Once upon a time, there was something called local TV. It was made up — quite literally — on the spot, live. Looking back on it today, it was probably pretty bad. But it was ours.
In my early years growing up in Edmonton, there were two channels. One was the CBC outlet, called CBXT. I suppose it produced some programs, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. But to most of the first generation of TV addicts, there was only one station. It was CFRN TV, channel 3.
CFRN — now under the bland corporate moniker of CTV Edmonton — was the source of all things television to those of us who grew up in the 1960s and into the 1970s. The channel is celebrating its 60th birthday this month, with a retrospective of what’s left of their old shows available on the CTV Edmonton (sigh) website. Aside from bringing up memories, the anniversary brings to mind just how much local TV has changed. And not entirely for the better.
Ask any kid in Edmonton today to name the shows they watch on TV, and you’ll get roughly the same answers, with The Simpsons reruns probably topping the list. You would get the same answers in any Canadian city today, or any North American city for that matter. TV has been homogenized. CTV Edmonton looks the same as CTV Calgary, and CTV Winnipeg, and CTV St. John’s, for that matter. The only differences between the channels is the news crew, where you’ll find different middle-aged veteran anchors, different younger co-anchors, different cheery upbeat ‘meteorologists’, and different sports guy/gal.
But back in the early days, every channel was different. I don’t know if CFRN was any better than CFCN in Calgary, or any other Canadian TV station, but it sure managed to produce a lot of memories.
First among them, and a beloved memory for thousands of Edmonton boomers, was Popcorn Playhouse, the legendary afternoon kids show. Thousands of Edmonton kids had their moment of fame on Popcorn Playhouse, interviewed however briefly by the legendary Eric Neville, who hosted the show with a casual charm that made him a made-in-Edmonton star. (You can read my rare interview with Eric Neville here, for a story I wrote for Avenue magazine. It’s one of my all-time favourite interviews.)
While Popcorn Playhouse remains the boomers’ fave (it has a Facebook page called Fans of Popcorn Playhouse, with 2,100 members), I was also a fan of The Noon Show, a weekday lunchtime hour of general nuttiness hosted by the smooth and unflappable Ed Kay (click here for a nice photo album from Ed) and frequently by the towering Norris McLean (my apologies for any incorrect spellings of names). The show had a house band, Gaby Haas and the Barndance Gang, which featured on the clarinet a deadpan comic foil named Clarence Plouffe. (Legend has it that a later Gaby Haas show on cable TV was the inspiration for the Schmenge Brothers on SCTV.) The highlight for any boy who raced home at lunchtime to watch the show (back in the day when mom was home in most families) was the daily airing of The Three Stooges. I loved the Stooges, as did pretty much every boy in Edmonton (I firmly believe that girls did not watch the Stooges). One of my favourite bits on the Noon Show was during the last show of the summer, they would dismantle the set as a deadpan newsreader (Sid Lancaster, as I recall) would read the news without missing a beat.
Afternoons were for ‘women’s programming’, which in Edmonton was a show called Laura, featuring Laura Lindsay (again, not sure of the spelling). I never watched it, even if I was home sick (or “sick”) from school, But everybody knew Laura Lindsay; I remember one day she came into my dad’s Jack and Jill store downtown, and it was slightly exciting to be in the presence of a celebrity. Sometime in the afternoon, weary housewives (or kids home “sick”) could watch an old movie on Siesta Cinema.
On weekends, CFRN really produced, with a couple of other legendary local shows.
Kids Bids was a peculiar show, to be sure. On Kids Bids, a small audience of children would bid on an array of prizes, using boxtops of Old Dutch potato chips as currency. The auctioneering would be conducted by a pair of real auctioneers, whose name I believe was O’Hara, who didn’t cut the kids any slack. They would rattle off their hyper rapid auctioneers pitch until some poor kid bid everything they had for something they probably didn’t want.
And then there was Kiddies on Kamera, a literally juvenile talent show. Kiddies on Kamera was exactly as advertised, minus the spelling. Every week, kids would display whatever talent they had on the show, and if memory serves me correctly, it was divided roughly equally between Highland dancing and baton twirling (occasionally, a really daring baton twirler would light the ends of the batons on fire). Now, that’s entertainment!
Nothing like this exists anymore, which is a shame. I’d bet that a modern version of Popcorn Playhouse would be a smash hit today, but no TV station wants to put those kind of resources into producing a live kids show. I can’t blame them; the cost would be tremendous, and it’s a lot easier and profitable to just plug Judge Judy or Ellen into that time slot. The days of TV producing homegrown celebrities is long past, and that’s kind of sad. CFRN was a big part of growing up Edmonton. Now, as CTV Edmonton, it’s just another interchangeable piece in the big media machine.