Articles

Percy Wows Them with the Weather

Talking about the weather usually raises only polite yawns but this homely meteo ologist has become the first real star of our native TV by doing just that. His army c fans even forgives him when his sunny weather turns out to be six inches of snow

ROBERT OLSON May 15 1954
Articles

Percy Wows Them with the Weather

Talking about the weather usually raises only polite yawns but this homely meteo ologist has become the first real star of our native TV by doing just that. His army c fans even forgives him when his sunny weather turns out to be six inches of snow

ROBERT OLSON May 15 1954

Percy Wows Them with the Weather

Talking about the weather usually raises only polite yawns but this homely meteo ologist has become the first real star of our native TV by doing just that. His army c fans even forgives him when his sunny weather turns out to be six inches of snow

ROBERT OLSON

ON SEPT. 8, 1952, Canadian television officially began. Identification pictures of some fugitive bank robbers were flashed on screens in the Toronto area. Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock, a pair of puppets, came on next. Then appeared the first live picture of a live human on CBLT. It was the earnest bespectacled face of Percy Saitzman.

He was a meteorologist from the Dominion Weather Service who did what came naturally, what everybody does he talked about the weather. No one, certainly not Percy Saitzman, was prepared for what happened next. In a matter of weeks his name was a household word in eastern Canada; by the time CBC-TV had settled down to routine operation he had emerged from the host of singers, commentators, dancers and comedians as the first genuine star of Canadian television. His heavy fan mail includes congratulations from the Nat ional Health and Welfare Minister Paul Martin, copies of his weather maps drawn by admiring youngsters, and letters from great-grandparents saying that they delay doing the dishes until Saitzman has said his piece. A growing number of residents of Vermont and New York are exposing themselves to his down-east variety of Canadian culture and several have written saying that their local weather fore-

casters are attempting to copy the Saitzman style.

Saitzman does not try to account for his success, being too fully occupied working a five-day week at the weather office in Toronto, helping raise two sons and fulfilling his contracts at the CBC, some of which now have nothing to do with the weather.

Besides giving the weather on the thirty-minute

production Tabloid, which begins on Toront Ottawa, Montreal and Kitchener stations at sev« o’clock each week-night, he interviews some of tl guests on the show. For several months he h had a weekly fifteen-minute video program call« How About That, showing children how to mal weather instruments like Annie the anemomet and Pluvie the rain-gauge and demonst rating simp principles in physics. Additional engagements c TV programs like The Big Revue, See For Yourst and Exploring Minds, and on such radio progran as Court of Opinion, Varsity Story and Fightii Words bring his total appearances to as many ¡ nine a week.

At the outset of Tabloid he and Dick MacDoug* the emcee, stand chatting idly. MacDougal is stoi and sleepy-eyed, Saitzman is lean with strong bor features. MacDougal strolls olF and Saltzmi uncovers a blackboard map of North America. T briefly reviews the weat her and scrawls great eurv over the blackboard, showing the high and lo pressure areas, the warm and cold fronts; then 1 tells the residents of each district in TV range whi sort of skies, winds and temperatures to expec He always has more information than time.

Many weather forecasters approach the publ fearfully like messengers bringing bad news to * oriental despot. Saltzman, backed by the Canadian meteorology service, is not squeamish about offering his neck. He unequivocally foretold the Grey Cup weather five days in advance. When the weather picture is doubtful he still makes definite predictions but also tells ¡the viewers why they may not be too ¡reliable.

His viewers’ loyalty was tested last Nov. 7, when eastern Canada was hit by an unpredicted snowfall. Saltzman’s prediction for Toronto was “Fair,” though he did express misgivings about the skittish storm centre then in the Maritimes. Toronto TV-owners were somewhat dismayed by a six-and-a-half-inch snowfall that night.

Even people who don’t much care wrhat sort of weather is on the way watch Saltzman fait hfully. They Jike to see him point out the birthplace in the Arctic of the blizzard which will soon be around their windows or watch him trace the curve along which warm air is sweeping from the Gulf of Mexico. He tends to personify weather, symbolizing with a broad curve the “high” resting serenely over the prairies or indicating with jagged strokes the rain from a villainous warm front “kicking up a fuss’’ in the southwest. And all winter, he says, there is a cold air-mass which “just sits and broods” in the far north.

The Tabloid staffers say Saltzman is most like himself on television when he is interviewing he gets so absorbed with each guest his personality seems different. The visitors usually assigned to him are specialists in science, politics or industry.

A few letter-writers have complained that he is a know-it-all, but his Tabloid colleagues rather regard him as a kind of benevolent wizard, (’ommentator Elaine Grand noticed one night, a few

minutes before she had to show her hands in front of the cameras, that her nail polish was chipped. Saltzman rummaged through his desk and produced a new bottle of polish.

Saltzman modestly asserts that if the viewers find the Tabloid show relaxing it is mostly due to Ross Mcl^ean’s production. McLean writes the script, which gives the performers brisk lines to start them off, then leaves t hem with such directions as “SALTZMAN: RETORTS CRISPLY; SALTZMAN: THINKS OF S O M E T H I N G ; Ma c DO IJ G A L : MEETS SALTZMAN’S PROTESTS MANFULLY BUT PRESENTLY CAPITULATES.” Sustaining each other with teamwork has become instinctive and the cast creates an illusion of unruffled calm in sharp contrast to the bedlam around them.

The show is televised in Studio B of the CBC television building on Toronto’s Jarvis Street a huge windowless concrete cell, padded, with glass-fronted control rooms set high in one wall. Overhead is a maze of electrical equipment and underfoot are wooden props and long snaky rubber cables. Since several programs are produced in the same studio there is something different going on in each corner, like Sunday school in a church basement.

Saltzman, affer working Continued on pane 86 all day at hia regular job in the headquarters of the Dominion Weather Service, usually arrives at the studio just before 6 p.m., gets his first look at the script, runs through the written dialogue with MacDougal and hurries to the dressing room to make up and change his light-reflecting glasses for “cheaters” without lenses. Back on the set he cleans his blackboard and memorizes his weather data while cameramen, stagehands, audio-men and electricians swarm around him. On the dot of 7 p.m., Tabloid is on.

EVEN WITH THE DOMINION WEATHER SERVICE BEHIND HIM, PERCY NEVER HOPES TO BAT 1000

Percy Wows Them With the Weather

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 15

Saltzman’s solo part is described in the script simply as “WEATHER BIT.” At. the start of these five minutes on his own, he always has butterflies in his stomach. Sometimes for an awful moment the day’s weather is a blank while the previous day’s comes back to him in full detail. Once lie forgot the temperature for Montreal and later in the program slunk across the set holding up the correct figure on a big card. He knows his colleagues in the Weather Service would spot the smallest error.

Saltzman, at thirty-eight, is a paternal rather than a romantic figure, hut in his choice of ties he is more dashing than most. When Dick MacDougal suggested that his partner’s neck would welcome what nobody else dared wear, the response almost swamped the next show. Then two or three critics had to spoil it all with offers of hempen neckwear.

A show that grows into shape during broadcast is liable to have emergencies. Saltzman informs the audience of difficulties in the studio as frankly as he reveals the uncertainties of weather predicting. Once he came on the screen moving his jaws without a sound: breaking into pantomime he enticed over the mike-boom and, again possessed of a TV voice, gave a short talk on the sound system. He interrupted another talk to remark sadly, “Now even Dick’s giving me the finger” —the one-minute-to-go sign. On the next program, time signals were given in front of the camera. Ad-lib pleasantries by Saltzman and MacDougal sometimes bring reproof from viewers like the one signing herself “Grandma”: “Don’t clown so much. I enjoy Tabloid hut you’re acting silly.” Other I viewers egg them on.

Among the two, three or four visi] tors interviewed each night, just about anybody may turn up. Joe Louis, Billy Graham, Gorgeous George, The Ozark Maids, Lady Violet Bonham! Carter, and Thomas Costain are a few. Another guest was a diamond-cutter who came with $2 millions in gems and a Pinkerton detective. The Pinkerton finished up before the cameras too. Saltzman has interviewed many of these rare birds, hut one night he was answering the questions, about his own career.

Born in Winnipeg in 1916, Saltzman lived first in Neudorf, Sask., and then in Vancouver. During the depression his father’s grocery foundered and the ! parents moved to Los Angeles. Percy I has seen them only once since then.

Í Last Mother’s Day he was surprised j on the set with a long-distance call to his mother and father. He forgot about : Tabloid. The program ended, lights ; were turned out, the crew went home ; while the Saltzmans talked on.

Percy graduated BA from the Uni; versity of British Columbia in 1934 ! after winning a gold medal and three I scholarships in high school. He was

outstanding in mathematics and physics. After UBC, he rode to Montreal as animal tender on a cattle train, studied medicine for a year at McGill and dropped out, just about broke. A young Rumanian-horn girl diverted his thoughts from his financial problems, and they married in 1935. Instead of honeymooning he went job hunting.

He worked in a clothing factory as a fur operator, waited on tables for one summer, was a printer, and among his briefer ventures was employed as envelope-opener in a puzzle contest. At times Rose kept them both going with her job in a dress factory. Moving to Toronto in 1937, Saltzman learned linotyping and in that city his two sons were horn.

In 1943 the federal government was trying to find meteorologists for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and Saltzman qualified for a concentrated course on the basis of his exceptional talents in mathematics and physics. He served on nine stations, becoming chief of the wartime weather office at Malton Airport, near Toronto. Besides making observations and forecasts he taught “met” to pilots and navigators, including French-speaking and Polish airmen—getting practice in teaching with a blackboard and a minimum of spoken words. After the war he stayed in Toronto, at the Dominion Weather Service head office.

Saltzman still thinks of himself as a met-man and considers his appearances on TV as a sideline in spite of the fact that TV has tripled his income. T oday he is head of the verification section of the Dominion Weather Service where all official Canadian weather forecasts are received, compared with actual weather, graded for accuracy and kept for a long-term record of Canadian meteorology. His TV forecasts are backed by teletype reports from about 200 of Canada’s 1,300 weather stations, and from stations in the United States.

The met-men he works with are not surprised at Saltzman’s sudden prominence. “You never know what to expect from him,” one remarks. At one time he went every morning to confer with a superior and was always asked, on his return, “What’s the shot?” When the ritual was wearing a little thin he came back from one morning’s meeting and ended the cry forever by producing a cap pistol and firing one loud shot. A visitor entering the office one lunchtime not long ago would have seen the head of the verification section standing on his hands, with two met-men holding his ankles. Dagwood Bumstead in a comic scrip had drunk a glass of water upside down and someone had insisted it could not be done. Saltzman was simply proving it could.

First a Science Editor (unpaid)

The Weather Service has used Saltzman’s special qualities of teacher and showman. In 1949 he helped set up the met exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition. Later he provided what was announced as the “Mickey Mouse Feature” of the annual Royal Meteorological Society conference: a report on the CNF) project. F'or the 1953 exhibit he developed “Percy’s Tornado,” using a hidden fan and a steam-jet to create an ominous dark column whirling over a miniature landscape.

In 1948 several met-men were writing for Focus, a weekly radio program on Toronto’s CKEY that Ross McLean produced while he was still going to university. 3’he show was uneven but original. Nobody except McLean was paid. Several of the F’ocus writers have become prominent, including Flu gene Hallman, now CBC assistant supervisor of talks, Robert Weaver, CBC literary editor, and Melvin Breen, television press and information representative. Percy Saltzman was Focus’ science editor. His scripts had a live approach and a range of subjects: insects, alphabet, blinking, Flinstein, the atom bomb, race, astronomy, television, Toronto Island and whales. He tackled the Kinsey Report in two installments, using words never heard before or since—on Canadian radio.

After Focus, he wrote a few scripts for the CBC programs, Ask the Weatherman and Cross-Section. When plans for CBC television were forming and Ross McLean wanted a weatherman to give a nightly forecast on Let’s See, a puppet show, Faigene Hallman suggested Saltzman.

When Saltzman left the puppets to go on 1 abloid, the thunder of outrage from fans who thought they were losing him broke the news that he was a TV sensation.

At 4 p.m. every weekday Saltzman phones the forecaster on duty at Malton Airport for the latest detailed report. F'or the next hour he makes several trips across to the teletype room at the weather office and gets reports on conditions across Canada and the United States. He digests this material, makes himself a simplified weather map and determines the rea-

sons behind the official forecast. Around

5.30 he returns to the teletype room again for the latest news. Then he phones Malton again, if there is time, to make sure there have been no changes. At 6 he checks in at Studio B.

Perhaps his busiest day was when he used up a half-day of his annual leave to prepare for a spot on The Big Revue. He had his first look at the script during breakfast, drove to the studio, dropping off his wife and a neighbor at a market, rehearsed from

10.30 till noon, worked at the met

office, arrived late for Tabloid to find he was to interview the two pilots of the Prime Minister’s world tour, finished Tabloid, crossed to Studio A for a last Big Revue rehearsal, emceed the revue jointly with MacDougal until 9.30, then stayed on to arrange the next day’s schedule.

At Saltzman’s home in Wilson Heights, a housing development in north Toronto, every downstairs room has its barometer—the kitchen, two. In the back yard is a weather-box with official thermometers and a rain-gauge.

When it appeared likely to the

cautious Saltzman that he was on TV to stay he used some of his increased income to buy a car and laid aside his well-worn bicycle. Since then he hasn’t had to worry about getting raindrenched riding to work in the morning. but he still worries constantly about the weather. Often he wakes up at night and peers anxiously out the window to check on his TV prediction. If his prediction has erred, he paces the floor. 1 f it has been accurate he bounces back to bed and sleeps the contented sleep of a prophet who has hit the target. ★