Friday, January 27, 2012

The Day I Shut Toronto Down

Commander Grease, in all his greasy glory!
Hear Pat Read This Entry 

The movie “American Graffiti” had an enormous impact on the teenagers of Toronto. The exploits of Curt, Toad, John and Steve in a fictitious California town circa 1962 hit like an atomic bomb. Now every kid throughout Ontario was aware of, and hungry to experience, life in the 1950s. It didn't take me long to recognize a potential gold mine. I remembered Ted Johnson at WTAC in Flint back in the 50's and early 60's. As I mentioned earlier Ted was the most successful of all the Flint Djs when it came to making huge sums of cash, he had dances going in 3 locations at a time 3 or 4 times a week. There was a new Pontiac convertible in Ted's driveway every year, and now I saw that possibility for myself. I immediately had a huge P.A. System built up using Broadcast grade equipment, just as Ted had done. I commissioned some high school art students to create a personification of the1950s lifestyle and attitude, I envisioned a DC Comics style super-hero with a pack of ciggies stuffed under his uniform wearing a huge grease drop on his chest. Thus “Commander Grease” was christened in Toronto!

The station had been extremely successful with an in school presentation called “The History of Rock.” We'd appear at assemblies with an audio/visual, chronology of rock's lineage. Drawing on that, I came up with a similar show in which I would enlist the aid of some students to model various fashions from the period, and describe the attitudes and lifestyle of the era. The assembly, of course, was intended to promote my dance at the school the following night. It caught on big-time, and soon I was hauling in $1000 per night 2 or 3 times a week doing these “Grease Dances.”

This did not escape the attention of CHUM's management, and soon I was sitting in Bob Wood's office discussing how we might ride the horse a little further with a radio show based on the same, general theme. There was a series of albums out at the time called “Cruisin'” which featured some Djs recreating shows from the late 50s and early 60s. People Like Dick Biondi, Arnie “WOO WOO” Ginsburg, etc. They'd intro songs, and try to recreate their on-air personas from a specific year on the album. I suggested we use the albums as a guide, and “Canadian Graffiti” was born. No sooner had I launched the show then it became a sensation . At one point it was estimated that 60% of the radios in use in Toronto on Sunday night were tuned into that show.

Now back in the early years of rock radio, the DJs were as well known for their crazy stunts as they were for their dulcet tones on the air. Remember me mentioning Jackson Ross, and his “Alley Oop” bit? I figured I had to come up with something similar each week to keep things interesting, so I came up with things like “The Greaser's Rally.”

Wherever you are right now, turn right”

Now stop, back up, turn around and go the other way.”

Whoever wound up farthest from Toronto when the rally ended won a prize... stuff like that. One Sunday night I found myself stuck for an idea. I thought back to a radio station in Grand rapids which had a neon sign in the studio window, facing the street, which read “HONK.” The idea was, whenever a car would come by, the jock could hit a switch, turn on the light and the driver would honk the horn. HAH... mission accomplished. It was kind of lame, but what the hell... I went for it.

Now the show went on the air at 9, so as soon as my first record ended I said “It's 9:02... we're one hour and 58 minutes away from the 'Big Honk' at 11 o'clock come on by the station if you can, but wherever you are honk your horn.” I kept this up after every song. “It's 9:30, we're 1 hour and 30 minutes away”... “It's 10 o'clock, we're one hour away...” etc. As the big moment approached I decided to have a look outside just to see if anyone was there. I thought that a few cars would show, imagine my surprise when I opened the blinds and saw hundreds of cars, blinkers flashing, stretched as far as the eye could see both north and south on Yonge Street waiting for their moment in the sun. For a moment I thought about canceling the bit but THAT would've gone over like a lead balloon, besides, they'd probably do it anyway. So when 11 O’clock arrived I gave the command... “It's 11 O'clock, wherever you are honk your horn... let the world experience greaser power!!!”

The place went up like an air raid!

I swear, I've never heard anything like it. I can only describe it by saying, it sounded like the old movies of London during World War Two when the air raid sirens were going off except LOUDER! I was in panic mode, I knew damn well SOMETHING would come of this little stunt and sure enough a few minutes later something did. I heard a knock on the studio door, opened it up and there in full regalia, standing with his hands on his hips and a decidedly un-amused look on his face, was one of Toronto's finest. A young constable with a noticeable Scotch accent had decided to drop by and let me explain why I'd just blown out the Police Department's main switchboard, and to let me know how they felt about that.

Y'rrrrrre new gonna do that agin are ye?”

Well, yeah... I was thinking about it!”

Nooooooo... that was no' a question!!!”

As soon as I got off the air Dave Charles, the stations assistant Program Director, called. “Boogieman, that was the greatest bit I've ever heard!!! I felt pretty good.

When I arrived at the station the next day I was informed the management staff was waiting to see me upstairs... the WHOLE management staff including Alan Waters.

Uh oh!

I opened my mailbox to find a note from Dave Charles... “That was the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard!!!” Huh? I thought he said it was the greatest thing he'd ever heard!!!

To put it bluntly, they read me the riot act, and I was told never to do that again. But I knew I had to do SOMETHING, right? I mean... I couldn't just let it slide the following week, right? I'd only agreed not to do THAT again.

The following Sunday I went on at 9 and counted down just like the week before except this time I told my listeners how much trouble I'd gotten myself into and, whatever happened, at 11 O'clock DON'T blow your horn. When 11 O'clock arrived I looked outside again. This time there were even MORE cars on both sides of Yonge Street. There were clowns juggling in the middle of the street, there were people dancing... traffic was jammed in both directions. At 11 O'clock, sure enough...


It was even LOUDER than the previous week! The same cop came down to the station to haul me in, and was greatly dissappointed when his superior told him he couldn't because I'd asked the listeners NOT to blow their horns.

Heh, heh, heh...

The “Big...” bits ended a couple of weeks later when I unleashed “The Big Flush” Use your imagination on THAT one!

Heh, heh, heh...

Gary Milmine writes:
One of my favourite stories starred Scott Carpenter, two Canadian
Graffiti shows (Sunday night 9-12 on 1050 CHUM) and of course a
Torontonians "God given right" to cruise Yonge street.

Beginning shortly after 9 pm, Scott asked everyone listening to
honk their car horn at 11 pm out in front of the CHUM building at Yonge
& St. Claire. We figured that some listeners would show up and blast
away and wouldn't it be great if we got maybe 50 cars…. Well it
didn't take long to see that Yonge street had a few more cars than
usual and that Scott's plan was working to perfection..

Just before 11, Scott brought a microphone outside and really had a
good look at the traffic jam outside of CHUM (actually Metro's
finest estimated that Yonge street was packed north and southbound
from Front St to well past Eglington) and his first words to me on
cue were "Gary you have got to see this" I ran out to see and could
not believe the amount of cars not moving.

11 pm the noise was astounding and must have lasted five minutes
(metros finest actually stated that drivers all over metro were
blasting their horns) and we thought "wow that was fun".

It was a great bit until Scott got called down to "Woody's" office
and probably received the verbal blasting of a lifetime…. The
police had received noise complaints from people all around town
(especially close to CHUM) they were considering several charges
including disturbing the peace.

Mr Wood of course would save the day with his radio being theatre
of the mind arguments and the promise that Scott would never do such a
thing again…..

The following Sunday Scott went on the air and apologized for all
the commotion and begged everyone to NOT drive down Yonge St. at
11 pm and blast their horns…He said that he would get into BIG
trouble , maybe even get fired, and the police had warned him that
all must remain quiet… For two hours Scott begged everyone to NOT
do it…. Well Metros finest let it be known that even more cars
disturbed the peace and that even more complaints were issued.

Well here we are 30 some odd years later and most of my favourite
radio memories are from that era…..

Best wishes


1 comment:

  1. I have fond memories of a Greaser parade sponsored by Commander Grease and CHUM. My best friend, Mike, and I were invited to ride along in one of the 60's convertibles on the route from a shopping center in the North of Toronto down Yonge to Nathan Phillips Square, where a live CHUM broadcast and live music was to be found. Pat gave Mike and I a couple of his Commander Grease ensembles to wear. We were a big hit with the Toronto chickies that night. A great time and memory.