Chapter Thirty-one

At that first meeting, Guy Fournier got serious long enough to invite me to drop by to see a Hydro-Quebec commercial in preparation, just to get the feel of it. Maybe – just maybe – I could write the English equivalent.

I should have realized it was something special from the address he gave me: the Pathé Building, a fully equipped film studio with a cavernous sound stage.
I had never seen anything so elaborate. Though the Hydro-Quebec spot was to only run the mandatory one-minute, it involved live actors in specially-designed costumes, a raft of technicians, a makeup artist, wardrobe mistress, a towering three-level set, several banks of lights, and a camera mounted on a Hollywood-style flying boom.
The three-level set was a giant cartoon dollhouse as viewed from the back, with all the rooms exposed to the camera.
The commercial was meant to demonstrate how electricity was used in every part of a modern home. The actors danced from one gleaming appliance to the next, singing to Marcel’s Bolduc-inspired jig as they cooked on an electric range, extracted food from a ‘fridge, transferred clothes from washer to dryer – you get the picture.
The real challenge for me was to make the English words pop out of the actors’ mouths at the very moment they were needed: to substitute the English equivalent for machine à laver – when that’s what the viewer saw on his TV screen – despite the fact that ‘washer’ is three syllables short, and ‘washing machine’ still lacks one. Worse, what Marcel had written resembled, in meter and tempo, a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. Yes, that fast and furious! It took many hours of frantic scribbling and erasure before I could make it all fit.
Guy Fournier was more than satisfied with what I had come up with; he began to shower me with work. A week rarely went by that I wasn’t called to his office to adapt a French radio or TV commercial, or write an English equivalent for an industrial film script or slide show already prepared in French. Every meeting began with:

“Ah! ‘ere ‘e is – my favorite Irish-man!”

Meanwhile, the word continued to get around. Before long I had three more or less steady customers for my peculiar talents.

I wrote scripts for dull industrial films: one on the making of nails, another on ice problems at the Beauharnois Dam, and another described the federal penitentiary system. There was a puff piece for Algeria’s state-owned oil company, and any number of tourism films for various Quebec government agencies: one was judged the best Canadian tourist film of 1978, winning a Montreal agency the Maple Leaf Award.
Where I thought I could get away with it, I did the voice-over narrations for the films and slide shows myself, but the visual material for that Maple Leaf Award winner was so remarkable, I talked the esteemed Montreal actor Budd Knapp into interpreting my script.
The sarcastic tone to the animated film on Quebec history Les Productions Kohill had sold to Parks, Canada, called for someone with a lot more bite than I could muster. I suggested Gordon Atkinson who later was a one-term member of the Quebec legislature.

About that time, a short-lived Montreal film company asked me to sift through the hundreds of scripts it had received, looking for something it could produce. As far as I know, only one of my choices made it to the big screen: “Lucky Star,” a film with a World War II setting and a haunting premise: a Jewish youth believes the yellow star he is obliged to wear entitles him to be a Wild West marshal. Rod Steiger played the Nazi officer sent to subdue him.
Aside from recommending the script for “Lucky Star,” I had nothing more to do with the project, but I did write some incidental material for “The Gunrunner,” a film shot in Quebec with the then-unknown Kevin Costner in the starring role. My revisions spared Costner from swimming in a Quebec lake in late fall as the Hollywood writer of the original script had suggested. I also advised the director to drop a song that hadn’t been written until ten years after the Costner character was supposed to be running his guns, but that suggestion was considered too ‘picky-picky’.

Taken together, doesn’t all that activity sound like several hundred thousand dollars worth of work to you? Try less than ten thousand dollars over a twenty-year span, not including what I was supposed to be paid for the “Gunrunner” revisions. The director stiffed me on that one.
One film script job brought an unexpected bonus: I was able to have a long talk with my Grade One teacher, Gabrielle Roy.

* * * * * * * * * *
Just before Expo ’67, some sort of shakeup had the producer of CBM Magazine looking for a male host. You will remember that Gloria Bishop had been with the show from its start, so it meant renewing my brief acquaintance with the vibrant redhead I’d met during my Calendar days on TV.
Come to think of it, CBM Magazine had me working with a bevy of beautiful women. The producer, Frances Egan, was an attractive blonde on the petite side, Hilary Brown – as I’ve mentioned – was stately and buxom, and I could indulge my preference for redheads every morning by just looking across the microphone at Gloria. Like the song says: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
For the next four years, I spent at least an hour every morning sharing the interviewing chores on CBM Magazine with Gloria Bishop and Hilary Brown. There were many highlights, most of them associated with Expo, but let me tell you about a few that had nothing to do with the fair.

The first has an all-star cast: Gloria and me, Moses Znaimer, and the legendary Hollywood director John Ford.

Moses – who rose to such dizzy heights in Canadian broadcasting – was born in Kulyab in the former Soviet republic of Tajikstan, but his family settled in Montreal in 1948. I worked with him in the ’60s when he was the summer replacement for Peter Desbarats on Hourglass. All my subsequent encounters with him were pleasant except for the one associated with the Hollywood legend John Ford – and I can hardly blame Moses for that fiasco.
Frances Egan had arranged an interview in connection with a film conference that Moses had set up at Montreal’s venerable Mount Royal Hotel. The guest of honor at the conference was John Ford and Gloria and I were to double-team him.
Gloria was ordinarily a quite confident person but – in the taxi we took to the hotel – she confessed her ignorance of any films made before, let’s say, 1950. She had an ironclad excuse: Because of a fire that claimed the lives of 78 children in Montreal’s Laurier Palace Cinema in the year 1927, the Quebec government passed a law in 1928 barring all those under 16 from theatres. It made for a gaping hole in Gloria’s knowledge of film history.
I began to reassure Gloria that I could take up the slack for our joint interview of John Ford. After all, during the years Gloria was being turned away from Montreal’s movie theatres, I was sopping up Hollywood products as often as twice a week.
As for John Ford, the years before 1950 represented his heyday, when his stamp went on such classics as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Informer,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Stagecoach,” and “Young Mister Lincoln.” I had seen them all.

Many of my favorite actors came under Ford’s direction: Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Victor McLaglen, Kathryn Hepburn, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara . . . Why did I have to even mention John Wayne to John Ford?

Nearly 40 years later, I still cringe recalling what dropping that famous name brought about.

It was a youthful, exuberant, and strikingly handsome Moses Znaimer who led John Ford into one of the hotel’s conference rooms that afternoon where Gloria and I were waiting. Ford, on the other hand, looked bored and disheveled. Once Moses had made the necessary introductions, I leaned forward confidently, microphone in hand, to all but invite the director to tear me to shreds with my very first question:

“How do you get such fine performances from people not known for their acting skills?”
“And who would that be?” Ford snapped back.
“Well, John Wayne, for instance.”

If I had done even the most preliminary kind of research, I would have discovered that Ford held John Wayne in the highest regard. While Gloria Bishop looked on in shock, the director began a bitter harangue that allowed for no interruptions: John Wayne was a superb actor, the best he had ever directed, a tireless trooper who knew his craft backwards and forwards, etc., etc. It went on and on.
At last Moses Znaimer interrupted the interview to remind Ford that he was expected in another part of the hotel. As he steered the still grumbling director out of the room, Moses looked back at me with an expression that managed to combine scorn, pity, and utter disbelief.

* * * * * * * * * *

Interviewing Mel Tormé meant exposing myself to the bizarre dream world of Hugh Hefner. In July 1967, Montreal joined most other North American cities in establishing a Playboy Club, and Tormé was one of its first attractions.
The club’s dressing room was in the basement of the building and that’s where I was introduced to Mel Tormé. He was in a dressing gown, munching on a sandwich. As I got my portable tape recorder ready, I considered what I could ask this remarkable performer.
I’d been a fan of his ever since I heard what he and his vocal group, the Meltones, contributed to an Artie Shaw album of Cole Porter tunes. One of the LP’s tracks is, to my mind, the best recording ever made of the obscure Porter song “Get Out Of Town.” I would have started the interview extolling that track, but I had to think about CBM Magazine’s audience. After all, the album was more than twenty years old; we probably didn’t have it in our library. And the reference was like the song: obscure to the extreme.
It was while Tormé was finishing the last of his sandwich that I thought of a much better opening. Earlier that week, the singer had startled me by making a guest appearance on TV, playing a dramatic role on a popular mystery series. That’s where the interview began. It was like turning on a faucet. Out poured a detailed history of Tormé’s lively career. He worked as a child actor on radio. In the early 1940s, he joined Chico Marx’s band to sing, write arrangements and play the drums. He and Frank Sinatra made their first film together (“Higher and Higher”) and so on.

After the interview, the management of the club insisted I stay around for Tormé’s next set and handed me over to my own personal Bunny. As soon as I laid eyes on her I realized that my mother had ruined any chance of my enjoying the experience. Mom wore a corset and that – with the addition of bunny ears, a fluffy tail and a sprinkling of sequins – was what the young woman had stuffed herself into.
I could see any number of places where the cruel garment might be causing my Bunny the kind of pain Mother tried her best to disguise, and I kept expecting to hear the distinct snap that came when some adjustment to Mother’s elasticized horror was called for – to be echoed immediately by each of the other Bunnies working the room. It could be the signal for a generalized Bunny revolt.

Walk, don’t run, to the nearest exit!


One Response to “Chapter Thirty-one”

  1. Alec Bollini Says:

    First producer of CBM magazine and the man who hired both Gloria Bishop and Hilary Brown… why none other than A.B. himself.

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