How to get on television

The news about television is crammed with fixes and payolas. But there are still old-fashioned and honest ways to get on TV and stay there. This tour of Canada’s casting offices indicates the things that count are talent, stubborn perseverance... and a bit of luck

BARBARA MOON December 19 1959

How to get on television

The news about television is crammed with fixes and payolas. But there are still old-fashioned and honest ways to get on TV and stay there. This tour of Canada’s casting offices indicates the things that count are talent, stubborn perseverance... and a bit of luck

BARBARA MOON December 19 1959

THE CBC-TV casting department was recently in receipt of an application for work from a blonde sixteen-year-old (picture enclosed) from Windsor, Ont. She had a plump, rouge-smeared mouth and plucked eyebrows and she had ignored the request on the form for details of any professional training or public performance or talent. Perhaps she had none to list. But under the heading “Job Sought” she had written, “I would like to apply as a star.”

The officers of the casting department were not unduly derisive. There have always been youngsters far gone in their tremulous, impertinent dreams — girls seeing themselves in the chalky bath of a single spotlight, perched on a piano in a black satin sheath, singing My Man with the pools of shadow lying along their cheekbones; boys seeing themselves gaunt and glittering as Lucifer in evening dress, violin in hand, bowing graciously to an audience gone wild with adoration.

The traditional dreams of glamour used to be set in the nightclub, or Hollywood or the concert hall or the theatre. Now — with television seven years old in Canada and twice that in the U. S. — more and more of them converge on the fluorescent blue world of the magic box.

Last year some seventeen thousand people, armed with their dreams, tried to break into Canadian TV as performers. On the CBC-TV network, their major objective, a scant five hundred new actors and singers made it. A few hundred more got a chance to debut as interview subjects, as challengers on panel shows, or as expert speakers of one kind or another — but most of these were recruits rather than applicants. The bulk of the private stations could each report only fifty to eighty new' faces, some massed together as square-dance groups or glee clubs.

How did this handful succeed where the others failed? Why w'ere they picked? How, for that matter, did the regulars, the established stars, the personalities, first break in? How, in fact, do you get on TV?

There are always the cynics in the community, who hint that connivance is what's required. Stories are current that the actress must be complaisant if she wants the part, or that the entertainer must be ready to kick back part of his fee before a producer will notice him. Particularly in the light of recent U. S. investigations, it’s also being suggested that a little dishonesty helps, especially if you want to get on a quiz show. The record of the U. S. networks notwithstanding, no evidence has yet been uncovered that a performer in Canada has to sacrifice his principles or her honor to get a break.

In fact, Bob McGall, supervisor of variety, says the entrée is simple: "Go and learn to do excellently something that people want to see. Excellence is what's required.”

"Luck and timing," says Jean Lewis, a debutante actress who auditioned this June for the CBC-TV drama department and has already had three bit parts and two featured roles. "Luck and timing have such a lot to do with it, provided you have the other requirements.”

Pierre Berton, who is spectacularly well established as an interviewer for Close-Up and a panelist on Front Page Challenge, has a more explicit proposition. "Get your name known.” he says. "For instance, get on the executive of ACRTA and get up in meetings and say something.” Berton, who is on the executive of ACRTA. the performers' union, adds, "I don't really know how I got on TV.”

Nevertheless, the most obvious preliminary is to ask for work.

So the seventeen thousand people who tried to get on Canadian TV last year wrote letters to the eight CBC stations and the forty-three private stations across the country. They came in person. Begging for a chance, they buttonholed station managers, corporation executives, casting directors, script assistants, janitors and established TV stars. One actor threatened to commit suicide in the CBC casting office in Toronto if he didn't get a break. Applicants called drama producers at home. Others called variety producers at work and broke into sample songs on the telephone. This fall sixty hopefuls battled a blizzard to Swift Current, Sask.. from as far as seventy-five miles away to try out for a CBC talent show.

Curiously, the TV screen itself is responsible for encouraging such mass optimism. TV is so obviously omnivorous — and so apparently artless. To the uninitiated it seems to use almost anybody doing almost anything.

It uses actors and singers and dancers — and snake charmers. Yoga experts, exponents of the flügelhorn and people who make shadow pictures with their hands. It has room for such casual diversions as Perry Como, whistling idly to a piano accompaniment. It welcomes people like Jonathan Winters and Jim Backus, who can apparently enhance their fame just by imitating popping champagne corks or talking like Mr. Magoo. And hosts of people are invited on camera who have no parlor tricks at all; they simply come and talk.

Some three thousand of last year’s applicants for a career on Canadian TV were actors and actresses. About seven thousand were singers. Another thousand were musicians and dancers, including the traditional contender for the title of "The Girl With The Longest Legs in Television." The rest advertised accomplishments that ranged from the bizarre to the naive.

Applicants offered to yodel, to play on the skillle-bass (an F.nglish washboard), vocally to produce such sound effects as gunshots and galloping horses; to pantomime the lyrics to records, and to do exercises on camera. A farmer's wife said she would whistle to her own piano accompaniment. A Swede checked in with a vaudeville act that involved shooting eggs out over the audience. A seventeen-year-old Vancouverite volunteered her services on the ground that, as she wrote, "I can speak like Donald Duck.” A number offered nothing more than: "My friends say I have a good personality and ought to be on TV."

Yet, in spite of this embarrassment of riches. TV producers claim they’re chronically short of talent. “There’s no surfeit of any kind of actor,” says Michael Sadlier, supervising producer of CBC-TV drama.

“We're always on the lookout for good announcers,” says Arlene Mead, supervisor of CBC-TV's announcing services.

“Let's face it, there’s a shortage of talent, period,” says Drew Crossan, producer of CBC-TV’s Talent Caravan. The private stations echo the plaint. “To date our biggest problem is to build a reserve of talent,” says Bruce McLeod, general manager of CKGNTV, in North Bay, Ont.

All stations receive performers avidly. “We will audition any act and invite performers to come to our studios at any time,” says Don Jamieson, vice-president of CJONTV, in St. John’s, Ntld. The CBC is just as keen. Crossan has already auditioned two thousand people this year for Talent Caravan. The CBC-TV variety department auditions almost every applicant it gets. The drama department auditions as many as seventy-five a month.

Whether by mail, by telephone or in person, all inquiries to the CBC about work in English-speaking TV eventually make their way to a dingy suite of offices in the CBCRadio building, a converted boarding school on Toronto's Jarvis Street. This is the casting office, presided over by a petite, sooty-eyed ex-actress named Eva Langbord. The casting officer for the French-language network, based in Montreal, is Claude Garneau.

The casting offices are responsible for screening all talent, alerting the producers to the existence of their successful discoveries and pulling the names of suitable performers from the files for any producer who wants suggestions. The producer, however, casts his own shows.

Sometimes applicants write to the CBC personnel office, hoping to infiltrate by signing on as stenographers or stagehands. They are sent a talent application blank and told that no corporation employee may appear on TV without express permission from the brass in Ottawa. An application blank goes out to every hopeful. When the applications, together with the required eight-inch by teninch photographs, are returned to the casting office they are sorted into three piles that represent the three categories of performance: drama, variety and what, for want of a better word, is commonly called personality. Miss Langbord herself processes all the drama applications.

It is a surprisingly straightforward job. “You can almost reconstruct the person from the way he applies,” says Miss Langbord. Those that list no training or experience at all—who announce with unsupported conviction. “If I had the chance I would be a great actor”—are cooled off quickly. Those who live too far afield are advised to apply to local little theatre groups or TV stations: sooner or later, if they're good enough, they'll move to Toronto or Montreal and be within range. The rest are called in for interviews. If Miss Langbord is impressed, the applicant is included in the next set of auditions.

The mass auditions are held about once a month and usually include twenty or thirty hopefuls. They are asked to give five minutes worth of material—two or three short speeches from widely different roles. Miss Langbord herself is prepared to advise their choice and even has a range of suitable speeches available in mimeographed form.

The audition itself is a closed-circuit telecast, piped to a board room where drama producers can watch the show on a monitor. The applicants sit on two long rows of wooden chairs, at the far end of the cavernous studio, like finalists in an oratorical contest. Miss Langbord, birdlike, crisp, smiling, gives them quick instructions: the top lens on the camera is the one to look at; the red light means the camera is on; the chalked circle on the floor marks the playing area; the camera can't photograph your face if you turn away from it; please enunciate your name clearly before you start; the corporation is on your side; it wants you to be good. Then she retires with members of the production staff to the glassed-in control room above the playing area to watch, comment and make notes.

The disposition of fates is businesslike: 

"Something wrong with her teeth, but her voice is nice. We can recommend her for radio.”

“Stanley Kowalski! I told him not to do Kowalski. But he's twenty and he won't be told."

“This boy has very good possibilities.”

"But she's a comedienne. Even the back of her head is funny. Why's she doing an Anne Bancroft? They're all doing a Bancroft now. Before, they were all doing an Audrey Hepburn. She might do for a comedy bit."

"This one might do if we ever needed an older, Menjou type.”

Those who don't make the grade get a noncommittal expression of thanks. The comedienne, the boy with "possibilities” and the Menjou type will get letters from Miss Langbord that say, "We are informing the producers of the results of your audition. Enclosed is a list of producers you might like to see."

The applicants will begin a series of trips to the CBC drama department offices. in downtown Toronto. In the department's outer office they will find a bulletin board with a set of sheets stapled to it. one for each producer. They will register on the top sheets across the board to indicate that they want introductory interviews.

Sooner or later the producer telephones and gives them appointments. If the applicant’s audition report has been sufficiently glowing, the applicant may get his appointment quite quickly. If his luck holds and his timing is good—if. that is. his general type matches one in a play the producer is engaged in casting—he may get his first walk-on, at twenty-one dollars for a one-hour drama, sixteen dollars for a half-hour. He may even get his first bit part, at a fee that equals fifty percent of the principal player's fee and occasionally amounts to four hundred dollars or more for an hour show.

But if nothing happens after his first interviews he will make the rounds again, registering this time on the second sheets to get a second appointment.

Once he is known to all the producers and once he is sure they know his work, he does whatever he can think of to keep his name, face and talents in front of them, including the telephone call, the "accidental" encounter and the just-passing-thought-I'd-pop-my-head-in-the-door office visit.

None is a guarantee of a part. Last year the eighteen thousand roles available in CBC network drama were filled by only two thousand actors, most of whom earned little more than three thousand dollars for their pains. "The very first time I interview an actor I say TV acting is no way to make a living, honestly," says Miss Langbord.

Producers have little time or stomach for undue risk. Most of the unknowns who got their first chance on camera last year—about three hundred—did so in walk-ons and one-line parts. Even when they've proved their competence, meatier roles are hard to come by. Antoinette

Bower, a slim-faced, soignee, blonde TV actress says, "I got several walk-ons immediately after my audition four years ago. Now I've done a couple of good leads. But the way producers see me looking at lunch is the way they cast me. They don't think of me unless they need that type."

There are other hazards. "An awful lot of TV plays have no parts for women in them at all," says Charmion King, one of Canada's top actresses. Though Miss King played half a dozen leads when she returned from a sojourn in England four years ago she appeared only twice during the 1958-59 season. "People sometimes seem to be given a rush and then dropped." she adds.

CHBC-TV, in Kelowna. B.C.. televises a monthly live play using Okanagan Valley drama groups; early this year CJONTV. in St. John's, pioneered a TV drama festival with three Newfoundland little theatre groups; the CBC stations in Vancouver and Winnipeg occasionally originate TV drama. Otherwise there are few openings for a TV actor outside Toronto and Montreal.

In the variety and light entertainment field, however, a talented beginner can get a break anywhere there's a local station. Almost all televise amateur contests of one kind or another and spot promising entertainers through other regular shows. The CBC, at first glance, seems equally avid. All but the most hopeless applicants to the variety department get auditions.

These are held about once a month by Phyllis Elliott, a sturdy, dark-haired Englishwoman with a rich laugh and a vocabulary of friendly endearments. She is casting officer under Miss Langbord. Unlike drama auditions, the variety trials are conducted on mike but not on camera. Each performer is given ten minutes and asked to be ready with three selections. Chances are that any fifteenyear-olds who turn up will offer torchy versions of Can't Help Lovin' That Man; but Miss Elliott will say. "Haven't you got a song it's a pleasure for you yourself to sing? Well, why don't you try it, dear?”

From the monthly mixed bag of fifty or sixty hopefuls Miss Elliott winnows about twenty of the most promising and auditions them again for the variety producers. This elite is then privileged to start making rounds of the producers.

Periodically the CBC spreads its net much wider—and even provides a showcase for its finds: from 1954 to 1957 it ran a talent show on the network called Pick the Stars; last January it launched Talent Caravan, ran it for nineteen weeks and re-introduced it this fall for a thirtynine-week season. For the first stint producer Drew Crossan traveled forty-eight thousand miles around the country, auditioned a thousand acts and presented seventy-five of them on the network. This fall two production units arc crisscrossing the country. Their arrival in a town is advertised on the local TV station and two or three days are set aside for the trials—except in Swift Current, where the local station hit on the idea of televising the whole audition in a sixtyact, five-hour marathon.

Each weekly show' means that five beginners get the fifty-two-dollar union minimum plus an exposure apiece on network television—two or more if they make the semi-finals.

It does not necessarily mean anything else.

The fact is that there is little room, even for a grand finalist, in the network light entertainment schedule. Only eight shows can be described as musical variety; only twenty-two hoofers and two singing groups plus twenty-two featured performers have regular jobs on them. These twenty-two featured performers are Canada’s TV variety stars, the ones who command, say, seven hundred and fifty dollars a show and up. Miss Elliott is fond of asking over-optimistic applicants, "What makes you think you're better than Wally Koster, dear?” One of the show's, Juliette, uses no guests; two—the Hit Parade and the Jack Kane Hour—specialize in high-priced imports. Last season not many more than a hundred performers made their debut on the network shows, even counting Talent Caravan.

A singer who “happens”

Yet the CBC’s audition system works, and it is possible to break in. Miss Langbord. who regularly scouts the live entertainments in and around Toronto, spotted Bob Goulet in the chorus line of The Desert Song, at the Mutual Street Arena, and called him in. He was auditioned, was a finalist on Pick the Stars, and two seasons later was the star of Showtime. This season the variety department is very high on Nicole Fortier, a young French-Canadian singer with a quality that producer Drew Crossan calls “real Leslie Caron." Crossan auditioned her in Quebec City for Talent Caravan, and was on long-distance in twenty minutes telling his supervisor in Toronto, Bob McGall, to watch her on the next show. "She electrified me,” reports McGall. Though the listeners voted another girl the winner that week. Miss Fortier was the one who was snapped up for appearances on Swing Easy, Rhapsody and, recently, the Hit Parade. "She’s just too immature to hang a show on yet,” says McGall. "The thing right now is to keep the kid coming."

Where would Miss Fortier, properly seasoned, find a spot on the network? McGall is emphatic: “If she’s better than they are, the fact that she might knock someone else off the air would grieve me mildly. Mildly," he says.

McGall makes one other point about Miss Fortier: "She isn’t necessarily the best singer in the world, but she’s Pure Gold." He is referring to the elusive quality in a performer that generates partisans, talk and high ratings.

Detecting the same quality in singer Allan Blye, casting officer Phyllis Elliott says happily, "He happens'."

Producer Ross McLean’s version goes, “It’s not just personality; it’s a person."

Whatever it is, the ability to convince a producer you have it is the major qualification for anyone hoping to crash the third—and only indigenous area of television talent. This is the area of panel shows, interviews, talks, and televised conversations, which require people to be themselves and themselves to be lawlessly beguiling.

There are a score of such programs on the national network every week; three to seven more out of each of CBC’s six regional headquarters, and one. two or more on most of the local stations. Yet no casting office has found a way to audition for personality or to compile files of all-purpose personalities for use on any show that needs one.

Ross McLean, who has originated and produced five such shows, said recently, "The process of getting picked seems to be an involuntary one.”

He recalls only one case of an actual applicant for the job getting it. This was actress Paisley Maxwell, who asked to audition as a replacement for Elaine Grand, on Tabloid, and got fifty percent of the job. McLean spotted Joyce Davidson. the rest of Miss Grand’s replacement, doing commercials and panel shows on CHCH-TV. Hamilton. Before he settled on this team he had interviewed some three hundred people and tested about twenty on the show itself.

His list of candidates had been compiled from among his personal friends and professional acquaintances, from the recommendations of his colleagues and from wild hunches. It included the secretary of a fellow producer, the wife of a writer and a TCA stewardess-instructor who’d caught his eye.

The list that Jim Guthro compiled when he was auditioning for Live a Borrowed Life, last summer, was a similar melange, expanded by some names from a list of models and by a few guests who’d impressed him on earlier panel shows. Danica d’Hondt—Miss Canada of 1958—who has been a guest panelist several times on Borrowed Life, first caught the producer’s eye when she appeared last season as a challenger on One of a Kind, now defunct.

Other people have become regular performers after first being hired as experts; among them weatherman Percy Saltzman and Gwen Vernon, a physical training teacher from the Universtiy of Toronto, who now conducts an exercise class on Open House.

A few, like Rex Loting, have branched out from announcing; a number, like Joyce Davidson and Rick Hart, have come from non-network shows on individual TV stations. The latest addition to this group is Tom Hill, an interviewer from Vancouver TV, who is replacing Charles Templeton on Close-Up. Many, like Gordon Sinclair, have come from radio and journalism.

Besides the felicity of happening:, it is possible to suggest some other assets for a would-be TV personality.

For a female, it helps to be pretty. A male is not handicapped by a certain chic ugliness, nor by a moustache. Candidates of both genders should be tolerably well read, and unshakably articulate. If possible, they should be competent at some outside trade or profession. Most of all. they must have a name that infallibly springs to mind if a producer is making up an audition list.

For, just as sheer talent is not enough, so—at least one case history seems to suggest—is unsupported charm. The case history concerns a vivacious, forthright twenty-one-year-old from Pugwash, N.S., named Marion Clarke. Five years ago Miss Clarke, having won a Chatelaine beauty contest, was interviewed on Tabloid. She happened—at least for Ernest Bushnell, then director-general of programs, who was watching in Ottawa. He phoned the Tabloid studio. "Hold that girl," he said. She was given a contract, and then they tried to find something she could do on camera. Everyone agreed she had all the charm in the world, but she fetched up as an unseen voice, announcing station breaks on the network. Finally she drifted away and married and lived happily ever after.

For despite the curious disrespect for its requirements that TV’s seeming artlessness breeds—it’s a very tough league indeed. ★