Monday, February 20, 2017

Article: Memories of Chuck

There are markers in our lives that we remember more often than not with fondness. Memories of the entertainment world make for some strong pull-backs later in life. Popular music, films, and, especially, television programs are penciled into a mnemonic diary, allowing us to get all warm and fuzzy years or decades later when someone at a dinner party states with gleeful nostalgia: "I never missed The Six Million Dollar Man. Eight O'clock on Sunday nights was my special time."

Television programs we watch in our youth and childhood are with us forever, whether we like it or not. ("Gilligan's Island? Never heard of it. I don't know what you're talking about.") However, what often happens is that when we later dip our toes into those same waters, we find the sensation less pleasing or satisfying than what our memories of the experience suggested. Times change and time moves, all but destroying sentimentality in their paths.

Some programs are exempted, of course. For me, one of these survivors is a short-lived live-to-air production by the name of The All Night Show, which ran from September of 1980 to August of 1981 on originating station CFMT (“MTV”, or "Multilingual Television"), UHF channel 47. Having sampled some bits recently – bits are all that survive – I was more than surprised at how reputable my memories of the show were.

Chuck the Security Guard was the host of TANS. The premise was that the station's dependable night-shift security staff of one had the run of the station in the wee hours, the all hours, of the night. The guard with video-switching abilities would run episodes of old television series' like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone (they were just 15 years old then), industrial films from some years past, Betty Boop cartoons, old movie trailers, and independent shorts. Having time to kill between the programmed materials, Chuck joked around with the off-screen, never to be seen, Ryerson the Cameraman, and with him staged gags or bits that U.S. late night host David Letterman would popularize coast-to-coast in the following years. There was one bit I remember where the guys trekked from the studio proper to the building's roof. From there they aimed the television camera at a phone booth that was on the opposite side of the street below. Guess what they did....

In reality, Chuck was played by Toronto-based actor, writer, and comedian Chas Lawther. Although reserved in real life (in the interviews I've seen him in), Lawther was having the time of his life while in front of the TANS camera. In his sporty but standard duty uniform and white sneakers, Chuck now bears some resemblance to Pee-Wee Herman. No doubt his slightly lanky build furnishes some of the visual similarities, but, unlike Pee-Wee, Chuck is an adult while still exhibiting some child-like mannerisms and enthusiasms. Watching TANS today convinces me that this way of playing the character was the right one. After all, don't we like it when someone looks as though they are enjoying themselves? The byproduct is we, the viewers, enjoy ourselves.

Occasionally he would be asked, usually through a letter he read on camera, to say hi to someone such as a faithful viewer. To oblige he would stand, take on a professional security guard pose, point, and yell “hey, you”. Chuck's always welcomed call of "hey, you!" quickly became the signature piece, for both the character and the show.

Speaking of characters, the guest stars of Paul Del Stud and Fran the Nurse were always a special treat. You never knew when one of them was going to show up to visit with friend Chuck. Fran seemed to be forever knitting and Paul was perpetually shooting off his mouth about 'this is how it is'. Great stuff for a teenage viewer.

This was the tone of a typical evening with the dynamic security guard and his all night show. Unfortunately, it all came to a crashing halt after one season. The show we slowly but surely discovered and grew quickly to love deeply was canned by the suits at "Chuck's" station, CFMT-MTV. I remember an interview with one of the head honchos soon after he cut the strings. He spoke words of finality I shall never forget: "This station has to start thinking about making money." From a financial standpoint the decision made some sense, perhaps. The fact is that even though we saw only Chuck, and heard only Ryerson, there was a crew in the control room and studio.

I do understand these words, the order in which they are assembled, and what they mean – they are straight to the point, without subtext, and are non elusive or evasive -- but I also understand that when you have a 'hit' like TANS, it can end up paying dividends to the producing company. In fact, media ratings systems at the time pointed out that Chuck was bringing 'em in. The problem for CFMT was that franchise companies, like Pizza Pizza, weren't sure they wanted to buy late-late night advertising slots. For the duration of the show's existence there were lots of commercials for small businesses, which are great and valued customers but they don't pay the big dollars. The All Night Show needed a little more time to build a strong advertising base, stocked with at least one big customer. “Chuck's” solid viewership numbers certainly would have allowed the station's sales department to charge commensurate ad rates, but it was not to be.

CFMT continued to promote the show after the cuts, but without Chuck at the switcher it was not the same. It could not be saved with a line of 'Hey, don't fret, you can still watch your favourite oldies on CFMT's The All Night Show!'. Like many Chuck fans, I tuned into the new version and saw the opening title card; an old series or short came on; I pressed the 'off' button.



We dedicated viewers loved the show's original format. It was a major part of its appeal. It was live!

And it still lives.


Note: A much "electronically simplified" version of the above piece premiered in Toronto-based writer Greg Woods's print publication The Eclectic Screening Room, issue 21.

Greg's blog: The Eclectic Screening Room

1 comment:

Tibor said...

Went on YouTube and there was Ryerson on camera!