Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fewer channels, but a lot more variety

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FOR the generation growing up in the world of 500 TV channels with instant access on a variety of handheld devices, it must be difficult to imagine the days when families would quickly clear away the dinner dishes so they could gather in front of a small black-and-white box with rabbit ears on top.

Nowadays if there was such a scene, it would most likely involve a large high-definition flat screen, and the show would be The Amazing Race, or some other low-cost reality series with non-professional talent in front of the cameras.

But back then, in the 1950s and '60s, one of the prime attractions were the big splashy live variety shows, featuring Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and a host of others.

Canada's Frank Peppiatt and his partner John Aylesworth never worked on the Sullivan show, but they did work with Como, and they were among a group of Canadians who made a very good living working on variety TV on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

Sadly, both of them have died recently, but Peppiatt managed to complete a colourful memoir just before his passing last November at the age of 85. He came from humble beginnings in Toronto and Montreal, and his recollections paint a picture of the quintessential Canadian artist who was tickled pink just to be allowed to perform on the same stage as the big American stars.

The book is a series of stories of first encounters with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Jackie Gleason. There are times when one might almost expect every chapter to begin with "Gee whiz!" as he marvels over the fact that Sinatra and others treated them well and loved their work.

Peppiatt and Aylesworth began in radio shortly after the end of Second World War, and they were part of the birth of television in Canada in 1952. Their first move to New York came in 1958 when they were hired to write for Steve Lawrence. Over the next decade they moved not so easily from New York, back to Toronto, and out to Los Angeles a few times. I say "not so easily" because in Peppiatt's case it cost him a marriage.

These days they are best remembered as part of the team that created Hee Haw in 1968. Fellow Canadians Don Harron and Gordie Tapp were featured on that innovative show, and it allowed the Canadian writing duo to create some of their very best comedy.

One of the mysteries of Peppiatt's memoir is the fact that it's not all that funny. There's also almost no examination of why Canadians have been so successful in the U.S. entertainment industry, particularly in comedy and variety programming. His stories are informative and interesting, especially for those are hooked on celebrities.

One is left to assume that the book stops short of being a more in-depth discussion of these questions because the author knew he had very little time left.

Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster who grew up with his young eyes glued to Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and others legends of the small black-and-white screen.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 J8

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