Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Birthday CHCH-TV!

OK, so I'm a few weeks late.
But it's time to say a sincere Happy Birthday to Hamilton's feisty independent station CHCH-TV which officially came on the air on June 7, 1954.
Ah yes, I remember it well.
My parents had just acquired our first TV set and we had two American channels to chose from: WGR-TV (NBC) and WBEN-TV (CBS) both from Buffalo.
And there was Toronto's CBC affiliate CBLT-TV which was then located on Channel 9.
And that was it until CHCH came onboard doubling the number of Canadian stations we could watch.
At that time and until 1961 CHCH was a CBC affiliate because the law dictated only the CBC could run TV stations.
However. from the beginning it was a very loose affiliate and over the years CHCH ran more and more of its own selected programs. In 1961 it officially divested itself of any CBC affiliation.
Back in those early days the driving force was founding father Ken Soble who died suddenly and tragically aged 55 in 1966.
Soble got into the radio business when he was only 16 and four years later he created and produced Canada's first live amateur show called The Ken Soble Amateur Hour which was carried over an ad hoc network of Montreal and Southern Ontario radio stations.
In 1936 he assumed management of Hamilton's CHML radio station and eight years later outbid Roy Thomson for complete ownership of the station.
I well remember in the early Fifties tuning in to CHM: for the live show Main Street Jamboree which highlighted the talents of such up and coming western music stars as Tommy Hunter and Gordie Tapp.
In 1971 at the tender age of 25 I was named TV critic of The Hamilton Spectator replacing the great Jack Miller who went on to The Toronto Star.
And this is where the story gets personal.
As part of my job I had to cover every show running on CHCH.
I originally roomed at the Royal Connaught hotel right across the street from The Spec and on my first night in the dining room struck up a conversation with the first lady of CHCH, Jane Gray.
She was almost blind by then but still starring in the afternoon craft show and she'd been a mainstay at the studio since Day One.
At the station I chatted up the chief anchor Norm Marshall. CHCH was so tiny a station he did the live newscast with the aid of an automatic TV camera that he could manipulate from controls hidden under his desk.
That's right no camera operators were present.
I also met early on the station's chief announcer Bill Lawrence who was then taping a new children's show where he'd read favorite stories to the tots.
Lawrence, of course, was the host of the evergreen Tiny Talent Time which ran live on Sunday afternoons and showcased singing and dancing tots and garnered a huge audience --far larger than most prime time shows.
Lawrence later became a friend and said that yes there were kids who'd blubber on air and more than one moist accident resulted on air.
Very early on I remember covering a live taping of the pilot for a new game show that would star Shelley Berman and feature Rita Moreno as one of the guest panelists.
I thought it was awful and so did prospective advertisers --the series never emerged.
One show that was already up and running was the daily charades show Party Game featuring the talents of Jack Duffy, Billy Van, Dinah Christie and guests plus a host who originally was Al Boliska and later Bill Walker.
One day I sauntered over and interviewed William Shatner who was the guest. "Why Party Game?"
I asked him
"I have to keep up my alimony payments," he snapped.
In 1971 I ventured on the set of the Hilarious House Of Frightenstein starring Vincent Price with Billy Van playing most of the other characters.
Price joked the series was so low budget "I'm sleeping in the guest room at the producer's home."
The producer was the versatile "Randy Dandy" Markowicz who also made Party Game.
He saved the tapes of HHOF which are now selling like hot cakes in a boxed DVD set.
But every year Markowicz would order all episodes of PG wiped so they could be used again for the next season. Unknown to him Van's wife took five episodes and these are the only extant copies I'm aware of.
I was also on the set of Ein Prosit --taped at the German cultural club. "You vill have fun!" shouted the menacing MC.
And I also covered live CHCH coverage of the junior hockey games from the old Barton Street arena. Walking on the rickety catwalk scared me because of the presence of portly color commentator Joe Watkins who weighed in at over 350 pounds.
I can still hear those catwalk boards creaking away as Joe led the way to the announcing booth.
I remember being on the set of another CHCH local success: the hour long variety series The Palace taped at Hamilton Place.
The night I watched a taping the great Ethel Merman ran out onto the stage --and she kept running. In fact she fell into the orchestra pit and had to be taken to the Emerg. But not before receiving a standing ovation.
Another big CHCH Cancom success was Piere Berton's daily half hour interview show which he made for CHCH and stations across the country. Berton told me when he was on the road he'd record up to 10 interviews in one day.
Years later he phoned Screen Gems to arrange a retrospective and was enraged all the early tapes had been wiped. Exclusives with the likes of Vivien Leigh were gone forever.
But the reason for CBCH's big success in its first 25 years was simply due to one guy --Sam Jebscher.
In the Forties Sam had managed both the Palace and Capitol movie theaters in downtown Hamilton and later he also managed the Barton street Arena.
Soble hired him because of his knowledge of the movie business and Sam  delivered big time.
After CHCH became completely independent Sam was able to land great movie after great movie. CHCH became the home of world wide movie premieres on TV.
Such biggies as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Poseidon Adventure,  Dr. Zhivago and literally thousands more debuted on CHCH. How about that!
As long as CHCH remained a movie station it was on top ratings wise.
Then the station made a bad movie starting in 1982 to buy up all the Lorimar series (save Dallas) for big bucks. Many of these shows failed and so did CHCH's ascendancy as the movie station.
In 1980 I left the Spectator for The Toronto star.
Hamilton's CHCH was no longer "my" station --I still visited but it wasn't the same.
I 'd watch in anguish as the a station underwent a number of format changes and name changes.
These days everything old is new again --CHCH is back showing movies around the clock.
Long may it prosper!
As CHCH starts its 60th year of broadcasting what else can I say except Best Wishes for the next 60 years.

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