Total Pageviews

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Confessions Of A 1950's Child TV Addict

1950s TV test pattern.
There have been times in my 65 years on this planet that I didn’t have access to a television and somehow I managed to survive. I never suffered from withdrawal. I never let my fondness for TV stand in the way of other activities but none the less I was hooked by the box at a very young age. More than anything my attraction to TV years ago and still today is the interest in being exposed to something I wasn’t aware of and the delight in finding something new.

Earlier today I was watching PBS and found out that Jack Kerouac spent 63 days by himself in the 1950s on a mountain top in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State trying to find himself. The mountain was called Desolation Mountain. TV can be fascinating.
On the other hand, years ago I was living in North Vancouver and watched every weekly episode of Rich Man, Poor Man. Unfortunately the power went out in the last program and I never really found out how the whole thing ended.
Growing up in Montreal, TV came along when I was about 6 or 7 years of age, around 1954. For those that grew up in the same era as I did, we had a lot on our plates at that tender age. School, hearing stories about WW2 and The Great Depression, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, finding out about the atomic bomb, a new music called rock and roll, and this box with a window that sat in the corner of our living rooms that we talked about every following day out in the school yard. “Did you see……?”
You know you are getting old if you have any memories of what life was like before television. In the early 1950s there was a family tradition in our house for a number of years of having sandwiches on Sunday night and listening to several radio programs. Programs like Our Miss Brooks (Gosh Mr. Boynton!”),  Amos And Andy. (“Holy mackerel there Andy!”), and Burns And Allen (Say goodnight Gracie.”).
Here are some of my memories of television in the 1950s as a kid growing up in Montreal.
In 1953 I was six years old and hadn’t a clue what television set was. A guy down the block had one with a very small screen. It was maybe 14 inches across. We spent a few minutes watching kind of jerky and feint images of a spaceship. A year later in 1954 almost every family in the neighbourhood had a console model television. Some of TV makes back then were Philco, RCA, Admiral, Zenith, Marconi, Motorola, and Fleetwood.

Time well wasted.
One of the interesting things about early TV is that adults were just about as naïve as children were about this new medium that we were being exposed to. There was an overall excitement about having moving pictures come directly into your living room. In the beginning TV was a finicky devise. Tin foil and steel wool were sometimes attached to the antennas that sat on top of the TV to get better reception. What we called “rabbit ears”. There didn’t seem to be a lot of science about getting good reception. It was like banging the side of a pinball game or rubbing the top of a one armed bandit slot machine.
Canadian TV
The first TV station in Montreal was CBMT which was English and part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A few months later it was followed by CBFT, a French language TV station also part of the CBC.
In the beginning there was nothing on the tube until about 5 p.m. If you turned on the TV during the day all you got was a test pattern with an Indian head on it.
There were at least two programs that were shown on both English and French TV in Montreal at the time. One was about a large French Canadian family called The Plouffe Family and the other was a puppet show called Papineau and Capucine. The two puppet characters that I remember were a bear that didn’t talk but made sounds like….”menamanuh, menamanuh”  and Pow Pow who was a convict with a striped rimless hat and striped clothes. I once had a Pow Pow puppet as a toy but it fell apart when I started chewing on its rubber head. The bear on Papineau and Capucine was probably the first impression I ever heard around grade school of a character we had seen on TV. Over the coming years there would be many more.
At 7:00 p.m. during the week there was a news program that came from the CBC in Toronto. It was called Tabloid. Dick MacDougal and Elaine Grand did the interviews, Gil Christie read the news and Percy Saltzman did the weather and when he was finished he would toss his stick of chalk in the air and say….”and that’s the weather.”
Percy Saltzman
I think it was 1954 when we got our first TV. It was only a year or so later when people started putting antennas on their roofs to get some American TV stations, WPTZ in Plattsburg, New York (NBC), WCAX in Burlington, Vermont (CBS), and WMTW in Poland Springs, Maine (ABC) which at one time was owned by late night talk show host Jack Paar.

Comparatively, Canadian TV, which really meant the CBC because there was no competing Canadian TV network, seemed rather sedate and American TV was much brasher. Watching hockey or the news was OK but programs like the intellectual Fighting Words with Nathan Cohen could put kids and some adults to sleep. Kids and adults wanted American pizzazz. If it meant having some contraption up on the roof, so be it.
Hockey Night In Canada was the glue that attached Canadians to the CBC more than anything else. On snowy winter Saturday nights we would hear Foster Hewitt in Toronto welcome us with “Hello Canada!” from high atop the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens. In Montreal it was Danny Gallivan doing the play by play. In between periods was called the Hot Stove Club or something close to that. These segments often involved old timers with their many facial scars offering opinions. Esso was the sponsor of HNIC and Murray Westgate, a genial type, wished us “Happy Motoring” after pitching the Esso products.

Your Pet, Juliette, a songstress from Vancouver, followed the hockey game and for many of us the sight of her on the tube meant bedtime. We went to sleep with names in our heads like Rocket Richard, Ken Mosdell, Floyd Curry, Butch Bouchard, Gerry McNeil, Dickie Moore, Dick Duff, Frank Mahovolich, Jean Beliveau, Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Lou Fontinato, Andy Bathgate, and the great Gordie Howe.

Another Canadian TV institution started back then was Front Page Challenge with Fred Davis as host. Pierre Berton and the blustering Gordon Sinclair were regular panelists. Years later Sinclair would ask Canadian Olympic swimmer, Elaine Tanner, how she managed to swim on days that she was having her period. Mr. Sinclair could be a tacky old codger.

Front Page Challenge
The CBC made a number of attempts at emulating American television in the 1950s. With the success of Davy Crockett in the US we were offered a TV series about the Canadian explorer and fur trader, Pierre Radisson. He was a “coureur des bois” or “runner of the woods.” The same guy they named those hotels after.
Three other series that ran on CBC in the 50s were produced in cooperation with American or British television concerns. One was reworked version of the classic Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler 1933 movie Tugboat Annie. Another was a program about two long distance truckers called Cannonball. The younger of the two drivers, an actor named William Campbell, was married to a gal named Judith (Exner) in real life at the time. She later became one of John Kennedy’s mistresses. The Last Of The Mohicans was another series that was made in Canada with cooperation from the CBC but with American financing and distribution. Lon Chaney Jr. played Chingachgook. It wasn’t half bad for its time.
The CBC had its own version of Howdy Doody. The host in Canada was Timber Tom and in the US it was Buffalo Bob. Both versions had Clarabell The Clown and the Peanut Gallery but we alone had Captain Scuttlebutt. Robert Goulet and William Shatner played characters on the Canadian version at one time or other.
Other after school Canadian kid’s TV programs were Maggie Muggins (most boys wouldn’t be caught dead watching it), Chez Helene, Papinot and Capucine, Uncle Chichimus, and of course The Friendly Giant and his pals Rusty and Jerome. People of my age all remember the draw bridge and the little chairs we were offered to sit in by Mr. Friendly.

The Friendly Giant
Some other CBC TV show back then were Fighting Words with Nathan Cohen, Mr. Fix-it with Peter Woodhall, Folio, Profile, and Close-Up. There were also some country shows like Country Calender, Holiday Ranch and Country Hoe Down. The latter had a mustachioed fiddler named King Ganom who would turn around in a circle while he played.
Rock and roll started to take shape in the mid-1950s but seeing it on the CBC throughout the decade was a very rare sight. Instead we were offered Cross Canada Hit Parade with singers like Wally Coster, Joyce Hahn, Robert Goulet, and Shirley Harmer who almost always sung the tamer tunes of the times. “How much is that doggy in the window?”
Notable other Canadian TV personalities who appeared on the CBC in the 50s include Alex Barris, Jack Crelely, J. Frank Willis, Austin Willis, Denny Vaughan, Jack Duffy, Vanda King, Bill Walker, Frank Heron, Frank Selke Jr., George Murray, Toby Tarnow, Toby Robbins, Joan Fairfax, Sylvia Murphy, Loaraine McAllister, Billy O’Connor, Vic Obeck, Joyce Davidson (didn’t like the queen), John O’Leary, Rex Loring, and Larry Henderson, Jimmy Tapp.
A couple of army vets, comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, were a staple at the CBC for decades starting in the 1950s. They held the record for the most guest appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the US at 58. They were kind of funny I guess for the times.
Wayne & Shuster
If we are honest about it, as soon as Canadians managed to get access to American TV, other than for a few programs like the news and weather (farmers liked to know) and hockey, the CBC was kind of a back-up plan for many in homes across Canada. I think that there was a bit of the anti-Toronto stuff going on even back then because the CBC kind of gave the impression that Toronto was where most really intelligent Canadians lived.

American TV
The choice between watching Canadian TV and American TV was a bit like choosing between a piano recital and a rock concert. Most Canadians preferred the hoopla and the more in your face approach of TV from the US. The personalities on American television seemed warmer and more exciting.
Oddly enough, one of the more droll American television personalities, Ed Sullivan, became an institution in Canadian homes every Sunday night at 8 p.m. with his variety show that was initially called The Toast Of The Town. Ed trotted out an eclectic mix of performers including jugglers, acrobats, animal acts, opera singers, Broadway belters, ballet dancers, animal acts, comedians, and rock and rollers. He would often ask someone famous in the audience to stand up and take a bow.
A lot of people around my age can remember the first time we saw so and so on Ed Sullivan. Here are 2 acts that I remember…..The first was a guy named Mr. Pastry. He had white hair and a white bushy mustache and wore a cutaway tuxedo. He gulped glasses of champagne while playing musical chairs by himself. He appeared to become drunker and drunker and the music got faster and faster. If you don’t know the act…google it on Youtube. The second was a Yiddish comedian named Myron Cohen…..A man is out walking with his son when his son spots two dogs having sex. “Daddy what are those dogs doing?” “Pay no attention my son.” “But daddy what are they doing?” This goes on for a bit and finally the father tells the son….”It seems like one of the dogs is very sick and the other one is pushing him to the hospital.” Ba-boom! Rim shot.

Mr. Pastry
One of the neat things about early TV in the 50s is that we got to see a lot of ex Vaudevillians who were nearing the ends of their careers. People like Ed Wynn, Eddy Cantor, and Jimmy Durante. TV was a heck of an opportunity for some to restart their careers. People like Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Phil Silvers, Jane Wyman, Loretta Young, Eve Arden, just to name a few who had had previous careers in the movies or on radio.

Sarcasm was almost nonexistent in comedy on TV back then. Risque jokes simply were not allowed. Telling a dirty joke on live TV could very well end a career. Instead what was delivered to us was zaniness which included comedians like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, or the cast of characters on The Steve Allen Show (which ran in the same time slot as Ed Sullivan) that included Bill Dana, Don Knotts, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston. We always felt comfortable with the laid back George Gobel.
Lonesome George Gobel
Here is a brief list of some of the more notable things that happened on American TV in the 1950s, in no particular order.

#1 The first time we saw Elvis on the tube on The Steve Allen Show, on Ed Sullivan, on The Dorsey Brothers Show. Steve Allen had no use for rock and roll and kind of mocked Elvis with a hound dog on the set.
#2 The fixed quiz shows. Charles Van Doren was caught cheating with the prepared answers on The $64,000.00 Question.
#3 Peter Pan with Mary Martin (Larry Hagman’s mother). Many parents insisted we watch it and we liked seeing her fly about the stage suspended by skinny wires. We kind of forgot that Peter Pan wasn’t a woman.
Mary Martin as Peter Pan
#4 Watching the stiff Jack Webb on Dragnet and “just the facts ma’am” and the hammer hitting the plaque that said Mark VII at the end of the show.
Jack Webb as Joe Friday on Dragnet
#5 Jackie Gleason threatening his wife Alice in their dingy apartment…”One of these days Alice…pow right in the kisser!” That wouldn’t fly today.
Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners
#6 Lucille Ball stomping grapes or things getting out of control on the conveyor belt with chocolates or cakes or whatever it was that was on it. 
#7 Trying to figure out how Davey Crockett was still alive for two more programs after he was killed at the Alamo. The Indian chief who said “Ongothcha!” and Mike Fink, king of the river. I have to confess that I wore my Davey Crockett pants with the plastic fringes to grade school a few times.
Fess Parker as Davy Crockett
#8 Feeling very uncomfortable when Ralph Edwards surprised some star on This Is Your Life when the unsuspecting victim had their whole family dragged out onto the set and there wasn’t always warm hugs.
#9 Falling in love with Dinah Shore. Could anyone not like her?

Dinah Shore
#10 Realizing many years later just how bright a man Edward R. Murrow was.
Here is a brief listing of some of the stuff we watched on American TV back in the day. But first….a pause for station identification.
US Kids Programs
Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Greenjeans and Tom Terrific and his dog Mighty Manfred. Sky King. My Friend Flicka. Fury. The Cisco Kid. Dennis The Menace. Lassie. Rin Tin Tin…”Yo Rinnie!” Robin Hood. Jungle Jim. The Mickey Mouse Club…”Annette!” “Bobby!”. Superman. The Lone Ranger…”Kemosabe”. Wild Bill Hickcok…”Wait for me Wild Bill!”. Leave It To Beaver…with creepy eddy Haskell Hoppalong Cassidy…that was one old cowboy. Mighty Mouse Playhouse…”Here I come to save the day!”. Heckle And Jeckle. Pinky Lee. Soupy Sales. Rocky Jones. Roy Rogers…with Pat Brady and his Jeep Nelleybelle. Casey Jones. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.

The Lone Ranger & Tonto
Rip Masters, Rusty & Rin Tin Tin
US Westerns
Gunsmoke. Maverick. Cheyenne. Wyatt Earp. Have Gun Will Travel…Wire Paladin San Francisco. Rawhide. The Man From Blackhawk. Bat Masterson…he wore a cane and derby hat. The Rebel. The Rifleman…played 1st base for The Montreal Royals in the early 50s. Wanted Dead Or Alive. Death Valley Days…with Ronald Reagan. Wagon Train. Yancy Derringer.
US Daytime Quiz Shows
The Price Is Right. Queen For A Day… poor women telling their stories of misery for a year’s supply of laundry soap. Treasure Hunt. Concentration. Beat The Clock. Who Do You Trust…with Johnny Carson. Truth Or Consequences. Kids Say The Darndest Things.
US Nighttime Quiz Shows
The $64,000.00 Question. Twenty-One, You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx…”Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars.” What’s My Line? I’ve Got A Secret. To tell The Truth. Name That Tune.Tic-Tac-Dough.
Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life
US Variety Shows
Perry Como. Dinah Shore…”See the USA in your Chevrolet!” Steve Allen. Gary Moore. George Gobel. Tennesee Ernie Ford. Mitch Miller. Arthur Godfrey. Your Show Of Shows with Sid Caesar.
1950’s TV Forgotten Names?
Arnold Stang, Gabby Hayes, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Hal March, Buster Crabbe, Zazu Pitts, Oscar Levant, Arlene Francis, John Daley, Jack Lescoulie, Duncan Renaldo, Frank Lovejoy, Spring Byington, Howard Duff, Gale Storm, Ann Sothern, Rod Cameron, Bud Collyer, Gardner MacKay, Jimmy Dean, Molly Bee, Dennis Day, Clint Walker, Hal March, Nick Adams, Walter Winchell, Jan Murray, Hal March, John Cameron Swayze, Jock Mahoney, Bill Cullen, Jack Bailey, Dave Garroway.
US Religious Programs
Lamp Unto My Feet…a moment of this day for devotion. Oral Roberts. Billy Graham. Life Is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. This Is The Life. (I watched all of these programs but none of it had any effect.)

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
US Sports
All-Star Bowling. Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (Boxing…Gene Fulmer, Carmen Bassilio, Sugar Ray Robinson). Wrestling. (Little Beaver, Haystack Calhoun, Sky High Lee). NFL Football. (I used to go over to a  friend’s house to watch NFL football on Sundays sometimes. His dad was a big fan. Back then muddy players and butt crack were not uncommon.) The World Series.
US Highbrow And Political Shows
GE College Bowl….Ohio State…The political theory of possessive individualism for 10 points. Person To Person. See It Now. Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Studio One. The Ed Sullivan Show. US Steel Hour. Playhouse 90. Face The Nation. Meet The Press.
US Situation Comedies
Father Knows Best. Our Miss Brooks. Colonel Humphrey J. Flack. December Bride. Burns And Allen. Life With Riley. Duffy’s Tavern. I Love Lucy. Bachelor Father. Dear Phoebe. Dobie Gillis. Life With Elizabeth…with Betty White. Strike It Rich…with Phil Silvers. Ozzie and Harriet. Amos And Andy…”holy mackerel there…” The Donna Reed Show. Mr. Peepers. Oh! Suzanna. Love That Bob. Make Room For Daddy. My Favorite Secretary.

Phil Silvers in Strike It Rich
US Cop Shows
M Squad…with Lee Marvin. Highway Patrol… 10-4…with Broderick Crawford. Dragnet…”We were working bunko out of….” The Line-up. Manhunt. Naked City…there are 8 million stories... Manhunt. The Untouchables.
US Private Eye Shows
Richard Diamond. Peter Gunn. 77 Sunset Strip...Kookie lend me your comb. The Thin Man. Meet McGraw. Hawaian Eye. Johnny Staccato. Mr. Lucky.
US Misc.
The Medic. The Vise. Cannonball. Liberace…and his brother George. The Millionaire….my name is Michael Anthony. Soldiers Of Fortune. Adventures In Paradise. Whirlybirds. Tales Of The Bengal Lancers. Sea Hunt. The Twilight Zone. American Bandstand. (Rate the record between 35 and 98%.) Perry Mason. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Liberace.Riverboat.This Is Your Life.

Rod Serling...The Twilight Zone
In the early stages of broadcast TV stations were desperate for content. An obvious source, at the time, was to dig up old movies including shorts. As kids, we discovered The Little Rascals, The Bowery Boys, and Laurel and Hardy. In some summers Kraft Theatre showed a number of the classics of black and white movies. Things like Key Largo, The Petrified Forest, Treasure Island, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Great Expectations. I used to watch them with my mother who seemed to know all the character actors. I was hooked for life on old black and white. I remember the beginning of Kraft Theatre when a wooden camera with a wooden guy sitting on it would slowly rotate at the beginning of the program and of course all the wonderful things you could do with Velveeta cheese in the commercials.
10 1950’s US TV Commercials
#1 Ajax…the foaming cleanser.

#2 Brylcreem…a little dab will do you!
#3 I want my Maypo!
Maypo Cereal.
#4 Shaefer is the one beer to have…when you’re having more than one. (Before MADD.)
#5 Prudential Insurance. The rock of Gibtralter.
#6 Brusha. Brusha. Brusha. I use new Ipana. Its dandy for your teeth.
#7 Timex. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
#8 See the USA in your Chevrolet.
#9 Halo everybody Halo!
#10 N-E-S-T-L-E-S…Nestles make the very best choc…
And who can forget all the doctors who told us that one brand of cigarettes was smoother on the throat than others.
It was a great time for television. It wasn’t always seamless. Sometimes you would see the camera boom or something would crash somewhere off camera or programs would get cut off because they had run too long. Everything was fresh. There was so much to see. We were taking a journey.
“You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight but of mind. A journey into a wonderous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. There is a signpost up ahead-your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Train Stories

CN passenger train.
It was late spring in 1967 in Montreal. I was stone broke and living in a former coal room in the basement of a fraternity house that was about to be torn down. I had been camping on the floor of a friend’s room who was an American student at McGill University from Fairfax, Virginia when the powers that be in the frat house decided that I was a distraction to his studies and offered me the windowless room in the basement rent free. You might say my prospects didn’t look too good.

Expo 67 was about to open and all of the jobs there had been sewn up by university students some months before. I was glancing through the local help wanted ads and spotted one that was looking for summer employees to work on the CN passenger trains out of Montreal. Normally these jobs would have been snapped up quickly but most young people didn’t want to miss the chance in taking part in Expo 67.
I went down to Central Station and was pretty well hired on the spot. I faked being a university student and they never asked for any proof. Training started a day or two later and I was joined by about twenty real university students. The guy who showed us the ropes was a no bullshit type named Mike Hogan who kind of resembled Ernest Borgnine in his prime. He crammed a lot into our two days of instruction including how to carry a tray. Our training was done on an old dining car in the train yards. I think they were located in Point St. Charles.
Being that we were summer help we worked off of what was called a spare board. We could be called at any time to go anywhere on the CN line out of Montreal as long as the route was initiated in Montreal. Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg to the west. North to Senneterre, Quebec. East to Quebec City, Gaspe, Quebec, and Campbellton, New Brunswick.
We were trained to do two different jobs. One was as a waiter where we wore a white shirt and a black tie along with a short red jacket. The other job was the one most of us were not fussy about and that was as a dishwasher or as they called it on the trains, a “pearl diver”. The dishwashing area had a fairly small sink that was portioned in two. On one side was the very hot soapy water and on the other side was water for rinsing. The hot water was generated by a steam tap. Fortunately, I only found myself covered in food slop a half a dozen times before exclusively working only as a waiter.
Getting up close to a train can be rather ominous. They aren’t built of fiberglass. The power of a locomotive is incredible. And the whole shebang goes hurtling down tracks at high speeds counting on nothing being in the way. Trains are very unforgiving beasts and not to be taken lightly. They demand respect.
I was just about ready for my first trip but didn’t have any black shoes. I found a nice fairly new pair of brown ones that one of the frat boys had left behind and they fit so I got some black shoe polish and I was in business. It wasn’t as if the shoes were going to be missed what with the building about to be torn down.
I didn’t have a phone but shortly after I started to work I rented a room on Hutchison Street that had a pay phone in the hallway. That phone was my way of being contacted for a few months. Before that I would just check in physically at the spare board office that was just outside the south door to Central Station.
To get to the station platform we took the same stairs with the brass handrails that the passengers did down to the bowels below. The first thing I noticed was a lot of hissing sounds and a dank kind of odor.
Central Station Montreal
The guy in charge of the dining car was the steward. There were usually 4-6 waiters under his command. The kitchen was run by a chef with 2 or 3 cooks as assistants. The dishwasher was under the steward’s authority. The porters were almost always black. A few of the cooks were also black. I can’t recall seeing more than maybe one black waiter. Hey it was the 60s! Oscar Peterson’s brother worked as a chef on the CN trains. The guy that was in charge of everything on the train was the conductor. He was the sheriff, the judge and jury, the king. Whatever he said was gospel.
Working on the passenger trains back then had a whole culture. Almost all of the workers came from rougher parts of Montreal like Point St. Charles, Little Burgundy, Griffintown and a poor neighbourhood that once had the nick name Goose Village. Some of them had some resentment for preppy college boys who were just there for the summer.
Seniority ruled. The longer you worked for the railroad the better choices you had as to which runs you worked on. The conductors and stewards wore blue dress jackets that had little bars near one of the sleeve cuffs that indicated how long they had been with the company. From what I can recall, the most desired run for old timers was the Montreal-Ottawa one because you could be in your own bed at home each night. I think a old guy named Jimmy Dodds had top seniority at the time as far as stewards go.
A lot of the employees had limited educations and they knew that their jobs were important as far as providing for their families. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some characters also working on the train. A few were involved with criminal activities away from the job. There were also some I wouldn’t have wanted to face in a dark alley. There were some really tough buggers. The craziest guy I worked with once came out of the kitchen with his package laid out on a glass celery and olives dish. It was rumoured that he was once arrested for stealing a TV when it fell on his head from a window ledge and knocked him cold.
I think waiters and dishwashers got paid something like $1.30 an hour. We were off the clock as soon as we stepped off of the train. Meals were free while we were working. When I first started I made the big mistake of gulping back orange juice like it was water. The tips were pretty good while we were working as waiters. Our accommodations in other cities were paid for by the company and always at a 3rd rate hotel including The Walker House in Toronto, The Empire Hotel in Winnipeg, and The Baker House in Gaspe, PQ.
CN pay stub 1967.
Over the summer I hardly ever ran into any of the students I had started with except for one. He was a short Jewish guy who had to be one of the hairiest people I have ever met. Nice enough guy but he must have had an itchy life.
It was a really busy summer in 1967 on the trains what with Expo 67 The passenger cars were packed and some people were quite demanding. We often had 4 calls for a meal and people were lined up down the corridor. Some would sit down before we had a chance to clean the table. I got to be pretty proficient at handling the big serving tray while the train lurched about and somehow never managed to spill anything on anyone.
I remember one trip between Montreal and Toronto when I was assigned the duty of wandering through the passenger cars to announce the first call for dinner. I entered one car and was kind of taken aback by the sullen looks from some of the passengers. It was a few minutes before it dawned on me that they were manacled and on their way to the pen in Kingston.
On another trip the staff was eating dinner after having completed 4 sittings and an old farmer wandered in. We told him that the dining car was closed but the steward let him eat anyway. Apparently he didn’t like cigarettes and took it upon himself to put our smokes out in the ashtray they were resting in.
In the beginning, I would sometimes go down to the last car and go outside and have a smoke. I would feel little drops of water but thought nothing of it. Someone later pointed out to me that those little drops of water were coming from the washrooms.
I started to become a bit of a cowboy. In northern Ontario if a passenger asked me what lake was outside the window, I would tell them Round Lake. ”Round Lake?” “Yeah it’s round somewhere.” None of the other waiters wanted to call bingo after the last meal at night but I kind of liked it. It gave me a chance to joke around with the young and older babes. There was one steward, a guy named George Stundon, who was a bit of a cool dude. I think he asked to get me on his crew if they needed someone from the spare board. I must have told that guy every joke I ever heard in my then 20 years on this planet.
Things got very hectic on the train during Expo 67. Once in a while the steward and chef would agree to condemn some food just so they could shut the dining car down because of lack of food. Occasionally garbage was tossed out to the side of the tracks. It was kind of like us and them. The hordes at the gates.
Trip record Montreal To Winnipeg and back.
The porters and the conductor and assistant conductor were also fed in the dining car. Some of the young black guys had copped an attitude. Race relations were a big deal in the 60s. Some of the young black guys would just glare at you if you asked them a question. There wasn’t any point in telling them that I wasn’t the one oppressing them. “I’m on your side man!”  I do remember getting pissed one night with some of the older black porters at a dive in Quebec City called The Fez.
In 1967 they added a disco car to the passenger train between Montreal and Toronto where people could dance while hurtling down the tracks. I was never in that car while working but saw the interior when the train was in the station. It was decorated in early acid trip.
You may be asking yourself what was on the menu in the dining car? Maybe not? Anyway, there were about 5 main choices. Prime rib was #1. A lot of people wanted the end cut but there were only two per roast. I kind of got sick of the stuff after a while. #2 was some kind of chicken. The only other entrée I can remember was trout and it was seldom ordered. I think they pronounce it “trit” in French. Celery and olives (without the package) came with the meal. Pie and ice cream or pie and cheddar cheese were the desert standards.
I found that the worst place to sleep at night on the train was above the wheels unless you really liked listening to that “clack-clack, clack-clack sound”. I learned what a “deadhead” was, a worker who was travelling but not being paid.
I never met anyone really famous working on the train. I saw Elwy Yost (look him up) who was rather tall get on a late night train to Toronto. I also ran into a folksinger on a trip to Winnipeg. He wrote a song that became popular in Canada for a few months called Moody Manitoba Morning.
I was too young to work the club car as a bartender. I probably would have had to take a course. Seemed like a cozy kind of job. Shmooze with the passengers, load them up on alcohol, get great tips. The breaking up of fights might not have been much fun. I started bringing home those empty miniature liquor bottles that held about an ounce of liquor. They are probably worth something today.
I stayed on at the trains after the summer. I was saving up a bit for a trip I had planned to take to Australia. You couldn’t quite call me a college drop-out since I wasn’t going to school anyway. A few of the regulars would give me a hard time for being a student. If only they knew.
The snows had come. One day I got a call telling me I was going to Senaterre in northern Quebec . Somewhere past Chicoutimi and on the way to Chibougamau I think. Love that name. Chibougamau. Anyway, I was changing into my waiter’s garb when I was told that was not going to be a waiter but “the” cook. It only involved making sandwiches which wasn’t difficult. When we got off the train the snow was about 4 feet high on the ground. We had to carry our valises (there’s an old word) over our heads. I remember the windows in our hotel were glazed over with ice.
One of the awkward things about working on the trains was sharing a room in some far off distant city with strangers. It isn’t that comfortable seeing an old guy you hardly know getting undressed out of the corner of your eye. The other thing is a lot of these guys liked to get shit faced drunk when they were out of town. It wasn’t so bad when I was with them but getting drunk was just a sometimes thing for me.
I had a couple of run-ins with a few waiters but never on the train. I was sitting at the bar in The Baker House Hotel in Gaspe talking to a taxi driver when a French Canadian waiter from the trains approached us. He started giving me a hard time about being a student and I don’t think he was fussy about my English speaking background either. He was throwing a lot of insults around and wouldn’t let up. Finally I got up from my seat and punched him in the noggin knocking him over some nearby empty tables and chairs.
Back then they had newsstands on some trains that were operated by women. On this trip the the newsstand woman had brought along her boyfriend who was a bit of a gorilla. I was serving the two of them breakfast the next morning and the gorilla guy started laughing when he found out that it was me who was involved in the short fight the night before. Apparently the waiter had gone to the gorilla’s room seeking help in fighting me. I might have weighed all of 150 lbs. at the time and I wasn’t Bruce Lee.
I had two run-ins at the Empire Hotel in Winnipeg. I’m not sure, but this may be the same Empire Hotel that Joni Mitchell sang about in one of her songs. “Raised On Robbery”. The first run-in happened in the hallway outside of our room. I was on the way to the bathroom in my skivvies (this wasn’t a classy hotel) when an old guy accused me of making a lot of noise. He wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t me and looked like he wanted to lay a beating on me. He kind of skulked away when I picked up a floor ashtray and told him I would clobber him if he got any closer.
The 2nd run-in was with another waiter. He had an English last name but was French. 4 of us were sharing a room and he came back to the room totally wasted. I was sleeping. He started to harass me with the student stuff and I told him to take a hike. Then he got in my face and did a few fake punches at my chin. I knocked him out. He deadheaded it back to Montreal. It turned out he had once had his jaw wired. I had to explain to the union guy on the train why I had done what I did.
This same guy had a brother who worked on the trains who was rumoured to be a pimp. I didn’t like my chances of being on the same crew and in some strange town with him. Pimp guys were probably out of my league as far as fighting goes. I did about 5 or 6 more trips and then quit.
I remember the names of some of the smaller towns the train stopped at. Places like Sioux Lookout, Armstrong, Hornepayne, Gogama, Madapedia, and Campbelton. I remember some of the characters who worked on the train. One guy told me about how he had joined the army at 15 and had been in WW2. He said he had cut fingers off of dead German soldiers on the battlefield to take their rings. One of the train conductors was also an opera singer. One guy aspired to be a professional gambler and would get me to play cards with him so he could practice his skills.
All in all I thought working on the trains was kind of like the Foreign Legion.
The last time I was on a train other than a sky train in Vancouver or a subway in other cities was the one from London to Paris. It was like being on a quiet rocket.
Train travel has fallen off in Canada over the past decades but there is still something about them. Partly because of our history I guess. Beats the hell out of having your ass crammed into an airline seat next to someone with bad breath.  Trains also make better songs than planes. “From Natchez to Mobile….wherever the four winds blow….”
Pardon mois garcons! C'est le Chatanooga choo-choo!




Saturday, 8 December 2012

Jazz.....My Take On It (Part 1)


Duke Ellington was once asked what he thought jazz was all about and he answered “It’s all music.”
There are people who live and breathe jazz. Some of them have whole walls of vinyl records of the greats and the more obscure in their living rooms. There are folks who can tell you who played with who and when. Some have met jazz musicians in their lives and have formed personal relationships with them. Some might even feel that they are part of a small unofficial club. At best, jazz has a small market place. It isn’t kid’s music and requires more attention. To play the music requires a lot of skill. It is almost impossible to fake.
Like most other baby boomers, I grew up on rock and roll. A few years later it was folk music. Then came the British invasion. For me personally, rock started to fade away in the early 1980s although there were still some good tunes every now and then.
I was always aware of jazz growing up but never really looked at the music in any depth. Occasionally on TV in the 1950s and 1960s I would see some of the jazz greats but most often they were doing tunes in the pop music fashion, Peggy Lee singing Fever, Sarah Vaughan singing Broken Hearted Melody, Louis Armstrong and Hello Dolly. On a rare occasion you might see Dave Brubeck and Take Five or Erroll Garner playing Misty.
Montreal, where I grew up, was part of the circuit for great jazz musicians over the years. Maynard Ferguson, Oscar Peterson, and Oliver Jones all grew up in Montreal. I remember once listening to a radio interview with Billy Eckstine. I think Montreal had a warm place in the hearts a lot of black jazz musicians as it was an open city with not much racism.

Oscar Peterson
In 1968 I lived in a boarding house in the west end of Vancouver for a few months without a TV and only a radio. Every night I would listen to a guy named Jack Cullen. He had one of the largest record collections in the world. If anyone was an authority on music other than rock and roll this guy was. His musical knowledge stretched all the way back to the late 1920s. He was a big fan of big band music and crooners and he was great at telling stories about musicians he had met or seen over the years.

Jack Cullen
In late 1971 I was living in Toronto and we used to get drunk at a Holiday Inn sometimes after work while watching a really funny and dirty Irish comedian. One evening I staggered out of the washroom and heard some music coming from a large room nearby. I stumbled in and found a seat. A small jazz orchestra was playing. I was only a few feet away. One guy caught my eye. There was a highball glass by his feet and every so often he would take a nip. When his turn came, he brought the horn up to his lips and played incredibly. At least I thought so. His drinking alcohol and his musical talent left an impression on me. A lot of jazz musicians have obviously had problems with alcohol and hard drugs over the years.
About a year later I was living in an attic room in a downtown Toronto rooming house and had borrowed a record player from a guy from across the hall. One day I was in Sam The Record Man`s leafing through some albums when I came across one I decided to buy. It was a double album of big band music. I can still remember some of the tunes, Artie Shaw`s Begin The Beguine and Frenesi, Duke Ellington`s Take The A Train, and Bunny Berigan`s I Can`t Get Started. I was hooked on big band music from the 1930s and 1940s.
Some years later I became fascinated with Artie Shaw. There is no doubt that in his personal life he was one damned ornery individual but there is no doubting his musical genius. The guy led one amazing life. Married some of the most beautiful women in the world, was at the top of his game for close to 10 years, lived in exotic places, and packed it all in trying to find some sanity in it all. There is a rumour that he made a lamp out of his clarinet. On top of all that he lived into his nineties and was teaching music up until his death.
Artie Shaw
The first live jazz I ever saw was around 1975 in Hamilton, Ontario, the high octane Maynard Ferguson. His orchestra was made up of mostly college kids. It kept the overhead costs down I guess. Man oh man Maynard could blast it.
Maynard Fergusson
It wasn`t until the early 1980s that I started to buy jazz records and really get to see a number of live jazz groups. One weekend we were down in Seattle Washington for a weekend and staying at a Holiday Inn in Bellevue. We decided to grab a cocktail before bed and wandered into a tiny bar. A black guy was tinkling on the piano. We didn`t know it at the time but the place, although small, was full of regulars. People sitting at the bar were called over individually to join the piano player and sing a song or two. It was one of those sweet memorable evenings for me.
I started to delve into jazz. I tried to break it down a bit. I knew most of the names of the greats but I was interested in the music also in a historical sense. I bought a number of compilations and discovered a lot of great tunes. I also got my hands on a number of books about jazz.

Louis Armstrong
I loved it all starting with the 1930s stuff. Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke, Bennie Moten, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hoagie Carmichael, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappeli, Sidney Bichet, Jack Teargarden.
Django Reinhardt
I love swing and big band music and really don`t give a shit about jazz perfectionists who think this music was too plastic and contrived. I could listen to a lot of Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman any old time. Smooth or jump it all had a sweetness to it. I am not embarrassed to say I liked Tex Beneke, Helen Forrest or The Andrews Sisters.
I can`t say I was always a big fan of Bop. I prefer music with a melody even if the musicians wander away from it for a while. I can appreciate Miles Davis but sometimes he lost me. Dizzy Gillespie too. Not always. Just sometimes. It isn`t hard to see the genius in Charlie Parker.
Over the years I have been a big fan of crooners.
Billy Holliday was haunting. Peggy Lee was simply amazing. Blues In The Night and Why Don`t You Do Right are as good as it gets as far as I am concerned. Ella Fitzgerald is in a league of her own. She had such a pure clear voice and was one hell of a scat singer. Dinah Washington and Anita O`Day could always deliver. I always had a soft spot for Dinah Shore but there were better women singers.

Peggy Lee
My kids grew up listening to Sinatra in the car. They still know a lot of his lyrics. I loved most of his music although he could get a bit corny at times. Nat King Cole was a damned fine piano player aside from being a great singer. Tony Bennett can still cut it. Mel Torme was probably the best male scat singer but could be a bit on the hokey side. Sammy Davis Jr. had a great voice but was terrible at picking songs. Lou Rawls with his baritone voice and Dean Martin were good singers but you could count on one hand good songs that they sung. Loved Chet Baker but he wasn`t someone a depressed person should listen to. Luckily for me I am not the depressed type. I know jazz buffs like to bring up the name of Johnny Hartman but unfortunately the guy didn`t ever have a real signature tune.

Frank Sinatra
I`ve always been partial to up tempo lively Latin jazz with that scratching sound in the background. I`ll take me some Stan Getz anytime. If I have choice between happy and reflective I`ll take happy.
Stan Getz

In the 1980s and 1990s I found that I could afford to go and see pretty well anyone I wanted in the jazz genre when they came to Vancouver. I saw Paul Horn at a joint on 4th Avenue. We sat about 5 feet away. We saw The Manhattan Transfer at the QE Theatre and Earl Klugh and Maceo Parker at the Commodore Ballroom. I saw Frank Sinatra the last time he came through Vancouver out at the Pacific Coluseum. Sammy was the only one left with a voice. Dean was out of it. His son had died a year or two before. Old blue eyes, old red eyes, and old one eye….hey it`s a joke!
Paul Horn

I saw Michael Buble when he was starting out at a club called BaBalu in the basement of a hotel on Granville Street. I had no idea he would become so big. I can`t think of two better crooners to have the jazz torch passed to than Michael Buble and Nanaimo`s own Diana Krall.
Diana Krall
I got to see Ray Brown, the great jazz bassist, on his last trip through Vancouver when he appeared at Rossini`s in Kits. Also saw the Five Blind Men From Alabama at a big church in Burnaby one night. As an atheist, even I was carried away in the fervor. I was half expecting to see John Belushi doing summersaults.
Ray Brown
In the mid 90s I split up with my wife and found myself with more time to go out and explore Vancouver`s nightlife. I didn`t want to be the old guy hanging around a younger crowd kind of joint and I kind of naturally gravitated to places where I might fit in. Most of these places were jazz places. I hung around the Fairview Pub on Broadway a bit on jazz nights. I warmed a stool from time to time at Rossini`s in Kits. Linton Garner, the brother of Erroll Garner, was the house piano player.(Erroll often mumbled while playing the piano.)
I saw Kenny Coleman a number of times including at the revolving restaurant on top of the Sheraton Hotel on Robson. Had a few brief chats with him, once in a club he owned and once when I was having lunch in Richmond with my ex and he was sitting at the next table. This guy truly has had an amazing life. He is pretty decent singer too.
I started going to jazz festivals in the 90s including The Vancouver Jazz Festival. I even went to one on the Hood River in Oregon. Mostly I saw musicians that were not big names. There are some amazing not so well known talents out there.
I moved over to Vancouver Island (semi-retirement) and a place I owned in Fanny Bay in 2005. I took in the North Island Jazz Festival in Courtenay, BC. I think it has ceased operation. They had a pretty formidable venue, two different buildings and something going on in both buildings at the same time. A couple of things really impressed me. One was the first zydeco band I had ever seen. (A few years later I saw Buckwheat Zydeco at the Queens in Nanaimo.) The other thing that stuck in my mind was watching a young high school gal singing and being accompanied by a clarinetist who seemed to be in his eighties. There are no age barriers in jazz.
After a couple of years in Fanny Bay, I decided to move down to Victoria. The best jazz joint in town was and probably still is, is a place called Herman`s. Spent a number of nights in that place. Also took in the Victoria Jazz Festival. A lot of these festivals bring in musicians and groups from Europe. Jazz is truly a universal type of music.
The last jazz concert I attended was one with pianist Oliver Jones (from Montreal) and a combo at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo. That was about 2 or 3 years ago.
I have a damned good music system but I hardly ever use it. I have wide collection of jazz CDs but I hardly ever listen to them. Wynton Marcalis, Eddie Daniels, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, David Sanborn. That kind of stuff.
David Sanborn
A couple of years ago I discovered what some top quality speakers can do with a computer. About once or twice a week I take a musical walk through You Tube. Sometimes I listen to jazz. Sometimes I listen to other music. Sometimes we light up a joint and listen for hours. Call me an old fool. I’ve been called worse.
I expect to see and listen to a lot more jazz in my life. I’m just not obsessed with it. I certainly don’t want to sound preachy but…I firmly believe that variety is truly the spice of life. There are times when music is a focal point or a great background and other times are good without any music at all. There is also something to be said about absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is nice to know that it can always be pulled out of the bag.

My jazz all stars…. 

Sax: Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, David Sanborn, Jerry Mulligan, Bud Shank
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker
Trombone: J.J. Johnson, Tommy Dorsey
Clarinet: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Sidney Bichet, Bud Defranco,
Piano: Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole
Drums: Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Shelley Manne, Louis Bellson
Bass: Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke
Vibraphone: Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Cal Tjader
Guitar: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, George Benson
Singing Groups: Manhattan Transfer
Female Singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Diana Krall, Holly Cole, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Blossum Dearie
Male Singers: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Al Jarreau, Chet Baker

Gene Krupa
Charlie Parker
Gerry Mulligan
Dave Brubeck
Duke Ellington
Miles Davis
25 recommended jazz tunes……
#1 Take Five…..Dave Brubeck
#2 Blues In The Night…..Peggy Lee with Tommy Dorsey
#3 I Can’t Get Started…..Bunny Berigan
#4 Let’s Face The Music And Dance…..Frank Sinatra
#5 Take The A Train…..Duke Ellington
#6 Desafinado…..Stan Getz
#7 God Bless The Child…..Billy Holiday
#8 Salt Peanuts…..Dizzy Gillespie
#9 A Night In Tunisia…..Charlie Parker
#10 Feeling Good…..Nina Simone
#11 St. Louis Blues…..Louis Armstrong
#12 Ain’t Misbehavin…..Fats Waller
#13 Misty…..Erroll Garner
#14 On Green Dolphin Street…..John Coltrane
#15 Sunday Kind of Love…..Dinah Washington
#16 The Look Of Love…..Diana Krall
#17 Frenesi….Artie Shaw
#18 Everything Happens To Me…..Chet Baker
#19 Cry Me A River…..Ella Fitzgerald
#20 Honeysuckle Rose…..Anita O’Day
#21 The Sheik Of Araby….Django Reinhardt
#22 Dark Eyes…..Jack Teargarden
#23 Try A Little Tenderness…..David Sanborn
#24 Straighten Up And Fly Right…..Nat King Cole
#25 Am I Blue?.....Hoagy Carmichael
Ella Fitzgerald
Chet Baker

Billy Holiday
Nina Simone
Jack Teargarden
Anita O'Day

Saw the great Tony Bennett one night at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver with a trio of musicians. Bass, drums, and piano.

Tony Bennett