No sooner had I escaped the clutches of the Toronto Star than a producer at Canada AM, the CTV network’s long-running version of America’s Today Show, phoned to ask if I would be interested in becoming one of the hosts.
I doubt I was actually being offered a job so much as being given the opportunity to audition. I don’t think they ever would have been crazy enough to let me loose on Canada’s national airwaves without some indication of what they were getting themselves into.
I had appeared on the show fairly regularly. While I was never on long enough to make a good impression, I suppose I wasn’t on long enough to make a bad one, either.
Luckily for Canada AM I had, by that time, decided I wasn’t a TV kind of guy. What’s more, having just left one demanding institution, I wasn’t about to join another. That’s how I saved Canadian television—I stayed out of it. The medium was much better off without me.
My checkered television career began in the 1970s when CBC producer Ross MacLean hired me to be one of the regulars on a Toronto arts and entertainment show he was producing. Ross had fallen on hard times by then, and he is all but forgotten now, but he was one of the pioneers of Canadian television. He helped get CBC-TV on the air and had discovered Pierre Berton, Patrick Watson, and Charles Templeton among others, broadcasting icons in their day.
If anyone in Canada knew television and the kind of personality who worked in the medium, it was Ross. I ran into him at a reception after the show had been on for a few weeks. Being young and eager, I asked the Great Man how he thought I was doing. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Not very well, Ron. Frankly, I’m very disappointed.”
That taught me one of life’s invaluable lessons: never ask a TV guru what he thinks of you. Needless to say, I was not added to the list of Ross’s iconic discoveries.
In those days, I wrote a lot about television. I was around when both City-TV and Global went on the air. When Canada-AM started up in 1972, I duly interviewed Helen Hutchinson and Norm Perry, the hosts who were most associated with the show in its early days. They regaled me with tales of rising and shining at three o’clock in the morning so they could be on the air at 6:30.
I began appearing on the show in the 1980s, talking about movies. The Canada AM studios were located at CFTO in the wilds of Agincourt, an eastern Toronto suburb. A taxi would pick me up at six o’clock for the long ride to the studio, invariably in rush hour traffic. Once there I would then sit around for another hour or so, time that included getting fully made up, a process that seemed to take forever—hiding the dark circles under my eyes being a major cosmetic achievement.
By the time I was finally ushered onto the set it was after 8 a.m. Memory has me regularly talking to Craig Oliver, although Craig usually covered Ottawa politics and I don’t think he was ever a regular host.
My appearances generally went something like this—and I am only slightly exaggerating:
Host: Our guest this morning is Toronto Star film critic Ron Base. (turning to me) Ron, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark opens this weekend. Tell us about it.
Ron: Well, Craig, the Indiana Jones movie is an action-packed extravaganza that will have you on the edge—
Host: Thanks, Ron. (turning to camera) That was Ron Base, Toronto Star movie critic reviewing the Indiana Jones movie. We’ll be back after these words from out sponsors.
Once the show went to a commercial break, everyone on the set would look relieved. Someone would say, “That went well,” and I would be ushered off, clutching the Canada AM coffee mug which, if I recall correctly, was about my only payment for the appearance. Then it was out to a waiting taxi for the ride back into Toronto, this time at the height of the morning commute. Two hours or so later, I would be at the office trying to shake off the feeling that I had said almost nothing but had spent most of the morning saying it.
Not surprisingly, any association I had with the show ended after that phone call from the Canada AM producer. How I would ever have fit into its formula is anyone’s guess. From its inception, the show was insistently bright and bland, featuring carefully coiffed hosts and hostesses not out to rock any boats, a reflection of the white bread, controversy-shy network that produced it.
Could I have looked appropriately lively and bubbly every morning, excited over the latest recipe for guacamole, interviewing the Irish Rovers, sympathetically shaking my head at weather reports of another freezing day on the prairies? Could I have pulled that off?
Even if they had been nuts and actually put me on the air, I can’t imagine I would have lasted long. No doubt about it, I saved Canadian television the day I said no.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia as Canada AM finally made its exit last week, remembering my minor association with the show.
The CTV network, trailing a long history of unceremoniously drowning its babies, says it will soon replace Canada AM with a new morning show. I am not expecting a phone call.