The man behind CANADIAN TV’s MOST FAMOUS FACE
A million Canadians watch Larry Henderson read the news each night at ll. Here’s a backstage look at the ex-Shakespearean who “looks as though he knows more than he’s telling”
The most familiar face on Canadian television belongs to a hypertense underweight performer who perpetually wears a pained expression, and has never been known to sing, dance, wisecrack, tote a gun or whirl through any of the other dizzy gyrations normally associated with TV stars. Yet every weekday evening at eleven o'clock, more than a million Canadians faithfully watch Larry Henderson read the National News on CBC-TV’s dominion-wide network. This means that he’s probably seen by more Canadians, more often, than any other television personality in the country.
Henderson, a former Shakespearean actor turned international-affairs expert, has been called “a frigid stuffed shirt” (by the Toronto Star’s TV critic Gordon Sinclair); and in an era when people direct a good part of their energies and income toward escape from ever-multiplying fears, Henderson peddles gloom in the form of two daily quarter-hour reports on the chaotic state of the world. Yet his iate-news program maintains a firm place among the top four Canadian TV shows (with Front Page Challenge, On Camera and Country Hoedown). For three of the first six months in 1958, the National News held top spot in the Canadian ratings.
The TV pundits are quick to point out that Henderson personally has very little to do with the popularity of his program. People, they say. listen compulsively to doom-ridden announcers intoning details of the latest crises in order to confirm their fears, as surely as a toothache sufferer keeps probing an aching molar with his tongue.
But there isn’t much doubt that in Canada the name Henderson means television news. Every time he lectures at service-club luncheons, chairmen introduce him as “Mr. CBC-TV News” and hearty Rotarians and Kinsmen rush up to him afterwards to boast: "In our house we say ‘Switch on Henderson’ instead of ‘Let’s watch the news.’ ”
Henderson is a non-union man and his status as a personality newscaster has always caused trouble with ARTEC, the union to which his fellow announcers belong. For three years the CBC persuaded the union to carry a “write-out” clause for Henderson in their contract but last year ARTEC in a fight to bring all announcers under its jurisdiction, got tough and refused to make an exception. Henderson still wouldn’t join the union but the CBC managed to negotiate a waiver for him on continued on page 56
Canadian TV’s most famous face
Continued from page 15
“He’d like to emulate Murrow. The closest he’s come: filmed interviews with rebels and kings”
this contract which runs out in March 1959. What will happen when it expires is difficult to predict.
Henderson's personal contract is unique in that he's the only CBC performer with the classification "TV newscaster.” This was a hard-won compromise between his desire to be called a commentator and the CBC’s insistence that the News is an announcer’s function. Lawrence Duffey, chief of the CBC’s news operation, says, "The difference between Henderson and other announcers is that he has developed a public personality. For some reason or other, he gives the news an authority beyond the actual words.”
A surprisingly large segment of his audience half-believe that Henderson reports, writes, interprets and announces the News. But all he actually does is read a prepared bulletin handed to him less than an hour before he goes on the air.
During last winter’s federal-election campaign, the Toronto Telegram claimed that the CBC was giving wider news coverage to Lester Pearson than to John Diefenbaker. To combat the charge, the CBC rigged a scoreboard in the newsroom tabulating footage to be sure the parties were allotted equal time. But Nancy Banks, script assistant on the News, had to cope with more than a dozen phone calls from aggravated Tely-
reading Tories, most of them demanding to speak to "that Liberal Henderson.” One man clipped the accusing T'ely editorial, mailed it to the CBC with "Watch out Henderson, after April I you'll be pounding the pavements” scribbled across it. Henderson was so infuriated that during the next three broadcasts he intoned all news about Pearson in a deliberate monotone.
The viewer who sent the CBC news department a postcard that read "Henderson always looks to me as though he knows more than he’s telling" was right. Even though his role on the News may be that of a parrot simply repeating somebody else’s prose, Henderson probably knows as much about the background of the news as most of the CBC reporters who gather it. He came to CBC-TV in 1954, after six years of doing tape-recorded commentaries and interviews for radio overseas, in countries from Lapland to Indo-China, and a year of study at the School of International Studies in Geneva.
Since he’s been at the CBC, he has made three trips abroad, two to Cyprus and the Middle East in 1956 and the spring of 1957, and another to East Germany, Poland and the USSR in the late summer of 1957. His sound-film interviews with kings, dictators and insurgents, flown back to the News from these excursions, are the closest Henderson has
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come to his ambition to do “news in depth” for television. He’d like to see the CBC televise a program approximating the Columbia Broadcasting System’s See It Now, with Henderson in the role of Edward R. Mur row.
But the CBC’s policy, according to news manager Duffcy, “has never been directed toward the development of personality reporters like Ed Murrow or Eric Sevareid. We use competent correspondents in New York, Washington, London, Paris and Hong Kong, who report coherently, if almost anonymously,
on international affairs.” So Henderson confines his talent for news analysis to the lecture circuit and appears on television only as an announcer. After more than two thousand broadcasts (he has another news program at 6:45, seen in Ontario and Quebec), he approaches the whole process with a slick, almost bored competence.
About five o’clock every weekday afternoon he drives twenty miles from his suburban home at Clarkson in a blue '58 Chevrolet to the CBC buildings on Toronto’s Jarvis Street. After a lonely
cup of cofice in the cheerless basement canteen, he goes to a mirrored dressing room, smooths on dark make-up to camouflage lines under his eyes, and brushes mascara into his precise Clifton Webb mustache. Just after five-thirty, with the dignified calm of the virtuoso, he ascends into the third-floor bedlam of the news department.
The news editor throws his script at him. He talks briefly with John Lant, senior producer on the News, then closets himself in a small room to memorize the broadcast. This is an important part of
the Henderson technique. He becomes so familiar with his material that he can look up from his notes directly into the camera and the news seems to flow almost spontaneously from Henderson's store of knowledge. In reality, he isn’t allowed to deviate by one word from the text of the news, or, theoretically, to editorialize by any tonal emphasis.
Then comes a half-hour studio rehearsal during which technicians kibitz, cameramen clown, the producer worries and Henderson, snapping irritably at every fluff, holds his head in his hands and repeats again and again key phrases from each item in the script.
At 6:42 the studio is suddenly calm. The producer takes his seat in the control room. Henderson methodically smooths his already flawless hair, straightens his dark tie, shoots his cuffs and assumes a slightly superior expression. Seconds later, the newscast begins with Henderson reading the top story of the day in a well-bred tone neatly balanced somewhere between the stiff-lipped aristocraticvoice of the BBC and the wiseguy urgency of most American announcers.
Nine nights out of ten the broadcast is completed without any obvious hitches and, just after seven, Henderson coldcreams his face, jokes with the make-up girls and goes out for supper. At 9:30 he repeats the same routine for the 11o’clock show.
Smoothie turns tough
But every so often there comes a night when the Henderson temperament erupts. Most of his fury stems from his impatience with any incompetence on the part of people who work with him. In the early days of the program when the technical staff was less experienced, outbursts were frequent. Around the studios they nicknamed Henderson “the bad boy of television.”
He's been known to swear on the air, grimace in open disgust at coy phrases in his script, accelerate his voice to the point of unintelligibility when a floor director gives him a speed-it-up sign. Once he called five times for a film clip of Winston Churchill to coincide with the item he was reading. When it didn't come on the sixth try, he turned to the camera and said, "Obviously there’s no use in my calling the pictures—-you’ll just have to take what you get.” Just then the appropriate film flashed on thesereen. but Henderson had already stood up in outraged dignity and was stumping, majestically, out of the studio. Fortunately the program had only a minute and a half to run and the producer frantically filled the time with film.
But John Lant, his producer, says it’s unfair to stress such incidents. “Most evenings Larry gives a flawless performance. You’d swear he wouldn’t turn a hair if a bomb exploded on the set.”
At least three times a week Henderson’s four-hour working day is extended by current-affairs lectures he gives to organizations ranging from small-town service-club dinners to major conventions of manufacturers, dentists or undertakers at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. Last season, from September to June, he gave eighty-eight lectures and for the fall of ’58 his agent, Matie Molinaro, has arranged a six-week cross-country tour of thirty towns from Saint John to Edmonton. His fee per talk is $125 plus expenses and this increases his income to about $20,000 a year.
For the fall trip, he has to take six weeks leave of absence from the News. He’s already used up his month-long vacation by taking days off to cover lecture dates out of town. At most lec-
grandfather and your father and your sons." The translator continued to interpret in bland pro-Western clichés.
When Henderson first went to Europe in 1936, at 19. he had little interest in international news. He'd grown up in Montreal as the son of a manufacturing agent and most of his ambitions were directed toward the stage. He went to McGill University on a scholarship in music, but in the end of his third year he set off for England with $50. For the next three years he worked in British repertory theatres, acting, stage
managing and prop-building. His most memorable role was as Mercutio to Alex Guinness' Romeo in the Perth Festival presentation of Romeo and Juliet. In 1940. when the theatre company broke up. Henderson returned to Canada and joined the army. For the next five years he served in North Africa and Italy as a signal-corps lieutenant.
Back in Toronto in 1946, he became a CBC radio announcer and during the next two years uttered time signals so many times that he still can’t bear to hear the word Bulova.
Then he took over a now defunct radio show called Headliners which was broadcast over CFRB in Toronto and sponsored by the Toronto Telegram. It was a fifteen-minute situation show with Henderson as a Tely reporter covering personalities and unusual events. In 1949 Supertest Gasoline bought the Headliners show, had it broadcast on twenty-four private stations in Ontario and Quebec and gave Henderson wider leeway as to subject matter.
That same year he married Joan Annand, a girl he'd met at the CBC. The
tures he listens modestly while the chairman describes his continent-girdling travels, then rises to give an hour-long, glibly authoritative talk on Russia, based on an eleven-day visit to the USSR in 1957. The Russian lecture has had a strong impact on his audience since the launching of the Sputniks, but Henderson's own favorite is still the Middle Eastern talk.
For this one, he dons a long black robe called an agal-aba which looks like a cloak long-since discarded by Blackstone the Magician, and a black-spotted white snood headdress, known among the Bedouins as a kafayah. At the beginning of his lecture, he explains briefly how and when he acquired this garb.
One day in Amman, the capital of Jordan, in May of 1957, Henderson bribed a Bedouin tribesman, with a case of Canadian Club whisky and two sheep, to take him to his sheik. Besides the liquor and the livestock, the tribesman also demanded that Henderson cover his Western clothes with native dress. He saw the sheik and kept the clothes.
On his earlier trip to the Middle East in 1956, he had interviews with Lebanon’s President Chamoun, David BenGurion of Israel, and King Hussein of Jordan, for a series of television clips viewers are still mentioning to him. Henderson believes his best work is done in recording the sights and sounds of the news by talking to what he calls "the little people intimately involved."
In Cyprus he talked to EOKA terrorists, Turks, Greeks, British housewives. A radio documentary, called The Truth About Cyprus, made from tapes of these interviews, won him high praise from radio critics and an award from the University of Ohio as one of the best documentaries broadcast in North America in 1957.
Mrs. Molinaro, Henderson’s agent, has a favorite story about one of the Henderson man-in-the-street interviews. She was watching the 6:45 News with a professor who spoke fluent Arabic. Henderson, at the time, was in Beirut and he’d gone into one of the Arab refugee camps to interview a displaced Arab woman through a translator. As the interview progressed, the woman grew more and more hysterical and wild-eyed.
Henderson vaguely sensed that something was wrong but in the Molinaro living room in Toronto, the professor of Asiatic studies was rolling in his chair with laughter. It turned out that the Arab woman was screaming obscene indictments of the West at Henderson and ending every sentence with "I spit upon you, you camel dung, and upon your
Hendersons went to Europe the next spring and retraced the steps of the Canadian army through Italy, recording enough material for two daily Headliners broadcasts, one in French and one in English.
When the Korean war broke out, Henderson the foreign correspondent was born. He covered debates on Korea in the UN and set off for Korea for a six-week stint. Then he lugged his tape recorder to Formosa and through IndoChina and Siam, interviewing the Chiang Kai-sheks, Mark Clark and General Jean de Lattre on the way.
For the next four years his life followed pretty well the same pattern. He was covering Europe for Headliners and doing half-hour documentary broadcasts for the CBC on the postwar problems of European countries. In 1953, he settled in Geneva with his wife Joan and participated in a special seminar on European Unity at the School of International Studies.
In 1954, Mavor Moore, then program director at CBC-TV, was faced with the completely new problem of how to present the news pictorially and still maintain a standard of objectivity. For the first six months, the News had been assigned to various announcers, as it is on radio, but it was generally agreed that the whole program was disjointed and uninteresting. Moore decided that he needed a news reader with a personality strong enough to give the program continuity but not so individualistic as to distract the viewer.
Henderson seemed to fill the bill. He had a wide background in reporting international affairs for radio, an excellent broadcasting voice, and undemanding even-featured good looks.
At the time, the News was only five
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minutes long. By the end of 1954 Henderson had two 15-minute programs with a much more elaborate film set-up. Waitresses and store clerks began to call him by name. Last June, the format of the program was changed for the fourth time. Henderson sits behind a wide executive desk with a small projection screen for maps and still pictures behind him. Now, on the good nights, when he reads an item about Nasser, a wolf-toothed picture of the dictator gleams over his right shoulder.
But on bad nights, maps of Jordan linger on the screen while Henderson talks about road-widening at Wasaga Beach, Ontario. The floor director frantically signals for him to slow down. Henderson looks up. glares, stops talking for a full five seconds. And in the control room, the sound man leans over to the script assistant and mutters behind the producer's back: "Who does that guy Henderson think he is—Maria Callas?" ir