The most baffling show on television
It costs peanuts; it doesn’t use fancy camera angles, flossy sets or big name guest stars; its chief stock in trade is western music played by easterners. Yet Holiday Ranch is TV’s most popular Canadian show
TO THE BRIGHT young men of the CBC, who grow ulcers and beat their brains out figuring new (and often highly expensive) ways of keeping viewers happy, a program called Holiday Ranch must present something of an enigma.
It is the cheapest, simplest and some say the corniest show on Canadian television. It is also, curiously enough, the most popular.
The two-hour production of Hamlet last year cost thirty thousand dollars and got nothing but nasty words in the House of Commons. Folio, CBC’s high-brow Sunday-night production, offers esoteric programs requiring ninety hours’ rehearsal time yet comparatively few people look. Producers of the new Friday-night show, Graphic (estimated to cost twenty thousand dollars a week) are prepared to lug their cameras down mineshafts, behind theatre stages and into remote private homes
in a desperate bid to attract and hold the public eye. Variety programs such as the Jackie Rae Show make their bid for popularity by bringing in expensive guest stars from the United States. Such programs as »Showtime count on big musical-production numbers, with dancing girls and intricate choreography. Dramatic productions such as General Motors Theatre manipulate dozens of sets and quick-change artists.
But Holiday Ranch, a homegrown potpourri of hoedowns, pop tunes and low-brow banter, emerging from Toronto every Saturday night at 7.30 has none of these things. Its set, the primitive interior of a one-room ranch house with a view of a church through the window, is always the same. It has no trick camera angles: performers look straight into the camera and get a medium shot from the waist up. Its music is simple and folk.sy. Its star, Cliff McKay, is a fat man with glasses and a lisp. Its girl singer, Monique Cadieux, is a relatively unknown sixteen-year-old from Montreal. Although it purports to be a “western” program, most of its performers have never been west,
can’t ride a horse, and look vaguely uncomfortable in the fancy silk shirts they wear for the show.
To cap everything, Holiday Ranch costs well under five thousand dollars a week peanuts in the high-priced work! of television.
Yet for the past three years this show has been the No. 1 favorite among Canadianproduced programs and high up on the list of all shows, including expensive American productions, seen in this country. A four-city telephone poll by the Elliott-Haynes research organization, in March 1956, placed Holiday Ranch seventh in the top ten favorite TV shows in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, and first in popularity among Canadian programs. By the same reckoning, Showtime placed fifteenth and the Jackie Rae Show twenty-eighth.
Cynics suggest that Holiday Ranch wouldn’t be so popular in Toronto if it weren’t ble.s.sed with a 7.30 spot when the only competition from American channels is U. S. news and sportscasts. People connected with the show, including its two Continued on page $4
Continued on page 84
Ah wonderful Jackie. Great. Really blowing up a storm.
(COMES IN TRYING TO PUT LEG AROUND NECK) Hey how about that. Nov; there’s a trick I have to learn.
I wouldn’t if I were you..you’11 break your neck.
(STILL TRYING) Oh it just takes a little practice..right Jackie.
(A VERSION OF THE MATING CALL..
MEANING ’OH YEAH!)
(LEAVING) I’ll get it.
(LAUGHING) You’ve started something now Jackie, What say we take five and catch our breath while Monique is singing ’Angels in the Sky’. Monique. ’ANGELS IN THE SKY.MONIQUE The Lord will see you walking and
He will hear you talking,
Talking to the ANGELS IN THE SKY.
And when you know He’s near you, The Lord will always hear you Talking to the ANGELS IN THE(ÍK Y_j_ Talk to the angels,"
Let them hear your plea,
Tell them that you’re lonely,,
Get down upon your knees
Lord will help you.
Continued from page 26
sponsors, Aylmer Food Products and Nabisco Foods Ltd., say this isn’t so. They are convinced that for every individual who switches channels with a shudder at the first bars of the Holiday Ranch theme song, another fifty people settle back in their chairs in happy anticipation of the next half hour.
Judging by the five hundred letters Holiday Ranch receives each month, most of its fans are in eastern Canada and U. S. border points. McKay, the star of the show, has been greeted by name by a garage mechanic in Maine, a shoe salesman in Vermont, and a small boy from Buffalo who spotted him four hundred miles north of Toronto at his remote summer cottage and chided him for not bringing along his clarinet. A Vermont couple spent a vacation trailing the Ranchers on a tour of the province of Quebec. Many Americans think Holiday Ranch is a Canadian summer resort, and write to enquire the best route north to the corral. Last summer a couple of stenographers from Montreal tried to book reservations for the first two weeks in July, at the going rates.
Why is Holiday Ranch so popular? According to McKay it’s no accident. “I can set up a program so it’s unbeatable,” he claims. “Holiday Ranch is one show that’s put together like a mathematical formula.”
McKay’s formula is to provide something for everybody. For lovers of violin music there’s “Bouncing Billy” Richards, his fiddle and his Irish charm. For people who hate Liberace, but like the piano, there’s “Flying Fingers” Ralph Fraser. For New Canadians and others who grew up on polkas and folk songs, there’s “Happy Face” Matt de Florio and his accordion. And when it comes to banging out western-style music, there are “Dapper Don” McFarlane on the mandolin, and “Smiling AÍ” Harris on the guitar. When teen-age girls write young trumpeter Donnie Johnson (“The Shy Guy”) and tell him, “You’re the most, Donnie!” nobody’s more delighted than Cliff McKay who planned it that way. He says, “I’m an expert at choosing a cast. It’s not a matter of ego—I just am.”
Everybody else on Holiday Ranch is there for similarly good reasons: pretty Monique to provide something for the boys, comedian Doug “Hap” Masters to entertain the kids and old folks, and Percy “Duke” Curtis, who bears a marked resemblance to the Duke of Edinburgh, to pluck string bass and make the women swoon.
Of his own role on Holiday Ranch, McKay says, “I appeal to just about everybody.”
To give the show continuity and lend flavor to its musical numbers, scriptwriter Fred Diehl uses what he calls “the old one - two - three vaudeville punch.” He explains, “In the first fifteen minutes we plant the idea, at the middle we develop it, and at the end we blow it off.” The plot, if something so slight can be called a plot, usually involves Hap, the comedian.
The show commences, let’s say, with Hap announcing his intention to construct a TV set, or leam a rock-androll number, or (last St. Patrick’s Day) to prove he’s Irish. There’s some skepticism from the gang, and Hap goes off camera while the show continues with a couple of musical numbers and a commercial or two. About this time Hap reappears and says his
project is coming along fine (the TV set is half made, he’s practicing the rockand-roll number, he’s located a book that will prove his Irish ancestry). Off he goes again, and the show continues with more music. The program concludes with Hap witnessing the hopeless ruin of all his hopes. (The TV set has
exploded, the rock-and-roll number is too much for him, the book proves he’s Scottish, not Irish.) Week after week this same formula is repeated and nobody seems to mind. Loyd Brydon, the show’s young producer, says, “People expect our show to be more or less the same every week, and we don’t disappoint them.”
Brydon feels that people like Holiday Ranch because it’s friendly, relaxed, and one-hundred-percent Canadian. The cast is Canadian to a man, there are no American jokes or jeweled holsters or guns lying around, and
nobody drawls, American-style, “Waal now, pardner, they went thataway.” “Holiday Ranch is a dude ranch,” say$ Brydon, “but it’s a Canadian dude ranch.”
According to Cliff McKay, good music is half the secret of the show’s popularity. In spite of their corn) nicknames, every man on the Ranch is a professional musician, working with dance bands or jazz combos when he isn’t facing a TV camera. Ralph Fraser holds several degrees in music and is an expert on vocal arrangements. AÍ Harris toured Canada three times
yith Mart Kenney’s hand. Don McFarlane is completing his tenth year on radio’s popular western show, Hayloft Hoedown. Duke Curtis gave up his 3Wn hand, the Prairie Playboys, to join the Holiday Ranchers on tour. Qonnie Johnson is a serious music student who does his own trumpet irrangements. Matt de Florio teaches accordion to advanced pupils. Billy Richards played in the Navy Show, has filled several British engagements and now stars on his own radio program. As for McKay, he’s had a long career in radio, has played in symphony orches-
tras and dance bands and, according to McKay himself, turned down a contract with Tommy Dorsey to organize Holiday Ranch.
Some Holiday Ranch fans think McKay’s music is too good. They’d prefer eight or nine numbers of straight hoedown. One man recently demanded that Cliff and the gang take off those western clothes before they defiled them any further playing rock-and-roll numbers like Monique’s Are You Satisfied?
Actually, Holiday Ranch is about as western as that messy concoction of
Creek chefs, the western sandwich. The fact is that every man jack of the cast was born in the east and, except on tour, has never been west of Hamilton, Ont. Most of them have no more than a nodding acquaintance with a horse. McKay owns two, hut prefers to drive his 1956 Chrysler New Yorker or fly a hired plane. Hap Masters had to mount a horse once for a hit in a Hollywood movie, but disgraced himself by sliding under its belly and getting lost in swamp grass. AÍ Harris likes tropical fish better than horses; Ralph Fraser’s pets are confined to dogs, cats and
birds; Billy Richards prefers baseball, and Donnie Johnson goes in for singularly un-western hobbies like judo and sports-car racing. Only Don McFarlane, from North Bay, likes huntin’ and fishin’ and roughin’ it in the great outdoors, and wears a cowboy suit seven days a week.
Another odd thing about Holiday Ranch is that nobody seems to know who owns the show. The CBC says it does, but its officials refuse to discuss the matter. McKay says he does, and that it doesn’t need discussion. So far as Holiday Ranch on television is concerned, the CBC employs and pays individual members and maintains the right to hire and fire. McKay receives something in the neighborhood of five hundred dollars a week, covering his services as master of ceremonies, featured vocalist, musical director, researcher, instrumental soloist and commercial announcer. So long as Holiday Ranch remains under contract to the CBC it is prohibited from appearing on any rival station or network.
Off TV it’s another story. McKay, who copyrighted the name Holiday Ranch some time ago, is apparently free to take his musicians to conventions, benefits, stage shows or on tour. In the past three years more than thirty organizations have engaged McKay and his Ranchers for annual affairs at about a thousand dollars an appearance, depending on whether it’s a big or small convention.
\ little something for Sunday
When a show is at the top, like Holiday Ranch, the only place it can go is down. To prevent this, new features are built into the show, as unobtrusively as possible, from time to time. A recent innovation is the "Thought for Tomorrow,” which McKay describes as “an inspirational, nondenominational little something because the next day is Sunday.” Sometimes the thought is a prayer, sometimes it’s a hymn, sometimes just a pop song with a religious theme.
To provide the ingredients of a winning formula, and to arrange the musical numbers, McKay spends about tiiixiy hours a week on the show, and scripts are written at least three weeks jn advance. McKay’s week begins with a meeting with producer Rrydon and. scriptwriter Diehl. The days Allowing are crowded with business meetings. sponsors’ meetings and commercial rehearsals. At 11.30 Friday morning the cast assembles in a large studio in CBC’s radio building on Jarvis Street in mid-town Toronto. At this time, they bear little resemblance to the dressed-up Holiday Ranchers of Saturday night. Dapper Don, in his invariable western outfit, is the only one who looks like a cowboy. McKay usually wears a business suit, Monique a striped jersey and tight jeans, the others old sports clothes.
“All right, gang,” McKay will say, “here’s the way it is. The camera comes to me and I say, ‘All right, fellows,’ and you come in with these little toy instruments and march around the room playing them. Got it?”
He opens a large cardboard box and hands out a miniature violin, an accordion, a trumpet and a trombone. Four of the cast obligingly march around the studio, making as much noise as they can on their toy instruments.
“All right,” says McKay, “so that gets us to Billy’s violin number, with AÍ picking him up on guitar.” They practice the piece three times (AÍ, it seems, is a second or two behind Billy on his pickup), then go on to a medley of folk songs. The medley is gone over three times, as McKay experiments
with changes of pace. Producer
Brydon says, “If Í can’t tap my foot to it, neither can anybody else.” After this comes McKay’s vocal about a cowboy called Two Shillelagh O’Sullivan. This is followed by three rounds of Monique’s song.
“So that gets us down to the commercial,” McKay says. “It’s an
Aylmer week, so it goes something like, ‘Aylmer, Aylmer, and so and so, and so and so, and don’t forget to buy lots of that wonderful Aylmer whatever-itis—and that’s where the guest artist comes in.”
The guest artist does his number, and after a ten-minute coffee break the whole show is gone over once again, with a script girl timing it. Brydon likes to build the show longer than necessary, putting it on the air two and a half minutes overtime and tightening it during performance. A general state of nerves, he seems to believe, is good for a show.
“Turn on the adrenaline"*
On Saturday morning McKay wanders over to studio 2 in CBC’s TV building, next door to the radio broadcasting studios, where a dry rehearsal of the commercials is in progress. Young Hayward Morse, son of CBC actor Barry Morse, is practicing how to pass his plate for more soup. An agency girl is darkening the shredded wheat on a carton so it will photograph better. Two other girls scurry about, making sure they have flowers for the table, canisters for the sink and brown sugar for the sugar bowl. Carpenters hammer on the set. Cameramen focus their lens first on one commercial display, then on the other. McKay rehearses his commercials a few times, then strolls down to the coffee shop for a sandwich.
By 2.30 everyone’s present and the second musical rehearsal commences. By five o’clock, the rehearsal is over, and everybody dashes off for supper. At 6.30 they’re back, in full cowboy regalia, for the dress rehearsal, and for the first time the commercials are integrated with the show.
At 7.15 everyone gets last-minute instructions. ’The set is darkened, the electricians fiddle with the lights, a boy comes in with a broom and sweeps up the last cigarette butts. A curious tense atmosphere pervades the studio. Only McKay looks relaxed. “At 7.30 I turn on the tap that contains the adrenaline,” he says. “Up until then 1 just bide my time.”
Two minutes to go till air time . . , one minute . . . thirty seconds . . , then the cast swings into the opening theme, Hi There, Good Friends and Neighbors, and Holiday Ranch is on.
Thirty minutes later the result of a week’s planning is a thing of the past.
Anybody who suggests to McKay that this kind of show is corny learns to smile when he says it. Corny is one word that makes McKay hopping mad.
“Corny,” he says, “is a musician’s expression for someone who’s unable to play jazz well. Nobody on Holiday Ranch is corny. The trouble is, the expression’s been picked up by the apple-knockers. Columnists love to use it. Everything they don’t like, they say it’s corny.”
McKay would prefer to think the ranch program is “homey,” or even “folksy,” and these are pretty good words to describe McKay himself, a small-town boy (from Seaforth, Ont.) who left school to join a band and made good in the big city. His father was a CNR conductor and old-style fiddler, his mother was an accomplished pianist, and his two brothers are also amateur musicians. At fortysix McKay isa friendly, factual, roundfaced man with blue eyes, who has four musically inclined children and a grandchild. A Roman Catholic and a member of the choir of Our Lady of the Airways Church, at Malton, just north of Toronto, he supports two basketball teams for Protestant youngsters at St. Christopher House, paying their out-of-town expenses and buying them a turkey dinner at Christmas. Off screen, McKay wears a plain blue or brown business suit, talks in monosyllables about music and business affairs, and likes nothing better than a quiet evening at home in his ranch house in Islington, a Toronto suburb, watching Dragnet on TV and eating his wife’s chocolate cake.
Ten years ago McKay was already well known to thousands of Canadians as “Ton of Fun” McKay on radio’s popular noon show, The Happy Gang. In 1952, after twelve years of wearing crazy hats, singing funny songs and playing his saxophone, he decided be could stand up to any demands of TV. He and Fred Diehl dreamed up a show called Campfire Moods, with a cast of thirteen, presenting three kinds of music gaucho, cowboy and gypsy each in an appropriate setting. But after he had made a couple of trips to New York to study American television, he decided the show with its
three settings would be far too expense. Figuring that cowboy songs would bemost likely to please the most people, be changed the show to a dude ranch western program, to be called The Bar bl (for McKay) Dude Ranch, “a sort of holiday ranch,” as he put it.
After he’d collected his cast (he wanted ‘‘good musicians, good heads, ,nd no prima donnas”) McKay presented his bundle of talent for CBC consideration in the spring of 1953. The show made its debut the following July on its present Saturday-night spot.
Phyllis Reid, Holiday Ranch’s first script girl, recalls that in those days the show was one - hundred - percent western, with tumbling tumbleweeds all over the place. Without a sponsor it could afford to be informal, and often was. Veterans on the show remember the night that everybody—cast, producer, technicians, even the make-up girl — decked themselves out in western garb and appeared on camera. They recall the night the show’s first singer, Frannie Wright, flipped the tassels of a couple of lads’ nightcaps down over their eyes during a spirited rendition of Mr. Sandman so that they couldn’t read their music and the whole show seemed in danger of breaking up. (By some lucky chance, at this exact moment, the show mysteriously went off the air for two minutes, giving the Ranchers time to collect themselves for the next number.) Above all, they remember the producer who thought a little fire in the ranch house would look cozy, and ordered a gas pipe put in and propane shot through it. Unfortunately, he neglected to try it out in rehearsal. Five minutes after the show started, the whole set was in flames. Smoke billowed, soot fell, scenery crackled. Hap and Frannie ad-libbed frantically, the musicians circled about coughing and spluttering, and McKay crawled about the floor with a fire extinguisher and put the fire out. A CBC official was so impressed by this show-must-go-on behavior that he sat right down and wrote them a complimentary letter.
Better still, a sponsor was showing interest. Aylmer Food Products was eyeing the show as a good family-type program, particularly suited to integrated commercials of their soup and peas and (you should excuse the expression) corn. In January 1954 Aylmer signed on as sponsor, and in February 1956 Nabisco Foods became co-sponsor, sharing sixty percent of the costs of the show with Aylmer. (The other forty percent is picked up by the CBC in line with its policy of making Canadian shows attractive to Canadian sponsors.)
A constant checking system informs Holiday Ranch sponsors whether their show is going up or down in the audience ratings. But last winter, as a supplementary check, Aylmer had the Ranch offer a child’s cowboy suit for two dollars and four labels from Aylmer tomato-juice cans. The offer brought in such an avalanche of requests—seventeen thousand—that, although the offer expired in February, the sponsor was still catching up on orders in April.
Today, with two sponsors when most shows consider themselves lucky to have one, everybody connected with Holiday Ranch is extremely careful, extremely tactful, extremely nervous. When a viewer wrote in a few weeks ago, complaining that a guest quartet’s song about ‘‘Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses” was sacrilegious, nobody dismissed her letter lightly. For all they knew, she might stop buying Nabisco’s shredded wheat or Aylmer’s soup, and that could be the death knell of even such a popular show as Holiday Ranch. ★