Marilyn Bell swims the lake and other memorable moments in Chapter 16 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

Marilyn Bell swims across Lake Ontario in 1954. Inset photos show John Conway with puppets Uncle Chicimus and Hollyhock; and Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary on Mount Everest in 1953.

Below is Chapter 16 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER 16: ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’

By KEITH BLACK

HOW IS IT?

IT’S PRETTY BAD!

HOW ‘BOUT THAT?

NO, IT’S GETTING WORSE!

NOW?

IT’S GETTING BETTER!

HOW ABOUT THAT?

THAT’S GOOD, LEAVE IT THERE!

IS IT GOOD?

YEA, COME DOWN AND LOOK!

My father was on the roof of our apartment building and my brother was three floors below in our living room with his head stuck out of the window as he shouted to relay the information that was being provided by mother who was standing in front of our television. It was a three-person job.  Four if you count my job which was to be impatient. This was in the early part of 1953. I was six years old. Father had just attached a TV antenna on a pole to a wooden railing post on the roof and was attempting to align it to get the best reception.

For a variety of reasons we would discover that this process had to be repeated periodically. But we weren’t alone. There were 27 apartments in our building and one by one the residents were acquiring TV’s and soon a forest of aerials sprouted on the roof and each installation required similar shouts and yells. We recognized the voices and were thus able to determine who had leaped into the new technological age. The antenna wires streamed down from the roof like vines.

Actually, we had bought our television in late 1952 and had attempted to make do with a small antenna called rabbit ears which sat on top of the set but we spent more time playing around with the rabbit ears than we did watching TV.

It was a 17-inch Admiral table model which sat on steel legs; it was a cube of about 26 inches and probably weighed about 80 pounds. This was certainly a major purchase for my parents; it cost almost $300., about $2,800 today. It was a sensitive piece of equipment that demanded constant fiddling with various knobs to keep the picture steady and it was susceptible to changes in the weather, some of which produced “snow” on the screen.

And it contained a large assortment of vacuum tubes with limited life spans. When something went wrong that couldn’t be fixed by twiddling dials, out came the manual which told us that a particular tube had probably failed. When we figured out which tube they were talking about, we pulled it out and off we went to get it tested. Many variety stores had “tube testers” which were large devices with numerous sockets in the top each labeled with an odd combination of letters and numbers.

After having identified the correct socket, we would insert the tube and push a button. A “failed” rating was good news; we had the right culprit and simply had to look in the drawer of the tester for a replacement; if they had one. If that one wasn’t in stock then off we would go from store to store until one was found. If the tube tested “good”, then it was back to the TV to look for the real villain.

And all of this effort and expense enabled us to get just two channels, CBLT in Toronto and WBEN in Buffalo. And, in the beginning, CBLT only broadcast about four hours a day; most of the time on channel 9 you would find a “test pattern”.  Additional stations, WGR in Buffalo and CHCH in Hamilton would come along in 1954, necessitating more shouting to the rooftop.

Do I remember my first television experience? You bet!  It was a show called Let’s See that came on at 6:45 p.m. on CBLT. It was a 15-minute program that starred two rather weird looking individuals created by John Conway. They were hand puppets oddly named Uncle Chichimus, a cantankerous individual, and his more congenial niece, Hollyhock. Mr. Conway provided the voices.

Obviously this being a children’s show it was natural that it opened with a weather forecast.  Really? This was provided by the first actual live human ever to appear on CBC television, Percy Saltzman.

Mr. Saltzman was famous for his horn-rimmed glasses which didn’t actually have lenses, his ability to fill a blackboard with an abundance of lines, circles and scratches that somehow made sense, and his aptitude for throwing chalk into the air and never failing to catch it, something which he did at the end of every forecast. Fortunately, as time passed, he became famous for his wit, his intellect, and his skill as an interviewer as well.

Sometimes an additional “live” character appeared with Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock, that being a 31 year old actor, Larry Mann. Mr. Mann would ultimately appear in more than 40 television shows and in about 35 movies, including The Sting, Bullitt, and the award-winning In the Heat of the Night which was directed by Norman Jewison, who also happened to be one of the directors of….Let’s See starring Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock.

Mr. Jewison was raised on Kippendavie Avenue in the Beach behind his father’s dry goods store on Queen Street East. He attended Kew Beach Public School and then went on to Malvern Collegiate.

On Jan. 20, 1954, one of Toronto’s greatest unsolved crimes was committed; the local papers reporting the kidnapping of Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock. Stolen, actually; they were in John Conway’s briefcase which was taken from his car. It took him four days to make duplicates during which time he came out of hiding and into the bright lights playing a detective on the trail of the fiend. He was fed clues by Larry Mann who played a variety of characters. We kids were kept in suspense until the replacements appeared. A reward of $300 was offered for the return of the originals but they were never found.

On June 2, 1953, the Canadian Broadcasting Company went to considerable expense in order to air an event that had taken place thousands of miles away just 11 hours previously and they managed to beat the American networks by half an hour. It was deemed that the cost was justified in view of the magnitude and historical significance of the occasion. A new high speed film development process as well as jet planes from the air forces of two nations were used to get the images onto our television screens quickly.

I refused to watch. My father had come to tell me that I should watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; that it was history in the making and that I would never forget it and that if I didn’t watch it I would always regret it. I was six years old! I had far better things to do. But he was right; I never forgot it. My refusal, that is. And no, I don’t regret it.

Through the years there were several radio personalities who had the ability to describe events as they were happening in such a way that their listeners felt that they were with the announcers and sharing the experiences. Edward Murrow’s broadcasts from London during the Battle of Britain and William Shirer’s reports from Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg are good examples.

But what folks really wanted were moving pictures of people, places and events. That is why movie theatre newsreels were so popular. And now television brought those pictures into their homes.  As the decade progressed, television improved its ability to report on important or significant events around the globe. There were many such incidents but there were a few that particularly got my attention and stuck with me.

Young boys seem to be impressed with superlatives: the fastest, the biggest, the tallest, the deepest, and the strangest. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world and as of 1953 a dozen people had died trying to reach its summit. Some said that it could not be done.

In 1924 a world renowned climber, George Mallory died in the attempt; his body was found 75 years later in 1999. But in 1953 it was finally accomplished and it was very big news. And very quickly television was able to give us pictures that had been taken on the mountain and film of the conquering heroes, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they were enthusiastically greeted in Kathmandu and then in London where they were received by the Queen. I remember it well; it was all very exciting.

And what has transpired since? New oxygen supply machines, greatly improved climbing gear, tents and clothing, satellite imagery, and familiarity with the various routes have improved the odds of getting to the summit.  In fact, more than 5,000 people have reached the top including a woman with a prosthetic leg and an 80 year old man. One gentleman, Kami Rita, a Sherpa guide has climbed it 24 times.  I don’t mind; I found it exciting in 1953 and I wasn’t alone. Perhaps it will be on Mount Everest that someone will finally locate the remains of the original Uncle Chichimus.

From the tallest to the fastest. It was another one of those “it can’t be done” things. It was argued that no one would be able to run a mile in under four minutes. A century before, in the 1850s, the record had been four minutes and 28 seconds. By 1945 it was down to four minutes and 1 ½ seconds.

And then in June of 1954, in England, Roger Bannister of that country narrowly defeated John Landy of Australia in a race and crossed the line in 3:59.4. Again it was big news and soon we were able to watch a film of that exciting race on television. Bannister became a hero to us all.  And then? Forty five days later the mile was run in 3:58 by…..John Landy. Mr. Landy later became the Governor of the State of Victoria in Australia. Sir Roger Bannister died in 2018 at the age of 88. The current record is 3:43:13.

I have previously related how often I swam in Lake Ontario and how important the lake was to everyone in the Beach. While my friends and I were content to swim in the lake, one young lady just 16 years old decided to swim across the lake. Her name was Marilyn Bell and she was the first person to ever accomplish it.  Because of the current, she ended up swimming about 40 miles and it took her about 21 hours.

During that period there were frequent radio reports giving everyone news of her progress but it was the view through the lens of a CBLT camera of her completing the journey at 8:06 p.m. on Sept. 9, 1954 that stays with me. Ms. Bell received money, a car, dozens of other gifts and a ticker-tape parade up Bay Street attended by hundreds of thousands of cheering fans. She deserved all of it.  Marilyn Bell was about nine years older than me. I never met her but have always viewed her as a bit of a friend; we both swam in Lake Ontario.

I remember the Andrea Doria.  She was a lovely ocean liner; the pride of post-war Italy. In 1956, she collided with a small Swedish liner, the Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, immediately killing 46 people. The Italian ship was doomed but would stay afloat for about 11 hours. This provided ample time for the remainder of the passengers and crew to be rescued and for cameramen to take lots of footage from the air and to record her final moments which subsequently appeared on our TVs. I had read a great deal about ship disasters: Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania but this was the first time I had actually seen a large ship sink. I watched spellbound. For whatever reason, I still remember the Andrea Doria.

Yes, young boys like the tallest, the fastest, the deepest, etc… And they like a good explosion, especially if it can be seen on live television and it is the largest intentional non-nuclear explosion ever. Ripple Rock was an underwater mountain with twin peaks located in Seymour Narrows in British Columbia. The peaks were only nine and 21 feet below the surface and had caused havoc to shipping in the sea lanes running north from Vancouver. More than 120 ships had been sunk or badly damaged by the rocks.

The blasting of Ripple Rock was a three-year project requiring that a mine shaft 500 feet deep be dug and then a horizontal shaft of 2,370 feet be excavated and then two vertical shafts up into the twin peaks built. There were 1,270 metric tons of explosive placed in the latter shafts.

We were continually kept apprised of the progress by the newspapers and magazines with the effect being that it was like a very long countdown to zero hour which finally came on Saturday, April 5, 1958 at 9:30 in the morning. CBC Television carried the explosion live, one of the first events telecast coast to coast. And it was beautiful. There was a grand symmetry to it as rock and water were shot up to 1,000 feet in the air. And it was successful; Ripple Rock sunk no more ships.  It was memorable and I liked it.

Yes, television allowed me to see the tallest, the fastest, the first and the biggest. I remember so many of those events very clearly. There is one other major TV event that I recall but the details of it are rather fuzzy and that was the one and only time that I ever appeared on television.

One day my mother took my brother and I and a lady down the hall took her two children, a boy and a girl on the streetcar to Jarvis Street and we then walked north a short distance to the CBLT studio. This was in 1953 or 1954. Before going inside, I remember staring up in awe at the steel eiffel-like transmission tower which soared to a height of 540 feet. It was demolished in 2002.

Once inside we waited around as mother adjusted the Brylcreem in our hair and then we made our grand entrances by climbing up the steps of a child’s slide and then sliding down through a curtain into a room occupied by a fellow named Ed. The show was appropriately called Ed’s Place.

Ed talked to us for a while and then introduced us to a postman who also talked to us and then we had a conversation with the “shadow man” a silhouette on a screen. I don’t recall what any of those conversations were about and I suspect that they don’t either. Ed fed us all hot dogs which were good and then he picked up a guitar and sang a song. It was all on live television. And then it was all over. I learned that being a celebrity is no big deal; I didn’t even bother to read the reviews.

It was only years later that I learned who Ed was. His name was Ed McCurdy. He was born in the U.S., became a popular singer in the 1940s, toured with the burlesque queen, Sally Rand, acted as the straight man to the comedian Jack E. Leonard, married a Canadian girl, moved north and “found” folk music, became a singer/songwriter and a Canadian citizen. He recorded numerous albums in the 1950s and 1960s including a collection of Elizabethan risqué folk songs.

One of Ed’s compositions, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”, an anti-war song, has been recorded in several languages and has been covered by John Denver, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, the Weavers, Johnny Cash, The Kingston Trio, Arlo Guthrie, Garth Brooks, Serena Ryder and many more.

In 1989, NBC televised live from the top of the Berlin Wall as East German schoolchildren sang Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream as the wall came down. I wish I had known all of this about Ed sooner; I might have said something.

To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Five, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Six, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 10, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 11, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/22/chapter-11-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 12, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/09/29/chapter-12-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

Tor read Chapter 13, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/10/06/chapter-13-of-boom-tells-how-the-garden-gate-became-the-goof/

To read Chapter 14, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/10/13/chapter-14-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beaches-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-back-at-the-night-hurricane-hazel-hit/

To read Chapter 15, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/10/20/rock-and-roll-arrives-in-chapter-15-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/


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