Chapter Seventeen

As the nineteen-fifties drew to a close, radio was clearly losing out to TV in the battle for advertising dollars. CKRC fought back with promotions and gimmicks. One of these counter-measures put me out on the street – literally.

The station bought a Volkswagen van – the vehicle that became so strongly associated with Flower Power and hippies in the 1970s – and fitted it out with a small FM transmitter and the extra batteries needed to power it. Then the station’s engineers drove the overloaded van into the farthest reaches of Winnipeg to see whether its transmitter’s signal could be read and then re-transmitted from CKRC’s downtown studios. Once the VW had passed this test, it was turned over to a sign-writing company to be decorated with CKRC symbols and slogans.

It didn’t seem necessary to keep me informed of any of this until the day in 1958 I was called into the Program Director’s office for ‘a chat’. That was when I learned I was to be the central player in Operation Van: in addition to my usual duties on Cliff Gardner’s morning show, I was to use the vehicle after nine a.m. to roam the city’s streets in search of “human interest stories.” The Program Director was hard-pressed to elaborate: “You know what I mean,” was about the best he could do. One such story an hour was set out as the minimum. And no limit was set on the number of hours beyond my morning shift the search was to continue.

I suppose I should have been flattered that management considered me capable of all of the additional skills their promotion called for: maneuvering the balky van through city traffic; dealing with all the switches and dials the engineers had installed to operate the transmitter; stringing microphone cable to the site of an interview; overcoming objections to my repeated invasion of private property; cajoling my victims into going on the radio, etc. And I was to do all this alone! It had never been suggested that the promotion required more than one person in the van.

I wasn’t always able to provide a report every hour, but it’s astounding how much we found to put on the air as it was happening: the flight of a full-grown bison through suburban streets after it escaped from a truck delivering it to Winnipeg’s Zoo; a police standoff with a defiant gunman holed up in an apartment; any number of fires and other calamities.

The van proved especially handy for conducting street interviews. I buttonholed people wherever they were likely to gather: at bus stops, in supermarkets, in theatre lineups – I even invaded a barbershop to pester two men trapped in barber chairs.

It was in one of these barbershops that I absorbed a vital lesson: a ten-dollar pocket radio can overpower a half-million dollars worth of transmitting equipment to interrupt a live broadcast. The station’s engineers had tried to alert me to the possibility on that heady day the city tried to remove the Wolseley Tree. When my own voice began to come back at me from radios in homes and cars, I was warned to shield my microphone as best I could.

The problem was radio’s other ‘F’ word: Feedback. You’ve all heard it: the metallic howl that comes shrilling from a public address system when the sound being released is swept back into the system via the microphone.

wwwwwwwwwwwwwWOWWWWWWwwwwwww!!!!!!

One of the many problems associated with running Operation Van alone was not knowing when to start a report. If the radio station had supplied me with an operator, he could have ‘cued’ me with a hand signal from the van. But, after cajoling the barbershop’s two customers into an interview, I had to dash back to the van to alert the radio station, turn on the equipment, and then drag my microphone into the barbershop with fifty feet of cable trailing behind me.

To get that all-important cue, I relied on one of those ten-dollar pocket radios I mentioned earlier. I would press its tiny loudspeaker against my ear and wait for the announcer in the studio to introduce me:

“Pat McDougall is standing by in a barber shop on Main Street to continue his survey of public opinion. Over to you, Pat.”

I had planned to snap the radio off at that point, but my finger slipped and increased the volume instead. So the moment I started to speak –

wwwwwwwwwwwwwWOWWWWWWwwwwwww!!!!!!

For the few seconds it took me to silence my tiny radio, its howl was all the listeners heard on CKRC.

When I think of those weeks of Operation Van, I can come up with several scenarios that would make the Feedback Problem seem trivial by comparison:

– Those fifty feet of cable stretching from the van to the barbershop traversed a sidewalk. Anyone could have tripped over the cable and made a lawyer’s fortune.

– The transmitter got most of its power from the van’s generator: I had to keep the vehicle’s motor running while I dashed off to do that interview. No time to lock the van. A passing thief, prankster or drunk might have taken advantage of my absence to drive off with the vehicle and everything in it, jerking the microphone out of my hand in the process.

– That first incarnation of the VW van had not been designed to haul such a heavy load; I suspect it was powered by the same engine Volkswagen used for its famous ‘Beetle’. It was torture getting that tin box up to speed at any time. I only narrowly escaped being flattened by a series of speeding trucks and trains.

But what I remember most about my endless hours in that van is the persistent whine of its straining engine, and the loneliness. Oh, the loneliness! I tried to blot it out by singing along lustily with whatever pop song was pouring from the car radio:

“How much is that doggie in the win-dow – the one with the wagg-ell-ee tay-ay-ayay-ail . . .”

After all, nobody could hear me, right? Wrong. I often forgot to turn my microphone off; I learned later that my off-key howling could be heard loud and clear back at the radio station. Which calls for another frisson: the flick of a switch in the control room could have put my yodeling on the air. It would have tempted one particularly mischievous operator beyond endurance. Thank God he was off duty at the time.

If Flower Power and the ’70s spawn affection for that groovy Volkswagen van, it can’t have anything to do with the vehicle’s front seat. The driver didn’t fare too badly: his visibility was reasonably good and reaching the various controls was no problem. It was his front-seat passenger who had a problem, even before he or she could be seated.

It was where the Volkswagen engineers located the van’s front wheels: just behind the front doors. It made for an awkward hump that had to be surmounted before the passenger could sit down.

Men could usually manage the maneuver without too much difficulty, but there was a fashion for tight skirts the year I drove the van, and women often balked at the contortions involved in joining me in the front seat for an interview. (You’ll remember that the van’s rear seats had been removed to make room for the transmitter, etc.) It had made for several embarrassing scenes even before I was directed to a motel on Pembina Highway where Sarah Vaughn was waiting to be interviewed.

The singer was popular enough to have gained several sobriquets by the 1950s – ‘The Divine Sarah’ was the one most often applied. But I had heard ‘Sassy’ and had taken it as a warning. I couldn’t see the diva agreeing to squirm her way into the VW’s front seat. As it was, I had to ask her to follow me out to the van for the interview because my microphone cord couldn’t be stretched all the way to the motel lobby. The request clearly didn’t please her, but she seemed to be complying until – on our way to the van – we passed a phone booth.

“Hang tough a minute,” she ordered as she lifted the receiver and asked the operator to place a collect call. I backed off out of politeness but I could still hear the litany of complaints she sent down the line: the motel was stuck out in the wilderness, several miles from the city. Room service was a joke. The nightclub’s dressing room a disgrace, etc.

I had to agree with most of her gripes. The nightclub was not dealing with a simpering ingénue in Sarah Vaughn. Here was a woman who held the respect of the tempestuous Billy Eckstine, and was said to be the midwife at the birth of Bebop. She had made landmark recordings of most of the better jazz standards and put some of them in the Top Ten.

The way she was being treated in Winnipeg, I was lucky to get any of her cooperation, and she certainly didn’t waste much time with me. A few terse replies and ‘Sassy’ went flouncing off back to the motel with one more complaint to make: that somebody had stuck her with this no-nothing yokel in a funny truck.

I had a much easier time with Donald O’Connor. Movie stars were still descending on Winnipeg from those ‘polar short cut’ flights offered by Scandinavian Airways. The elastic dancer sauntered into the airport lounge alone, looking relaxed and approachable. I must have used a portable tape machine for the interview because no microphone cord could possibly have reached from the airport parking lot to the lounge.

I could have been expected to press O’Connor for details of his more recent film appearances, including his justly famous “Make ’em Laugh” routine in the 1952 musical “Singing In The Rain” that almost stole the show from Gene Kelly. Instead, I decided to take a chance and hold him to a discussion of his earlier years in Hollywood.

As it turned out, he was delighted to talk about the string of black-and-white ‘B’ movies he had made during the 1940s and the all-but-forgotten people he worked with then: Gloria Jean and Peggy Ryan, Deanna Durbin, the Andrew Sisters, Count Basie’s orchestra and The Harmonica Rascals. I told him how these films had often redeemed a double bill at my neighborhood theatre when they were shown with what, in my immaturity, I considered to be dull viewing: “Mildred Pierce,” “Dark Victory,” “Now, Voyager” – classics now, but dismissed as ‘women’s pictures’ by many critics at the time.

The interview with O’Connor was over all too soon, and I could see that it had left him looking concerned. He explained that he had left the aircraft hoping to send a telegram heralding his arrival in Los Angeles. He had to get back to his SAS flight: could I send the wire for him? He dictated a few lines that I scribbled on a sheet of paper, made sure I had the right address, and hustled back to the waiting aircraft.

The recording of the O’Connor interview couldn’t have held too many Winnipeggers spellbound with all that talk about ‘B’ movies and Gloria Jean. They probably expected me to press O’Connor for revealing details of his ‘Francis, The Talking Mule’ movies. But I reasoned that –not having seen any of them – I would have made an ass of myself.

The steady supply of movie stars dried up abruptly when Scandinavian Airways no longer found it convenient to refuel their polar flights in Winnipeg. It must have been about that time that Bob Goulet came back into my life. I had lost track of the singer since the day in 1950 that his teen-age voice had attracted the attention of CKUA’s Chief Announcer, Jack Hagerman. But the story of that encounter was too good to keep to myself: I told CKRC’s Program Director, Jack Hill, about it. It couldn’t have meant much to Jack at the time: Goulet was still a complete unknown.

What brought Bob Goulet to nation-wide attention was his appearance on “Singing Stars of Tomorrow,” a CBC radio program produced in Toronto and heard across Canada on Dominion network stations like CKRC. The program offered cash prizes and network exposure to promising young Canadian singers, and each contestant was interviewed on the air. Bob’s singing voice was impressive enough, but it was his speaking voice that attracted Jack Hill, listening that night at home.

He phoned me just after the program ended.

“Wasn’t that the kid you met in Edmonton? I remember you telling me this story about him. I want to talk to that guy. I think he’d make a great announcer.”

I couldn’t help Jack much, but I did make one useful suggestion: I’d heard Goulet mention in that interview that he was about to return to Edmonton from his studies in Toronto. If he were making the journey by rail, he would have to change trains in Winnipeg. Jack – through his Dominion network connections – set up a meeting at the railway station. I learned afterwards that Goulet turned down Jack’s offer.

The singer would come into my life yet again in 1960 when everything had changed radically for both of us.

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One Response to “Chapter Seventeen”

  1. Gerry Guetre Says:

    While I found most of the previous chapters interesting, this one had me singing one of Sarah Vaughn’s famous hits “Broken Hearted Melody”. Truly a nostalgic stroll down memory lane!

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