Chapter Fifteen

Scandinavian Airlines made history November 15, 1954 when it inaugurated what it called “the world’s first polar shortcut.”

SAS had solved the navigational problems involved in flying from its base in Copenhagen, Denmark, over the polar regions of North America to Los Angeles. Some refueling stops were needed along the 5,600-mile route, and one of them brought the DC-6B aircraft down into Winnipeg.

The flight became popular with Hollywood people. For a year or more, Tinseltown stars were falling on Winnipeg as never before. The city couldn’t have looked all that inviting from the airport runway back then, so we can safely assume that many a Hollywood luminary decided to stay aboard the aircraft while it was being refueled in Winnipeg, rather than venture out into a horde of hick town reporters in the airport lobby. But the SAS publicity office made sure Winnipeg’s newspapers and radio stations were informed if anyone famous agreed to deplane.

Quite a crowd had gathered at what Winnipeggers still called ‘Stevenson Field’ that day in the mid-1950s when Gregory Peck said Yes, he’d stretch his famous legs in the visitor’s lounge while the refueling was in progress. As it turned out, he had some refueling of his own in mind.

Bill Walker was intent on interviewing Peck and, as part of my new status in his eyes, I was invited to tag along.

Peck was approaching the zenith of his career, not quite 40 years old with many fine films to his credit including “Spellbound,” The Yearling,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Roman Holiday.” Four of his film roles had been nominated for Academy Awards, but his winning performance was still to come: Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

You can imagine what greeted Gregory Peck when he came through the entrance doors into the airport lounge. The first few moments were blinding because of all the flashbulbs popping at once. A local fur salon took advantage of Peck’s visit to display two of their most expensive coats. The moment the star came through the doors, slinky models decked out in the coats rushed at him from out of the crowd and hung on his arms. More flashbulbs.

Bill wasn’t the only local seeking an interview: there was some concern that we wouldn’t get our turn before the star had to return to the aircraft. So, while Bill and a sound engineer found a suitable spot and set up the recording equipment, I was sent to steer the movie star their way. It took all of my strength to force my way through the crowd to his side. Peck had just disentangled himself from the fur-clad models. He turned to me and asked:

“Do you know where a fella could get a beer?”

In Winnipeg? In public? In broad daylight? In the 1950s?

What could I tell him? Fortunately, Peck couldn’t hear my mumbled apology over all the clamor. It’s likely that – when I started to nudge the star towards Bill and his waiting microphone – Peck thought I was leading him to a nearby bar.

Bill got his interview and he even beckoned me closer to participate. After introducing me, Bill turned the microphone my way and asked: “Do you have a question for Greg, Pat?” I was a solid Gregory Peck fan, having seen most of the films he had made until then, but my runaway favorite was “The Gunfighter,” a movie Peck had made in 1950 with Millard Mitchell & Karl Malden. So I asked him: “When are you going to make another western?” All that got me was an indulgent smile and a non-committal answer.

While Bill resumed his interview, I wandered among the other SAS passengers who had joined Peck in the airport lounge while their aircraft was being refueled. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be anyone else of note on that flight. But then I spotted Tom Conway.

Who’s Tom Conway, you may well ask? And I would answer “The Falcon,” my choice as the reigning monarch of Hollywood ‘B’ pictures in the 1940s, and an older (by 2 years) brother of the terminally suave George Sanders. If you have to ask ‘Who’s George Sanders?’ I’ve lost you.

Conway was sitting quietly by himself in a far corner of the lounge when I approached him to make sure I’d made the proper identification. Then I scurried back to Bill who had just lost Peck to another interviewer. To his credit, Bill knew who Tom Conway was, and agreed he was well worth an interview on the strength of “The Cat People” alone.

A note here about ‘B’ movies:

It irks me when the designation is applied as though the ‘B’ stood for ‘bad.’ For instance, “The Cat People” is still described as “a classic among the horror genre.” And while I’m being curmudgeonly, let me state that Ronald Reagan can’t be accurately described as a ‘B’ actor because, strictly speaking, he was never in a ‘B’ film. He made some stinkers as his film career wound down – “Bedtime for Bonzo” is the one he’s usually tagged with – but they came too late to be considered true B pictures.

A more typical Ronald Reagan vehicle would be “King’s Row.” Reagan obviously thought so because he used one of his lines from that movie for the title of his biography: “Where’s the rest of me?”

Originally, the designation ‘B’ referred to a film budgeted and produced as the lower half of a double bill. By then two distinct types of movie theatres had evolved in a city of any size: the ‘first-run’ houses downtown and the neighborhood theatres that usually offered two films for the price of one. The film-goer got his first crack at a new Bette Davis, Cary Grant or Fred Astaire movie at the downtown theatre; but once its ‘first run’ had ended, such a feature might well turn up in one of those neighborhood houses, along with another, less publicized ‘B’ film, the kind Tom Conway and Donald O’Connor made in quantity in the 1940s. It was my experience that these ‘B’ films often saved the evening: if the Joan Crawford ‘A’ film proved to be an interminable weeper, one of Tom Conway’s Falcon adventures kept me in my seat. After all, I’d spent 25-cents to get in, hadn’t I?

Not long after Bill Walker did that Gregory Peck interview, he left Winnipeg for Toronto. The Ford Motor Company wanted him there as their official spokesman for all of its national television advertising. It was a significant break for Bill, and he made the most of it, using his incredible memory and towering self-confidence to become Canada’s best known announcer of the mid-century years.

CKRC wasted little time mourning its loss. Bill’s counterpart on a competing station, CJOB, had always given him a run for his money. So it came as no surprise when I was told that Cliff Gardner would become Bill’s successor.

While Bill and Cliff were still radio rivals, certain similarities had emerged: both men became prominent on the Winnipeg stage, and were thought of as talented extroverts. But I hadn’t worked with Cliff for more than a few weeks before I noticed how truly different the two men were, in and out of the studio.

On balance I think I preferred working with Cliff. He showed a refreshing vulnerability, and a willingness to bend that Bill Walker found difficulty in mustering. I think these qualities came through on the air, but I can’t be certain, because I heard so little of Cliff: I was simply too busy preparing newscasts to listen to any more than snatches of his show.

I do feel comfortable in declaring that Cliff Gardner showed genuine flashes of originality. An example:

An unlikely melody made it to the CKRC’s play lists in the late 1950’s – not once, but twice. It originated as a stirring march written for the 1955 film “The Dambusters,” which told of a peculiar bomb developed by British scientists during World War II to destroy vital dams in Nazi Germany.

It isn’t often that a march makes it to the charts, but the popularity of the film and a fine recording of “The Dambusters’ March” by the Central Band of the RAF soon had everyone humming it. A secondary theme from the march reappeared within months in the song “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.” But that’s another story.

It took a mind like Cliff Gardner’s to exploit the march’s popularity to draw attention to CKRC’s news department. At one point in his morning show Cliff would get the operator to play the march and, as the recording went into its dramatic climax, turn on his microphone. Then, with the recording matching him note for note, Cliff would sing:

“Man-i-to-ba gets its news on C-K-R-C. Man-i-to-ba gets its news on C-K-R-C!”

And the operator would then swell the last few bars to full volume. The effect was electrifying – at least to me, sitting in a nearby studio, waiting to begin a newscast. Whether Cliff’s listeners fully appreciated the originality he was displaying, we’ll never know. I suppose there were some early risers who saw it as an unwarranted distortion of their favorite song.

In those first years of the 1950s, CKRC appeared to have everything going for it. I’ve already described its elegant studios, and the faithful audience it had gained by broadcasting popular U.S. programs. It should also be mentioned that the station had been on the Manitoba scene in one form or another longer than any of its rivals, and many of the announcers had become household names in Manitoba. But towards the mid-fifties cracks began to show.

It is easy to blame the advent of television, but the other private stations seemed to have recovered from TV’s initial impact better than we had. I can’t say I took much notice; I was too busy trying to protect my turf in the news department. The threat came from new additions to our staff.

First came Warner Troyer. Older readers will recognize the name from the glory days of investigative television: “This Hour Has Seven Days” and the several incisive programs it spawned. CKRC hired Warner in 1955 as the latest member of its newsroom. As with all new employees, he was put on nights at first, but it didn’t take long before I could feel his hot breath on my neck.

CKRC was still signing off at midnight to go back on the air at six a.m. That six-hour gap could spell trouble for the station’s morning newsman. Both of the city’s dailies – the Free Press and Tribune – were evening newspapers. The only local news that didn’t appear on the newsroom’s Teletype machines overnight had to be gathered by the night newsman – or solicited from police stations and fire departments first thing in the morning.

The man Warner had replaced on nights was a holdover from the station’s early days: a news reader rather than a news gatherer. Everything he read on the air during his night shift came from one or the other of the station’s two Teletype machines. His counterparts at Winnipeg’s other radio stations spent every minute off the air trying to pry local stories from the police and fire departments, but the awful truth was that our night guy had never learned to use a typewriter!

Morning after morning, I had to spend my first half-hour at the station scrambling to cover CKRC’s ass.

One night in June, 1954, a truly spectacular fire demolished a prominent building on the city’s main street only a block from the radio station: it’s in the record books as Winnipeg’s worst.

Getting to work the next morning involved several detours around fire engines and several miles of hose. By the time I managed to reach the newsroom, Bill was reading the station’s sign-on; I had only minutes to slap together my first newscast of the day.

Of course, the fire would have to be the lead story, but what I ripped from the teletype machines had next to nothing to say about it, so I turned to the newsroom’s copy desk praying that the fire’s scope and proximity had been enough to jolt that night guy into action. But all I found was a scrap of paper scrawled with the words:

“There’s a fire somewhere.”

Warner Troyer changed all that. With Warner on nights, it was the rare morning that I didn’t find six or more well-written local stories waiting for me, stacked in a neat pile on the copy desk. Every story of any importance was accompanied by a list of names and telephone numbers I could use to follow it up through the morning. I had never had it so good; and I felt obliged to tell the News Editor about it. Me and my big mouth! Before long the inevitable happened: Warner was moved to mornings and I found myself on the night shift again. What saved me was the one weakness Warner brought to morning radio: he had trouble getting up in the morning. Soon his chronic tardiness had him back on nights and I found myself again on mornings. And, once again, I could depend on the bonanza of overnight news he always provided.

Then came Jim Kidd. He had only been with CKRC a matter of weeks before the station manager ordered him shifted from general announcing duties at night to compiling and reading news in the morning – my job. To accommodate the change, I was shunted back on to the night news run, and could have stayed there indefinitely if Jim hadn’t been lured away to sunny Barbados. For want of another Jim Kidd, I was returned to the morning show.


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