The Ingenuity of a Canadian Broadcaster

What Was Done When the Train Couldn’t Arrive on Cue

In planning programming for Christmas Day 1935, George Taggart, one of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission’s first producers in Toronto, conceived the idea of a special lengthy show that would cover the various ways in which Canadians, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, especially those unable to join their families for Christmas, could be found celebrating the day. A major undertaking in the formative years of networking, the project involved both CRBC-owned and private stations. CFAC in Calgary was assigned the job of interviewing the crew and passengers of a trans-continental CPR train traveling through the Rockies during the period that the program focused on Alberta.

The story of this broadcast has been told and re-told many times – sometimes inaccurately. In 1980, Lyman Potts read one of the latter accounts in a published book on radio which disagreed with what he had heard in the trade. To satisfy his own mind and in search of the truth, he wrote to an old friend and associate, Norman Botterill in Calgary, who after a colourful career in radio and TV had been appointed Vice-President of the Selkirk Communications’ stations in western Canada. After explaining his curiousity, he wrote –”Norm, you were in Calgary at that time, surely you must know who did the broadcast”. He was surprised when Norm replied “It was me” and wrote a fascinating account of the event. Lyman has kept Norm’s letter all of the years since and made it available 23 years later as a chapter in the History of Canadian Broadcasting“.

The CRBC Christmas Day Broadcast from Field, BC – 1935
recalled in a letter from Norman Botterill, September 30, 1980

There are those who may recall the Christmas Day broadcasts by the CRBC that commenced in the Maritimes and progressively crossed Canada, in a sequence of live broadcast segments depicting the celebration of Christmas by diverse typical groups from equally diverse localities.

At CFAC in 1935 our Christmas assignment was to answer the question: “How do people celebrate the day on a transcontinental passenger train?” I should preface, at this point that I hope that the statute of limitations will protect me from the element of deceit which is contained in the following account of that assignment.

It was decided that the scene for the train episode should be at Field, B.C., a CPR divisional point a hundred or more miles west of Calgary, where the train made a conveniently lengthy stop. Christmas that year was in mid-week, but a short rehearsal was laid-on by the CRBC on the Sunday previous, for the purpose of checking “pickup”, timing, and a brief summary of what the Toronto producer might expect from each designation across the country. Tiny Elphicke, the-then manager of CFAC and I, journeyed by train to Field and at the appointed time came on the line with a description of the beautiful locale high in the Canadian Rockies and the proposed broadcast which would include interviews with the train conductor, dining car conductor, his Christmas menu and the reaction of a few passengers to their experience of celebrating Christmas Day on a train. Of course, for the rehearsal, there was no train, no crew and no passengers, but Tiny, who once was a professional actor, accepted the role of all of the involved while I indicated the line of questioning that would be employed. All went well, until I said to Tiny – “now Madam, would you care to tell us your feelings about this day”, when Tiny burst into laughter with the remark “you’ve gone too far”. Anyway, the word came back from Toronto that the plot was good and we were to have seven minutes for the episode, but in the event of the train being late or for any unforeseen circumstance we should just advise Toronto in advance and a musical fill would be available.

So, to Christmas Day. Tiny did not accompany me but, Bob Freeland, a prominent announcer on the CFAC staff, came to assist in any way. We went to Field on the evening train Christmas Eve and were up and early the next morning ready for our task — only to be advised by the Field station master that due to the storms on the Prairies, our passenger train was running several hours late. My immediate reaction, of course, was to advise Toronto that the Field pickup was out. However, the station master, who shall remain nameless, pleaded with us to do something to give Field its moment on the coast-to-coast CRBC network, because by now, the entire populace, even though small in numbers, was avidly anticipating the event.

“How”, I said, “can we originate a train broadcast without a train?” Replied the station master, “I’ll get you one and some crew. We can use the hotel’s Christmas menu and there are two people in Field right now who came on the passenger train yesterday to celebrate Christmas here”. One was a gentleman and the other the Field station manager’s daughter who was going to college in the east. Bob Freeland and I naturally were disappointed at the prospect of canceling the broadcast, however, there was plenty of time before the deadline, so we agreed with the station master to see what he could come up with. I mentioned earlier that Field was a divisional point on the CPR at which freight trains change crews, engines, etc. So a crew was called out, a locomotive engine fired-up and a string of coal cars on a siding just west of Field was assembled to substitute for the Pullman coaches. Meanwhile, we talked with our two “passengers”, the hotel manager and his Christmas menu were readied, and for the best part of an hour on this early Christmas morning we “played train”.with real trains. The engine and the coal cars made several practice runs to gauge the timing for the appropriate stop in front of the station. So now, we had a train, a crew, and a substitute dining car conductor with a menu. We had two delightful and willing passengers, and as an added bit we included Bob Freeland as a jovial Montreal sleeping car porter, which Bob did to the delight of all. So much for the preparations. Now, the time had come to make our decision – follow instructions and cancel, or carry out the charade? We decided to “go” with it. After the broadcast we waited anxiously for a comment from Toronto. It came back on the control line at 11.20 am PST – “excellent broadcast, perfect timing, congratulations”.

I suspect this story by itself is sufficient but there are two subsequent events which add embellishment. In 1942 or ’43, I’ve forgotten exactly, anyway, I am now in Lethbridge at CJOC. Our studios were on the roof at the Marquis Hotel. Trans-Canada Airlines route to the west then went through Lethbridge as the last stop before Vancouver. Inclement weather at the coast or in-between resulted in many planes being held at Lethbridge and passengers were accommodated at the Marquis Hotel. One late afternoon, a gentleman called at my office just to say hello and pass a bit of time during his delay to the coast. He was George Taggart, the CRBC producer of that Christmas Day broadcast in 1935. We got to talking old times and experiences of network broadcasting and mention was made of the 1935 broadcast. I asked him what his reaction had been when he discovered later that the Field broadcast had been faked. On his honour, he maintained until that moment that he had never heard the truth.

Now to about 1965 or ’66 and it’s just before Christmas at CJOC-TV in Lethbridge. Our afternoon womens’ program was about to go on the air when the hostess came to my office to advise me that an intended interviewee would not be able to come to the station. She suggested that I fill the spot with a Christmas message to our viewers from management. I agreed, but on the air, she plied me with questions and asked me to recall my most memorable Christmas broadcast. How could I recall anything more memorable than that day from 1935. So, I told the story. I added my Christmas greetings and returned to my office for a telephone call waiting for me “on hold”.. It was from a lady who wanted to thank me for so accurately recalling events that took place that day at Field. Yes, she was the daughter of the stationmaster whom I interviewed as a passenger, now married and living in Lethbridge.

Small world.

Norman Botterill was inducted into the CAB Broadcast Hall of Fame in 1987.

Written by J. Lyman Potts