Sunday, June 3, 2012

Elwy Yost: A Celebration

That was quite a celebration Saturday night for the late great Elwy Yost held at the repertory rich  Revue Cinema on Toronto's Roncesvalles Avenue.
Yost died in vancouver in july, 2011, but the family wanted to thank Toronto for 25 years when Yost flourished as the host of Saturday Night At The Movies.
When I got there I bumped into Yost's celebrated screen writer son Graham  (Speed) whom I'd interviewed on the phone but never met in person.
I also met the current host of SNATM, Thom Ernst, who ribbed me about my comments saying I'd never get over Yost's departure from the show.
Also present was Yost's first TV director Bruce Pittman who went on to his own career directing TV series and movies.
Inside a motley array of Yosites sat waiting for the program to begin. Most were like me well over 50 and prone to remembering Yost's glory days hosting TVOntario's SNATM. Ot was so easy in the Seventies writing a TV column because there were only 10 channels.
In fact I wrote my first profile Of Yost in 1971 for The Spectator when he was still working for the Ontario Educational Communications Authority then located on Bayview Avenue.
Yost only got on camera with TVOntario (which he  actually named) in 1973 because the education weblet had acquired  bunch of Ingmar Bergman movies and needed a host who could use them in an educational fashion.
Yost had been a high school teacher and he possessed this amazing ability to seem unassuming and pleasant while at the same time proffering up gobs of relevant information.
"In those days the other stations had given up on black and white movies," said Risa Shuman, Yost's long suffering producer. Yost was able to get packages of RKO and 20th films at basement bargain prices.
And don't forget in a TV universe of 10 channels with no VHS or DVD available SNATM was the only pit stop for old movie buffs.
When Yost's show suddenly became TVO's most popular program there was much muttering from  station programmers who were both astonished and a little ashamed old movies had become their reason for existence.
Yost was often prodded by his competitors including CBC to include hefty educational segments in between the two antique films he was peddling. Ernst told me this is still happening today.
In time Yost began notching higher numbers than his commercial competitors prompting the other stations to buy up film packages just to make sure he couldn't get them. Warners asked Yost to select their best 100 pre-1948 movies and when he did so (Warners was his favorite studio) the batch was promptly sold to CBC which offered more money than TVO had.
All this doesn't explain Yost's endurance --he finally retired in 1998 convinced he'd die young but instead he lived to be 86.
Simply stated it was Elwy's personality. He was a show off. On his companion show Magic Shadows he got to strut around and be goofy and all this came easily to a guy who's once been an amateur actor.
He loved good movies. I once quoted him exactly saying "I never saw a movie I didn't like" which caused him no end of grief in the critical community. I think he simply ignored a whole lot of bad movies. But he'd once tried to write movie reviews for the Toronto Star and failed because he couldn't be critical enough.
He loved old movies but he wasn't a true movie buff. Once in Hamilton for a charity event he'd gone up against the legendary and reclusive Harry Purvis who wrote all the movie synopses for TV Guide off the type of his head and could recite dialogue from movies he hadn't seen 1930.
Yost was depressed when he lost but I told him he was the one drawing big audiences with his movie show precisely because his was an accessible personality.
The event was pretty wonderful. And Graham told some choice family stories and wept a bit which must be a family trait.
Clips from Yost's interviews showed how he always wanted to highlight the guest while remaining in the background.
"I never filmed Elwy's reactions during thse interviews," Pittman told me "because the guests were the stars and not Elwy."
When Yost decided to retire Brian Linehan put on a big push to take over but he wasn't right at all --Brian always liked to be front and center and eventually TVO chose somebody else.
Not all the times at TVO were sweetness and light. One year TVO reduced Elwy to one movie a week and followed him with two squabbling hosts who showed more contemporary fare. Ratings predictably slumped and Yost was back to two films the next year.
And when I reported in the Toronto Star that Yost had fired Ron Base and Alex Barris as hosts of TVO's movie review show, Yost phoned me in a panic convinced the news might tarnish his reputation. It didn't --this low rated show simply had to go.
One query I have for TVO: Why aren't Yost's best interviews available in a DVD package. I notice some have been posted to You Tube which is great news.
I simply feel Elwy would have gotten a big bang out of  Saturday night's crowd coming together to celebrate his life and it's sad he wasn't here.
But when they played one of his favorite movies on the big screen, King Kong, for a brief moment I felt ,well, maybe he really is here after all.

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