Friday, October 26, 2012
Canada AM's 40th Anniversary: I Remember
Canada AM and I, we go way, way back.
Right back to 1972, Sept 11, 1972 to be precise when the morning information show debuted on the CTV network.
Am I the only one still around remembering that CTV's first breakfast news show was in 1966 and was titled Bright And Early and was a big flop closing within its first year?
The instigator behind Canada AM was the wise Ray Peters who headed CTV's Vancouver affiliate CHAN and hated the huge numbers NBC's Today Show was drawing in the Vancouver TV market. Peters argued forcibly that this was an audience CTV could not afford to lose every morning and he lobbied at the network for its own morning show.
Be aware that in those days CTV was an uneasy amalgamation of TV stations all of whom exercised some control over head office.
Peters saw the new morning show as being produced out of Vancouver but that was not the way burly John Bassett head of all important Toronto flagship CFTO saw things. Bassett demanded and got Canada AM's headquarters to be located at his new Agincourt TV plant which at the time had the world's largest studio for videotaping shows.
The first time I was out at CFTO I remember driving for what seemed like hours through farmers' fields to get there --today it's all built up. Originally I went there as a reporter for The Globe And Mail in 1970 to watch Ed Sullivan tape a Christmas special.
Ironically Sullivan's show was on CBC but CBC had no studio big enough for Ed's cast of hundreds.
I'd spent much time up at CFTO when I became the TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator. I was on the set of such CFTO produced classics as Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour, Stars On Ice, Pig 'N Whistle (to interview Jessie Matthews) and Starlost (in 1973) with Keir Dullea.
I made the journey once again to spend a day on the set of Canada AM a month after the show debuted. I couldn't possibly get up so early so I simply stayed up all night.
The first two hosts were veteran Percy Saltzman who was the very first face viewers saw when CBC-TV debuted in 1952. He was a superior interviewer, cranky at times but he was among TV's best at getting subjects to open up.
In a case of mismatching CTV had plopped him down beside lovely Carole Taylor.She was among TV's most lustrous beauties but make no mistake about it she also shone as a perceptive interviewer.
One of her biggest boosters was gadabout Cleveland Amory who was on the show the day I was there --he told he he'd fly in from New York for his 15-minute segments just to get a glance at Taylor and then head home on the next plane.
Taylor got most of the initial ink simply because she was so gorgeous. And Saltzman grew very angry at this. When I interviewed him he said things I couldn't print and I told the producer Craig Oliver who merely sighed.
In 1973 Taylor jumped to W5 and later got an offer from CBS to join 60 Minutes which she turned down-- she told me because she didn't want to leave Canada.
Helen Hutchinson was a sturdy replacement --I was back on the set to interview her and we talked about her difficulty getting up at 4 a.m. every weekday.
Years later in a telling interview with Mike Wallace she got the famed newsman to open up about his mental breakdown when he was sued by General Westmorland over a 60 Minutes piece. Wallace told me at the time he regarded Hutchinson as just about the best interviewer he'd ever encountered.
Hutchinson was partnered by Norm Perry who lasted the longest of the early hosts simply because of his inquisitive nature. What got many Canada AM hosts going was the relatively short time they got for their interviews. Perry turned this into a challenge and was always in peak form --he told me Mother Teresa was among his most favorite interviews.
Later on Pam Wallin shone. But not with J.D. Roberts who returned from U.S. TV for the gig. The years away from Canada made him among the least impressive of Canada AM hosts and he soon returned to American TV.
Canada AM these days is still at it, still battling Today, still serving as a stepping stone for such personalities as Lisa LaFlamme. Like all network TV there has been some ratings erosion but it holds up well particularly when the talk turns to Ottawa politics.
So now I'd like to wish Canada AM a Happy 40th Birthday from one who was there at the start.