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Remembering Percy Saltzman

Percy Saltzman, the chalk-tossing weatherman who helped invent Canadian television and stayed on it for 30 years, has died at age 91. A veteran government meteorologist, Saltzman became the first person to appear on CBC Television's English service when it flickered to life Sept. 8, 1952. His energetic, dramatic explanations of the weather and formidable interviewing skills made him a national star who hosted countless CBC programs over two decades.

Saltzman left the CBC in 1972 but did work for other broadcasters for another decade. In this 1975 clip from CBC Television's Such is Life, looking back at shows of the past, we see early black-and-white footage of Saltzman doing his trademark flip of the chalk to end a weathercast. The recently retired Saltzman then reminisces about those early days with Such is Life host Bill Lawrence, also a weatherman.

Saltzman recalls trying lipstick on glass and other ways to draw the weather before he settled on a thick piece of chalk and a blackboard. He says it was exciting to interview newsmakers of the day because "you were always under the gun." Does Saltzman miss the old days? Sure, but he doesn't sound eager to pick up the chalk again. "After all those years to go back on and do the same old lingo, the same old schtick, it isn't that easy."
• Percy Saltzman was born to working class parents in Winnipeg in 1915 and raised in Neudorf, Sask., and in Vancouver. A top student, he went to the University of British Columbia and graduated with a bachelor of arts. He worked his way to Montreal on a cattle train and studied medicine for a year at McGill University. A whiz in science but flat broke, he was forced to drop out. A jobless Saltzman married Rose Kogan.

• Saltzman and Kogan had met at a Jewish cultural group where he volunteered as an English teacher. They moved to Toronto where he worked as a printer's lithographer for several years. They had two sons, Earl and Paul. During the Second World War, Saltzman was hired by the federal government and trained as a meteorologist. He travelled to air bases teaching pilots basic weather information. After the war, he became part of the Dominion Weather Service.

• CBC Television's English-language service started broadcasting on Sept. 8, 1952. Viewers first saw the CBLT station logo -- upside down. Next was a puppet named Uncle Chichimus welcoming them to a program called Let's See. Uncle Chichimus's co-host - the first human on screen - was Saltzman. He made $10 a night moonlighting for the CBC while working days at the Dominion Weather Service.

• The first chalk flip was improvised by Saltzman. He added it to the end of a segment in which his already lively forecast was shot on special film that made it comically fast, like something out of an old movie. Ross Maclean, producer of the show Tabloid, liked the flourish and told Saltzman to keep it. He flipped chalk for the next 30 years.

• A 1954 Maclean's Magazine story entitled "Percy Wows Them with the Weather" estimated that Canada's new star appeared on as many as nine TV and radio shows a week. He covered much more than weather for CBC, including science and current affairs. Saltzman usually arrived at the studios around 6 p.m., straight from his government day job. He didn't join the CBC full-time until 1968, when he retired from the weather service with a pension.

• Saltzman interviewed all kinds... including media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who in 1962 shared his thoughts about the Twist. McLuhan called the dance craze "cool... like a conversation without words. An attempt to imitate some profound inner growth problem." Saltzman asked: "Is it like a fertility dance in Africa?" "I'm sure the twist doesn't mean promoting crop growth," McLuhan replied. "But the Twist does promote the growth of something. (Dancers) look like vegetables, carrots in slow growth."

• Saltzman's first televised weathercasts were on Tabloid, later re-named 701. He had to figure out how to represent the weather visually for viewers. He filled a large map-blackboard with lines and symbols depicting fronts, precipitation and the like. Speaking rapidly, Saltzman turned the weather into a drama, describing a warm front "kicking up a fuss" and battling a cold air mass "just sitting and brooding" to the north. He used no notes or cue cards.

• Saltzman constantly lobbied for more time to do his weather. To teach him a lesson, the Tabloid producer left the camera on him one day after the weathercast ended. A surprised Saltzman started lecturing the audience about the Sputnik rocket and space travel. After 20 minutes, the producer gave up and moved to the next item. "But me, hell, I was still fresh, so I could have gone on for another hour or so," the weatherman later said.

• In 1972 Saltzman left the CBC to become a co-host of CTV's new Canada AM. He stayed only two years but worked for other broadcasters for several more years. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2002, 18 years after his brother Morris, a Vancouver clothier, received the same honour for his work in that city's Jewish community. Saltzman's son Paul is an Emmy award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker.

• Percy Saltzman died on Jan. 15, 2007, at age 91. 
Medium: Television
Program: Such Is Life
Broadcast Date: Jan. 13, 1975
Guest(s): Percy Saltzman
Host: Bill Lawrence
Duration: 4:05

Last updated: February 2, 2012

Page consulted on January 6, 2014

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