|Mountie Pinsent (centre) and The Forest Rangers|
There’s something about childhood memories and cherished TV shows that can turn adults back into six year olds.
I had just such a Cocoon moment Saturday in Kleinberg, Ont., home of the Cinespace Film Studio.
This very off-the-beaten track production centre is tucked into a valley in the woods off Hwy 27. about 20 minutes north of Toronto. Back in 1963 to ’65, it was home to The Forest Rangers.
Canada’s first weekly colour TV series featured a bunch of Junior Rangers who helped patrol and conserve the woods near the mythical village of Indian River. These kids also helped RCMP Sgt. Scott (Gordon Pinsent), Ranger Keeley (Graydon Gould) and local Metis-Ojibway guide Joe Two Rivers (Michael Zenon) round up the occasional thief, poacher and even a spy or two.
The jaunty theme, which makes you just want to skip a rock over an open lake, was composed by John Hubert Bath; you can watch the opening titles and listen to the theme music here.
The series presented a rustic, woodsy and ultimately wholesome image of Canada, much as Skippy The Bush Kangaroo–imported around the same time–offered an Instagram-tinged snapshot of Australia.
There were many busy Canadian guest stars, including Gerrard Parkes, Barbara Hamilton, Cec Linder, John Vernon and Jan Rubes. Cost per episode in the mid-’60s? $25,000. Memories Saturday? Priceless.
|Rangers fansite head Clayton Self (left) with Susan Conway (Kathy)
reunion organizer John Deakin and Syme Jago (Gaby LaRoche)
All nine original Junior Rangers, plus Pinsent, gathered back at the studio to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series. They were joined by 260 fans, some who had come from as far away as Ireland, London and the United States. The series was a very successful export, airing at one time in over 40 countries.
Organizing the reunion was dedicated fan John Deakin, who arranged for the gathering to be held at Cinespace–celebrating its 25th anniversary. Also in the middle of things was Forest Rangers fansite head Clayton Self.
I caught up with the Junior Rangers and Pinsent in the “V.I.P.” area deep within the main studio building. They were getting reacquainted in Cinespace’s long-standing White House set. (Filmmakers come from all over to use the Washington capitol replica.)
I found Pinsent in the Oval Office, behind the president’s desk–not exactly where you’d expect to find a Canadian acting icon. Were the Rangers now working for the Feds?
The actor admitted getting a mite misty-eyed as he came down the tree-lined gravel road leading into the main studio. Little had changed at the entrance, where an old stone and metal gate still stands.
He told a story about how the producers dickered over the Sgt’s main mode of transportation. After seeing Pinsent ride, a horse was ruled out. He actually had his feet tied together under the saddle for a scene crossing a river.
A car, it was decided. Did Pinsent want a standard? “What’s the other one?” he asked. “Automatic,” he was told. Pinsent didn’t drive a car at the time, but actors never say no.
Eventually he was filmed barreling down the old ranch lane, veering dangerously close to a horse. The shot stayed in the series.
More memories came flooding back as Pinsent became re-acquainted with these mostly white-haired men and women, now in their 60s, actors he remembered as pre-teens.
Among them was Ralph Endersby, who played Chub Stanley. Endersby deals with Parkinson’s today, but was happy to be back with the gang.
A fan asked during as Q&A session why the character was called “Chub”? The kid wasn’t chubby. “It’s a great name!” said Endersby. Mystery solved.
These Rangers, in many ways, were Canada’s Mickey Mouse Club. Kids wanted to be one. Meeting them today is like coming face-to-face with ’60s hockey stars like Dave Keon or Johnny Bower.
Syme Jago, who was nine when she was cast that first season, was just coming off a lead role in a Disney film also shot in Ontario: The Incredible Journey. Susan Conway, who played Kathy, was a year or two older and remembers where she was the day John F. Kennedy was shot–on the set of The Forest Rangers.
She remembers a group of actors huddled around a radio in the studio next door, taking in the terrible news. “It was the first time I had seen grown men cry,” she recalled.
The actors and crew paused for a while but eventually they went back to work that day. Two episodes of The Forest Rangers, originally seen on CBC as part of the children’s series Razzle Dazzle, were shot each week. There were 104 episodes in all, all shot on film, in colour.
The fact they weren’t videotaped is why the series still exists. So many early Canadian TV shows shot on tape were simple erased or junked. Tape could be used again and again, and it was.
The first season of The Forest Rangers exists on a DVD box set. Those episodes are well preserved, but I learned that Seasons Two and Three were not stored properly and that the original film may be beyond a digital restoration.
The series kept resurfacing in Canada, however. The entire run was shown on TVLand Canada (now Comedy Gold) from 2003-05. Somebody up north taped them all–so a full set exists.
I was a child when they first aired but I remember Razzle Dazzle more for Howard the Turtle. Even though the series was shot in colour it was seen only in black and white until the late ’60s when CBC and others started broadcasting in colour (to the few homes that had a colour set).
Watching The Forest Rangers in colour is a little jarring at times; skin tones look a little off today, as if everybody just stepped out of Snooki’s tanning salon. The kids and adults were all caked in heavy makeup thought to read better on small, low-def TV screens. Pinsent said it was like wearing peanut butter. The child stars say they had to cover up even their hands and legs. “They kept putting me in rolled up trousers,” said Jago. Her mom used to do her hair.
|Pinsent with RCMP officer Terry Russel|
The Junior Rangers all have fond memories of make up lady Valerie Shand. “She kind of looked after us, she was like our den mother,” said Jago. Shand, as well as original editors, stunt doubles and other crew members, were at the reunion. Eric Till, who directed several episodes, also made the scene.
The original producer, Maxime Samuels, died in 2001. Exotic and eccentric according to many in the room, she was feared and admired by the child stars who tried their best to keep out of her office. Samuels nephew attended the reunion and described her as a woman who was as passionate about her series “as she was about her four husbands.” An article published at the time and pinned up on a wall on the soundstage described her as the “Cleopatra” of the set.
A woman in charge of a TV series back then must have seemed exotic indeed.
Occasionally the kids would get called into the office for mischief. One recalled a game of hide and seek played way up on the old wooden skywalks high over head on the soundstages. If the insurance company only knew.
I spoke with four of the original child stars–Jago, Conway, Rex Hagon (who played Peter Keeley and went on to a stint as one of the many hosts of The Polka Dot Door) and Peter Tully (who played rich kid Mike Forbes).Tully admitted Saturday’s experience was “unreal in a wonderful kind of way.” Most hadn’t been back to the site since the series was shot. “It’s a time warp coming back.”
The outdoor fort set is long gone, unfortunately. An old log cabin down near a river on the grounds may have been used in a few shots.
A fan who attended the reunion was scouring the grounds several years ago. The boy found something and gave it to his father. It was a knife with the word “Chub” on the handle.
|Pinsent with Ralph “Chub” Endersby|
The knife was presented to Endersby Saturday and he graciously insisted it stay in the hands of the collector.
Pinsent joked that playing a Mountie so often (besides The Forest Rangers, he donned the red tunic for Due South as well as A Gift to Last, which he also wrote) was on old actor’s trick; wear red and you’ll upstage the other actors.
An actual RCMP officer, Terry Russel, stopped by in full dress uniform to commend Pinsent for his performance on the show. The Mountie told fans Pinsent’s crimson cop really rang true and was an inspiration to several RCMP officers who grew up watching the series.
Other fans also stood and offered testimonials about how the series led to a lifelong sense of conservation and love of the outdoors. Others said they got into scouting because of the series.
Hagon thinks the series offers a wistful window on a kinder, gentler time. “There’s very little violence in The Forest Rangers,” he points out. It’s all about kids and adventure. The actors are all proud of the association and were humbled that the fans felt the same way.
The Forest Rangers was just so damn Canadian, a pre-Expo blast of the true north strong and free. That it all took place on several acres of woods north of Toronto–a valley where housing developments encroach ever closer–tells you everything about the changing face of Canada these past 50 years.
One little postscript: I have a personal connection to the studio grounds at the fabled Circle M Ranch. Back in the mid-’70s–a decade after The Forest Rangers wrapped–I snuck onto the studio grounds with some friends and we shot a little 16mm film on a western set standing in a field area. The film was called Saddle Sores, a Bullock, Brioux and Kerwin (BBK) high school production.
It was sort of a dollar-ten Three Amigos. A friend knew of the set because she stabled her horse nearby. We rented one other horse for ten bucks and I spent another $40 on B&W film.
The set was amazing, it had a saloon with swinging bar doors, a jail, plenty of barrels to jump in and out of and other wooden facades. We shot there, in the sunshine, one entire day and nobody said, “Hey you kids–get outta here!”
Thirty-eight years later, I finally put two-and-two together: we shot Saddle Sores on the site of The Forest Rangers. Cool!