Chapter Thirty-five

Writing this book I was reminded repeatedly of the raw deal women got in broadcasting until quite recently. Aside from cooking and homemaking programs, women were simply not there for the early radio audience to notice. That is to say, they were not performing most of the functions we now associate with radio: presenting news, doing commentaries, grilling politicians, hosting opinion programs, etc..
What exceptions there were stuck out like sore thumbs. The CBC’s internet archives tell us that in 1942 – as a wartime measure – women were allowed to work as announcers and booth operators “on an experimental basis” for the first time. That’s probably when I heard Pat Patterson reading network newscasts; and the organist Kay Stokes was one of the CBC’s popular Happy Gang. But by and large radio was a male preserve for the first thirty years of its existence.

If you visited a private radio station back then, women were certainly in evidence from the moment you came through the door: working the switchboard, writing commercials, filing, typing – doing all the behind-the-scenes chores men didn’t want to do. But the studios were all but off limits to women.
I wish I could say that I did something – anything – to right this imbalance while I had the chance, but the truth is I didn’t. The occasion was there when I was the Program Director at CKUA, but when I did push a woman to the fore, it was usually for the wrong reasons.
Monica Norris-Jones, our receptionist, had such a warm speaking voice that I hustled her into a studio one day to record CKUA’s sign-on and sign-off announcements. First thing in the morning and last thing at night is hardly prime time – and I insisted on a harp in the background playing Debussy’s “Maid With The Golden Hair.”

Bleh!

If I had tried that on Hilary Brown, she might have fractured my jaw.

Long before that CJOH microphone descended on Pierre E. Trudeau to occasion a flinch, Hilary was winning her spurs on CBM Magazine. As co-hosts under Gloria Bishop’s direction, our functions were clearly defined: Hilary got to interview Malcolm Muggeridge, I got the Diana Rosses of the world.
Until she took over from Gloria on CBM Magazine, Hilary had been classified as a ‘freelancer contributor’ rather than a staff announcer. There were several woman staff announcers on the CBC’s French network, but Montreal’s much smaller English announce staff had never before included a woman, as far as I know. Hilary was likely the first, but her first few assignments didn’t satisfy her.
“I want to read news,” she told me. And, after a struggle, Hilary got her wish – more or less. She was assigned to what we all called “the news to nowhere”. It was a radio newscast fed to the CBC’s low-power relay transmitters in Quebec, but not carried in Montreal. Somebody must have been listening because, before too long, Hilary turned up on CBMT’s late TV News.
It was a step up for Hilary but hardly a triumph. In the late 1960s, CBC-TV followed a strict pattern for its evening newscasts. The suppertime news was largely a local production with national inserts, but the network’s major newscast – then broadcast at 11 p.m. – was exactly the reverse: a roundup of the day’s world and national events with items from the regions, like Montreal, inserted according to what Toronto considered of national importance.

Which brings us to “The Hilary Brown Story.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The local TV newscast that Hilary got to read was a rehash of the suppertime news, followed by a brief sportscast and the local weather. It was done on the cheap with the same person on camera throughout. Hilary handled the news with aplomb and had no trouble with the weather. But oh! The Sports!

Her news and weather were prepared for her by the CBC News Department, but the Sports was compiled by Rocky McGowan, a hard-bitten sportswriter from one of the Montreal newspapers who was truly ‘moonlighting’: he came to the CBC every night well in advance of Hilary to prepare the Sports stories she was to read, left them for her, and went home. Rocky must have choked on his Ovaltine every night because, from her first appearance, it was obvious that Hilary knew next to nothing about Sports.
Rocky was especially incensed with how Hilary pronounced the name of the hottest pitcher in baseball at that time, Sandy Koufax, pronounced KOE-fax. Night after night, Hillary called him “Sandy KOO-fax.”

Hilary and Rocky had never actually met until the night something delayed Rocky and he found himself on a CBC elevator alone with his tormentor. A few floors went by in silence. Finally, Rocky could contain himself no longer. He rounded on Hilary and snarled:

“By the way, it’s Sandy KO-fax!”

Hilary, smiling warmly, extended her hand to him and purred: “Hilary Brown.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

René Levèsque was a broadcaster turned politician. He was at his best with a microphone close at hand and something he wanted to explain.
The day we met, that ‘something he wanted to explain’ was the brand-new Mouvement souveraineté-association, a loose and so far ill-defined amalgam of Quebec separatist groups he had just helped to assemble.
Levèsque, you will remember, was nothing to look at: short, slight and balding; he made no attempt to dress stylishly or appear ‘upbeat.’  Politicians smile a lot. When Levèsque smiled it was almost a grimace: as though it hurt him so much to look happy, he couldn’t stand the pain. But even viewed from the wrong side of the linguistic divide, the guy definitely had something. What was it?

I don’t know enough about French to judge how René Levèsque spoke it, but I can say without the slightest hesitation that – when he used his second language – Levèsque was artful; in both ways the dictionary defines that word:

‘Artful: 1. Performed with or showing art or skill. 2. Skillful in gaining an end.’

When Levèsque and I filed into a CBC radio studio that autumn day in 1967, I towered over him, and for once I looked better dressed than my subject. But when we were seated on either side of the microphone, it was Levèsque who took charge. After all, we were on his home turf: Levèsque had achieved star status at CBC Montreal while I was still trying to break into the news business out west.
Montreal’s English newspapers had wasted no time in denouncing the Mouvement souveraineté-association as a danger to Quebec and to Canada as a whole. So I asked the obvious questions:
– What was the Mouvement anyway? A study group? A political party?
– What does it want from the rest of Canada? From the English-speaking people in Quebec?

History tells us that the Mouvement souveraineté-association proved to be a seminal force in Quebec politics. Only a year after our interview, the RIN and other smaller separatist groups would disappear to bring the Parti Québécois into existence.
But across the mike from me that day in 1967 Levèsque flatly denied that the Mouvement had political aims as such. With his trademark shrug and that two-second smile he told me its members were just discussing options, possibilities. Not to worry.

The next time I saw René Levèsque he had been Premier of Quebec for eight years, the last of which hadn’t been kind to him. I was waiting for an elevator on the main floor of the CBC building with a dozen others. The Maison’s elevator service was notoriously slow especially during business hours; we had been standing there for some time. I could hear grumbling behind me and a few curses.
The elevator doors finally opened, we surged forward, and I found myself face to face with Levèsque who had boarded the elevator on the floor below.
I felt awkward turning my back on the Premier of Quebec, especially when – the moment I did – the people packing in after me had me backing up until I could feel Levèsque’s face pressing against my back.
It was no way to treat a Premier so, as I left the elevator, I felt obliged to turn back to him and say:

“Bonjour, Monsieur Levèsque.”

Not a word. It was as if I hadn’t spoken.

I’ve read somewhere that – at the height of his political troubles – Levèsque became “distant and irritable.”  I can believe it.
Only recently I was reading a newspaper account of the Korean War that included a photograph of a younger, happier René Levèsque fording a Korean stream with a tape recorder balanced on his head. We do well to remember that Levèsque covered that grim war for Radio-Canada. I recognized that tape recorder immediately. It was the same model I had struggled with on that 1960 tour of Britain, interviewing Peter Sellers: an awkward contraption that ran on a combination of batteries and a clockwork motor.
I wish I had seen that photo of Levèsque when it first appeared, probably in a Quebec tabloid well before our interview. I would have remembered it – and so would he – and that would have spawned an exchange of horror stories about that awful machine. Who really wanted to hear about the Mouvement souveraineté-association, anyway?

Oh, well, like I said on Page One: maybe next time.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When John Cassavetes came to Montreal in 1968 with his just-completed film Faces and a representative group of Hollywood people involved in its production, the entourage must have filled an entire floor of the venerable Queen Elizabeth Hotel. My CBM Magazine interview with the actor and director took place in one of the hotel’s larger suites: most of Cassavetes group was there to see how the boss handled a radio interview.
I had support, too: my recording apparatus was more elaborate than usual, and the CBC had assigned a technician to operate it. So, while the Faces crew gathered around close enough to hear our conversation, Cassavetes and I sat down on either side of a microphone on a stand.

What did we talk about?
Well, not Faces, at least to begin with. The film hadn’t been released yet: in fact, it was to have its premiere the following night in Montreal.
In 1968 John Cassavetes was much better known as an actor than as a director. For instance, he was one of the “Dirty Dozen” in the famous film, and had a key role in the 1964 remake of “The Killers” with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan. On TV, Cassavetes had starred in “Johnny Staccato” one of the better TV programs in the 1959-1960 season. (He also directed the series.)
Cassavetes the Actor had gained a lot of dedicated fans by 1968 – and I considered myself to be one of them. But I knew woefully little about John Cassavetes, the Director. My enthusiasm for his acting carried the interview along for several minutes, and then I tried to establish some standard of comparison for his avant- guarde approach to directing by saying:

“I don’t suppose you think too much of Frank Capra’s movies.”

The collective intake of breath in the room sounded like someone had switched on a vacuum cleaner. As for Cassavetes, he simply fell silent. Sensing I had said something egregiously stupid, I turned to my technician and said:
“Please stop the tape for a minute.” He did, and I waited for someone in the room to break the continuing silence.
It may have been Seymour Cassel who obliged:
“Someone should have told you,” the actor drawled. “Frank Capra is John’s hero. He simply idolizes Capra.”
I had left myself wide open – again.
Had John Cassavetes been anything like the apoplectic von-Stroheim-style director we’ve all seen portrayed in a dozen or more Hollywood films, I would have been in for a torrent of abuse and a sound thrashing with a riding crop.
Instead, Cassavetes leaned towards the tape machine and enquired in a near-whisper: “Do you think I might explain?” And, when the technician got the machine rolling again, it captured the best exposition of Frank Capra’s unique contribution to films I have ever heard.
It was all there for CBM Magazine listeners the following morning: my clumsy question, an inserted description of how it was received, and then Cassavetes’ touching tribute to Frank Capra.

That night at the Faces premiere, Cassavetes displayed more of the no-frills integrity that made him a film legend. The venue for the premiere was a thoroughly rundown movie theatre well out of Montreal’s entertainment loop. There were no searchlights, no flashbulbs, no red carpet runway, no tuxedos or low-cut evening gowns, no breathless interviewers – Faces got a premiere to match its grainy, black-and-white production.
When the houselights dimmed, the first thing we saw on the screen was:

A
M. Charles Cohen
Production

Someone overcome by a fit of laughter shattered the respectful silence that followed. I knew that laugh: it was M. Charles Cohen, the Montreal writer and friend of Cassavetes who – as far as I could determine – had nothing to do with the film’s production. The slide was just an elaborate send-up.
If you have seen Faces, you will have some inkling of how it affected that premiere audience. I left the theatre thoroughly shaken, and looking for someone to share my feelings. I didn’t have to search long: the director was standing at the curb, looking for all the world like his friend Peter Falk dressed for his Columbo role: rumpled, out-of-fashion raincoat; scuffed shoes and all.
Before I could open my mouth, Cassavetes asked: “So, what do you think? Did you like it?” My enthusiasm was greeted with a nod, and he moved on quickly to buttonhole someone else:

“So, what do you think? Was it alright?”

One Response to “Chapter Thirty-five”

  1. Alec Bollini Says:

    Leveque’s tape recorder (yes, the actual one), was a staple in my office for years.

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