. And I know that Sam Hebscher now  in retirement would be only too glad to help rebuild the station which somehow lost its way.

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