The Private lives of Byng Whitteker
Genzmer Earl “Byng” Whitteker, of Toronto and the CBC, has been talking out loud for a living for twenty-one years. His relaxed, rich voice has probably been heard by more Canadians, whether they know it or not, than that of any other human. Indeed, it's possible that any Canadian who has ever listened to radio has heard Whitteker in one or other of his roles.
Toronto’s music lovers know him as a swing devotee and listen to him on such local diskjockey shows as Byng’s Choice. Housewives hear him brightly extolling products like Camay— “New Pink Camay, containing SOOTHING COLD CREAM” — in between installments of soap operas. Across the nation enthusiasts of horse racing, royal tours, football, massed-band tattoos, golf, Lake Ontario swims and other such special events borrow their mind’s-eye views from his network reports. And in Metropolitan Toronto, five days a week, thousands of little children are glued to radio station CJBC to listen to an incredibly popular noon-hour show called Small Types Club, which Whitteker invented.
In their minds’ eyes, the moppets behold a genial uncle image named “Mr. Byng,” a jovial Santa Claus of a man to whom they write confiding little mash notes, enclosing drawings ami poems. This circumstance may be regarded as a triumph of professional skill, for away from the microphone Whitteker admits he can take children or leave them alone. He has scarcely uttered the roguish “Sscoot!” that ends the program and sends the kiddies off to afternoon naps before he is impatiently heading for the racetrack. For it is no exaggeration to say that he prefers horses to children, jazz to nursery songs, rye to Freshie and poker to pingpong.
Canada’s best-known announcer is a jovial Santa to kids, a suave and sympathetic friend to housewives.
But he really prefers poker
and three-horse parlays and only likes kids as an audience
But to the kids Mr. Byng is a man who refers to adults as “the grownups”; gives away kittens; passes along birthday instructions (“Judith Prizak, who is six today, is to follow the string from the living-room door”); plays children's records: delivers tot-angled commercials (“You know, small types, I guess the whale is about the luckiest fellow who ever lived! Because he can eat the MOST Jell-O in the whole world”), and furthers the saga of Baby Bee and her family. Baby Bee, who is Whitteker’s creation, is a sort of latter-day Honey Bunch who makes snowmen, visits the farm, teaches tricks to a pony and points up a sunny little moral per episode.
The moppets take all this so seriously that
once when Whitteker turned the show' over to another announcer who neglected the customary “Sscoot!” the CBC switchboard was swamped with calls from harassed mamas who couldn't get their offspring to bed without it. Mamas also write Mr. Byng. mostly to thank him for keeping their kids quiet for twenty minutes after lunch. One Christmas Whitteker got involved in finding Christmas trees for “poor small types who haven't got one.” So many donors called—more than two hundred—that the next show had to be converted from a matinée musicale to a Christmas-tree exchange. By the end of the schlemozzle hard-bitten dealers were phoning to offer trees in lots of forty and fifty.
Whitteker doesn't know exactly how many wee fans he has because he got stampeded the only time they stood up to he counted. This occurred seven years ago when he arranged a party for small types at Toronto's Massey Hall. Moppets were lined up around the block a full two hours before the show' and so many were finally turned away, including a chartered busload from Kitchener, that a second entertainment had to be scheduled a week later. No one’s tried to take census since.
Celebrities, moppets and stunts — they’re a day’s work for Jack-of-oral-trades Byng Whitteker
Actually Whitteker himself may see his own three children only once during a work week—he generally comes home after they've gone to bed. He insists they address him as ‘"Sir'’ and admits that he probably isn’t a very good father.
With his unruly dark cowlick and small mischievous eyes, Mr. Byng may look like an inflated version of Joe Cobb in the Our Gang comedies; but his doctor tells him his eyes are now bloodshot for good.
He may eat like an overgrown urchin, but it’s more apt to be coq cm via than Jell-O. He started the Small Types Club only because of his taste for the unusual: he went down to the CBC disk library one day eight years ago to find out what platters were in least use. They told him children’s records, so he built a show around them.
Whitteker has helped write two books of Baby Bee stories and invent a kiddies’ blackboard that sold like hot cakes last Christmas, but his own recreation is poker with fifty-cent chips. He’d rather make a three-horse parlay than a snowman and the only trick he’d like to teach a pony is how to win in the fifth at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack. He refers to Baby Bee privately as “the little broad.”
Whitteker isn’t really trying to fool the little ones; it’s just part of his job as a radio announcer, which he insists is more than fifty-percent acting anyway. “If you have sickness in the family,” he explains, “or something’s gone wrong at home, or you feel lousy or you have a hangover you still have to be this thing that people think you are.”
Even in his more mature exercises there’s a gap between Whitteker the announcer and Whitteker the man. He’s easily angered. He’s been known to sulk. His producers report that they’ve occasionally had to pull him off the air because temper or depression was affecting his delivery. But not often. "In this business,” confides Whitteker grimly, “you’ve got to be likable all the time.”
He has one natural aid: his size (chest 52 inches, waist 49, hips 54). He stands six-foot-three, wears a size fourteen shoe and a size fifty-two suit and protests stoutly that it was not on his account that his shirtmaker hanged himself two years ago.
By sheer accident of girth Whitteker is often expected to be a buffoon. Last year he participated in a jape designed to further the annual March of Dimes campaign. Listeners were asked to send in Whitteker’s weight in dimes; at the weighing-in he appeared on television clad in Oriental robes, a fez and dark glasses, squatted on the scales and balanced off at 268 pounds of dimes, totaling $5,360.
Whitteker, like the good showman he is, goes along with such didos as part of the job of being likable and therefore selling himself. In the same vein he has also milked a cow on the steps of City Hall.
He makes a point of attending every possible public function and goes to several cocktail parties a week. Sunday dinner is about the only meal he manages to have at home in his newly acquired four-bedroom house in Toronto’s posh Kingsway district. (His salary at the CBC is $7,125 a year but he brings this up to a more felicitous level with freelance assignments.) The dinner he’ll cook for his pretty brunette wife and three children (one by her former marriage—he also has a daughter by a former marriage) is apt to feature wine, onions and exotic seasonings. He modestly calls himself “a mundane creative cook,” but his exacting palate is so well known around town that the following exchange is widely held to have taken place:
Whitteker: Would you like tea, coffee or cocoa?
Whitteker: India, China or Ceylon?
Guest: China, please.
Whitteker: With cream, milk or
Whitteker: Jersey, Guernsey or Alderney?
But when the racing season rolls around Whitteker will skip public appearances. strategic cocktail parties and even food to get to the track. Fitting this in with his announcing assignments sometimes causes him to break from his normal lazy shamble into a trot, as witness his schedule for one day during the spring meeting at Old Woodbine in June.
His first show of the day was Audio, a daily two-and-a-half-hour medley of records, interviews and three-minute guest contributions on any subject under the sun. The show was Byng’s idea and he and announcer AÍ Maitland were spelling each other as emcee. Whitteker made frequent sorties while Maitland was on mike: to pick up records for the next day’s show, to chat to the producer in the control booth, to go to the canteen for coffee and an admiring glance at a blond actress with an astonishing mane of hair.
After signing off at twelve Whitteker picked up his mail in the announcers’ room, made some phone calls and got back down to the studio just in time to sign on Small Types Club at 12.40. There was no new installment of Baby Bee that day, but there was a song about a Candy Man and a poem sent in by a tiny listener that went:
Jell-O is good.
Jell-O is sweet.
I am good,
And I like it to eat.
Whitteker asked his listeners, “Now isn’t that a nice poem?”
Between one and two Whitteker fulfilled his chores as announcer on Court of Opinion, a panel show; between two and three he had barely time to get to the west end for a tailor’s fitting. From three to four he announced soap operas. The station schedules four in a row and after Whitteker has signed off one he has exactly twenty seconds to get to another studio to sign on the next. He moved quickly, but not as quickly as he moved at 4.02 when he broke for the CBC parking lot, picked
up his Pontiac and headed for the track.
Pausing only to buy a program and a racing form he got to the Turf Club in time to bet on the sixth. By the end of the eighth race he was ahead ninetysix dollars. Whitteker figures he can win when he wants to. and would win all the time if he could resist betting every race.
With a group of gamester cronies (including Johnny Belli, proprietor of Angelo’s, an Italian café, and Neil LeRoy, a radio emcee) Whitteker then repaired to a bootlegger’s. They go there not so much for the liquor as for the use of the dining-room table, which was quickly spread with a baize cloth. Poker chips were produced. Whitteker managed to lose about thirty dollars of his track winnings before adjourning to the CBC for his half-hour disk-jockey show at seven. But he arranged with his colleagues to reconvene later at his house.
At eight o’clock Whitteker had his first full meal of the day, a fricassee of ham, mushrooms, peppers, celery, onions, herbs and wine which he prepared just before the poker game continued.
Outside the racing season Whitteker won’t announce on an empty stomach, for he believes his voice sounds best after two meals. On one occasion a particularly crucial audition was scheduled for 10 a.m. Whitteker accordingly arose at 4.30, had a cup of tea and went for a walk. At 8.30 he had bacon and eggs. At 9.45 he had a sandwich and milk and, thus bolstered by the prescribed two meals, presented himself at the studio at ten and got the job.
Besides coddling his larynx Whitteker has made himself a Jack-of-oral trades, including the introduction, the ad lib, the sell—both hard and relaxed—and the interview.
For instance, Whitteker has arrived at two rules for interviewing. The first is, “Write down five obvious questions to ask. Then throw them away and ask something else.” Whitteker is still regarded with awe in the trade for his application of this to singer Lena Horne. He interviewed the girl whose most famous record is Stormy Weather without once mentioning .Stormy Weather. They talked about food and cooking instead.
Whitteker’s second rule is: “If you
have a tough subject—one who’s bored by the whole thing—get him mad.”
An announcer’s biggest bogey is the blank pause that threatens when a guest fails to appear or a scheduled event doesn’t start on time. Ever since the day his script blew away at a football game, Whitteker has made a point of cramming enough background in advance to conduct an indefinite monologue. He has been forced into several historic ad-lib marathons, one of which took place during the last Royal Tour. Whitteker was to cover the royal couple’s inspection of Royal Military College at Kingston, but Elizabeth and Philip were three quarters of an hour late. Whitteker beguiled the time with amiable chatter about the tour, royalty, the college, its history and the weather, and had three more pages of facts still untouched when the show finally got rolling.
But Whitteker’s biggest asset is the same showmanship that scents a Small Types Club in a pile of neglected records and an avuncular Mr. Byng in his own guise of gourmet and bon vivant.
On Audio one morning, for example, he sighted the producer signaling frantically from the control booth: transmitter trouble was about to force them off the air. Instead of making the usual apologies about "technical difficulties” Whitteker blandly said. “And now as a special bonus to listeners, we’re going to give you three minutes of silence.” No one was the wiser.
Another typical stroke came last year during the Lake Ontario swim. Whitteker, broadcasting the end of the swim from a hired launch, noticed the massed headlights of the cars waiting on the shore. On an impulse he said into the mike, “All those who are listening to me from cars on the shore dim their lights.” There was a fifty-percent dim-out. Then the brilliance of the impulse dawned on his radio crew. Drivers who weren’t lis-
tening to Whitteker promptly asked neighbors what was going on. in two minutes every car on the shore was tuned in to Whitteker’s station.
A certain amount of the same razzledazzle has marked his whole career. Whitteker was born in 1914 of DutchEnglish Lutheran parents, on a farm near Dundela, Ont. By sixteen he was renowned in the district as the boy who had hoisted a four-hundred-pound bag of freshly threshed rye into a wagon one day in the threshing season. His reputation for hoisting quantities of rye has persisted.
Young Whitteker decided he wanted an education, sohis father sold some land and sent him to Waterloo College, a Lutheran college affiliated with the University of Western Ontario. Here Whitteker acquired most of an arts education, an orange, black and white silk robe of Oriental splendor and the nickname Byng, which was a variant of Crosby’s first name. Whitteker hated his given name, Genzmer, and admired Crosby, though his own voice, a class mate reports, was lamentably flat.
The music bedazzled him
Whitteker also admired the horses and on one occasion, acting on a tipster’s advice, touted a few close friends on a winner. The next time he got a tip more friends wagered. The horse won. By the fourth time the whole undergraduate body had its collective allowance on the race. The horse lost, causing a serious, if temporary, campus slump. Whitteker is now such a shrewd handicapper that when he recently required seven hundred dollars to pay a bill he matter-of-factly headed for the track to make it.
After a while at college Whitteker found he was running out of educational funds and got a job at the Kitchener radio station. In time he also got five dollars a week. Even at this wage he indulged in a blinding white summer suit
—the first ever seen on the streets of Kitchener—and white shoes to match. He moved to North Bay for eighteen a week. By and by he was offered a $l,200-a-year job at the CBC, providing he paid his own fare to Toronto. On his first show he was so bedazzled by the mystique of mixing music from one studio with voices from another that, in signing off, he identified the producer in tones normally used only to name new heavyweight champions.
This was not in keeping with low-key CBC tradition, so the new recruit was farmed out to Windsor for seasoning. He was finally promoted to the big league again and during the war was loaned to the BBC as a news commentator. The BBC still retains in its archives one memorable Whitteker interview which he cites as his most colossal spoof. The typical BBC interview then tended to consist of a review in question form by the interviewer of almost everything the subject might have to say. Thus: “I understand, Commander Schnarff, that you’ve just returned from a tour of the air-force installations in Belgium?” This left the subject with nothing to murmur but “Yes.”
Whitteker conceived the idea of interviewing a pigeon named William of Orange and managed, using this technique, to extract the whole exciting story of the last carrier pigeon out of Arnhem. All William of Orange had to contribute was “Ngoo.”
Whitteker is now an acknowledged master of the informal interview, but he is also apt to remind you demurely that he has “a little reputation for being a man with a few ideas.”
He has created radio series ranging from the Small Types Club to experiments in the presentation of music. He can't write or arrange music himself, but he can describe what he wants, which is usually relaxed music with sophisticated harmonies. Audio, the two-and-a-half-hour morning mixture of
interviews, disks and three-minute fancies, is also Whitteker’s idea. In fact, he thinks radio’s justification lies in this kind of informative, entertaining show —and in music.
If Whitteker occasionally talks like radio’s valetudinarian it’s because he's/ realistic about his own future. “The day when an announcer can make big money in this field is over. From now on there are going to be more and more lowbudget shows and sustainers.”
He’s not particularly interested in TV. He failed to interest a producer in the kind of show he’d like to do—a package along the lines of Audio—and his one or two fliers in TV have been unsuited to his talents. Instead, Whitteker plans to wean himself gradually away from broadcasting into two other fields: racing and the restaurant business.
He recently acquired half a mare in foal in a poker game, according to the story in radio circles, and was presented with the other half. About the same time, along with Irish tenor Jimmie Shields, he acquired a big brick house across Jarvis Street from the CBC. They plan to turn it into a club with a bar and a dining room. It’s a good guess there’ll also be some baize-topped tables for parlor games.
Whitteker divides his limited spare time between making up names for the unborn foal and dreaming up recipes for great soups to go on the club’s lunch menu.
Meanwhile, it looks as though he’ll go on being Mr. Byng for a while longer at least. In June he reported that General Foods was displaying an inordinate interest in sponsoring the Small Types Club this fall.
Whitteker takes it philosophically. “The grownups,” he says, “will tell you you were great when they never even listened to your show. With kids you know where you are.”
“I like kids,” he adds reflectively, “as an audience.” ★