Inauguration of CBC Television, Montreal, September 1952 (Photothèque de Radio-Canada)
Planning and preparation had taken years. In fact, the seeds of television in Canada had been planted more than a decade earlier.
The first Canadians to see television were attendees of the 1938 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Thousands flocked to see flickering fuzzy images on a tiny black and white screen. It was radio with pictures. Canadians were anxious to see this marvel of communication in every home. But World War Two put a quick stop to any such frivolous thoughts. It wasn't until much later that Canada would get into the television game.
Not that Canadians weren't watching television. After the war came the prosperity of the 50's. People bought televisions and aimed their antennas toward the nearest American city. Canadians could pick up the signals leaking over from American border cities. Some saw this as yet another American cultural offensive. So in 1949, the Canadian government announced that the CBC would be given the task to create an English and French television network. It was to be financed by taxpayers.
The entire operation had to be built from scratch. In early 1952, the CBC began hiring hundreds of producers, directors and technicians. Mornings were spent in the classroom learning TV techniques and theory. Afternoons were spent doing hands-on activities in the new studios.
On September 6, 1952, CBC TV debuted in Montreal on CBFT. At 4 p.m., viewers tuned in and watched the movie Aladdin and his Lamp, followed by a cartoon, and then a French film, a news review and a bilingual variety show.
Two days later, CBC TV debuted in Toronto. Seconds before the cameras went live, a technician removed and cleaned the CBC logo slide. Producer Murray Chercover shouted at the technician, "Don't do that!" and the rattled crew member placed the slide back upside down as the network took to the airwaves. "I can't remember what we did, or if we shot the poor guy responsible," Norman Jewison, then a 25-year-old floor director, later recalled.
Each evening, when CBC television came on the air at 7:15 pm, viewers were greeted by a bald puppet named Uncle Chichimus. Each night Conway came up with a show called Let's See, a preview of the evening's entertainment.
One of the great challenges of the fledgling CBC TV was to compete with established American networks whose signals were creeping across the border.
In Toronto, on the very first day of broadcasting, programmers got a break that instantly gave CBC TV an edge over the Americans. And it came about because of a jail break by a notorious gang of bank robbers.
The Boyd Gang was infamous. They robbed banks, had shoot-outs with the police and had killed an officer. They had already broken out of jail once. They had been re-arrested and put in Toronto's Don Jail. But the day before CBC Television's Toronto debut, the Boyd gang escaped once again.
CBC Television covered the event in detail, following the story for days after the escape.
Eight days later, Edwin Alonzo Boyd was discovered hiding in a barn just north of Toronto. They went back to jail. And CBC Television was on the map.
But what was it like in that TV studio? Imagine, hundreds of technicians, producers, actors all new at their job. I think it's safe to say that nobody really knew quite what they were doing. It was quite chaotic. if you can get any impression of early television in Canada, it's that they were making it up as they went along.
Weatherman Percy Saltzman was on CBC Television in Toronto from the very beginning. He made $10 a night moonlighting for the CBC while keeping his job as a meteorologist at the Dominion Weather Service. He usually arrived at the studio at 6 pm after his day job to do his forecasts. Saltzman immediately understood the visual element of television. He invented the famous "chalk flip" which ended each of his forecasts.
Saltzman also had to figure out how to represent the weather visually. He filled a large map blackboard with lines and symbols. He came up with odd names and stories for weather patterns. Viewers loved it. He was hugely popular, soon appearing on as many as nine TV and radio shows a week.
And now 60 years on, have we fulfilled the dream of those pioneers? Could those early television pioneers have imagined where we are today? A television world of Steven and Chris, Rick Mercer, Don Cherry and the Doodlebops? I wonder what they would think...