People ask if I stream a lot of TV shows but, really, I’m a threader not a streamer. As easy as it is to stream a new series on-line, I still get a kick out of threading a 16mm film onto a projector and filling a screen with images that flicker by at 24 frames per second.
Now, I have a lot of old TV shows on film in my collection, but nothing like they have at the CBC archives. So it was a special thrill to be able to take the elevator down to the basement levels at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto last week and tour the archives with several other journalists.
The sheer volume of the collection is staggering. CBC stores over 90,000 reels of film, most in ventilated, plastic cans in chilly, temperature-controlled vaults. The seven degrees Celsius setting helps slow the advance of the film collectors mortal enemy: the dreaded vinegar syndrome. You don’t want to walk into a film vault, take a whiff, and wonder whether you can get fries with that.
Add thousands of reels and boxes of carefully cataloged audio and videotapes in several different formats and you have one of North America’s largest analog media collections, all being digitized over the course of several years.
Among the collection: Hockey Night in Canada games dating back to 1952. Episodes of Wayne & Shuster and news broadcasts, local and national, covering more than half a century. Plus Don Messer’s Jubilee, Tommy Hunter, Take 30, Dance Parade, Let’s Go and other music shows from the ’50s and ’60s.
Those music shows form the basis for From The Vaults, a six-episode series beginning Thursday, November 15 at 9/8C on CBC as well as at cbc.ca/watch. Footage of jazz piano great Oscar Peterson, Leonard Cohen, Anne Murray near the start of her career and The Guess Who as the house band on the local Winnipeg teenage rock show Let’s Go are dusted off and beamed out to boomers and beyond.
On Thursday’s Episode 1: “Land of Opportunities,” the series shows how a few musical legends from the US enjoyed some network TV face time denied them in their own country. Showcased Thursday is Sammy Davis Jr. in his song and dance prime. Already a club sensation, Davis could not land a US network music special in the late ’50s. CBC invited him north to put on his own hour-long special as an episode of the series Parade (sponsored by Sunbeam Appliances). Davis kills it, tap dancing, drumming and singing his heart out in a tour-de-force performance. Joan Baez and reggae jazz legend Jackie Mittoo also got career boosts thanks to an open door at CBC.
A film collector friend in LA, Cinecon curator and president Stan Taffel, got his hands on a kinescope of the Davis hour and screened it for me two years ago. It was remarkable to watch Davis thank his producers and CBC at the end of the film, grateful to get the kind of television exposure he was denied up until then on American network TV.
Until From The Vaults came along, screenings with collector friends or at special 16mm film festivals was pretty much the only way to see these rare gems from the early days of television. The YouTube channel encore+, thanks to some very determined efforts spearheaded by the Canada Media Fund, just celebrated one year of making many Canadian TV titles available to the public. Now, From The Vault delivers similar time capsule TV treats in hour-long documentary episodes.
In order to gather all that material into the vaults, CBC had to go out and collect it. Coordinator Russ McMillen spend years taking inventories in CBC stations across the country and bringing this media under one roof in Toronto (a french language collection is housed in Montreal). The 16mm film assets have been transferred by a company in Philadelphia which numbers the Library of Congress among its clients.
CBC programmers have been grappling with how to bring all their archive material out of the vaults and make it relevant to today’s audiences. They turned to Banger Films, where co-founder Sam Dunn has been a step ahead with music documentaries chronicling everything from metal and hip hop. Dunn says the music gems used in the new series date back to 1957, when a young Paul Anka warbles his pop sensation “Diana.” Dunn profiles Anka on the series, but also gets the singer/songwriters to speak to Sammy Davis’ impact and legacy in the premiere episode.
While digging through the vaults, Dunn says he stumbled across footage of a very young Bob Dylan, “in this makeshift logging cabin set that was created for this TV special. He’s strumming on his guitar while lumberjacks play cards in the background and an old guy stokes a wooden stove.”
Those kinds of incongruities seem hilarious now, but Dunn credits CBC with finding ways to welcome all sort of musical artists at a time when other broadcasters stuck to a more middle-of-the-road path. From The Vaults, he feels, “gives not only a snapshot of these artists but also the wide array of the types of programs the CBC has done over the years.” Until The New Music and MuchMusic came along in the ’80s, Dunn says, CBC really was the only network “putting music on in Canada.”
If you’ve been pining for a glimpse of, say, long ago CBC gems such as Don Messer’s Jubilee — and you know who your are out there in Canada (including my next door neighbours) — now’s your chance to turn your TV into a time machine.